Alex Saunders already hated this job.
Federal judge Robert “call me Bobby” Adams was a pain in the ass. He’d agreed to protection and then demanded a backup. A private backup. From everything Alex could ascertain, the judge was throwing his son a bone, tossing cash to the son’s firm, Adams-Larsen Inc. and Associates. The judge insisted on hiring them as secondary security protection. A service that as far as Alex could tell, the firm was ill-equipped to provide.
Adams-Larsen was an image consulting firm. He tried to keep an open mind…although in his opinion if you lived a clean life, you shouldn’t need help cleaning up your image.
So far, he’d seen a chick dressed as a giant mugger assaulting a frail woman that a strong gust of October wind would blow away. He couldn’t say why he thought the mugger was a woman, except that there’d been something in her stance….
She’d been watching him and he’d had a vision of stripping away the mugger outfit to reveal what lay beneath. Her gaze had pierced the armor of his self-control and for a moment, he’d been tempted to stand by the floor-to-ceiling windows and just…watch.
Mentally he gave himself a slap. He was acting just like the guy harassing the judge. Except something hinky was definitely going on with the judge and his stalker. Alex just didn’t know what. Yet.
They stopped by a receptionist’s desk. The judge halted, bent to the Latina woman who guarded the inner sanctum of this business.
“Maria.” The judge’s voice had softened, gentled.
Ho now. What was that all about?
“Hello, Judge Adams.”
“Now, darlin’, I’ve told you to call me Bobby.” He reached out to clasp one of her hands, but after she pulled back subtly, the judge patted her hand. “How are you?”
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her smile uneasy. “I’m doing…good.”
“I’m very pleased to hear that.” Judge Adams beetled his brows. “You need anything, you call me.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The weirdest part of the whole exchange was the way the judge acted almost fatherly toward the woman. In the two hours Alex had observed him relating to women, he hadn’t once displayed this kind of behavior. And he’d watched Judge Adams interact with a lot of women.
“Gentlemen.” A smoky contralto interrupted his thoughts. Alex turned toward the sexy voice and stopped.
She was freaking gorgeous.
Slender, stacked, and elegant. She wore a suit with a pencil skirt in a bold patriotic red, glossy lips matched her skirt and demanded attention, and a pair of heels made her legs look fantastic. She had classic Scandinavian coloring, white-blond hair, pale skin, and high cheekbones with unusual dark gray eyes.
The judge straightened. “Jillian, dear.”
So this was Jillian Larsen. The judge’s son’s business partner. For some reason her name sounded familiar. The judge smiled and clasped Jillian Larsen around the shoulders, embracing her in a hug that went on just a little too long.
Her smile was absolutely, politely professional as she eased away. “Nice to see you again, Judge.”
“Marsh is on assignment right now.” She was lying through her perfectly straight, unnaturally white teeth. “He sent his regrets.”
“Not a problem.” The judge dismissed the statement, either not knowing or not caring that she’d lied. “I had planned to request a favor from you in any event.”
“Why don’t you both come into my office.” Jillian Larsen led them toward a set of tall mahogany doors. “And you can tell me all about it.”
Her stride hitched for a barely perceptible moment, then she led them away from the giant desk situated in front of a wall of bookshelves and toward a more casual sitting area with wing chairs and a small sofa. She strode easily and confidently, leaving the men in her wake, while the judge stared at her butt for just a little too long.
She was young enough be to his daughter. But that didn’t seem to matter to the man. He was an equal opportunity dawg. With the very bizarre exception of the receptionist.
Jillian Larsen sat in a wing chair, leaving another chair and a settee for Alex and the judge.
Quickly Judge Adams introduced Alex, only by name, not mentioning the reason he was accompanied, then skimmed over the details of his problem.
Jillian Larsen didn’t say a word as the judge glossed over the specifics of receiving very detailed emails, expertly encoded letters no less, with explicit death threats. No cut-and-paste pictures out of magazines for this guy. The US Marshals’ computer guys were still trying to de-code the high-tech encryption. And they still hadn’t determined where the emails originated from.
Jillian listened intently, her mouth pursed and her unusual gray eyes flat.
The judge wound up, “So you see my dear, I’m hoping that we can hire you to be an additional…pair of eyes until this nonsense stops.”
Without even glancing at Alex, she demurred. “You’re asking us to engage out of our area of expertise, Judge. You are not our typical agency client.” She pulled out a smartphone and started thumbing through her contacts. “I can recommend several good security—”
“Jillian. Cut the horseshit.” The judge’s affable, good-old-boy demeanor had been replaced by the guy who’d managed to survive the Congressional vetting process unscathed and made difficult decisions to send traitors and high-level criminals to federal prison for life. “I need you to make this happen.”
Alex was pretty sure there was a threat in Judge Adams’s words but damned if he could figure out that underlying warning.
“You’re in a precarious position as it is after the debacle last month with the FBI.”
Maybe that was why her name sounded familiar. Memories finally clicked. A prominent Russian businessman with shady connections had been killed in a shootout right here at Adams-Larsen. The story in the press was that the Russian had a love interest in DC and had entered the country illegally. Something had gone awry and he’d taken a hostage. Congress was set to hold private hearings on the situation, wanting to know how the man got into the country and why he ended up dead. Alex had thought there was a whole hell of a lot of logistical things left out of that story.
“It would be embarrassing if you ended up with more negative press. Not great for a…PR agency.”
Mentally Alex perked up. Forget the prior veiled warning, the judge had just very clearly and overtly bullied Jillian Larsen, his son’s business partner. Although Alex still had no idea what the judge was talking about.
Jillian blinked, never once losing her composure. “With Bliss and Rissa mostly on the West Coast these days, I’m shorthanded right now.”
Denial in her gaze was swift but her comeback was smooth and unhurried. “I’m sorry but I’m needed here at the moment. Perhaps Dwayne.”
“Need a woman.” The judge was shaking his head. “She can pose as my personal aide.”
Finally the reason they were here clicked in Alex’s brain. The judge didn’t want an additional bodyguard, he wanted a playmate. Or he wanted a bodyguard who looked like a playmate.
“Ms. Larsen, perhaps it would ease your mind to know that the US Marshals will be running point on Judge Adams’s case and he will be under their protection.”
“That would be you?” she asked coolly.
Alex nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Her eyes went flat again, almost as if his being a deputy marshal worked against him. Alex could practically see her brain synapses firing as she considered then rejected options. But she didn’t shut the judge down. Did that mean she didn’t trust the US Marshals? The United States Marshals office was the best personal protection security in the world. Certainly head and shoulders above some Beltway spin doctors who were so bad at PR they were going to be part of a congressional hearing.
This detail was a freaking train wreck.
But on his last job, after loudly protesting the authenticity and suitability of the US Marshal’s witness he’d been charged with protecting, Alex had received an official reprimand from HR. It didn’t matter that his instincts had been right on target. The fucking idiot had violated the terms of WitSec within a week of being relocated, and in another week he’d been dead.
Killed by the very people he was supposed to be hiding from.
Alex had a bad feeling about this job. But the ding in his personnel file didn’t give a shit, and he could not afford to fuck up this assignment.
The immediate consequence of speaking up on his last case had been a transfer to the Judicial Protection branch of the Marshals, and the protection of one ornery Judge Robert “call me Bobby” Adams.
Right away the judge had put him in an awkward position by requesting the addition of an Adams-Larsen employee. But Alex’s new boss told him to do whatever the judge wanted to keep him happy. Having additional backup outside the assigned Marshals—namely him and his partner, Shep—was highly unusual.
“I may have one person.” She was so reluctant that Alex couldn’t imagine her choice would be acceptable.
“Well, go get her,” the judge ordered.
Jillian Larsen moved elegantly, crossing her legs, and pressed a button on her cell phone, turning it into a two-way comm system. “Maria, can you page Kita for me?”
The judge glanced at his diamond-rimmed, 14-carat gold Rolex. “I’ve got an important pretrial meeting in an hour.”
Alex was an expert at reading people. Jillian Larsen wanted desperately to tell Judge Adams to go to hell, but she pasted a very polite smile on her lips and held back the harsh words.
“Maria, have her come up right away.”
Alex made a mental note to check into the background of the employees of this agency. He hadn’t had a chance to do more than find out they did image consulting since Judge Adams dropped this bomb on him.
“But, Jill.” They could all hear the hesitation in her assistant’s voice. “She’s in the sparring room.”
“Okay.” You asked for it was implicitly implied in the receptionist’s dubious tone.
Kita rushed up the stairs. Was something wrong with Marsh? She couldn’t believe that thought hadn’t occurred to her when the judge walked in.
They needed to see her right away.
She’d removed the padded assailant suit, stripped down to a tight wicking sleeveless top and a pair of skimpy spandex shorts. She’d tugged on a pair of running shoes and splashed water on her face and skimmed over her pony. The temp inside the assailant suit got damn hot and her face felt like she’d sat in the sun at a Nationals game in the dead of summer. She also smelled a little funky and the quick spritz of Dwayne’s Axe didn’t really mask the odor. She’d have preferred a cold shower. But Jillian had said, “Right away.”
Kita burst into the reception area. “Everything okay? Something wrong with Marsh?”
“Not as far as I know,” Maria Torres said softly. She was still finding her confidence. She’d been abducted as a teenager and spent eight years in a solitary prison before she’d managed to escape. Kita couldn’t even imagine the fortitude it had taken for her to not crumble up and wither away. But she hadn’t. And slowly but surely Maria was coming out of her shell and growing into the woman she was meant to be.
Relief washed over Kita.
“When you ask for right away, this is what you get, stinky and sweaty.” Kita grinned.
“Apparently they couldn’t wait for you.” Maria rolled her eyes and Kita loved that little bit of ’tude. “Go on in.”
She strode into Jillian Larsen’s office, then felt as if she’d walked into an alternative dimension.
Three people, elegantly dressed, sipping beverages out of delicate china cups, turned at the same time as if choreographed. They were having a tea party and she’d just crashed it.
“You wanted to see me.” Right away. They sure hadn’t given her time to clean up.
“Kita, thanks for coming so quickly.” Jillian put down her cup, the clatter of china loud in the suddenly silent room.
In her St. John suit and matching pumps, with her perfectly smooth blond hair and expertly applied makeup, Jill was the epitome of polished and poised. Kita was the unkempt homeless girl compared to Jillian’s high society princess.
Both men rose to their feet. If she hadn’t been distracted by the sheer power of the man to her right she might have been amused at their old-fashioned gesture.
Immediately her gaze went to the unknown man. Up close his presence was even more compelling. Blue-black hair, a leanly chiseled, uncompromising face, and the stoic expression in his reserved pale blue eyes captivated her.
Like the magnetic pull of the moon, she couldn’t stop staring at him. She was drawn to him. Power. He’d exuded it merely sitting in the effeminate chair.
His shoulders were broad, and although his button-down cotton shirt was just a little too loose to reveal the muscles beneath, she sensed his strength. And she wondered again who he was and what he wanted with her.
She knew what she wanted with him.