Haunted by his time in Iraq, former soldier Schwartz Patton goes off the grid, retreating deep into Montana's untamed wilderness. Now, ten years into his self-imposed solitude, his brother tracks him down and asks for a favor. A woman is in danger, and she needs help...and Schwartz is the only one who can protect her.
Designer-loving city girls like Janelle Keebler don't belong in the wilderness. Unless, of course, they're witnesses to a murder by their psycho drug-trafficking ex-husbands. Still, Janelle can't help the immediate physical response she has to her sexy-as-sin protector that leaves her wanting more than she could have ever imagined. Even if he does make terrible coffee...
Every word, every touch, every kiss ignites a need Schwartz thought he'd lost forever. He can't stop the desperate attraction simmering between him and Janelle, even if he wanted to. Even if it means it could get them both killed.
Each book in the Front and Center series is a standalone, full-length story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1 Marine for Hire
Book #2 Fiancee for Hire
Book #3 Best Man for Hire
Book #4 Protector for Hire
About the Author
Tawna Fenske traveled a career path that took her from newspaper reporter to English teacher in Venezuela to medical marketing geek to PR manager for her city's tourism bureau. An avid globetrotter and social media fiend, Tawna is the author of the popular blog Don't Pet Me, I'm Writing, and a member of Romance Writers of America. She spends her days in Bend, Oregon, where she'll invent any excuse to hike, bike, snowshoe, float the river, or sip beer along the Bend Ale Trail. She lives with her gentleman friend, his offspring, and more pets than they care to admit.
Her debut romantic comedy with Sourcebooks, Making Waves, was nominated for Best Contemporary Romance in the 2011 RT Book Reviewers' Choice Awards, and the Chicago Tribune noted, "Fenske's wildly inventive plot and wonderfully quirky characters provide the perfect literary antidote to any romance reader's summer reading doldrums." In addition to her critically-acclaimed sophomore romantic comedy, Believe it or Not, Tawna has also written a series of interactive romantic capers for Coliloquy titled Getting Dumped. The novella Eat, Play, Lust is her first project with Entangled.
Read an Excerpt
Protector for Hire
A Front and Center Story
By Tawna Fenkse, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Tawna Fenkse
All rights reserved.
Schwartz slammed the chipped brown coffee mug on the oak table in front of the brother he hadn't seen for nearly ten years.
"Cream?" he offered.
"No." Grant reached for the mug and peered into it as though assessing the contents. "No cream, thanks."
"Good. I don't have any."
"No sugar, I assume?"
"Do I look like a guy who has sugar?"
"You look like a guy who has bombs stashed under his bed. Seriously, what's with the beard?"
Schwartz scowled and dropped into the chair opposite his brother, stretching his legs out in front of him. The heels of his work boots wedged into the space where the rough-hewn planks of his wood floor touched the rougher-hewn logs that made up the wall of his cabin. A tuft of dog fur was caught in the crevice, and Schwartz tried to remember the last time he'd swept.
He looked up to see his brother still assessing his whiskers. Schwartz lifted a hand and rubbed his chin. "The last time I had company that didn't walk on four legs was three years ago when a couple hunters got lost in the woods. You think I give a shit what I look like?"
"No, but Janelle might. Seriously, you're going to scare the poor girl."
"That poor girl," Schwartz said, "witnessed her ex-husband using a claw hammer and a guitar pick to brutally murder the leader of a rival heroin ring. You really think a little facial hair is going to scare her?"
"It might when it's on the chin of a guy who looks like the love child of bigfoot and an NFL linebacker."
Schwartz frowned and reached across the table and touched the laptop he'd left open to the report he'd compiled on Janelle Keebler. She was twenty-seven years old, five-foot-five with sandy blond hair, a career in graphic design, an allergy to cats, and an ex-husband who was one of the most ruthless heroin importers in the country.
She was also the sister of Grant's new fiancée.
Which is how Schwartz now found himself face-to-face with a member of his family for the first time in ten years.
He looked up from the laptop to see Grant studying him over the rim of his coffee mug. "She's coming here to feel safe, Schwartz," he said. "It's a last resort. Her only option."
Grant held eye contact for several beats longer than Schwartz liked, which was probably a technique he'd perfected as a counterintelligence expert for the marines.
Schwartz stared back, unblinking.
Grant sighed and softened his tone. "Look, I really appreciate you doing this. You know I wouldn't ask if it weren't an absolute emergency."
Schwartz grunted, but said nothing. Even if Grant's pleading on the phone hadn't convinced him, his background check on Janelle's ex-husband had done the trick. Jacques Armistead was a ruthless, heartless, dickless son of a bitch. If Janelle hadn't noticed that up front, at least she'd figured it out quickly enough to divorce his ass within a year.
Too bad Jacques hadn't gotten the memo.
The jackass seemed hell-bent on keeping his claws in Janelle one way or another. Schwartz wasn't sure if it was a matter of eliminating witnesses, or because Jacques genuinely had the hots for his ex-wife. It was none of Schwartz's concern.
Keeping her safe was.
He looked down at his boots and noticed a dried noodle on the toe of the right one. He hadn't made spaghetti for three days, and the fact that the noodle hadn't worn off probably meant he hadn't left the cabin in that long either.
"So you have a pet wolf," Grant said, making conversation.
"Why doesn't that surprise me?"
Schwartz looked over at the shaggy beast snoozing in front of the woodstove. He was a wolf/dog hybrid, if you wanted to get technical, which Schwartz didn't. Sherman's massive paws were sprawled out in front of him like woolly toilet plungers. As if sensing he was being watched, the beast pricked his ears and opened one eye, and Schwartz felt himself starting to smile.
"You're picking Janelle up at a bus station somewhere, right?" Grant asked.
Schwartz turned back to his brother. "Yep. That's all you need to know. The fewer details anyone has, the better. We're making this girl disappear, remember?"
"Try not to make it sound so menacing."
"You want her hidden? I'll keep her hidden."
"You're the master of that." Grant's tone was still friendly, but there was a darker edge to it now. "The whole family hasn't known how to find you for almost a decade."
"I gave you my phone number."
"Yeah, but you made me swear on my left nut I'd never share it with anyone. Hell, half the time you screened my calls, and you used a blocked number to call the rest of the family on holidays. You put up more safeguards than the fucking CIA."
Schwartz ignored the jab and glanced at his watch. He still had four hours before he had to pick up Janelle. He'd arranged a complex travel itinerary to get her from her home in San Francisco to his remote mountain cabin deep in the Montana woods. Cash only, no records. There'd been a series of cabs, a train, and several buses. He'd stopped short of arranging several miles on horseback after Grant informed him Janelle had never ridden a horse in her life.
"She's a city girl," Grant said, reading Schwartz's thoughts and jarring him out of them all at once. "She's in for some pretty serious culture shock when she gets here. Be nice to her."
"Fuck off. I'm always nice."
Grant nodded and picked up his mug. He took a sip, winced, then took another sip. He studied Schwartz with a look Schwartz could have sworn drilled straight through him, cataloging every thought, every fear, every secret.
Schwartz hated that look.
It was one of many reasons he'd stayed away so long.
When Grant spoke again, his voice was oddly low. "I've missed you."
"Yeah." Schwartz nodded. His chest felt tight, like his heart might bust right through his ribs. He swallowed hard to keep his throat from closing up. "It's been a while."
"Nine years, eight months, twenty-nine days."
"What are you, a goddamn calendar?"
"I'm just saying. The whole family asks about you. Everyone wants to know why —"
"So this Janelle person," Schwartz interrupted, feeling his gut twist as he steered the conversation toward more neutral turf. "She's not expecting the Ritz-Carlton, right?"
Grant frowned, glancing around the log cabin with an expression that suggested this was about the furthest thing from luxury. "The Ritz? No. Uh, you did figure out a place for her to sleep though, right?"
"Sure. The wood shed is nice and dry. Hardly any mice this time of year."
"The sad thing is, I have no idea if you're kidding."
"What? She'll like it out there. Smells nice and woodsy."
"Relax, baby brother." Schwartz folded his hands around his own coffee mug. "Don't get your panties in a twist. I ordered one of those rollaway beds online. Even bought some fancy sheets from that website Sheri likes."
He watched Grant's face soften at the mention of their sister, and his own stomach did a weird twist. Saying her name out loud made him miss her something fierce. So had seeing her in person at her wedding a few months ago. Granted, she hadn't seen him — he'd taken great pains to stay hidden in the shadows, to make sure no one noticed him or had a chance to ask why he'd stayed away so long.
Grant took another sip of coffee. The wince was less pronounced this time, but it was still there. "I trust you, Schwartz. No matter what happened before or what demons you're fighting all alone out here, I still trust you more than anyone else in the world."
The words were like tiny daggers in his chest. He didn't deserve anyone's trust. Sure as hell not his family's.
Schwartz grunted again. "You told her to pack snow boots, right?"
Grant blinked, then nodded. "Yeah. And a parka. And everything else on your list. It's autumn in Montana. She might be a city girl, but I'm pretty sure she understands this isn't Malibu."
Grant studied him again, and Schwartz resisted the urge to get up and leave the room. They were only eleven months apart, and even though Schwartz had always been the outlier in his staunchly military family, Grant was the one he'd been closest to. It was the reason he'd trusted Grant with his contact info, though he'd commanded his baby brother to use it only in emergencies.
This sure as hell qualified.
It wasn't like he'd cut his family off completely. He'd sent Christmas cards and wedding gifts, birthday wishes and Mother's Day flowers.
The thought of Stella Patton flushed a fresh wave of nostalgia through his veins. He frowned down at his coffee and wondered how long it would take his brothers and the cops to locate Jacques Armistead. Truth be told, he hoped his brothers got to the bastard first.
"You doing okay?" Grant asked at last.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
Grant raised an eyebrow. "I've worried about you. Out here in the middle of nowhere all alone for this long —"
"Is this conversation almost over?"
Grant smiled. "You sure you won't lose the beard?"
"You look like the goddamn Unabomber."
Schwartz felt himself start to smile in spite of his best efforts not to. "Get out of here. You got what you came for. I let you come all the way out here to scope things out and make sure I haven't gone completely feral."
"The jury's still out on that."
He found himself smiling still wider, which probably fucked up the hard-ass vibe he was going for. "In any case, you've satisfied your curiosity. Your sister-in-law will be well-hidden here."
"That, I'll agree with."
"Now go on. I have to leave pretty soon if I'm going to make it to the bus station to pick up the girl."
"Janelle. Her name is Janelle."
Janelle Rebecca Keebler. She'd briefly been Janelle Rebecca Armistead, or Mrs. Jacques Armistead in formal settings. Her childhood nicknames included JJ, Nelly, and Princess Puffybutt. Schwartz knew it all by heart, but he grunted instead. "Yep. Gotta pick the girl up. You leaving soon?"
Grant stood up, smiling a little sadly as he walked over to the tiny kitchen and dumped the contents of his mug into the sink. "Your coffee tastes like horse piss."
"I love you, too, man."
Grant just barely managed to mask his surprise. "I love you, big brother."
"Now get the fuck out of here."
Grant nodded and set the mug on the counter as Schwartz stood up. He walked over and gave Grant a stiff, one-armed hug, but Grant pulled him tighter into a big, sloppy bear hug. They stood like that for what seemed like hours, but it was probably only a few moments.
"I'm working on a special intelligence project for PACOM over at Fort Lewis for the next few months," Grant said, breaking the hug. "Washington's not that far away from Montana, if you need anything."
"Thanks again, man."
Schwartz only grunted in response as he watched his brother walk out the door. He shut it softly behind him, and Schwartz listened as Grant's boots crunched through the freshly fallen snow. He walked to the window and watched Grant get into a blue pickup truck with a light dusting of snow on the windshield. He fired up the engine and idled a few moments while Schwartz stood watching, silent.
At last, Grant eased the truck away from the bank of trees next to the cabin. His taillights flickered as he reached a bend in the gravel road, then disappeared around a corner.
Schwartz stood there for a few more beats, his throat feeling tight again.
At last, he stepped away from the window and walked to the kitchen. He dumped the contents of his own coffee mug down the sink, untouched. Then he turned and walked to the bathroom.
Hesitating in front of the mirror, he studied the jagged scar across his left cheekbone. He ran a finger over it, feeling the texture, remembering how it got there.
Then he reached under the sink and pulled out the shaving cream.
* * *
Janelle cupped the phone against her ear, the sleeve of her blue cashmere sweater riding up to expose her Cartier wristwatch. It was almost three o'clock, so she should be arriving at her destination any minute now.
She gripped the phone tighter as a wave of homesickness pushed her back against the cracked vinyl bus seat.
"This wig itches," she whispered into the receiver.
"You're almost there, right?" On the other end of the line, her sister, Anna, sounded nervous. "You're sure this call can't be traced?"
"I'm using that disposable phone Schwartz sent. Plus I'm pretty sure Mac put some sort of tracking device on the bus. And on my luggage. And on —"
"And you're sure no one saw you get on the train yesterday? Or in the cab back in the city?"
"For the hundredth time, I'm sure." Janelle's voice had risen just above a whisper, but no one else on the bus seemed to notice. She practically had the whole space to herself. An old woman wearing three jackets and an orange knit hat sat snoring up front near the driver, her head lolling back against the seat. Near the middle of the bus, a sullen-looking teenager fiddled with a Game Boy while wearing earphones that blasted music loud enough for Janelle to recognize the song.
No one seemed to see her in the back of the bus.
"So how will you recognize him when you get there?" Anna asked. "Schwartz, I mean. Do you know what he looks like?"
"I saw that photo, remember? The one Grant took when Schwartz got out of the hospital after his tour in Iraq?"
"That was ten years ago, Janelle. I'm sure he looks way different. How will you know it's him?"
Janelle thought of the black and white image, the deep brackets around the man's mouth, the haunted look in his eyes.
"I'll know," she said, surprising herself with the certainty in her own voice.
She wasn't certain about much else these days. Well, she felt certain her ex-husband was trying to kill her. Kill her or remarry her, which wasn't all that different in Janelle's mind.
If only you'd gotten away sooner. If only you hadn't seen what you saw.
She looked out the fogged bus window, not entirely certain where she was or where she was going. She'd boarded the first bus in Oregon after she got off the train from California, then caught another bus through Washington State. She was somewhere in northern Idaho now, but that wasn't her final destination. She didn't know where she was headed next.
The landscape along the highway was a sea of shaggy evergreens dusted with powdered-sugar snow. Off to one side was a sparkling, frothy river lined with boulders the size of small automobiles. In the distance, a towering fringe of mountain peaks jutted up through a film of clouds. Janelle shivered.
"I'm worried about you."
The softness in her sister's voice made Janelle's throat tight. "I'll be okay," she murmured. "This family you're marrying into — the Pattons? They've got their shit together. Between Sheri's crash course in handguns, Mac's twenty-four/seven surveillance on Jacques's men, Stella teaching me how to make a hand grenade with hair spray and a bobby pin, and your fiancé making all these arrangements to have Schwartz hide me out in the middle of nowhere —"
She swallowed, overwhelmed by how much they were all doing for her, these people she'd only met in the last few months.
"They're good people," Anna agreed. "All of them. You can trust them with your life."
"I kinda have to."
"I'm sorry it didn't work out with the witness protection program. I really thought the cops could —"
"Don't," Janelle said. "None of that was your fault. You couldn't have known what Jacques was capable of. How hell-bent he is on getting me back."
Dead or alive, she almost added, but didn't want to freak her sister out more.
"Do you think it's weird Mac was never able to find Schwartz?" Anna asked. "I mean, Mac handles covert government deals all over the globe. He knows what a terrorist in Afghanistan ate for breakfast or what a warlord in Yemen is watching on television. How come he never tracked down Schwartz?"
"That's the point, isn't it?" Janelle asked. "The guy obviously knows how to stay hidden. If no one's been able to find Schwartz all these years, then Jacques shouldn't be able to find me."
Janelle cradled the phone tighter against her shoulder, missing her sister. She also kinda missed the creature comforts of her home in San Francisco. She hadn't had a good latte for days, and her manicure was chipped and faded. Silly things to think about at a time like this, but she had to focus on something besides fearing for her life and wondering if she'd ever be able to go home again.
She tried not to cry as the bus slowed down. "Sweetie, I have to go now," Janelle said. "It looks like we're in some sort of town, so I think we'll be stopping soon."
"Okay. Stay safe?"
"I'll do my best."
"I'd tell you to call me, but —"
"I'm not sure I'll be able to."
"I know. I understand. Still, if you get a chance, let me know you're okay."
"I will. I love you."
"I love you, too, hon. I miss you."
"Tell your hottie fiancé thanks when you see him."
"Okay. Stay safe."
Excerpted from Protector for Hire by Tawna Fenkse, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2015 Tawna Fenkse. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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