Against The Wall

Against the Wall by Debra Webb and Regan Black

Available December 16, 2014

Preorder today at Amazon!

USA TODAY bestselling authors Debra Webb and Regan Black want you to meet the Dangerous Protectors! 

Jana Clayton’s father is dead. She is certain he was murdered, but no one else is listening. She believes someone is following her, but she’s not sure she can trust her instincts anymore. Desperate for help, she reaches out to a private investigations group known as the Guardian Agency.

Dylan Parker, the sexy cowboy who answers her call isn’t at all what Jana expected. Part of her wants to send him packing… but when bullets start flying at her, she knows she can’t unravel the situation alone. Trusting her Protector is her only chance to survive, no matter the risk to her heart.

When no one else can keep you alive long enough to find the truth and no one else will fight for you, a Dangerous Protector is the man you want for the job.

~~~REVIEWS~~~

“…an amazing collaboration of mystery, romance and suspense.” –Tracey, Goodreads reviewer

“You’ll love it!” –Cindy, Goodreads reviewer

~~~EXCERPT~~~

Prologue
Two miles into his five-mile route, Dylan Parker kept running when his phone chimed with a new alert. He’d anticipated at least a week of downtime after his previous assignment. Maybe this was a follow-up.

No such luck. The text message Protect showed on his screen.

It was the one-word signal that he was back on the clock. Two additional messages would arrive any second with a picture followed by the address and preliminary background file of the person whose life was now his responsibility.

He kept running, his shoes slapping against the ribbon of asphalt winding through the park, until he saw the address. Calculating the travel time, he took the next turn, cutting his run down to three miles.

Every minute counted when a client was in danger.

Chapter One

Austin, Texas

Wednesday, November 14, 3:55 p.m.

Jana Clayton turned onto North Congress Street, willing her wobbling knees to function properly as she walked into her dad’s favorite coffee shop. Given a choice her appointment would’ve been held anywhere but here, and on any day but today. Tucking her sunglasses into the buckle of her purse strap, she joined the line and hoped her waterproof mascara would hold up.

During the brief drive from home she’d blotted away fresh tears at each stoplight that gave her a clear view of the Texas Capitol building. For the first time in her life she cursed the city planners for their thoughtful and precise attention to that detail.

When she’d received confirmation of the meeting’s location, she had known maintaining her composure would be yet another challenge. Nearing the counter she reminded herself that normal people didn’t break down sobbing at the mention of a caramel macchiato or a shot of espresso.

Since her dad had been found dead in his study almost two weeks ago she felt as far removed from normal as a person could get. In an emotional fog, she’d slogged through countless ‘final’ decisions and accepted a torrent of sympathy during the public and private memorial services. Yet instead of getting better, she felt worse with each passing day. It wasn’t just the shock of losing the man who’d been her anchor and her inspiration. It was the oppressive loneliness, the suffocating realization that the one person who understood her dreams, her heart, would never see those dreams fulfilled.

Yes, it was all that compounded by the letter she’d received by mail mere days after his death. Her dad’s last message scrawled by hand across official Texas Senate stationery kept her in this perpetual state of turmoil. Today’s meeting could focus that pent-up energy toward achieving justice. She had to hang on to that hope.

Sniffling, she reached into the pocket of her short trench coat for a tissue to dab at her nose. She refused to take this meeting, which could mean the difference between an honorable legacy and a tarnished one for her dad, with a nose Santa Claus could use on a cloudy night.

Reaching the counter she straightened her spine and placed her order in a calm, steady voice.

Ramona, the barista who managed the shop, reached out and patted Jana’s hand. “We’re all so sorry about your dad, sweetie.”

“Thank you.” Jana managed a small smile.

“I nearly bawled my eyes out when I caught Sally Ann making the senator’s standing order for another customer this morning.”

At the other end of the counter Sally Ann shook her head. “It’s a sad time for Texas.”

Jana could only nod. For years, this shop had provided coffee and pastries for the Wednesday staff meetings. Such happy routines shared with her dad had been irrevocably erased from Jana’s weekly schedule. Her polite smile slipped as she struggled for the right words. It was important to listen, to let others share memories and express their grief. But every outpouring of sympathy felt like an emotional sucker punch, leaving her gasping for air. She was beginning to believe her stepmother, Camille, had the right idea. Beyond attending the memorials, Camille remained in a haze of Valium behind the closed curtains and locked gates of the Clayton family ranch.

With no one to help her carry the load, Jana felt herself cracking under the burden. Someone had to be the public face of Senator Jefferson Daniel “J.D.” Clayton’s legacy. Based on the unpleasant and false rumors of his alleged depression published in this morning’s paper, she was also going to have to put out a few fires along the way. Her grief could wait, but she wouldn’t allow the press to sully her dad’s upstanding reputation. She’d already made a few calls, but everyone wanted to hear from the widow. Frustration momentarily overrode the more painful emotions.

“It will take us all some time to adjust,” Jana said as she accepted her coffee. “He meant the world to so many people.” Hopefully those people wouldn’t believe the abrupt gossip and speculation.

“He sure did,” Ramona agreed. “You and your family’ll be in my prayers.”

Jana thanked her again and stepped back from the counter. Selecting a table near the wide front window, she settled into a chair and waited for her latte to cool a bit. No matter that her dad had improved life for countless Texans and had accomplished more than most during his three-decade tenure as a senator, someone had killed him.

As if hearing her dad was dead hadn’t been enough of a shock, bad had quickly turned to worse when the authorities declared his death a suicide. Jana knew better. Disguising the heinous act as a suicide hadn’t fooled her.

In that moment, her first thought, her first word, had been impossible. Her view hadn’t changed despite the evidence. Gunshot residue was found on his right hand and his fingerprints were on the bullets and gun. The highly critical news article about him and the agenda for the upcoming legislative session on his desk seemed to confirm the police’s conclusion. Jana, however, understood that her dad would not have killed himself over an editorial written by a reporter with a different opinion. There was a far more sinister explanation. There had to be. Unfortunately no one agreed with her.

Senator Clayton had never taken the coward’s way out of any crisis and he’d never backed down from a fight. Even if she was wrong about those two points, she knew beyond all doubt her dad wouldn’t have disgraced the family home or tainted her childhood memories of that home by killing himself in his study. While she couldn’t deny he’d been troubled recently by things he had chosen not to discuss with her, that didn’t mean he’d succumbed to some undisclosed depression diagnosis. The suggestion was absolute fabrication.

First, Jana had done her research. The gunshot residue could have been planted in any number of ways. Of course his fingerprints were on the weapon and the bullets, because both belonged to him. Her dad had once been quite the hunter and gun collector. He’d always kept a handgun in the house for protection. And though he hadn’t taken a hunting trip or bothered with target practice in many years, he ensured his weapons were cleaned and oiled just as he ensured his home and vehicles were properly maintained.

She had her dad’s letter, urging her discretion. The letter, in Jana’s opinion, confirmed someone smart enough and hateful enough to pin the blame on him had pulled that trigger. While she’d spent too many hours since that first awful phone call outlining and presenting a theory the police would take seriously, she’d made little progress. In fact, the tone of her dad’s letter and certain events since she received it had her looking over her shoulder all too frequently.

She scalded the tip of her tongue on the first sip of her pumpkin spice latte. Taking a deep breath, she willed herself to remain calm. Any second now, backup would arrive in the form of someone she’d hired to listen to her murder theory and to help her find her dad’s killer.

Would it be the man in a polo shirt and khakis with the leather portfolio in his hand and the Bluetooth device at his ear? Maybe a woman, she thought as a brunette in a sleek, black pantsuit walked in. Right behind the woman, a man in a wheelchair entered the coffee shop, thanking a lanky cowboy with a wide smile for an assist with the door.

Jana didn’t know who to expect. Dylan Parker, the name of the contact provided by the Guardian Agency, wasn’t gender specific. She’d been informed that this contact would help her find the truth while providing protection. Jana was still waffling about the latter. One minute she considered the idea of protection over the top, and the next she thought maybe it was not such a ridiculous concept.

Had she seen the man in the sport coat across the street near where she’d parked her car more than half an hour ago? The possibility that she was being followed certainly had her latching onto the notion of protection with more enthusiasm.

Deliberately distracting herself, she shrugged out of her coat and reached into her purse to silence her phone for the meeting. Seeing a missed call from Gregory Atkins, the man who claimed so adamantly that he wanted to marry her, she cleared the history without listening to the message. Though he had been and still was more than willing to hear her say I do, Gregory refused to listen to her murder scenario.

Blinking away the sting of his betrayal, she pulled together the frayed edges of her composure. Not even a hired investigator would listen if she blubbered incoherently through her story.

“Ms. Clayton?”

She looked up, mustering a smile for the cowboy who’d walked into the shop a few minutes ago. “Yes?”

“Don’t mean to interrupt.” He reached for the chair opposite her. “I’m sorry about your dad.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your condolences. If you’ll pardon me, I’m expecting someone any moment now.”

“Glad to hear it.” He set his coffee cup on the table and removed his hat. “That’d be me. Dylan Parker, at your service.”

He extended his hand and, acting solely on years of manners and breeding, she responded in kind. Could this man really be the investigator she was waiting for? She’d been sure the unconventional help she’d requested would arrive in more professional attire, like a dark suit or a nondescript trench coat. It was spy novel cliché, of course, but she hadn’t expected such a casual presentation.

Her promised contact had arrived wearing a faded field jacket over a blue plaid shirt, with jeans and scuffed cowboy boots. She counted the freshly cut blond hair as a positive. The arresting blue eyes… well, the intensity there proved more than a little unsettling.

“You’re Dylan Parker?”

“Dylan’s fine,” he said as he sank into the chair.

Wait, this wasn’t right somehow. This investigation was immensely important and he simply wasn’t what she’d had in mind. He looked like one of those romance cover cowboys in his tight-fitting jeans, though she couldn’t fathom why she noticed how they hugged his lean, muscular body. The name was right, but for the life of her she couldn’t see how this cowboy could be of any help to her. “I think there’s been a mistake.”

“I get it. I’m not what you expected.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Happens to me all the time. Usually, it works to the client’s benefit. Why don’t you fill me in on what’s going on?”

Here it was, the point of no return. As ready, as eager as she’d been, now she hesitated. What if this was the wrong move? When she’d hit the wall with the police and with her stepmother, she’d turned to the only person she felt she could—Theodore Kingston. Theo was a very dear friend who had been like a second father to her during her tumultuous teenage years. He had insisted she needed the Guardian Agency. Theo had made the initial call.

What Jana really wanted was someone who would come to Austin and confirm what she believed. As true as that was, she understood the situation required an objectivity she simply could not summon.

“I need an investigator, but everyone in town is too connected,” she began, and then paused to take a deep breath.

“No one is impartial, everyone in town has an agenda—political or otherwise,” he finished for her. “The transcript from your background email is part of your file.”

That he knew what she’d put in her follow-up email did little to calm her nerves. Suddenly, her carefully planned recitation of events since her dad’s death flew out of her head, replaced by a jumble of thoughts rooted in fear and distrust. She glanced out the window, noticing the man in the sport coat had moved down the block but not out of sight. Was she being foolish? Could she afford not to talk to this man?

He raised his coffee cup, his eyes serious as he gazed at her over the rim. “You’re having second thoughts.” He took a long sip, and then returned the cup to the table. “If you’ve changed your mind about my services—”

She thought of the letter and the latest media rumors. She had to do this for the sake of her dad’s reputation and for her peace of mind. “I haven’t changed my mind. If you have the transcript of my email you know my prevailing theory.”

“Emails don’t always convey the whole story. I prefer getting the details face-to-face, in the client’s own words.”

Reminding herself that she needed this man’s help, Jana poured out the whole story, keeping her voice low enough to avoid being overheard. When she’d finished, Mr. Parker considered her for a moment. She resisted the urge to squirm under his penetrating scrutiny.

“Let me get this straight.” His blue gaze searched hers as tangibly as a touch. “Despite the evidence the police presented, you think someone shot your dad in his study at home and staged the suicide.”

“Yes.” No matter that his voice was hardly more than a whisper, Jana surveyed the crowded coffee shop. “This isn’t the place to discuss these details,” she murmured. Perhaps this entire idea had been a bad one. What on earth had she been thinking? Discussing these details with a stranger suddenly felt wrong somehow. Panic trickled through her.

“In my experience,” he said, drawing her attention back to him, “new clients prefer to meet in a public place.”

She wouldn’t argue that point. Still, she couldn’t do this here. “Let’s go for a walk.” She stood, gathered her coat and purse, and sent a farewell wave to the staff behind the counter.

“Works for me.” He pushed back his chair, reached up and settled his hat in place. His broad shoulders tested the seams of his jacket. Gregory certainly didn’t have shoulders like those.

Jana turned away and headed for the door. Dear God, what was wrong with her? Had she really just thought that?

Mr. Parker stepped smoothly around her and held the door open as he had for the man in the wheelchair. Once they were outside, he asked, “Who do you suspect?”

Out of habit she turned toward the capitol. Her heart clutched, but she refused to retreat. She had to look at the building without falling apart or she’d never survive the necessary return to her dad’s offices. Grateful for the sunshine, she used her sunglasses to shield her grief. Her career—present and future—was tied to that building.

She weighed his question for a moment before answering. “That’s the problem. No one with access to his study had any reason to want him dead.”

“That you’ve found,” he countered. “You’re a smart lady, Ms. Clayton. You didn’t take this step just to have coffee with me this afternoon. Give me whatever you’re holding back.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” With his good looks and brash approach he was more likely to be a lobbyist than a private investigator. “You said you read the transcript.”

“I did, which is why I believe you’re holding back. Your story is compelling, but what in particular made you reach out for help? There had to be something that convinced you the police were wrong.”

“You mean beyond the fact that I knew my dad wouldn’t do this terrible thing?” At his pointed look, Jana took a breath and reached for calm once more. “My stepmother’s reaction when I mentioned my concerns was the last straw.” Even now, Camille’s response hurt. “I recognize she’s overwrought. I really do. I just can’t comprehend how she seems to find the explanation of suicide more plausible than murder.”

“Takes all kinds of people in this world,” he said. “I can see how her reaction probably didn’t make you happy, but I doubt it made you decide your dad had been murdered.”

Jana hadn’t expected sympathy or coddling, but she hadn’t anticipated feeling so… challenged. If she had substantial leads she wouldn’t require his help. Why would Theo recommend an agency’s whose representative was so… so off-putting?

Dylan had heard enough already. This was a simple case of wishful thinking. Jana Clayton was a devastated daughter unable to let go of the sterling image of her perfect daddy. She didn’t want to believe he had killed himself, didn’t want to accept the hard reality that people from all walks of life kept sharp, unpleasant secrets.

He had reviewed everything in the file, which included all articles the media had printed since Senator Clayton’s body had been found. A single gunshot to the head wasn’t the prettiest way to go, but it was effective. And it was, more often than not, exactly what it appeared to be: suicide.

In the café he’d seen the fresh grief shadowing her moss-green eyes. Despite an expert hand with cosmetics, the puffy, dark circles from too many tears and not enough sleep were impossible to miss. In another situation, Dylan thought she’d be quite a looker—if she let down all that rich, chestnut colored hair she had yanked back into that tight bun. Well, he actually knew she was damned gorgeous under different circumstances. The background file included her history of winning beauty pageants along with academic accolades during her high school and college days.

On top of that, she was distracted, more concerned with the people walking by than with giving him the straight story. She was all torn up and not thinking logically. He’d braced, to some degree, for her emotional state. Her dad’s life, death, and memorials had all been a public affair. With the official investigation and the autopsy, Senator Clayton had only been buried two days ago. Hell, she had a right to be upset. As much as he got that part, the whole scene made Dylan’s skin itch as if he’d rolled around in poison ivy. He wanted to snap his fingers, get right in her face, and just blurt out the hard truth. People did inexplicable things every day of the week. They performed thoughtless, unforgivable acts with no regard for the fallout.

Sad but true. The only way to go on was to just go on. He’d learned it firsthand, hadn’t he? In a perfect world, he would still be upholding the law in Montana instead of rattling around the Texas-Louisiana region taking on unique private security assignments like Jana Clayton.

Bottom line, whatever her daddy had done, however emotional and unfocused she was, Jana was smart, too. Before he called it a day and saved her from throwing away her money, he wanted to hear the thing she was holding back. If it was what he suspected, she already had her answers. She simply didn’t want to accept them.

His job was to assess the situation and to take action. To do that, her unconditional cooperation was essential.

“He left a letter, didn’t he?” Dylan suggested as they walked aimlessly up the block.

She glanced at him but looked away just as quickly. He could hang around and count it easy money. He was overdue for a laid-back assignment. Austin was a fun town and doing time with Jana wouldn’t be a hardship. But first, she had to tell him everything. Holding back would only create the potential for trouble for both of them.

When her silence went on, he stopped at the next corner, letting other people pass by. “You asked for assistance, remember?” Technically, a friend had made the request on her behalf.

She gave a tiny nod as she reached into that deep well of a purse. “I made a copy.” She produced a folded sheet of paper.

He raised his eyebrows at the lengthy handwritten letter that covered most of both sides of the page. “Why make a copy?”

Her shoulders hitched and she turned her head toward the opposite side of the street. “I want to keep the original… safe.”

He quickly read the handwritten letter.

Sweetheart,

I’ve loved you from the moment you took your first breath, before that, though I was too young to realize it was possible at the time. Your miraculous arrival only solidified my commitment to be an honorable man, to provide for your every need, and more importantly, to be a father worthy of your love and devotion. The day you joined my staff was one of the proudest of my life. Your insight, intelligence, and perseverance will see you through and propel your career in whichever direction you choose.

You have your mother’s eyes along with her conviction and dedication to a worthy purpose. As you’re well aware, she was—and remains—my inspiration, the solid foundation of my personal and political decisions. If a decision would make her shake her head at me, I would rethink it and find another way.

You’re also well aware that politics can get ugly, even for your old dad. In the coming weeks, a little mud might fly my way. You can’t believe it. In fact, you must not believe it. Whatever happens, whatever wild claims are made, however the public reacts, I want you to hold your head high and to know that I remain steadfast, worthy of your faith and admiration as both my daughter and as a valued part of my political team.

If you find cause to doubt me, don’t doubt your mother’s ever-present and ongoing influence over me. I know I’ve been preoccupied and distant in recent months, but that was to protect you from a flood of trouble I may not be able to stop. Perhaps one day we’ll look back and see this ordeal as having made us stronger.

Just in case I’m unable to explain, I’m sending this letter. I beg you to keep it to yourself. You mustn’t trust anyone else, only yourself and your flawless intuition. Be safe, be smart, and above all continue to be the amazing woman I admire.

Love you,

Daddy

Dylan read the letter a second time, folded it, and tucked it into his back pocket for further evaluation. “You’re sure he wrote this?”

“Yes.”

She had obviously read the letter from a different perspective. To Dylan, the words painted a clear picture. Obviously her dad was worried about something or someone, but his concerns didn’t mean he hadn’t opted to make an untimely exit for reasons he hadn’t disclosed. “He didn’t want you trusting anyone. How will you trust me?” Before she could answer, Dylan added, “If you’re still interested in my service, trust is an important part of our relationship, Ms. Clayton.”

Her full lips thinned to a flat line. Frustration? Second thoughts? Dylan couldn’t wait to hear her response.

“When I received the letter, I knew I’d been right in my conclusion about his death. It seemed prudent to find an objective third party to confirm or to disprove that conclusion. Your agency came highly recommended. I’m trusting your integrity as well as that of your agency, Mr. Parker.”

Fancy way to say she was scared and not sure what the hell she felt or should do. “Do you ever relax, Ms. Clayton?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You should. Relax, I mean,” he clarified, shifting closer as they started walking again. “You’re wound tight. It’s understandable considering the circumstances, but if you take a step back, stop operating on emotion, you might see—”

“That’s enough.” She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. “My personal life isn’t up for evaluation or debate.”

Whoa. He’d hit a hot button there. “No, it isn’t.” He liked the way her soft green eyes flashed with temper. It showed him some conviction beneath all that sorrow. “I’d apologize for being blunt, but it goes with the job. You said you want to find the truth about your dad. Could it be you’re ignoring the obvious answer?”

She stopped between a dress shop and a shoe store and planted her hands on her hips. “That is not a suicide letter. It’s a warning, not a farewell. If my dad had ever considered taking his own life, it would’ve been years ago when we lost my mother.” She paused, gulping air. “He wouldn’t have done this to me then and he certainly didn’t do it two weeks ago.”

The details of her mother’s death over fifteen years ago had been in the file, along with other notable details and public records about the Clayton family. As an outsider looking in, it would be easy to agree with her assessment. Senator Clayton had been in politics long enough to sink hip-deep in scandal, but somehow he’d stayed above the worst of the muck and mudslinging. Other than her mother’s death, the family had all the earmarks of the perfect life: power, money, and, more importantly, respect—at least until very recently.

“Yes, I’m grieving,” she continued, “but I haven’t lost touch with reality. No one knew my dad better than I did. The evidence points to suicide because someone wants it to.” She crossed her arms and then uncrossed them as if she couldn’t decide what to do next.

“You’ve got the clout to push the police to look at the situation more closely.” Any steps she’d taken to that end were undocumented. He was guessing she hadn’t pushed the issue.

 

“I need an objective assessment before I start pushing anyone.” She stepped back, scowling at him before she hid her eyes with the sunglasses again.

 

“Just in case you’re wrong,” he tossed back at her.

 

Her posture stiffened. “I am not wrong. I merely want an objective assessment. And… I think someone might be following me.”

 

His instincts went on alert. “You didn’t feel it was important to mention that someone was following you before now.”

 

“I… I can’t be sure. It might just be a reporter looking for the inside story.”

 

Scanning the crowd and the street, he made up his mind then and there. Whether her dad killed himself or not, there was something off here. “Whatever else you believe, I’m here to protect you, Ms. Clayton, until you fire me or I’m ordered otherwise.”

 

She shook her head. “Protection isn’t what I requested.”

 

He gave her a smile, hoping to ease the tension. The lady looked ready to snap. “Two-for-one deal, that’s how we do it.”

 

She folded her arms again. “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, Mr. Parker, but are you qualified in an investigative capacity?”

 

He nodded, opted not to take her question personally. “I expect my resume would surprise you.”

 

“Everything else has,” she muttered. She reminded herself that if Theo trusted this agency, she could too. “So, assuming we move forward with this arrangement, how will it work?”

 

He swallowed his amusement, adjusting his hat against the glint of the sun. The lady could just as easily be strutting down a runway as strolling along this sidewalk with him. But she wasn’t about to allow anyone to mistake her for just another pretty face. “You have a choice,” he began, in answer to her question. “I can act more like a protective detail—”

 

“A bodyguard?”

 

“That’s right. Or we can come up with a better reason why I’m suddenly with you twenty-four-seven.”

 

She shrugged. “A bodyguard raises questions I don’t want to answer.”

 

“Makes you look paranoid, like maybe mental issues run in the family. There were reports in the media of your mother’s depression before she died.”

 

“She battled cancer for two years,” Jana fired back at him. “Who wouldn’t be depressed?”

 

“Now they’re saying the senator was suffering with the same malady.”

 

“I find your suggestion insulting.”

 

“It is,” he agreed. “You’ve spent enough time in the spotlight to know how harsh the media can be. We have to see this the way they do.”

 

“Are you this insensitive with all of your clients?”

 

“I’m not your best friend or your therapist, Ms. Clayton. I protect and investigate,” he replied, pleased to have heard more curiosity than irritation in her question this time. He’d take both over the other messy, runaway emotions.

 

“Jana,” she corrected firmly. “If we’re to make this believable without giving away who you really are, we need a cover story, I suppose.”

 

“That’s right.” He waited while she deliberated on her options.

 

“It’s been a long time since our university days, but I’m glad you’re here to lend me a shoulder to cry on, Dylan. Thank you. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have preparing Dad’s papers for the university’s library than you.”

 

He tried not to wince at her choice of cover stories. These days his shoulders were only for carrying his workload and physical contact happened on his terms or not at all. While he never allowed things to get personal with a client, he knew there was a time and place to play a role. For her sake and for the people who seemed to track her every move, he had to give her points for creativity.

 

“Anything you need, Jana,” he replied. On a professional level, he amended silently. He hoped like hell protecting her didn’t mean he had to listen to tearful trips down memory lane. “I’ll do all in my power to make the senator proud. Where to first?”

 

“Let’s start with his office at the capitol.” She adjusted the strap of her purse. “There had to be some secret project he was working on that set this nightmare in motion. Something, as he said in his letter, he wanted to protect me from. I have to find it.”

 

“Where did you park?” Dylan asked, knowing the answer.

 

“Over on Sixth.”

 

He caught the little hitch in her breath as they turned onto Sixth and away from the view of the capitol building. He’d arrived for their meeting early to get a feel for the area and to watch the coffee shop for her arrival. She’d parked on Sixth and walked the few blocks to the designated location. He’d seen her blot at the tears too many times to count. Just his luck to catch this case. Jana Clayton seemed like a nice enough person, but coping with emotions wasn’t part of his skill set. He’d turned those off after his ex-wife stuck half a dozen daggers in his back. Some men used alcohol to drown their heartache. Others used their damaged feelings as a reason to be jerks. Dylan decided it was just easier to stop feeling at all. Made life a lot simpler. He didn’t like dealing with all the emotional stuff.

 

The deep, throaty roar of an engine caught his attention. Instinctively, he stepped in front of Jana as the dark blur of a motorcycle sped around the corner. Sunlight bounced off black helmets with tinted visors and black riding attire. The driver leaned forward as the passenger raised an automatic weapon.

 

“Gun!” Dylan pushed Jana to the ground, sheltering her body with his, while he watched the inevitable unfold.

 

Bright muzzle flashes and the gleam of chrome accents on the bike broke up the black mass attacking them. Screams of panicked civilians echoed around them, punctuating the sounds of the engine, gunfire, and breaking glass. The motorcycle weaved in and out of traffic and then disappeared down North Congress, gone long before the first emergency call could be made.

 

Dylan helped Jana to her feet. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m… I’m fine.” She dusted off her palms and hefted her purse back to her shoulder. “What about you?” Her voice wobbled the tiniest bit.

 

“I’m good.” He looked her over again before urging her away from the scene. The only damage appeared to be her broken sunglasses and dirt from the sidewalk on her knees and palms. “We should get to your car.”

 

“We have to help,” Jana argued. “The police will want our statements.”

 

He shook his head, catching her arm. “It’s not safe to hang around in the open like this.”

 

She stopped short and stared him down. “People may be hurt.”

 

“It’s your life I’m here to protect.”

 

“I’m not leaving. We stay and do what we can.”

 

Dylan bit back an oath. He should be grateful she wasn’t in shock or crying. “What about getting to the senator’s office?”

 

“That can wait.” She was already moving down the street, wading into the chaos.

 

His only choice was to follow her. This time. Staying as close as her shadow, he watched, reluctantly impressed as she checked on one person after another, soothing those with minor injuries. He did the same, careful to keep a close eye on his client.

 

As hard as it was to believe, no one had been seriously injured. By the time the authorities and emergency medical teams arrived, Dylan had studied the path of the bullets. The main cluster seemed to be right where he and Jana had been standing.

 

This case had just gone from a daughter’s denial to a potential murder investigation. Jana had been right to believe someone was following her. He took a few pictures of the chewed up wall that fronted a small bookstore with his cell and sent them to his tech and research assistant Claudia. His experience in law enforcement had him wanting to pick up a shell casing, but that would take him too far from his client.

 

It was possible the goal hadn’t been to kill her, but to create a serious diversion and possibly to kidnap her. Snapping pictures of people milling around, he stood with Jana as they gave their statements to the police. The moment they were cleared to go, he guided her toward her car.

 

“The police aren’t going to find anything,” he said, waiting for her to fish her car key from her purse.

 

“How can you be so sure?”

 

“That was a professional hit.”

 

Her eyes went wide, and then she shook her head. “That’s ridiculous. It had to be a random crime. Austin is for the most part a wonderful city, but we have issues with drugs and gangs the same as any large metropolitan area.”

 

He shrugged off her doubt. She didn’t know better. “We need to get off the street.” His instincts were humming, urging him to take her somewhere less exposed.

 

She fisted her hand over her car key, but not before he saw the way it shook. “I’ll meet you at the capitol parking garage.”

 

Not what he had in mind. In his professional opinion, she needed some privacy and a little time to regroup before they discussed what the hell just happened. Denial was a powerful force and the lady was definitely in denial. “I should take you home.”

 

“Absolutely not.” She glowered at him. “I refuse to let a random act of violence dictate my schedule. My dad wouldn’t…” Her renewed fury died as swiftly as it had appeared.

 

He took her car key. “We’ll talk about going to the office after I take you home for a break.”