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Leave Me Breathless
By HelenKay Dimon
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 HelenKay Dimon
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I don't need a bodyguard." Judge Bennett Walker delivered his observation as he unclipped the top of his black robe and stripped the garment off his shoulders.
Callie Robbins had to fight hard to keep from rolling her eyes. Three denials in two minutes. Yeah, she got it. The big tough guy in the flower-print tie somehow thought he could stop a bullet simply by pretending it didn't exist.
Gavel or not, she was not a fan of pigheaded stupidity, even if it did come in a six-foot-three package of smoldering eye candy. And this guy had the smoking hot thing down. A square jaw and light brown hair that fell in a soft line over his forehead were just the beginning of the impressive package. She'd heard about the broad shoulders he hid under the required work outfit. Watching his white shirt pull across his chest, she now could vouch for his linebacker form. Thirty-eight and sat on his butt all day, but there wasn't an ounce of fat on the guy that she could tell.
Still, all of the idol worship surrounding him in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland, struck her as overkill. From what she could tell, Ben Walker was a prosecutor-turned judge-turned-superstar in the uber-wealthy area north of Washington, D.C. He wielded a heap of power and had all the female courthouse clerks scurrying aroundto catch a peek at him. But, really, he was just a man. And from Callie's 120 seconds of experience, a very stubborn one.
"If there's nothing else ..." Ben let his voice trail off as he slid into his oversized leather desk chair.
Callie didn't bother to respond to the not-so-subtle dismissal, because he wasn't talking to her. Hell, he hadn't even sent a small glance in her direction since she'd dodged his gaggle of admirers in the outer office to follow him into his private chambers. No, the judge saved all his wrath and attention for the other man in the room, his older brother by one year, Mark Walker.
"This isn't up for discussion, Ben," Mark said in a clear attempt at reason. "You have a target on your back."
"I'm not the one in danger."
Mark shook his head. "Your job is to rule on cases. Leave the law enforcement decisions up to me, will ya?"
Callie knew Mark could handle the worst. He had turned his tenure at the FBI into a position with an undercover division within Homeland Security charged with protecting high-profile targets in the D.C. metro area. Callie wasn't sure what the job entailed, but she knew it was a big one. The kind where her record would likely disqualify her for regular duty, which explained why she was an independent contractor doing Mark a private favor on this job.
Since the judge hadn't acknowledged her presence except for a brief nod after Mark's introduction, she decided to force the issue. She was standing right there next to the judge. Hard to imagine he could miss her, what with his big brain and all.
"Did you forget the part where someone blew up your car?" she asked.
Silence slammed through the large room. For a second, nothing moved. Callie was pretty sure even the wall clock stopped ticking. Then the judge turned in his seat and glanced at her with a blank expression. "Hard to do that since it burst into flames about ten feet away from me."
"A smart guy would take that as a sign," Mark said.
With that, the judge went right back to talking to his brother. "Emma was the target, not me."
The long breath eased from Callie's chest. Something about having the man's sole attention turned on her made her nerve endings jump and twitch. An odd shakiness flooded through her. And she didn't like it one bit.
She watched the brothers argue, marveled at how different two men who were raised in the same household could be. Mark sounded reasonable, smart, focused. The judge came off as a pompous jackass. Attractive in a make-your-eyes-cross kind of way, but still a pompous jackass.
He tried to put her in her place by pretending she barely existed. She had seen the tactic before. A woman didn't rise in the ranks of the FBI without throwing a few elbows. Sure, she'd thrown one too many, which explained why she was here without her badge instead of sitting behind her desk in an office nearby, but she could fight back. If the good judge wanted attitude, she could shovel plenty of it right on top of him.
"Look, Your Honor," she said in the least respectful tone she could muster. "Your girlfriend has security protection. You've refused it. From what I can tell, that makes her the smarter of the two of you."
He smiled. "Emma Blanton is not my girlfriend."
Not exactly the response Callie expected, but at least he finally bothered to stare at her for more than two seconds. And without throwing her in jail, that had to be considered a success. "You and your girlfriend would be barbeque right now except that the bomb went off too early."
Ben folded his hands together in front of him on the desktop. "True, but she's still not my girlfriend."
Talk about fixating on the wrong point. "Fine. What do you want me to call her?"
"You could try Judge Blanton." Ben glanced at his brother. "And the bomb was meant for her."
Mark shook his head. "It was your car, genius."
"Emma doesn't drive. The fact we'd been attending the judicial conference together is not exactly a secret. We were on the same panel when she made the inflammatory comments that resulted in all the bad press. Her speech has been all over the news. I'm assuming that's how this lunatic tracked her down. I just got in the way."
Callie thought calling the other woman's talk "inflammatory" was like calling Ben somewhat good looking-a wild understatement. "Judge Blanton told a criminal defendant he was 'filth' as part of her sentencing decision and then reiterated her position in front of a room filled with reporters at your conference," Callie pointed out.
Ben's eyebrow lifted. "I was there for the latter."
"Then you know what I'm talking about."
"Steve Jenner was a pretty bad guy."
Callie knew that. Despite what Ben might think, she read a newspaper now and then. She'd called criminal scum worse names than filth, but she wasn't a judge. The lack of restraint from the top was the problem. Having judges refer to defendants as inhuman, or worse, strained the appearance of impartiality to the breaking point.
Though Callie believed there was a special rathole in hell for violent offenders like Jenner, there was a system in place to take care of them. If she wasn't allowed to ignore the rules, despite how much she might want to, neither could the judges.
She decided to point out the obvious logic to Ben. "Your friend angered everyone from defendants to the Defense Bar and human rights groups. The press has been all over this story."
"I know. I live here and get the newspaper delivered to my house."
Everything the man said irritated the crap out of Callie. She wondered if he saved up his smartass comments just for her or if all the women in his life got this treatment. Either way, he had one day to knock it the hell off or she'd shoot him in the foot. Wouldn't be the first time, and it wasn't as if she had anything left to lose professionally.
"My point is that it's not hard to compile a list of enemies for Judge Blanton," Callie said.
His smile came back even wider this time. "Which supports what I've been saying. The bomb wasn't meant for me."
He could not be this clueless. "Since you're sleeping with her-"
Ben held up a hand. "Friends."
"-you're in danger."
Mark pushed away from the bookshelves and stood at the front of the big desk, across from his brother. "Enough arguing. You lose. Like it or not, you're getting protection."
"I don't want it."
Mark snorted. "You don't get a choice on this. You either accept what I'm offering or you take a leave of absence."
The judge's jaw tightened in response to the threat. "Since when do you run my schedule?"
"I'll go right over your head to Heath Samson."
"Who?" Callie asked, feeling more than a little ignored.
"The administrative judge. He runs the courthouse and has to think about all the judges and people in it, not just Ben." Mark rapped his knuckles against his brother's desk. "I'll convince him your presence at work puts everyone in the building in danger."
"Do it and I'll kick your ass."
Callie wondered which one of the two uncompromising alpha males would win that brainless battle of testosterone. Mark dealt in strategies and big guns, but she'd bet Ben knew his brother's weaknesses. Despite his current display of boneheaded tendencies, Ben had earned an impressive list of military honors before his turn on the bench. She'd read his file. She knew all about his sharpshooter days as well as his courthouse days.
What she didn't get was his reluctance to take the much-needed protection his brother offered. Apparently Ben thought the judge's robe worked like a Kevlar shield. Like he was a freaking superhero or something. She would have thought that dodging that fireball the other night would have made him see reason. Just proved her initial reaction to Judge Ben was right: the guy was a bonehead.
"I will pull whatever string I have to, use any threat, to get you a full-time security detail. This is not up for debate." Mark's shoulders stretched even tighter. "You know I'm not fucking around on this."
Something in Mark's dark eyes or stern voice must have gotten through, because Ben exhaled loud enough to be heard in the hallway. "What do you have in mind?"
"Protection. Covert. A person placed in your office and with you at all times."
"So, I was right. A bodyguard."
Callie loved this part. She'd been waiting to drop this verbal bombshell. Thought it might give way to a whole new level of jackassery on Ben's part. "He means me."
Ben's eyes bulged. "Excuse me?"
"I'll be the one assigned to protect you."
"That a problem?"
The usually well-spoken judge floundered around, stuttering, before he actually came up with a sentence that made some sense. "You weigh a hundred and twenty pounds."
If he was trying for flattery ... well, he came close with the wild underestimate. "I'm more than qualified."
Mark eased back on his fighting stance. Actually unlocked his knees and stopped clenching his jaw every two seconds. "She's ex-FBI. She's good."
The judge looked at her then. Really looked. His heated gaze roamed up and down before it settled on her face again. "You're kind of young to be a former anything."
Mark shifted his position until he blocked her from Ben's direct line of sight. She knew the chivalrous move was ingrained, locked somewhere deep in Mark's protective DNA. Still, despite the mistakes she'd made she didn't need a champion. Having Ben see her as weak would only make her job tougher.
Callie stepped out from behind Mark's shadow and took her position beside him, putting her directly in front of Judge Grumpy Pants. "I'll be your new assistant."
"I have a clerk."
"Did I say clerk?"
Ben's lips thinned until they almost disappeared. "So that you know, I don't accept that sarcastic tone from my employees."
Talk about an ego problem. "Do you want me to call you Sir? Maybe I should bow when I see you. Wipe your feet when you come in from the outside."
"The feet part is unnecessary."
Mark slapped his palm against the desk. "Would you two get serious?"
She had a few insults stuck in her throat but decided to save them until later. "Mark's right. You have a stalker. That's what this protection detail is about. We'll figure out the rest as we go."
Mark nodded. "I already cleared the assignment with Judge Samson. Callie will move in here under the guise of a new judges' assistant program. She'll share your office-"
Ben's head snapped back. "What?"
"Where else would I put her?"
Callie really wasn't in the mood to be "put" anywhere. "Could we not refer to me as if I were a plant?"
Ben ignored her. He was too busy grabbing the edge of his desk with enough force to snap off the wood trim. "That is never going to happen."
"I can't really protect you effectively from the hallway," she pointed out.
"No one will buy that you're working for me." Ben held up both hands and shrugged his shoulders in what Callie assumed was some sort of peace offering. "No offense."
"How could I possibly be offended by that," she mumbled.
He shook his head, refusing to give up the fight. "There's security here. We've got a metal detector and there are emergency call buttons hidden everywhere in the office."
"Which will be very helpful if you're shot in the head before you can reach it." Callie knew the guy had to be smarter than this. He passed the Bar and managed to get appointed by the governor. That suggested there was a working brain in that head somewhere.
Ben glared at her before continuing his brother-to-brother negotiations. "There's no need for additional protection."
"Your car blew up in a locked government parking lot." Mark folded his arms in front of him. "That changes everything." She glanced at Mark. When he nodded, she took the lead.
"It means the person who planted the bomb had access to the facility. Probably has a badge and can come and go in the courthouse without being noticed. He or she is on the inside, which makes you vulnerable even with all the uniforms around you all the time."
"Which is why Callie is your new right arm. Where you goes she goes. Work or work function, she's with you. I'll handle the at home part," Mark said.
Ben closed those chocolate brown eyes of his for a second. When he opened them again, some of the fight had left him. Even his shoulders appeared more relaxed. "We haven't shared a bedroom since we were eight."
"And we're not going to now." Mark glanced at his cell and started talking faster. "Look, I know this is a pain in the ass, but I need you to listen to me."
Ben tipped his head back against the chair. "I get it."
An unspoken emotion passed between the brothers. Callie had no idea why Ben caved, but the verbal and psychological battle had ended. Both men wore grim lines of resignation on their mouths.
She suddenly felt as if she were intruding. "I can wait outside."
Ben shook his head. "No need. We'll set you up here somewhere."
It was Mark's turn to smile. "Nice try. She'll be in here with you. I've taken care of that part and you are not going to overrule me. I get paid to do the tactical stuff, so let me do my job."
Out of nowhere, Ben turned on her and flashed a smile full of perfect white teeth. "So, you ready to spend ten hours a day with me?"
She shook off the feeling of being in the spotlight. "No."
"If it's any consolation that makes us even."
Funny, but that didn't make her feel one ounce better.
Chapter TwoBen walked into his private chambers the next morning at his usual seven-thirty start time to enjoy a half hour of quiet before the workday madness descended. He had to wait until Mark checked the suite, but Ben wasn't even a little surprised to find Callie there waiting for him. Not in the receptionist's waiting room outside. Not in the front area of his office, where the sofa and chairs were arranged for informal meetings. Not by the bookcases that lined the walls. No, she actually stood behind his desk looking out the window to the concourse seven stories below. He guessed he should be grateful her butt wasn't actually in his chair.
Some guard dog she turned out to be. She hadn't even noticed him or seen Mark do his check. What if someone had come in carrying a gun instead of a paper and a coffee cup, then what-
"Have a good night?" She asked the question without turning around.
Or maybe she was paying attention.
Still, Ben appreciated having an uninterrupted minute to study her. From a pure male appreciation standpoint he had to give her points. She stood about five-eight with a body more curvy than athletic, which was just his preference. He took in her nice round ass and the way her black pants showed it off. A matching short blazer highlighted her trim waist and straight blond hair pulled back in a ponytail at her neck hung partway down her back. Even though those soulful brown eyes weren't glancing at him right now, he'd bet that same mix of pissiness and frustration remained from their meeting yesterday.
Yeah, staring at her every day wouldn't exactly be a hardship.
Dealing with that mouth would be the challenge.
Excerpted from Leave Me Breathless by HelenKay Dimon Copyright © 2010 by HelenKay Dimon. Excerpted by permission.
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