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In the dark, Ellie St. James scanned the mountainous terrain out her bedroom window at her new client's home in Colorado, checking the shadows for any sign of trouble before she went to sleep. The large two-story house of redwood and glass blended in well with the rugged landscape seven thousand feet above sea level. Any other time she would appreciate the beauty, but she was here to protect Mrs. Rachel Winfield.
A faint sound punched through her musing. She whirled away from the window and snatched her gun off the bedside table a few feet from her. Fitting the weapon into her right palm and finding its weight comforting, she crept toward her door and eased it open to listen. None of the guard dogs were barking. Maybe she'd imagined the noise.
A creak, like a floorboard being stepped on, drifted up the stairs. Someone was ascending to the second floor. She and her employer were the only ones in the main house. She glanced at Mrs. Winfield's door two down from hers and noticed it was closed. Her client kept it that way only when she was in her bedroom.
So who was on the stairs? Had someone gotten past the dogs outside and the security system? And did that someone not care that he was being heard coming up the steps? Because he didn't intend to leave any witnesses?
The latest threat against Mrs. Winfield urged her into action. She slipped out of her room and into the shadows of the long hallway that led to the staircase. Having memorized all the floorboards that squeaked, Ellie avoided the left side of the corridor as she snuck forwardpast Mrs. Winfield's door.
Another sound echoed through the hall. Whoever was on the steps was at the top. She increased her speed, probing every dark recess around her for any other persons. Near the wooden railing of the balcony that overlooked the front entrance, she found the light switch, planted her bare feet a foot apart, preparing herself to confront the intruder, and then flipped on the hall light.
Even though she expected the bright illumination, her eyes needed a few seconds to adjust to it. The large man before her lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the glare. Which gave Ellie the advantage.
"Don't move," she said in her toughest voice, a husky resonance she often used to her advantage.
The stranger dropped his hand to his side, his gray-blue eyes drilling into her then fixing on her Wilson combat aimed at his chest. Anger washed all surprise from his expression. "Who are you?" The question came out in a deep, booming voice, all the fury in his features reflected in it.
"You don't get to ask the questions. Who are"
The click of the door opening to Mrs. Winfield's bedroom slightly behind and to the left of Ellie halted her words as she shifted her attention for an instant to make sure the man didn't have an accomplice already with her client.
"Winnie, get back," the intruder yelled.
By the time Ellie's gaze reconnected with the man, he was charging toward her. She had less than a second to decide what to do. The use of her client's nickname caused Ellie to hesitate. In that moment the stranger barreled into her, slamming her into the hardwood floor. The impact jolted her, knocking the Wilson Combat from her hand. The thud of her weapon hitting the floor behind her barely registered as she lay pinned beneath two hundred pounds of solid muscle. Pressed into her, the man robbed her of a decent breath.
Her training flooded her with extra adrenaline. Before he could capture her arms, she brought them up and struck him on the sides of his head. His light-colored gaze widened at the blow. She latched onto his face, going for his eyes with her thumbs.
"Miss St. James, stop!" Mrs. Winfield's high-pitched voice cut into the battle between Ellie and her attacker.
The man shifted and clasped her wrists in a bone-crushing grip.
Ellie swung her attention from the brute on top of her to her employer standing over them with Ellie's gun in her quivering hand. Pointed at her!
"He's my grandson," Mrs. Winfield said. "Colt, get up. She can hardly breathe."
The man rolled off her, shaking his head as though his ears rang. After her attack they probably did.
Sitting up, he stared at his grandmother who still held the weapon. "Please give me the gun, Winnie." His soft, calm words, interspersed with heavy pants, contradicted his earlier authoritative tone.
Ellie gulped in oxygen-rich breaths while he pushed to his feet and gently removed the weapon from Mrs. Winfield's hand. He dwarfed his petite grandmother by over a foot.
With her gun in his grasp, he stood next to her client and glared down at Ellie. "Now I would like an answer. Who are you?" Anger still coated each word.
She slowly rose from the floor. "Ellie St. James."
He put his arm around his grandmother, who stood there trembling, staring at Ellie as though she was trying to understand what had just happened. "What are you doing here, Miss St. James?" he asked.
With a shake of her head, Mrs. Winfield blinked then peered up at her grandson. "She's my new assistant."
"What in the world are you doing carrying a gun?"
His question thundered through the air, none of the gentle tone he'd used with his grandmother evident. He glared at her, his sharp gaze intent on Ellie's face. Although he'd lowered the gun, Ellie didn't think it would take much for him to aim it again. Fury was etched into his hard-planed face.
"My dear, why do you have a gun?"
Mrs. Winfield's light, musical voice finally pulled Ellie's attention from the man. Her employer had regained her regal bearing, her hands clasped together in front of her to control their trembling.
"I've lived alone for so long in a big city I've always had a gun for protection," Ellie finally answered.
Although Mrs. Winfield was her clientthe person she'd been assigned to guardthe older woman didn't know it. Her lawyer and second-in-charge at Glamour Sensations, Harold Jefferson, had hired Guardians, Inc., to protect her. Ellie was undercover, posing as her new assistant. Her cover had her growing up in Chicagothe south sideand still living there. But in reality, at the first opportunity she'd had she'd hightailed it out of Chicago and enlisted in the army. When she'd left the military, she hadn't gone back home but instead she'd gone to Dallas to work for Guardians, Inc., and Kyra Morgannow Kyra Hunt.
"You don't need a weapon now. This isn't a big city. I have security around the estate. You're safe. I prefer you do something with that gun. I don't like weapons." A gentle smile on her face, Mrs. Winfield moved toward her as though she were placating a gun-toting woman gone crazy.
Ellie didn't trust anyone's security enough to give up her gun, but she bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from voicing that thought. She would need to call Mr. Jefferson and see how he wanted to proceed. Ellie had wanted to tell Mrs. Winfield that her life was in danger, but he'd refused. Now something would have to give here.
"I'll take care of it, Winnie. I'll lock it in the safe until she can remove it from here." The grandson checked the Wilson Combat, slipped out the ammo clip and ejected the bullet in the chamber, then began to turn away.
"Wait. You can't"
He peered over his shoulder, one brow arching. "I'm sure my grandmother will agree that this will have to be a condition of your continual employment. If I had any say in it, I'd send you packing tonight." He rubbed his ears. "They're still ringing. You have a mean punch. Where did you learn to take care of yourself?"
"A matter of survival in a tough neighborhood."
That was true, but she'd also had additional training in the army.
"As my grandmother said, that isn't an issue here. We're on a side of a mountain miles away from the nearest town. No one bothers us up here."
If you only knew. "I'm licensed to carry"
But Mrs. Winfield's grandson ignored her protest and descended the staircase.
Ellie rushed to the railing overlooking the downstairs entrance. Clutching the wood, she leaned over and said, "That's my weapon. I'll take care of it."
"That's okay. I'm taking care of it." Then he disappeared into the hallway that led to the office where the safe was.
"I certainly understand why you got scared." Mrs. Winfield approached her at the railing and patted her back. "I did when I heard the noise from you two in the hallway. I didn't know what was happening. I appreciate you being willing to protect me, but thank goodness, it wasn't necessary."
This time. Ellie swung around to face the older woman. "Yeah, but you never know."
"The Lord watches out for His children. I'm in the best care."
"I agree, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be proactive, Mrs. Winfield," Ellie said, hoping to convince Mr. Jefferson to tell her about the threats tomorrow.
"Please call me Winnie. Christy, my previous assistant, did. I don't like standing on formality since you'll be helping me." She smiled. "Colt gave me that name years ago, and everyone calls me that now."
"Was he supposed to visit?"
"The last I heard he wasn't going to come back this
13 year for Christmas. He probably heard my disappointment when we talked on the phone a few days ago. If I had known Colt was coming, I would have said something to you."
She'd read the dossier Kyra Hunt had given her on Colt Winfield, the only grandson Mrs. Winfield had. She should have recognized him, but with a beard and scruffy hair and disheveled clothes he'd looked like a bum who had wandered into the house intent on ill gains.
"He was supposed to be in the South Pacific on the research vessel through Christmas and the New Year." Mrs. Winfield gave Ellie a smile, her blue eyes sparkling. "Just like him to forget to tell me he was coming home after all for Christmas. Knowing him, it could be a surprise from the very beginning. He loves doing that kind of thing. Such a sweet grandson." She leaned close to Ellie to whisper the last because Colt Winfield was coming back up the steps.
"I wish that were the case, Winnie." Colt paused on the top stair. "But I need to get back to the Kaleidoscope. I managed to get a few days off before we start the next phase of our project, and I know how important it is to you that we have some time together at Christmas."
Great, he 'll be leaving soon.
"Just a few days?" His grandmother's face fell, the shine in her eyes dimming. "I haven't seen you in months. Can't you take a couple of weeks out of your busy schedule to enjoy the holidays like we used to?"
Please don't, Ellie thought, rolling her shoulders to ease the ache from their tussle on the hardwood floor.
He came to the older woman and drew her into his embrace. "I wish I could. Maybe at the end of January. The government on the island is allowing a limited amount of time to explore the leeward side and the underwater caves."
Mrs. Winfield stepped away. "You aren't the only one on the research team. Let someone else do it for a while. You're one of three marine biologists. And the other two are married to each other. They get to spend Christmas together."
"I need to be there. Something is happening to the sea life in that part of the ocean. It's mutating over time. It's affected the seal population. You know how I feel about the environment and the oceans."
"Fine." Mrs. Winfield fluttered her hand in the air as she swept around and headed for the door to her bedroom. "I can't argue with you over something I taught you. Good night. I'll see you tomorrow morning. I hope you'll at least go for a power walk with Ellie and me. Seven o'clock sharp."
"Yes, Winnie. I've brought my running shoes. I figured you'd want me to."
When her employer shut the door to her room, Ellie immediately said, "I need my gun back."
"You do? What part of your duties as my grandmother's assistant requires you to have a gun?" His gaze skimmed down her length.
Ellie finally peered down at the clothes she woreold sweats and a baggy T-shirt. With a glance at the mirror at the end of the hall, she noticed the wild disarray of her hair. She looked as scruffy as Colt Winfield. She certainly wouldn't appear to this man as a capable and efficient bodyguard. Or a woman who knew how to use a gun when she needed to. "Ask yourself. What if you had been a burglar? Would you have wanted me to let you rob the place or do worse?"
For half a moment he just stared at her, then he started chuckling. "Since I'm not and I'll be here for a few days, you'll be safe. Didn't you wonder why the three German shepherds didn't bark?"
"I know that dogs can be good for security purposes, but they can be taken out. It shouldn't be the only method a person uses." Which Mr. Jefferson was changingjust not fast enough for her liking. A new alarm system for the house would be in place by the end of the week. But even that didn't guarantee a person was totally safe. Hence the reason why Mr. Jefferson hired her to guard Mrs. WinfieldWinnie.
"So you decided to bring a gun."
"I'm very capable. I was in the army."
"Army? Even knowing that, I'm afraid, Miss St. James, we're not going to see eye to eye on this." He swiveled around and went to pick up a duffel bag by the steps. He hadn't had that when he'd first come upstairs. He must have brought it up when he put the gun in the safe. "Good night."
Ellie watched him stride down the corridor in the opposite direction of her bedroom. When he paused before a door at the far end, he slanted a look back at her. For a few seconds the corners of his mouth hitched up. He nodded his head once and then ducked inside.
She brought her hand up to comb her fingers through her hair and encountered a couple of tangles. "Ouch!"
Moving toward her bedroom, she kept her eye on his, half expecting him to pop back out with that gleam of humor dancing in his eyes. When he didn't, something akin to disappointment flowed through her until she shoved it away. She would have to call Mr. Jefferson to tell him that Colt was here. From what she'd read about the man he was smart, with a doctorate in marine biology as well as a degree in chemistry. Currently he worked on a research vessel as the head marine biologist for a think tank formed to preserve the world's oceans.
His grandmother hadn't ever questioned why Ellie was always around, even in her lab, but she had a feeling Colt would. Then he would demand an answer.