Noah Pierce knew the biggest dangers were the ones you couldn’t see coming.
As he studied the woman at the head of the conference room table returning his stare with her unreadable gaze, he had the feeling he’d just gotten blindsided by one. “You want me to bodyguard what?”
Unfazed, Beatrice, his boss, answered. “You know the family and the area. You’re the perfect security agent for this client. The details are on your phone and we can discuss them further in my office after the meeting.”
“There’s nothing to discuss.” He’d never balked at an assignment before, but hell to the no, this one wasn’t for him. “I’m not going to Tennessee.”
“Come on, man.” Noah’s brother, Ash, sat across the table, his mouth grim at Noah’s refusal. “It’s Jena. She’s a cush assignment. Beautiful girl, famous, money to burn…”
Noah had no interest in the woman or her money. His chest was all kinds of wonky just hearing her name. His leg popped up and down under the table, the small black box he carried with him everywhere banging against his thigh. “I’m not being hired to be Jena’s bodyguard.”
Thank God. ‘Cuz shit on a griddle, there was no way he could handle being up close and personal with the only girl to ever break his goddamn heart.
Next to him, fellow Rock Star and sniper, Colton Bells, fiddled with a paperclip. “Gotta say, boss, I agree with Clash here.” He liked to refer to his fellow RS coworkers by their codenames. “Since when do we do security on a horse?”
“Exactly.” Noah didn’t think Jena could insult him more than she already had when she’d turned down his marriage proposal, but this? Guarding a horse? That just might take the cake. “Singers, actors, billionaires—royalty even. We guard the elite. Not animals.”
“This horse is elite,” Beatrice’s words were clipped. Nobody said no to her. “And so is the client. While Ms. DuMont stands on her own in the fame department, she has an equally famous family, and thanks to her mother marrying a Swiss prince, she’s considered modern royalty. She has a bigger fan base than the Duchess of Cambridge.”
Ash kicked back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “I’ll do it. I know Jena and her family, too, you know.”
Ah, Ash. He had no idea about the marriage proposal or rejection, otherwise, his offer might actually be out of charity to help save Noah’s ego. Instead, he was the older brother playing it cool, like he wanted to help, when in reality, he was simply trying to goad Noah into it because Ash always believed Noah and Jena belonged together. He meant well, but…
Not biting, big brother.
Beatrice shook her head, still glaring at Noah for his insurrection. “Ms. DuMont specifically requested Noah.”
Jena + Noah = True Love
In his mind, he saw Jena’s cursive writing inside the book she’d given him when they were both too young and naive to know better. She’d drawn a dozen hearts around it.
Gulliver’s Travels. He still had it on his nightstand. It had traveled with him on every mission in every country. Just like the tiny black box in his pocket.
But Jena plus Noah no longer equaled love of any kind. Not for Jena, anyway. She’d shredded through how many boyfriends in the past four years? Noah drummed the table with his fingers. Seven? Ten?
Twelve, his internal counter reminded him. Yeah, he’d kept track. Since she’d turned his proposal down, Jena had been on the front of tabloid magazines all over the world with no less than twelve guys. Playboys, actors, models… She definitely ran in circles far different than his these days.
Beatrice’s fingers tapped at her tablet, already done with Noah’s uprising. “This mission is Noah’s.” She glanced around, all assignments having been given out. “Any questions?”
Noah hated speaking up—he preferred staying in the background, in the shadows–but this assignment was totally bogus. If he didn’t get out of it, he’d have to face Jena. Beautiful, amazing, one-of-a-kind Jena.
He didn’t move from his chair, prepared to fight to the death. “I have a question. Like Bells said, since when does Rock Star Security guard horses, even elite ones? We take care of human assets, not equines.”
His continued bitchiness wasn’t appreciated if the narrowing of Beatrice’s eyes was any indication. She was preparing the firing squad in her mind. “As your file indicates,” she said, rising from her leather chair, “Silent Risk is no ordinary horse. She is worth upwards of two-point-seven million dollars because of her bloodline, and the owner, Ms. DuMont’s grandfather, Cecil, has already had more than one threat against the horse. Someone attempted to steal Silent Risk a few days ago. Until the culprit, or culprits, is found, we are providing additional security at his estate.”
Where Jena lived and ran things for the old guy. Noah closed his eyes and sighed. He was going to have to think of something fast or he was flying to Tennessee before lunch.
“Isn’t the horse microchipped?” Noah asked.
“Those are easy to remove,” came Beatrice’s no-nonsense reply. “And they are not a tracking device. If the horse ends up on the black market, the microchip will be worthless.”
He wasn’t one to complain, or manipulate things to his advantage. Hell, he loved the crap assignments, was always happy to take the ones the others didn’t want. This mission was totally the opposite—all six guys at the table probably wished they were in his shoes. Who wouldn’t? Keeping a horse safe, elite or not, was ten times easier than guarding a famous person or doing covert paramilitary work in a foreign country where you could end up rotting in some prison.
But one thing he wasn’t was a quitter, and his stubborn streak was legendary. He had to try to get out of this assignment one more time. “Ash is the better horseman. He should go.”
His brother raised an eyebrow at the compliment. They had both grown up taking care of Cecil’s horses while working the rodeo with their father. Noah held more ribbons and they both knew his love for animals was as deep as Ash’s love for guns and bombs.
Beatrice didn’t even falter on her way to the door, her high heels practically leaving marks in the carpet. “Noah, my office. Now.”
Lowering his head, he knew he might as well pack his bags.
He was definitely going to Tennessee.
Or being shown the front door of Rock Star Security with a polite request to never grace its doorway again.
Inside Beatrice’s posh office, he didn’t bother taking a seat. She’d long ago earned his respect and trust. He just didn’t like being blindsided.
“You don’t have to chew me out,” he said, standing at attention in front of her desk and keeping his gaze on his boots. “I deserve it, but nothing you can say will make me feel worse than I do. This assignment… I’m sort of damned if I do and damned if I don’t. That’s why I tried to beg out of it.”
She sat slowly, her slender fingers toying with her favorite pen. “Take a seat.”
He didn’t want to, but because of his current ass-in-a-sling situation, did as instructed. “I’ve never asked for a different assignment in all my time with Rock Star Security. Never turned down a mission with Shadow Force. I work my ass off for you and volunteer for every shitty job there is. This once, I respectfully request an alternative. I’ll never ask for another thing again.”
Her crystal blue eyes met his. “I realize this mission has a personal nature to it for you. One that makes you uncomfortable.”
She had no idea, even if she was the Queen B and knew everything about everyone. No one knew about that night with the ring except him and Jena.
He stayed silent because sometimes there was no answer, no comeback. There were only scars that no amount of time could heal.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
Nothing about her face changed, and yet, he sensed she was relieved to not have to play friend or psychiatrist. “You can’t run from your demons.” The pen turned end over end. “What I’ve discovered about life is you have to face the thing that scares you the most.”
Okay, maybe she was going to play psychiatrist. The words flew out of his mouth before he could stop them, before he had time to realize they were a lie. “I’m not scared.”
He cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the whole damn situation. “I don’t believe it’s in anyone’s best interest for me to work for Jena. She and I parted on…bad terms.”
“Technically, you’re working for Cecil, but I understand your concern. However, Jena herself requested your services. I assume there’s a reason she knows you work for Rock Star Security, even though we’ve kept your privacy intact as we do with all former SEALs. Someone in your family perhaps mentioned it to her?”
Noah clasped his hands in his lap, pinching his fingers tightly together. “I have no idea how she found out about my employment status, but she has deep pockets, as you know. Money can buy a lot of information. Her brother, George, works for the Justice Department. He and I were close once. Perhaps he was able to get his hands on it.”
Beatrice didn’t seem convinced. She also didn’t seem particularly worried. “Whatever happened between the two of you, this assignment offers you the opportunity to put it to rest. I suspect by Ms. DuMont’s request that she is ready to do just that.”
Once again, Noah stayed silent. Jena could be ready all she wanted. He wasn’t.
“The FBI has a lead on a suspect who might be involved in the failed attempt to kidnap the horse,” Beatrice said. “They assure me they should have the situation resolved in a week or two. Based on your previous experiences, I know you can handle anything for that long.”
Beatrice wasn’t one to skirt the issue. Without saying it, she was referring to the time he’d spent in a secret Libyan prison known as the Sludge Pit, before US forces had rescued him. He’d been spun on a spit over a fire, had one of his arms locked in a vise that was tightened daily, and listened to a playlist of battle sounds some bastard had recorded, including gunfire and bombs, turned to deafening volume. The scars on his body and mind were less noticeable these days, but the near deafness in his right ear would always be an issue.
It had cost him his career with the SEALs. Now, missions for Shadow Force, the covert paramilitary side of Rock Star Security, were rare, since they required you to have all your faculties in good working order.
He was broken, and he knew it. This job as a bodyguard with the Rock Stars was his best option. Maybe his only one.
Plus, there was Ash. Ash had been in that prison with him. He’d endured his own torture. While he hadn’t lost his hearing, he’d lost his little brother for a while. Ash hadn’t left the SEALs because he had to—he’d left to take care of Noah.
Noah owed him. He owed Beatrice too.
Two weeks, maybe less. Perhaps, once he was on site, he would be able to speed up the investigation into who had tried to steal that damn horse.
Everything in him screamed not to go. But Beatrice was counting on him. Ash too.
Slowly, he rose to his feet, shutting off those screams. Detach, disconnect, disassociate. Silent Risk was just another assignment. Jena, just another client. “What time do I leave?”
Beatrice showed little response to his acceptance of her plan. “Your plane takes off at 1300 hours. Report in as necessary, and keep me posted on the situation. I don’t expect this to be anything more than your run-of-the-mill assignment, but if you have any problems, reach out and ask for help.”
In other words, don’t be a hero. Low blow, but whatever. He deserved it. Copy that.
He nodded and left, finding Ash leaning against the wall outside. “Hey, bro. We good?”
Noah slapped his arm on the way by. “Yeah, best day ever.”
Ash followed him to the elevator where Noah punched the down button. “You never told me the whole story about you and Jena and what happened before the Libyan mission.”
Before the Libyan mission.
His life would always be divided into Before and After.
He’d gotten majorly screwed up in the Sludge Pit, but his heart and mind had been a mess before that. “We broke up. Nothing more to tell.”
The elevator doors slid open and they entered, Noah pressing the button for the first floor. He leaned against the handrail and ignored Ash’s concerned frown.
“I’ll ask B to send me as your backup,” his brother said. “You can’t guard that horse 24/7.”
Ash to the rescue. Some things never changed. “I’ve got it covered. I’ll be fine.”
He didn’t argue—it wasn’t Ash’s way. In the mirrored panel, Noah saw the wheels turning behind his brother’s creased brow. Sure as shit, Ash would figure out a way to get Beatrice to send him just to keep an eye on Noah.
“You need a meeting?” Ash asked. “There’s one at St. Mark’s in twenty minutes. I’m going.”
A veteran’s meeting was probably exactly what he needed. Take his mind off Jena, horses, and shitty marriage proposals. Focus on the pain of his old physical wounds and PTSD, rather than the fresh one now laid open on his heart, but invisible to the rest of the world.
He glanced at his watch. 0945. His plane didn’t leave for another three hours. Sitting around with a dozen other veterans hadn’t been on his calendar today, but it offered a distraction, and he wouldn’t have a chance to go to one again for a while, thanks to this new assignment.
The elevator dinged, the doors opening to the downstairs foyer. “I gotta take a leak. Meet you in the parking garage in five,” Noah said.
Ash nodded and took off.
Once he was out of sight, Noah ignored the restroom signs and went straight to the gym on the far end. Shrugging off his shirt, he took out his anxiety on a punching bag.