Michele Albert @ inkalicious.com

Prologue

Big Moccasin Lake Lodge, Wisconsin
August 22, 1933

"Why can't I come with you, Joey?"

Joey Mancuso raised his head from Rose's perspiration-moistened neck, and kissed her breast as he breathed in her warm fragrance--attar of roses, mingled with the musky scent of sex. As he traced the curve of her breast with the tip of his tongue, she shifted restlessly.

"Don't," she whispered. "Answer my question. You know how I hate it when we can't be together."

He raised himself on his elbows, and looked down into the face of the woman he loved more than life itself, the only person on this lousy earth he'd ever trusted. She was so pretty, his million-dollar-baby--her short red hair worn in marcelled waves, and wide brown eyes topped by pencil-thin brows like Myrna Loy, her favorite picture show star--but tonight, the sadness in Rose's eyes nearly tore him apart.

"They'll be looking for us back in Chicago, so I want you to lay low at your cousin's place in Racine. When I'm not so hot no more, I'll come for you and we'll go to Canada, like we planned." For her sake, he smiled. "And maybe I can finally make an honest woman outta you."

Rose sighed, and ran her foot along the back of his thigh. "This trouble is about that last job you pulled, isn't it?"

He kissed her lips as he eased out from her, catching her soft gasp, then kissed the tip of her nose, her forehead. "You know the rules, baby. Don't ask me no questions, then I don't gotta tell you no lies."

"Joey, I hope you're not thinking of going to Kansas City. You know the laws there are still looking for you over those killings at the train station."

Mood plunging to black, he swung out of bed. "I didn't have nothing to do with killing them cops."

"You used to muscle for Johnny Lazia, and that's all Mr. Hoover's boys care about," she said in a warning tone. "The laws want you real bad, sugar, and they'll do whatever they can to take you down."

Joey rubbed his thumb over her warm, soft cheek, then reached for his undershirt and began dressing. "Just remember what I told you--and keep your dancing shoes close by, because when I see you again, baby, I'm taking you out on the town in high style. Promise me that when I come for you, you'll be wearing a big smile for your fella, and your favorite dancing shoes."

Her gaze met his, but he shook his head in a warning before she even asked the question he saw brimming in her eyes. Not telling her the truth was the only way to protect her from the laws.

Turning slightly away from her, because sometimes Rose was too smart for her own good, he rubbed away a spot of dried mud from his trousers that he'd somehow missed earlier.

"I promise, on both accounts." Rose smiled brightly--too brightly--and swung out of bed, small breasts bouncing in the lamplight. She picked up her flowered blue dress from the floor, where he'd thrown it a half hour ago. "And maybe I'll buy me a new dress, too. A red one. Would you like that?"

"I sure would." He pulled a roll of bills from his trouser pocket and pressed half of it into her hand. Nobody could say he didn't know how to take care of what was his. "I figure this'll keep you in style until I see you again."

Rose sat on the bed, putting aside the money, and began rolling her silk chiffon stockings up her legs. He never tired of looking at her pretty legs.

"I don't understand how anybody knew where to find you," she grumbled, clipping her stockings to her garter belt. "We're way out in the wilderness. Hell, I don't even know where we are."

"Willis ratted on me, that's how," Joey said tightly. With angry, jerking motions, he strapped on his shoulder holster over his shirt and vest, then pulled on his suit coat.

And his buddy Willis Conroy, partner and onetime cellmate, knew all the truths that his girl didn't.

Trusting Willis had been a mistake.

"Willis would never rat on you, sugar," Rose said, frowning. She slipped on her dress, and began buttoning it. "He's your friend."

"People like me don't have friends."

Outside, the pine tree branches scratched across the window and the wooden siding of the lodge, like something trying to claw its way inside.

Rose looked at him, her red mouth a pretty pout. "What about me?"

"No, baby, you ain't no friend, either--you're my life."

She smiled, love shining in her eyes. Nobody but Rose had ever looked at him like that. She'd always made him feel like he was worth a damn, even on the bad days when his past rolled over him like a drowning wave. To keep that light shining in her eyes, he'd do anything for her.

"Besides," Joey added, "Willis would spill his guts to the laws if it meant getting out of the chair."

Earlier, he'd received a cryptic call warning him that his partner had been arrested in Minneapolis the day before, and was singing away. By now, the laws in Chicago would know where to find him and Rose. Life being what it was, any number of those cops were sure to be tight with Mike Riley, the meanest Irish gangster in Chicago's North Side, and ol' Mike would be keen to get to Joey before the laws or the G-men.

No doubt about it, Joey the Joker was a popular fella lately.

He had pals who could hide him, even hot as he was, but he had to get Rose away. If the laws or bureau agents found her, it would go hard on her. They'd slap her around, call her whore, and play games with her mind. So long as they got their man, they didn't care how they did it. And all those lawmen, alone with a girl they considered a floozy, wouldn't think twice about using her in other ways. He couldn't let that happen.

He pulled out a leather bag and shoved his clothing inside. Rose was already packed and ready to ride. They should've left hours ago, but he'd had to repair the car engine, and then Rose had start kissing him and fiddling with his shirt buttons, and one thing had pretty much led to another.

Joey fastened his coat to hide his gun from their hosts, but he didn't think the old man and his wife were awake. He suspected they'd guessed the identity of their only guests, but they'd treated Rose right so far, and he had no cause to be suspicious. Leastwise, no more than usual. He'd be sure to leave enough money behind to pay for the nights they'd stayed.

Nobody would ever say Joey the Joker would stiff an old man. He wasn't as heartless or without morals as the newspapers claimed.

"I'm taking the bag down to the sedan. You sit tight. I'll be back for you."

Rose nodded, suddenly going long-faced and moist-eyed.

"Aw, Rosie, baby, don't," he muttered, tensing. "I hate it when you cry."

She sniffed. "I'm feeling blue just thinking about not seeing you. I get so lonesome when you're gone. And I'm worried. This one don't feel right, Joey."

A chill shot through him at her words.

Rose was still watching him, and the light wasn't kind to her tonight. She wore more lines than a 22-year-old woman should, and her eyes were weary. The same weariness touched him now, the same bleakness that forced to him to admit he'd never live to see twenty-six. Rose knew it, too, but they never talked about his dying. It only made her cry.

"I don't know where all the good times went," Joey whispered. "It started out as a game...I never wanted it to be like this."

For a long moment, she said nothing--all the memories of their five years together hanging thick between them--then smiled. "You better quit jawin', boy, and pack those bags. I want us out of here before the laws jump you."

Or Mike Riley's triggermen. Mike wasn't about to forgive Joey for doublecrossing him. All this, because Riley's slut had bad-mouthed Rose. Jesus, skirts could be death on a fella.

He almost smiled. Even at times like these, he could still find a joke.

Grabbing the bag, he headed to the door. Nobody was in the lodge's common room. He didn't turn on the lights, suspicion second nature. He slipped out back and headed to the black Ford V8 sedan. He'd stolen it outside of Chicago, but had switched license plates. Times were hard lately, and few folks had the money to travel much. Out-of-state plates would tip off the local laws right quick.

And Henry Ford's big V8s were roomy enough for living in, for sleeping--even for lovemaking. Those big backseats of the cars he'd stolen had sure seen a lot of action. The best times of his life.

Joey looked away from the backseat, his gaze falling on the back floor where blankets hid boxes of shells, his two Browning automatic rifles, a Thompson submachine gun--his best chopper--and a half-dozen other rifles and handguns.

All at once, that ball of dread in his belly burst, overwhelming him with a powerful sense of helplessness. Two years of gun battles, police chases, roadblocks, and living on the lam...it was no kind of life, with nothing to look forward to but being shot down one day like a dog on the highway.

He'd been born to nothing, and if he died tonight, what would he have?

Nothing.

Except for Rose, and for a while, it had seemed he might make something of himself.

Joey sagged against the sedan and lowered his forehead against the cool, black metal roof and breathed in deeply, smelling the tang of pine needles and the nearby lake, the loamy scent of ground dampened by a recent rain.

He swallowed back the tears. Crying was weak, and he'd always known it would end like this...he'd just hoped to string his days out a little longer.

A sudden sound cut across the silence of the heavily wooded northern wilderness and Joey looked up, listening, his heart pounding.

Tires on gravel--and too late at night to be anything but trouble.

"Fuck," he snarled, and grabbed the chopper. He was silently slipping toward the front of the lodge when lights snapped on in the common room.

Rose...

She must think it was him, bringing the Ford out front.

"Rose, shut off the lights! Shut them off…get down, get down!"

His frantic warning was lost in an explosion of gunfire and shattering glass. A short scream cut across the thundering noise--an animal sound that raised the hair on his arms and the back of his neck.

 "No!"

As the guns fell silent, Joey's bellow of rage echoed through the darkness, long and drawn out like the howl of a wolf. Heedless, knowing it was too late, he ran toward the front porch, chopper blazing whitely as he sprayed a wide arc of bullets. From the darkness, the flash of returning fire erupted from the trees, the rat-ta-tat-tat of machine guns.

The first bullet slammed into his chest. He staggered back as another two bullets hit his shoulder and arm, and by the time the last bullets took him, he'd fallen to the soft, spongy ground, still clutching his smoking chopper in his hand.

"Rose," he gasped over the white-hot pain, each breath a struggle to pull more air into his lungs.

Sorry, baby...so sorry...

As blackness washed over him, he heard the sound of running footsteps, and a voice, muffled as if coming through a thick blanket, "He's dead! Goddammit, I told you I needed him alive!"

"He was shootin' to beat the band, Lou. It's not like we had a choice."

"I needed that bag, you idiots. Where's the shoes? Get me the shoes!"

"Lou!" A new voice shouting, so tinny and far away. "Lou, the laws are coming...three cars, down the road. They must've been right behind us."

"Aw, Christ! Get to the cars. We'll have to shoot our way outta here."

"What about the money, Lou?"

"We got no choice but to come back for that later..."

As blackness swallowed Joey Mancuso, his last thought was of Rose, laughing and twirling in a shiny red dress, kicking up her heels in her dancing shoes.

Chapter One

Chicago
Some 70 years later...

"Damn good thing I wore my best silk undies today, because if I had to go and faint in front of three hundred people, at least I did it with style." Lili Kavanaugh stopped her barefoot pacing on the carpet of her posh suite at the Drake Hotel and briefly closed her eyes. "Three hundred people...my God, I could just die of embarrassment."

"You nearly died for real," said a male voice from behind her, the tone sharp. "Embarrassment is the least of your worries right now, Lil. Are you sure you didn't hit your head when that cop knocked you down?"

Resuming her restless pacing, Lili glanced over her shoulder at her business manager, who was also her sister's boyfriend. Jared Sayers reclined on the pastel striped love seat: brown-haired, lean, and wholesomely handsome, but the lines of stress etching his face betrayed his casual sprawl.

Of course he was right, but he'd missed the point. Embarrassment she could handle and deal with; what she couldn't handle was that only a few hours ago a man had rammed a gun against her neck and almost dragged her out of the Morton Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she'd been lecturing.

"Well, it's my guilty secret that I'm totally spineless."  She smoothed the skirt of her red shantung silk dress. Damn, her hands were shaking again. "Fainting certainly doesn't do much for my suave and sophisticated image, does it?"

Jared didn't answer, and with a sigh, she gazed out her window at the grand view of Lake Michigan and the Oak Street beach. The sky was a cheery turquoise blue, sunlight streaming down and sparkling off the water. Although it was early October, the beach still swarmed with sun-worshippers, joggers, children, and people walking their dogs. She watched with a frustrated longing.

"Jared, do we really have to do this bodyguard thing?"

"Yes," he said with flat finality. "In case you've forgotten, somebody tried to kidnap you today."

As if she could forget. Lili rubbed her arms, wincing as her fingers reached the painful spots where her assailant had grabbed her with such vicious force. By tomorrow, she'd have a lovely collection of bruises.

And here she was, without anything in her suitcases to accessorize purple or yellow.

She continued to stare outside at all the people and activity, at the bright colors and endless blur of motion, and the suite she'd found so charming and spacious that morning closed around her, growing smaller and duller and ever more suffocating.

Lili glanced at the small knot of suit-clad detectives and uniformed officers talking by her door, including the off-duty cop who'd been in the auditorium and chased off her assailant. Outside her suite, hotel security stood guard. She wanted nothing more than five measly minutes to herself so she could wallow in a good bawl, but the police insisted on hanging around until this bodyguard person arrived.

Bodyguard. Images of a grim-jawed G-man in black popped to mind, and she gave a shiver of dread.

In all her thirty-one years, she'd encountered nothing more troublesome than the occasional jerk. Ever since the attack, she'd asked why anybody would want to harm her. No one had an answer, but at the moment it didn't appear that it was a onetime, random event.

A knock on the door cut across her thoughts, and Lili turned as the serious-faced young man in charge of hotel security poked his head into her suite. "Professor Kavanaugh? The gentleman from the security agency is here."

Lili stiffened, her breath catching, but when the tall, dark-haired "gentleman" walked into the suite, her apprehension eased into surprise.

The man coming her way with an easy, self-assured grace had a strong, angular face with the faintest hint of a cleft in his chin. He wore his hair cut short, and was one of those men who, no matter how often they shaved, always had a shadow of a beard. While not particularly handsome, he had pleasant, attractive features.

He was no thick-necked brute, anyway, and while Lili wasn't sure what a bodyguard should look like, she hadn't expected someone resembling an executive.

"Matt Hawkins," the man said, walking forward, hand extended. "You must be Professor Kavanaugh."

"Mr. Hawkins," she said as he took her hand in a firm, warm grip.

Standing so close, Lili couldn't help notice the color of his eyes--light gray, almost silver in the strong afternoon light--and that an incredible pair of broad shoulders filled out his suit.

The man discreetly cleared his throat, and Lili realized she still held his hand. She released it with a rueful smile, and quickly sized up the rest of him. Hawkins wore an expensive, conservative suit--the steel gray color did wonders to enhance his silvery eyes, and she had a feeling he was well aware of that. Armani, most likely, with a Breuer tie and a fine cotton shirt.

Gaze moving lower, she eyed his shoes. She didn't recognize the designer, but these were definitely pricey and Italian.

Obviously, guarding bodies paid rather well. And with an outward package like this, she'd bet the Kit Kat in her purse that he wore silk boxers, too.

A sudden heat stung her cheeks, and Lili looked back up, meeting the bodyguard's unwavering gaze.

Wonderful. She'd been threatened with a gun, manhandled, dragged across a floor, and had keeled over in front of a packed auditorium--yet she was speculating about the underwear of a man she'd met fifteen seconds ago.

Well, really...in a day rife with aberrations, what was one more?

Jared stepped up beside her and took Hawkins's hand in a quick shake. After introducing himself, he said, "Thank you for coming. Dan told me you initially declined the assignment, but I'm pleased you reconsidered. Trust me--you won't regret it."  Jared shot Lili a quick look. "Dan Armistead is part owner of the security agency, and an old friend of mine. I asked Dan for the best, and that would be Mr. Hawkins here. He's a certified personal security specialist. Top of the line."

It sounded as if Jared were describing a luxury Lamborghini or a state-of-the-art stereo system, not a man. Frowning, Lili tipped her head as she sized up Mr. Hawkins's shoulders again. "So...you're the crème de la crème of bodyguards?"

"The best." His eyes locked onto her, seeming to pin her to the spot where she stood. "And technically, I'm a personal security specialist, ma'am, not a bodyguard."

The sound of his voice washed over her: a deep, rich voice, like that of a nighttime deejay on the radio, the kind you could listen to for miles and miles as you drove that white line into the darkness.  A sexy voice that invited trust--maybe even a fantasy or two.

But before her fancy could take that thought and run with it, two other men wearing suits entered her suite, and Hawkins turned, breaking eye contact.

Immediately, her tense muscles relaxed.

"My team," Hawkins explained. "That's Manuel Mendoza standing by the flowers, and to his right is Dallas Farrell, my driver."

Lili summoned a smile for both men. Mendoza was a lanky Latino of middling height, sporting a sleek black goatee. Farrell looked surprisingly young and slender for a bodyguard. He had reddish-brown hair and brown eyes framed by long, thick lashes, and Lili's first thought was: Does your mother know what you do for a living?

With some surprise, she noted the baby-faced bodyguard wore a wedding band. Before she could check herself, she glanced quickly at the left hands of the other two men. Neither Mendoza nor Hawkins wore rings.

"I need to talk with the police for a moment," Hawkins said, reclaiming her attention. "Then I'll have questions for you. Sit tight. I'll be right back."

Lili knew an order when she heard one, no matter how politely stated.  She glanced at Jared, who shrugged and dropped back down on the love seat.  She resumed pacing, casting occasional curious looks at her bodyguard.

Odd, how a man who wasn't particularly out of the ordinary--and who wore an unobtrusive gray suit, albeit expensive--stood out among all these other cops. His voice wasn't overly loud, his movements weren't overly aggressive, and yet he drew her attention again and again.

In a room where testosterone all but crackled in the air, that was no small accomplishment. In his own quiet way, his entire bearing seemed to proclaim: Watch out. The big dog has arrived.

Within minutes, Hawkins had gathered his information, and the police and detectives filed out of her suite. Mendoza and Farrell followed them, which left her alone with Jared and a complete stranger who was now in charge of every hour of her life for the rest of the week.

Hawkins headed back her way, and with a renewed sense of unease, Lili noticed his frown.

"Is something wrong?" Realizing how ridiculous that sounded, she quickly added, "Beyond the obvious, I mean."

He regarded her just long enough for something uncomfortable to flutter in her chest. "Sit down. Please."

It wasn't a request, and she sank down onto a wing chair. He took the opposite chair, perched on the edge of the seat, hands loosely clasped between his knees, looking dark and ominous against the sherbet hues of her suite.

"I need to ask you a few questions about what happened."

At his words, the panic she'd been holding off for the last couple hours came rushing back, filling her with a cold, dark dread. "You just talked with the police. What more can I add?"

"I know you'd prefer not to talk about it," Hawkins said. "But it's important, Professor Kavanaugh."

Professor.

Lili managed a small smile. "Please. Just Lili."

He didn't smile back. "Tell me what happened. I need to hear it from you."

"Is this really necessary?" Jared demanded as he sat forward. "Can't you wait an hour or two? She's been through a lot this afternoon. Give her time to rest up and –"

"It's okay," Lili interrupted. Jared, like everyone in her family, tended to be overprotective of her.

Letting out her breath in a long sigh, she focused on the vase on the end table, filled to bursting with a lavish arrangement of calla lilies, irises, and asters in hues of yellow, lavender, and white. "I'm a fashion shoe designer, Mr. Hawkins, but I'm also an expert on shoe history. I own an extensive collection of shoes that belonged to famous American women, which is what I was lecturing about earlier."

"The attack came toward the end of your talk, correct?" Hawkins asked.  He pulled a small notebook from his inside jacket pocket--and Lili glimpsed a shoulder holster and the dark gleam of a gun.

Fear gathered in her chest, tight as a fist. Her heart pounded.

Of course he'd have a gun. Somebody had threatened her earlier with one, so why wouldn't he? Still, having an armed man sitting mere inches from her wasn't as comforting as she'd expected.

"Yes," she answered. "I'd thanked everybody for coming, took Rose's shoes from where I'd stashed them in the podium, and made my way to the edge of the stage."

"Rose?" Hawkins repeated, looking up from his notepad. "Who's Rose?"

"Are you from Chicago, Mr. Hawkins?"

Hawkins hesitated, then answered, "I was born in Pittsburgh, but I've lived in Chicago for years."

"Then you should've heard of Joey and Rose. You know, the star-crossed gangster lovers." At his blank expression, she added, "She was the moll of Joey 'the Joker' Mancuso, and was gunned down with him back in the thirties. My collection includes shoes from bad girls and floozies, too."

Recognition dawned in Hawkins's eyes, and he nodded once. "Okay. Why did you take the shoes with you?"

"Rose was one of Chicago's most notorious personalities, so I figured a chance to see the shoes would bring in more people to my lecture. The more the merrier, that's my motto."

Briefly, Hawkins's gaze slid over her, taking in her fitted red dress designed to play up her modest curves and show a generous length of leg--and now her skinned knees, unfortunately.

His gaze moved upward to her hair, which she deliberately wore in a classic bun--her own little joke, playing off the stereotype of a professor. This month her hair was inky black. The last few months it had been red; a deep, unabashedly fake shade of red.

"Are the shoes worth a lot of money?" Hawkins asked, his gaze locked onto her face once again.

"It cost me nearly twenty-five grand to get my hands on them. Gangster paraphernalia commands a high price these days. A few years back, Clyde Barrow's bloody shirt sold at auction for eighty-five thousand bucks." Suddenly registering the meaning behind his question, Lili hastened to add, "But he wasn't after the shoes. I had the shoebox with me, so if that was what he'd wanted, he could've easily just yanked them away from me."

"You held on to the box the entire time your assailant had you?"

Lili shrugged, and glanced toward the mangled box, its musty-smelling pink cardboard faded with age. "I guess I was too petrified to let go. Smashed the hell out of it, too, which makes me mad. That was the original shoebox. Very rare, you know."

Hawkins didn't look impressed. "Tell me exactly what happened after you walked to the edge of the stage."

Lili took a deep breath, seeing again in her mind's eye the dark blur rushing toward her. "I'd just sat down, and I was watching people walk down the aisles toward me. Out of the corner of my eye, this big dark shape caught my attention, mainly because it was moving so fast. I looked over and saw it was a man dressed all in black. For a second or so, I didn't think much of it, because artsy people often wear a lot of black. But when –"

She broke off, shivering at the memory, and how terror had hit her with such paralyzing intensity. Jared came to stand behind her, rubbing her shoulders soothingly. She smiled, patted his hand, then looked back at Hawkins. The bodyguard watched her and Jared with interest.

Lili knew what he was thinking, but didn't feel like correcting his assumption just yet.

"When I saw his face was covered by a black ski mask, I knew I was in trouble," she continued. "I tried to run, but he was too fast. He grabbed me and yanked me against him." Again, she ran her hands over her tender arms, a sense of violation and revulsion filling her. "Something cold touched my neck, and I knew it was a gun. That's when I sort of froze."

"Most people do. It's okay," Hawkins said--and only then did she realize her tone had been apologetic. "Go on. What happened next?"

"He told everybody to stay away or else he'd kill me." Angrily, she blinked away a fresh burn of tears. "He dragged me toward the emergency exit, the gun still shoved under my ear. I knew that if he took me through that door I was as good as dead...and I decided if he was going to kill me, he'd have to do it right there in front of all those people –"

Once again, she broke off, struggling to regain her composure as Jared continued to rub her shoulders. Hawkins waited with quiet patience.

"There was an off-duty cop in the auditorium...he'd brought his wife down for the lecture and, luckily for me, decided to stick around. He yelled an order to stop, that he was the police. I remember trying to turn and break free, but the man jabbed the gun into my neck really hard."

Hawkins glanced at her, taking in the angry red mark just under her jaw that would ripen into a nasty bruise by the next day. Self-conscious, she touched it, then clasped her hands together in her lap to keep her fists from clenching.

"All I remember next was feeling this burst of rage, and I started kicking and screaming and biting. I was not going through that exit, no matter what." She met Hawkins's expressionless gaze, but couldn't hold it. "At that point, he shoved me away and ran for the door. All these people were around, screaming and trying to get out of the way, and Officer Wheeler tackled him, knocking me down in the process. They fought...for a few seconds, maybe, then he kicked Officer Wheeler in the face and escaped."

She stopped. Silence filled the elegant suite, the moment stretching on.

"Then what?" Hawkins prompted.

With another glance at him, she murmured, "I don't know. I...fainted."

"You fainted?"

"Yes." She narrowed her eyes and squared her shoulders. "It was an unnerving experience, Mr. Hawkins, and I --"

He held up his hand in a calming gesture. "I'm only verifying you weren't knocked unconscious."

A blush heated her cheeks. "No, I just fainted. And when I came around again, all the excitement was over."

Until now, anyway. She eyed his suit coat, detecting the bulge of his holster now that she knew to look for it.

A sudden vision flashed to mind: the roar of guns, the stink of gunpowder. Bodies lying on the ground, leaking blood.

"Have you ever shot anyone?"

If her abrupt question surprised him, it didn't show.  "If I have to discharge my firearm, then I've failed to do my job. I don't fail."

Not quite a yes or no answer--but probably the company-approved one. She supposed he thought it a comforting answer, anyway.

"Did you get a look at your assailant, Ms. Kavanaugh?"

"Not really. His face was covered. He even wore black leather gloves."

"Was he white or Latino? Black?"

"White," she said. "I could see a little skin around the eyeholes of the mask, and his eyes were blue."

"Size? Age?"

She'd already told all this to the police, but she reined in her impatience. "About five-nine or five-ten, maybe. I'm not sure about his age. Obviously not too old, the way he was hauling me around."

She was five-seven, and one hundred thirty-five pounds on a good day--not exactly petite or dainty.

"Did you notice an accent? Speech impediment? Any other means of identification?"

"No accent. Nothing else. He was just a scary man in black with a gun."

"Did he seem nervous to you? In control? Angry?"

Lili worried her lip, thinking. The police hadn't asked her this. "No, he didn't seem nervous, just very...matter-of-fact. Like dragging off women was something he did every day."

Hawkins nodded, making another note. "A couple more questions," he said. "Background information, mostly."

Lili stood and resumed her pacing as she spent the next ten minutes detailing the wildly exciting life and times of Lilianne Kavanaugh: yes, her father was a surgeon and her mother an English professor. Yes, they were on good terms with her, and yes, she was the youngest of three sisters. No, she wasn't worth that much money, and even if her parents were well off--and could afford his undoubtedly exorbitant fees--they weren't billionaires. No, she hadn't any disgruntled employees or students, and as far as she knew, no business rivals who hated her designs enough to want to snuff her. No, she had no ex-husbands or disgruntled boyfriends, either.

At that, Hawkins glanced at Jared, once again sprawled on the love seat.

"Jared's not my squeeze," Lili said, smiling. "He's my sister's. Sometimes."

Jared shot her a reproachful look--whether for the "squeeze" or the "sometimes" crack, she didn't know. Probably both.

Again, if she'd surprised Hawkins, he didn't let it show. She wondered what it would take to get at least one eyebrow to arch, or one side of his mouth to curl. He had a nicely shaped mouth, and would have a lovely smile.

Hawkins turned to Jared. "What's your relationship to my client?"

Client. Such a cold, generic little word--and hearing it made her go hot with a sudden anger. How dare he reduce her terror to nothing more than a business transaction?

"I'm a family friend, and I've known Lili since she was ten," Jared replied in a clipped, professional tone. "I'm a financial analyst for a Boston firm, and in my spare time I keep Lil in the black, oversee advertising and sales, payroll employees, and contract with factories and distributors. I'm here to discuss a catalog layout for the summer collection, and I'm leaving tomorrow. Lili is staying in Chicago for the rest of the week."

"How long have you been working with her?"

Jared glanced at Lili. "About a year. She's only recently gotten things up and running to the point where she needs someone like me."

"Does she pay you a salary?"

"Not really," Jared said, impatiently drumming his fingers on the love seat's arm. "As I just mentioned, I help her out because she's a friend."

"And to impress upon my sister that he's a nice guy," Lili added, catching Hawkins's gaze. "And he really is a nice guy. Jared, better than anybody else, knows I'm not worth killing or kidnapping."

"That's right," Jared muttered. "You're a pain in the ass, is what you are."

Hawkins watched the two of them for a moment longer, plainly assessing. "This shoe collection you mentioned. Is it worth a lot of money?"

"Yes, but we're talking about old shoes, Mr. Hawkins," Lili said. "Not jewelry or other assets easily fenced or liquidated."

"I'll need to know your schedule. Where, when, contact personnel, and other details so I can began securing all routes and buildings." Hawkins glanced at Jared. "Do you keep her schedule?"

"Excuse me, but I keep my own schedule. I may be the victim here, but I'm not helpless." Lili retrieved her leather briefcase, pulled out a bulging file folder, and handed it to him. "Everything you need is here. I'm sorry I don't have a neat itinerary typed out, but that's not how I operate."

After another quick, cursory glance, he nodded. She'd translated that curt nod to mean: Yes, I can see you're not the most detail-oriented woman on the planet.

"So what's next?" Lili asked as Hawkins stood with a self-assured grace she couldn't help but admire.

"I meet with my team. I usually have more time for advance planning, but this shouldn't take long."

"Do you need anything more from me, or can I grab a glass of wine and unwind in a long, hot bath?"

"I'm done with questions for now." Again, he spoke in that cool, polite tone so at odds with his sharp, ever-watchful eyes, powerful shoulders, and faintly menacing aura.

What an unexpectedly intriguing man.

Still watching him thoughtfully, Lili fished her shoes out from under the love seat, where she'd kicked them earlier. Nothing like a killer pair of shoes to chase away a girl's blues--and these were hot red pumps, topped with an extravagant white organza bow. It was one of her own designs, and as she slipped them on, the four-inch heels raised her nearly eye to eye with Hawkins.

Almost imperceptibly, he arched a brow.

That she'd finally managed to get a reaction out him made her feel marginally better, more in control--even if she didn't have a gun or shoulders thick with muscles that would scare away would-be attackers. Yet as she passed the window overlooking the beach and paused to watch all those people--so unrestricted, so trouble free--a sudden resolve hardened within her.

Lili turned to her bodyguard and said with a calmness she didn't feel at all, "I want to go swimming."

Chapter Two

The professor was going to be trouble. Matt knew it the minute he'd walked through the door and got his first look the hot number in the red dress.

It looked like she wouldn't disappoint him.

"Lili," said the sister's sometimes squeeze. "There's no pool at the Drake. And it's too cold for the beach."

"This is Chicago," she said with a shrug, and the glint in her eyes told Matt none of that mattered to her. "I'm sure we can find a YMCA."

Now that was something his usual CEO clientele didn't bother with. The occasional hooker, yes, but never the YMCA.

"Isn't that right, Mr. Hawkins?" She turned on him a look that was a dicey mix of challenge, anger, and shrewdness.

Matt shifted on his feet, suddenly wary. His client dressed with a classy sexiness and wore her hair in a pseudo-secretary bun intended to look demure, but a don't-jerk-me-around intelligence sparked in her sharp blue eyes.

"Assuming you're a YMCA member, then yes, we can find a facility," he said in a carefully neutral tone.

She didn't look like the YMCA type, and something of his skepticism must've shown on his face, because she arched one dark brow and said, "I hate snobs, and I always preferred the Y to those pricey fitness joints. Besides, the Y offers belly dancing classes."

Turning, she headed toward the bedroom area of the suite, hips swinging, the high heels rounding and defining the muscles of her calves.

"I don't think going for a swim in a public pool is a good idea, all things considered," Sayers called after her in annoyance, bringing Matt's gaze back up from his client's legs. "I'm sure Mr. Hawkins will agree."

But Matt said, "If she wants to go swimming, she can go swimming."

Sayers stared. "Are you sure? What about -"

"I'd prefer she stay in the suite for now, but if she doesn't let off a little nervous steam, she's going to make herself sick. I've seen it before. You people are paying me to keep her safe, so you might as well get your money's worth."

"Mr. Hawkins."

Matt turned. His client stood by the wooden room divider separating the bedroom from the parlor, one hand on the divider, the other on her hip--a pose that pulled her red dress tightly across a very nice pair of breasts.

"If you don't talk about me as if I'm not here, I can assure you this next week will pass by in a much more pleasant manner. And by the way, I didn't bring a suit, so we'll have to go shopping first." She smiled. "Bloomie's is just a block away."

He opened his mouth to answer, but she turned away before he had a chance. After a moment's silence, he turned back to Sayers.

"You don't have to take her anywhere," Sayers said quietly. "Go do your plan of attack or whatever, and let me handle Lili."

"Don't bother. She doesn't strike me as the type to be handled."

More like the type who'd grab life by the ears and kiss it full on the mouth.

Sayers shrugged, but his stiff muscles broadcast his feelings of angry helplessness and resentment of Matt's authority. A typical Type A personality response.

"So she's really a professor?" Matt asked, partly to ease the tension, partly to satisfy his own curiosity. From behind the screen came a flurry of slamming suitcase lids and snapping fasteners.

Sayers shot him an insulted look. "Lili has an MFA from SUNY at Stonybrook. That's the State University of New York, in case you didn't know."

Matt nodded, impressed. He might've stayed in high school--and paid attention--if his teachers had looked like Lili Kavanaugh. "That means she's pretty smart, huh?"

As soon as the question was out of his mouth, Matt regretted asking it.

Sayers frowned, hesitating, then said, "Most of the time."

The comment struck Matt as important in understanding his client, but before he could pursue it, a brisk knock sounded and Manny Mendoza called through the door, voice muffled, "Gotta talk to you."

With a last glance at Sayers, Matt walked to the door and opened it to admit Manny and Dal. "What's up?"

"We have a problem," Manny said. "There's no open rooms on this floor until Monday. There's a wedding and some sort of convention going on."

From behind Matt, Sayers said, "I wasn't sure if I'd have to stay an extra day or not, so I booked my room through Monday. I haven't canceled it yet. Your men can stay there. It's a couple doors down, by the elevator. But you'll be sleeping in here, Hawkins."

Matt turned, meeting the challenge in Sayers's gaze.

"Like you said," Sayers continued. "We're paying you a small fortune, and may as well get our money's worth. So you'll stay right in this suite with Lil, and that way, she gets more bang for her buck."

Damn poor choice of words. The image of how she'd looked standing by the room divider flashed to mind: all long legs, high heels, red dress, black hair, and full breasts.

"With my team lodging on the same floor, that won't be necessary," Matt said, his tone cool. "Staying with a client in their room isn't usual policy."

"I don't give a damn about policy, Hawkins. Lili's safety is not negotiable," Sayers snapped. Lowering his voice, he added, "She won't admit it, but she's nervous about staying alone in the room, and I insist you stay here with her."

At that moment, his client emerged from the bedroom area, a thick terry robe draped over her arm, and walked past them to the far side of the room, where the bathroom was located.

"Do you want me to stay in the room with you?" Matt asked, because it was what she wanted--not Sayers--that mattered.

She stopped outside the bathroom door and turned. "I suppose I'd feel safer if you did."

With a quick glance around the suite, Matt added, "You won't have much privacy."

"Somebody shoved a gun against my neck. Privacy isn't a priority right now." She smiled faintly. "And in case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not exactly the shy sort."

She opened the door and shut it behind her, lock clicking. He heard the sound of running water, soon followed by soft singing: a song about sweet, sweet surrender.

Matt glanced at Manny and Dal, who stared back blankly. Smart boys. Frowning, Matt surveyed the parlor again. The sleeper love seat looked comfortable, and the suite was big enough that he and his client could move around without tripping over each other. The room divider provided a little privacy, and since the client's needs were paramount, and the request wasn't unreasonable--only unnecessary--he decided against further argument.

"All right, I'll stay here. What time on Sunday is Ms. Kavanaugh leaving?"

"She has a three o'clock flight back to New York," Sayers answered.

Turning to Dal, Matt ordered, "Book his room through next Sunday, and tell the front desk I'll need an extra blanket and pillows up here. Get a pass for the cars from George in security. Have them bring up our bags--and put my bags in your room." He glanced briefly at Sayers. "I'll be showering and dressing in that room, not this one."

An hour later, after going over his client's schedule and making phone calls over the whine of a hair dryer--apparently she had to look nice to go shopping--it was time to head to Bloomingdale's, then off to the closest YMCA with a pool.

As Dal waited in the company's armored four-door sedan, with its bullet- resistant glass, Manny stood at the main entrance to the Drake's ornate lobby--all dark wood, gilt bronze detailing, walls and draperies in tones of maroon and gold, its ceiling dominated by a massive crystal chandelier--and signaled that the location was secure.

"Let's go, Ms. Kavanaugh," Matt said quietly, taking her elbow. "Stay close to me."

"I still can't believe you won't let me walk a block...I feel like an idiot with you hovering over me like this," she muttered. "And I told you to call me Lili."

Matt merely guided her through the lobby, past a towering floral arrangement in an Oriental vase. His quick survey took in the registration desk to his left, and the Palm Court Lounge to his right, where water trickled out of the dolphin fountain as piano music played. He nodded as he passed the watchful concierge.

He was alert to every detail of his surroundings and the ever-present threat of danger--or trying to be, anyway. He kept getting distracted by his client's electric-blue knit dress, which looked as if it had been painted on. Its high neck, long sleeves, and short skirt drew attention to how she dipped in and curved out in all the right places.

Her hair briefly brushed against his face, and her shampoo smelled citruslike, and fresh. Under the dim, moody lights of the lobby, her hair gleamed pitch black. Matt figured her true color couldn't really be this dark--not with such fair skin and blue eyes--but it sure was eye-catching. She'd gathered her hair back in a ponytail secured with a large barrette, and the only jewelry she wore was a silver watch and big, square silver earrings.

As she moved ahead of him, Matt trailed his gaze downward, from her swinging ponytail past her curving bottom to her feet. She wore black open-back shoes with thin ankle straps crossing in an X in back, and a big rhinestone secured the straps where they crossed. The flashing rhinestone, and that bit of sexy bare heel, caught his attention.

Irritated at this slip in professionalism--he'd never ogled the asses or feet of any of those middle-aged CEO clients--he looked back up and surveyed the lobby again.

Manny, as the pointman, went through the door first, and Matt followed Lili, sandwiching her safely between them. Exactly on cue, Dal pulled the car up to the curb as they walked out, and the doormen and valets stepped back. While Matt kept her between his body and the car, Manny opened the back door. With a quick efficiency, Matt helped the professor into the backseat, then climbed in beside her. As she slid across the seat, her skirt inched upwards, providing him a great view of her thighs--and the angry red scrapes on her knees.

Radiating barely concealed anger, his client sat as far from him as she could--and in a Lincoln Town Car that left a pretty wide space.

Matt didn't take it personally. It was a typical victim's reaction. She couldn't get angry with the man who'd attacked her and turned her life upside down, but Matt was a convenient outlet, especially since he was now calling the shots and invading her space.

He even understood her demand to go swimming as a knee-jerk attempt to exert some measure of control. He let her think she'd succeeded, because right now she needed to believe that. In a day or so, she'd calm down and be less confrontational.

If going to either the store or the YMCA were dangerous, Matt would've refused to take her. But both were easily secured areas and, whenever possible, he encouraged his clients to go about their normal daily and business routines. They were under enough stress, and didn't need him to go commando on them, too.

Manny climbed into the front passenger seat as Dal, his eyes shaded by dark RayBans, glanced over his shoulder and asked, "Ready?"

"Yeah." Matt suppressed a sigh. "Let's go shopping at Bloomies."

###

After spending forty minutes shopping for a bikini--and an emergency trip to the sixth floor for a box of Godiva chocolates--Lili now sat staring out the tinted car window as the buildings along Clybourn Avenue whizzed past. She was more than a little dismayed to be in this monstrous black car, surrounded by pistol-packing he-man types, and on her way to a place where she really didn't want to go anymore.

At some point, getting out of her room and going for a swim had made sense. She'd needed it. Or, at least, wanted it.

Now she wanted nothing more than to go back to her suite, but couldn't figure out how to wiggle out of events she'd put into motion. It was as if she were standing outside her own body, watching in fascinated horror as she plunged toward a certain crash-and-burn.

All she had to do was casually inform her G-Man in Black that she'd changed her mind. But she couldn't bring herself to do so.

Lili sent a sideways look at Hawkins, who stared straight ahead, face expressionless. For all she knew, behind those dark sunglasses he was taking a snooze--eyes open, like some cold-blooded lizard--while she sat beside him all but crawling out of her skin.

A guy like this would never understand her misgivings, and she hated the idea of showing any fear in front of Matt Hawkins. Somehow, acting like a spoiled brat didn't seem nearly as bad.

Silence reigned in the big sedan, except for the CD playing a retro big band song, with a whiskey-voiced woman jazzing about some man who done her wrong.

Didn't they always?

With a sigh, Lili rested her head against the seat and turned to the window. Most of the time, stubbornness had its advantages. Pride and determination had given her purpose when her family had dismissed her dream of becoming a designer as frivolous and "just a phase she was going through." It also kept her sane and grounded in the cutthroat fashion world, and helped her to stay focused on the positives when she wearied of the traveling, long hours, and intense pressure to outperform herself again and again.

But at moments like this, her stubborn streak was a pain in the butt.

She glanced again at her bodyguard and, after a hesitation, cleared her throat to get his attention. Hawkins turned, and she stared at the tiny double image of her face mirrored in his sunglasses.

"There won't be any problems, will there?" she asked. "With me getting into the Y, I mean?"

"I called ahead. The management is expecting us."

"Oh." Lili looked away. Great. Being trailed by men in suits should cause a nice little spectacle--something else she'd failed to consider earlier.

"Here we are," Mendoza said from the front seat as Farrell pulled up to the New City YMCA at North Halstead. Not exactly a great part of town, but there'd been nothing with a pool closer to the Drake.

Maybe she should've gone to a nearby Hyatt or Sheraton. Lili sighed. Well, she'd have to make the best of a bad situation, and maybe she'd find a swim therapeutic. It might help her forget, for a little while, that somewhere in this city one man patiently waited for another chance to hurt her.

"The manager said to park wherever you want," Hawkins told his driver as he opened the door. "I'll call when we're ready."

Farrell only nodded, his gaze on his mirrors, watching the flow of traffic and pedestrians around the car. Mendoza walked to the Y's front door, scanning the area as if he expected an assault team with missile launchers to pop out of the pavement. After a moment, he gave the all-clear signal.

Lili thought the cloak-and-dagger stuff was a bit of overkill, but all the same, her gaze darted along the busy street scene, seeking out potential terrorists, killers, and kidnappers.

Though she doubted they'd walk around carrying a sign that said: Hi, my name's Bill, and I'll be your deranged stalker during your stay in Chicago...

Lili jumped as Hawkins touched her back and nudged her forward at a brisk pace toward the door. Flustered, she found herself inside the building before she could protest. Glancing back over her shoulder, she glimpsed Farrell still curbside. He waited until they were inside before pulling away.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," she grumbled, but without much heat, staring at Manny Mendoza's black suited back as he walked ahead of her.

"Being a protectee takes some getting used to at first."

"Protectee?" she repeated, offended, her body stiffening. "I don't think I like being labeled as a protectee."

Hawkins released her, but stayed at her side--not crowding her, yet still playing merry hell with her nerves. "It's what you are, and if you want to go out in public, you have to follow a few rules. I have limits, Ms. Kavanaugh."

"Really? And what exactly are those limits?"

His gaze met hers, and a sudden, unexpected hint of amusement warmed his eyes. "I'd tell you, but you're having such a good time trying to figure them out for yourself that I'd hate to ruin all your fun."

Surprised--and a little chagrined--that he'd seen right through her, Lili regarded him narrowly. He was very attractive, with great shoulders, beautiful eyes, and a sexy voice. It was hardly fair to other mere mortals that he was intelligent, too. That had to be breaking some law of biology.

"You think you're pretty smart," she said dryly.

Hawkins smiled, and she nearly gawked at how it transformed his even, regular features, making him look almost boyishly handsome...and downright approachable.

How had she ever considered this man ordinary-looking?

"Smart has nothing to do with it. I read people. It's part of the job."

"And where did you learn to read people?"

His gaze closed, and while his smile remained, it had lost some of its warmth. For a moment, she focused on his chin, its faint cleft--and squelched an irrational urge to rub the back of her hand over his cheeks and chin, and feel the roughness of his dark beard stubble.

"In bodyguard school," he answered at length.

"Bodyguard school," she repeated, looking up again. "Of course. And did they also teach you how to dress like a million bucks in bodyguard school?"

"Yes, ma'am, and which fork to use for each course, so my table manners are decent, too." This time, beneath the wry humor lurked a faint warning.

She reached the pool entrance, and would've walked in if not for Hawkins's hand on her shoulder, holding her back. Startled by the heavy, almost intimate warmth of his hand through her dress, Lili glanced at him.

"Hold on. Manny has to clear the women's locker room first."

She nodded, very aware of him: the scent of his cologne, the brush of his body against hers when he moved, and his almost possessive stance that marked her as off-limits.

A young man walked quickly toward where she stood by the door, and Matt immediately stepped in front of her, forcing the man to take a hasty step back.

"Next door, please," Matt said, his pleasant voice a contrast to his aggressive stance.

"Sorry," the man said, looking startled, and cast a curious glance back at them as he walked through the farthest door leading to the pool.

Though Lili was embarrassed at such aggressive protectiveness, a small part of her found it comforting to know all this muscle and attitude was at her disposal.

Once Mendoza had determined the women's locker room wasn't bursting with wild-eyed maniacs brandishing guns or dynamite, Lili went to change, ignoring the stares of the college coeds, young families, and seniors in the pool.

When she emerged from the locker room and Hawkins and Mendoza turned to her, she wished she'd bought a suit that didn't bare quite so much skin. Not because of modesty--she'd been competing for attention from the moment she'd learned to crawl--but because this one time she wanted out of the limelight.

No chance of that, though. Gathering her composure, Lili stood on the edge of the pool and dived into the water. She concentrated on swimming laps, stealing peeks at her bodyguard. Hawkins was back in bloodless reptile mode, standing still, constantly on the lookout. The other swimmers watched him and Mendoza with unease--even a kid could tell they were hired guns--and the looks they turned on her were plainly curious, speculative.

She surfaced, treading water, and glanced at Hawkins again, where he stood a short distance away. He must be hot, yet showed no discomfort. He should look ridiculous, wearing a suit while everyone else ran about half-naked, but the presence that set him apart from everyone else was working full force here.

He just looked dangerous.

Before long, his relentless calm and control began to irritate her, largely because she was anything but calm. In an effort to redirect her irritation and restlessness, Lili joined in a game of pool volleyball. Even that failed to distract her. Twice, she deliberately hit the ball hard enough and close enough to Hawkins to splash him with water--but he didn't so much as flinch, and merely looked at her as if she were a bug.

Finally, caught in this strange, silent battle for something she didn't quite understand, Lili hoisted herself out of the pool. She walked toward Hawkins, water sluicing down her body. As she squeezed the water out of her hair, his gaze darted toward the small lips-and-tongue tattoo peeking from her cleavage. She caught a flash of emotion in his eyes, but he lowered his lids before she could read it.

Probably she'd just made him mad.

"Why not come in for a swim?" she asked. "You must be getting hot."

It was more a challenge than an actual suggestion, of course, and Lili could tell by the look in his eyes that he didn't take it seriously. He didn't even bother to answer--but she was an old hand at dealing with people who ignored her or didn't take her seriously.

Knowing she at least had his attention, Lili slowly surveyed his body, from his fascinating dimpled chin and powerful shoulders right down to his fine Italian shoes, the leather slightly darkened with water.

"Oh, I know," she murmured, looking back up. "You can't go swimming because there'd be no place to hide your gun."

He frowned, his gaze sharpening, and there--barely visible; she'd almost missed it--a small twitch of his jaw muscle.

Brazenly, she dropped her gaze to his groin. "Of course, you could just put it where everybody expects to find a big bulge. And all that extra firepower would really, really impress the girls."

He caught her gaze and held it. After a moment, he said, "Don't."

Although unnerved--she didn't doubt for a minute he'd shoot a man without blinking--Lili didn't back down.

"What does it take to get a rise out of you, Mr. Hawkins?"

"I don't think you want me to answer that, ma'am."

"Don't be so sure of that."

Stepping closer, Lili pressed her body against him, her hands resting lightly on his shoulders as she stared directly into his gray eyes, so close she could see the rim of black around his iris. His heat radiated toward her, the texture of his suit rough against her skin, and the woodsy scent of his cologne chased away the heavy smell of chlorine.

He wasn't as cool as he acted. He eased back, his lids lowered, and tiny beads of perspiration dotted his upper lip and forehead. Again, he glanced at her tattoo on her breast, and when his muscles beneath her hands went taut, she knew she had him.

Ah, sweet success. She wasn't a faceless, generic "protectee" to him now. She was a human being. A bothersome, pain-in-the-ass human being he'd be forced to deal with on a personal, face-to-face level.

"I keep thinking I can find something that will liven you up," she said, with an exaggerated tone of thoughtfulness. "Like maybe an 'on' switch."

She slid a hand downward from his chest--and within a split second, anticipating her intent, he'd grabbed her wrist before she'd reached her target.

A bluff, really. She'd have never reached for that if she hadn't been damn sure he'd stop her.

Again, their gazes locked. Anger flared in his eyes, and Lili smiled. "Gotcha, G-man."

Satisfied that she'd made her point, Lili moved to pull away, but he didn't let go of her wrist. He tightened his fingers--ever so slightly, but enough to warn her.

"If you wanted my attention, you got it. And now that I have yours, I'm going to repeat that I have boundaries you will not be allowed to cross."

Her little rush of triumph rapidly faded. His grip wasn't gentle, but she'd rather have her circulation cut off than ask him to let her go.

"You're scared and feeling out of control, and you don't like it. I understand that." Hawkins released her. He hesitated, then gripped her shoulders with the tip of his fingers, as if he couldn't bear to touch her, and moved her away from him. "You came here to prove you're still calling the shots. I understand why you want that, too, and because I judged the risk to be low, I allowed it. I may work for you, but you have to let me do my job and follow my rules. I won't be responsible for your safety otherwise. If this is too much trouble, you can hire yourself another bodyguard, Ms. Kavanaugh."

Hot with humiliation, Lili stared at the damp stain she'd left on the front of his Armani suit. "Why won't you call me Lili?"

"Familiarity with a client is not proper protocol," he answered, his expression closed.

"I've never been much for protocol."

Lili backed away, her gaze touching on dozens of bemused and fascinated stares. Only Mendoza wasn't watching her and Hawkins, instead staring stonily in the opposite direction.

Great. She'd provoked Hawkins, but made a spectacle of herself in the process. Lili sighed. One of these days, she'd learn to look before leaping. Really.

Without giving Hawkins a chance to further chastise her, Lili turned, angled over the side of the pool, and dived again. The cool water muffled sound and distorted her view of everything above her. Hawkins was now only a wavering, gray smear.

The chlorine stung her eyes, and when she surfaced, she wiped away the mingled water and tears. Not the place she'd have picked to have a good, purging cry, but at least she could pretend it was the chemicals making her eyes red and teary.

She swam hard, often kicking deeper below the water, so no one could tell something was wrong. Between the physical exertion and the release of her pent-up tears, her fears faded, replaced by anger and frustration over this unknown, faceless threat. Hawkins was right. She needed his help, and had no choice but to abdicate control over her life and accept that for the rest of this week, she was, first and foremost, a "client" and a "victim."

Gee, just what she'd always wanted to be--a victim.

Lili surfaced, and through the blur of water watched as Hawkins hunkered down beside her. His face was emotionless, but there was something in his manner that didn't seem as cold, or detached. "You ready to go back?"

But he was really asking: Will you behave?

When she nodded, he extended his hand--tanned, strong, and large. She stared at it for a long moment before he said quietly, "Lili, please. Let me help."

Maybe it was only a lingering film of tears, or her sudden weariness, but she thought she glimpsed a hint of sympathy in his eyes that, oddly enough, left her feeling safe and on solid ground for the first time since the attack.

It was all she'd wanted, to know that he cared in some small but personal way.

Lili took his hand, and let him pull her from the pool. They stood close for a moment, an awkward silence between them, before she pulled away and walked, with as much dignity as she could muster, to the locker room to change.

Chapter Three

Matt had turned off the lights in the suite's parlor except for one lamp. He sat on the love seat--coat tossed aside, shirt sleeves rolled up over his forearms, tie loosened--and hunched over a coffee table scattered with paper, filling out reports he hadn't had time to finish earlier.

Hollywood never showed the unglamorous side of being a bodyguard, or the paperwork and long hours of mind-numbing boredom.

Rolling his shoulders to ease a slight, tired ache, Matt looked over his notes. He'd be up half the night doing risk analyses, routing reports, and gathering advance information on all the restaurants, museums, schools, and shindigs Lili would attend throughout the week. A class at the Art Institute, lunch at Spiaggia, dinner at the swanky Savarin, and a meeting with somebody named Pippa at the Redhead Piano Bar. He'd also found a scrawled note that said: Go see Sue. He'd have to ask what that meant.

On Thursday, she had a second lecture at the Chicago Historical Society--another auditorium, hundreds of people, and plenty of opportunities for the situation to go south real fast. On Saturday night, the day before he'd take her to the airport, she was attending a private fund-raiser, also at the historical society. Private was good, and easier for him to control.

But it would be a long week, and it couldn't pass fast enough. Grimacing, he stood and stretched, then glanced toward the room divider and the bed he could just glimpse. Silence, and no lights. She was sleeping, finally.

Hopefully she didn't sleep in the nude--though he wouldn't be surprised, seeing as how the woman had a tongue tattooed on her breast.

With that unsettling thought came the memory of the stunt she'd pulled at the pool, surging through him on a heated rush: how her damp hair had smelled of chlorine, and how her wet, half-naked body had felt pressed against him. Luckily, his suit jacket had hidden his reaction. God knows what he'd have done had she grabbed his hard-on.

His exasperation had lasted only until he'd realized she was crying as she was swimming, and doing her best to hide it. He'd had a crazy urge to take her face in his hands, look into her eyes, and tell her everything would be okay. He'd sensed Lili Kavanaugh was proud, that any show of weakness would humiliate her, and because pride like that was something he could understand, he hadn't said a word, feeling alarmingly helpless.

Helpless. Christ!

With a low curse, Matt scrubbed a hand over his face. A client had never rattled him before, not like this.

He wanted to blame his impaired focus on the fact that she was his last detail, and he was already thinking like an ex-bodyguard, letting unprofessional thoughts and responses slip more easily past his defenses. But he knew better. He was trained to identify and isolate the source of danger, and this particular danger wore tight dresses and high heels, and looked sexier fully dressed than many woman did showing as much bare skin as legally possible.

She might not be the sort of pretty most guys went for; not pretty in a sweet, cute, or model-perfect way. She had a strong, striking face that reminded him of a young Katharine Hepburn, and her body was nicely rounded, not too thin or overtoned. His kind of female body.

Matt briefly closed his eyes in frustration.

No, not his kind--she was his client, and despite the tattoo and the attitude, this woman was classy, rich, and smart. Way out of his league.

He walked around the room, working out the kinks in his shoulders, and tried blocking out thoughts of the woman sleeping just behind him. He stopped at the window, leaning against it as he looked out through the darkness at the cars on the streets below, and the dense blackness of the lake beyond.

As he turned away, still lost in thought, a sparkle caught his eye, and he glanced at the open, beat-up shoebox Lili had clutched to her during the attack.

Maybe he shouldn't be so quick to dismiss this as the cause for the attack. It seemed far-fetched--nobody in their right mind would go to such extremes for a pair of old shoes--but his years of working security had taught him people could be counted on to do the unexpected, if not the downright stupid.

Curious, he picked up one of the shoes, and turned it carefully in his hand. Except for the toe area, most of it was embroidered with black and silver crystal beads. A fringe of beads, in a curving line from one side of the ankle to the other, spilled low over the toe. Matt could almost imagine this fringe shimmying and swaying with its wearer's every Charleston, cha-cha, and kick.

Rhinestones outlined the gracefully flared heel, their facets sparkling. Large circular ornaments, reminding him of the brooches his grandmother used to wear, were fixed to the shoe at either side of the ankle. Each ornament was made up of concentric circles of small rhinestones surrounding a single large rhinestone in the middle.

He weighed the shoe in his hands, surprised by its heaviness. The leather was slightly scuffed, and the soles showed wear marks. Here and there, a bead was missing, and a few rhinestones jiggled loosely in their fittings, but other than that, it was in pretty good shape. Eye-catching, flashy...very much a part of the era that had produced it.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

Startled, Matt turned to see Lili standing by the divider, wearing a thick, white terry robe and her long, black hair loose over her shoulders.

Not happy at being caught off-guard by his own client, Matt looked down at the shoe to hide his frown. "It's nice."

"Rose had lousy taste in men, but she had great taste in shoes." She walked to him, and as she took the shoe from his hand, he caught a wisp of a spicy scent that reminded him of incense. "Joey Mancuso had these specially made for Rose in 1929. Her initials are on the inside of the heel...right here. That's how I verified their authenticity."

She ran a finger through the fringe, and the tiny beads made a whispery, clicking sound.

Matt moved back to a safer distance. "Having trouble sleeping?"

"A little." She also moved away, walking toward the love seat and coffee table strewn with his work papers. She picked up a sheet, and looked back at him, eyes wide with a sudden alarm. "This is a list of hospitals and ambulance response times."

"Routine paperwork," he said quickly, to head off any brewing panic. "I don't anticipate trouble, but I need to be prepared for the possibility. Half the work of being a bodyguard is being prepared."

"You make it sound like being a Boy Scout." She sent him a quick look from beneath her lashes, her gaze touching on his mouth before shifting to his shoulder holster and gun. She returned the shoe to its box, gave it a fond pat, then replaced the lid. "Aren't you tired?"

"I don't need much sleep." He started to sit down, expecting her to do the same, but when she began pacing, he straightened again, not sure what to do.

The silence stretched on, the air in the room practically vibrating with her nervous tension. Finally, she stopped at the window and looked outside, her back to him, spine straight, shoulders squared.

"I'm sorry for how I behaved earlier."

"It's okay," Matt said, careful of her pride. "You've had a rough day."

She bowed her head, hair spilling forward, and tightened her fingers on the windowsill. "That's still no excuse. I shouldn't have tried to make you angry, or touched you like I did."

"Don't worry about it." He returned to the love seat, sat down, and picked up his pen. "People respond in different ways to danger. I've been in this business a long time, and there isn't much I haven't seen."

"Thanks. That's very gallant of you." She still hadn't turned, but the line of her back relaxed. "My two older sisters are the ultimate in practical and proper, but I've been charging off without thinking ever since I was a little kid. My parents still wonder where they went wrong with me."

Matt stared down at his pen, rolling it between his fingers. "There's nothing wrong with you."

She turned from the window and leaned against it, smiling faintly. "In my family, you act with decorum and grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, professor, or MBA. Or, at the very least, you marry one. My sisters went right from high school to Harvard and Cornell, but I wandered around Europe for a year, living in hostels, doing the starving artist thing, and suffering for my art."

Matt held back a smile as he glanced around the suite. The Drake had hosted presidents, even visiting royalty. "Doesn't look like you're suffering too much now."

"Suffering is highly overrated." She pushed away from the window and began pacing again. "Jared said you didn't want to take this job. Why?"

Surprised by the question, Matt leaned back. "It's personal."

"I see." Her mouth flattened slightly. "So my father must've made you an offer you couldn't refuse."

He returned her challenging gaze. Against his better judgment, he said, "Just because I'm being paid to protect you doesn't mean I see you as a walking dollar sign."

Lili studied him for a moment, as if trying to read his sincerity, then said, "I wish I understood why that man attacked me."

Another abrupt change of subject, and he quickly adapted to the thread of worry in her voice. "The police are doing everything possible to find him."

"I know they are." She passed by him on a wisp of smoky, exotic scent. "Do you have any ideas about the attack? Who it might be, or what he wants?"

Matt looked down at his pen. "I'm not paid to investigate or solve crimes."

"Then take a wild guess."

At her arch tone, he looked up again, and rubbed the back of his neck. "From what you told me earlier, I can't see much of a motive, so I'm treating it like a stalking detail for now."

"That's what I was afraid of." She briefly closed her eyes. "But why me? I'm not famous or rich, and it's not like I have my face plastered in Harper's Bazaar or Vogue every month."

"You have a presence." Her pacing put him on edge, and he wanted to take her by the shoulders and sit her down in a chair. Instead, he leaned forward, hands clasped together. "Lots of energy. Colorful. You're noticeable."

She stopped and turned, eyes widening in surprise. "What you're saying, in your polite and professional way, is that I'm a showboat."

Matt smiled. "Yes, ma'am."

She laughed, and resumed her pacing. "According to my mother, I was born with a flair for the dramatic."

"Lili, maybe you should sit down and try to relax."

"Oh." Again, she stopped. "Sorry. I'm distracting you from your work, aren't I?"

"Don't worry about it."

"You say that a lot."

"It comes with the job."

"You say that a lot, too. I need a drink." She veered toward the tall, narrow slatted door that hid the mini bar. "You want something?"

Another abrupt change in subject, and he briefly wondered if she was still nervous or trying to keep him off balance on purpose. "No, thanks."

Lili bent to look through the fridge, and again he watched the fall of her hair, mesmerized by the slow, rippling tumble of silky blackness. After pulling out a small bottle of wine, she shut the door with a smooth swing of her hip.

She walked toward him and, suddenly aware that he was watching her hips, Matt looked back down at his notes and paperwork. "Who's Pippa?"

"A friend. She owns a gallery downtown...specializes in fiber sculpture and wearable art." She stopped at the coffee table, and leaned over to examine his still incomplete advance form. Her hair swung downward, wafting a citrusy scent toward him. "You're not going to hassle Pippa, are you?"

"No, but I need to keep informed about who you're meeting with."

Matt looked up, and nearly swore. Her breasts were eye-level, inches away--and her robe gaped enough for him to glimpse her tattoo.

The sound of Lili clearing her throat snapped his attention back up to her face. Amusement glinted in her eyes. "Noticed my tattoo, huh?"

The heat of embarrassment spread through him. Great. What the hell was he supposed to say to that? "Professionally, I'm not supposed to notice."

"Nice save." Lili grinned, not appearing at all offended, then peered down at her chest and sighed. "It was one of those charge-ahead-without-thinking moments. I was twenty-two, and doing the Paris cafe scene with some Dutch girls I'd met. Too much wine, I guess."

"It often happens that way. I was dead drunk when I got mine."

"You have a tattoo?" Her gaze held his for a moment longer than was comfortable. "Where?"

Matt tapped his left biceps.

"I want to see." As he opened his mouth to flatly refuse, she said, "Oh, come on. Why not? You've seen mine. I want to see yours."

Christ, was she coming on to him? Their eyes met, stirring a familiar heat of arousal. He couldn't seem to move.

"I'm not asking you to strip, Hawkins. Just roll up your sleeve." She arched a brow. "And I'm not making a pass at you, so don't get all excited."

He rubbed the back of his neck, her poise and cool amusement making him feel foolish and clumsy, and said, "All right."

While she watched, he rolled his sleeve up his forearm and over his biceps until he'd bared his eagle-and-flag tattoo.

"Impressive," she said, and the next thing he knew, she'd touched his arm with a long, ruby red nail, rubbing the pad of her finger over his skin.

"It's a standard tattoo, no big deal."

"I was talking about the muscles," Lili said, smiling, and as he went still in surprise, she added, "You were in the army."

"Yeah." He swallowed. "I was an MP."

The words came out sounding forced, and her eyes turned wary. "I shouldn't be touching you, should I?"

"Probably not a good idea."

Matt held her gaze a moment longer, then she dropped her hand to her side. He looked away and focused on rolling down his sleeve.

"Right," she said, taking a step back. "I was going to play solitaire. I won't bother you, will I?"

Hell, yes.

Matt shook his head, and picked up where he'd left off on his paperwork while she retrieved her little bottle of wine and sat to his left. He listened to the soft fr-r-r-i-i-i-p of the deck as she shuffled, and finally he stopped to watch her slender fingers and long red nails expertly fan the cards.

A woman of many talents, his client.

"You're still okay with my staying in your suite?" he asked.

She looked up, and nodded. "Like I said, choosing between privacy and staying alive isn't difficult. Are you okay with it?"

"It doesn't matter what I think. You're paying me. I do as you ask, providing it doesn't compromise your safety or break any laws."

Her brows shot up. "You have clients ask you for things that are illegal?"

Matt shrugged. "I won't procure drugs or prostitutes. Most of my regular clients respect that."

"Well, don't worry. I haven't any urge to hire a gigolo, or shoot up."

"Good. I can sleep easy tonight."

Lili didn't respond to his wry comment, and Matt directed his attention back to his paperwork. He worked in silence through the preliminary reports, and when he'd finished with that he pulled out his notes. "Who's Sue, and where are you meeting her?"

Lili glanced up from her half-dealt game of solitaire. A smile crossed her face, crinkling her eyes in a way that made him want to smile in return. "Don't you read the hometown papers, Matt? Sue's a Tyrannosaurus rex."

Surprised yet again, he stared at her. "You want to go look at dinosaurs?"

She looked faintly amused. "If it isn't too much trouble."

"It won't be a problem." At least not one he and his team couldn't handle.

Silence blanketed the room, except for the sound of his pen on the paper, the shuffle of her cards, or a soft muttering when a deal didn't go her way.

Looking up at a quiet "Damn," Matt watched as Lili took a swig of wine, mesmerized by the smooth, sliding movement of her throat as she swallowed. Slowly, he lowered his gaze, stirred beyond good sense by her nearness--and that way she had about her, that confusing mix of cues and signals that made him want to handle her as if she were fragile as glass, and at the same time, fuck her mindless.

She sat with her legs crossed, ladylike and proper, but with a length of smooth thigh bared. She held the bottle between her fingers, and as she stared down at her cards, absently stroked her thumb along the neck up to the ridge of the lip, her finger leaving a path in the wetness caused by condensation.

He shifted on the seat cushion, his mouth tightening as he forced himself to ignore the need pulling at him. Animal instinct was all this was, and he knew all about controlling the animal inside.

"So what's up for tomorrow?"

Her question cut across his randy thoughts, and he glanced at the clock--a lot safer than looking at her--and noted it was after midnight. "I start out with a team briefing every morning. Looks like your schedule is light. You're meeting most of the day with Sayers, with dinner here at the hotel before he heads to the airport." He shuffled through a few papers. "On Monday you go to the Art Institute for a nine o'clock class, followed by two meetings at the institute, then a late lunch meeting at Spiaggia. After that, you're clear for the rest of the day."

When he looked back up, she was staring at him.

"Have I made a mistake?"

"No. Not at all." She shook her head, idly twirling a jack of hearts between her fingers. "You are good."

"I'd better be," he said quietly, holding her gaze. "Your safety and your life are my responsibility. And they're not responsibilities I take lightly."

Her face paled, and she flinched, dropping the jack. After a moment, she asked, "Are you almost done with your paperwork?"

"For now. Why? Do you need something? I can send my driver out if -"

"No, it's not that. I thought I'd ask you to play a game of cards with me."

What he'd like was for her to either go back to bed, or get dressed. The shapely length of her exposed leg begged to be touched, and he thought what it'd be like to run his hand upward along her smooth, warm skin.

Ah, hell. It'd make no difference if she was dressed or not; this woman would look sexy in a flannel nightgown that covered her from neck to toes.

Matt shrugged. "Sure. I can play a game or two."

"No poker, though." She scooted her wing chair closer. "I'm not playing a bluffing game with a guy who learned to read people in bodyguard school."

He'd mostly learned it on the streets and in the dump he'd grown up in, but all he said was, "What do you want to play?"

"How about war? Easy rules, and it's boring enough that it might make me sleepy." She shuffled and dealt out the deck. "Not to mean you're dull company. Spending the night playing cards with an armed stranger isn't something I do on a regular basis."

Matt scooped up his cards, watching her. Her tone was light, almost flip, but he knew the bravado was for his benefit.

"Being a bodyguard must be an exciting job."

"Most of the time it's boring, just standing around and waiting. But boring means we're doing our job, so that's okay."

"Has it ever been not boring?"

Keeping his gaze focused on his cards, he said, "A few times."

"You're not a very talkative guy, are you?" But before he could answer she added, "Never mind, it doesn't matter. I'll talk enough for the both of us."

Matt smiled, fairly certain she was also trying to charm him and make up for her earlier bad mood. He almost wished she was still angry and confrontational; she'd be easier to resist.

They played cards, Lili making small talk about the weather, the hotel, and Chicago, while her gaze strayed repeatedly to his shoulder holster and the grip of the Glock 23 jutting outward.

"The gun bothers you," he said, and put down his cards to unbuckle the holster. "I'll take it off."

She didn't argue, but watched his every movement. He removed the holster, and when he bent to put it aside, out of sight by the love seat but still close at hand, she said, "Can I see it?"

Matt hesitated, then pulled the gun from the holster, removed the clip, checked the safety, and handed it to her grip first. "There's still a round in the chamber, so be careful." He paused, then added, "And it would be best if you didn't mention to anyone that I'm armed."

"Why?"

He met her gaze squarely, thinking she asked too damn many questions. "Because guns make people nervous. It's best if nobody knows."

Especially since it was illegal for him to carry concealed, but her father was paying a hefty under-the-table incentive to make sure his little girl was protected--completely protected.

Matt's willingness to take risks was the reason Dan Armistead had called him in on the detail; he and Dan had an understanding about jobs like this.

"It's heavier than I expected." She examined the gun, holding it with the tips of her fingers, as if it might bite, then handed it back, her gaze solemn. "Are the others armed?"

When he gave a noncommittal shrug, she added, "Your driver, Farrell... he's married?"

Matt returned the Glock to the holster and put it aside, wondering what Dal's marital status had to do with anything. "He married a few months ago."

"And his wife doesn't mind what he does for a living?" she asked, picking up her cards again.

"Not that I know of, but I've never asked, either." Matt also retrieved his cards, aware that the tension in the room had returned.

"Are you married?"

As she took his jack of spades with her king of diamonds, Matt looked up, suddenly uneasy. "No." He paused. "I'm uninvolved at the moment."

Like that mattered to her. Jesus, what was he thinking?

"I know it's none of my business. I'm just curious if your kind of job makes it difficult to have a steady relationship."

"Sometimes," Matt said, surprised by a sudden twinge of disappointment over her obvious disapproval of his work.

But most people didn't understand. And why should he care, anyway? He made good money, traveled often, stayed in the best hotels, and ate in the finest restaurants. His clients appreciated his work, and he was good at it.

"I think it would take a special woman to put up with a man in your line of work." Lili didn't look away from him, and the pupils of her blue eyes were wide and dark--and sharply observant. "But I know I could never do it."

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Her Bodyguard

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Publisher: InkBooks
ISBN: 978-1-4524-1686-1

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Book Description: Beauty versus Brawn... A foiled kidnapping forces flamboyant fashion shoe designer Lili Kavanaugh into the protection of handsome bodyguard Matt Hawkins. While on the run from both the good guys and bad guys, they share an isolated woodland cottage and solve the mystery of who is after Lili and why ... and it's all tied to a pair of antique shoes that once belonged to a Chicago gangster's moll. Soon, these two very different people from very different worlds find themselves facing the biggest risk of all: falling in love.

This book was originally published by Avon Books in 2001, under the name Michelle Jerott. Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice nominee for Best Mainstream Novel of 2001.

"Exhilarating, gripping and just plain entertaining!" – Romantic Times