As Jonathan O’Neil opened the door to Up In Smoke, steam wafted into the busy Dallas street. He was immediately saturated with the smell of fried onions, hamburgers, and, of course, bar-b-que. Inhaling deeply through his nose, he savored each scent and…was that apple pie?
“Why, thank you, son.” An elderly lady smiled up at him as she used the metal bar across the door to steady her shaky steps. “Don’t you just love this place? Best country fried steak in Texas.”
“I’ll bet it is, ma’am.” Jonathan couldn’t help but smile back at her and her friend as he held the door for them.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been here before.” The second woman’s brown, penciled-on eyebrows nearly reached her white, perfectly-quaffed hair.
“Yes, ma’am, first time,” Jonathan admitted. Give a man a chance. He’d only been in the city twenty hours, most of which had been spent settling into his hotel room and temporary office at Guardian Security, Inc. He’d never considered leaving Miami before…before that night. More accurately, the next morning.
“He’s a virgin.” The first woman elbowed the second and giggled.
The accusation derailed Jonathan’s train of thought. Miami was in his past, and everything that had happened there was going to stay there. And what the hell? Virgin? Not by a long shot. But he wasn’t going to tell these septuagenarians—who reminded him way too much of his interfering Irish grandmother—that he’d lost his virginity as a late sixteenth birthday gift from Sally Ann Crossville, the girl he’d been dating at the time. She hadn’t lost hers that night, but taught him a lot over the next few weeks before dumping him for the star of the soccer team.
“Gladys, he might be a Texas culinary virgin, but with that body, he’s been screwing around for years.” The second woman pushed the first the remaining way through the door.
Gladys stopped two feet away from Jonathan and eyed him from the top of his Guardian ball cap, over the light gray company polo shirt, down the mandatory black cargo pants to the military-style boots. Maybe if he’d worn the new cowboy boots his former staff had given him as a going away gift, he’d look more Texan. But he was technically on duty and in the uniform of the day.
“What do you think, Viola?” Gladys sidled toward her friend. “Bet we could teach this young buck a few things.” Bright sunlight caught the purple streak of hair that ran over Gladys’ ear.
What the hell? Aren’t these two a hoot?
“I just read that Cosmo article online on how to give a great blow job.” Viola smiled up at Jonathan with the whitest set of dentures he’d ever seen. Her faded blue eyes sparkled.
Gladys petted his bicep. “Bet you work out.”
Jonathan stared at the boney hand that squeezed his arm with greater strength than he’d imagine possible from such a small, frail-looking woman.
“Can we come watch you work out?” Viola asked with complete seriousness.
“Do you take your shirt off when you pump iron?” Gladys emphasized the last two words.
Not wanting this encounter to go any further, fearing they might ask him the length of his dick next, he smiled, hoping to extricate himself gracefully. “Excuse me, ladies. I’m meeting someone inside.”
Viola lightly smacked Gladys’s hand away from Jonathan’s arm. “Come on. We want a good spot on the bus bench across from that boxing gym with the big windows. The men should be good and sweaty by now.”
Gladys dug in her gigantic purple purse. “Damn it all. I can’t find my gun.”
“Don’t worry. I have mine.” Viola hauled a 1911 Colt from the depths of the big red bag hanging on her shoulder. “I got us covered.” She took a good solid shooting stance and started pointing the gun.
“Whoa, ladies.” Jonathan grabbed the gun from Viola’s hand and checked the slide. Sure enough, there was one in the chamber. Thank God the safety was on. “Do you—”
Viola reached for her gun back, but Jonathan held it up in the air, out of her reach. “Of course I have a permit to carry. My Charlie, God rest his soul, was a Texas Ranger. And I know how to use that sucker.”
Jonathan ejected the magazine and the chambered bullet before handing the separated pieces back to Viola. “Please be careful with that.”
Expertly, the older woman restacked the bullet in the magazine, popped it back into the gun, and flicked the safety on.
Gladys stepped so close he could smell her faded, old-lady perfume mixed with the restaurant smells that had saturated her clothes. “Welcome to Texas, young man.” Her soft hand patted his cheek. “You’ll learn.” She turned to her friend. “Come on, Viola. I don’t want to miss those executive types stepping out onto the street, all fresh from their shower. Reminds me of my younger days.” With a glance over her shoulder at Jonathan, she told him, “I used to be a looker, you know.”
“I’ll bet you were.” He could see the beauty she’d once been.
When he finally stepped into the restaurant, he wanted to thrust his fist into the air. He smelled baking apple pie. Glancing around the packed ’50s-style diner as he removed his hat, he caught site of his new boss sitting at a table in the back with a view of everything and everyone. Their eyes met. A lift of Quinlan Barrister’s chin was Jonathan’s invitation.
He wove his way through the scattered tables, some of which had been shoved together to accommodate larger groups, others had couples chatting intimately. All the food looked amazing. He took the indicated seat across from Quin, hating that his back was against the crowded restaurant.
“I see Viola and Gladys waylaid you at the door.” Quin’s gaze swept the entire restaurant, and he nodded at someone behind Jonathan. “Watch out for those two. Gladys groped my ass the other day while we were standing in line to pay our bills.”
“They’re something, aren’t they?” Jonathan just wasn’t sure exactly what that something was and didn’t want to personally find out.
“What can I get for you today, Quin?” The cordial voice caught Jonathan’s attention as the woman reached to refill his boss’s cup. “Coffee?” The question was directed to Jonathan.
Tired eyes the color of good whisky met his, but her smile was genuine. He flipped over the cup on the table in front of him. “Yes, please.” The desire for apple pie was overwhelming.
She filled his cup. “Today’s lunch special is meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans.”
Jonathan glanced quickly around the small table for a menu, then up to those gorgeous brown eyes. He checked her nametag. “Gwen, could I see a menu, please?”
Before she could answer, Quin instructed, “Behind you, over the kitchen window, above the counter.” Jonathan turned in that direction and saw a list of everything he loved to eat.
“While you’re checking that out”—she turned her attention across the table—“I’ll take your order, Quin.”
“I’ll have the special.”
“Good choice.” She wrote on her pad. “I made the meatloaf myself this morning.”
That accounted for the dark circles under her eyes. When Jonathan turned back, he noticed she was quite pretty. Her dark hair was cut in a straight line just below her jaw, directing his gaze to a pointy chin that fit her heart-shaped face. The red t-shirt was loose, but he could tell she had average-sized breasts. Not too much to be fake but enough to be enjoyable. The red apron accented her small waist and the tight jeans hugged her shapely legs down to the red, high-top gym shoes. Quirky. He liked a twisted woman.
He smiled when she returned her attention to him. “Have you decided?”
Yes, he’d made up his mind. Although he certainly wasn’t about to jump into another relationship, he could use some female companionship. He’d been used to getting laid every night, if he wanted it, but for the past month, sex had been the last thing on his mind. Now, in a new city, it was a whole new beginning.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger smothered in fried onions, fries, and a Coke.” He’d work off any extra calories that afternoon in the company gym, one of the many benefits of working for Guardian.
“I’ll get that right out for y’all.” And she was gone. On her way to the kitchen, he watched the way her hips swayed as she dodged tables, chairs, and people arriving and leaving.
Oh, yeah. He didn’t need the same woman in his bed, night after night, tending to his every need and wish. And all-nighters had to be a thing of the past for him. He’d done one-nighters the whole time he’d been in the Marines, just like all his special operations buddies. Being tied to one woman wasn’t for him. Not anymore. He might…no. He was fine. That had been a one off. It would never happen again.
“She doesn’t date.” Quin’s statement made Jonathan turn around.
For the first time, he really looked at his new boss. After years as the number two man in the Los Angeles Guardian Center, Quin had been promoted to manager at the Dallas office. The Southern California sun had given the man’s light brown hair blond highlights that seemed to go with the deep golden tan. But that may have been left from his days as a SEAL.
Jonathan would never tan. He often joked that the sun just made him turn darker shades of white. Maybe if all his freckles would merge together, he’d finally be tan. But that would look weird with his blondish-red hair. He had to stay clean-shaven because his beard grew out copper red as a new penny. He could never blend in the Middle East so he’d stayed specialized in cold weather warfare, spending time in Korea and the Far East. Lot of good that training did him now in Texas.
Refocusing back on the conversation, Jonathan probed, “She turned you down?”
“More than once.” Quin shrugged. “It was worth a try for a taste of that body.” He grinned. “I have discovered, though, that Texas women have a wild side.”
“Good to know.” Jonathan could get a little wild with a woman for a night. And that’s all it would be, one night.
“Did Alex fill you in on the situation here?” Quin asked, referring to the managing partner of Guardian Security. “And you got the memo on Katlin Callahan, right? I heard she’s in Miami a lot. Have you met her?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve guarded Ms. Callahan and her friends several times.” Jonathan had also fought beside her in a shootout against terrorists. “Do you know her?”
“First, no, I’ve never met the woman.” Quin sipped his coffee. “Second, cut the sir shit.” Quin set the coffee cup down on the saucer with a clink. “I don’t know, or care, how things were done in Miami, but in my center, when we’re alone, management is on a first name basis. Yeah, I’m your boss, but we need to function as a team. When you’re in charge of the center, I expect you to give the same answers and directions that I would. In front of our men, we can be more formal.”
Jonathan liked this man already.
“But when it comes to Alex, and now Ms. Callahan,” Quin continued, “I expect you to treat them with the respect they deserve as the company’s owners.” He sat back in his chair and grinned. “Now, what do you know about Ms. Callahan that I should know?”
“She’s not what she seems.” Jonathan had to watch his words carefully. He knew her covert identity and that she was the leader of an international team of female assassins. He’d seen her in action two weeks ago in Iraq. The woman was as lethal as any of his SpecOps teammates had been.
“Most women don’t show you their real side until they get that diamond,” Quin stated perceptively. “I’ve heard she’s quite the party girl, and your buddies in Miami often had their hands full with her and her friends.”
“Yeah, they like to go out and have a good time, but they deserve some downtime,” Jonathan defended the women he now respected more than any others in the world. He wasn’t sure he could ever handle dating one of Katlin’s team members, but understood what Alex saw in her. “Never underestimate her. She’s smart as hell.”
“Good to know. Alex is expected sometime next week.” Quin sipped his coffee. “Did she travel with him, now?”
Jonathan smiled. “No. She still on active duty, but TDY with Homeland Security. She gets called out of the country quite often, but I think she tries to join Alex whenever she’s able.” He needed to change the subject. “How far away is San Antonio?”
Quin leaned back in his chair. “Easily four and a half hours. A lot depends on traffic. Just getting out of Dallas can be a bitch. God somebody special down there you need to see?”
“An old friend is with the FBI down there.” Jonathan hadn’t seen Cruz Livingston in years but when he’d decided to move to Dallas, he called his old friend just to catch up. He promised to make the road trip down and spend a few days playing tourist and catching up. He had been surprised, and glad, to hear his friend had found a new woman. He couldn’t wait to meet Mickie.
“You’ll have to do the Riverwalk while you’re there,” Quin suggested. “There are some damn good restaurants down there. We did some training at Fort Hood and escaped on weekends to San Antonio. I haven’t been back since taking the job here, though. Guess I need to add that to my list of places to go and things to see in Texas.”
Gwen floated in with arms full of plates and slid his drink onto the table. “Your order will be up next.” She was gone as fast as she’d appeared, commenting on the hot weather as she set plates in front of a table of cops.
Jonathan was about to ask if Quin had met the police chief when his thoughts were interrupted by a woman’s shrill voice.
“I figured I’d find you here.”
He turned to see a woman in a yellow sundress, with salon-perfect hair, clacking in four-inch high heels toward the back of the restaurant. Oh. My. God. Someone’s in trouble. Jonathan looked around for a guilty face, but he read only astonishment from the other patrons. A few hid smirks as they darted their gazes away.
“How dare you freeze my credit cards?” The Texas twang rang thick through every word.
Quin’s gaze was quartering the room, searching for the culprit. When his eyes met Jonathan’s, he lifted one shoulder a quarter of an inch.
The clacking stopped next to his boss’s chair and a manicured hand smacked the table. He looked at the half-dozen rings she wore on just that hand and mentally totaled their worth. A family of four could live comfortably for several years on just those jewels.
When Jonathan looked up, all eyes in the restaurant were staring…at him.
What the fuck?
He glanced at Quin whose brows almost met in the middle.
The woman glanced from Quin to Jonathan. “Well, how soon can I use my credit cards? I need to buy a new dress for the charity auction and cocktail party tonight.”
Quin cleared his voice and stood. “Ma’am, you are obviously mistaken. I haven’t a clue who you are. I have nothing to do with your credit cards.”
Jonathan rose in unity. He purposefully caught the gaze of one of the policemen at the near-by table. Barely perceptible nods were exchanged. This woman was clearly delusional.
Smack. She hit the table once again.
“You’re a liar. You work for Guardian Security.” Her pointed finger flew to the gray logo on Jonathan’s shirt and she jabbed at it, accusing, “Because of you, my husband is in jail and that bitch of an attorney general has frozen all my money. It’s bad enough I have to go to this damned event without Bill, but I’m not wearing a dress everyone has already seen.”
Quin looked clueless, and Jonathan had no idea who any of these people were or what the hell she was talking about.
Gwen appeared with their food and hip checked the woman out of the way. She set the plates on the table and called out to everyone, “Show’s over folks. Go back to your food and drinks.”
She turned to the woman and Gwen fisted her hands on her hips. “Bitsy, what the hell? You know better than to bring your dirty laundry into my restaurant.”
“Well, I tried to get into their office, but it’s like Fort Knox.” Bitsy opened the gigantic yellow purse and started to dig. “Besides, this isn’t your restaurant. Suze and James will be back soon.”
Gwen cocked her head. “It is mine right now, since they left me in charge.” Under her breath, she added, “Damn it all.”
Jonathan flipped the leather tab that secured his handgun in the holster at his side. If she pulled a gun out of there, he’d be ready. A glance toward the standing cops revealed they’d done the same.
Bitsy lifted her head and wagged a single key on a ring. “This fucking thing doesn’t work anymore.” The irate woman vibrated. “Because if had it worked, I would have killed that husband-fucking secretary of theirs.” She glared lasers at Quin and Jonathan.
Then Bitsy pulled a pink Glock 26 from the outside pocket of her purse.