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"Watch out!" Slade Caulder said through clenched teeth, gripping the door handle on his SUV. Why had he allowed a sixteen-year-old with a permit to drive? Only a few more miles to the ranchthankfully.
"Dad, I saw him coming out. I've got everything under control."
When he noticed Abbey sliding a glance toward him, his heart rate shot up even further. "Keep your eyes on the road."
"I'm gonna ask Gram to take me driving next time."
"No." Although he wished he could let his mother-in-law take over teaching his daughter to drive around Dallas, he wouldn't. It was his job.
The car gained speed. "Don't go over sixty."
"I'm not. I have to practice going highway speed. Quit worrying about me."
Yeah, sure. She might as well ask him to quit breathing. It wasn't going to happen. Abbey was all he had. At least this was an almost-deserted stretch of road.
Suddenly the car swerved to the right toward the ditch along the highway. He lurched around and glimpsed the color leaching from Abbey's face. Her knuckles whitened as she fought the shimmying steering wheel.
"Daddy!" she screamed above the thumping sound followed by a whomp. "I can't control "
"Take your foot off the gas. Put the brakes on. Get off the road." He schooled his voice into the calmest level he could manage. He desperately wanted to change places with his daughter, but knew he couldn't.
The rougher terrain along the shoulder alerted him right before the car plunged into the ditch, heading toward a tree growing in it. Slade twisted toward Abbey, but the seatbelt retracted, immobilizing him like a prisoner. The air bags exploded outward, slamming into him. His breath whooshed from his lungs.
Blackness swirled before him. He fought to stay conscious, but his eyelids slid closed as the darkness rushed at him.
Pain jolted Slade back from the void. He opened his eyes to a fine powder dancing in the air about him, choking him. He coughed but his body protested the sudden movement a deep, throbbing ache spread out from his chest. As he raised his hand to his head, a hissing filled the air, vying with the sound of the engine running. Pushing the deflated air bag back, he tried to straighten but couldn't. The seat belt trapped him. His heartbeat thundered in his ears.
Suddenly, a thought drove the daze from his mind. "Abbey!" he called out, but she didn't answer.
Adrenaline pumped through him. He jerked his head toward his daughter. The action sent the world before him spinning and forced him to close his eyes for a few seconds. But the need to make sure his daughter was all right overrode everything. Alert, totally focused on Abbey, he squashed his own pain.
A tree limb, having smashed through her side window, pinned her against her seat. Her head tilted to the side, blood streaming down her face from multiple cuts. Panic battled to take over Slade. He tried to thrust the limb out the hole in the window so he could get to his daughter better. The branch refused to dislodge.
Think! He couldn't lose his daughter, too.
His hand shaking, he reached across and felt for her pulse at the side of her neck. Strong. But she hadn't moved. He quickly dug into his pocket for his cell and called 911. Once he knew help was on the way, he allowed a second of relief to flutter through him.
The vibration and sound of the motor grabbed his attention. He snaked his hand through the limb's small branches and managed to turn his SUV off. Then he rummaged in the compartment between the driver's seat and the front passenger seat for the first aid kit, tore into it and unwound some gauze. He needed to get closer to her to bandage her head. When he tried to unclasp his seatbelt, it wouldn't budge. Panic attacked him from all sides. He clawed at the strap as though he could pry loose the metal clamp that held him captive.
He looked over at his daughter, her eyes still closed, her blood soaking her. "I won't let anything happen to you," he whispered.
Taking in a deep breath, he composed himself. He couldn't lose control. Another fortifying gulp of air, then he pulled on the strap and finally disconnected it. Able to move more freely, he braced himself with one foot against the door and the other under the dashboard to compensate for the way the car leaned forward in the ditch. He angled toward his daughter and wrapped the gauze around the worst of her cuts to stem the blood flow. But when he drew his fingers away they were sticky and covered in Abbey's blood. The sight sent terror straight to his heart.
Abbey moaned and stirred. Her eyes popped open, wide with fear as they linked with his. "Daddy?" She licked her lips, her face screwing up into a panicky look as her tongue ran over some blood. "I'm bleeding."
"Help is coming, honey."
He wanted to go around to her side to take a closer look at her injuries. When he shoved at the door, it creaked open, water gushing inside from the ditch. An earthy stench accosted him.
"Don't leave me, Daddy." Hysteria coated each word.
He twisted back toward his daughter, the cold water swirling about his feet. A shudder shivered up his body. "I won't." In the distance, the sound of the sirens blared. "It won't be long now," he said as calmly as possible, while inside the same helplessness he'd experienced when his wife had died five years ago washed over him. Suddenly, a sense of foreboding dominated all senses. Sweat popped out on his forehead. His hands shook.
Why did he feel like someone was watching?
Elizabeth Walker parked her red Trans Am in a space next to the Dallas office building where Guardians, Inc. was located. She'd hoped her boss, Kyra Morgan, wouldn't have anything for her yet. Although Elizabeth had been home almost a week since her last assignment, she could use another few days for rest and relaxation. Her last job in Phoenix had been a long oneten weeks. But the call that morning asking her to come in to the office could only mean one thing.
She loved working as a bodyguard with the all-female agency, but some assignments required longer to bounce back from. The job demanded a lot of mental energy, and sometimes physical energy, too. The stress from always being on guard, always scanning the perimeter for trouble and never getting to enjoy the beauty of the moment heightened the importance of her downtime between missions. Kyra knew that well. So the fact that her boss called her in a little early meant this job was importantnot something she would want to turn down.
Entering the suite on the second floor, Elizabeth greeted Kyra's secretary with a smile. "Is she in there?" Elizabeth tossed her head toward the closed door.
Carrie, her expression solemn, nodded. "She has a client with her, but she wanted you to go on in when you arrived."
"Who's the new client?"
"I gather someone Kyra knows."
That might explain why she was here earlier than usual after a taxing assignment. Her specialty was guarding children. She couldn't see Kyra turning down a friend, and from what her boss had said a couple of days ago, the other four employees who specialized in children were all still on assignments.
She pushed open the door to her employer's office and stepped into the room. A large man, over six feet, was pacing before Kyra's desk. As Elizabeth entered, he came to a stop and swiveled toward her. The most piercing gray gaze she'd ever seen homed in on her. For a second she glimpsed surprise in his expression from the slight widening of his eyes to the flare of his nostrils.
"This is Elizabeth Walker." Kyra came around from behind her desk and gestured toward a seating arrangement consisting of a couch and two wing chairs. "Elizabeth, this is Slade Caulder." Kyra, long legged and nearly six feet in height, moved toward the seats and took a chair.
Slade tipped his head toward Elizabeth and fit his tall frame into the other wing chair, leaving Elizabeth to take the couch. The intensity pouring off the man charged the air. The hair on her arms stood up.
Poised and professional, Kyra set a pad on her lap and wrote something down on it. "Slade has a problem that needs your expertise. His sixteen-year-old daughter has been threatened, and he needs the services of a bodyguard to protect her. I'll let him tell you what he's looking for."
His body held rigidly, he gripped the arms of the chair and turned his assessing gaze on her. Silence ruled for a long moment as Elizabeth felt catalogued and evaluated. A flicker in his eyes gave her the impression that she fell short. She lifted her chin a notch and focused her attention totally on him. Some people took her petite stature to mean she wasn't capable of defending someone. They were mistaken.
That sharp gaze switched to her employer. "Kyra, she can't be more than a few years or so out of high school herself. How can she guard my daughter effectively?"
Elizabeth stiffened and, before Kyra could answer said, "I'm flattered you think I look so young, but I'm nearly thirty." She bit back the words. "And I can show you my birth certificate if you need proof."
This time he didn't try to disguise his surprise as his look locked on hers.
"I assure you, Slade, Elizabeth is highly qualified and has been working for me for three years. She usually handles cases where a child is involved and has been successful in all her assignments. You wanted someone who could blend in with your daughter and her friends, especially at school. As you can see, she'll be able to."
"What kind of skills do you have?"
Elizabeth relaxed back on the couch, smoothing her straight black skirt as she crossed her legs. Slade's glance flicked to her four-inch heels, and she could imagine what he was thinking. She only indulged in wearing heels when she wasn't working and when she met prospective clients. It added to her height, giving the illusion she was taller than five feet three inches.
"I have a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do. I'm capable of shooting all kinds of guns, but my weapon of choice is a Glock Model 23. My last score on a PPC was 580 out of a possible 600."
"Police Pistol Competition. I have taken down a man your size holding a gun on more than one occasion. Do you want me to show you how?"
One dark eyebrow rose. "I'll take your word for it."
"Why do you think your daughter is in danger?" Elizabeth kept her gaze glued to his, determined not to be the first one to look away.
"It started three days ago when we were in an accident. My daughter was driving when we had a blowout going sixty miles an hour. She's still learning to drive and couldn't handle the car. We ended up in a ditch. Next time I teach someone to drive, the first thing on my list will be what to do during a blowout."
Elizabeth sat forward, clasping her hands loosely together, and asked, "Someone caused your blowout?"
"I didn't know it at the time, but when my mechanic was going over my car after the wreck, he discovered what he thought looked like a bullet hole by the whitewall. He notified the sheriff and me. Sheriff McCain agrees the blowout was caused by a bullet."
"Where was this wreck?"
"Not far from my ranch, near Silver Chase toward the end of Highway 156."
"Could it have been a hunter?" Elizabeth asked, although unease settled across her shoulders.
"At first I thought, maybe. None of us who live out that way allow hunting on our ranches but occasionally someone will try anyway. The sheriff told me it's hard to shoot a tire out. It would have to be either a lucky shot or someone very skilled."
"Like a sniper?"
The uneasy sensation spread down her spine. "What made you decide that it wasn't a hunter?"
Slade slanted his glance toward Kyra for a few seconds before returning the intense look to Elizabeth. The power behind his expression jiggled her nerves. This man was used to getting exactly what he wanted. Did he have a lot of enemies out there? Someone who would want to harm him through his child?
"This morning I went into my office. I hadn't been into work since the accident. Abbey had to stay overnight at the hospital for observation and had a rough day or two, but today she insisted on going back to school. I took her and went to work. In my mail, I received a photo of Abbey cut into pieces."
"Do you have it?"
"The police have it. I phoned Captain Ted Dickerson immediately after I informed the school of the threat. The principal called in extra guards until I could get something in place."
Kyra stood. "I want to contact Captain Dickerson and let him know you have hired us to watch Abbey." Her employer headed toward the exit and left Elizabeth alone with Slade.
"Where does Abbey go to school?" Elizabeth asked when the door clicked closed.
"Dawson Academy. It's a private school with more than adequate security. When I called, they said she was fine.
After that, I came here. There's only so much the police or sheriff can do. I aim to protect my daughter no matter how much it costs."
"What kind of photo of her was destroyed? A school one? A recent one?"
Slade clamped his jaw together so tightly that a nerve twitched. "Recent. It was a picture of her cheering at a basketball game. The person who took it was probably only a couple of yards away." He leaned forward and his neutral expression became fierce, his eyes hard like smoky ice. "Which means the person was close to my daughter."
"While I can't prevent people from taking pictures, I can keep an eye out for anyone who is suspicious and stop them from gaining access to Abbey." She held his look. If someone wanted a person harmed, it was usually possible. But there were things that could be done to lessen the chance. She intended to take those precautions. "I am very good at my job. How will Abbey feel about having me follow her around?"
He blew a harsh breath out. "That's the problem. She's headstrong and independent. I think she would more likely accept you rather than a man guarding her, but I'm not going to kid you. She still won't like it, even though you're a woman and young-looking." His glance strayed over her, resting for a few extra seconds on her heels.
"Does she know she's in danger?"
"Until an hour ago I didn't know, myself. I haven't told her yet. I will this afternoon after school, when I introduce you."
"So what exactly do you want me to do?"
"Not let my daughter out of your sight. I want you to stay in the room next to hers at the ranch, escort her to school and back home until the person is caught." He plowed his hand through his medium-length black hair. "I'm curtailing her activities, which won't sit well with her, but with the security at Dawson Academy and you there, she'll be okay and more likely to accept the other restrictions."
"Who would have a grudge against your daughter?"
"I don't know. She's sixteen and popular at school. She's a cheerleader and has lots of friends."
"Have you considered that the person is really after you?"
That nerve in his jawline jerked again. "Yes. I think it's possible that someone wants to get to me through my daughter, and I'm looking into that. But first and foremost I have to know my daughter will be safe."
"That will be my top priority."
"It will be your only one."
His intense stare might have made a lesser person back off, but she'd learned painfully she had to stand her ground, especially in her profession. "You said you live on a ranch near Silver Chase. Which one?"
"The Rocking Horse, two miles before the end of the road on the left. Abbey gave it that name when we moved out there. She was five years old then." For just a split second a faraway look entered his eyes as though he was remembering how it had been when his daughter was five.
"What time do you want me at the ranch, Mr. Caulder?"
"Call me Slade. We'll be living in the same house." When she nodded, he continued. "I'll pick Abbey up from school at three and be home by three forty-five. I'll let my mother-in-law know you'll be there by two. Mary can show you around before Abbey and I get there." He rose in one fluid motion.
She came to her feet, too. "One more question. How secure is your ranch?"