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Someone was following her.
Bailey Lockhart was sure of it.
She glanced around the parking lot of Cradles to Crayons Day Care and Preschool. No other vehicles were there yet, but that would soon change. In the next forty-five minutes, her staff and teachers would arrive. The kids, too. And the quiet parking lot would no longer be so quiet.
But for now, it was just her.
And her stalker, of course.
Bailey huffed. She was so tired of this nonsense. The hang-up calls. Her slashed tires. The worry all of this was causing her mother, a woman with enough on her mind since she was governor and had a state to run.
Bailey just wanted all the fuss to end. Heck, the culprit was probably just some teenager out of school for the summer and with way too much time on his or her hands. It wouldn't be a first. Her mother, Lila, had been a politician since Bailey was a kid, so Bailey had gotten used to taunts and behind-the-back gossip.
The slashed tires, however, were a first.
She took a deep breath, retrieved her purse and got out of her silver BMW, complete with four new tires. She'd outright rejected her mother's suggestion that she carry a gun. Yes, this was Texas, and the stereotype was that all Texans were armed, but Bailey didn't want a weapon in Cradles to Crayons. The children came first.
But she did grab her umbrella from the backseat. Not because it looked like rain. No. Only because she felt safer with something in her hand.
That didn't make her feel better though.
Bailey forced herself to act as she normally would. She didn't hurry toward the back entrance, her usual path to the red two-story building that was just as much home as her house was. She loved everything about the place even though she'd put it through major renovations when six years ago she'd converted it from the 1920s schoolhouse to the bright welcoming building it was now.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when she opened the white picket gate that led to the playground, and it made a creaking noise. It was a sound right out of a horror movie.
"I'm not scared of you!" she snarled, but she immediately hated the outburst as much as the stupid purple umbrella she'd brought as a pseudo weapon. This person was no doubt laughing about how uneasy she was.
Cursing her Chicken Little reaction, she rounded the corner and smacked right into someone.
He was as hard as the wall, and the impact knocked both her purse and umbrella to the ground. Her face literally landed against the man's neck, and she was suddenly tangled up in his beefy arms.
A scream bubbled in her throat, but before Bailey could even make a sound, he shoved his hand over her mouth.
"I won't hurt you," he said.
Bailey didn't believe him. She turned, rammed her elbow into his stomach and started to run. She made it exactly one step before he latched onto her again.
"I said I won't hurt you!" he repeated.
Maybe. Maybe not. She tried to elbow him again, but he only tightened his grip and whirled her around to face him.
"Hell, no one said you'd be violent," he grumbled.
"Me, violent? I'm not the one doing the assaulting here!" But she rethought that. He wasn't making any attempt to hit her. She cursed that creaking gate and her heightened anxiety. "Sorry, violence isn't usually my first response."
"I would have never guessed that." The snarkiness in his voice made her look at his face.
She had to look up to see his face. Since she was five-nine, she didn't have to do that very often, but this guy was at least a half a foot taller than she was, and he was built like a Dallas Cowboys linebacker.
Black hair, cut short and efficient. Blue-gray eyes that were narrowed, intense. Dangerous, too, especially since he was wincing in painprobably from her elbow jab.
Bailey suddenly wished she'd taken her mother's advice about that gun.
"Who are you?" she demanded. Too bad her voice cracked a little when she wanted nothing more than to sound like a woman who could take care of herself.
Since they were chest-to-chest, she wiggled out of his grip to put some much needed space between them, and she repeated her question. "I asked who are you?"
"Parker McKenna." And he said it as if that might mean something to her.
Actually, it did. She'd heard people mention the new guy who'd recently moved to town. This was the first she'd actually seen of him, though.
Bailey combed her gaze over him. Jeans, black T-shirt and cowboy boots. Not exactly unusual attire for Freedom, but he was somehow memorable in those unmemorable clothes. No. If she'd seen him before, she would have remembered.
She wiggled some more, creating some very uncomfortable body contact between them, but he finally let go of her. Well, sort of. When she started to bolt, he put her back against the wall and got right in her face.
"You need to listen," he insisted.
They stood there, glaring at each other. Him, still wincing a bit. Her, with her breath and heartbeat going like crazy.
Because she was so close, actually touching him, Bailey saw the moment that it registered in his eyes. She was a woman. And he became aware that her breasts were squished against his rock-hard chest.
And other things were touching, too.
He stepped way back.
"I am listening," she assured him, and she used some snark, too. "And what I want to hear are some answers. What are you doing here?"
"Watching you," he readily admitted.
Bailey was certain her mouth dropped open. "You're my stalker?"
That earned her a huff and eye roll. "Not even close. I work for Corps Security and Investigations."
She shook her head, wondering what that explanation had to do with her, but then everything inside her went still. "Bart Bellows owns Corps Security," Bailey mumbled. A billionaire businessman who also happened to be her mother's old friend.
This better not be happening.
"What are you doing here?" Bailey repeated.
"Guarding you," he said in an isn't-it-obvious tone.
Yes, it was happening.
It took Bailey a moment to get control of her temper. "My mother hired you."
"Technically, she asked Bart to hire someone, and he hired me. I was in the army for over a decade, and I have a lot of experience protecting people."
She didn't doubt that for a moment. Parker McKenna was big, strong and could probably beat anyone in a hand-to-hand combat situation.
He was also drop-dead hot, but Bailey cursed herself for noticing that. He might be attractivesizzling, evenbut it was a waste of time for him to be here.
"I don't need or want a bodyguard," she stated as clearly as she could.
How could those two little words make her sound like a fool?
"Someone slashed your tires."
"Yes. Probably a bored kid who needs parental supervision or a more appropriate hobby."
Those blue-gray eyes turned dark. "What about the hang-up calls you've been getting? A bored kid made those too from an untraceable prepaid cell phone?"
"So, he's a smart bored kid who doesn't want to get caught," Bailey amended. "Maybe his parents gave him the prepaid cell because that fit their budget. Lots of people use them."
At his incredulous looks, she took a deep breath and then continued. "Look, I'm thirty-one years old and run a thriving business, and I don't need my mother or her friend to make decisions about my personal security. If I feel I need a bodyguard, then I'll hire one. But right now, I just don't see the need."
She snatched up her purse from the ground, but Parker got to the umbrella first. He glanced up at the clear blue sky, gave her a flat look and slapped the umbrella into her open, waiting hand.
Bailey didn't even attempt an umbrella explanation.
She marched toward the side door. Bailey jammed the key into the lock, threw open the door and started slapping on lights. She also deposited the umbrella into the basket near the coatrack. Since she was sweating from her heated encounter with Parker, she adjusted the thermostat for the air-conditioning.
Unfortunately, she didn't think she could get the room cold enough to neutralize the effect this man had had on her.
"There's a need for a bodyguard all right." Parker McKenna was right on her heels, and he followed her inside, those cowboy boots thudding on the hardwood floors. "The black car proves that."
Bailey had already started across the reception area toward the stairs and her office, but that stopped her. She eased back around to face Parker. "What black car?"
He took a deep breath, as if this might be a long explanation, and he planted his hands on his hips. The exterior door behind him was still open, and the hot sticky breeze rushed through the room, bringing his scent right toward her.
Not even the leather of his boots.
A scent that went right through her in a lust-provoking kind of way.
She cleared her throat and motioned for him to get on with whatever he had to say. For reasons she didn't want to explore, it was best to get Parker McKenna out of her life ASAP.
"The bank on the street near your house has a security camera," he finally said, "and the angle is such that it recorded the cars entering and exiting your street. I've spent hours sifting through the footage, and thanks to
the Department of Motor Vehicles' database, I was able to rule out all vehicles. Except one."
"What do you mean?" Judging from his tone, this was bad news.
"Nearly all the vehicles belong to people who should be on that street. The woman in the truck who delivers your morning newspaper. Your neighbors. Your lawn guy. But there's this one car that doesn't belong to anyone here in Freedom. In fact, the plates are bogus."
He extracted something from his front jeans pocket and walked closer. When he handed it to her, she saw it was a photo of a black car.
"Recognize it?" he asked.
Bailey studied it a moment but had to shake her head. "Maybe it's a would-be burglar casing the neighborhood." Strange, she hadn't thought that would ever be a good thing, but that explanation was better than the alternative.
He lifted his shoulder, dismissing that. "The car was in your neighborhood the night someone slashed your tires."
Oh, God. She doubted a teen playing pranks would go so far as bogus plates to conceal his identity. "Do you know the identity of the driver?"
"Can't tell from the tapes. He appears to be a white male, but he wears a baseball cap that he keeps low on his head so that it partially covers his face."
That required a deep breath. Because she had to do something, anything, Bailey straightened some wooden puzzles that were already neatly stacked on storage shelves next to the stairs.
"Ms. Lockhart, I believe you're in danger," she heard Parker say.
Maybe. But Bailey wasn't ready to accept that just yet. "Someone driving through my neighborhood doesn't constitute a danger. And the tires? It really could have been a teenager. The bottom line is I don't want a bodyguard, and that means you can leave."
"I'm not going anywhere. I moved my son here, and he's just starting to get settled."
"You have a son?" she blurted out, wishing that she hadn't. It really wasn't any of her business.
"Zach. He's thirteen." He paused and watched her fix the next row of puzzles. "His mom died five years ago, and since then I've moved him seven times. I'm looking for something more permanent for him here in Freedom."
So, the hot cowboy/bodyguard was a widower and a dad with a desire to put down roots in her hometown. Bailey hadn't pegged him for fatherhood or even marriage. Probably because he looked more fantasy material than anything else.
Forbidden fantasy, that is.
"Well, I hope Bart Bellows has another assignment for you," she told Parker. "One that can keep you here for your son's sake. Maybe in Amarillo, that's not too far away. But that assignment won't be me. Repeating myself here, but I don't think I'm in danger."
Bailey stopped fidgeting with the puzzles and headed up the stairs. She had a busy day ahead of her and didn't have time for this.
"You are in danger," he reiterated again. He followed her up the stairs. "Last year the sheriff installed a camera on the traffic light on Main Street. I went through that footage as well, and in the past week the same black car has driven in this direction nearly a half dozen times."
Bailey forced herself to keep walking. "Did anyone see the driver get out and do anything criminal?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"If they had, it would have been reported to the sheriff, and he in turn would have told you. But that doesn't mean this guy doesn't have criminal intentions."
When she made it to her office door, Bailey turned back around. She just needed to make this simple and clear. "I was sixteen when my mother first got into politics, and that means for fifteen years I've been subjected to people who don't agree with her. Sometimes those people do stupid things, and that's all there is to this. Now, please leave before the children and my staff arrive."
Figuring that was pretty good exit line that would get Parker moving, Bailey threw open her office door.
And her heart dropped to her knees.
"Oh, God," she heard herself say, though she had no idea how she managed to speak.
Parker caught her arm and shoved her away from the doorway. In the same motion, he reached down, to the holster strapped to his right boot.
And he drew his gun.
With his gun aimed and ready, Parker inched inside Bailey's office. His gaze whipped to all the corners. Then to her desk that had been tipped onto its side. Papers and her laptop were now in a heap on the floor.
Two chairs had also been overturned, and the room had generally been trashed. But what was missing was the person who'd done all of this.
Parker walked farther into the room toward a storage closet.
The small adjoining bathroom hadn't escaped, either. Someone had poured out the liquid soap. And then he spotted the open window on the far wall. When he got closer, he saw the ladder propped up against the side of the building. Probably the point of entry and escape.
He glanced back at Bailey to let her know the place was clear, that her stalker was likely long gone, but the look on her face had Parker walking toward her. There was no color left in her cheeks, and her blue eyes were wide with shock. She was breathing way too hard and fast, and he didn't want to risk her hyperventilating.