PRIVATE BODYGUARD by Tyler Anne Snell


Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

"It was just a little misunderstanding."

Darling Smith was standing behind the bars of one of two holding cells in Mulligan, Maine, and not at all amused.

Deputy Derrick Arrington, however, was all humor. Maybe that was due to the fact that the two had dated on and off the year before with less than favorable results. They were normally amicable if not downright pleasant, but Darling figured it wasn't every day he was able to arrest his ex. Her thoughts slid back in time for a moment.

Oh yeah, she would have loved to put a certain man from her past in the slammer and throw away the key.

"That should be tattooed across your forehead, Darling. 'It was a little misunderstanding, Officer. I'm too cute to be up to no good.'" He grinned.

"Deputy Arrington, did you just say that I'm cute?" she replied with a big dose of sugar.

He pointed at her and laughed. "See? That right there is what I'm talking about."

"Oh, come on, Derrick." Darling dropped the cuteness from her tone. She was tired. "We both know that George Hanely overreacted." Just saying the gate guard's name made her mad. He'd acted as if he was a Secret Service agent and Darling was an enemy of the state.

"He did his job. George saw a suspicious person snooping around private property!" He eyed Darling a moment, waiting for her to confess. He'd keep waiting, too. "What's more, that suspicious person was found going up to his employer's garage."

"Not confirmed, just accused," she said.

The deputy shook his head. "I'd take this a little more seriously, Darling. You were caught breaking and entering into Nigel Marks's house. He's a beloved figure in this town. This will be the first time he's been back to stay for a while in years. The last time he came, do you know what he did?"

Darling let out a long breath. She had already researched the millionaire, but that didn't mean she was buying what he was selling. "He donated a new wing to the children's library."

"That's right. He was here for a little over a week, and he brought joy to an entire town's kids. Now he's coming to stay for almost a month. His visits, even if they are work related, usually benefit our community." He paused, making sure he let his words sink in before he tacked on, "We want him to enjoy that stay, not worry about some spunky private eye."

"I preferred 'cute,'" she grumbled.

"Well, I preferred starting my Tuesday morning with a cup of coffee and not picking up a criminal just as the sun rose."

"Accused criminal."

He rolled his eyes and checked his watch. Derrick was tall, had jet-black hair and the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. He was handsome, sure, but he also wasn't anywhere near her type. Though, admittedly, her type had revolved around one man and one man alone throughout the years. She stopped herself before she could picture him, angry for entertaining thoughts of a past best forgotten.

"Okay, I'm going to head back up," he said. "I just wanted to come check on you and see if you wanted that one phone call."

"But Deputy, why would I call you when you're already here?"

"Oh, Darling, how I've missed your sarcasm." They both knew that was a bold-faced lie.

It had been two days since Elizabeth Marks had walked into Acuity Investigations and asked for the twenty-five-year-old's help. Darling could recall with almost perfect precision the way the graceful woman had breezed in. She had shaken Darling's hand with a firm grip but had seemed hesitant to introduce herself. However, Darling hadn't needed to know the woman's name to understand she was important, if only financially so. It had been Elizabeth's shoes—silver-toed, red-soled, python-heeled Louboutin shoes—that had spoken volumes to Darling. Mrs. Marks came from money, and that always made a case more interesting.

"My husband is having an affair," Elizabeth had said after adjusting the Gucci sunglasses that sat atop her crown of bleach-blond hair. "I just need concrete proof now."

Darling had been taken aback. Normally when a spouse sought out a private investigator, it was to confirm a suspicion. The way Elizabeth's back had straightened and her shoulders had squared had suggested there were no doubts in her accusation.

"If you already know he's cheating, why do you need the proof?" Darling had asked.

A surge of energy had seemed to pulse through Elizabeth. Her face had become lively for a moment.

"We married when I was young, my husband, Nigel, and I. His career was just taking off, and we were so in love. He drew up a prenuptial agreement that I should never have signed, but I was foolish and naive and believed he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with." She had stopped herself then, as if trying to pick the right words. "If I divorce him right now, because of the prenup, I'll receive almost nothing. Even the money I personally earned. But if I get proof that he's cheating, it will void the prenup and I can take at least half of what he owns, which will be enough for me."

So that had been the bottom line.

Darling sat on the uncomfortable cell's cot as the memory of their first meeting came to an end and a new wave of determination washed over her. She wasn't the biggest fan of the wealthy—having a past like hers left an unforgettably sour taste in her mouth for them—but she had believed in the woman's pain and anger enough to want to help. Just because Darling had fought her own personal battle against the rich, and lost, didn't mean Elizabeth deserved the same fate.

"You sure you can do this?"

Oliver Quinn looked up from the desk to see his boss leaning in the doorway. Nikki Waters's tone was light, though her demeanor carried unintentional importance. Since she not only founded the Orion Security Group but also ran it, he decided that importance was deserved. He certainly respected it.

"Excuse me?" he asked, half of his mind still going through the travel details in the open folder between his hands. He was twenty minutes away from heading to the airport to start a three-week contract and, since Oliver was the lead agent of Team Delta, he was triple-checking their route. He wanted to avoid as much traffic as possible—a goal made easier by the somewhat remote location.

"Maine," she replied, staying in the doorway. It was almost seven in the morning and she was dressed in her workout clothes, her dark red hair slicked back in a short pony tail. Most likely she was headed to the twenty-four-hour gym across the street. There were several of them spread throughout downtown Dallas. "In April, no less."

Oliver raised an eyebrow at her.

"Oh, come on," she continued with a smile. "Every time I checked in on you during that stint in Montana two years ago, you talked about how crazy you were going from being in the cold."

If he had been a rookie like Thomas, the newest addition to Delta, or even someone who had been around a year like Grant, he would have thought she was serious in questioning whether he could do the job or not. However, if there was one thing he rarely doubted, it was Nikki's faith in his abilities. If she hadn't believed in them, she wouldn't have sought him out when Orion had only been a name.

"What can I say? I'm from California. We tend to love the sun and heat. I don't think Maine will be too bad, though. I'm just glad we aren't going there a month earlier. I can handle April."

She laughed. It was clipped. He knew something was bothering her and waited until she spoke again.

"Listen, I wanted to thank you for not giving me grief about this client," she said. "I know Mark and Jonathan think taking him on is unnecessary." She was referring to the lead agents of the other two teams and Oliver's closest friends. They had worked together before Orion, sharing a past that had been fused together by tragedy.

"They don't like thinking about the big picture," he said, trying to lighten the mood. He knew she had been struggling with her decision to accept millionaire Nigel Marks as a client.

"It's just. " She hesitated. "We've spent the last few years claiming to protect those who need it but can't afford it. That's the Orion Group's bottom line. We provide security and guarantee safety to those who don't have bottomless pockets. And now we're taking on an almost monthlong project with a millionaire?" She sighed. "I feel like I'm selling out."

"But if we don't occasionally pick up an elite client, then we can't continue to be Robin Hoods. Right?"

Nikki snorted. "Robin Hoods, huh?"

"Well, we don't steal from the rich, but you get the idea."

She seemed to like that way of thinking and nodded. "You're right. I need to be firm in this decision. You're heading there soon?"

Oliver pulled out his plane ticket. "Since he insisted on us meeting him there, I want to head up there a little earlier to make sure everything is okay," he said. "The rest of Team Delta will follow but might be a bit late since their flight last night was cancelled."

"Team Delta. It still sounds as corny as it did when Mark suggested the name."

"Says the woman who named her security group Orion," he replied. Though as he said it, he glanced past her to a picture framed on the wall. The real reason behind the name.

The picture weighed less than an ounce, but it left an unbelievably heavy weight on his heart.

Nikki didn't have to follow his gaze. She knew what he was feeling. Her pain had turned to anger over the years. His had only drowned in guilt.

"Well, be careful," she said after the moment passed. "And, Oliver? Keep this client happy. We need him, as much as I hate to say it."

Oliver needed to ensure everything was on the up and up since Nigel had been clear he didn't want to start the contract until Wednesday morning. He still didn't understand why the man had hired a security group to protect him while he traveled if he didn't want to use them as he traveled to Maine. He'd been cautious enough to hire Orion after he'd earned a few nasty anonymous letters at work. He clearly had felt threatened. Oliver didn't think about it too much, though. He'd learned the hard way that most of the upper class was stubborn, and arguing with them did little to change their minds.

Oliver tried not to dwell on the past as he arrived at the airport and then boarded his plane.

Nigel Marks had been transported by way of his private jet; Oliver's long legs were pressed against the back of a snoring man's chair in coach. When he finally landed, stretched and turned on his cell phone, he wasn't in the mood for the voice mail from Nikki.

"Oliver, I received a call from the security guard who watches Nigel's house. I think his name is George? Anyways, he found a woman lurking around early this morning and had the cops come pick her up. They are holding her on trespassing and potentially breaking and entering. George didn't give me all of the details. He seemed too excited. I already talked to Nigel. He's actually at work in the next town over and will be delayed until later this afternoon. He liked the idea of you going to talk to her to see if she's a threat. Call me after you do." She didn't say goodbye. She was in business mode. Nikki the boss, not Nikki the friend. He hung up, aggravated.

"Great," he grumbled, making his way to baggage claim. "Not even in town and already having problems."

The town of Mulligan—a name that Oliver found humor in—was thirty minutes away from the airport via one dust-covered SUV. Oliver hated rentals. Due to the company's track record, no agent was offered the rental insurance that was an option with each vehicle. In his line of work, there was a high chance they would receive damage in some form. Oliver knew from experience the rental companies were a pain to deal with when that happened, and as team lead, he was the one who dealt with it. The man he'd rented the car from had taken his sweet time passive-aggressively warning Oliver about how it would be unwise to bring it back in anything less than pristine condition. Every pothole he bumped through made him cringe.

Thinking of the uptight man only dampened his darkening mood. He mentally ran through a list of questions he would ask Nigel Marks's intruder as the vehicle's GPS directed him to Mulligan's police department. It wasn't until he was nearing Main Street that his phone blared to life.

"Quinn," he answered, pressing the speaker button. "It's Nikki." There was no mistaking the annoyance in her voice. "I wanted to warn you that our intruder is a private investigator."

"A private eye?"

"Yep. I finally got the chief on the phone, and he said she's a local. And she's feisty. Try to figure out why she was snooping around, but don't make her too mad. If she's a local, it might make the next three weeks unpleasant."

"Okay. Don't tick her off. Tread lightly. Yada yada."

"The sheriff also made a point to warn me not to let her name fool you."

Oliver raised an eyebrow to no one in particular. "Her name? What is it? Candy? Bunny?"

Nikki laughed. "No, even better. Darling."

Oliver almost swerved off of the road.

Before he could stop himself, the image of a woman popped into his head. Dirty-blond hair, round green eyes, a button nose and a set of soft, curvy lips.

"Come again?" he asked. He was already certain he'd heard Nikki wrong.

"Her name is Darling. Darling Smith."

A silence followed before Oliver found his voice again. "I hate to say this, but I can almost guarantee she's already pissed at me."