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Beaumont, Texas, Sunday, May 26th, 9:50 p.m.
Joel Hayden had lingered in a dark corner of the High Noon Saloon for the past two hours. Finally a patron vacated a stool at the bar and Joel settled there before anyone else in the happy crowd could commandeer the prized position.
Whatever Laney Seagers was doing, she was doing it right. The century-old tavern she'd resurrected with her own two hands was hopping even on a Sunday night. The music flowing from the jukebox was country all the way and the atmosphere pure Texas from the murals on the walls depicting one-horse towns from the West's heyday when duels were carried out in the street at high noon to the restored original wood floor that had seen its share of two-stepping boots and bloody brawls. The patrons carried the mood with their cowboy boots and Stetsons.
He'd watched Laney Seagers for the past three days. Wasn't a hardship. The lady made his job easy, a vacation almost. Each time she laughed, the sound, sultry and sexy, left every single male customer within hearing range slack-jawed. Her honey-blond hair swung around her shoulders, making his fingers itch to see if it felt as silky as it looked.
Joel had handled a generous list of personal protection gigs for businessmen, celebrities and politicians alike, but he had to admit, this one was different. His new employer, the Colby Agency, wanted those with the most experience in the field on this case. This was Joel's first assignment for the Colby Agency and not one to be taken lightly, despite the spirited setting and the sexy blonde in the tight jeans and formfitting T-shirt sporting the saloon's logo.
Laney Seagers was in danger. And that was the easy part. That she didn't realize the threat nipping at her heels was the element that made the situation less than optimal. Though Joel would rather watch the lady scurry around behind the bar than eat at chow time, there was only so much even the most highly trained bodyguard could do under the circumstances.
Throw in the mix a five-year-old kid who was scared to death of his own shadow and things were a little complicated. Since the boy wouldn't start kindergarten until the fall, he spent most of his time attached to his pretty mother's hip. Even now, as she worked the Sunday-night crowd, Buddy slept on a cot in the office. Whenever he was awake, he played video games in the kitchen where the cook, Tatum, a landlocked former sailor he called Uncle Tater, kept him company. Every other moment he clung to his mom. Thing was, the kid didn't play just any old kind of games; they were the learning kind, reading, math and the like. As seemingly introverted as he was, little Buddy Seagers was as smart as a whip.
Joel had three brothers and they had all grown up hard. Their mother had developed multiple sclerosis when Joel was about Buddy's age. By the time he was ten, she was helpless. Their father had been busy trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Later, when Joel was older, he also understood that it was easier for his dad to work all the time than to come home to an ever-unfolding tragedy.
Basically, the Hayden boys pretty much learned to take care of themselves out of necessity. Made Joel wonder if shy little Buddy had a chance against the bullies he would face in school. Without a proper father figure or even an older brother, preparing him to take care of himself fell on the mother's shoulders. He didn't know many mothers who taught their boys how to land a nice uppercut.
It wasn't really his business whether or not Laney Seagers was up to that particular challenge, but being a kid from a primarily one-parent household, he wondered. She sure seemed to take by the horns the other challenges life tossed her way. Her background reflected a tough lady who preferred being a survivor to being a victim. A guy had to respect that. Rather than rely on entitlements, she got out and made things happen.
Laney sashayed over to where he sat at the center of the long counter. She smiled that big, bright smile that made her brown eyes twinkle and left a man a little dazed, and then she glanced at his half-empty glass.
"Somehow you just don't look like a soda pop kinda guy to me, handsome. Can I get you something else?"
"I have a one-drink limit when I'm doing the driving home." He gifted her with a wink and a smile of his own. "Unless you're planning on taking me home, I guess it'll be soda for me the rest of the night."
She belted out another of those sultry laughs. "I have to give you credit, that's the first time I've heard that one." She picked up his glass. "You having regular or diet?"
There went that dazzling twinkle in her eyes again.
Beyond the fact that she was a knockout with a killer smile and inspiring eyes, he genuinely liked the lack of pretention in her manner and her looks. No fussy makeup or hairdos. She seemed completely comfortable in her own skin. He liked that a lot. She had spirit in spite of the hard luck she'd survived.
She filled his glass and placed it on a fresh napkin in front of him. "We've still got wings and ribs in the kitchen," she suggested.
He held up a hand. "I'm good."
"You don't know what you're missing."
Watching her walk away wasn't in his job description, at least not the part where he zeroed in on those tight-fitting jeans. But then he was only human. Any woman who looked that good in plain old denim deserved a long, lustful stare from any man breathing.
Since this was work, there was very little chance he would have the opportunity to see what he was missing beyond watching her swing those hips. That alone was worth hanging around twenty-four/seven for however long it took.
Tonight, if all went as planned, he'd get his opportunity to get a little closer. He'd overheard the one remaining member of her security make the statement that he wasn't getting paid enough to deal with the boss's ex. The frustrated guy intended to give Laney the bad news tonight. He'd already accepted another position with the competition downtown and he wasn't feeling inclined to give even a one-week notice.
A lot of that had been happening this week.
A raw deal for Laney but a much-needed opportunity for Joel to gain a better surveillance position. He'd laid the necessary groundwork with subtle comments to some of Laney's employees.
He swiveled on the stool, his back against the counter, and surveyed the crowd. At a table near the jukebox, a belligerent and clearly inebriated jerk annoyed the waitress attempting to take his order. From a distance he appeared your average had-a-little-too-much reveler. But that was far from the case.
He was the rub. The no-good baby daddy himself. Terrence "Terry" Kingston. Poster boy for thirty-something men with failure-to-launch syndrome. And missing in action ninety percent of the time for the past five years under the guise of finishing his law degree so he could follow in his rich daddy's footsteps. Though he and Laney had never married, he was the father of her son.
A self-absorbed, egotistical leech who just wanted to play from time to time with the one girl smart enough to walk away. His serial stints in rehab had prevented him from taking legal action to obtain partial custody of his son. Not that he'd actually wanted the responsibility but the threat worked well when he wanted something else from Laney. Knowing the kind of money his father had put Laney at a serious disadvantage. Fear had likely prevented her from taking legal steps to get the guy out of her life once and for all.
But now Kingston had a new motive. Rich daddy had cut off his trust fund after the last round of detox following his son's surrender to his never-quite-relinquished relationship with cocaine. So slacker Kingston junior needed a way back into rich daddy's good graces. A brief background check and a few questions asked of the right folks and Joel had the whole sordid story.
There was nothing like a grandson, an heir, from an only sonan opportunity for a do-overto get rich daddy's attention. The desire to do it right this time, with a grandson when he obviously failed with his only son, was a powerful persuader for a man marching toward sixty. The senior Kingston had built his empire with no time for anything else and the guilt had caught up with him.
Kingston junior, on the other hand, was banking on his five-year-old investment to get his fingers back in the money jar.
And Joel was counting on human nature.
The cocky man swaggered up to the bar, his right tilt giving away his increasing level of intoxication. He elbowed aside a couple of patrons and bellied up to the counter. The unhappy folks grumbled but walked away rather than risk trouble.
The exchange between the ex and the saloon owner was muted by the lively music roaring from the jukebox, but Joel didn't need to hear the words to get the gist of the conversation. The body language of both participants telegraphed the story loud and clear to anyone who bothered to look.
He wanted something and she wasn't having any part of it.
Dekker, the security detail for the nightand every night since Joel's arrivalcut through the crowd and stationed himself next to the troublemaker. Dekker was a big guy. Six-three or four. Two-forty or two-fifty. Looked like a linebacker for a pro football team.
Joel finished off his soda and stood. Things were about to get interesting and he didn't want to miss the show.
Kingston turned on the big guy wearing the High Noon Saloon T-shirt and whatever he said didn't sit well. Dekker turned to Laney, shook his head and walked out.
Based on the gossip Joel had heard from the waitresses, Dekker was sick of throwing Kingston out night after night and getting nowhere. The local cops wouldn't give the guy what he deserved for fear of reprisals from his rich daddy. Adding to the pressure, Kingston had started threatening Dekker's wife's position at one of the elementary schools. Old man Kingston had friends in high places, the smart-mouthed jerk liked to brag.
Well, Joel didn't care who his daddy was or where his friends fell on the food chain. He just wanted to kick the crap out of him on principle.
By the time Joel made his way down to that end of the bar, the patrons had scattered and Laney and Kingston were going at it loud enough to drown out the music.
A few more minutes and they would successfully clear the house. Bad for business. And Joel happened to know Laney couldn't afford any dips in revenue.
"You can't keep me from seeing my son," Kingston slurred. "I'm petitioning the court for full custody. My daddy says this time I'll win. And you can't do a damned thing but cooperate or forfeit."
"Do what you think you're big enough to do," she dared. "Until then, you can see Buddy when you're sober and only when you're sober. Right now, I want you out of here. This is my property and I have the right to kick your drunken butt out if you can't behave."
The arrogant fool laughed. "The way I hear it, that may be changing very soon. Money makes the world go round, in case you haven't learned that yet."
Laney was fighting mad. But beneath all that bravado she was terrified. Didn't take a degree in psychology to see that. She wore her emotions on her sleeve. It worked for her because they were honest, no-drama emotions. Something else Joel liked about her.
"I thought I might go for bourbon after all. Straight up," Joel said as he cozied up to the bar next to the sleazebag harassing the lady.
Laney took a breath, shifted her attention to him. "Sure." She pivoted and stalked over to the rows of liquor bottles lining the mirrored shelves behind the bar.
"Who the hell are you?" Kingston glared at Joel, his bleary eyes reporting his alcohol-consumption level better than any breathalyzer could.
Joel leaned closer to the man and said for his ears only, "I'm the guy who's going to ruin those new veneers your daddy's money bought if you don't leave the lady alone and get the hell out of here."
Kingston reared back, swayed. He patted his pocket. "Old switch might have something to say about that."
Joel grabbed him by the collar, lifted him just high enough to prevent his boots from settling square on the floor, and hauled him across the room and out the swinging doors.
The drunken SOB cursed and swung repeatedly at Joel, missing every time. Joel snagged the key ring from the weasel's belt and shoved him away. "If you have any friends, call someone to pick you up. Otherwise, call a cab."
The guy charged at him. Joel stepped aside. Kingston went down face-first on the wooden walkway created as authentically as the ones straight out of an old Western movie. In fact, the whole scene could have been out of a classic John Wayne movie. Except Laney wore those body-hugging jeans instead of an ankle-length dress and petticoats.
"Show your face in here again," Joel warned, "and I won't be so nice next time."
Joel waited at the door until Kingston staggered away, cell at his ear, hopefully calling for a ride.
Joel turned around and came face-to-face with the boss.