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"Hey, Cavanaugh, lady here to see you."
Amid the buzz of conversations, phones ringing and the faint sound of keyboards that served as background noise at the offices of Trent Associates, Donovan Cavanaugh saved the document he was working onthe final report on the case he'd just wrapped up.
A real doozy. He'd provided protection for a manager turned whistleblower of a pharmaceutical company. The guy's conscience hadn't allowed him to ignore the release of a drug with adverse side effects, regardless of the company bigwigs wanting to make all the money they could without informing the public of the hazards.
He pushed his chair away from the desk. "Name?"
"Gorgeous. At least that's what I'd name her," Kyle Martin said from the doorway of the "war room," the place where each Trent employee had his or her own spacedesk, phone, laptop and file cabinetwithin the brownstone of Boston's Back Bay neighborhood that housed the protection specialists agency. Kyle grinned, his too-handsome face beaming, making him look younger than twenty-nine.
Okay, the laid-back attitude helped make the perennial surfer dude seem young, too. But Don knew better than to underestimate his colleague, no matter how young he looked. Kyle was good at what he did. He'd been a SEAL before James Trent brought him on board. Those guys were as tough as they were smart.
Dubbed the best in the business of protection, Trent Associates employed ten operatives, all highly trained with either a background in military like Don or in law enforcement.
"Did Gorgeous say what she wanted?"
Kyle wiggled his eyebrows. "You, dude. She wants you:"
A low whistle came from Don's right. Ex-paratrooper and definite ladies' man Trevor Jordan smirked. "Sounds interesting. Something we should know about?"
Ignoring Trevor's and the other curious glances aimed his way, Don strode to the door. "Where's Lisa?" The young woman who usually manned the agency's front desk would have been more discreet in announcing a potential client.
"On lunch break." Kyle dogged his steps down the hall. "I'm covering the front desk."
A smart retort froze on Don's tongue the second his gaze landed on the petite brunette dwarfed by the ten-foot-tall Christmas tree in the "client" room just off the entryway. She had her back to him, but he didn't need to see her face to recognize the pretty woman who'd once captured his attention.
She inspected an ornament. A gold, sparkly star. Her small, delicate hands trembled.
As the name "Gorgeous" echoed with unerring accuracy inside his head, he forced out her real name.
She turned around. Her big amber-colored eyes were wide, the pupils dilated. A square white bandage, in stark contrast to her olive skin, covered half her forehead. Not that anything could mar her looks. She was still as beautiful as he remembered.
He hated the vulnerability he saw on her pretty face. Concern and something distinctly protective hammered at him. "What's going on?"
Tears shimmered in her eyes. "Don, I need to hire you. Someone's trying to kill me."
Absorbing the announcement with surprise, Don was at her side in two strides.
"Come, sit down." He took her by the arm and led her to one of the cushy sofas. "Tell me what's happened so we can figure out what to do next."
"I" She took a shuddering breath. "When I got home from work yesterday, my apartment door had been wired with explosives. The police are investigating."
Don sucked in a sharp breath of shock. A bomb. His right hand flexed, stretching the scar tissue along the outer edge. His gaze went to the bandage on her head. "Are you okay?"
She touched her fingertip to her forehead. "Yes. A mild concussion. My hearing still isn't completely back, since part of my front door hit me in the head."
He sent up a silent prayer of thanksgiving that she hadn't suffered worse injury. There was no mistaking the fear on her face. He understood. He'd felt the same way the first time he'd faced a life-threatening situation during his military tour. Only time and repeated exposure to danger had dulled the panic. His faith had kept him sane. But this wasn't a war zone. Caroline shouldn't have to be afraid in her own home.
"You did the right thing coming here. Start from the beginning. Tell me everything."
Visibly shaking, she nodded.
He gathered her cold hands in his and rubbed them. Appreciation flared in her eyes.
"For a month, I kept seeing the same man hanging around my apartment building, my shop, even the grocery store. Then last week my apartment was broken into. The intruder left the place a mess and yet nothing was missing, as far as I could tell. The police thought maybe I'd interrupted the thieves before they could take anything. Then two days ago I received this letter from a lawyer in Mississippi." She removed an envelope from her purse and handed it to him. "At first I thought it was a hoax or scam or something."
He opened the letter and read the contents.
Dear Ms. Tully,
I'm writing on behalf of the Maddox Estate, of which you may be named coheir as we have reason to believe you are Isabella Maddox's daughter. There are conditions, however, that must be met. Please contact me at your earliest convenience to discuss the next steps.
"You'd never heard of this lawyer, Randall Paladin?"
"No, I hadn't."
He wasn't sure what to make of the letter. "So you contacted him?"
"First, I did some research. I didn't want to call just to get pulled into some kind of scam. But the Maddox family is certainly real. They've lived in Mississippi for the past two centuries. And Mr. Paladin is an established lawyer in the same community."
She took a breath. "You see, I was adopted as a baby. A closed adoption."
He hadn't known that. But then again, they hadn't really known each other well. He'd made sure of that.
"So I called Mr. Paladin. Elijah Maddox recently discovered that his daughter, Isabella, had given up a child twenty-seven years ago. He had no idea who the father could be."
"And he's sure Isabella's baby is you?"
She nodded. "So he claims. I asked about DNA testing to be sure, but Mr. Paladin said they have conclusive evidence already."
"The not-so-random break-in. They were after your DNA."
"Mr. Maddox hired a private investigator to find me. I guess he wanted to be sure of who I was before he reported back." Her anxious expression tore at him. "But what's more troubling is the other thing I found in my researchIsabella Maddox was murdered."
His gut clenched. "Was her killer brought to justice?"
Her mouth twisted in an aggravated frown. "I don't have any details. The newspaper articles I found didn't mention any trial, and Mr. Paladin wouldn't give me any further information about her when I tried to ask. He only wanted to talk about the new will Mr. Maddox had drawn up. He said in order for me to secure a place in Elijah Maddox's estate I must go to Mississippi and stay with the Maddox family from Christmas Eve through New Year's."
"They can't legally compel you to do this." Wariness took hold. "Why would they want you to come there? And why specifically those dates?"
"He wouldn't say, only that it was important that I do."
Ridiculous. "You're not thinking of going."
A determined light entered her tawny-colored gaze. "I have to." Her expression implored him to understand. "Not for the money, though. I've been looking for my birth parents since I was eighteen. I need to know who these people are and what happened to my birth mother. Besides, I wouldn't be any safer staying here. My apartment door is proof enough of that." She touched his scarred hand. "Will you take me on as a client and accompany me?"
As she waited for an answer, he hesitated as a firestorm of sensation raced up his arm. He cleared his throat. "Trent Associates can help you."
Relief swept across her face. "I knew I made the right decision contacting you after all you did to keep Kristina safe."
He'd been protecting socialite Kristina Worthington when he'd met Caroline in the course of his assignment. The two women were good friends. "Nice of you to think of me."
The corners of her mouth lifted in a small smile. Her gaze caressed his face, filling him with a fierce compulsion to gather her into his arms.
Uh-oh. He was pulling a Carlucci. He inhaled sharply, reining in his attraction. Not going to happen. Don was a professional. He played by the rules. Because doing so was the only way to guarantee any amount of success.
A few months back Trent had hired ex-Secret Service agent Anthony Carlucci. But during his first assignmentprotecting the widow of a murdered U.S. senatorthe guy up and fell in love with his protectee. As soon as she was safe, he'd proposed, and decided to go to work for the Department of Justice. Don's boss, James Trent, had declared this a good thing for Trent Associates. Now they had a trusted contact in the D.O.J. to call on when needed.
But in Don's book, Carlucci had crossed the line. He should have bowed out of the assignment the second he realized his feelings had turned personal. That would have been the right thing, the honorable thing, to do.
The second most important Rule of Protectiondon't get emotionally involved with clients. Doing so impaired judgment and put everyone involved in danger.
If he was already so easily distracted by Caroline then it was time for reinforcements.
"Stay here." He rose from the sofa. "I'll be right back."
Don hustled upstairs and knocked on his boss's door.
"Enter," came James Trent's muffled invitation.
Don stepped inside the large office. Natural light from the high, arched windows gleamed on the mahogany floor. James sat at his massive desk. Wiry and full of energy, he smiled and waved Don closer.
Rather than sit in the chair facing the desk, Don paced and quickly detailed Caroline's predicament.
James steepled his hands, his elbows resting on the desk, making Don feel like an errant teen facing the principal.
"So what is your plan?"
Don cleared his throat and hardened his resolve. "Actually, sir, I was thinking it would be better if Simone or Jackie were assigned to Ms. Tully."
Simone Walker was an ex-homicide detective for the Detroit Police Department, while Jackie Blain had been a deputy sheriff for some small Midwest town before moving to Boston and joining Trent Associates.
A crease appeared between James's eyebrows.
"Really? Why is that?"
Don hooked a finger in the collar of his gray sweater, needing a bit of the cold December air. "Their lawenforcement backgrounds would be useful in this situation."
"If Ms. Tully wants a full-scale investigation she needs to go to the police or hire a private investigator," James said.
"She's already been to the police. What she wants now is protection on her trip to Mississippi."
"Then you sound perfect for the job."
The only way to arrange the best protection for Caroline was to be straightforward with James. "I have a prior history with Ms. Tully."
"Oh?" James's gaze narrowed, belying the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. "Do tell."
"I met Ms. Tully last year while on assignment guarding Kristina Worthington. The two are close friends."
"There was attraction." She'd been the first woman in a long time to capture Don's notice and make him yearn for something he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to havea committed relationship. "How long did you date?"
Don dropped his chin and stared at his boss. "She was part of an assignment, sir. We didn't date."
Though she'd given off signals suggesting she'd have been receptive to his attention.
"Ah." A gleam entered James eyes. "Did she ask for you specifically today, or did you draw the short straw?"
Don swallowed, sensing a trap. "She asked for me, sir."
Like a Cheshire cat, James smiled. "Then you'll have to figure out how to put your personal attraction and feelings aside, because she obviously trusts you enough to ask for your help."
"But, sir, she needs twenty-four-hour protection. I'm not a good fit for that." Even as the words left his mouth he knew James would see through the bogus excuse. He'd provided around-the-clock security for numerous women and children. Just none who had made his heart pound or his blood race.
A droll look crossed James's face. "Didn't you say this woman is a friend of the Worthingtons? They're very good clients."
James stood and rounded the desk, halting to put a hand on Don's shoulder. "You'll do fine. You're a professional. Though I must say it's entertaining to finally see you a little flustered."
Don opened his mouth to protest, but James was already walking toward the door.
"I'd like to meet Ms. Tully and assure her you'll be taking her case," James said before exiting.
Don sat for a moment, trying to come to terms with what had just happened. He'd come to James's office intending to have someone else assigned to Caroline. For both their sakes.
Too bad his plan backfired. Big time.