“Name your price.”
Chance Valentine slowly looked up and met the bright blue stare of the man seated across from him.
“You know I can pay it,” Will Hawthorne said, leaning forward. “So let’s cut through the bullshit and get this job done.”
Chance kept his face expressionless. “You have your own security team. I really don’t see why you need me anymore.” Will Hawthorne was one wealthy bastard—with bastard being the keyword. The man had enemies that stretched for miles, rivals that he’d stepped on—no stomped on—as he climbed to the top of the business world. The guy was also Chance’s ex-boss.
“She doesn’t trust anyone else on the team. She ditches the guards as fast as I put them on her.”
It got a little harder for Chance to keep that expressionless mask on his face.
“Gwen trusts you,” Will said. His blue eyes narrowed. “Use that trust. Get close to her. Stay close.”
The guy had no idea what he was asking. “Your daughter has plenty of—”
“My daughter barely talks to me right now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what the hell is going on in her life. Remember that asshole she hooked up with a few months back? The one with the damn shady past that still gives me nightmares?”
Beneath the desk, Chance’s hands clenched into fists. Yeah, he remembered the man. He also remembered how badly he’d wanted to rip the guy apart. Chance had seen what the fellow had done in the past—and he hadn’t been about to let Ethan Barclay hurt Gwen.
No one hurts Gwen.
Well, that had been Chance’s mantra. Then he’d been the one to break her heart.
“I’m worried about her. Gwen hasn’t been the same since that jerk Barclay.”
Chance cleared his throat. “Just because she had a bad break-up, that doesn’t mean the woman needs a twenty-four hour bodyguard.”
“What about the fact that someone is after her? Does that mean she needs protection?”
His body tensed. “You should have led with that shit, man.” And not come storming into my new office, telling me I had to take your job. Throwing your weight around and pulling your usual SOB routine.
Will nodded. “I think it’s Barclay. I think he’s the one who’s been tailing her. Some men can’t let go, know what I mean?”
Unfortunately, he did. “Do you have evidence that it’s him?”
Will’s lips thinned. “No, but someone broke into my daughter’s house. Someone has been calling her so much she’s had to change her phone number twice in the last two months. Like I said, she’s not talking much to me, but I am not about to let her be put at risk. I want you on the case. I want you close to my daughter.”
But that might not be what Gwen wants.
“With Barclay’s history…” Will sighed. “I won’t take risks. I can’t. Gwen has to be protected.” He inclined his head toward Chance. “You want this business of yours to succeed, right? You and your friends want to become the most sought after bodyguard agency in D.C.? I can do that for you, and you know it. I can talk to the right people, I can give you more clients than you can even handle.”
Yes, he knew the guy could. Just as he knew the wrong word from Will would have folks running away from his business.
Chance had been in security for years. Once upon a time, he’d even protected the president. He knew exactly how to stay close, how to shadow a client while looking for every possible threat. Hell, he’d been Will’s chief of security for three years. Like that had been an easy job.
Protecting the president had been a cakewalk compared to life at Hawthorne Industries.
But Chance had finally branched out on his own. He and two of his closest friends had put all of their savings into this business. In D.C., the personal protection business was booming, and he was all set to tap into that boom.
The right words from Will…oh, yes, he’d be tapping in to that boom, all right.
And what about Gwen?
Her image flashed into his mind, an image that came to him far too often. Beautiful Gwen. “I didn’t think you trusted me with your daughter.” His words came out rougher than Chance had intended.
“I don’t. I’ve seen the way you look at her.” A muscle flexed in Will’s jaw. “But I know…I know you’d keep her safe. She won’t let anyone else stay close. Gwen’s too smart. Like I said, she ditches every guard I put on her.”
“And you think she won’t ditch me?”
“I know you won’t let her,” Will said with certainty.
No, he wouldn’t. Chance rubbed his jaw and felt the scrape of his five o-clock shadow. “I’ll investigate,” he finally said. “I’ll see if anyone is after her or if you’re just being a paranoid bastard.” He didn’t pull his punches with Will. Others did. Chance didn’t.
Because he wasn’t intimidated by the guy’s money or power. Never had been. Never would be. “But let’s be clear…I’m doing this for her. If she’s in danger, then I will eliminate any threat. This isn’t about you or any damn promises that you think you can make to me.”
Looking satisfied, Will rose to his feet. “I am a paranoid bastard, but in my world, it pays to be that way.” He lifted a brow. “You’re taking the case?”
“I’m agreeing to watch Gwen.” Chance had known he’d be taking the case the instant Will had uttered Gwen’s name. He’d screwed up with her before, but this time…
Maybe I can get things right.
“Good, good.” Will adjusted his already perfectly straight suit. “I want you to stay with her, twenty-four, seven. Keep the protection in place until you and your team find and stop the guy doing this to my daughter.” He hesitated. “And just one more thing…don’t tell Gwen about me, got it? I don’t want her knowing I came to you.”
Uh, that was quite the “one more thing” to ask. The guy wanted him to lie to Gwen?
“If she thinks you’re working for me, she’ll ditch you just like she has the others.”
“I’m not exactly an amateur.” And he’d watched Gwen before. She hadn’t even known he’d been there.
“Don’t tell her. Not unless it becomes absolutely necessary.” The lines around Will’s eyes deepened. “We both know she already hates me enough without adding this to the list.”
Gwen and Will had a…contentious…relationship. Mostly because Will thought he should be able to control everyone and everything around him.
And Gwen didn’t want to be controlled.
“Protect her. Find out who the hell is harassing my girl. And…” Will reached for his coat. “I’ll make sure you have more clients than you can count.”
“I can get my own clients.” He didn’t need the guy’s help. But…Gwen…if she was in danger…
“Don’t knock the help I can give you.” Will held his stare. “Gwen’s safety is priority one for me.” He hesitated. “You’re on the case?”
“I’ll protect her.” As if he’d ever be able to turn away from Gwen. Not her.
“Good.” Will inclined his head toward him, then headed for the door. He slipped out of Chance’s office and then Chance heard Will talking to someone else in the lobby.
Chance didn’t move to follow the guy out. Gwen. Hell, was he really about to jump right back into the fire with her again? He’d barely walked away from her before. And as it was, every single night, the woman came to torment him in his dreams.
A light knock sounded at his door. He glanced up and waved in one of his partners, Lex Jenson. Lex came in and shut the door behind him. “So that’s the big bad-ass.”
Chance exhaled. “He just hired us to protect his daughter.” He ran a hand over his face. “Or tried to.” But I’m not taking his money. Not for Gwen.
Lex’s eyes widened. “Gwen? Your Gwen?”
She wasn’t his. That was the problem.
Or at least, she hadn’t been…
“He thinks someone is after her.” Chance reached for his coat. Why waste time? He knew where Gwen lived. He could start this case right now. “He wants us to find out who it is…and he wants Gwen to have twenty-four, seven protection until the guy is eliminated.”
Chance brushed by Lex.
Lex grabbed his arm. “You told me how things went down the last time you two were together.” His green eyes searched Chance’s face. “I thought she never wanted to see you again. Isn’t that the whole reason you agreed to jump ship and start this agency with me and Dev?”
No, that hadn’t been the reason.
“Gwen is important.” He stared grimly at his friend. “So let’s not screw up.”
Chance passed Lex. He grabbed for the door—
“As long as you don’t screw her,” Lex murmured. “I think we’ll be golden.”
His teeth snapped together. Buddy, that’s one promise I can’t make.
Because he’d already kept his hands off Gwen for far too long. She was the one woman he wanted the most. The one who tempted him and who could rip his control to shreds with just a look.
Twenty-four, seven protection…it was going to be hell.
The music was loud, pounding. The crowd was thick. And Gwen Hawthorne danced right in the middle of that pack, waving her arms and trying to shout to her friends. She felt good right then. No worries. No fears. For just a few minutes, she was able to pretend that she was just like everyone else round her.
Even if she wasn’t. Not really.
Because everyone else truly was happy. They weren’t wearing a mask. Gwen…well, she knew she specialized in deception. It was a family trait.
Her dance partner—of the moment—pulled her close, smashing her body right against his. And, yes, the guy was good-looking, in a pretty-boy, too styled way. He was trying hard to grind against her hips and Gwen knew what the fellow was hoping would happen next.
A quick hook-up. Hot sex in the dark.
Gwen put her hands against his chest. “I need a break.” She had to shout those words twice, then she pried herself out of his grasp.
“I can break with you, baby,” he offered at once.
She shook her head. “Keep dancing.”
His features tightened.
“I’m only here for the music,” she told him, her voice firm. “Really, keep dancing.” And look for another hook-up partner.
He nodded and, for a second, anger flashed in his gaze. But then a pretty redhead came by. She rolled her hips and the guy turned away from Gwen.
Sighing with more than a touch of relief, Gwen pushed her way through the crowd. It wasn’t that she had anything against hot sex, but…well, she’d sworn off sex after her last disastrous experience. Or at least, she’d sworn off sex for the time being.
One hot hook-up had cost her too much. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
She had almost reached the bar when she felt eyes on her. It started as kind of a vague awareness, an itch at the base of her neck and Gwen knew…someone was watching her.
Unfortunately, Gwen had experienced this same feeling all too often lately. It was seriously starting to creep her out.
She turned her head, sweeping her gaze over the men seated at the bar and then—
A pair of dark eyes—so dark they almost appeared black—caught her attention. Deep, dark eyes.
For a moment there, Gwen actually forgot to breathe.
He can’t be here. He can’t be here. He can’t be—
Chance Valentine rose from his bar stool. He stalked toward her. Oh, crap, he most definitely was there. And he was coming right toward her.
As a general rule, courage had never been Gwen’s strong suit. And since she’d pretty much made an absolute fool of herself the last time she’d crossed paths with Chance, she figured turning and running would be a good option for her.
So she turned.
She tried to run.
The crowd was too thick. The dancers too drunk. They were in her way and some guy caught her wrist, pulling her toward him because he must have thought her frantic moves were a cry for a dance partner.
They weren’t. She just wanted to escape.
“You smell so good,” her dance partner told her as he leaned in close. “You smell like—”
“Back the fuck off,” a low, growling voice told the fellow as Chance stepped forward. Only Chance must have decided the guy wasn’t backing off fast enough, because he grabbed the man’s shoulder and shoved him away.
“Hey!” The younger, smaller man snarled. “What gives? You can’t just—”
Chance, all six feet, three inches of him, glowered at the guy. “She’s with me.” Considering that Chance was seriously muscled and had to outweigh the other guy by at least fifty pounds, Gwen wasn’t particularly surprised when the would-be-dancer backed away and disappeared into the crowd.
If only she could disappear so easily.
Instead, she decided to bluff things out. “Liar, liar,” Gwen accused softly. Their bodies were far too close—courtesy of that crushing crowd. She was almost touching Chance and touching him would be a serious mistake.
The last time she’d touched him, Gwen had gotten burned.
His lips—a little cruel and far too sexy—curled a bit. “Running, were you?”
“I was simply going back to dance.” She could lie, too. Besides, Chance—follow-the-rules, obey-orders-all-the-time Chance—he wasn’t going to dance with her. Not in that pack. Not anyplace. “So if you don’t mind…”
He caught her right hand in his. Looped his left behind her back and pulled her close. “I don’t mind at all.”
She stared up at him, totally lost. His dark hair was thick and a little long, brushing against his collar. A light line of stubble darkened his jaw. His face was just as handsome as she remembered—dammit—in a hard, almost brutal way. He had those dangerous looks that attracted women who should know better.
Women like her.
Deep, dark, let-me-fuck-you eyes. High cheekbones. A hard, square jaw. A faint scar sliced through his left eyebrow, but even that white line was sexy. Unfortunately, everything about Chance Valentine was sexy to Gwen.
And he was…dancing with her. Moving slowly. Sensuously. The music had changed. It wasn’t some wild, blaring beat now. It was softer. Smoother. All about seduction. And his fingers were just above the curve of her ass.
“What are you doing?” Gwen asked. She hated that her voice sounded like a squeak.
Chance smiled. Her heart broke a little then. His smile did that to her—twisted her up and made her want things she knew she couldn’t have.
“If you have to ask,” Chance murmured, his voice a low rumble, “then my dancing is even shittier than I thought.”
No, it wasn’t. He was moving fluidly, holding her easily, and she wanted to get closer to him.
So she stepped away or, rather, she tried to step away. Chance didn’t let her go far. He rejected you once, Gwen. Don’t give him the opportunity to do it again. “What are you doing here?” Gwen rose onto her toes, trying to see over his shoulder. “This isn’t your kind of place.”
“Now how would you know that?”
“Because you don’t exactly scream dance party scene.” No, he screamed danger in big, red letters.
His head cocked to the side. “You really don’t know me very well, Gwen.”
Right…like that was her fault. She’d tried to learn his secrets. The guy wasn’t the sharing sort.
“I saw you when I came in.” His hold tightened on her. “The blond on the dance floor was nearly fucking you right there.”
He’d been watching her that long?
“You left one guy…only to get caught by another. You sure seem popular here, Gwen.”
She had to swallow to clear the lump in her throat. “It’s a busy club. If you look around, you’ll see that everyone is dancing here.” Her chin notched up. “And I wasn’t about to fuck the blond on the dance floor.” She’d very clearly told him that she was only there to dance.
“Learned from last time, huh?”
At those low words, everything slowed down for her. Slowed down and got quiet. Because he had not just said that to her.
“It’s not safe to screw a stranger you meet at a bar. But you learned that, didn’t you?” His jaw was harder, his words rougher. He was angry.
So was she. “Let me go,” Gwen said.
He gave a short, negative shake of his head.
“Let me go,” Gwen said again, “Or I will start screaming. Want to see how fast the bouncers close in and drag you out of here?”
He was silent a moment. The heat from his touch seemed to sear her. Gwen held her breath and she got ready to scream.
He let her go.
Quickly, she stepped back. She bumped into the dancers behind her, and Gwen muttered an apology. Then she kept right on muttering apologies as she pushed her way through the crowd. She couldn’t believe that Chance had just hurt her that way. To bring up Ethan. Yes, she knew hooking up with him had been a colossal mistake—one that still ripped at her heart.
But she didn’t need Chance pointing out her past mistakes to her. No one was perfect, not even the mighty Chance.
She hurried back to her table, said her good-byes to her friends, and she grabbed her jacket. Gwen still had that too-aware feeling, as if someone was watching her.
She didn’t look around for him. Instead, she made a beeline for the exit. Gwen shoved open the door and headed out into the cold December night. December in D.C.…that meant the politicians were mostly out of town and the snow was on the ground. Or, in this case, the snow was falling. Light snowflakes feathered down over her and Gwen shivered. She pulled her coat a bit closer and hunched her shoulders. She’d hail a cab and get the hell out of there. She lifted her hand—
Chance caught her fingers.
When she exhaled, the cold turned her breath into a little puff of smoke.
“I’m sorry,” Chance said, that deep voice of his a rumble that she could almost feel. “I hurt you back there, and, believe me, that’s the last thing I intended to do.”
The snowflakes kept falling on them.
“I can be a jealous jerk sometimes,” he told her as he stepped closer. “You should probably know that about me.”
Cars were rushing by on the street. She could grab a taxi, no problem. But even though the cold was starting to make her toes tingle in her boots, Gwen didn’t move. “Jealous?” It took an effort to get that one word out. Then she gave a strangled laugh, convinced he was mocking her. “You’ve never been jealous—”
“I wanted to punch the men who were dancing with you in that club. Shove them the hell away from you. I wanted to be the only one touching you.”
She couldn’t be hearing him correctly. The cold had frozen her ears and she wasn’t hearing—
“And do you know how long I’ve wanted to beat the hell out of Ethan Barclay?”
Ethan. Her ex-lover. The man who’d taught her how very wrong it was to ever trust a sweet-talking stranger. The man she’d turned to out of desperation…
Because I couldn’t have Chance.
Gwen shook her head.
“Ever since he had you.” And he stepped even closer to her. So close she could feel the tempting warmth of his body again. “He had what he never should have touched.”
She had no clue what was going on right then. Chance was saying things…the way he was looking at her…
“I wanted you.” His head bent toward her. His lips were so close. “If anyone was going to fuck you, it should have been me.”
This wasn’t happening.
He sucked in a sharp breath. “But I screwed up. I know I did.”
Yes, he had.
“I want another chance with you.”
She was pretty sure her jaw dropped. Her whole body was shaking from the cold, though, so it was rather hard to tell for certain.
“You and me,” Chance murmured. “Let’s see what can happen between the two of us.”
Gwen already had a pretty good idea of what would happen. An explosion. No, maybe an implosion. They’d touch. They’d go wild. It would be awesome.
But then the aftermath would come. She’d just be left with ashes.
Been there, done that.
She slipped away from him. Raised her hand. Got a taxi to miraculously stop in about ten seconds.
Chance just watched her with those dark eyes of his.
“Good-bye, Chance,” she said as she reached for the cab’s door. She’d learned her lesson before. Some fires burned too hot. It was better to be cold than to go up in flames.
She slid into the cab and mumbled her destination to the driver. When the cab eased away from the curb, Gwen told herself not to look back at Chance. But, dammit, she did.
The snow was falling on him. His hands were thrust deep into the pockets of his jacket. And he was just…staring after her.
Gwen shivered in the cab. She didn’t know why Chance Valentine was suddenly back in her life, but she wasn’t dumb enough to believe his reappearance was due to some overwhelming desire for her.
She knew how Chance felt about her. Chance and his control…the man never let anyone or anything break through that iron control of his. And he sure as hell wasn’t coming after her because his need for her had grown too strong.
No, something else was happening. She just had to figure out what it was.
But if Chance is involved…it can’t be good.
Chance had been her father’s chief of security. The man who took care of any danger that arose. He had a well-deserved reputation for being a bad-ass.
So why was the bad-ass after her?
He watched the taxi drive away. Chance didn’t even feel the icy touch of the snow around him. He seemed to be burning up from the inside. He’d screwed up in the club. A grade-A screw up. But he’d seen Gwen with those other men, and a white-hot jealousy had exploded within him.
His phone was ringing. He yanked it out of his pocket even as he stalked down the street. “Valentine,” he snapped.
“I thought the whole point…” Lex’s mocking voice said, “was to keep a twenty-four, seven watch on her. Not to have your pretty blonde lady run away as fast as she could.”
Lex could be such a dick. “You’re tailing her, right?”
“I’m behind the cab right now.”
Chance grunted as he climbed into his car. “I’ll be at her apartment before she is.”
“Cause that’s not going to make her uncomfortable,” Lex murmured.
“I understand Gwen. She ran tonight because I was an idiot.” He slammed his door. “I said the wrong thing, but I’ve got this.”
“You’d better, man. With the power her father has, the guy could make or break our business.” Lex wasn’t mocking anymore. “We need his clout, you know it. So if I need to take over this case, if there’s too much between you and Gwen for this to work out—”
“Gwen is mine.” He hadn’t meant to say those words. Had he? “I’ve got this,” Chance repeated. “Trust me.” And we don’t need Will Hawthorne. We can make this business a success on our own.
Lex’s sigh traveled over the line. “All right, but just remember, I’m here as backup, if you need me.”
He disconnected the call. He didn’t need Lex’s help. Not then. What he needed was to stop seeing the image of Gwen’s pain-filled green eyes in his mind. When she’d looked up at him, the hurt plain to see in her gorgeous gaze—well, she’d nearly gutted him. And the woman had no idea. She thought he was screwing around with her? Hell, no. Every word he’d said that night had been the truth.
As much as he could, he only wanted to give Gwen the truth.
He cut through the city, taking the path that Chance knew would get him to her apartment long before the cabbie arrived. His fingers were tight around the wheel. He’d gone into that club, he’d tracked her there when her apartment had been empty, and he’d been so pissed when he saw her slammed against that prick on the dance floor. Her movements had been pure sex, and the dumb-ass with her had been holding her tightly.
He’d looked at them and thought…
The fuck, no. When Gwen leaves, she’s only leaving with me.
He wasn’t going to wreck things with her again.
He cut through the falling snow and was soon at Gwen’s place. He parked his car, turned up the collar on his coat, and headed toward her building. He propped his back against the bricks there, standing in the shadows, as he surveyed the scene. No one else was out. No neighbors. This area was far too isolated for his peace of mind. Especially if Ethan Barclay really was trying to hunt Gwen.
He kept his hands shoved into his pockets. He’d have to play this one very carefully with Gwen…if he messed up again, there was no way she would let him get close.
The cab turned onto the street. He could see its lights clearly. The wheels slowed in front of Gwen’s building. The back door opened and Gwen slid out. Before she’d even reached the sidewalk, the cabbie had already left.
Gwen headed straight for her apartment building. She didn’t even look his way. There were too many places to hide on that street. Too much darkness. He stepped forward, ready to call out to her but—
She reached for the door to her building. Even as she pulled it open, someone else was shoving it back toward her. Someone was shoving Gwen back and knocking her to the ground.
Chance flew toward them, yelling Gwen’s name. He could make out a figure in black—black pants, black shirt, black ski mask. A big guy who was crouched over Gwen. She was fighting the fellow, punching at him.
The hell, no.
The attacker glanced up just as Chance threw a punch right at the bastard. The man flew back, slamming into the ground. Chance immediately reached for Gwen. He pulled Gwen to her feet. “Baby, are you okay?”
He heard the thud of retreating footsteps. Chance looked to the right and saw the guy racing away into the night.
“He’s got my bag!” Gwen said. “He took it—”
Swearing, Chance gave chase. He rushed after the bastard, his legs pistoning fast. He could see the jerk up ahead, nearing a parked van and—
The van’s lights flashed on right then and the engine growled to life. Sonofabitch—a getaway car! The side of the van flew open and the guy in black leapt inside.
In the next instant, the van came careening straight for Chance.
“Run, Chance!” Gwen’s scream—and that scream was coming from just a few feet away. He looked over his shoulder and saw her standing in the middle of the street. The van’s lights were on him, on her, and, dammit, that van was rushing far too fast toward them.
He ran—to her. Chance grabbed Gwen and they leapt out of the road and flew toward the sidewalk. They hit the ground and he made sure to take the force of the impact, and then they were rolling, spinning away from the street as the van roared past them.
He could smell burning rubber and exhaust. He could hear the van’s growling engine. And when he looked up, Chance saw the back of the van and its glowing red tail-lights. The vehicle screeched down the road and made a hard right turn at the intersection.
Chance sure as shit hoped Lex had just seen what went down. Lex had better tail that van and catch that jerk.
“Are you hurt?” Gwen whispered.
He looked back down at her. They were under a street light and the glow fell on them. Her eyes looked even bigger than before. Her lips were parted. Such red, full lips. Lips that he thought about far too much.
But then, he thought of Gwen too much. Beautiful, perfect Gwen. Gwen with her wide eyes, her delicate nose, and those cheeks that looked as if they were made of glass. Gwen’s body was all sensual curves—curves that drove him out of his head and made him itch to touch her.
Except…she wasn’t for him. That was what he’d thought, anyway. Too good. A woman like her would shatter if he touched her.
Only she wasn’t shattering just then.
“Are you hurt?” Gwen asked again.
Hell, that was supposed to be his line. He shook his head.
“Good,” she whispered. “I’m so glad. I-I was worried—”
He kissed her. Maybe it was because of the adrenaline. Maybe it was because of the desire that he was so sick of holding in check around her. Maybe the why didn’t matter.
Chance let go of his control. His mouth crashed onto hers. Onto those full, make-me-beg lips. His tongue thrust into her mouth and he tasted her the way he’d been dying to for so long.
The lust he felt for her filled him. His cock stretched, aching to sink into her. And he kept kissing her, right there on the ground, with the snow falling around them. He kissed her hard. He kissed her deep. He kissed her the way he wanted to fuck her.
And he knew that they’d just crossed a line, a point of no return.
Gwen Hawthorne was going to be his, and anyone who tried to take her from him, anyone who tried to hurt her…he would fucking destroy.