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"Ms. Bryant will be with you momentarily." The uniformed maid smiled then closed the door, leaving Clay West alone in a living room the size of a small country.
White. White carpeting, white walls and white furniture. Clay wasn't sure if it was the lack of color that hurt his eyes or the fact that he was coming off a two-week job in Las Vegas, a city where nights and days blurred together without distinction.
He jammed his hands into his jeans'pockets and shifted from one foot to the other as he waited for somebody to join him. He'd been hoping that he'd go from Las Vegas back to his home in Cotter Creek, Oklahoma, for a little rest and relaxation.
He'd been at the airport heading home when he'd gotten the call from his eldest brother, Tanner. Tanner had been short on details, telling him only that he needed to go to the Bryant mansion in Hollywood Hills, that Gracie Bryant, the movie star, was in need of a bodyguard. Gracie's agent had arranged for the protection.
Clay had no idea who Gracie Bryant was or what kind of movies she starred in. He didn't follow the Hollywood scene and the last movie he'd seen had starred a beautiful princess and seven little dwarves. As he recalled he'd made himself sick on candy and popcorn.
He released a weary sigh and moved toward the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows across the back wall of the room and glanced outside.
An Olympic-size pool was just beyond a lush flower garden and a Greek-style gazebo rose up in stately elegance. A tennis court lay just beyond the pool. This private residence had more amenities than the Cotter Creek Community Center. Apparently whoever Gracie Bryant was, she was successful.
He just hoped this case was more pleasant than his most recent, playing bodyguard to an eccentric, obnoxious high roller who thought showering might change his luck. The guy had been a pig and Clay had been grateful that morning when the gig had come to an end.
He turned away from the window, suddenly aware of the sound of a feminine voice drifting in from an adjoining room. He didn't pretend to ignore it, but rather moved several steps closer to the doorway. The best way to be efficient in this kind of a position was to know anything and everything that was going on in the house.
"Charlie, I told you it wasn't necessary." The voice was deep and smoky, but held more than a touch of impatience. "I told you that you were overreacting. Trust me, I'm not happy about this. You should have okayed it with me before you hired anyone."
Clay wasn't sure why, but he had a vision of a middle-aged woman in a severe business suit, a real ball-buster type who had probably never been married and was in charge of running this mansion like a well-oiled piece of machinery.
"You should have told me sooner what you'd done," the voice continued. "He's here now. All right, I'll do it your way, but mama's not happy and you know the old saying."
Clay tensed. It was obvious she'd been talking about him and just as obvious she wasn't pleased he was here. That didn't matter. Clay wasn't here to make anyone happy. He'd been hired to keep somebody safe from harm and that's exactly what he intended to do.
The woman who swept from the adjoining room wasn't middle-aged, nor was she dressed in a business suit. She was clad in a turquoise bikini with a filmy matching cover-up that fell just short of her knees.
Her blond hair was caught at the nape of her neck in a little ponytail thingie and she held a cell phone in her slender fingers.
Gracie Bryant? The woman definitely looked like a movie star. He couldn't help the faint burst of pure lust that kicked him in the pit of his stomach. Even though he never mixed business with pleasure, he'd have to be dead not to appreciate her physical beauty.
He tried not to notice her full breasts and long, shapely legs that were visible through the see-through material of the cover-up, but hell, he was male and it had been a long time since he'd had a chance to indulge in any kind of a relationship.
Her eyes perfectly matched the blue of her swimsuit, but as her gaze met his, he saw a flash of barely suppressed annoyance. She had to have known he'd heard her end of the conversation, but she made no apology or any other indication that she cared that he had heard.
"Mr. West, I presume?" She held out her hand.
"Clay West," he said. Her long fingers were cool, her handshake firm, and he had a feeling this was a woman who was accustomed to getting her own way.
"I'm Libby Bryant." She gestured him toward one of the white sofas. "Please sit. May I get you something to drink?" She headed for the full wet bar in one corner of the spacious room.
"No, thanks. I'm fine." Gingerly, Clay sat on the edge of the sofa, hoping he didn't have anything on the seat of his jeans that might stain the white fabric.
"If I'd known you were coming I would have sent a car to pick you up," she said, and splashed a healthy amount of orange juice into the bottom of a glass.
"A taxi got me here just fine."
Her cell phone rang a musical tune and a tight apologetic smile lifted her lips as she opened it to answer. The smile didn't quite reach her eyes, which remained cool and distant.
"Hello?" The frown that cut across her forehead did nothing to detract from her attractiveness. "No. I told you no before and I'm telling you no again. I decide what she'll do and what she won't do, and until they're willing to come up with more money, the answer will remain no." She closed the phone and set it on the marble-topped counter of the bar.
"Sorry about that," she said as she rejoined Clay, her orange juice in hand as she sat on the opposite end of the sofa. "I understand you just flew in from Las Vegas."
She leaned back against the white cushion, her gaze meeting his with a hint of belligerence. "I have to tell you, Clay, this whole thing wasn't my idea. Gracie's agent, Charles Wheeler set it into motion." Those gorgeous eyes of hers flickered over him in assessment. "Are you good at what you do?"
She nodded, as if satisfied. "Charlie didn't want to use anyone local. Things are going well and we can't afford any troubling publicity. He told me he worked with your father years ago and remembered he'd left Hollywood and started up some sort of bodyguard business."
"Wild West Protective Services," Clay said. Clay knew his father had come to Hollywood as a young man and had done some stunt work in several films. It was only when Red West had met and married Clay's mother that he'd decided to move back to Oklahoma to start a family and the bodyguard business.
The cell phone rang and she leaped up to retrieve it from the bar, once again flashing Clay an apologetic but tense smile.
"Tell them she's worth ten times that." Her blue eyes flashed with cold calculation. "Listen, Charlie, don't bother me again with this penny-ante stuff. Until you have a reasonable offer, don't waste your time or mine." This time she carried the phone with her and dropped it on the coffee table before sitting once again across from Clay.
"I'm sorry for the interruptions. We're in the process of fielding several offers and things always get tense during negotiations."
"Look, I'm functioning at a disadvantage here," Clay said. "I'm not sure why you need our services. When my brother called me to come out here, he didn't give me any details."
"To be perfectly honest, I think we're overreacting to the whole situation. This sort of thing happens all the time in this industry and nobody gets too excited, but Charlie, Gracie's agent, decided it's better to be safe than sorry."
Libby took a sip of her orange juice and Clay tamped down a growing edge of impatience. He was tired and getting cranky, and he just wanted to know the details of this assignment. He didn't care about negotiations and big deals.
"What situation, Ms. Bryant?"
"Please, make it Libby." She set her empty glass on the coffee table and stood. She began to pace in front of where Clay sat, moving with sleek, sinewy movements. "Since her last movie, Gracie is on a roll. She's suddenly a hot commodity. We're in the process of finishing her latest movie, there's a couple of commercials to be shot in the next couple of weeks and there's even talk of some endorsement deals."
He suspected Libby was a relative of the successful starlet, maybe a sister serving as a business manager? If Gracie Bryant looked anything like Libby, then she was the epitome of Hollywood's standard of perfect, heart-stopping blond bombshell.
"Anyway," she continued. "At first the letters that came were like the usual fan letters, but in the last couple of weeks they've gotten weird and ugly. I told Charlie that this kind of thing is to be expected with anyone in the public eye, but he insisted better safe than sorry."
So, it would seem that they were dealing with some troubling fan mail and nothing more, he thought. "Have you contacted the local authorities?"
Libby stopped her pacing and Clay breathed a sigh of relief. Watching her, with her long legs and full breasts, walking back and forth in front of him, had been distracting, to say the least.
"Yes. They gave us the usual spiel about being overworked and underpaid. The officer made a report then asked for an autographed photo. I've hired a private investigator to try to find out the source of the letters. What I'd like from you is simply to pretend to be Gracie's friend and keep an eye on her, assure her safety until the investigator gets to the bottom of things."
Clay had a feeling this particular assignment was going to be a piece of cake. If the only thing they were dealing with was a bunch of letters written by an unhinged fan, the odds were in their favor that nothing dangerous would come of it.
"I guess the next step is for me to meet Gracie, then I'll need to see the letters," Clay said.
She nodded. "I'll go get Gracie and I'll have her secretary gather up all the letters we've received to date."
As she left the room Clay stood and breathed a deep sigh of relief. She might not be middle-aged but he had the definite feeling she could be a ball-buster and it was obvious she wasn't particularly pleased he was here. Her problem, not his.
He walked to the window once again and saw a gardener clipping bushes around the fancy gazebo. The area surrounding the house was no less impressive than the house itself. When the taxi had pulled up in front of the security gates Clay had thought the place was a hotel or a museum rather than a private residence.
Palm trees swayed in a faint breeze and near the house several hydrangea bushes exploded in shades of blue and purple.