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Her first day on the job as a bodyguard for the Zimmermans and Chloe Howard already wanted to quit. In a limousine heading for the Dallas Community Christian Church, Chloe sat next to her client, Mary Zimmerman. Across from her, T. J. Davenport guarded Mary's husband, Paul. If Kyra Hunt, her employer at Guardians, Inc., had told her she would be working with T. J. Davenport, she would have declined the assignment. Instead, she would be around the man for the entire month of the Zimmermans' book tour.
Chloe kept her gaze trained out the side window, but occasionally felt the brush of T.J.'s dark gaze. He was probably trying to figure out how to back out of this assignment, too.
She'd worked with him nine years ago when he was a Secret Service agent and she was a police officer for the Dallas Police Department. From the beginning she'd been attracted to him, and when they had started dating, the attraction had grown into love-or so she'd thought. But his job had taken him away, and now she'd discovered he was back in Dallas, no longer a Secret Service agent.
The limo driver turned onto the road that curved up to the covered vestibule of a megachurch, where they would exit the vehicle. People crammed the entrance, waiting for the couple to arrive. Even on this windy, cold day, a large crowd was here, hoping to get a glimpse of the couple whose book, Taking Back America, had rocketed to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. This was the third such appearance by the Zimmermans, who wrote about putting God back into daily life. Off-duty police had roped off a path for the Zimmermans to the double glass doors, and each officer had taken up a post every few feet to hold the throng back.
Was it enough? Whoever had targeted Mary and Paul at their second stop in the book tour could be in the multitude waiting for them to climb from the car. So far, no description had been obtained of the person or persons in Paris, Texas, who had thrown stink bombs into the gathering, scattering everyone. Mary had nearly been trampled before her husband had gotten to her. Knowing what Mary and Paul stood for and the effect it must have had on them tightened Chloe's gut. That incident had led to the Zimmermans' publisher hiring two bodyguards for the third stop and the rest of their book tour.
Chloe straightened, scanning the area through the windows while T.J. did the same, his large body poised and alert. The Zimmermans had only reluctantly agreed to protection, not totally convinced there was a threat against them. They'd always had dissenters and had even received hate mail. A particular nasty letter had arrived at their first stop in Longview, Texas, and might be tied to the incident in Paris.
Chloe had wanted to sneak the couple into the church through a back way, but the Zimmermans didn't want to go that far. They wanted to be accessible to the people who had come to hear them speak. She'd tried to convince the pair of the potential danger, and to her surprise, T.J. had agreed with her.
Their parting in the past had been intense, filled with anger and hurt. He'd wanted to continue with a longdistance relationship. She'd seen too many of those fail- like her parents' marriage with her dad in the navy and gone a good part of the year.
As she did a final check of the huge crowd before exiting the limousine, her gaze collided briefly with T.J.'s. Not one emotion showed on his face, creating what she had come to think of as his professional facade. Cold. Determined. At one time she'd known a side to him apart from work. His laughter and smiles had always fulfilled a need in her for more of that in her life. There had been little of that growing up with a mother who hadn't been happy her husband was gone so much.
Chloe had even begun to picture what it would be like married to him-the children they would have. She'd wanted a family since she'd worked as a teenager in the church nursery each Sunday. She'd fallen in love with caring for children. No, she wasn't going to think about what could have been with T.J. if circumstances had been different.
She quickly focused on Mary Zimmerman, who had insisted on being addressed by her first name. "We need to escort you inside as fast as we can. Keep moving. I'll be right behind you."
Dressed in a powder-blue suit with a pencil skirt, Mary uncrossed her legs, her forehead crinkling. "But these people are out here because they want to hear us speak. The seating inside has been sold-out for weeks. I can't ignore them when they took the time to come here."
"Someone in that crowd might want to harm you and your husband." T.J. slid closer to the door and gripped the handle. "Stink bombs may seem like a prank, but two people were hurt seriously enough to go to the hospital. Thankfully you all took care of those hurt, but if your husband hadn't gotten to you when he did, you might have needed to be hospitalized, too."
"But what if that was kids in Paris and our publisher overreacted? I know that sort of thing happened at my high school several times when I was a teenager." Paul Zimmerman took his wife's hand.
T.J. looked from Mary to Paul. "How about the threatening letter delivered to your hotel in Longview? Another teenage prank?"
Chloe swiveled her attention to T.J. He plowed his fingers through his thick, wavy black hair-one of the few habits she'd noticed before that indicated he was worried about something.
T.J. continued, "It described in detail what he wanted to do with you two, beginning with torture. That doesn't sound like a teenager. I've read some of your hate mail, and that one had a different feel to it."
He'd read some of the Zimmermans' hate mail? When? How had he gotten it? She'd been assigned this case only hours ago. Other than being apprised of what had happened in Longview and Paris, she had nothing else to go on. Not even the hate letter they'd received in Longview. Time had been limited when she had met with Kyra this morning.
The thought that T.J. knew more than she did irritated her, but mostly she felt she didn't have all the information to do the best job possible because this job had come up so suddenly. When this event was over, she would have a few choice words with the man. Just because he'd been the team leader on the one case they had worked on together didn't mean that was the situation now. The only way she could do this job was to be totally professional and an equal partner.
Paul frowned. "This is curtailing our mission to reach the masses as personally as we can, and that certainly isn't from behind bodyguards and police lines. They need to see we aren't afraid to fight for what is right."
"Honey, maybe that's the point of the threats. To keep us from connecting with the people." Even in the midst of a tense situation, a smile graced Mary's lips. "The Lord is our protection, but our publisher will cancel this tour if we don't agree to-" she waved her hand toward Chloe and T.J. "-them being our bodyguards. I think spreading our message is too important to cancel the tour."
A long sigh escaped Paul's lips. "Fine, but I'm having a talk with the publishing house after this is over with. Let's go."
Chloe studied T.J.'s reaction to the declaration, and not one emotion crossed his face. She'd worked with him and knew that expression, but she'd also seen its opposite. When he'd been waiting for a chance to protect someone on the level of the vice president and finally got his promotion, she wouldn't move to Washington to be with him. Anger, hurt and disappointment had swirled between them that day.
She'd had her reasons. He'd had his. They'd parted. After a few calls from T.J. trying to persuade her to come to Washington, she'd never heard from him again until this morning when Kyra had introduced her to her partner in this assignment.
Before he could catch her staring at him, Chloe busied herself with opening the door and exiting the limo. The wind whipped through her, its cold sting biting. She surveyed the crowd, looking for any potential threats. Too many people pressed together. Too many possibilities.
Cheers rose from the spectators, the din assailing Chloe's ears as the crowd closed in around the Zimmer-mans, who started toward the entrance. This beloved couple's message touched many people. Chloe herself was a fan of their grassroots movement to take back the family and this country. They were full of integrity, compassionate and straightforward in what was important. Who wouldn't believe in their ideas?
But someone out there wasn't a fan. And she knew firsthand how hate could fester, exploding outward to include everyone. She'd seen more than her share, to the point that she wondered how much longer she could do what she was doing. But this was what she was good at.
Chloe moved forward on Mary's right toward the massive double glass doors. T.J. took the left side of Paul, steering him through the people wanting to shake hands with the couple before they headed into the church.
Every sense on alert, Chloe kept her hand near her holstered gun. Something didn't feel right. Or was she confusing this with an assignment she'd had a year ago under similar circumstances? Her shoulder still ached where she'd taken a bullet defending her client.
Mary had stopped and leaned close to an older woman, taking her hand. "I'll be praying for you and your family."
Tears glistened in the fiftysomething spectator's eyes. "That means so much to me. I don't know what else to do anymore."
"Praying is important. I'll be addressing some of the issues you're dealing with today. I know our talk will be piped out here for the people who couldn't get seats." Mary lifted the rope standing between her and the woman. "But I'm sure we can find one extra place for you."
Chloe inched closer to Mary, especially as the crowd surged forward with the vacant spot left by the lady. Several people nearby shouted various problems they were dealing with, but the words jumbled into incoherent sentences.
"We need to keep moving," Chloe whispered to Mary while her full attention remained fixed on the throng. "Your husband is at the door waiting."
Mary nodded and replied to a few close to her as she shuffled forward, shaking hands with as many as she could.
They were only yards away from the entrance now. The feeling of being watched tickled up Chloe's spine, leaving goose bumps in its wake. She'd learned not to ignore that sensation. She glanced back, but couldn't tell anything because everyone's eyes were on them.
Then a middle-aged man, going bald, pushed past the off-duty officer and grabbed Mary, making her stop. "I want to sit inside, too. Take me."
Chloe stepped forward, putting herself between Mary and the man, forcing him to let go of her client and back away. Anger flashed across his face. Tension whipped down Chloe as others began to shout they wanted inside.
Mary smiled, although Chloe could see the corners of her mouth twitching from holding it in place. "I'm sorry. The fire codes are specific about how many people can be in the auditorium."
Finally, Mary and the older lady entered a large church foyer with lots of windows and skylights. Mary paused to talk to one of the coordinators to make sure someone took care of the lady and to see about letting the crowd outside stand in the foyer, where it was warmer.
Having no time to do a walkthrough beforehand, Chloe swept her gaze around her surroundings as she crossed the threshold, noting where everyone stood, where the doors and exit signs were, as the floor plan she'd seen indicated. "I don't think that's wise under the circumstances," she whispered to Mary, imagining the chaos that could cause.
The young coordinator called over an older gentleman, who must be the person in charge, and they talked together.
The man turned to Mary. "We'll try to accommodate as many as we can."
"Will they be able to hear our talk?"
"We can pipe your speech out into the foyer. But we can't fit everyone in here."
"I understand. I'd appreciate anything you can do to make it better for the people outside. Bless you for trying." Mary made her way toward her husband, taking his offered hand.
The love that flowed between them made Chloe wonder when she had given up on her dream of having a family-a husband who loved her like that and at least two children. But everyone she'd dated since T.J. hadn't been right, especially her last boyfriend, Adam. He'd cheated on her. At least T.J. hadn't done that.
The noise of the crowd in the massive auditorium at the end of the lobby grew to a deafening roar the nearer they came. With every seat taken, there were over fifteen hundred cheering people here to listen to the Zim-mermans. Chloe wouldn't relax until they were all back at the house where the couple was staying.
The young coordinator escorted the guest speakers toward the stage area. As the Zimmermans stepped out to greet the crowd, the people all rose, clapping and yelling. A wall of sound assaulted Chloe. As the audience finally quieted, Chloe stationed herself behind the Zimmermans, positioning herself so the lights didn't obscure her view of the spectators. Her quick glance took in where T.J. was. He tipped his head toward her, his signal he would take the left side of the auditorium while she cased the right. Even with her and T.J. each taking half the auditorium, it was hard to keep an eye on everyone since people crammed the place.
After the presentation by the Zimmermans, T.J. paced the room above the church auditorium like a bear he'd seen at the zoo. He should be used to waiting. It was a big part of his job, but this assignment was different-and all because Chloe Howard prowled the other side of the room. From the surprised look that had flashed across her face this morning before she masked it, he was sure she hadn't known he was the other bodyguard on this case.
In fact, he was positive she hadn't or she wouldn't have taken the case. Not after how they had parted nine years ago. He'd been falling in love with her when he'd been given a choice assignment to be part of the detail covering the vice president. He had been a Secret Service agent at the time, assigned to Dallas working counterfeiting cases and financial crimes, sometimes in coordination with the Dallas Police Department. He couldn't turn down a chance to move into the protection part of the United States Secret Service, a move that would make his career in the agency. He'd wanted Chloe to move to Washington and see if their relationship would grow into a lasting one. He'd known from his fellow agents how hard being a law enforcement officer could be on a marriage, and that a marriage would only survive if it was based on a deep friendship. He'd decided he would only marry once.
She wouldn't leave Dallas. Her widowed mother had been fighting cancer, going through chemo, and she'd needed Chloe. He'd understood that, but she also hadn't wanted to have a long-distance relationship. He'd realized it would be difficult, but he'd been willing to try it, even though he had trouble trusting others-collateral damage of his law enforcement days. He'd never found someone like Chloe. Was that the reason he'd decided to settle in Dallas when he'd left the Secret Service?