Keeping Her Safe

It’s easy to feel safe if you don’t know you’re in danger…. When DJ Woodward learned her father was alive, despite the fact that her mother had always told her otherwise, she was fuming! It didn’t occur to her that her mother had been trying to protect her for thirty years. After all, what was so threatening about a long-lost father? But why was DJ so reluctant to tell her own four-year-old daughter she had a grandfather?

Adam McAllister was fuming, too. Why hadn’t DJ’s mother told her the truth about Larry Galloway? Didn’t she realize she was putting DJ and her daughter at risk? His hands were tied by his job–as DJ’s bodyguard. Worse, he was beginning to care less about the job than he did about the woman herself. If he couldn’t tell DJ the truth–and she deserved no less–how could he ever keep her safe?

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(copyrighted material)

Prologue

Larry Galloway paced to the end of the Interview Room, pivoted at the barred windows, and started back to his seat. In another ten minutes, he’d be in front of a Parole Board, smiling pretty and looking sorry in front of a bunch of worthless jackasses who had the power to keep him in prison or set him free.

He wasn’t worried—not really. He could get out. He’d done it before. He just had to say the right things and wear the right expressions. Just play the game and tell them what they wanted to hear. They’d believe him, the worthless bunch of bleeding hearts. They loved nothing better than to think they’d helped somebody like him. So let them think it. They never needed to know how he really felt.

His attorney, Winston Jacobson, scowled up at him from his seat near the door. “Sit down, Galloway. You look nervous.”

Nervous? The word didn’t even begin to describe Larry’s present mood. He’d spent eight years in prison this time for doing nothing more than teaching that stupid woman a lesson. Mary, that stupid woman who’d been so much like Chrissy, he’d had to teach her. What else could he have done?

The woman had screwed him over, plain and simple. She’d had no business talking to that guy down the street. No business at all. But she had and, of course, Larry had caught her. She was too stupid to even cover her tracks. Naturally, he’d confronted her. He couldn’t let her get away with thinking she’d outsmarted him. And she’d tried to whine her way out of it like she always did. She’d tried to confuse him by crying and begging him not to hit her. And then she’d laid there looking pathetic and weak and stupid and pretending he’d hurt her when that prissy cop arrived—the same way Chrissy had done all those years ago, damn her. Damn her to hell.

Larry snorted to himself, then shot a glance at Winston to see if he’d noticed. No, he still had his stupid nose buried in that idiotic magazine. Today’s Celebrity. Winston was another worthless piece of crap who thought he was doing the world a favor. With another snort, Larry turned away.

“I said, sit down,” Winston said without looking up.

Larry didn’t want to sit. He wanted to think, dammit. Turning at the window, he started back across the room.

Winston glanced up from under his too-thick eyebrows. “Sit.”

What a moron. Larry sat and worked up an innocent smile. He figured it was good practice for the idiots on the parole board. “I’m sitting.”

Winston closed his magazine and tossed it to Larry. “Read.”

Oh, yeah. Read. Read about movie stars and other witless people who made millions of bucks for nothing. Larry flipped a few pages and felt the heat rising up his neck as he looked at the smiling faces of the waste of humanity on the glossy pages.

He flipped again, but this time he stopped and stared at the picture in front of him. Dark hair cropped short and shot with gray now that she was older. A smile that had once charmed him into making a fool of himself. And those dark eyes that had hidden her lies and treachery.

Chrissy. The one woman who had gotten the best of him. What in the hell was she doing in this magazine?

He read the first page and felt his control start to weaken. His temper simmered. His fists clenched. The cords in his neck strained.

She called herself Christina Prescott now. Damn her to hell.

And obviously she hadn’t suffered the way Larry’d wanted her to. She hadn’t paid a damn thing for what she’d done—what she’d stolen from him. How she’d humiliated him and taken his world from him.

Too bad for her he’d found her again after all this time. And now, she’d pay.

He scanned the article and turned the page. The picture there made his heart race and his throat dry. Chrissy and her daughters. He smiled slowly. The way to get back at her was spelled out for him right here in this worthless magazine.

Yes. That’s exactly how she’d pay. He’d take back what she’d stolen from him—how many years ago? Must be thirty years by now.

Larry would be the sorriest, most regretful sonofabitch to ever sit in front of a Parole Board if that’s what it took to get out. He wanted to laugh aloud, but even stupid Winston might start to wonder about him if he did that.

Humming softly to himself, Larry settled back in his seat to read the article. And he plotted sweet revenge.

Chapter One

Adam McAllister tossed the day’s mail onto the kitchen table, stretched to work the kinks out of his shoulders, and slipped his jacket off over his holster and sidearm. Draping the jacket over the back of a chair, he checked his phone. No messages. No texts. Good. Nothing would ruin his weekend plans with his brother now.

Just thinking about the plans he and Seth had made him smile a little despite the day he’d had. He removed the elastic from the morning’s edition of the Salt Lake Tribune and scanned the front page. But he’d already heard most of the big stories on the car’s radio or scrolled through them on his phone. He’d heard enough about the election to last a lifetime as he trailed Milo Harrison along the campaign trail.

He tossed the paper onto the table beside the mail and started to unbutton his uniform shirt as he walked down the hall toward his bedroom. He’d only gone about halfway when his stomach decided to complain about the number of hours it had been since he’d eaten. True, he’d had dinner—if you could call it that—at Milo’s campaign fund raiser, but that had been hours ago. He didn’t want to get dressed again and go back out for dinner. He didn’t want to wait for delivery if he ordered in. But unless some good fairy had stocked the kitchen in his absence, his cupboards were bare.

Trudging back to the kitchen, Adam tugged open the refrigerator door and checked inside. No surprises there. Nothing but a bit of wilted salad his mother had dropped by days before, two cans of beer, half a six-pack of cola, and something else he didn’t even try to identify.

He hesitated for a minute, debating whether to have a beer. Normally, he’d have to pass. Regulations prevented him from drinking anything within eight hours of reporting for duty, and he rarely had more than that between shifts. But with his weekend free, he had almost seventy-two hours to call his own, and right now, the beer looked more inviting than the soda or dead salad.

On the other hand, he wanted to have a clear head when he and Seth started for Idaho in just a few hours. He didn’t need a headache and he didn’t want to fight that groggy feeling while he and Seth argued over who should drive. Frowning a little, he ignored the beer, pulled a soda from its pack, and swigged a mouthful.

It was sweet and wet, but it didn’t take away the hunger pangs. If anything, it made him almost desperate for something to eat.

Scowling, he wiped his mouth and glared at the can in his hand. He lifted the can for another drink, just as the telephone rang into the stillness of his empty apartment. With a scowl, he flicked a glance at his phone. A call after midnight could only mean one of three things—work, a family crisis or Seth calling to cancel their trip.

He checked the Caller ID and groaned when he saw Chuck Tobler’s name on the screen. “This had better be an emergency,” he said as the call connected.

“Hello to you too,” Chuck’s voice charged through the air waves the way he barged everywhere in person. He was a good supervisor and Adam respected the job he did at Dodge Detective Agency, but the man had lousy timing.

“What happened today?” Chuck demanded. “Anything I need to know about? Why haven’t you called in to log off shift yet?”

“Long day,” Adam said. “I just got home a minute ago.”

“And—?”

And the fund raiser was uneventful. No trouble.”

“No anti-abortion protestors?” Chuck sounded almost disappointed. He’d agreed to take Adam’s place for the weekend and Adam knew he’d want some kind of excitement to perk up the long days.

Adam hated to disappoint him, but he couldn’t lie. “None.”

“What about those environmentalists from Southern Utah?”

“Not a sign of them,” Adam said. “It was a quiet day. Busy, but quiet.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” Chuck said without conviction. “I don’t want anything to go wrong this weekend.”

“Don’t worry,” Adam assured him. “Milo has a quiet weekend planned.”

“What about Mrs. Harrison?”

“She’ll be fine. She might drink a little to work up courage for public appearances, but she won’t cause trouble for Milo.”

Chuck let silence hang between them for a second or two, and Adam could almost see him rubbing his hand across his chin as he thought. “Tell me,” he said at last. “Do you think Kenny could handle the Harrisons?”

Adam shook his head thoughtfully. At twenty-two, Kenny Masters was still young enough to think he knew everything—a dangerous way of thinking in the security field. “I thought you were going to cover while I’m gone.”

“I am,” Chuck said. “I’m talking about a permanent change of duty.”

Pushing back an unwelcome twinge of apprehension, Adam leaned against the counter and shifted the phone to his other ear. “Why? Is something wrong?” He shouldn’t worry. He’d worked all his assigned shifts, even the odd ones, without complaint. He’d even worked guard duty at the federal installations the agency contracted with when Chuck asked. But he’d been out of the law enforcement field for the last four years of his marriage, and he wondered once in a while whether his skills had grown slightly rusty.

“No, you’ve done a great job.” Chuck said as if he could read Adam’s mind. “You’ll rise to the top in no time. In the meantime, I’ve got a new assignment for you. You’ll like this one—it’s right up your alley.”

Adam wouldn’t lie—he’d like a new assignment. The Harrison campaign detail hadn’t been as bad as he’d feared, but he hadn’t signed on with the agency to spend his days walking half a step behind a pampered politician and his wife. “What kind of assignment?”

“I just got a call from the home office,” Chuck said. “From Thomas Dodge himself, as a matter of fact.”

“I didn’t think the old man worked anymore.”

“He usually doesn’t,” Chuck admitted. “But he’s got a personal interest in this case, and he told me to assign you to cover it.”

“Me? Why?”

“Because of your experience on the police force.”

An all-too-familiar bitterness started to work its way through Adam. He still resented Victoria for pushing him to leave the force and hated himself for giving in to please her. If he’d had his way, he’d have gone back to police work when he’d walked away from the job he’d taken with Victoria’s father to make her happy. But hiring freezes along the Wasatch Front had kept him from going back to the job he loved.

He’d taken the next best thing—or so he told himself. But working armed security for Dodge kept his hands tied and left him frustrated most of the time. If he’d been running things, he’d give his first-line people more authority to deal with offenders, and he’d cut the red-tape to a minimum. But he wasn’t in charge, and he’d have to play his cards right if he wanted to work up into a management position that would give him the say he wanted.

“Tell me,” Chuck said. “Have you ever heard of Christina Prescott?”

“No. Who is she?”

“She’s an author. Lives here in Utah part of each year. You see her books everywhere—are you sure you haven’t heard of her? My wife reads all her stuff.”

Adam shrugged his indifference. He never paid attention to the names on books at the grocery store check-out or advertised online. He’d never understood why anyone would sit down with a book if they didn’t have to. “The name still doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Well, it will,” Chuck assured him. “She’s hired us to keep an eye on her daughter and granddaughter.”

Bodyguard work? The assignment didn’t sound so intriguing now. In fact, it didn’t sound much different from what he did for the Harrison campaign. “What kind of an eye?”

“Apparently, there’s some guy who’s being paroled from the Utah State Penitentiary sometime this week. His name’s Larry Galloway—a two-bit loser who’s been in and out of institutions for the past thirty years. For some reason, Ms. Prescott is convinced he’ll show up at her daughter’s place. She’s paying us to watch out for him and to keep him from bothering her family—that sort of thing.”

That made the assignment sound a touch more appetizing. “What will I be watching out for? Any specifics?”

Chuck’s chair creaked, and Adam could almost see him leaning back in it. “Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t know whether they’re in real danger, or whether Christina Prescott’s paranoid and Dodge is humoring her because of who she is.”

“You mean because of her money.” Adam had run into people with too much money and imagination before. If Ms. Prescott’s daughter was in danger, he’d be glad to help. But he didn’t want to waste his time babysitting some spoiled rich girl for her paranoid mama. He’d done enough of that during his marriage to Victoria.

But neither did he want to jeopardize his job with Dodge, so he forced away his rising resentment and managed to keep his voice sounding normal. “What’s the connection between Galloway and Prescott’s daughter? Is he an old boyfriend? Ex-husband?”

“I don’t think so,” Chuck said. “I’ve skimmed over his rap sheet, and what I’ve read so far makes him sound a little old for that…but you never know. Dodge didn’t give me details, so I’d be ready for anything.”

Adam made a face and sank onto a chair by the table. “Well, that’s helpful.”

“Yeah, isn’t it? From what I gather, Ms. Prescott is convinced Galloway will violate parole. She wants to make sure we’re there when he does, so we can put him back behind bars.”

“She wants him sent back to prison? Sounds vindictive to me.”

“You said it, I didn’t,” Chuck said with a thin laugh.

“What did Galloway go to prison for?” he asked.

“This time? Assault with a deadly weapon. Five counts. He’s been on the inside for a little over eight years. I’ll have his mugshot and rap sheet delivered to you tomorrow by courier. You can see for yourself.” Chuck rolled open a file drawer and rustled some papers near the telephone. “Okay, here’s where you report for duty—do you have something to write with?”

Adam grabbed an envelope from the stack of mail and pulled a pen from his pocket. “I do now.”

“Ms. Prescott’s daughter is Devon Jo Woodward. Goes by DJ. She owns a garden shop on the west side of Salt Lake City called The Treehouse.” He rattled off an address, flipped a few more papers, and did something to the telephone. “It looks like she’s thirty-two and divorced, and she has a four year-old daughter named Marissa.”

A four year-old? Adam tried not to groan aloud. He’d spent enough time around his brother Luke’s children to know four-year olds were too young to understand reason but too old to accept instructions without question.

On one hand, this new assignment sounded interesting—certainly more interesting than trailing around after Milo Harrison and listening to empty campaign promises—but he couldn’t pretend that he looked forward to spending time around some self-centered woman with too many credit cards and a demanding child. For a heartbeat he considered asking Chuck to leave him with the Harrisons.

“Are you there?” Chuck demanded.

Scratch that idea. Chuck sounded annoyed.

Adam grunted a reply and forced himself to pay attention.

“Ms. Prescott’s making arrangements for you to stay in a spare room in DJ’s basement.”

“Wait a minute—I’m supposed to live with them?”

“I thought you said you were paying attention.”

“I am,” Adam lied. “For how long?”

“I don’t know. Until Ms. Prescott feels safe, I guess. Or until we have Larry Galloway behind bars again.”

Wonderful. An open-ended assignment.

“Dodge wants you to move on this right away,” Chuck said. “You start duty first thing in the morning. Go straight to Ms. Woodward’s house—she’ll be expecting you. Oh— I’ll be sending a laptop with the courier, too.”

Adam shook his head, slowly at first, then faster as Chuck went on. “I’ll do it, but not tomorrow. I’ve got the weekend off, remember? I’m going to Boise with my brother.”

“Not this weekend,” Chuck said. “Your leave’s been canceled, courtesy of Thomas Dodge.”

At first, Adam thought maybe he hadn’t heard Chuck right. This was his first weekend leave in six months, and he had plans for every minute of the time.

Irritation tightened his stomach and tensed his shoulders, but he tried to keep his voice reasonably calm. “I cleared this weekend with you over three weeks ago.”

“I know, but Dodge insists on you for this assignment.”

“Somebody else can do it until I get back.”

“He ordered me to put you on the detail.” Chuck clipped out the words, a warning that his patience was wearing thin. “It’s important, Adam. You’re the only man we’ve got with the background to do the job right.”

“This trip is important.”

“It’s a softball tournament. There’ll be others.”

“It’s my brother’s first year coaching a winning team,” Adam argued, then tempered his anger and added, “and it’s my oldest brother’s birthday this weekend. We were planning to surprise him while we’re up there.”

Chuck didn’t say anything, but Adam could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. He didn’t breathe like someone who cared much about Adam’s plans.

“Assign somebody else to the case for the first few days,” Adam said. “I’ll take over first thing Monday when I get back.”

Chuck huffed out a deep breath. “I wish I could, but this assignment’s different from what we usually do. We’re sending you in undercover.”

Adam leaned back in his seat and stared at the receiver. “Undercover? Why?”

“Because Ms. Prescott doesn’t want DJ to know who you are and why you’re there. She wants you to pose as a friend of hers—you’re a writer, and you’re doing research on a new book.”

Adam barked an angry laugh. “A writer? That will never work. I don’t know the first thing about writing. Hell, I don’t even read.”

“You’ll have to find a way to make it work.”

“Easy for you to say,” Adam grumbled.

Chuck drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Look, Adam, the bottom line is this. Dodge expects you to take the assignment and make it work, and you’ll do it if you want to keep your job.” He let a moment of silence lapse, but when Adam didn’t speak, he went on. “I’ll have the courier drop off everything to you by ten in the morning. You can head to DJs house after you get it. And do yourself a favor—make sure you’re there.”

He disconnected without giving Adam a chance to respond. Filled with anger and resentment, Adam closed his eyes and struggled to control his emotions. He’d been backed into a corner and left with no options short of walking off the job—a step he wasn’t prepared to take.

He dropped his phone on the table and spent another minute or two glaring at it as if it were responsible for his disappointment. Shaking his head in self-disgust, he drained the last of his soda and lobbed the empty can toward the trash container in the corner.

After tugging his shirt off over his head, he pulled off his shoes and grabbed the phone from the table again. He punched in Seth’s number as he walked down the hall toward the bedroom.

Clinging to resentment wouldn’t accomplish anything. Traveling to Boise with Seth would have been a pleasant change of pace, but the trip wasn’t important or necessary to Adam. He’d been excited by the idea of surprising Luke on his thirty-eighth birthday, but it wasn’t worth the price he’d have to pay. He couldn’t refuse the assignment and keep his job, no matter how much he wanted to. And he knew how the business worked. If he argued the case, he’d jeopardize future promotions.

Adam had lost everything in his divorce—his house, his wife, his security. His new career with Dodge Detective was the only thing he had left—he couldn’t risk losing that, too.

DJ Woodward pushed back her hair from her eyes and scowled at the mock-up of the ad she hoped to finish in time to run in the Sunday newspapers. She’d been fussing with the layout since well before closing, but she still couldn’t get it the way she wanted.

Sighing, she tried once more to focus, but worry over the store’s financial picture had kept her awake the past few nights, and she’d been having trouble concentrating for days. She leaned back in her chair and stared at the ceiling. One dim lamp in her office provided enough light for her to work in the early autumn dusk, but heavy shadows reached eerie fingers out from the corners of the store and laid a dark blanket over everything inside.

The evening matched her mood—dark, melancholy. Pathetic. As she forced herself upright again, she caught a glimpse of the sunset over the Great Salt Lake through her office window. She allowed herself a minute to watch the sky glowing pink, yellow and lavender where the sun still touched the clouds, deepening to scarlet, orange and purple and finally darkening into a solid base of indigo at the edge of the horizon.

Her inventory of shrubs and trees stretched toward the skyline. Backed by the fading sunlight, everything looked new and clean and beautiful, and for half a second, hope filled her. But it faded again just as quickly.

The store’s financial demands had almost drained her bank accounts, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a full staff, and if the ad she was working on didn’t generate business, she didn’t know how she’d pay for the shipment of snow-blowers scheduled to arrive at the end of the month. She was floundering, and she had no idea how to save herself. She only knew that staring at sunsets wouldn’t do any good.

Turning away from the view, she scowled at the ad again. It still didn’t look right. She pushed aside the urge to quit for the day and rush home to Marissa. She couldn’t allow herself that luxury—not until she had everything under control.

With a sigh, she pulled off the pictures and type-set one more time, and started all over again. She reached across the desk for a cut-out of a daffodil bulb just as the telephone on her desk rang. Startled, she let out a thin cry and knocked a stack of bills onto the floor.

With a self-mocking laugh, she scooped up the mess and reached for the receiver. Marissa must have talked Brittany into calling to find out when she planned to finish for the night.

She answered, expecting to hear Marissa’s tiny voice or Brittany’s bored teenaged one. Instead, her mother’s slightly husky voice reached across the miles from London. “Brittany and Marissa told me you were still are work. What on earth are you doing there?”

“What on earth are you doing?” DJ asked. “Why didn’t you call my cell? Aren’t you supposed to be conducting workshops at your seminar?” She wedged the receiver against her shoulder and tucked her feet beneath her on the chair.

“The seminar doesn’t start until tomorrow,” Christina said. “But you didn’t answer my question. What are you doing there at this hour? It must be…” Christina paused for a second, then sighed. “What time is it there?”

DJ could almost visualize her mother standing in a hotel room, staring at her watch, and struggling to shift hours in her head. Give Christina Prescott something creative to do, and she’d run circles around everyone else, but figuring international time zones still threw her for a loop. “It’s a little after seven—in the evening. Unfortunately, I’m here because I’m still working.”

“That’s what I thought.” Christina’s voice sounded faintly accusing. “You should be home with Marissa. It isn’t good to leave her alone so long with the babysitter.”

DJ held back a sigh of annoyance. Of all the people she knew, she’d expect her mother to understand how difficult being a single mother could be. DJ’s father had died when DJ was two and her sister, Laura, fourteen. Christina had never remarried and until she’d sold her first novel eight years ago, she’d worked at demanding jobs with long hours. DJ had spent her share of time with babysitters until Laura had turned into a surrogate mother—a role she’d never completely surrendered.

“Brittany’s responsible,” DJ said for what felt like the hundredth time. “And I can’t go home until I finish my ad. But enough about that. What’s up?”

“I didn’t know something had to be up for me to call.” To DJ’s surprise, Christina sounded slightly offended.

“Only when you’re overseas, Mom. Actually, this is a wonderful surprise. I really didn’t expect to hear from you until you got back to New York.”

“I know,” her mother admitted. “But I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. And after the conference is over, I’ll still be gone another two weeks. It’s a long time to be away from home. I just needed to make sure everything’s all right—”

“Everything’s fine,” DJ lied.

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Christina let a short silence fall between them, and DJ expected her to laugh, apologize for being an alarmist, and hang up before the bill grew too large. Instead, she cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Then, I need to ask a big favor. I know this is going to be an imposition, but I really don’t know where else to turn.”

“What’s wrong?” DJ asked. “What do you need?”

Christina laughed the way she always did in uncomfortable situations. “I have a friend who needs to do spend some time in Utah. He’s researching a book set along the Wasatch Front, and he needs a place to stay. I told him about the extra room in your basement.”

“What about the room in my basement?”

“I told him he could probably stay there with you.”

DJ’s mouth fell open in shock. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Christina didn’t respond. She wasn’t kidding.

“You want me to entertain a guest,” DJ said to clarify. “A strange, male guest. In my home. With Marissa there.” She shook her head quickly. “Not gonna happen, Mom.”

“Now, sweetheart,” Christina used her mother-soothing-child voice—DJ recognized it immediately. As a child, it had brought her comfort. As an adult, it left her irritated. “Don’t get upset. He’s really a very nice man.”

“Whether or not he’s nice isn’t the issue.”

Christina didn’t seem to hear her. “His name’s Adam McAllister. He’ll only stay for a few weeks.”

“A few weeks? Are you insane?”

“I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”

“You want him to move into my house? Why can’t he stay with Laura and Bob? Or at your place—it’s empty.”

He needs to stay in Salt Lake, not forty or fifty miles away. Besides…” her mother’s voice trailed away.

And DJ’s stomach knotted. “You already tell him he could, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t expect you to be unreasonable.”

DJ laughed without humor. “I’m not the one being unreasonable here. I don’t believe you did that.”

“But I did. That’s okay isn’t it?”

“No,” she almost shouted, then pulled back on her temper and lowered her voice. “It’s my busiest season at the store. I don’t have time to cook and clean up after anyone, and I don’t want some strange man prowling around my house.”

“He’s not a strange man,” Christina insisted. “And you won’t have to cook for him. He can take care of himself—if you don’t mind him using your kitchen.”

Lifting the mouthpiece to her forehead, DJ stared at her desktop. It did no good to argue with her mother when she was in this mood. Once Christina Prescott decided something, she moved ahead at full steam and nothing could change her mind. Not even common sense.

DJ knew only too well what having a writer around the house and underfoot meant, and she didn’t have the time or the patience to deal with Adam McAllister and his book right now. She didn’t have time to remind him to eat when he lost himself in a story. She didn’t have the patience to listen to him agonize over endless plot twists and story lines. She didn’t have the energy to put up with some strange, old man hogging the bathroom and her kitchen.

“It won’t work,” she said again.

“He won’t be any trouble.”

DJ shook her head. “There are plenty of alternatives. Plenty of other houses in Salt Lake—”

“Not where Adam could stay.”

“Why? What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” Christina said quickly. “All I’m asking is for you to let a friend of mine stay there—a perfectly harmless man who needs a place to stay. The best part is, Adam can get his book done and I won’t have to worry about you being there alone.”

DJ slumped a little further in her chair. Surely her mother wouldn’t waste expensive International minutes to rehash that ongoing argument. “I’m not alone, Mom. I’ve got Marissa.”

“Marissa’s a child. She’s too young to offer any protection. Don’t argue with me. You’re alone on that street every night after your employees go home. It’s all but deserted. It’s not safe for a woman and child to live alone like you do. I’ve never been comfortable with the whole setup.”

And she told DJ about it at every opportunity. “The neighborhood’s fine,” DJ said.

“It’s not fine. Not anymore. It’s changing—and not for the better.”

“It’s fine,” DJ said again. “I’m not afraid.” She’d never been nervous like her mother and older sister. She didn’t prowl in the dark, checking the doors and windows. She didn’t stare into the night as if she expected something to appear out of the shadows, nor did she jump at every sound in the night.

Christina sighed heavily, a clear signal that the real argument was about to begin. “You know I don’t ask for favors often. And I wouldn’t ask this time if I had any other choice. Besides, I know you’ve been strapped for cash lately, and Adam’s willing to pay rent for the chance to sleep in your basement for a few weeks.”

DJ dropped her head to her desk and cursed silently. “That’s totally creepy and I’m not strapped.”

“No? Then why isn’t Marissa taking her little dance classes anymore? Why did you sell the Cherokee and keep that old Toyota? Why did you change your mind about taking Marissa to Disneyland?”

“Okay,” DJ snapped. “So things are a little tight.”

“Have you done anything to collect the back child support Jeff owes you?”

“No. And I still don’t intend to. He didn’t want Marissa in the first place, remember? I wouldn’t be doing her any favors by dragging him back into her life.”

“Then let me help out a little.”

“No, Mom.”

“We could consider it a business loan—”

DJ shook her head and kicked her feet back to the floor. “I’d send it straight back to you. I can make it on my own.”

Christina sighed again. “Honey, I know you want to stand on your own two feet. I know you’re trying to build yourself back up after the divorce—”

“It’s not that, Mom.” But they both knew it was. DJ’s house and store represented hard-won independence, and she had no intention of losing either. The figures in her bank balance danced in front of her eyes and urged her to reconsider letting Adam McAllister stay. She wanted to refuse—she certainly ought to refuse—but reality forced her to admit having a boarder might be the only way she could stay afloat through the winter months.

“How much rent?” she asked at last.

Christina named a ridiculously high figure, and DJ could almost hear her gloating on the other end of the line.

DJ argued with herself for a few seconds longer, but she was in a losing battle. She needed the money too much to let pride stand in the way, and taking in a boarder would be better than accepting a handout from her mother. “I’m not going to have a lot of time to socialize with him,” she warned.

“You won’t need to socialize,” Christina assured her. “Just be fairly pleasant—or at least, don’t be unpleasant. You probably won’t even notice he’s there.”

DJ didn’t believe that for an instant. The layout of her small house wouldn’t allow for a lot of privacy. But she didn’t want to discuss it anymore, and she didn’t want the conversation to disintegrate into a full-fledged argument.

She drew in a deep breath and made an effort to steer Christina to a less touchy subject. “Did you get a chance to talk to Laura before she and Bob left for Lake Powell?”

Christina hesitated for long enough to make DJ wonder if she’d try to keep the argument going. But she finally answered DJ’s question. “Yes. I talked to her for a few minutes right before they left. Has she called you?”

“No. But they’ll be on the houseboat on Lake Powell for two weeks, so I’m not expecting to hear from them.”

“You see?” Christina gloated. “With Laura and Bob away, that’s another reason I’ll feel better about having Adam stay with you.”

DJ groaned aloud. “Mom— It’s not as if Laura and Bob live next door.”

Christina sighed softly. “Humor me, sweetheart. That’s all I ask. And promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”

“Of course, I will, but I should be telling you that. You’re the one half the world away.”

“I have people with me.” Christina sounded almost sad, but when she spoke again, she sounded more like herself. “All right, sweetheart. I won’t keep you any longer. I know you’re busy and this is costing me a fortune. Give Marissa a kiss for me when you get home, and be nice to Mr. McAllister.”

“I’m always nice,” DJ said. “One more thing before you go—when will my houseguest be arriving?”

Christina hesitated a split second before she answered. “Tomorrow morning.”

Tomorrow?” DJ rolled her eyes and stared at the ceiling. “Couldn’t you give me a couple days’ notice?”

“I just found out about it, myself.”

“Well, he’ll just have to take what he gets. I’m not even sure I’ll have time to put clean sheets on the bed.”

“I’m sure you’ll make everything lovely,” Christina said. “I wouldn’t worry about it for a minute. Now, tell me, do you have my itinerary handy in case you need to reach me?”

“Yes, I do,” DJ said for at least the hundredth time since her mother had started planning the trip. But that note of sadness had touched her mother’s voice again, and DJ couldn’t help but ask, “Are you all right, Mom?”

“Yes, of course. Just a little tired, that’s all.” Christina managed a laugh, but it sounded forced. Unnatural. “You know how emotional I get when I’m tired.”

DJ’s annoyance faded. “Then get some rest. And don’t forget to eat.”

“I won’t forget.” Her mother paused for another long second. “I love you, DJ.”

The connection died and DJ stared at the receiver until the dial tone died away and the off-hook tone sounded loud in the empty room. She tried to tell herself she’d imagined the odd sound of dejection in her mother’s voice. But she knew before she even replaced the receiver that she wouldn’t rest easy until she’d talked with her again and heard her sounding more normal.

Leaning her forehead on the heel of one hand, she made a mental note to call her mother in a day or two, then reached for her ad again and tried not to think about how much a telephone call to Europe would cost. Everything would work out fine. Somehow, she and Marissa would get by. With the help of Adam McAllister’s rent, DJ would make ends meet and she’d keep the store going another month or two. She believed it. She had to. She wouldn’t even consider the alternative.

Adam left the freeway on the Sixth South exit and followed the ramp east, toward Salt Lake’s city center. A brisk breeze stirred the air inside the truck’s cab, swept past his face and tugged at his hair, but it did nothing to relieve his tension.

He’d spent half the night thinking about his aborted trip to Boise and resenting Christina Prescott and DJ Woodward for causing the change of plans. He’s spent the other half cursing Thomas Dodge and Chuck for putting him on this assignment and fighting bitterness toward Victoria for pushing him out of his chosen career in the first place. Even the bright sunlight couldn’t chase away the surly resentment he was feeling or the irritation aimed at everyone and everything, including himself.

He glared at a stoplight for having the nerve to turn red and stomped on the truck’s brakes. He knew better than this. Dwelling on past choices and hoping for the impossible wouldn’t get him anywhere. He knew better than to think about his lost career—it hurt too much—or his failed marriage. At least he had a job and a paycheck. He’d be smart to stop feeling sorry for himself. Anger wouldn’t change anything, anyway.

Giving himself a mental shake, he maneuvered through the early morning traffic and followed the Fourth South viaduct over the railroad tracks onto the city’s west side. But no amount of positive self-talk did the trick. The foul mood seemed to ride in the truck’s cab beside him.

As he searched for DJ’s address, he glared out the windows and took in his surroundings. He hadn’t been in this area for years, and what he saw surprised him. He’d expected to find DJ Woodward living in some preppie locale with inflated property values. Instead, he found her address in the middle of a run-down area full of old houses and vacant buildings with graffiti on the walls.

The Treehouse sat at the end of a street just two houses long. Two houses squatted on each side of the street, but only one of the four appeared occupied. At the end of the street, a wide parking lot opened up in front of the store. Fields of trees and shrubs stretched away from it in every direction.

He spotted several customers strolling through tree lots and two young men stacking bags of fertilizer in a shed behind a sagging gate. One young woman drizzled water from a hose over flower boxes in front of the store while another dragged a cart into the parking lot behind a woman in a business suit.

Circling the parking lot slowly, Adam returned to the residential part of the street and parked beneath the shade of an old tree. From there he could see the store and he could also study the red brick house next door to it—DJ Woodward’s house.

In contrast to its nearest neighbors, the lawn was not only green, it had been recently mowed. The flowerbeds were virtually weed-free, and the trim freshly painted. Terraced rose gardens stepped from the lawn up to a redwood deck that ran along the south wall of the house, and planter boxes lined the picture windows and the wide front porch on the east. Huge old trees with slowly reddening leaves lined the short street and others marked the location of the Jordan River in back.

He studied the layout and grudgingly admitted the place didn’t look bad, but it was isolated from its neighbors. The house itself looked comfortable, if a little small. Modest, but livable. The Treehouse was larger than he’d expected, but it wasn’t showy or flashy. Again, the opposite of everything he’d pictured for the daughter of Christina Prescott.

As he watched, the front door of the house opened and a small girl with a high ponytail stepped outside. She clutched a rag doll under one arm and dragged a teddy bear across the porch with her other hand. A shaggy black dog followed her toward the steps and flopped down in a spot of sun while the child arranged her toys.

When the door opened a second time, a young woman in jeans and a sweater stepped onto the porch. She’d pulled her long, blond hair into some kind of bob that stuck straight up and bounced with every step she took. She crossed the porch, settled onto the front steps beside the child, and adjusted a pair of sunglasses on her nose. Totally oblivious to him, she leaned back to let the weak autumn sun touch her face.

She had to be DJ Woodward, but she looked like little more than a child herself. A self-indulgent child who sat in the sun while others ran her store and generated her income. Too much like Victoria for comfort. He’d bet anything that when he looked into her eyes he’d see the same kind of dignified boredom he’d always seen in Victoria’s expression.

He was going to hate this assignment. Next time he spoke to Chuck, he’d have a few things to say about being sent on an assignment that amounted to nothing more than glorified babysitting.

Heaving a sigh, he told himself to get out of the truck and introduce himself. Get it over with. Procrastinating wouldn’t change anything.

He’d just have to concentrate on the job and put his personal feelings aside. He could do that. He’d done it before—just not with a woman who’d remind him of Victoria every time he looked at her.

As he reached for the truck’s door handle, a knock sounded on the window by his ear and a shadow darkened the glass. Years of experience prompted an instinctive reaction. He reached for his sidearm half a second before he remembered he hadn’t been authorized to carry it on this assignment. He’d left his weapon zipped inside the duffel bag on the floor.

The shadow shifted a little, and he found himself staring into the hostile glare of the woman with the cart he’d noticed leaving the store a few minutes earlier. She’d abandoned the cart a few feet to one side, and she stood, hands on hips, glowering at him as if he’d committed a crime.

He pushed open the door and stood to face her. She wore a pair of overalls, a plaid flannel shirt, and steel-toed work boots with thick soles. She looked like a wood sprite—the kind of person who’d be at home deep in a forest somewhere saving the earth.

She tossed a dark braid over her shoulder and held his gaze without backing down an inch, though she had to crane her neck to do it. “Can I help you with something?”

He shook his head and flicked another glance at the house. “No, I—”

“What are you doing lurking out here?” she interrupted before he could even finish his thought.

Silently acknowledging a grudging admiration for the way she confronted him, he locked his truck’s door and dropped the key into his pocket. “I wasn’t lurking.”

Her eyes flashed. “You’ve been sitting here, lurking, for twenty minutes.”

Biting back a smile, Adam glanced at his watch and started slowly toward the house. “I was here ten minutes, and I wasn’t lurking.”

She ran a little ahead of him, then turned and walked backwards, facing him. She met his gaze with a challenge in her deep brown eyes. “You were watching the house. Why?”

Adam stopped in his tracks and shot another glance at the blonde woman on the porch, then turned his gaze back to his interrogator. The two women were as different as night and day, and he infinitely preferred this one. “I wasn’t watching the house.” It was true—in a way. Pushing gently past her, he started walking again.

She chased after him. “Excuse me. Just what are you doing here?”

He flicked a glance at her, but this time he didn’t break his stride. “I have business with Ms. Woodward.”

“What kind of business?”

He supposed there was no harm in telling her the basics. She’d find out soon enough, anyway. “My name’s Adam McAllister. I’ll be staying with Ms. Woodward for a few days.”

This time, she stopped walking so abruptly he nearly ran into her. “You’re Adam McAllister?”

He nodded once.

To his surprise, she laughed. Her dark eyes sparkled suddenly and her face changed into one infinitely more appealing than he’d first imagined. “Why didn’t you say that in the first place? I’m DJ.”

Adam stared at her for a second, then chuckled softly and shook the hand she offered. It felt warm and firm in his. Capable. Competent. And very soft.

“I’ve been expecting you—but I must confess, I thought you’d be older. Closer to my mother’s age.”

And he’d expected her to be younger. Or older. Or less attractive. Flushing slightly, he tore his gaze away from hers and dropped her hand.

She pulled her hand back quickly and started walking again. “Well, now that we know who we are, I guess I shouldn’t keep you standing out here all day. Mom didn’t call until last night to tell me you were coming, so I haven’t had time to do much to your room.”

Adam adjusted his stride to match hers. “Don’t worry about me. I can do whatever needs to be done.”

She tucked a stray lock of hair behind one ear and shrugged lightly. “No trouble. There’s a small table in your room you can use for your computer and I can give you the Wi-Fi password to use while you’re here. I’d set up a guest account, but I’m not sure how to do that.”

“Not a problem,” he said, holding up a hand to stem the tide of words. “I probably won’t use one while I’m here. Besides, I don’t want to be any trouble or get in your way.”

She took his measure slowly with those deep brown eyes of hers. “It’s a small house. We’d have to work pretty hard to avoid each other.”

A warm tingle raced up his spine and his mouth grew suddenly dry. Half a dozen replies rose to his lips, but each one sounded slightly suggestive, which made them all inappropriate. He tried to look away, but her gaze held his captive,

Luckily, the child looked up at that moment, saw them approaching and shot to her feet. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

DJ blinked rapidly and turned toward her daughter. Still shouting, the child raced down the steps and along the driveway. The dog yipped as it ran after her—it looked nearly as excited as Marissa to see DJ. She swept Marissa off her feet and twirled her, then reached down to pat the dog’s head. Glancing at him over her shoulder, she smiled, a gentle curve of her lips that spread all the way to her eyes.

He tried to smile back, but he couldn’t force his lips to move. Maybe he’d have been better off if DJ had turned out to be the type of woman he’d been expecting. He could have ignored that woman’s eyes. He could have disregarded her throaty laugh or the slightly husky note in her voice.

But this woman— He let out a breath of frustration. This woman was going to be dangerous, he could feel that already. He’d known her less than fifteen minutes, and she’d already made him all but forget his reasons for being here.

(copyrighted material)


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