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Was it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet on his so-called R & R?
Apparently Brody Wickhamex-Green Beret, current on-leave security operator for Stryker Internationalhad turned into a magnet for trouble, and he knew inside his gut that someone was going to get hurt.
Preferably not him.
Brody could spot the ugly future the second that Vonyathe one-name, brazen rock 'n' roll diva and the leader of the crazies inside this D.C. nightclubstepped up to the edge of the stage and, with a feral scream, sprang into the outstretched hands of her minions.
Perhaps soared might be a better term, as she launched herself, arms flung out, like some sort of prehistoric animal in scaly black leather and a peacock mask, her garish pink wig a plume, into the undulating mosh pit.
Thankfully, anonymous hands caught Miss Crazy and floated her over the mass like a piece of bacon. It didn't mean this wouldn't end badly. With blood. Broken bones.
Death by stampede.
And Brody Wickham, off-duty bodyguard, simply couldn't let that happen, despite wanting to stay incognito in the shadows near the bar. He moved to the edge of the crowd, every muscle coiled. He'd guess that in about ten seconds, he'd have to plow through this mob and save her.
He should be sitting on a lawn chair in the backyard of his parents' suburban ranch home, catching up on the news of his eight brothers and sistersmost of whom he hadn't seen for nearly a decade. Or helping his parents decipher the foreclosure notice from the bank.
The music nearly shook the bricks from their mortar in the warehouse-turned-club, the perfect venue for Vonya's eccentric pulse, with its black Art Deco walls covered in skinny mirrors, disco lights dangling from the ceiling, and a round stage that thrust out into the audience.
Despite the cacophony of noise, he had to admit, Vonya had pipes. Brody wasn't so iron-eared as to not recognize the flash of talent in the tones that blew out of that petite body covered in leather and fishnet, even if he spent most of the night averting his eyes from her plunging minidress.
A random elbow connected with the soft tissue of his nose, stopping him cold at the fringes of the dancers.
Okay, what was he doing? This wasn't his gig, his battle. He didn't even know this impulsive woman, and nobody had asked him to be a hero today.
He was here for
Lucy! She'd jumped right into the mosh pit, moving to the middle, pushing, shoving, bouncing off dancers twice her size.
Everything inside him pinged, his adrenaline rushing.
Oh, he'd known, just known, that his fifteen-year-old sister had no business at a Vonya concert, which was why he'd heard himself volunteering to take her when she appeared in a black-and-purple scoop-neck T-shirt, enough silver costume jewelry to sink a small ship, and skintight animal-print jeans.
And since when had his all-things-Catholic mother decided to say yes to the nose piercing? Clearly, he wasn't the only one who'd lost his mind.
Then again, his mother wouldn't be the first person to let someone talk her into something against her best judgment.
Only, her concessions didn't get people killed.
"You don't want to go to a Vonya concert," his sister had whined, shortly after his mother had tossed him the keys to her Subaru, more than a little relief in her eyes.
"I don't care about this Vonya chickI care about you. Are you sure you don't need a jacket? Or maybe a paper bag?"
Lucy shot him her best death-ray glare. "I'll just pretend I'm a celebrity. You can be my bodyguard."
"You know, I do sometimes bodyguard people for a living. I might know a few things about staying out of the way."
"Not at a Vonya concert," Lucy said. "I hate to tell you this, dude, but you're in way over your head."
Clearly. He kept his gaze on her as she bounced in the center of the mosh
She went down.
"Make a hole!" Brody shoved toward her, his blood hot in his veins. By the time he reached her, Lucy had surfaced, her face flushed, holding her nose. Blood dripped out between her fingers.
Okay, that was it. He glanced once at Vonya, saw her riding the wave, then wrapped his hand around Lucy's arm. "We're leaving." The so-called music ate his voice.
She yanked her arm away. "I'm fine!" Her painted eyes glittered.
He didn't have time to retort because the punk next to Lucy turned on him. "Leave her alone, dude!" He then threw his bodyor perhaps someone threw himagainst Brody.
Brody caught him, pushed him away.
Definitely time to egress.
He glanced once more at Vonya, his gut tight, trying to shake off the dread. With a gulp, the pit swallowed her whole.
See? Someone should have stopped the madness long before this.
The crowd swelled around her, people pushing, chaos breaking free, bodies tumbling, screaming ripping through the club.
"Brody!" Fear showed in Lucy's wide eyes.
Brody wrapped his arms around her, pushing them both out of the crowd. "You okay?"
She nodded, still protecting her nose.
Perfect. So much for bringing his sister home in one piece.
"Go to the bathroom and get cleaned up. Stay away from the crowd!" He had to shout inches from her face, but even as Lucy nodded, his attention pulled back to the mob.
No Vonya. But screams and grunts emitted over the microphone, and even the band members had stopped playing.
"Go!" he yelled to Lucy, and plowed back into the violence.
Another elbow to the gut nearly blew out his breath, but he moved with the purpose of a ground assault, shoving bodies aside, protecting his face as he waded through to Vonya's last known position.
Nothing, although he did manage to haul to their feet two women and a very skinny kid.
He made it all the way to the man-size speaker and spotted a flash of pink huddled behind the equipment.
Vonya crouched, holding her left arm curled tight to herself. Despite the black makeup, the weird peacock mask, the bright pink Marilyn Monroe-style hairdo, and the scaly leather dress, he recognized a woman shaken.
Not that it took a psychologist to figure it outher mask hung torn from her face and she stared up at him like he might be the boogeyman.
So he didn't stop to focus, analyze or plan. Didn't stop to think through his actions. Just bent down, slipped his arms around her and swooped her up.
"Hey! What are you doing?" She twisted in his arms, eyes wide.
"What does it look like?" he said into her ear, as he pushed through the hysterical crowd toward the back entrance. "Trying to save your pretty little neck."
"Call 911, tell them things are out of control!" she said, twisting in his arms as if wanting to run back into the mess.
"You should have thought of that before you threw yourself into the audience."
She stiffened. "I'm okay. You can put me down."
"Not quite yet, honey."
But he looked at her then. She seemed more petite up close with her crazy pink hair and false eyelashes, and she swallowed back something that looked like shame.
Then he kicked open the back door and freed them to the alley.
"I said, put me down!" No problem.
Unfortunately, her words came out timed perfectly for the paparazzi, who got a million-dollar shot of him flinching as she landed an openhanded smack across his face.
Of course she'd been summoned by the senator. Ronie finger-combed her sea-sticky hair as she sat in the backseat of the limousine, her trench coat tucked around her, trying to chase from her bones the last of the chill from the choppy ferry ride to Martha's Vineyard. Her father's voice on her machine rang in her memory.
"Sounds like you made a real spectacle of yourself this time, Vonya. Your mother and I want a word with you. I'll expect you at the beach house this weekend"
Of course he expected her. But at twenty-eight, she thought she might be strong enough to resist his summons.
Well, she might be if she weren't broke and needing the senator's goodwill in the form of financial backing for her upcoming European tour, aka rescue mission.
She'd saved the text message from the Bishop and now ran her thumb over her cell in her pocket. Found him. Thank You, God.
Her throat tightened even as she stared out at the ocean, at the frothy waves clawing the shore. Please let the senator be in a good mood.
The limo turned into the long drive toward Harthaven, past the weathered split-rail fencing, the green-carpeted pastures. A couple of her mother's thoroughbreds lifted their heads as if in greeting. The tires ground against the gravel until the car pulled up at the front door.
"Nice to see you again, Miss Veronica," the driver said, as he opened her door.
"You, too, Mr. Henley." She lifted her messenger bag from the seat and stood for a moment in front of the ancestral home, two centuries of age in its weathered cedar shakes. Out of habit her eyes went to Savannah's tiny, empty attic window.
"Veronica, you made it!" Her mother's voice emerged first as she exited the house, crossed the porch and descended the front steps. Ellie Wagner looked about twenty-five, with her long brown hair held back in a ponytail, and her brown riding pants and pink blouse. She held her helmet, with a pair of gloves shoved inside, against her hip. "I was just leaving for a quick ride. I'll be back in time for dinner." She pecked her daughter on the check as she breezed by. "Oh, we'll be dressing for dinner tonight, but your father would like to see you for drinks in the study at six o'clock."
"I don't drink." Never had, really. And never mind that she hadn't called herself Veronica since her sophomore year in college.
But it didn't matter. Her mother waved her gloves and disappeared around the corner to the stable.
"No problem, Mother, I'm down with that," she said to the brisk island air.
She kept a standard little black dress and a strand of pearls in the closet just for Saturday nights at Harthaven. Her fans wouldn't have a prayer of recognizing her.
Sometimes, after a concert, she didn't even recognize herself.
Six p.m. The hour of execution, when she had to discard herself of all things Vonya and climb back into the expectations of her upbringing. But no one could ever accuse her, Veronica Stanton Wagner, of not knowing how to adapt. She'd eaten Zong Zing with the ambassador to China, challenged the sons of the prime minister of Nepal to a game of Bagh Chal, learned to play the djembe from a musical troupe from Ghana, and could speak, although poorly, snippets of Portuguese, thanks to the young wife of the United Nations representative from Brazil.
She could probably manage to behave like a proper lady tonight at dinner. Especially if it meant erasing from her father's recent memory the newspaper photo of Vonya laying her palm across a very handsome, yet downright surly, self-appointed bodyguard after last Saturday's debacle.
Yeah, well, she'd been a victim one too many times of a crazy fan. And one very dangerous stalker. How was she to know he actually wanted to help her?
She could still see his shock as he recoiled, then the growl that flashed into his eyes as he'd gritted his teeth and set her down.
Stabilized her as she rocked on those lethal five-inch heels.
No, not a fan. Thankfully, he hadn't let loose the words behind the disgust that flashed across his face.
But the derision from the stranger hurt, she had to admit it.
Or not a stranger anymore. Brody Wickham. She'd discovered his name after her frantic manager found them returning from the alley. Tommy D had decided to make him a nationalor at least music-industryhero.
She longed to forget him, hating the way he and his condemnation stuck in her brain. In fact, she thought she'd escaped the claw of shame long ago.
Clearly not. And it didn't help that Brody Wickham cast a steely, almost annoyed image across national airwaves and onto prime-time entertainment shows when he announced that he'd simply been trying to keep her from hurting herself.
Except maybe he'd been right. She still sported a greenish-black bruise on her arm.
Oh, given the choice, she would rather have holed up in her SoHo loft this weekend with a bowl of popcorn and her keyboard to work on a new song. But she couldn't rightly beg for money over the phone, or even through email. Senator Wagner wouldn't want to miss the pleasure of staring her down and making her feel fifteen and a failure.
Just once, she'd like to be twenty-eight, smart and beautiful.
But this little excursion wasn't for her. Or even for the senator. And life didn't always hand out choices.
An hour later, Ronie gave a last survey in the mirrorshort brown hair curled into tiny ringlets around her head, the barest dusting of makeup, a little lip gloss, a touch of lime eye shadow. She appeared, well, wholesome.
She didn't exactly hate the look.
The smells of a pot roast, or maybe lamb with rosemary, tugged her down the stairs. Stopping off in the kitchen, she sneaked a fresh roll from a basket on the counter, earning a growl from Marguerite, their weekend housekeeper, and tore it into tiny pieces as she walked toward her father's study.
The melodies of Tchaikovsky escaped through the cracked open door. She eased it open.
Tripp Wagner stood with his back to her, an outline of power as he stared out the window overlooking the grounds. Twilight had begun to darken the pond and seep across the grass. Only a glimmer of light sprinkled through the pines that ringed their property. Sometimes she wished they had beachfront property, where they could watch the sun sink like a fiery ball behind the sandy dunes.
"Come in, Veronica."
Ronie stepped inside the study. A desk lamp puddled orange over the leather blotter on the mahogany desk. His briefcase lay on the credenza, under a family picture, now nearly fifteen years old. Ronie barely glanced at it, not really recognizing any of the four of them.
"You can help yourself to a drink." He gestured with a glass of something amberbourbon, probablystill not turning from the window.
"I still don't drink alcohol, Father," she said, but moved over to the bar and poured herself a glass of cranberry juice. It helped to have something to hold on to when the senator began his orations.
"Not that anyone would ever know."
She braced herself.
"Sometimes, I can't believe that is actually my daughter making a spectacle ofNo. I promised your mother." He sighed, turned and, for the first time, let his eyes rest on her. She stifled a tremble, not because he frightened herwell, not much, anymorebut because she saw in his hazel-green eyes such sadness, it filled her throat with something scratchy and hard.
"Sorry," she mumbled. "It's part of the act."