For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.

                                     Even as  he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

                                                                                      Kahlil Gibran

Chapter 1

Fragrant flowers pelted the clustered group as they made their way toward the idling bus. Behind wooden barriers, fans chanted, “Giki,” the name of the rock star they had paid precious dollars to watch perform that night’s concert. Natasha walked close to the rock star, her eyes scanning all directions in search of potential threats to her client. She fought the urge to duck her head, hoping any roses thrown would be thornless. Although the screaming voices conveyed frenzy, the crowd remained behind the posted barricade, and Natasha allowed herself a moment’s relief. So far, the concert had gone smoothly and it looked like this gig was going to be not only easy, but fun.

White, cottony fabric smacked into her face, entangled in her hair and around her neck. Natasha peeled it away, trying not to breathe in. What was that smell? Bile rose in her throat when she realized she held a large pair of men’s jockeys in her hands. With a shriek, she dropped the underwear and swiped her face with her jacket sleeve, making phhht noises with her mouth. She froze when she noticed the others stuttering to a halt watching her. This was not how a professional bodyguard reacted. She should be ready for anything.

“Keep moving.” Natasha gestured for the group to close rank, continue onward. She thrust out one hand as she strode along. “Somebody give me some liquor.” A silver flask slapped into her palm. She unscrewed the top, tilted her head back, and splashed the contents of the phial over her face. She held her breath to keep from inhaling the fumes as the sour odor of whiskey wafted over her. Damn, as potent as this stuff smelled, it had to have some heavy alcohol content, should kill any living germs. She poured the brown liquid on her hands and scrubbed her lips with her fingers. She swallowed hard, her stomach churning at the thought of what might have been on the underwear. No way was she going to do such a sissy-ass thing as throw up. A bodyguard never displayed weakness in front of others. She shoved the flask in her jacket pocket and picked up her pace.

Heat pierced her thigh a fraction of a second before a loud pop sounded nearby. Her leg gave way beneath her and she lurched to the side. She reached out to steady herself, locked onto Giki’s arm. The rock star stumbled and both went down, Natasha landing on top.

Warm fluid trickled down Natasha’s leg, pain flared along her thigh. Her hand explored her jeans, where a jagged hole oozed blood. Shock surged through her body like a jolt of electricity. She needed to get Giki out of here—now! The hard, rigid feel of her firearm as she pulled it free helped calm her rising panic. She struggled to stand, forcing her leg to move, and bit down hard on the inside of her cheek when the world began to tilt beneath her. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth, but it worked: images sharpened and her mind cleared. Using her body as a shield, she helped Giki to her feet.

One hand gripped her gun pointed at the ground, the other clutched Giki’s arm. “Move.” Cameras strobed in the darkness, fans converged on them in a rush. “Now!” She pushed Giki toward the bus.

Once inside, Natasha collapsed on the floor. Her eyes could not maintain focus—a buzzing sound filled her head. A man yelled, “Call 911,” his voice bleeding pitch, fading away. Blackness descended over her, as dark and impenetrable as an executioner’s hood.

#

Natasha opened her eyes, confused at the array of masked faces hovering over her body, the clipped voices jangling in her ears. The sharp stench of ammonia stung her nose and she vaguely wondered if she had peed on herself. A cold, metallic pressure running up her leg pierced the fog laying heavy in her mind. She lifted her head and watched a large pair of scissors bite into her jeans.

“Hey,” she croaked, waving away a latexed hand holding an ammonia wand. “Those are my favorite jeans. Can’t you just pull the dang things off?”

It grew quiet around her. She moved to rise but the effort was too great. Her torso felt weighted down, as if a heavy bar rested on her chest. Pain flared in her leg, conquering her muddled state. She looked down, saw blood trickling from a ragged trench in her jeans. “Daiben.” Everything receded into blackness.

#

Natasha regained consciousness in the same room, the doctors and nurses replaced by Giki and her manager, Lonnie Bales, speaking in hushed voices. Over the roar in her head, Natasha could detect excitement in Lonnie’s voice as he talked about what great publicity this would be for the tour.

The world swam into focus when she heard Giki say, “Don’t you think we should tell her about the threats?”

Natasha struggled to sit up, feeling as unsteady as a toddler standing for the first time. 

Giki turned a concerned face to Natasha. “Quick, Lonnie, call for a nurse.”

Lonnie yanked the door open and bellowed, “Nurse,” into the hallway. His face turned red from the effort, a vein bulged in his neck.

With a slight sense of trepidation, Natasha pulled the sheet away from her leg. She stared at the bandage covering most of her naked upper thigh, bemoaning the loss of her jeans. The ones she had broken in just right, the only jeans she possessed comfortable enough to sleep in if the need arose. Well, at least they had left her panties intact. She plucked at the blue-and-white checkered hospital gown. What the hell had happened to her jacket and tank? Surely they hadn’t cut those up, too.

Her gaze returned to Giki. “How bad is it?”

Giki patted her head, as if she were a dog. “Oh, love, it’s minor, thank God. Just a chunk taken out of your leg by the bullet, that’s all.”

Black dots danced in front of Natasha’s eyes. She eased back onto the pillow. “A chunk?”

Lonnie waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “A small chunk.” He turned and yelled for the nurse once more but forgot to open the door, and his voice boomed in the small room.

Natasha’s eardrums seemed to bulge. “Dang, Lonnie.”

He gave her an embarrassed shrug. “Sorry.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“Only you, love.” Giki pressed her cheek against the side of Natasha’s face. “You’re a hero, you know that, Nat? I understand we’ve made national news.”

“Shoot.” This was not good. Striker would have heard by now and was probably heading her way at that very moment. His overprotectiveness had been bad enough while they were dating, but since their engagement, it seemed stuck in high gear. If he saw her injured—well, she didn’t want to think about the confrontation to come. And Nashville was just under four hours driving time from Knoxville, which didn’t give her much time to pull herself together.

Natasha wrinkled her nose, thinking it smelled like a brewery in there. Remembering why, she placed her hand over her mouth and jerked upright.

Giki snatched up a plastic pitcher from the counter and rushed over in time to catch the spew. Lonnie made a sympathetic retching sound, turned his back and clamped one hand over his lower face.

Natasha lay back with a groan, wiping her eyes. She didn’t know why, but she cried every time she threw up.

Holding the pitcher as far away from her body as she could, her head turned away from the smell, Giki took delicate steps backward, as if handling a stick of sweating dynamite. She placed the putrid container on the counter next to the sink and stepped back with a repulsed shudder.

Standing nearby, Lonnie’s face paled at the odor drifting from the pitcher. He rushed over to the sink and, with a loud “bleching” sound, regurgitated.

Natasha turned her head and covered her mouth.

“Shite.” Giki put her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut.

A young woman dressed in hospital scrubs shoved open the door and barely managed to avoid colliding with Lonnie’s extended butt. She put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Are you all right?”

A pale Lonnie gave her a weak nod as he waved his arm toward the pitcher. The nurse glanced at Giki, pinching her nose shut with her fingers, and Natasha with her hands clamped over her mouth. She nudged Lonnie out of the way with her hip as she emptied the contents of the pitcher into the sink. Although it was obvious she tried to hide her disgusted look behind a mask of professional indifference, she failed miserably.

Lonnie made a choking sound but managed to control himself. He shuffled a few feet away, doubled over, and put his hands on his knees, breathing through his mouth.

With quick efficiency, the nurse wet a couple of paper towels and tossed them toward Lonnie. They landed on the back of his neck.

“Oh, gosh, thanks.”

The nurse dampened several more and handed them to Natasha.

Natasha draped the towels over her forehead with a weak, “Thanks.”

The nurse picked up Natasha’s wrist and concentrated on her watch.

Natasha watched her for a moment. “Is there any chance a person could get AIDS from dirty underwear?”

The nurse gave her a curious look, as if she thought Natasha might be delusional. Apparently satisfied with Natasha’s rate of pulse, she drew the sheet away to check the bandage. 

Natasha tried to read the nurse’s nametag, but mascara had gotten into her eyes and everything looked blurry. “Y’all know who the doctor is?”

Giki and Lonnie glanced at one another. 

The nurse patted the sheet back into place. “Dr. Stratton.”  

“I’d like to speak with him, please.”

After darting a flustered glance in Giki’s direction, the nurse scurried out of the room.  

Natasha shook her head. “And there goes another awestruck fan.” She turned her attention to Giki. “Is the bullet still in there? Did they take it out? What happened?”

Lonnie’s eyes glittered with unsuppressed excitement. He appeared to have forgotten all about the urge to throw up. “From what I understand, the bullet grazed your leg, nicked a vein or something. Nothing major,” he went on, seeing her panicked look. 

Natasha nodded with relief. She propped up on elbows and took a moment to gauge how her body reacted to this movement. The black dots did not return, the room didn’t skew.

“Did y’all see the size of those jockeys?”

Giki’s mouth twitched. “Is that what it was?”

Natasha nodded. “Don’t tell me that’s going to be part of my job duties, fending off dirty underwear.”

Lonnie grinned. “That usually doesn’t happen, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Natasha gave Giki and Lonnie a suspicious glare. “What the hell did you guys neglect to tell me?”

Giki looked caught before exchanging glances with Lonnie. 

“Well?” 

Their mute interchange seemed to decide Lonnie would be the one to reply. 

“Understand, we weren’t deliberately keeping this from you. In fact, we weren’t even sure if the threats were intentional or just bogus threats all rock stars have to put up with. I mean, this has happened before.”

“What threats?”

“Before the tour started, Giki received several messages through her website, someone who said they disapprove of her songs, the way she lives her life, her manner of dress.”

“And?”

“Well, this person made the threat that they intend to stop her.”

“Are you talking about a death threat?”

Lonnie cut his eyes in Giki’s direction in an effort to convey the need to protect her from hearing such things. “That’s probably a bit extreme.”

The black dots were back and multiplying at a fast rate. Natasha fell back onto the pillow. “Striker’s gonna kill me when he hears this.”

“Who’s Striker, love?” Giki asked.

“My overprotective fiancé.” Natasha looked at Lonnie. “Why didn’t you tell me about this when I signed on?”

“Because the messages stopped before we hired you. Anyway, we figured they weren’t serious. Like I said, this has happened before.”

“Still, I hope you alerted the police.”

“They didn’t seem too concerned about it. Treated it like it was some nut who would eventually focus on another celebrity, which is what we thought happened.”

“What about the email address? Did they trace it?”

“They tried but it’s one of those free ones you can get with Yahoo.” 

“So you just took their word for it?”

“Well, no. I hired an investigator, but he didn’t get very far. Whoever it was used a bogus name and changed computers every time he emailed, mostly from libraries. And unless it falls under the Patriot Act, most libraries consider their patronage list confidential.”

All startled when Natasha’s cell phone rang.

Giki squeezed her arm. “Do you want me to get that, love?”

“Yes, please.” Natasha felt weaker than a marathon runner crossing the finish line. How much blood had she lost?

Giki dug through a plastic bag on the table beside the bed, located the phone and flipped it open. She listened to the person on the other end for a moment, then put it against her chest.

“It’s Striker, love. Do you wish to speak with him?”

Natasha gritted her teeth against an expletive as she held out her hand. “I guess I better.” She placed the cell to her ear and forced a smile on her face in an effort to sound chipper. “Hey, darlin’.”

Striker’s voice crackled in her ear, a good indicator he was in a moving vehicle. “Are you all right? Are you hurt? What happened?”

His concerned tone elicited guilt feelings. Natasha wondered about that, when she hadn’t actually done anything to warrant getting shot. So what the hell did she have to feel guilty about?

“Natasha? Are you there, baby?”

“I’m fine, sweetie. How are you?”

“Where are you?”

“Um, at the moment, I’m, well, in a hospital examining room. I think.” She shot a questioning look at Lonnie, who nodded in response.

“Are you injured? Were you shot? I heard you were shot! What the hell happened, Natasha, and why didn’t anyone call me?”

She darted a look at Giki and Lonnie. Their expressions revealed they had heard every word. 

“Everything was so unstable, I don’t think anyone thought of it. I’m sure they would have, sooner or later. I’m fine, really.”

“Okay, I’m heading that way. I should be there in the next couple of hours, and if the doctor will release you, I’m taking you home.”

“Home?”

Giki and Lonnie, huddled together whispering, turned toward her. 

Natasha put her hand over the mouthpiece. “Could you two try not to listen, please? This is kind of private.”

Lonnie gave her an understanding smile. “Sure. We’ll just step out into the hall.” He curled his fingers around Giki’s elbow and herded her toward the door.

Natasha moved to get out of bed, but her throbbing leg kept her in place. “I don’t think so.”

He turned back to her. “Why not?”

“I’m her bodyguard, Lonnie. I can’t protect her out there when I’m in here.”

“Actually, love, I don’t think you’re in good enough shape to protect me in here,” Giki said.

“Oh, believe me, if I had to, I would.”

Lonnie put a protective arm around Giki and drew her close. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll watch her.”

“Not good enough.”

Lonnie gave her an offended look. Natasha stared back, letting him know she wasn’t going to back down.

Lonnie blew out a resigned sigh. “The guys from our opening act are here. I’ll ask them to help. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she’s protected.”

Natasha thought about it. The fellows from Navar did look like they could be tough opponents if things got hairy.

“Where do you plan to take her?”

“We’ll be in the waiting room. You can send the nurse for us if you need anything.”

“Really, love, I’ll be all right,” Giki said.

“Okay, but don’t leave the hospital.”

Giki blew her a kiss. “Don’t worry, love.”

After the door closed behind them, Natasha returned the phone to her ear. “I’m not going home, Striker, and if that’s the only reason you’re coming here, then just turn around and go back.”

He didn’t answer right away and she knew he was making an effort to control his anger. “Listen, I’m not hurt bad; just a graze, is all. It’s nothing. I’m sure they’ll release me in a few minutes, so, you know, it’s okay.”

“It is not okay,” Striker said, a hard edge to his voice. “You could have gotten killed if that bullet had hit you right and you know it.”

“I know.” 

She listened to Striker’s heavy breathing for several moments before he spoke. “I’m still coming, and you and I are going to have a long talk about this.” He disconnected without telling her he loved her—a bad sign.

“Mierda.”  

#

A tall man donned in the proverbial doctor’s white coat stepped into the room. Natasha squinted against the glare reflecting off the crown of his smooth, bald head, bouncing from his eyeglass lenses. He studied her with the curious intensity of a small boy watching a cat go crazy after clipping a clothespin to its tail.

“Dr. Stratton.” He extended his hand.

“Natasha Chamberlain.” She returned his handshake, thinking she had never seen fingers this long on anyone.

Stratton gave her a respectful look. “Well, you’re quite the hero. A female bodyguard. I’ve never met one before.”

“How bad is it? Can I walk? Am I going to have to remain here? What did you do?”  

Slipping into a professional mode, Stratton drew the sheet away from her injured leg. His index finger hovered over the bandage. “The bullet entered your thigh here, then traveled a couple of inches and exited here, creating a shallow furrow which looks worse than it actually is. You did lose some blood, although it never became life-threatening.”

“Whew.”

He gave her a faint smile. “We repaired the damage, patched you up, and you’re ready to go.”

“You mean I can leave? I don’t have to stay here?”

“Well, I’d rather you stayed a couple of hours more so we can observe you, make sure there’s no more blood loss. But after that, you’re free to go. Be sure to change the bandage daily, use the antibiotic ointment I’m going to give you, and have a doctor recheck the wound in seven days.”

“What about a scar? Will there be a scar?”

“I’d say so, but I’m not sure how noticeable it’s going to be. If it bothers you, you can always have a plastic surgeon take a look at it.”

Natasha secretly hoped there would be a scar; a battle wound, if you will. She caught a whiff of vomitus, reminding her of the cause, and told the doctor about the underwear incident.

His eyes danced and a smile played around his lips. “That happen a lot?”

“I don’t know. This was the first concert. Up to that point, it was cut flowers and chocolate candy. A man’s underwear was something I definitely wasn’t expecting.” She gave him a worried look. “You think there’s a chance I could get AIDS from that?”

“Is the owner HIV positive?”

“I have no idea, but if he is, I need to know if I’ve been exposed.”

Stratton grinned. “You didn’t chew on them, did you?”

Natasha’s brows drew close together. “I’m serious here.”

Stratton leaned near and studied her face. “I don’t see any open lesions. They didn’t go in your mouth, did they?”

Her stomach rolled and saliva filled her mouth. She clenched her teeth shut and fought hard not to vomit. Dammit, why was she being such a sissy-pants? “The underwear didn’t go in my mouth. It just hit me in the face and on my head.” She winced, wondering what she could use to disinfect her hair. “I have got to take a shower.” 

“Later, but for now, you need to rest.”

Natasha lay back. “I do feel awfully tired.”

“That’s to be expected. You went into shock, lost some blood. That’s a normal reaction.”

“I think I’ll sleep for a little while.” Natasha pulled the sheet beneath her chin.

“I’d encourage you to.” He gave her foot a consoling squeeze. “I’ll send the nurse in to give you a pain shot.”

She sat up, eyes wide. “Pain shot?”

“Well, yes. The local anesthetic’s going to wear off in a little while, and believe me, you’re going to need the shot.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Stratton gave her a knowing grin. “Don’t tell me a tough bodyguard like you is afraid of needles.”

Natasha’s panicked expression belied her stated, “Of course not.” She settled back on the bed and watched him cross over to the door. “Dr. Stratton?”

He turned to look at her. “Yes?”

“My fiancé, Jonce Striker, is coming in from Knoxville. Could you be sure he knows where to find me?”

“I’ll see to it.” He turned off the lights on his way out.

#

Elton John’s “Rotten Peaches” woke her up an hour later. Natasha groped around in the darkened room, located her cell phone on the table next to the bed, and fumbled it open. 

“Hello.” She glanced around, groaning when she remembered what had happened and that Striker was heading her way. Her mother’s shrill voice got her attention.

“Oh, hey, Mom, I was just fixin’ to call you.” She mouthed Sorry to the ceiling for the lie.

Natasha spent the next fifteen minutes assuring her mother she was okay, and no, she didn’t need to come to the hospital, Striker was on his way, and yes, she would call her as soon as she got settled into her hotel room. Natasha keyed off, more exhausted than when she fell asleep.

She held onto the side railing as she eased off the bed. The room shifted sideways and that weird buzzing sound filled her ears. She tilted her head toward the floor and waited. Once the lightheadedness passed, she hobbled over to the small, recessed sink. Ended up dragging her injured leg behind her—the dang thing felt like it weighed a ton.

Natasha turned on the cold water and stuck her face under a faucet shaped like a question mark, hoping this would help clear her mind. A bottle of antibacterial liquid soap caught her eye. She squirted some onto her hands and scrubbed her face, counting to sixty by one-thousands. Then blended hot water with cold and dipped her head under the flow. Pumped more liquid soap into her hand, lathered it onto her scalp and hair, and rinsed under water close to scalding.

Back to cold water, Natasha inserted her mouth beneath the faucet and gulped down the cool liquid until her thirst was quenched, ignoring the raw soreness to her throat. She took more water in her mouth and swished it around to get the god-awful taste of vomit out of her mouth.

She turned off the water and stood upright, fighting the dizzy sensation that kept threatening to overtake her. Leaning against the counter, she used paper towels to blot the excess moisture out of her hair. Her leg began to throb, sending sharp pain spurts into her groin. She lifted the hospital gown and grew alarmed at red blossoming against the pristine white bandage. She better lay down quick.

On her way back to the bed, she held onto objects, terrified of falling or passing out. And being found by Striker. She rolled onto her back and pulled the sheet up to her chin, telling herself, be strong, be strong, be strong. At the first sign of weakness, Striker would throw her over his shoulder and haul her home so he could take care of her. That was not going to happen.

Her leg pulsed in protest when she shifted to a more comfortable position. Shoot. She should have taken that pain shot. But she wanted to have a clear mind by the time Striker arrived. She needed to make him understand she was not going to go home with him or stop being a protection specialist. The fact that she had gotten shot on her first official day as bodyguard to a rock star was going to make it even harder for her to convince Striker, once more, that this was the right field for her.

Although Natasha kept telling herself there wasn’t much danger to being a bodyguard, especially with the cases she had chosen before now, she wondered if maybe she was jinxed with this vocation. It seemed she kept ending up in hospital emergency rooms while on the job. This was only her third time out and she had required emergency medical treatment five different times.

The door opened, leaking muted hospital noises into the room. Natasha’s heart lifted and she smiled at the large, masculine form silhouetted against the light from the hallway.

“Hey, darlin’, thanks for coming.”

Striker crossed over to her, leaned down for a kiss. Natasha put her hand against his chest. “You might not want to do that. I got sick.” She grimaced. “Shoot, I can’t believe I threw up. And in front of Giki and Lonnie.”

Striker drew back, his eyes tight, his mouth in a thin line. He trailed a finger along her jaw.

“How bad are you hurt?”

“A bullet grazed my thigh, that’s all. It’s nothing serious, just a matter of wearing a bandage for awhile.” She tried not to relay the pride she felt over this battle wound. Something she could brag about in her old age.

Striker raised the sheet and placed his palm over the skin above the bandage. Her stomach clenched and a fiery sensation shot from her abdomen to the tip of her toes. Would she ever not feel this way when he touched her? Oh, she prayed that never happened.

He reached above her to turn on the light over the bed. “I hate to tell you this, darlin’, but you smell like a distillery.”

Natasha struggled to sit up. “Tell me about it.”

He propped the pillow behind her back. “Something to deaden the pain?”

“More like to kill germs.” With a grimace, she told him the underwear story.

“Damn.” Striker shook his head. “That’s nasty.”

“I can’t believe I threw up. I still fight the urge to gag every time I think about it. I’m such a sissy. You think I could get AIDS?”

“What’d the doctor say?”

“He said I’d have to chew on them first.”

A fleeting grin crossed Striker’s lips. His look sobered and he gave her a flustered look.

Natasha grasped his hand between both of hers. “I hope you didn’t come here to argue over this. I’ve missed you so much it hurts, and I don’t want to spend time with you mad at me.”

He stepped back from her.

“I know you’re scared, so am I. But it wasn’t fatal or anything. In fact, they’re going to let me leave in another hour or two.” She gave him an impish smile. “You are going to stay tonight, aren’t you?”

“I want you to go home with me.”

“I told you I can’t do that.”

“Damn it.” Striker rubbed his hand over his face and began to pace.

“I signed the contract, I can’t back out.”

He turned to face her. “The very first concert, you get a bullet in the leg. What was it you neglected to tell me when you signed on for this job?”

She shook her head. “I told you everything I was told. It wasn’t until I got shot that I found out there’s more to this than playing nursemaid to a Madonna wannabe.”

“Which is?”

“It seems that before the tour started, Giki received some threats over the Internet. Lonnie says they didn’t think it was serious and the police nixed it as some nutcase who would go on to another rock star when they grew tired of threatening Giki. Since they haven’t received any lately, they figured the police were right.”

A knock on the door drew their attention. Striker glanced at Natasha, his eyebrows raised in a questioning way. She shrugged in answer. He opened the door wide enough for the person standing on the other side to step through. 

A short, burly man with rust-colored hair in a military-style buzz held out a badge first to Striker, then Natasha. “Collins with gang crimes. Are you Ms. Chamberlain?”

Natasha nodded. “And this is my fiancé, Jonce Striker.”

Striker eyed the badge. “Gang crimes?”

“Yep. Just wanted to let you know, Ms. Chamberlain, we’re pretty sure the bullet that hit you wasn’t meant for you. Seems two rival gangs got into a rumble across the street and one of the members started firing his piece. A stray bullet must have come your way.”

Striker’s eyes narrowed. “You’re sure it was from the gang member?”

“We found the bullet, and it’s the same caliber as the gun he was shooting with. We’re pretty sure it will match up.”

“How soon will you know?”

Natasha glanced at Striker. She could tell from his tone that he wasn’t buying this.

“It became a priority once we knew Giki was involved. We hope to have an answer by morning.” Collins lifted his shoulders in a go-figure shrug. “Anyway, we should be able to wind this thing up by tomorrow. Hopefully won’t delay the tour too long.” His gaze traveled to the door. “Any chance you can tell me where Giki is?”

Everybody’s a fan, Natasha thought. “I think she’s in the waiting room.”         

After Collins left, Natasha gave Striker a look of appeasement. “See, darlin’? It was nothing. I’m not in any danger here, so there’s no need for you to be concerned.”

The hard set to his mouth told her he didn’t believe her. “Where’s Giki, for real?”

“Lonnie said he was going to take her to the waiting room.”

He turned away.

“Where are you going?”

Striker shoved the door open. “To talk to your doctor, then your client.”

“Dangit.” Natasha lay back, closed her eyes and drifted off, lulled by the sound of bees buzzing in her ears.

#

A short time later, the door to her room squeaked open. Natasha opened her eyes with an automatic, “I’m okay.”

Striker entered with Giki in tow, Giki’s petite, compact frame overwhelmed by Striker’s tall, muscular one. Her copper-colored hair, cornflower-blue eyes, and milky complexion contrasted with Striker’s black hair, coal-dark eyes, and warm-colored skin tone. 

Natasha was surprised to see Giki smiling. Striker looked irritated.

“Nattie, love, I’ve talked to your fiancé and we’ve come to an agreement that it might be a good idea to have two additional bodyguards around me, what with the threats I’ve been receiving and all. He’s suggested two of your mates, I believe they’re called Pit and Bigun.” She glanced at Striker to confirm this.

He gave a grim nod.

“What do you think, love?”

Natasha suspected the real reason Striker wanted to bring in Pit and Bigun was to protect her. But she still felt shaky, along with a heavy dose of homesickness, and having her two Samoan friends around would help. 

“I think that’s a good idea.” Striker’s relieved expression made her feel better.

#

Pit and Bigun arrived while Striker roamed the halls, hunting down a pair of scrubs for Natasha to wear out of the hospital. The two cousins were the most in-demand bodyguards at Striker’s firm, Investigative Services, Inc. Although pussycats at heart, they tended to frighten those who didn’t know them. Most mistook their large, muscular statures and shaved heads for the Aryan thing.

The two men crowded into Natasha’s room, inspecting her bandage and offering their own war stories until Striker returned. Although happy to see her friends, fatigue showed in the shadows beneath her eyes, pale cast to her skin. Striker herded them out, telling them they could talk later. He helped Natasha dress, then guided her to the bed and told her to wait while he instructed the two bodyguards regarding Giki.

As soon as he left the room, Natasha collapsed onto her back and stared at the ceiling and all those pesky little bugs buzzing around above her, listening to them inside her head.

#

Once the doctor released her, Striker drove Natasha to the hotel Lonnie had reserved for the tour’s stay. Still woozy, she had to use every reserve of strength to remain upright, not slide down into a limp puddle. If Striker detected the least hint of weakness, he would pick her up and carry her. While he booked a suite, she leaned against the wall and concentrated on trying to decide whether black dots or black bugs danced in front of her eyes. Striker pocketed his key card and, without saying a word, bundled her against his side as he walked her to the elevator. Once inside, he picked her up in his arms. With a resigned groan, she put her head on his shoulder.

In their suite, he tucked her into bed and insisted she swallow a pain pill and sleep. She didn’t offer any resistance.