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I still can't believe he stole my money" Trinity Layton paced the length of her office. Anger bounced inside her gut each time she thought about how her business manager had somehow stolen thousands from her. What made the situation even worseif she hadn't heard from the IRS claiming her taxes were delinquent, there was no telling when she would have realized something was amiss.
"When was the last time you talked to Ryan?" her brother, Maxwell, asked as he lounged on the sofa on the other side of her office, f lipping through a magazine.
"Two weeks ago." She dropped down in her desk chair and folded her arms across her chest. "I tried calling him yesterday after getting off the telephone with the IRS. The first few times I called, I got his voice mail. A few hours later, his phone was disconnected.
So I dropped by his office. The only things I found were late notices and dust bunnies floating across the floor. It's like he's vanished."
"That's messed up."
"Yeah, and he better hope the cops catch him before I do," Trinity mumbled. "He hasn't filed our taxes for the last two quarters. Can you believe that mess?"
She swiveled her chair around to stare out of the large window behind her desk. She had started Lay-ton's Executive Protection Agency, LEPA, nine months ago, using the money from a settlement she had won against the Los Angeles Police Department. After nine years on the police force, when a lieutenant post became available, she applied for the position. Despite being more than qualified, she'd been told that she was too young and inexperienced. Within days, she had filed a discrimination lawsuit.
"So what are you going to do?" Maxwell asked. She turned to face him just as he tossed the magazine onto the table in front of the sofa. "Do you have enough money to take care of the back taxes?"
"Yeah, I'm good, but this nonsense throws off my budget for the next couple of months. Worst case scenario, I'll have to tap into my savings." She could also borrow from the money she'd been setting aside from her own paycheck for the homeless shelter she was looking to open at the end of the year. That would be a last resort.
"Would you have loaned me the money if I needed it?"
She stood and walked across the room and sat on the sofa next to her brother, her champion. The one person always willing and ready to bail her out of any situation. She laid her head on his shoulder and looped her arm through his. "I appreciate you always coming to my rescue."
"That's what big brothers are for." He turned slightly to look at her, forcing her to lift her head. "You seem fairly calm about all of this."
"Don't let my outer calmness fool you. When I see Ryan Coleman, someone is going to have to pull me off of him! I trusted that brotha. I gave him an opportunity to build his business while I build mine, and this is how he repays me. I'm surprised he would do something like this."
"We've known him for years. He wouldn't steal money for no reason, especially from you. He must be in a desperate situation."
"Maybe, but he knew he could have come to me. He was like a brother to me. I'm sure we could've worked something out."
Trinity and Ryan had met when they both were thirteen years old, when he and his parents moved in next door to her family. He was an only child and had spent most of his time hanging out with her and Maxwell.
"So I assume that overall business is good, besides this."
She nodded. "Yeah, business is okay. Of course, it could always be better. I had hoped to have a few more highend clients by now. Granted, I'm grateful for the repeat customers, but I need things to be steadier. I have to come up with some new ideas to build my business." She knew it was going to take longer than a few months to create the type of clientele list she desired to have one day.
"Anything I can do to help?"
"How about you refer some potential clients my way? Living in Vegas, and being a police sergeant, you must know some people with money who need personal security."
He ran his hand over his mouth in thought, brushing his short beard with his fingers before he stood. "Actually, I do know someone who might be able to benefit from your services."
"What?" She stood and approached him. "You know someone and you haven't said anything before now?"
He slipped into his lightweight jacket.
"The person I'm thinking about just recently mentioned a situation. He might not go for it, but I think he needs a bodyguard."
Trinity didn't miss his hesitation. "Well, who is this person?" She placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head, more curious than ever.
Maxwell leaned against the door to her office. "Gunner Brooks."
Trinity narrowed her eyes at her brother. He knew she couldn't stand his old college roommate and fraternity brother. As a matter of fact, she'd rather eat dirt and drink turpentine than deal with the likes of Gunner Brooks.
She walked back to her desk, shaking her head. "No thanks. I don't know what type of mess Gunner is involved in and I'd just as soon not know. I'm not desperate enough to take him on as a client."
"Hold up." Maxwell pushed away from the door and approached her desk. "A minute ago you wanted to build the business. And what about the homeless shelter? The sooner you get a steady income coming in for the agency, the sooner you can start raising capital for the shelter."
"But nothing. I mention a potential client, who is not only wealthy, but also very well connected, and you're not interested?"
"Maxwell, you know how I feel about poker and and gambling, period. After what Daddy put our family through, how can you even suggest I work with Gunner?"
"Trinity, that was a long time ago, and hell, you can't compare Dad with Gunner. Dad was a gambler who relied on luck, never studying how the game is really played."
She couldn't believe what she was hearing and glared at her brother. "How is that any different than what Gunner does?"
"Are you kidding me? There is a huge difference." Maxwell pulled his keys out of his jacket pocket. "Gunner is a professional poker player. He doesn't rely on just luck. To do what he does takes patience, analytical skills, and don't even get me started on the type of self-control a player has to have in order to be any good at the game. Hell, those qualities alone would have ruled Dad out."
He shook his head as if remembering something about Maxwell Layton, Sr. "Dad was an out-of-control gambler who would let losing twenty bucks send him on a drinking binge, whereas Gunner treats playing poker like a job, understanding you win some, you lose some. Unlike a person who has a gambling problem, Gunner is always studying the game, learning his opponents' playing styles, and more than that, Trinity, he takes what he does very seriously."
Trinity rolled her eyes and sat at her desk. "If you say so, but from what I can tell, it's all the same. He's a gambler."
Trinity would never forget the number of times she had heard her parents arguing about how her father spent the grocery or bill money at the casinos. How many times had she wondered what type of man would gamble away the household funds, not caring whether or not his family had a roof over their heads or food on the table?
"Listen, Trinity, try not to compare Gunner to Dad. Gunner has made an amazing living doing something he has trained for, spending his days and nights studying the game. Dad was a wannabe and unfortunately he didn't have what it took to be that type of poker player."
Trinity fought back the anger that surfaced. "And it was at our expense. He left us." She gripped the arms of her chair in order to control the rage brewing in her gut. "He left Momma broke with two kids, not caring whether we lived or died. For that, I will never forgive him."
"Well, you need to try." Maxwell bent down and kissed the top of her head. "He's been dead for years. You need to figure out a way to forgive him so that you can move on and not hold on to all the anger built up inside you. It's not healthy."
Forgiving her father was easier said than done. It was because of him that they had moved to Los Angeles from Vegas with nothing. If it weren't for her mother's family taking them in and helping her find a job, they would have had to continue living in a shelter.
Trinity dropped her shoulders, knowing that her brother was right, but unable to wrap her mind around the idea of working with Gunner or being anywhere near him, for that matter.
"I don't think you're in any position to turn down potential clients. Besides, just because you have issues with Gunner, doesn't mean you can't provide him with a top-notch bodyguard and take care of those back taxes. Unless, of course, you'd prefer to draw money from your savings."
Trinity rocked in her seat. She really couldn't afford to turn down work. Maxwell was right. It was not like she had to hang out with Gunner for any long period of time. All she had to do was find out what his needs were and then connect him with one of her more than qualified security specialists. And if he was still the notorious playboy that she remembered, she was sure he'd be more than excited to have one of her supermodel-lookalikes as a bodyguard.
With a renewed energy, she rubbed her hands together, excited about the possibility of getting a wealthy new client. "Okay, give him my number."
Trinity glanced up from the computer. Connie, her assistant and best friend, hurried into the office and closed the door. She stepped to Trinity's desk, her hand pressed against her chest and a dreamy expression on her face.
"Oh, my God," she breathed. "The sexiest human being that ever walked the face of the earth is standing at my desk and he's asking for you."
"Oh," Trinity said nonchalantly and waved her off good-naturedly. "That's probably Gunner Brooks."
"I knew he was nice-looking, but dang! The internet didn't do him justice. That man is downright fine!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, just send him in." Days after her conversation with Maxwell, Gunner had called and set up an appointment to meet with her.
Trinity went back to typing the letter she was working on, not surprised by the effect Gunner had on Connie. She had witnessed the same reaction plenty of times when visiting Max on the University of Southern California campus when he and Gunner roomed together. Girls were always fawning over Gunner, willing to do anything he asked of them. Funny thing was, he didn't have to say or do much to attract them. There was something about him. Some type of allure that caused women to stop and take notice. Trinity never could put her finger on what it really was that warranted that type of reaction. Thankfully, she was immune to his charming ways.
Moments later a shiver ran up and down her arms and the intoxicating scent of sandalwood and vanilla filled the space. She didn't have to look up to know that Gunner had stepped into her office.
Trinity slowly swiveled in her chair and came face to face with the man who had starred in many of her dreams. She stood as Gunner decreased the distance between them and quickly realized that she wasn't as immune to him as she had thought. Smooth skin the color of rich dark chocolate and a gaze that burrowed into her flesh made her temporarily forget that she couldn't stand him. He flashed his million-dollar smile and everything within her turned to mush. It didn't help that he had his baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, making him look sexy as hell. She always did have a weakness for men wearing baseball caps.
Crap. This might not be as easy as I thought.
She swiped sweaty palms down the sides of her black slacks and stepped from around the desk. She didn't want to be attracted to a man who could easily talk a woman out of her panties and into his bed with only a few words.
"Trinity." His deep voice washed over her like liquid fire, sending heat to every nerve ending in her body. He definitely hadn't lost the swagger that had made him one of the most popular men at USC. His easy, confident gait carried him the short distance across the room and he stopped in front of her. "It's been a long time."
She blew out a breath and straightened her back, refusing to let his nearness unnerve her. Extending her hand, she planned to keep the meeting as professional as possible. Yet instead of shaking her hand, Gunner grabbed hold of her and pulled her into his arms. The contact sent a heated jolt of awareness through her body and she trembled involuntarily.
"We're way past handshakes," he mumbled near her ear and placed a lingering kiss on her cheek. Her eyes drifted closed, hypnotized by the caress of his lips and the heady scent of his cologne. He took a half step back, still not releasing her, and held her at arm's length. "You have grown into a beautiful woman."
His last comment broke the trance and Trinity gracefully shook out of his grip. She walked back around her desk, needing to put some distance between them.
"Excuse me," Connie said, standing near the door. "May I get either one of you a cup of coffee or maybe some ice water?" She looked pointedly at Trinity, humor in her eyes.
Trinity hadn't noticed her standing there, and ignored the knowing look Connie gave her. "Nothing for me, thanks." She turned her attention to her guest. "What about you, Gunner?"
"Actually, coffee would be great."
"Cream, sugar?" Connie asked sweetly.
"Black would be perfect. Thanks, sweetheart." Gunner winked and returned his attention to Trinity, who had to keep herself from rolling her eyes at Connie's departing giggle.
"It's good to see you again, Gunner." Trinity hoped her words sounded more sincere than she felt. He might have been one of the finest men she'd ever met, but he was still someone she wanted nothing to do with. "I'm glad you were able to stop by. Please have a seat."
He removed the ratty baseball cap that had a gold omega symbol across the front, and sat in one of the leather armchairs facing her desk. Ruggedly handsome, Gunner exuded self-confidence, making it hard for Trinity not to stare at him. Every move he made her gaze seemed to follow. It wasn't until he crossed an ankle over his knee and his eyes met hers that she realized she was entranced.
He smiled. Heat rose to her cheeks and she diverted her eyes to the file that she'd been working on earlier. It was time to get it together and tap into her professional demeanor. Breathing in and out slowly, without making it seem too obvious, she felt herself relax some. Placing the file off to the side, she grabbed her notepad.