Chapter One – Linda
“Linda, I need you.”
Linda always figured when she heard those words for the first time, they would be from a man. Her mate to be exact. But the voice on the other end of the phone was not her mate. Instead, it was her best friend since high school, Gina. Gina who was more like family than Linda’s own flesh and blood.
“What’s wrong?” Linda eyed the airplane with longing. She’d promised herself a vacation, somewhere hot and sunny, for months.
“I need a bodyguard.”
That got Linda’s attention. “Doesn’t your father have ten bodyguards on his payroll?” She glanced down at her boarding pass and shook her head. If she had any sense she would get her ass on the plane and tell Gina she couldn’t help.
“Twelve to be exact. But I need someone I can trust.”
“Which implies you can’t trust your father.” She kept her voice level, while her mind erupted in a torrent of scenarios that might have arisen to cause a breakdown in the relationship between Gina and her father.
“It’s not that simple.” Gina sighed audibly. “Something happened.”
“You can tell me all about it when I get there.” Linda turned on her heel and walked out of the airport.
“Thank you.” A sob erupted from Gina’s throat and she choked on her gratitude.
“Hey, don’t cry. Whatever it is, I’ll help you fix it.” Linda owed Gina a lot. More than one missed vacation in the sun. “I’m getting in my car now, I’ll be there in about four hours.”
“Thank you, Linda. This means everything to me.” There was that hitch in her voice again.
“Do you want to tell me what’s going on? Sometimes it helps to talk,” Linda recited the words Gina had said to an eighteen-year-old Linda when they first met.
“Not over the phone.” Gina lowered her voice. “I’ve already said too much.”
This was beginning to sound like a clichéd movie, which worried Linda even more. Gina was anything but a cliché. Against all odds she’d wrangled Taylor Transport, the transport firm her father had built from nothing, only for her brother to run into the ground, into a profitable company once more. She dealt with men twice her age, and twice her size, and most of those men would agree Gina had twice the balls as most of the men they knew.
Gina did not scare easily, and she was scared. Scared like the time they climbed to the top of a high cliff overlooking the ocean because the local people had told them the view was incredible. It was. However, it was lost on Gina. Instead of awe and wonder, the look on Gina’s face when she looked down over the edge at the huge drop below had been one of mortal terror. Yeah, if there was one thing Gina feared, it was heights.
The image of Gina’s terror-filled face swam around in Linda’s head. She picked up her pace and jogged across the airport parking lot, weaving in and out of the tightly packed cars until she saw her sleek black sports car. She’d bought it years ago when she was young, free and single, without any thought to mates and cubs...all the things she longed for now that she’d just turned thirty.
Like any self-respecting shifter, Linda longed for a family, even though her experience of her own, and Gina’s, family were enough to put most normal people off mates and marriage for life.
“How is your family?” Linda asked the leading question, that to most people would seem totally natural.
“Daddy is sick. They’re not sure why.” She paused. “It came on sudden. Really sudden.”
“And Harvey?” Mentally, Linda added, you know, Harvey, your dumbass brother who didn’t know a pen from a paperclip. That was unfair. Linda used to like Harvey, but his recent behavior had changed all that.
“Harvey is Harvey.” Gina didn’t elaborate which gave Linda a clue as to what was happening. “Still not talking to me. It’s as if he blames me for taking over the company before he ruined it completely. I never asked for this job.”
“But you’re good at it. Don’t ever forget what you’ve accomplished,” Linda reminded Gina.
Gina might protest about being forced to save her family’s transport company, but she’d taken on the role with enthusiasm and a strength that had earned her the respect of everyone. Employees, contractors, and clients all respected her soft approach which hid a steely determination to succeed.
But success also meant making enemies. Not intentionally, but as Taylor Transport grew and regained its footing on the global transport scene, smaller competitors were crushed under its mighty wheels.
“Listen, do you need to get out of the house? I could meet you at that small coffee house, Hot Lava, if you want?” Hot Lava was a coffee house they used to frequent at college on late nights when they needed a hot shot of good, strong coffee to keep them awake while studying. It had also become a code word they used if either of them needed to get out of a situation. Like the time Gina got cornered by Chuck, a geeky college kid who made it clear he wanted to be more than friends. If Gina was in trouble she would agree to meet at Hot Lava.
“I don’t think I can make it today. I have so much to work on. But I might need to visit there sometime soon.” Gina let out a long sigh.
Linda slipped into her car and transferred her phone, so that she could continue the conversation handsfree. “If you’re sure.” Linda listened for every nuance in Gina’s voice that might give her a clue as to what was wrong. So far, she assumed Gina was in some kind of trouble, but not imminent danger. So why the need for a bodyguard?
“I’m sure. I’m all right here at work.” She paused. “I have a business trip lined up.”
“And that’s what you need me for.” Linda nodded as she paid for her parking and then exited the parking lot.
Above her head a plane took off, a plane she should have boarded. A plane that would be taking her to paradise. Worse, all-expenses-paid paradise. One of her regular clients owned a villa on a private Caribbean island overlooking the beach. It was sitting empty for a couple of weeks, so he’d given Linda exclusive use of the villa and all its facilities. A reward for her close attention to detail during an assignment protecting his daughter.
Hot sun, warm ocean, and only the couple who serviced the villa as company.
She was about ready to drool.
“Linda, are you still there?” Gina’s voice over the handsfree in the car jerked Linda back to the present and the busy road leading from the airport and out onto the highway.
“Still here.” Linda shook off her disappointment at missing out on a vacation and refocused. “Any other news you want to share with me?”
“Like what?” Gina sounded suspicious, which was unusual.
“I don’t know. No Prince Charming came along and swept you off your feet?”
Gina scoffed at Linda’s words. “You know I don’t believe in all that crap.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t find a good man.” Linda lived in hope that one day she would find her own Prince Charming. Or at least her true mate, a man who would sweep her off her feet. Literally. At six-foot-two and with shoulders broader than the average male, Linda was something of a moose, who towered above most other people.
What Linda really wanted was a six-foot-five god of a man, with huge muscles, who could scoop her up in his arms and carry her to bed as if she were a slim, willowy, sexy woman.
“I’m beginning to think there are no good men.” Gina’s words were veiled as if she were keeping something back.
“Since when did you lose your optimism?” Linda joined the highway and eased her foot down on the gas. Her sleek black car responded, cruising past the other cars as Linda settled down into the plush driver’s seat and prepared for the long drive.
“I should get going, I have a mountain of work to get through before we leave.” In the background, Linda heard Gina speak to someone else in the room, but despite her enhanced senses she couldn’t hear what was said. However, she did recognize the voice.
“Is that Chuck?” Linda asked quietly, hiding her surprise.
“Yes. I have to go.” Gina’s voice had shifted in tone, she was back in charge of her emotions.
“Hold tight until I get there,” Linda told her friend.
“Will do,” Gina said brightly, as if she were putting on an act.
Linda frowned. “See you soon.”
“I can’t wait.” The call ended abruptly and left Linda in a funky mood as her car ate away at the miles.
Chuck. What the hell was that geek doing at Gina’s office? Linda had not seen him since their college days and Gina had never mentioned him when they talked. Knowing Chuck, he’d pressured Gina into giving him a job when she took over at Taylor Transport. At least that meant Gina had someone on her side. Someone she could trust and confide in.
A wave of guilt swept over Linda. She hadn’t been such a good friend to Gina lately. Her career took her all over the world and she was rarely off-duty. Often one job ended, and another started immediately.
Linda’s now abandoned vacation had only been possible because a well-known actress canceled at the last minute after her botched plastic surgery kept her in the hospital for a few extra days.
We both have successful careers, her bear reminded her.
You’re right, Linda agreed and focused on the journey. She’d learned as a child that all she could do was live in the present. The past could not be changed, and the present was, as yet, unwritten.
Linda watched the miles roll by. She would make an accurate assessment of the danger Gina was in based on all the available information when she reached her friend. Only then could she decided what to do to keep Gina safe.
Or not do, her bear informed her.
You sound depressed, Linda noted.
Why would I be depressed? I was promised warm sea and sand to roll in. Instead we get to enter the corporate world and try to figure out who is trying to stab who in the back.
Is that what you think this is all about? Linda’s brow furrowed, and she came to a stop at a set of red lights.
What else? Her bear had a point. They’d spent enough time around a variety of business people to know how cutthroat business could be. They’d seen it from both sides.
Why would Gina be worried about using her father’s bodyguards if this was all about the corporate world? Her father had handed over the business to Gina after she proved her worth by turning the company around. Something must have changed. But what? Had Harvey caused trouble? Did he have something to do with their father’s sudden illness?
Ah, nuts. See what you’re making me do? We wait for the facts, there is no room for speculation. Linda sped away from the lights and switched her focus back to driving. She wasn’t about to jump to conclusions.
Instead, she let herself pine for the vacation that never was. Her bear was right about one thing, she would much prefer to be on a plane on her way to a hot sunny island.
That wasn’t true, she would do anything for Gina. At college Linda was an antisocial, arrogant ass who wore black clothes and black makeup and went around with a permanent black cloud over her head. She was known as Snarler to most of the other students. Until she got a new roommate.
Gina was everything Linda wasn’t, but they hit it off instantly, proving opposites did attract. Slowly, Gina coaxed Linda out from under her dark cloud and into the sunshine.
The light on her dashboard alerted her to the need to refuel. While the dull ache behind Linda’s eyes told her the car wasn’t the only one who needed gas, or in Linda’s case, caffeine.
A couple of miles down the road she pulled into a gas station and filled the tank. While she watched the numbers slide up, as the pump chugged the gas into her tank, a stray thought about saving the planet for her kids slipped into Linda’s head. Her sleek black gas guzzler had to go.
Shoving the nozzle home, she closed the gas flap and sauntered inside to pay and grab a coffee. Pushing the door of the small family run store open, she went down the aisles grabbing some junk food, too. Then she added some fruit, even though the apples looked as if they had been lingering on the shelf too long, just so she could kid herself she was looking after her body. She added a couple of energy bars to the mix, the kind hikers used on the trail. She guessed she was going to need all her energy to get through this job.
Working with strangers was easy, there was no emotional attachment. But working for Gina, especially if Harvey was involved somehow, that was going to drain her emotionally as well as physically.
In truth, the whole phone call with Gina had her worried. The more she thought about it, and Linda was thinking about her friend—despite her rule that said she only dealt with facts—the more her concern grew.
She was walking in blind. As a professional bodyguard Linda was hired with full disclosure on what exactly she was using her body to guard against. But this time, she was walking into the unknown.
Reaching the coffee machine, she wrinkled her nose at the poor excuse for a latte that trickled out. With a sigh she took it to the counter and set it down. “This and the fuel on number two, please.” She paid for her stuff and was back in the car and on the road, with the coffee sitting next to her in a cup holder, in the space of ten minutes.
Linda’s foot edged down harder on the gas and the car sped along like a sleek panther down the back roads as she cut across the country. Adrenaline pumped around her body as she handled the car expertly. The thrill of fast cars never failed to lift her spirits.
But she’d trade her car for a family sedan if she found her mate and was blessed with a couple of kids. Her biological clock was ticking. Fear crept up her spine like ice cold fingers.
What if she never found a man to settle down with? What if her mate eluded her for the rest of her life?
Now was not the time to ponder on that impossible conundrum. What happened, happened, she could only worry about things within her control.
Switching on the radio she cycled through a couple of stations before flicking over to a CD. Abba filled the car and she sang along to all the tracks. Not the obvious choice for a bodyguard, but the songs had a special meaning to her. Growing up, her grandma used to sing along to these songs as she did her chores around the house. Her grandma knew every word to every song, and Linda often accompanied the woman who raised her, both with the chores and singing.
Sorrow and loss filled Linda. Her grandma had died when she was eighteen, leaving her alone in the world. Alone until Gina.
Gina who had taken the strange Goth girl under her wing and helped her morph into a strong, capable woman.
That was the reason Linda had dropped everything to drive across the country for Gina. That was the reason she was in her car seat, not the seat of a plane.
Linda hoped that she could handle whatever was going on in Gina’s life that meant she needed a bodyguard.
She might be strong, she might be tough, but Linda wasn’t an invincible superhero.
We can handle it, her bear told her. And Linda had no choice but to believe her bear was right.