For reason, ruling along, is a force confining,

and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.

~Kahil Gibran~

THE BODYGUARD AND THE BODYGUARD

Chapter 1

      Natasha stared out the window, biting on her lower lip, trying to ignore the big brute next to her driving the friggin’ car. Her hands clutched at one another like two kittens tumbling together, and she kept resisting the urge to shake her foot – a bad habit when she let her nerves get the better of her. Shudders swept through her body and she told herself it was from the cold, knowing it was not. Realizing she was going to chew through her lip if she didn’t stop, she pressed her mouth together and made an effort to relax, letting a sigh escape. She forced her fingers to still, her foot to remain static. A large, warm hand enveloped hers. She stared at the fine black hairs, the bronze skin tone, and could not subdue the memory of those hands on her body. Heat traveled through her and her abdomen clenched and she wondered if he would always have this effect on her. She glanced over at Striker, darting her a reassuring look, his eyes crinkling, his mouth just barely hitting the smile range.

            “It’ll be all right,” he said.

            She snatched her hands out of his and, as if of their own will, her fingers went back to clutching at one another. She slid them down her jeans, to her knees and back. “I’m fine.” The tremor in her voice irritated her. She didn’t want Striker to know how terrified she was. As a bodyguard, she should be able to handle this without having a major breakdown, which seemed to be gathering momentum with each passing second.

            “Of course you are.”

            She threw him a dark look. “Don’t patronize me, all right? I’m okay, I can handle this.” She shook her head and blew out air. “I don’t know why in the world I let Donahue talk me into letting you tag along.”

            With a screech of tires, Striker pulled his SUV to the shoulder of the road and braked to a stop. Natasha tried to ignore the tug of apprehension in her stomach as he slammed the gear shift into park.

            Striker checked the rear-view and side-view mirrors, then unstrapped his seatbelt and turned to face her. His eyes bore into hers as his hand tightened on the steering wheel.

            “Are we going to have to go over this again? I thought we worked this out back at Donahue’s office.”

            Natasha gritted her teeth. “I don’t need a freakin’ bodyguard. I’m a bodyguard, I know how to protect people, myself included.”

            “Your being a bodyguard’s what got you into this mess in the first place,” he said, his voice rising with each word.

            Natasha unstrapped her seatbelt and twisted her torso toward his. “That’s right. I got myself into this mess, I’ll get myself out, thank you very much.”

            Striker glared at her for a long moment. “Fine. I’ll turn around, we’ll go back to Donahue’s office, and I’ll let him put his own bodyguards on you.”

            Yikes. That wasn’t what Natasha wanted. Knowing Donahue, he would lock her up someplace and hold her prisoner until he got this matter resolved.

            “But no one’s going to protect you as well as I can, and you know it.”

            Natasha tried to think of a snappy rejoinder to that but he interrupted her before she could come up with one.  

            “I’d die for you. In a heartbeat. No hesitation at all.”

            Her body relaxed as her anger dissipated at the soft tone of his voice, the concern in his eyes. That was such a sweet thing to say and she’d been so mean to him. She cleared her throat, determined not to get all teary-eyed.

            “I’d do the same for you. You know that, don’t you?”

            Striker nodded.

            She didn’t want to argue but it had to be said. “Listen, I appreciate the fact that y’all think I need protecting, I get that. But I’m not a novice at this, Striker. I can take care of myself.”

            “Yeah? Is that right? Where will you go? What will you do? And what the hell are you going to do when these guys find you?”

            “I think maybe Donahue’s overreacting. I mean, come on, just because I stopped Wet Paulie from shooting Donahue doesn’t mean Paulie’s benefactor or whoever this guy is wants me dead.”

            “A life for a life, that’s what Donahue’s informant told him. And you’re the target because you interrupted Langford’s attempt to take out Donahue and assume control.”

            “Oh, please. That sounds so Godfatherish.”

            “This is organized crime, babe. What do you expect, a slap on the wrist, a tweak of the nose?”

            “One could always hope,” she said, trying for levity.

            Striker strapped on his seatbelt. “We need to get moving. What’s it going to be? Me or Donahue. Take your pick.” He started the SUV and put it in gear.

            “You, I guess.” She frowned at him. “Although for the record, this is not necessary, I’m a…”

             “Yeah, I know. You’re a friggin’ bodyguard, you can handle this yourself.” Striker checked his mirrors then pulled onto the interstate.

            “Well, I’m glad you agree.”

            He shot her an ominous glare. “If you’d listened to me, given up this field and married me, we’d be in a hell of a much better place right now.”

            “Oh, yeah, right. Me playing wife to big daddy. No thanks.”

            Striker’s jaw clenched.

            “For the record, I am never not going to be a bodyguard, so stow that in that huge head of yours and underline it.”

            “Double negative,” he muttered.

            “Oh, and are we an English teacher now?”

            “From here on out, baby, I am anything and everything to you. Stow that in that wacky head of yours and underline it.”

            “Oh, for Pete’s sake. At least come up with your own creative similes. And don’t call me baby.”

            Striker ignored that.

            After awhile, Natasha glanced at him. “Who is this guy, anyway? I thought Donahue was the head honcho mafiaso in East Tennessee. I didn’t know he had competition.”

            “In their world, there’s always competition and the loser always ends up dead.” He reached down and adjusted the thermostat.

            Natasha watched his long fingers, tried not to think of the ways he had pleasured her body with them.

            “His name is Dean Langford. A few years back, a guy named Tony Savlatori ruled the underworld in this part of the country.” Striker glanced at her. “That guy was a real piece of work, let me tell you. He’d just as soon kill you as look at you, and there’s no telling how many people he murdered and buried. Probably over a hundred, if not more, scattered all over East Tennessee.” He shook his head. “At least Brian Donahue has some sense and uses discretion. Salvatori was a real psycho who liked to beat up on his wife. When she ran off, he went after her and never came back. I’m hoping if he found her, she put a bullet in his head. Anyway, when it looked like something happened to Salvatori, a guy named Roland Metzner muscled his way in. Langford was one of Salvatori’s top guys but didn’t have the backing he needed to challenge Metzner so split and went south to Florida.  Not long after that, Metzner ended up dead after he messed with an ATF agent and now Donahue runs the show. Langford’s growing more and more powerful in his neck of the woods and wants back in East Tennessee—that’s where his family’s from—but Donahue’s in the way.” Striker shot her a serious look. “This guy’s big trouble, Natasha, so don’t think he’s some namby pamby who’s got it in his head he wants to play king of the hill. He wants Donahue out and he’ll do anything he can to ensure that happens. In the meantime, if he can’t get to Donahue, he’ll go on down the line, sending a message, and it looks like you’re number one on his list.”

            “But I’m not part of Donahue’s organization. I don’t work for the guy.” She clenched her fists. “I just don’t understand this.”

            Striker checked the mirrors, swung into the outside lane, flew past a car driven by a little old lady who just barely cleared the steering wheel. If Natasha weren’t so upset, she’d find that image amusing.

            “Theirs is a machismo world, Natasha. You, a woman, insulted Langford—at least, that’s the way he sees it—by thwarting his attempt to take out Donahue. To him, you’re a female, about as important in his life as an animal would be. And by stopping Paulie, you’ve offended him. It’s like this: he’s been bested by not only a woman but an outsider, and in his mind that is unacceptable. So you’ve got to be dealt with and soon.”

            She stared at him. “How do you know this?”

            Striker shrugged. “Let’s just say Donahue has his methods for finding things out.”

            “It wasn’t yesterday I stopped Paulie from shooting Donahue, you know. It’s been awhile. That’s why I’m thinking there can’t be much danger. He could have gotten me by now if there were.”

            “From what I’ve been told, Langford was out of the country when it happened and apparently didn’t learn about it until he arrived back home. Once he did, the order went out. But think about it. You were in hiding with Tommy, had the FBI trailing y’all, Pit and Bigun with you most of the time. You weren’t that easy to get to.”

            Natasha shook her head, thinking of Tommy, the defense lawyer who hired her to protect him from Donahue when the crime boss, thinking Tommy a snitch, put out a contract on his life. Natasha met with Donahue to try to convince him to remove the contract, and that’s when this whole mess started, with Natasha stopping Wet Paulie from taking out Donahue. Apparently Natasha being shot by Paulie in lieu of Donahue didn’t factor into Langford’s line of thinking. It was bad enough that one meeting had brought about an injury that was still healing but also the breakup between Natasha and Striker, the love of her life. She was beginning to wish she had never met Tommy James.

            Natasha watched the exit ramp leading to Roger’s mansion slide by. “Wait a minute. We’re not going to Roger’s so I can pack some clothes?”

            “Nope.”

            She looked down at her jeans and sweater. “But what am I supposed to wear? And what about Brutus? I can’t leave him alone. Roger’s still on vacation with Giki and won’t  be home for at least a week. Striker, we have to go back and get Brutus.” Natasha couldn’t stand the thought of the Weimaraner alone in her best friend’s mansion, no one to feed him or give him water.

            “I’ll have Pit and Bigun bring him to us.”

            “How long do you think we’ll be gone? Shoot, I’ve got to call Mom.” She picked up her backpack and fished through it, searching for her cell phone. She pulled it out, hesitated. “She’s not home. She and Dad left yesterday for that Alaskan cruise.”

            “How long are they going to be gone?”

            “A month.” She watched a deer up ahead on a slight slope beside the road, hoping it wouldn’t venture onto the interstate but would instead turn and go back into the woods. “Dad thinks if he can get Mom away for awhile maybe she’ll give up this bounty hunter thing she’s got going with Cameron.” Cameron was Natasha’s cousin, and Tommy—who Natasha was beginning to think was nothing but a troublemaker; look at all the bad things that had happened in her life since she met him—got the bright idea to hire Cameron and Stevie, Natasha’s mom, to find clients on the run. The little runt had gotten Stevie and Cameron bonded and outfitted and used them exclusively, and now the two were talking about renting an office together and branching out. Shoot.

            Striker grinned. “If Stevie’s anything like you, that’s not gonna happen.”

            “I don’t know who she is anymore. She used to be so, well, normal, a typical mom. Now she’s turned into a mix between the Terminator and June Cleaver.”

            Striker laughed at that image. When he sobered, he said, “They’re going to cruise for a month?”

            “ No. They’re driving cross-country instead of flying. Dad wants to see the Grand Canyon and do a little sight-seeing along the way.”

            “That’s good.”

            “Good? Why is that good? I’d like to talk to her.” Natasha felt like a little kid whose mommy had forgotten to pick her up from school.

            “If they’re not home, we won’t have to worry about them.”

            “Why do we need to worry about them?” Natasha waited for Striker to answer but he remained silent. Her eyes widened. “Oh, God. You don’t think Langford will try to get to me through them, do you?”

            Striker’s lips tightened into a thin line.

            Natasha put her hand on his arm. “Answer me, Striker. Are they in danger?”

            “They possibly could be if they were here.” He darted a glance her way. “Donahue was going to watch over them. I need to let him know they’re out of town.”

            Tears tracked down her face and she swiped at her nose. “Oh, shoot, oh, damn, oh, God, I can’t believe this.”

            Striker patted her shoulder in the male’s patented awkward way of consoling. “They’ll be fine, Natasha.”

            “I need to call, make sure they’re okay.” Natasha’s hands shook and she couldn’t see the numbers through her blurry tears.

            “You should do that. I know it’ll make you feel better knowing they’re okay.”

            Natasha wiped her eyes with her sleeve. She tapped the speed dial number, then send, listened to ringing on the other end. Breathed a sigh of relief when her mom answered. Said, “Hey, Mom,” and watched in awe as the windshield fragmented in front of her.

            Striker swerved in reaction and the SUV crunched gravel on the shoulder. He swore under his breath as he fought the wheel with one hand while punching at the windshield with the other, leaning his head out to see. Natasha dropped the phone as she drew her legs up and kicked out with her feet. The windshield flew off the vehicle and into the roadway. Striker barely managed to avoid running over it. Once he had the SUV under control, he put one hand on Natasha’s arm, urging her out of her seat. “Get in the back, in the floor.”

            Natasha moved out of his grasp, jerking her head around, searching. “Where are they? Where did the shot come from? They have to be ahead of us.”

            A bullet pinged off the front bumper.

            “Get in the back, damn it!”

            Natasha spied a black pickup truck ahead of them, a hairy arm extending out the passenger window, holding a gun. She pointed. “There.”

            “Yeah, I know, I see them.” Striker eyed the side of the road, said, “Hold on,” and swerved onto the shoulder and over the edge.

            They bumped down a rocky slope onto a pitted meadow. Natasha snatched her gun out of her backpack, turned in her seat and watched the truck above them pull to the side of the road. She debated shooting at it, but the SUV was joggling so much, the bullet might go wide and hit another vehicle. She watched the arm holding the gun jerk back with each shot. Was amazed a bullet didn’t come blazing through the rear window and into her head.

            “Lousy shot.” She held her breath when the truck began moving, praying they wouldn’t come after them. It backed up on the interstate then stopped. She smiled when she saw a state trooper’s brown car fall in line behind it, lights flashing. “Saved by DOT.”

            “Let’s hope he keeps them tied up for awhile.”

            “Let’s hope they’re not stupid enough to shoot him.”

            “Mobsters aren’t known for their intellect.”

            “Yeah but they’re canny as all get out.”

            They bounced around so much, their voices shook when they spoke.

            Natasha studied the winter-brown grass sprouting from elevated patches of dark soil. “This is either someone’s garden or horse pasture.”

            “My money’s on pasture.”

            Natasha glanced at him, thinking it ludicrous they were discussing grassland with killers after them.

            Striker maneuvered the SUV into a copse of trees, angling toward an access road a quarter of a mile away.

            “Will they see us once we reach the road?”

            “I don’t know. I’m hoping these trees hinder their line of sight.”

             “So, where are we going exactly?”

            “To my cabin.”

            “In the mountains?”

            “Yep.”

            “If they search for any property you own, won’t they find you?”

            “The title’s in my grandmother’s name. They’re going to have to do some heavy digging to find it.”

            She leaned back in the seat, closed her eyes against the cold wind blowing through the missing windshield. The cabin, where they had spent some amazing, lust-filled days only months ago, back before their two worlds collided and shattered. So much had changed since then, including their relationship. Shoot. This was going to be so hard.

           When they bumped up onto the pavement, Natasha breathed a sigh of relief and straightened in her seat. As they picked up speed, freezing air blew into the SUV, slapping at their faces and bodies. Striker reached down to turn the heater on high. Natasha wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.

            Striker reached behind, pulled out a heavy coat, tossed it over Natasha’s lap. “Put that on.”

            She noted he wore only a long-sleeved denim shirt. He had to be freezing, too. “This is yours, Striker. You have to be just as cold…”

            Striker tucked it around her neck. “I’m fine. I don’t need it. Put it on.”

            This gentle, tending moment brought tears to her eyes. She blinked hard. Dammit, why was she always on the verge of tears when it came to him? Why couldn’t she just accept their relationship was over and get on with it?

            Striker snatched his satellite phone off his belt, hit the speaker button, then a number. He set the phone on the console and both listened to it ring.

            Pit answered with, “Yo, boss, I’m here.”

            Natasha listened as Striker described to Pit what had just occurred and instructed him to drive his SUV, with Bigun following in another, and meet them at the Wendy’s off the I40 exit leading to Dollywood. “Bring Brad with you. I need someone to drive my SUV back. But be sure to tell him to wear a heavy coat and gloves and bring a ski mask with him.”

            When he paused for breath, Natasha leaned close to the phone and said, “Hey, Pit, be sure to bring Brutus, and can you throw some clothes in a duffle for me?”

            “You better bring your mutts, too,” Striker added.

            Pit said, “Done,” and disconnected.

            Striker noticed Natasha’s questioning look. “The dogs might help more than hinder, especially that damn BJ.”

            Natasha grinned. An Australian blue heeler, BJ considered his human family part of his flock and constantly tried to herd them all together by nipping at their heels, something Striker did not appreciate. Extremely protective, the dog could turn into the tasmanian devil if he thought any of his humans were in danger. PJ, a black lab, wasn’t half bad either once BJ got the action started. Brutus, the Weimaraner Natasha owned with Roger, was a huge monster who scared the crap out of anyone who didn’t know he was a gentle soul at heart. But Natasha knew, deep down inside, Brutus would protect her if the need ever arose. Weims were good for that. She prayed that never developed and the dogs would not be placed in danger. It would kill her to lose any of those precious canines. In her opinion, there was a good reason dog was God spelled backwards.

            By the time they arrived at the fast-food restaurant, both were frozen, their eyes watering from the cold wind blowing through the missing windshield, battering at their bright-red faces.

            Natasha hurried to the restroom, turned on the hand dryer, and stuck her face under it, sighing as the warm air played across her cheeks. After the numbness left her face, she ran her hands under warm water, clenching her teeth as they tingled when they began to unthaw. Once she stopped shivering, she unclipped her cell phone and called her mom.

            Stevie answered, her voice stressed, demanding to know what was going on.

            Natasha crossed her fingers and planted a smile on her face. She forced her voice to a chipper tone as she told Stevie she and Striker had been involved in a minor accident, they were fine, hardly any damage done to the vehicle. After answering “No” to Stevie’s long checklist of possible injuries, she went on to tell her mom she was going on a business trip with Striker and they should be gone a week or two and might be hard to reach so not to worry if she couldn’t get through on Natasha’s cell. Before Stevie could bombard her with further questions, she wished her a happy journey and told her to be sure and take plenty of pictures. “Oh, and call me once you’re back on land,” she added before telling her mom she loved her and hanging up the phone.

            Natasha joined Striker, sitting at a booth in front of the restaurant, watching traffic cruise by on the highway.

            He pushed a Styrofoam cup her way. “I got you some hot chocolate.”

            “Oh, thank you.” She took a sip, determined it was warm enough to gulp, and filled her mouth with the sweet liquid.

            “Did you call your mom?”

            Natasha nodded. “I lied to her, told her we were in a minor accident and were on our way out of town on a business trip.”

            Striker’s eyebrows rose. “She doesn’t know about us?”

            “No.”

            Their gazes met.

            “I just never found the right time.” Natasha grimaced at his questioning expression. “You know how she feels about you and I wsas having a hard enough time deal…” She clicked her mouth shut. No need to go there, not here, not now. Not ever.

            “You know, you’re not a very good liar. You always give yourself away. How’d you convince her you were telling the truth?”

            “I smiled the whole time I was talking to her. I read that’s supposed to make your voice sound happier, friendlier.”

            Striker considered that. He grinned at her. “You cross your fingers like a little kid telling a fib?”

            Natasha rolled her eyes.

            “I knew it. You’re just too cute.” 

            She ignored that.

            Striker watched her for a moment, and when her eyes met his, turned his gaze back to the highway. But not before she caught a glimpse of the concern, pain, and distress he wanted to hide from her.

            She reached across, squeezed his hand. “We’re going to be okay, Striker. I trust you like no one else. I get how serious this is and I’ll do whatever you say. I want you to know that. I’m not going to buck on you.”

            His gaze returned to her and he studied her for a moment, checking for veracity, she suspected. “Just know that when I tell you to do something, I’m telling you for your own safety. Don’t get all, you can’t tell me what to do, on me. This isn’t about that. I’m not threatening your sacred independence.”

            She nodded. “I know that.”

            He eyed her cell phone, clipped to her belt. “You should turn off your cell, Natasha. I’m not sure how they found us, but let’s not take any chances.”

            Natasha pulled it out of its holder and powered off. A sunbeam glancing off chrome drew her attention to the parking lot and she watched as Pit pulled his black SUV into the slot beside Striker’s, followed by Bigun in an identical vehicle. Natasha wondered how many of these cars Striker bought for his employees, hoped he at least got a bundle discount.

            “They’re here.” She got up and sat down in the booth seat beside Striker. She leaned closer to the window, ensuring the three dogs were in one of the SUV’s. Yep, the one Bigun drove. He left the back windows cracked and she could see two snouts pushing against the glass. Another doggie nose, this one black, licked the glass beside the driver’s seat. That had to be PJ.

            Pit and Bigun lumbered into the room, followed by Brad. Natasha hugged each bodyguard before resuming her position next to Striker. Pit and Bigun took the bench seat across from them, Brad pulled over a chair from another table. Natasha smiled at Pit and Bigun, who were more like family to her and who she hoped to hire away from Striker one day. Ignoring the almost-identical worried looks on their faces, she turned to Brad when he sat down, glad to see him. Striker had hired him to guard Natasha while she was guarding Giki, an English rock star, and although Natasha and Brad had gotten off to a bad start, they had since become friends.

            Natasha’s stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning.  She found it amazing she could think about food at a time like this.

            “I think I’ll get something to eat. Are y’all hungry?” She pulled over a napkin, asked if anyone had a pen, borrowed one from Pit, and took orders. “I’ll be right back.” She left the booth, thankful to get away from the careful looks they darted her way, the sense of urgency and despair she caught from Brad.

           When she returned to the table, Striker leaned back in his seat, a signal Natasha correctly interpreted to end the discussion.

            She placed two loaded trays down on the table. “You can talk in front of me, you know. I’m not some fragile Southern belle ready to go wailing out the door, tearing my hair out if I hear one of y’all say something that’s going to bother me.”

            Striker trailed his finger down her back as she sat down, bringing a shiver from her body. “Ah, darlin’, you may be fragile as a flower, but you’re hard as iron. We won’t hide anything from you.”

            She shoved an empty cup into his hand. “Go get something to drink.” When Striker and the others left the booth, she slid over next to the window, willing her nerves to settle down.