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Once Smitten, Twice Shy
By Lori Wilde Forever
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One From behind his high-end designer sunglasses, Secret Service agent Shane Tremont scanned the crowd gathered for the groundbreaking of the Nathan Benedict wing at the University of Texas campus.
His elbows were loose, his breathing regular, his stance commanding and self-confident. The perimeter had been secured. The crowd controlled. His Sig Sauer P229 357-caliber pistol nestled comfortably in his shoulder holster, freshly cleaned and loaded, along with a full capacity of ammunition clips stowed in the holster pockets and a bulletproof vest molded against his chest.
Although Nathan Benedict, the President of the United States, was being honored at his alma mater, he wasn't attending the ceremony. In Nathan's place was his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Elysee, who'd been entrusted with clipping the ceremonial ribbon in her father's absence.
Everyone loved sweet-natured Elysee, and it was Shane's job to guard her life with his own. His nerves might be relaxed, but his muscles were tense as coiled springs, cocked and ready for action.
The sky was clear and blue and balmy-the perfect mid-October afternoon in Texas. He was acutely aware of the political protesters. They carried signs scrawled with anti-Benedict sentiment. The Austin police held them at bay behind the picket line several hundred yards from the groundbreaking site.
Potential assassins, all of them. From the smiling young mother with a towheaded toddler in her lap to the elderly man leaning on a cane, to the trio of cocoa-skinned, dark-haired men gathered at the periphery of the crowd.
Shane narrowed his eyes and took a second look at the three men. They fit a profile that was politically correct to ignore, but he was Secret Service. Political correctness didn't figure into it. A whiff of Al-Qaeda and his adrenaline kicked into hyperdrive. He touched his earpiece and quietly mouthed a coded message that sent another Secret Service agent closer to the trio. Better safe than sorry.
"Everything okay?" Elysee laid a hand on his elbow.
"Miss? Getting formal on me, Agent Tremont?" Her eyes twinkled.
"We're in public. I'm on high alert." He resisted the urge to smile.
"The crowd looks pretty tame to me."
"Protesters lined up on the sidewalk."
"Ubiquitous," she said. "I'm surprised. Usually there's more."
"It's because it's you here and not your father. Few are eager to protest a true lady."
"Why, Agent Tremont." A soft smile touched her lips. "What a gentlemanly thing to say."
He gave her a conspiratorial wink and her smile widened.
"Your tie's crooked," she said and reached up to give his plain black necktie a gentle tug, then passed the flat of her hand over his shoulder. "There now. Spit-polish perfect."
"What does that mean?" he teased.
"I don't know. Just something my mother always said to my dad when she hustled him out the door each morning."
Shane and Elysee and her entourage were standing on a small platform suspended over the site of the groundbreaking. A fat yellow backhoe, along with several other heavy construction vehicles, sat with their engines powered up and running, ready to get to work as soon as Elysee sliced through the thick scarlet ribbon.
Some committee had decided a ballet of earthmoving equipment would be more cinematic than Elysee shoveling dirt. Although in the end, cinematography had turned out to be a nonissue. A devastating category four hurricane had just crashed ashore along the South Carolina coastline, pulling news crews eastward. Other than a few print journalists, the groundbreaking ceremony was devoid of the usual media brouhaha.
Shane swung his gaze back to the President's daughter. He had been assigned to her detail for the past thirteen months and in that time they'd become close friends. The relationship between a bodyguard and his protectee bore many similarities to that between a psychiatrist and his patient. Elysee told him things she couldn't tell anyone else. He listened, sympathized, and kept his mouth shut.
The intimacy had created a special connection. Shane liked her, even though she was seven years younger than he. This unexpected emotional bond wasn't something his training had fully prepared him for.
Elysee was petite and soft-spoken, with earnest opinions and tender sensibilities. She loved fully, completely, and without reservation, although men were always breaking her heart.
Shane couldn't understand why she hadn't become hardened or cynical about love. Her capacity to pick up her crumpled spirit and move on with the same degree of hope, trust, and optimism impressed him.
He thought of his ex-wife and his own heart-which was finally, finally starting to mend-swelled, testing the tentative seams of its emotional stitches. Two years divorced and thoughts of Tish still made him shaky. He'd loved her so damned much and she'd disappointed him so deeply. No pain had ever cut like Tish's secrecy and betrayal.
Many times over the past twenty-four months he'd tried to convince himself that he hated her. His anger was a red-hot flame he held close to his chest and stoked whenever his mind wandered to tender memories. But he couldn't hate her. Not really. Not when it counted.
Thing was, no matter how hard he tried to suppress his weakness, in the dark of midnight, he found himself longing for Tish and all that they'd lost.
He still ached for the feel of her curvy body nestled against his. Still longed to smell the spicy scent of her lush auburn hair. Still yearned to taste the rich flavor of her femininity lingering on his tongue. Even here, in the brightness of the noonday sun, surrounded by a crowd, he felt it.
Dry. Empty. Desperately alone.
The tip of his left thumb strayed to the back of his ring finger, feeling for the weight of the band that was no longer there. He swallowed past the unexpected lump in his throat.
Head in the game, Tremont.
Shane clenched his jaw to keep from thinking about Tish. Channeling all his attention onto safeguarding Ely-see. This was his life now. Without a wife. Without a real home. The job was the only thing that defined him. He was a bodyguard, a protector, a sentinel. He was descended from war heroes. It was in his blood. In his very DNA.
The University of Texas chancellor stepped to the microphone and made a speech about Nathan Benedict and the dedication of the new Poli-Sci wing in his honor. Then he introduced Elysee.
A cheer went up. She was a crowd pleaser.
Elysee smiled and cameras clicked. An award-winning high school marching band that had been recruited for the event struck up "God Bless America." Shane's eyes never stopped assessing; his brain never ceased analyzing.
An assistant handed Elysee a pair of scissors so outrageously large that she had to grab onto them with both hands. Laughing, she raised the Gulliver-sized shears. Whenever she smiled, Elysee was transformed. Her bland blue eyes sparkled and her thin mouth widened and she tossed her hair in a carefree gesture. For one brief moment she looked as beautiful as any runway model.
The thick red ribbon fell away.
The backhoe dipped for dirt at the same moment the bulldozer's blade went to ground and the road grader's engine revved.
The crowd, including the protesters behind the picket line, cheered again and applauded politely. Nearby, the backhoe operator was apparently having trouble with the equipment. It moved jerkily as its bucket rose. Elysee was perched precariously close to the platform's edge.
The backhoe arm swung wide.
In that instant Shane saw pure panic on the backhoe operator's face and realized the man had lost control of the machinery. The bucket zoomed straight for Elysee.
He felt no fear, only a solid determination to protect the President's daughter at all costs.
But it felt as if he were moving in slow motion, his legs locked in molasses, his arms slogging through ballistics gel. He lunged, flinging his body at Elysee.
He hit her with his shoulder. She cried out, fell to her knees.
Spinning, Shane turned to face the earthmoving equipment, hand simultaneously diving for his duty weapon at the same second the backhoe bucket sluiced through the air, slinging loamy soil.
His arm went up, gun raised.
The bucket caught his right hand, yanking him up off the platform. He heard the awful crunch, but the pain didn't immediately register. He was jerked from his feet. He tried to pull the trigger, not even knowing what he was shooting at, just reacting instinctively to danger. He'd kill for Elysee, if that's what it took.
But his fingers refused to comply. What the hell was wrong with his fingers? Shane frowned, puzzled.
The driver looked horrified as his gaze met Shane's. He was dangling from the bucket right before the operator's eyes as the man frantically grabbed levers and fumbled with controls.
Distantly, Shane heard Elysee screaming his name. Was she hurt? In pain? Had someone gotten to her? Was she being kidnapped? Was the runaway backhoe all a ruse to deflect attention from hostage takers? The questions pelted his mind, hard as stones.
People were running and screaming, rushing in all directions, ducking and dodging, tripping and falling. He feared a stampede.
Shane swiveled his head, trying to locate Elysee in the confusion. Why couldn't he feel the pistol in his hand? Dammit, why couldn't he feel his hand?
"Elysee!" Her name tore from his throat in a guttural growl.
The backhoe arm slung Shane up high, and then slammed him down hard onto the cab of the earthmoving vehicle.
Metal contacted with bone.
Pain exploded inside his skull, a starburst of bright searing light.
Then his vision went dark as he tumbled toward the hardpacked ground and slumped into the inky-black tunnel of unconsciousness.
Excerpted from Once Smitten, Twice Shy by Lori Wilde Copyright © 2008 by Laurie Vanzura. Excerpted by permission.
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