Excerpt: The Bodyguard
“Looks like you’ve been stood up, darlin’,” the bartender drawled.
Stacey Webb peered up at Bobby as she nursed her glass of wine. “Yeah, I guess it does.”
“Think somethin’ happened to Lauren?”
“No.” Mark Dunn probably wouldn’t let her come.
“She’s been in here a couple of times lately with that jerk she dates. She doesn’t look too good.”
“I know. She doesn’t.”
Sighing, Stacey leaned against the high back of the stool while Bobby poured draft beers for two guys at the end of the mahogany bar. She glanced at the clock. Cutter’s Bar and Restaurant was quiet, not unusual for ten o’clock on a Monday night. Nibbling on popcorn, she tried to watch the baseball game on the large-screen TV, but it didn’t distract her from thoughts of Lauren. Stacey was worried about her friend, whose recent unreliable behavior was out of character.
The door whooshed open, allowing in the warm June air, and Stacey turned to see if Lauren had come, after all. But instead, a tall, broad-shouldered man filled the doorway.
Surreptitiously, Stacey watched him as he scanned the room. His gaze landed briefly on her; he nodded in a common-courtesy way and took a seat several feet down the bar.
She knew who he was. Everyone in Canfield knew who he was. He’d been in the news about a year ago for saving a four-year-old boy who’d fallen into an abandoned well. McKay had maneuvered himself down the narrow shaft when efforts to coax the toddler into a harness failed. On the way up, with the child in his arms, his shoulders became wedged between the walls and one had been severely dislocated. The injury ultimately forced an early retirement—he was only thirty-six—from the police department he’d joined three years ago after he’d returned to Canfield.
Stacey had been impressed when she’d read about the rescue, and moved by the picture of little Timmy Malone hugging McKay in a death grip as they emerged from the well. But her father had had a strange reaction to the media-touted event.
She thought of Gifford Webb. He’d never have gone on his business trip if he’d thought for one minute she’d be spending the night alone. Especially after all that had happened to her in the past few weeks. She’d promised him that Lauren would be staying at their house tonight.
“What can I get you, Cord?” Bobby asked congenially, as McKay settled onto a stool with the grace of a trained athlete.
“How’s the shoulder?”
“You workin’ yet?” Bobby seemed oblivious to the other man’s clipped tone.
McKay scowled. “No.”
“Decided what you’re gonna do?”
“Nope. Who’s ahead?” McKay asked, his eyes flicking to the screen.
Stacey pretended to watch the game, but stole a few glimpses at the town hero. He wasn’t exactly handsome, more craggily attractive, she decided. His thick hair—growing out from its regulation police cut—was the color of ripe wheat. In profile, his nose had a slight bump, indicating it had probably been broken. There were deep grooves bracketing his mouth; stubble lined his jaw.
“Want another one, Stacey?” Bobby asked when he came down to wipe the counter in front of her.
“No, I’ll just sip this and wait ten more minutes for Lauren.”
“The police ever catch the guys who slashed your tires?”
Stacey wasn’t surprised at the question. There were no secrets in Canfield, a small upstate New York town in the Southern Tier, but she loved the place, anyway. She’d always felt safe here. Until now.
“No. It was probably just some prank.”
“Your father didn’t think so. Heard he raised a ruckus at the police station.”
What Bobby hadn’t heard about was that she’d been followed, and gotten strange phone calls where no one had spoken when she’d answered. But Stacey had assumed they were all coincidences and hadn’t reported them to the police.
“Well, my father overreacts sometimes.”
“Your daddy just cares about you.”
And, Stacey thought with reluctant affection, as CEO of Canfield Glass Works, her father was used to getting his way. Like insisting someone stay with her tonight.
Well, she’d tried.
Glancing down the bar, she saw Cord McKay take several long swigs of his beer, then stand up. His navy blue T-shirt rippled across his muscles, and Stacey felt a little jolt in her stomach. She tore her gaze away from him and fingered the ring on her left hand. She hadn’t looked at another man since she’d gotten engaged to Preston Matthews six months ago. She was annoyed at herself for noticing McKay’s body tonight. If there was one thing she believed in, it was fidelity.
Unlike her mother, she thought bitterly.
Just then, Stacey heard the door slam. She waited a few minutes to ensure she wouldn’t run into McKay as she walked to her car, then got up to leave, too.
“Damn!” Cord McKay bent down to rescue his car keys from the mud puddle where he’d just dropped them. It was dark on Bridge Street, so he fished around for a few seconds until he came up with them. He’d been thinking about Stacey Webb and hadn’t been watching what he was doing. Wiping the keys— and his hands—on his denims, he pictured her sitting alone-on the bar stool, waiting for her friend. She’d looked worried. And what the hell was that about slashed tires?
He scrubbed his hands over his face. The last thing he’d wanted tonight was an encounter with her. He’d seen her around town a number of times. She was easy to spot, with her dark sassy hair, knockout body and wild clothes. He’d made a point of keeping his distance. Though she seemed blissfully unaware of his tension when they met, it coiled within him like a snake ready to strike whenever he simply saw her. Thank God there hadn’t been many encounters.
Tonight, he’d only stopped at Cutter’s to take the edge off his restlessness. He’d been up for three consecutive nights with his daughter, Megan, who had a raging case of chicken pox. And his shoulder was giving him trouble again. He’d been too tired to sleep and needed to get out of the house for a while. So he’d left Megan with his mother and gone for a beer.
Just as he jammed the keys into the lock of his truck, Stacey exited the bar and headed straight for her small, metallic blue Miata without noticing him. He eased open the door and was about to climb in, when he glanced over his shoulder and saw a figure leap from the alley and dart toward Stacey. The man was dressed in dark clothing, with a ski mask over his face. About Cord’s height, and as muscular, the guy quickly overtook her and slammed a hand over her mouth.
Pivoting sharply, Cord reached behind his back for his gun. He cursed when he remembered he no longer carried it. Unarmed, he bolted across the sidewalk.
Before he could get to her, Stacey twisted her body and elbowed her attacker in the gut.
“Bitch,” the man snapped just as Cord hurled himself at them.
Headfirst, he clipped the assailant behind the knees.
“What the fuck… “ The guy released Stacey and whirled toward Cord, but lost his balance and smashed face first into the concrete with a bone-crunching thud.
Cord straddled his prone body and twisted the man’s arm behind his back. With a knee on the guy’s spine, Cord yanked the attacker’s head up by the ski mask. Though the position strained Cord’s shoulder, he pressed and pulled mercilessly. Suddenly, a car screeched to a halt at the curb in front of Cutter’s. Its headlights illuminated another dark-clad figure bounding from the alley.
Without warning, Cord felt something slam into his temple. His head exploded with bright colors and blinding agony.
Then the world went dark.
Stacey watched Cord McKay toss his head on the utilitarian emergency-room pillow and listened to him moan low in his throat. After the doctor and nurse had tended to him and left, Stacey had suffered a delayed reaction and had been shivering for at least ten minutes. She was just now getting herself under control. Though there was no way she could rid herself of the ball of fear that had settled in her stomach like a dead weight.
She shuddered again at the thought of what could have happened if McKay hadn’t been at his truck when she’d left Cutter’s. She tried to stifle the panic that came when she realized tonight’s attack probably meant the incidents of the past few weeks were not coincidences. Oh, God. Someone was after her!
Stacey forced herself to concentrate on her knight in shining armor. She picked up the ice pack the attendant had given her with instructions to apply it to Cord’s head—ten minutes on, ten off—and gingerly placed it over the lump on his right temple, which was already turning purple around the raw spot where the gun butt had broken the skin. His body jerked at the touch, and his left arm flailed, socking her in the stomach. Recoiling, Stacey clutched her middle until she could take in more air. After a moment or two, her breathing evened out and, restraining his arm with her other hand, she reapplied the cold compress. He twitched, but was unable to strike out again.
While she held the ice pack to his head, she studied the curtained cubicle. Canfield’s hospital was only about twenty years old, but its emergency ward was small, cramped and understaffed. Tonight, the ER was packed with victims of a highway accident. The white drapes that isolated them from the other patients were opaque and tattered with overuse. The smell of antiseptic, along with other acrid odors Stacey chose not to identify, stung her nostrils.
“What the hell…”
Stacey peered down at the source of the curse. Blue ice stared up at her.
He watched her for a minute, then said, “Would you mind letting go of my arm? The angle you’re holding it twists my shoulder.”
Surprised by his clipped words, she scooted back. “Sorry, but you hit me in the stomach when I put the compress on your head.”
Dark blond eyebrows knit together. “Oh.”
Not, I’m sorry. Not, thanks for the help.
Of course, she was the one who owed him, she reminded herself. Big-time.
Stacey watched him brace his good arm on the mattress and push himself up. His biceps flexed beneath his T-shirt, and the tendons in his hand tensed, but he was sitting up in seconds. Leaning against the wall, he winced as he rubbed his shoulder.
“The nurse said to keep ice on that,” she told him, indicating the goose egg.
He closed his eyes and grunted.
She leaned over and applied the compress again.
“Thanks,” he said, not opening his eyes, but taking the ice from her.
As he relaxed fractionally, Stacey watched him. He was silent, breathing deeply, fighting the pain, she guessed.
“Why are you playing nurse?” he asked, still not looking at her.
“They’re overcrowded and understaffed here.”
“There was a huge pileup on Route 17 just before midnight and lots of people were hurt.”
He grunted again.
His attitude was abrasive. To be expected, Stacey thought, given the amount of pain he must be in. But she sensed something deeper. His responses to her were almost angry. Was he annoyed that she’d caused trouble for him? “Um…thanks for what you did,” she said hesitantly. “Though I’m not exactly sure where you came from, or what happened.”
Cord opened his eyes and scanned the curtained room, then looked at her. “I saw the guy jump you outside Cutter’s.” He scowled. “Last thing I remember is tackling him.”
“But you’re not a cop anymore.”
“No, I’m not.” His tone could have cut glass.
“Why didn’t you just call the police? Why did you get involved?”
A storm of emotions passed through his eyes. “Beats me,” he said flatly. “Look, tell me what happened when I passed out.”
Stacey leaned against the chair and shivered again, remembering. Rubbing her arms up and down her thin windbreaker, she said, “Another guy jumped out of the alley after you grounded the first one. He hit you on the head with the butt of a gun. By then, some other people had come out of Cutter’s, and I was screaming and yelling and kicking. The two men dived into the car that pulled up and got away.”
Stacey stared at him. “I’ve seen you around town, but we haven’t formally met. I’m Stacey Webb.”
“Yeah. So things like this aren’t supposed to happen.” Surveying the room, Stacey bit her lip.
Her eyes came back to his. “Nothing.”
“You bit your lip. What were you thinking?”
She waited a moment. “I was going to ask you what you think happened. Was it a mugging?”
“No, not with the car all set up. They were probably trying to kidnap you, though my guess is they were amateurs. They bungled it pretty bad.”
Swallowing hard, Stacey clutched her hands together. She didn’t want to start shaking again, especially in front of him. “I was hoping it wasn’t so… premeditated.”
“You suspected it wasn’t just a one-time attack?”
Stacey told him about the other incidents, trying to keep her voice calm.
Cord arched a blond eyebrow. “Any idea why someone would want to kidnap you?”
“Daddy thinks it’s probably to get to him. There’ve been a lot of layoffs at the plant, for one thing, and this could be retaliation. Plus, in his position, he makes enemies for all sorts of political reasons. And he’s got money.”
“Sounds pretty serious. You need to work with the police.”
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry you were hurt trying to help me.”
“Yeah,” he said derisively. “Me, too.”
Unexpectedly, he swung his feet to the floor.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“What does it look like?” He swayed before standing on shaky legs.
“You’re hurt,” she said as she stood. “You shouldn’t be up. The nurse said…”
Cord wavered and reached for the first support he could get—her arm. He gripped it painfully. Bigger and stronger, he unbalanced her and they both tumbled to the bed, his body covering hers.
His weight felt…strange. He was a lot heavier than he looked. She’d grabbed his shoulders when they fell and his muscles strained beneath her fingers. His legs were much longer than hers. Originally, she’d guessed him to be her father’s height, about five-nine. But he was closer to six feet. His chest was like a solid brick wall against her, except she could feel his heart thumping inside it.
For a moment, he stared into her eyes, something akin to pain flashing through his. Once more, the look was gone before she could categorize it, and he eased off her to the side of the bed. “Sorry, I’m weaker than I thought.” Sitting back, he leaned against the wall a second time and massaged his shoulder.
“That’s okay.” Stacey’s reply was a little breathless. She scrambled off the bed and into the chair. “Sorry about your shoulder.”
He nodded and waved his hand absently.
“So, you’re a hero again!” Both turned to see two uniformed policemen standing in the doorway.
Joe Ferron, the officer who’d made the comment, was a former classmate of Stacey’s. He’d been the all-American boy in high school, but Stacey still found it hard to believe he was a cop now.
Wayne Valentino, Canfield’s chief of police, took the lead. “How are ya, Cord?”
“My head hurts like hell,” Cord said irritably.
“Well, you’re just as ornery as ever, so you must be okay.”
“Hurt the shoulder more?” Ferron asked.
“Some.” His curt reply cut off any further concern from the men.
Pulling out a pen, Wayne took Cord’s statement.
While the chief was writing his report, Stacey made small talk with Joe. The young cop fidgeted like a boy at a high school dance. His too-wide grin and his puppy-dog eyes clearly revealed his crush on Stacey Webb. She thought it was cute.
When Wayne finished, he called to Ferron, who turned to Cord. “Geez, you can’t help playing hero, can you?”
“Just do me a favor. Keep it out of the paper this time.”
“You kiddin’? The Leader’s already got the story. By tomorrow night, everyone in town will know about how you rescued a damsel in distress.”
Cord moaned audibly and Stacey mimicked it silently. By tomorrow night, everyone in town would know that she’d almost been abducted.
She sighed. Well, since keeping quiet about the other incidents hadn’t helped, maybe public exposure would do some good. She hoped so.
Because for the first time since her mother, Helene, had left, Stacey was really afraid.
“What time is it?” Cord asked as he awakened in the dim, unfamiliar room and saw Stacey Webb sitting next to him.
She blew her thick, chestnut bangs off her forehead. “Two in the morning.”
“Why are you still here? They said I had to stay a couple of hours for observation, not you.” He didn’t try to control the edge in his voice. He wanted this woman gone.
“Because it’s my fault you were hurt. I’m not leaving you here by yourself.” She scanned the cubicle. “I wouldn’t want to stay here alone.”
“Why not? Afraid of the dark?”
“Of course not,” she murmured.
Her face was a dead giveaway. He’d only been with her a few hours, and he’d been dozing off and on, but already he could read her like a book. It gave him a slight twinge to think about how vulnerable she was. An innocent. Just like–he cut off the thought before it formed.
“Where’s your father? Why isn’t he here after what happened to you tonight?”
“Out of town on business. I didn’t call him.” They were silent again, then she broke it by adding, “Besides, you should be glad I’m here. You scared the hell out of all the nurses with your surly disposition.”
“No sass, lady.” The edge slowly drained from his voice. Her pert features, scrunched into a mocking smile, were hard to resist.
He studied her outfit.
Tonight she wore hot-pink leggings and a long striped top, which emphasized her compact curves. She’d thrown on a purple jacket. She looked as if she’d just walked off the set of an MTV video, but he didn’t comment. Best to keep this as impersonal as possible.
“You really should leave,” he said gruffly. “You should get some rest.” Again, the worried frown marred her face. “Isn’t anybody home at your house?”
“No. Lauren, my best friend, was supposed to spend the night, but she never showed up at Cutter’s.”
“So you’re afraid to go home by yourself?”
Her chin lifted. “Of course not.”
She sat up straighter. “I’ll admit that I don’t particularly like being alone in that big house, but I can certainly handle being there on my own when I have to. You don’t have to be so sarcastic about it.”
He lifted the ice pack to his temple. “Look, my head hurts like hell and my shoulder’s sore. You’re right. I’m a grump. Actually, I’ve got a knack for sending women scurrying at the best of times.”
“That’s not what I heard.” Her full lips twitched. “Seems you had quite a reputation as a lady’s man before you left Canfield all those years ago.”
His hand froze, and at the same time, sweat broke out on his forehead. She couldn’t know, he told himself, or she wouldn’t be this civil to him. He forced himself to relax the way he did every time he’d faced a criminal at gunpoint. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
As he closed his eyes, fatigue washed over him. How bizarre, he thought. He was a big believer in irony, but being thrown together like this with Gifford Webb’s daughter was a colossal example of the fates at work.
Images whirled through his brain. At the moment, he was trying very hard to block out thoughts of Megan. If he didn’t make it home soon, she’d wake up this morning and not know where he was. She’d cry, until his mother calmed her with hot oatmeal, just as Nora McKay had done for him on those many mornings when he’d awakened missing his father. And worrying about the old man’s safety. At four years old, Meggie’s concern would be nebulous. But by thirteen, thoughts of what could happen to her dad would be terrifying for her. He knew because his own father had been a cop and Cord had experienced the fear. He’d come back to Canfield so that Megan would be spared all that.
I will not dwell on Megan, or the Webbs.
What was the old joke—trying to clear your mind of unwanted thoughts was like trying not to think about a pink elephant?
An hour later he dozed, and Stacey was resting in the chair next to him, when the harried doctor reentered. He checked Cord’s vital signs, then said, “Well, looks like you’re okay. I think you can go home now.”
This time, Cord eased himself to the edge of the mattress, rose slowly and let his equilibrium adjust.
He reached for the jacket that had been thrown over his bed, then looked at Stacey. “Ready to go?”
She stood and stretched. He caught himself noticing the way her top strained across her breasts. Hell!
“I guess,” she answered. “You need a ride somewhere?”
He stared at her. “Level with me, Stacey. You don’t want to go home alone, do you?”
Averting her eyes, she picked up her purse.
“Is it because of what happened tonight?” he asked.
“No,” she said, but didn’t look at him.
“Most women would be nervous.”
Her head whipped toward him, sending her short hair falling in soft curls around her face. “I’m not like most women. I’ve never been like most women. I’m twenty-three years old, and I’ve had to grow up fast and deal with a lot of things on my own.”
“Easy.” Cord was stunned at the vehemence of her statement. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“Come on, I’ll take you to your truck,” she said, forestalling further analysis. “It’s still at Cutter’s. We left it there when the ambulance came. I followed you here in my car.”
Ten minutes later, Cord started his truck as Stacey maneuvered her little sports car away from the curb. He’d known all along what he was going to do, but that didn’t make it any easier. Cursing himself—and fate—he followed her across town, toward The Hill, the name given by town residents to Canfield’s most upscale neighborhood.
They turned left onto Woodview Lane. She drove up to a house, and he pulled into the driveway behind her. His heart hammered in his chest as he took in the huge, brick home, with its big white pillars and a row of tall birch trees standing guard on the lawn. In the shadows, the place loomed before him like a ghost from his past. Gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles were white, he willed away the memories.
Stacey was at his truck before he had time to panic. Pushing open the door, he got out.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I came to make sure you’re safe.”
From the halogen light over the three-car garage, he could see her skin pale. Her lips parted slightly and her eyes widened. “They wouldn’t be stupid enough to try again, would they?”
“They might. I’m surprised the police didn’t follow you home.”
“They were short on officers, just like the hospital, because of the highway accident earlier.” She glanced at the dark foreboding house and shivered. “All right. Since you’re here, maybe you should come inside with me. I’ll check the alarm—make sure it’s still on. You can leave after I get in and reset it.”
A strong drive to protect her and an equally powerful urge to run like hell battled within him as he trailed her to the double front doors. Unlocking the dead bolt, she stepped into the foyer. He followed like a man going to the gallows. Memories swamped him, but he pushed them back and tried not to take in his surroundings.
After Stacey dealt with the alarm, she turned to him. The foyer was dimly lit, casting her face in shadows. Her smile was genuine and it tugged at his heart. “Thanks,” she said. “I feel better now that I’m inside. I’ll be okay.”
Cord glanced to the left into the mammoth living room, then to the oversized dining room on his right. Everything was black and silent.
Jamming his hands into his pockets, he sighed heavily. “Listen, my mother lives with us so she’s with my little girl, and it’s 3:00 a.m. Why don’t I just stay here for the rest of the night?”
“Why?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
“Relax. I’m only trying to help. I’m not coming on to you.”
Stacey’s chin lifted. “Of course you’re not. I’m engaged.”
To Preston Matthews. “I know.”
“Small town again?”
“Something like that. Look, just grab me a blanket and pillow. I’ll bunk on the couch in here.” He tilted his head to the left.
Stacey bit her lip again, then whispered, “Okay. I guess I am a little afraid.”
Giving him a half smile, she disappeared upstairs. He walked into the living room. Same high ceilings. Different carpet. Same silk couch and chairs. The wood smelled familiarly of furniture polish. He stood stock-still, staring at the walls. Before the memories suffocated him, Stacey returned with a fluffy pillow and two blankets.
Carelessly, he tossed them on the couch, then kicked off his battered Dock-Siders. “Go to bed, Stacey.”
She stepped back and crossed her arms over her breasts. “All right. I just wanted to say thanks again. For saving me—and for this. Seems you’ve got a real hero complex.”
“Don’t give me credit for things I’m not.”
Her expression was puzzled, but she turned and left the room without further comment.
Some hero, he thought as he pulled his T-shirt over his head and sank onto the couch. He closed his eyes to block out the house that reminded him of how wrong she was.
Four hours later, Cord was startled out of sleep by the angry rumble of a man’s voice. Through bleary eyes, he looked into the mottled, enraged face of Gifford Webb. “What the hell are you doing in my house again, McKay?”