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Nash Wilder stood still in the darkness and listened to the sounds the bumbling intruder was making downstairs. Instinct—and everything he was—pushed him forward, into the confrontation. He pulled back instead, until he reached Ally Whitman's bedroom door at the end of the hall in the east wing of her Pennsylvania mansion.
The antique copper handle turned easily under his hand; the door didn't creak. He stepped in, onto the plush carpet, without making a sound.
She woke anyway, a light sleeper—no surprise after what she'd been through. She saw him and sat up in bed, her lips opening.
He lifted his index finger to caution her to silence as he mouthed, "He's here."
She always slept with a reading light on, and was nodding now to let him know that she'd seen and understood his words. As she clutched the cover to her chest, the sleeves of her pajama top slid back.
A nasty scar ran from her wrist to her elbow, evidence of a serious operation to piece together the bone beneath. Not that she would ever share that story with anyone. She was a very private person, not a complainer, tough in her own way. Nash had read about the injury— one of many she'd suffered in the past twenty years— in her file.
His job was to make sure it was her last.
Sleep was quickly disappearing from her eyes as she clutched the blanket tighter and drew a slow breath, spoke in a whisper. "You'll take care of him."
Her confidence was hard-won. She wasn't a woman to give her trust easily. Getting to this point had taken two months of them being together 24/7.
He wanted to protect her, but she needed more. His assignment here was over when her divorce was final in three days. After that there was no reason for her ex to come back. He would have what he'd gotten from her and no more. At least, that was what Ally thought. Nash wasn't that optimistic.
He held her gaze as he shook his head. "You'll take care of him."
She needed to know without a doubt that she could. And her bastard of a soon-to-be-ex-husband needed to know that, too.
Her eyes went wide, and for a moment she was frozen to the spot, but then she nodded and pushed the cover back.
Not that Ally Whitman was a girl. She was a grown woman who'd seen the darker side of life during her twenty miserable years of marriage. She'd been a beauty in her day. He'd seen the wedding photo that had hung above the fireplace before he moved it, at her request, to the basement on his first day on the job. She'd been young and innocent, the sheltered daughter of a wealthy venture capitalist. Easy pickings.
His anger kicked into gear. He had a thing about violent bastards exploiting and brutalizing those weaker than themselves. He moved toward the door while she put on her robe. At fifty-two, Ally was still a striking woman.
As he waited, he heard rubber-soled shoes squeak on the marble tile downstairs. "In the kitchen," he whispered when Ally came up next to him.
He walked her to the main staircase and handed her his gun. He'd made sure during the last two months that she knew how to handle it. He waited until she made her way down, then he headed to the other end of the hallway and stole down the back stairs, ignoring the sudden shot of pain that went through his bad leg. Enough moonlight filtered in through the windows that he could navigate the familiar landscape of the house without trouble.
"Hello, Jason," he heard her say as he moved toward the kitchen from the back.
A chair rattled as someone bumped it.
"What are you sneaking around in the middle of the night for?" Anger flared in the loudly spoken response. Her ex would probably have preferred to surprise her in her sleep. Scare her a little.
"I want you to leave my house."
So far, so good. Nash crept closer. A few months ago, she would have asked the bastard what he wanted and in her desperation to be rid of him, would have given it.
"Like hell." The man's tone grew belligerent. "It's my house, too. If you think you're going to push me out—"
"The judge decided."
"To hell with the judge. I lived here for twenty years. You can't kick me out like that."
A moment passed before Ally said, "I already have."
Nash moved into position in time to see Jason Whitman step forward with fury on his fleshy face. "You bitch, if you think—"
He was ready to intercept when Ally pulled the gun from her robe pocket.
That slowed the bastard right down. "What the hell?" A stunned pause followed, then, "Put that down, dammit. You're not gonna shoot me. Don't be ridiculous." But he didn't sound too sure of himself as he nervously adjusted the jacket of his linen suit. Dressed for a break-in like he was going to a luncheon at the country club.
The light color of the fabric made him an easy target. He wouldn't think of something like that. Jason Whitman wasn't used to being in the crosshairs. He was used to being the hunter.
"I want you to go. I mean it." Ally stood firm.
Moonlight glinted off the white marble counters, off the etched glass of the top cabinets. Industrial chrome appliances gleamed, standing tall, standing witness.
The man hesitated for a moment. Nash could nearly hear the wheels turning in his head. Meeting with resistance for the first time was usually a shock to the abuser's system, especially when he'd gotten away with the abuse for decades. He could either back down or erupt in violence.
Ally grabbed the gun with both hands, put her feet a foot or so apart in the stance Nash had taught her. And something in that show of strength set Whitman off. He flew forward.
Not as fast as Nash.
He had the guy's arm twisted up behind his back in the next second, brought him to a halt as the man howled in pain. "Let me go, you lowlife sonuvabitch. How in hell did you get here?"
He had suspected the man might put in an appearance if he thought the coast was clear, so Nash had parked his car a couple of streets down. He wanted the confrontation to be over with. He wanted to be sure the threat to Ally was neutralized before he left the job.
"You can't protect her forever," Whitman growled and tried to elbow Nash in the stomach with his free arm, which Nash easily evaded.
"I'm protecting you. Take a good look at her."
And damn, but Ally Whitman looked fine, Make My Day about stamped on her forehead—her eyes narrowed, her hands steady, her mouth grim.
"I'd be only too happy to have her take care of you. But I don't want her to go through all the police business afterward. Not that they'd give her much trouble. Intruder in the middle of the night. Clear case of self-defense."
And for a split second he wondered if it might not be better if things went that way. People with a bullet in the head didn't come back. Guaranteed. But he had gotten to know Ally enough over the last two months to know that she would have a hard time living with that.
He would have needed hardly any provocation at all to reach up and break the bastard's neck.
Ally was stepping closer. Nash restrained the man's other arm. She didn't stop until the barrel was mere inches from her ex-husband's forehead.
"You've had all you're ever going to get from me, Jason. This is the last time I'm going to say this. Go away. Far away. And don't ever come back. I'm not the same woman you remember."
And from the fierce look on her face, it was plenty clear that she meant what she said.
Nash felt Whitman go limp. "Hey, okay. I didn't mean anything. I just thought—you know, that we could work things out. I just—"
She lowered the gun, but not all the way. "You just get the hell out of here." Her voice went deeper. Her chin lifted. She held the bastard's gaze without a blink.
This was it, the moment when the woman found her own power at last, and from behind Whitman, who was so doomed if he made another move, Nash smiled. He yanked the man aside and finally let him go. Whitman— not as stupid as he looked—ran for the door.
And for the first time in the weeks since he'd been her bodyguard, Nash heard Ally Whitman laugh.
Four days later
Nash had skirted orders now and then during his military career, but this was going to be the first time he refused a direct order from his superior officer. He didn't have to worry about a court-martial, neither he nor Brian Welkins were in the military anymore. But he couldn't rightly say he wasn't worried. Welkins had spent four years locked in a tiger cage, the prisoner of guerillas in the Malaysian jungle. He broke free and fought his way out of that jungle, saving other hostages in the process. He was the toughest guy Nash knew. Definitely not a man to cross.
Which was why he was careful when he said, "Can't do that, sir."
The sparse office was all wood and steel. Security film shielded the windows, keeping out the worst of the sun as well as any prying eyes. Nash considered the simple office chair but decided against sitting.
The only indication that Welkins heard him was a short pause of his hand before he resumed moving his pen across paper. "You will report to duty at eighteen-hundred hours." He picked up the case file with his left hand and held it out for Nash without removing his attention from whatever he was working on.
He ran Welkins Security Services like a military organization, leading his team to success. WSS had started as an outfit that offered survival-type team-building retreats to major corporations, hiring commando and military men who had left active duty for one reason or another. They were all tough bastards, to the last, who soon realized that nudging yuppies through the Arizona desert or the deep forests of the Adirondacks was too mild an entertainment for them. So the company expanded into the bodyguard business, which offered live-wire action to those who missed it. Like Nash.
He stood his ground. "I'm going to pass on this assignment, sir." He liked working in private security where he had options like that. Or not, judging from Welkins's expression when he looked up at last.
His pen hand stilled. "Is there a problem, soldier?"
Apparently. Since they were now all civilians, the boss only called one of the team members "soldier" if he was majorly ticked off.
"I'm not the right man for this assignment." Taking a few weeks and fixing up that half-empty rat hole he called home was starting to sound good all of a sudden.
"You think the assignment is beneath you?"
Damn right. "I'm not doing security detail for— I'm not working for a dog, sir."
"You'll be working for Miss Landon."
And that was the other reason he had to say no, a bigger reason really than the dog.
"Miss Landon specifically wants someone from our team."
"Everyone else is on assignment. It's four days. Quick work. Easy money."
He liked that last bit, but the answer was still no. "It's punishment for messing up the Whitman case, isn't it?"
Welkins didn't say anything for a full minute, but Nash caught a nearly imperceptible twitch at the corner of the man's mouth.
"You were supposed to be protecting Mrs. Whitman from her ex-husband, not holding him down while she put a gun to his head. His lawyer is frothing at the mouth. Do you know how much this could cost the company?"
He had a fair idea. And it burned his ass that the law would probably take Whitman's side after all the years it had failed to protect his wife from him.
It had taken two decades of misery for Mrs. Whitman to gather up enough courage to file for divorce. She had money in spades. But money couldn't buy her happiness. Thank God she'd finally realized that it could buy her some serious protection.
Whitman wouldn't go anywhere near her again. But he'd decided to pick another fight, this time with WSS, hiding behind his fancy lawyers.
"I should have taken him out," Nash said, looking at his feet and shaking his head, talking more to himself than Welkins.
"You should not have taken him out. You're no longer in the mountains of Afghanistan. You are in the protection business. Do you understand that?" Welkins watched him as if he weren't sure whether Nash really did, as if Nash might not be a good fit for the team after all.
And maybe he wasn't. He was trained as a killing machine. Maybe he wasn't good for anything else.
"You need to learn to pull back." Welkins's tone was more subdued as he said that.
A moment of silence passed between them while Nash thought over the incident. "I can't regret anything I did on that assignment, sir. But I do regret if my actions caused any difficulties for the company and the team," he said at last.
"Then take one for the team." Welkins's sharp gaze cut to him.
And Nash knew he was sunk. Loyalty was the one thing he would never go around, the trait he appreciated most in others, the one value he would never compromise on.
His lungs deflated. He hung his head and rubbed his hand over his face for a second.
Four cursed days at the Vegas Dog Show, guarding celebrity heiress and media darling Kayla Landon's puff poodle, Tsini. If the boss wanted to unman him, it would have been easier to castrate him and be done with it.
The one ray of hope in the deal was that Kayla Landon had a host of assistants. She probably had a professional team showing off her dog for her, so he wouldn't actually have to come face-to-face with her and the hordes of paparazzi that usually followed.
What kind of dog received death threats anyway? He couldn't see something like that happening to a real dog like a rottweiler or a German shepherd.
"All right." He pushed the words past his teeth with effort. "I don't think a consultation with Miss Landon will be necessary." Please. If there was a God.
"No, indeed. I have already consulted with her."
For the first time since he'd walked into the office, Nash relaxed. Then Welkins smiled.
Terrible suspicion raised its ugly head.
The heavy smell of doom hung in the air.
"There's more to this, isn't there?"
"Because of the threats, Miss Landon will be traveling with her dog-show team to Vegas. You'll be working with her 24/7."
He closed his eyes for a minute. Her nickname was Popcorn Princess. Seriously. And he was going to have to take orders from her. Oh, hell.