Bodyguard Jeff Parker's job was to guard the beautiful heiress against paparazzi and local gossipmongers, but all the mud being slung Tess's way was her problem. Until he learned she'd destroyed her own reputation to save her father's. Suddenly, play-by-the-rules Parker would do anything to protect the woman and child he never expected to fall for.
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Tess Kendrick balanced her three-year-old son on her hip and descended the steps from her grandmother's private jet. A hot summer breeze whipped the whine of aircraft engines around her, causing little Mikey to bury his head against her shoulder at the noise.
At the base of the stairs, a member of her grandmother's elite security service gave her a deferential nod while a uni-formed steward quickly moved her luggage from the cargo bay to the trunk of a waiting black Lincoln SUV.
It had been over a year since the bottom had fallen from her world, a year since the scandal of her divorce had forced her into exile. Granted, that exile had been in a royal palace on the Mediterranean and her maternal grandmother, the queen of the tiny jewel-like kingdom of Luzandria, had been most gracious offering Tess and Mikey accommodation, but Tess couldn't continue to live in those gilded confines.
Isolation, homesickness and a desperate need to get on with her life had finally brought her back to Camelot, Vir-ginia. The family estate outside the picturesque little town was where she had been born and raised. It was where her parents still lived, for part of the year, anyway. But most im-portant of all, it was home.
"Do you require help with the child, ma'am?"
"Thank you, but I have him." She hoisted the towheaded boy clinging to her neck a little higher, adjusted the oversize bag hanging over her other shoulder. A massive case of nerves remained hidden by her soft smile. "And thank you for the escort. You've all been most kind."
The solemn soldier with the heavy French accent dipped his head in a deferential bow. "It was our pleasure to be of service, madam." He motioned her ahead of him. "I will see you to the car."
He hadn't smiled back. It was almost as if it were against the rules, the code or whatever it was the men trained to serve Her Majesty followed. Even as a child on summer visits to her grandmother with her siblings, it had seemed to Tess that smiles were allowed only by personnel in closest service to the royal family and their guests. Even then, any expression of friendliness had seemed subdued.
As much as she loved her grandmother, the formality of the palace was one of the reasons she'd become so restless to re-turn. Though her basic nature yearned for less structure, she'd learned to live with propriety. Her energetic and endlessly cu-rious little boy didn't need to suffer such constraints, though. His enthusiasm had been suppressed enough before they'd more or less been forced to leave the country. His fatherher now ex-husbandhad not only preferred that the child not be heard, most of the time he hadn't wanted him in his sight.
She hugged her precious son more tightly, her narrow some wounds, she picked shown her some of the photos that would have sent the media into a frenzy scavenging for more dirt and completely broken her mother's heart.
The breeze loosened strands of her hair from the clip at her nape and blew them across her face. Smiling at her son as he pushed them back for her, she tried not to think of her father and reminded herself that the business with Brad was behind her. He now managed his family's property invest-ments in Florida, so the chances of running into him were as remote as a sudden snowstorm in the Sahara. Same for most of the country-club set, which included his parents and other former friends. Most everyone she knew vacationed during the summer, so avoiding them shouldn't be a problem. Avoid-ing the public, however, was another matter entirely.
The steward from the plane hurried past, pushing Mikey's backpack and a half dozen suitcases on a rolling cart. As her escort joined him to load her luggage into the back of the SUV, her attention shifted to the six-feet three-inches of brawn and testosterone opening the back passenger door. Broad-shouldered, lean-hipped, he wore his dark suit and tie with an air of quiet power and watchful authority. Behind his dark sunglasses, she knew he was looking for potential trou-ble, which meant he was looking everywhere but at her.security service her family had used for years. The female she'd requestedthe former Secret Service agent who'd shadowed her through collegewas on an assignment for the next two weeks. The no-nonsense mountain of muscle with the shaved head and the shoulders of a linebacker had been recommended by her brother, Cord.
She had never met Jeffrey Parker, but she recognized him from the photograph that had been e-mailed to her so she'd know he was indeed the man she'd hired and not an imposter bent on grabbing headlines or a slice of her family's fortune by holding her and her son for ransom. When she'd first seen his unsmiling image, he'd struck her as surprisingly handsomein a formidably male, serious and decidedly ex-military sort of way. Now, other than to think him even more imposing than she'd anticipated, she was simply grateful for his presence. She and her siblings had been followed by paparazzi off and on all their lives. But she'd never been hounded as mercilessly by them as she had before she'd left last year. In that time, she had and avoid.
Cord had assured her that the man he'd referred to as "Bull" was the best.
He moved behind her as she reached the car, blocking her from view as she slid inside and lowered Mikey into the child seat he'd had installed. It seemed he'd no sooner closed her door behind her than he opened the door opposite and reached in to assist with her son.
His big frame filled the space as she reached to secure same strap, too. With her hand suddenly trapped beneath his, her glance shot up.
His dark sunglasses had been pushed back so he could see inside the vehicle. The information sheet she'd been sent on him had indicated that his eyes were blue. There had been nothing in that dry recitation of facts, however, to describe the depth of that startling, clear color or to prepare her for their unnerving intensity as they easily held her own.
"We can do this," she assured him.
"I'll do it, ma'am."
"Really, we're fine, ."
"We're not going anywhere until I know myself that the child is secured. You said you wanted your arrival to be as unobtrusive as possible. The sooner you let me do my job, the quicker I can get you out of here."
He hadn't moved his hand. Since it appeared he had no in-tention of moving at all, at least not until she did, she slipped her fingers from beneath his and edged herself back.
She hadn't been able to go anywhere before she'd left without a camera following her. That was why she had spe-cifically requested that he make her arrival as efficient and discreet as possible. That he was only doing what she'd asked of him, however, did nothing to explain the wholly un-expected and unfamiliar jolt of heat she'd felt at the contact of his very capable-looking hands.
More than willing to blame that disconcerting reaction on her already jumpy nerves, she watched him smile at her wide-eyed son.
"How does that feel, buddy?" he asked. "Too tight?" Eyeing him cautiously, Mikey shook his head. smile just then seemed incredibly kind. The unexpected ex-pression did interesting things to the aristocratic lines of his face, made them more arresting, more compelling. Though his hair was shaved so close it was impossible to tell its color, the heavy slashes of his eyebrows were dark, his lashes sooty and thick. The lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled, taking the coolness from that intense blue and allowing her son to see something that somehow invited a hesitant smile back.
Mikey rarely warmed to strangers. Especially large stran-gers like the guards around the palace who had ignored him, anyway.
Clips clicked into place. A quick check of the restraints' fit against Mikey's shoulders and the man's smile vanished. Within seconds, he'd backed out the door, shoved in the suit-cases that wouldn't fit in back and closed the door with a thud.
Getting her out of public view and her son secured clearly had been his first priority. Only after he'd settled his big frame behind the wheel did he bother with the preliminar-ies.
He glanced into the rearview mirror. "I'm Jeff Parker, Miss Kendrick. But "Parker' works just fine. My instruc-tions say you want to go directly to your family's estate. Is that still your plan?"
Pure professionalism had replaced the unexpected bit of warmth she'd seen when he'd smiled at her son. Thinking that her brother was right, that the man could, indeed, appear pretty intimidating, she offered a determined smile of her own. "Do you know how to get there?"
Assuring her that he did, Parker turned his attention to the runway attendant waving them toward the gate. He not only had directions to the estate just outside the little town of Cam-elot, he had pulled as much information as he could find about Theresa Amelia Kendrick, once Theresa Amelia Kendrick Ashworth, off the Internet and from Bennington's files. He al-ways made it a point to know who he was protecting. Just as he made it a point to research his surroundings.
His client's landing at the small regional airport near Cam-elot had caused none of the hassles that would have been created landing at Richmond International thirty miles away. Without masses of people watching runways from pano-ramic terminal windows, the arrival of a private jet went vir-tually unnoticed. Private jets and small craft were all that ever landed there. The royal-blue crest of Luzandria plastered on the jet's tail didn't do much for anonymity, however. Nearly everyone in America knew Luzandria was the country Kathe-rine Kendrick would have someday ruled had she not given up her crown to marry then-Senator William Kendrick years ago. But the plane wouldn't be there long enough to attract much attention. It was already being refueled and readied for its turnaround back to Europe.
The member of the security team who'd handed over the Kendrick woman to him had told him that the jet flew with two full crews. That meant no layover was required for the inbound pilot and copilot to rest. The plane would be gone before any-one who noticed it could do much more than speculate about which member of the Kendrick family had arrived or departed. As quickly as the transfer from plane to SUV had been made, Parker felt certain his client's identity remained secure.
With his initial objective accomplished, he left the small airport by a back access road and glanced into the rearview mirror.
Tess Kendrick was stroking her son's pale hair, murmur-ing something to him that had the child giving her a tired nod.
She was taller than he'd thought she'd be. Thinner, too, in a willowy, waiflike sort of way, and even more striking than she'd appeared in photographs. Mostly she looked more delicate to him than he had expected. More, fragile, somehow. But he knew looks could be deceiving, especially among the rich and pampered. And pampered she clearly was. With shades of gold and platinum woven through her sable hair, her French manicure and the white, undoubtedly designer pantsuit that seemed totally impractical for a transat-lantic flight with a small child, she practically screamed high-maintenance. And quiet sensuality.
She'd secured her shimmering hair back from the classic lines of her face, exposing the delicate lobes of her ears, the long line of her neck. The low cut of her jacket ended at the buttons between her breasts. An arrow of bare skin adorned with varying lengths of gold chains beckoned between the lapels. The longest of those shiny strands rested against a hint of cleavage.
Ignoring the tightening sensation low in his groin, he jerked his glance back to the road. He would admit that she was incredibly easy on the eyes, and the heat he'd felt at the contact of her impossibly soft skin when he'd found her hand beneath his had definitely caught him off guard, but he than a normal red-blooded male's reaction to a beautiful woman. A spoiled, childish woman ten years younger than his own hardened thirty-six years, he reminded himself.
Other than for her physical appeal, he wasn't impressed with his new client at all.