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"IT'S HAPPENED," Jamie Flanagan announced grimly. He snagged a chair from a nearby table, whirled it around and straddled it with a dejected whoosh of air that effectively caught his best friends' combined attention.
In the process of licking the hot wing sauce from his fingertips, Guy looked up. "Dammit, we both warned you about this. Which one is pregnant? Christy? Liz? Monica?"
"My money's on Monica," Payne said easily.
"She was clingy."
"Had to change the security code to the building because of her, remember?"
Payne nodded, absently taking a pull from his beer. "She was a pain in the ass, I remember that."
Guy shot Jamie a pleading look. "It isn't her, is it, Flanagan? Say it isn't her. She's, er... She's not mother material."
Equally annoyed and horrified, Jamie swore hotly. He should have known they'd leap to the wrong damned conclusion. Considering they'd both been riding his ass about his "serial" dating, it only stood to reason that they'd immediately suspect a woman problem.
"Nobody's pregnant, dammit," he snapped.
"How many times do I have to tell you bastards that I'm careful?" He exhaled loudly. "I know how to apply a friggin' rubber, for chrissakes. It's Garrett. He's calling in my favor."
Guy blinked. "Oh."
Payne stilled and his ice-blue gaze sharpened. "What does he want?"
Jamie let out another long breath, uttered a short disbelieving laugh and shook his head. "He wants me to go to Maine for a week to guard his granddaughter."
"Guard his granddaughter?" Payne repeated.
"Guard her from what?"
That had been the first question he'd asked as well, and the answer he'd gotten had been irritatingly ambiguous. Not that he hadn't taken and followed orders on less information. He'd been trained to obey, to trust in the authority of his superiors, and yet something about this felt...off. He'd tried to chalk it up to his new civilian mentality, but he suspected that this gut hunch had more to do with intuition than new programming.
"Garrett says there's evidence that a personal enemy of his might be targeting her."
Guy frowned. "Personal enemy?"
"What sort of personal enemy?" Payne asked. "I mean, I don't doubt that he's got one — a man doesn't get to his level without pissing people off. Still..." he added skeptically.
Jamie couldn't help scowling. "That's just it. He wouldn't say. Evidently he's got someone in place through the weekend, but needs me to step in on Monday."
"We'll have to rearrange some things," Payne said, predictably jumping into logistics mode.
"Guy and I will have to split your cases."
"It's piss-poor timing, that's for sure," Jamie said, signaling the waitress for a beer. A midtown staple, Samuel's Pub had quickly become their traditional beer and sandwich haunt. Good Irish whiskey, good prices, Braves decor. What more could a guy want? Jamie muttered a hot oath. "Hell, some notice would have been nice."
Guy rocked back in his chair and grinned. "But that would be completely out of character for Garrett."
Too true, Jamie knew, but it didn't change the fact that he'd be leaving his friends and partners in the lurch three months out of the gate in their new business venture. Thanks in part to all three of them, Ranger Security had taken off better than any one of them could have expected. Jamie inwardly grinned. Turns out hi-tech personal and professional security was in high demand — and quite lucrative.
Thanks to Payne's investment capital — though he seemed to resent his impressive portfolio at times, Payne had "come from money" as Jamie's grandmother used to say — they'd secured top-ofthe-line equipment and a prized office building in downtown Atlanta. The lower level housed the offices and the other two floors had been converted into apartments. Since he and Guy had no aversion to sharing space, they'd taken the second floor and Payne had moved into the loft, or the Tower, as they'd come to call it.
Since Payne had taken on so much of the financial burden, it only seemed fair that he have a place to himself. Not that Jamie and Guy weren't paying their way, but their money had come from a sizable mortgage whereas Payne had merely "transferred funds." Regardless, provided business continued to grow, he and Guy should be operating in the black within a few years, and in his opinion, that was pretty damned good.
"So the granddaughter is in Maine," Guy remarked. "What does she do?"
Ah, Jamie thought, inwardly wincing. Here came the fun part. He passed a hand over his face and braced himself for sarcasm. "She, er... She runs a de-stressing camp for burned out execs — Unwind, it's called — and well, Garrett's, uh..." He conjured a pained smile. "He's already arranged for my 'stay."
A disbelieving chuckle erupted from Guy's throat. "A de-stressing camp? He's sending you — Captain Orgasm — to a de-stressing camp?"
Payne coughed to hide his own smile. "To guard his granddaughter, no less. Talk about sending the fox in to guard the henhouse." He snorted. "Garrett must have lost his mind."
"Oh, no," Jamie corrected. "He's as crafty as ever. He issued a curt guard-her-but-no-funny-business order and promised to —" Jamie pretended to search for the exact phrase, though he remembered the ghastly threat verbatim. "Ah, yes. "Cut my dick off with a dull axe and force-feed it to me' if I so much as looked at her with anything more than friendly interest."
Payne grinned. "So your reputation precedes you, then."
Jamie winced. "He might have mentioned Colonel Jessup's daughter."
And honestly, there had been no need. After that horrid debacle, Jamie hadn't needed any additional threats to stay away from daughters — or any relative, for that matter — belonging to superior officers. And it really wouldn't be hard. There were plenty of other available women around.
Neesa Jessup had seduced him, not the other way around, and yet when Date Three had rolled around and he'd attempted to break things off, she'd gone to her father and cried foul. It had been a huge ugly mess and, given his particular reputation, no one was readily inclined to believe him. Guy, Payne and Danny had, of course, but they'd been on a short list. Needless to say, since then he'd been a lot more...selective.
Payne took another mouthful of beer and swallowed. "So I take it you're going in undercover?"
Jamie nodded. "That's the plan."
"I still don't get it," Guy said, his shrewd gaze speculative. "How are you supposed to guard her if you don't know where the threat is coming from?"
Precisely, Jamie thought, still smelling a rat. "He told me he'd give me an update once I'm in place, but the gist of the order was to stick to her like glue."
Guy scowled. "And that's not going to look suspicious?"
Jamie shrugged. Just thinking about it made his head hurt. "Hell if I know," he muttered tiredly. It sounded odd, but not altogether difficult, so that was a plus, right? In all honesty, it would be a relief to simply be done with it. This favor was his last niggling tie to a life he'd left behind. Had to leave behind to preserve his own sanity.
Even as early as last year, if anyone had told him that he'd wanted to be anything other than a United States Army Ranger, he would never have believed it. The military had given him purpose, manned him up and given him an outlet for what he now recognized as disappointment toward an absentee father.
Thanks to a hardworking mother and a hot-headed Irish grandmother who weren't averse to boxing his ears when the need arose — an unexpected smile curled his lips, remembering — Jamie had been a lot better off than a lot of the boys he knew whose fathers had been around.
Like Guy, Jamie thought, covertly shooting a look at his friend. Guy's old man had been a royal bastard, a hard-assed proponent of the "spare the rod, spoil the child" mentality. Unfortunately that had been the extent of his religious tendencies. He'd been a mean-spirited drunk who, on more than one occasion, had sent his son to the Emergency Room. Guy hadn't heard from the man since he was in his late teens. Frankly, Jamie had toyed with the idea of looking the old man up and thrashing the shit out of him. Someone needed to, at any rate.