Feb 24 2013 2:00pm
Along Came Trouble: New Excerpt
An accomplished lawyer and driven single mother, Ellen Callahan isn’t looking for any help. She’s doing just fine on her own. So Ellen’s more than a little peeved when her brother, an international pop star, hires a security guard to protect her from a prying press that will stop at nothing to dig up dirt on him. But when the tanned and toned Caleb Clark shows up at her door, Ellen might just have to plead the fifth.
Back home after a deployment in Iraq and looking for work as a civilian, Caleb signs on as Ellen’s bodyguard. After combat in the hot desert sun, this job should be a breeze. But guarding the willful beauty is harder than he imagined—and Caleb can’t resist the temptation to mix business with pleasure. With their desires growing more undeniable by the day, Ellen and Caleb give in to an evening of steamy passion. But will they ever be able to share more than just a one-night stand?
Get a sneak peek of Ruthie Knox's e-book Along Came Trouble (available March 11, 2013) with an excerpt of Chapter 1.
“Get out of my yard!” Ellen shouted.
The weasel-faced photographer ignored her, too busy snapping photos of the house next door to pay her any mind.
No surprise there. This was the fifth time in as many days that a man with a camera had violated her property lines. By now, she knew the drill.
They trespassed. She yelled. They pretended she didn't exist. She called the police.
Ellen was thoroughly sick of it. She couldn't carry on this way, watching from the safety of the side porch and clutching her glass of iced tea like an outraged southern belle.
It was all very well for Jamie to tell her to stay put and let the professionals deal with it. Her pop-star brother was safe at home in California, nursing his wounds. And anyway, this kind of attention was the lot he'd chosen in life. He'd decided to be a celebrity, and then he'd made the choice to get involved with Ellen's neighbor, Carly. The consequences ought to be his to deal with.
Ellen hadn't invited the paparazzi to descend. She'd made different choices, and they'd led her to college, law school, marriage, divorce, and motherhood. They'd led her to this quiet cul-de-sac in Camelot, Ohio, surrounded by woods.
Her choices had also made her the kind of woman who couldn't easily stand by as some skeevy guy crushed her plants and invaded Carly's privacy for the umpteenth time since last Friday.
Enough, she thought. Enough.
But until Weasel Face crushed the life out of her favorite hosta—her mascot hosta—with his giant brown boot, she didn't actually intend to act on the thought.
Raised in Chicago, Ellen had grown up ignorant of perennials. When she first moved to Camelot, a new wife in a strange land, she did her best to adapt to the local ways of lawn-mowing and shade-garden cultivation, but during the three years her marriage lasted, she'd killed every plant she put in the ground.
It was only after her divorce that things started to grow. In the winter after she kicked Richard out for being a philandering dickhead, their son had sprouted from a pea-sized nothing to a solid presence inside her womb, breathing and alive. That spring, the first furled shoots of the hosta poked through the mulch, proving that Ellen was not incompetent, as Richard had so often implied. She and the baby were, in fact, perfectly capable of surviving, even thriving, without anyone's help.
Two more springs had come and gone, and the hosta kept returning, bigger every year. It became her horticultural buddy. Triumph in plant form.
So Ellen took it personally when Weasel Face stepped on it. Possibly a bit too personally. Swept up in a delicious tide of righteousness, she crossed the lawn and upended her glass of iced tea over the back of his head.
It felt good. It felt great, actually—the coiled-spring snap of temper, the clean confidence that came with striking a blow for justice. For the few seconds it lasted, she basked in it. It was such an improvement over standing around.
One more confirmation that powerlessness was for suckers.
But then it was over, and she wondered why she'd wasted the tea, because Weasel Face didn't so much as flinch. Seemingly unbothered by the dunking, the ice cubes, or the sludgy sugar on the back of his neck, he aimed his camera at Carly's house and held down the shutter release, capturing photo after photo as an SUV rolled to a stop in the neighboring driveway.
“Get out of my yard,” Ellen insisted, shoving the man's shoulder for emphasis. His only response was to reach up, adjust his lens, and carry on.
Now what? Assault-by-beverage was unfamiliar territory for her. Usually, she stuck with verbal attack. Always, the people she engaged in battle acknowledged her presence on the field. How infuriating to be ignored by the enemy.
“The police are on their way.”
This was a lie, but so what? The man had already been kicked off her property once this week. He didn't deserve scrupulous honesty. He didn't even deserve the tea.
“I'll leave when they make me,” he said.
“I'm going to press charges this time.”
The photographer squinted into his viewfinder. “Go ahead. I'll have these pictures sold before the cops get here.”
“I'm not kidding,” she threatened. “I'll use every single sneaky lawyer trick I can think of to drag out the process. You'll rot in that jail cell for days before I'm done with you.”
And now she sounded like a street-corner nut job. Not the kind of behavior she approved of, but what was she supposed to do? It was already too late to give up. If she stopped pushing, he would win. Unacceptable.
A tall man stepped out of the SUV. One of her cedar trees partially blocked the view, but she caught a glimpse of mirrored sunglasses and broad shoulders.
“You're going to be so sorry you didn't listen to me.”
Weasel Face didn't even look at her. “Go away, lady.”
“I live here!” She hooked her fingers in his elbow and yanked, screwing up his aim.
The stranger at Carly's must have heard the escalating argument, because he turned to face them. Ellen's uninvited guest made an ugly, excited noise low in his throat, edged forward, and smashed a lungwort plant that had been doing really well this year.
Ellen considered kicking him in the shin, but she hadn't remembered to put shoes on before she rushed out of the house. She settled for a juvenile trick, walking around behind him and sinking her kneecaps into the back of his legs. His knees buckled, and he lost his balance and staggered forward a few paces, destroying a bleeding-heart bush. Then he shot her an evil glare and went right back to taking pictures.
“Leave,” she insisted.
“No.” He snapped frame after frame of the stranger as he sauntered toward them and Ellen fumed with anger, frustration, embarrassment, disappointment, fear—all of it swirling around in her chest, making her heart hammer and her stomach clench.
By the time the SUV driver reached her property line, she recognized him. In a village as small as Camelot, you got to know who everybody was eventually. This guy hadn't been around long, maybe a few months. She'd seen him at the deli at lunchtime, always dressed for the office. Today, he wore a white dress shirt with charcoal slacks, and he looked crisp despite the damp July heat.
One time, she'd been chasing after Henry at the Village Market, and she'd turned a corner and almost walked right into this man. They'd done a shuffling sort of dance, trying to evade one another, and for a few seconds, she hadn't had a single thought in her head except Whoa.
Big guy. Very whoa, if you went for that kind of thing.
The two invaders assessed each other for a few beats before whoa took off his sunglasses and tucked them into his pocket. He stepped around the obstructive cedar tree and extended his hand to Ellen. “Hi. Caleb Clark.”
She shifted her empty glass from one palm to the other, gripping the slippery surface too tight because an eddy of uninvited relief had turned her arm muscles into limp, noodly things. “Ellen Callahan.”
Caleb's hand was big and warm, a work-roughened paw that went with the low voice and the hard body. He could be anybody, here for any reason, but a zingy little pulse low in her belly declared that the cavalry had arrived, and the cavalry was really something. It annoyed her—one more primitive, irrational feeling to cope with on top of all the others.
Caleb pumped her arm up and down once, a strangely formal ritual. He didn't let go of her hand. A mischievous smile crept over his lips. “You're a scary woman, Ellen Callahan,” he said. “If I were this lowlife piece of shit, I'd be quaking in my boots.”
“You're wearing dress shoes,” she pointed out.
Caleb looked down at his wingtips. “That I am. I also have the good sense not to step on your plants.”
Weasel Face mumbled something to himself that included the words “might as well” and “Jamie's sister,” regrouped, and raised the camera to take pictures of Ellen.
She pulled her fingers from Caleb's grip so she could cover her face. It was hard to be menacing while cowering, but facelessness was her best shot at spoiling the photos. She didn't want to see herself on the news tonight wearing this particular outfit.
“Get off her property, or I'm going to make you wish you'd listened to her.”
Caleb issued his threat casually, as if he were flicking a speck of dust off his sleeve. When she peeked at him from behind her hand, he wasn't even looking at Weasel Face. He was watching her. His lips had settled into a confident smirk that established a confederacy between the two of them she hadn't expected.
She wanted to laugh, except...well, she didn't. It felt good to be part of his team. Theirs was a temporary, knocked-together army of two, but still, he was driving the bad guy away, and his conspiratorial expression gave her a giddy thrill.
Which made her wonder if she was entirely in her right mind.
The photographer looked from Caleb to Ellen, then back at Caleb. Outnumbered and outgunned, he shrugged. “Whatever.”
He started to move away. Caleb reached out and grabbed his arm. “Memory card.”
The photographer opened his mouth to protest. Caleb's hand tightened. Weasel Face gave a reluctant nod, pulled himself free, and extracted the card from his camera. Caleb put it in his pocket.
“What's your name?” he asked.
“Go to hell.”
“Never mind. I saw your car on the street. I'll run the plates. If I see you in Camelot again, I'm going to make you sorry. And if you step on any more of Ms. Callahan's plants on your way out, she's going to make you sorry.”
A prickle of unease walked up the back of Ellen's neck. Who was Caleb Clark, exactly? She'd assumed he was just a friend of Carly's, but she knew most of Carly's friends already.
I'll run the plates. A cop? She'd never seen him in a uniform. Unless he was a detective—they wore suits, right?
“Go,” Caleb said, and Weasel Face went. He detoured around another lungwort plant on his way out of the yard, then hurried down the drive to the cul-de-sac.
Caleb had dispatched him so easily. He issued commands like he was accustomed to being obeyed. Ex-military? He had the body for it. Rangy and muscular, his build fairly announced, I ran fifteen miles before you got up this morning, and I still have energy left to bayonet the enemy.
It hardly seemed fair.
A moment later, an engine started up with a cough, and the brown streak of the Weaselmobile appeared and disappeared in the gap at the bottom of Carly's driveway.
He would probably be back. Even if he didn't return, there were others. They were always out there now, sometimes four or five cars, sometimes more. Waiting for news to happen. Waiting for Jamie to show or Carly to come outside in a bikini and pose for belly shots.
Ellen turned back to Caleb.
He grinned, quick and bright, and she found herself almost smiling back when he raised his hand in the universal invitation for a high five. The slap of his dry palm against her clammy one snapped her to attention.
What had just happened? It wasn't like her to get so angry or to let herself be overwhelmed. All these amped-up emotions belonged to some other woman.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Not a problem.” He slid his hands into his pockets. Something devilish in his expression made her wonder if he'd seen her marching across the lawn with nothing but a glass of iced tea for a weapon.
She had her shortcomings, but vanity wasn't one of them. If she'd been able to witness herself taking on the photographer, she'd probably be amused, too. As it was, she felt a little loopy.
Could adrenaline explain why he was leaping into focus this way? Or shock? Everywhere her eyes went to avoid meeting his, they got caught on some manly detail. The hollow of his throat above the open top button of his shirt, say, or the breadth of his shoulders under all that pristine cotton.
She sucked in a deep breath and got woozy with the clean, woodsy-warm smell of him. His soap, she guessed, and beneath all those pine needles or whatever, a tang of sweat that was all man.
Get a hold of yourself.
Caleb Clark wasn't hard on the eyes, but he was hardly Apollo. He had close-cropped dark brown hair, olive skin that suggested less-than-completely-white-bread ancestry, and a nice straight nose with a bump in the bridge. Whoa factor aside, he was just a guy who'd helped her out on his way to visit Carly.
Just an ordinary guy with a dimple in one cheek and crinkle-cornered, happy brown eyes that transformed him into a very attractive specimen when he smiled.
A disarmingly attractive specimen. Who had disarmed her.
He seemed well aware of it.
“It's my job,” he said.
So dazzled was she by the smile, it took her a few seconds to hear him, and then a few more to figure out what he had to mean.
It's my job to drive men like Weasel Face off the lawn.
Oh, crap. She should have known. The black SUV with tinted windows, his body, his self-assurance—Caleb was a bodyguard. Of course he was. “Who do you work for?”
“I work for myself. Camelot Security. But Breckenridge brought me in.”
Breckenridge was the company Jamie used. Which meant that Caleb wasn't a friend of Carly's at all. Her brother had hired him. And Ellen knew Jamie well enough to guess he wouldn't have brought in security just for Carly. Not when he knew exactly how many times Ellen had called the police in the past week.
Caleb was here for her.
“I don't need you.”
This earned her a smile she found considerably less charming than its predecessors. “Seemed like you did a minute ago.”
“I did, and I already said thanks for that. But I don't want a bodyguard.”
“I'm not a bodyguard.”
“What are you, then?”
“I'm a security specialist.”
“I don't need one of those, either.”
Caleb raised his eyebrows and looked pointedly toward the cul-de-sac.
Damn it, he didn't even need to speak to make her see it. He was right—Ellen had no way of keeping the invaders at bay. Dumping her tea on the photographer had been stupid. If Weasel Face wanted to, he could have done a lot worse to her than just step on her plants.
“Okay, fine,” she admitted. “You have a point.”
Caleb glanced past her to the house, his eyes jumping from one feature to another, panning across the front lawn. Surveying her domain. His lips kept twitching at the corners, as if it took some effort to keep his satisfied expression from crossing over to smug. “When was this place built?” he asked. “Sixties?”
“It's a nice house. If you've got the plans, I'm going to need them—architectural drawings, schematics. That'll make it easier for the alarm installer. We'll have to find the survey stakes at the property lines, too, or else get a new surveyor out here.”
“How attached are you to this tree?” He started walking toward the front yard, and Ellen hurried to catch up. “It's not supposed to be that close to the road. The county wants a ten-foot easement along the street side of the property to keep the electric and phone wires clear. Didn't the guys tell you that when they planted it?”
“No.” She'd dug the hole herself after she bought the tulip tree for Henry's first birthday. It had never occurred to her that she wasn't allowed to put it wherever she wanted.
She felt as though she ought to say something about that, but she was having trouble keeping up with him. He walked fast, and her thoughts kept whirling around, a tornado that flung little bits of verbal flotsam toward her mouth, words like no and what? and stop and fuck and help.
“Sorry, I'm not sure...what does that have to do with anything?”
“The tree's going to mess up your fence line. I can have it moved back, though. No worries. First things first, I'm going to do a circuit around the house. I'd like to see—”
“Stop.” He was getting away from her, his long legs eating up the ground, and an air raid siren had started going off inside her head. “Stop walking. Stop looking at things. And for the love of God, stop talking.”
He actually had the audacity to grin at her again, as if they were still allies, and this was all an enjoyable game rather than the second wave of a hostile incursion.
“There's not going to be a fence,” Ellen said firmly.
“Your brother is crazy-famous, and you have a kid. You need a fence. I can get it painted any color you want. Or stained. Cedar would look nice with your siding.” Caleb looked at his watch. “Are you free in about an hour? I'm supposed to be meeting with Carly, but after that I'd like to come back by here. In the meantime, it would help me a lot if you could pull together your itinerary for the next few weeks. I need names and contact information for all your friends, too—family, boyfriends, anybody who comes over to play with your son—so I can let my team know who it's okay to let on the property. Oh, and does your cell phone have a radio function, by any chance?”
Ellen's fingers had begun to ache deep in the joints, so she opened her hand to stretch them, and the iced tea glass fell onto the lawn. She gawped at it, unable to collect her thoughts over the ringing in her ears.
Trouble. This man was trouble. Far bigger trouble than a few photographers.
Caleb leaned over and scooped up the glass. Then it was in front of her face again with his hand wrapped around it, and her eyes traveled the length of his forearm and over the rolled sleeve at his elbow, up to the rounded cap of his shoulder, his collar and neck, his jawline and that bump in his nose and those twinkling, confident, conspiratorial eyes. Heaven help her, he looked good. Why did misery always come in such attractive packages?
She took the glass from him, and his fingers bumped hers, and it was terrible the way she felt it. Just terrible.
“Don't worry about it,” he said. “I'll get you a new phone with a radio. Comes in handy as a backup. You'll have to let my team know every time you leave the house, and they'll decide whether you need an escort. I'll get that set up by tomorrow morning. In the meantime—”
“Stop,” Ellen whispered.
Not loud enough. You had to be loud—she'd figured that out with Richard. You had to be louder than they were, stronger than they thought you could be, and so mean and cold and unforgiving, they called you names.
She knew how to do this. She'd done it before.
“Stop,” she said, and this time the word came out at a satisfying volume. “You're not putting a fence up on my property. I'm not giving you schematics. I don't want your help.”
“Didn't we already cover this a minute ago?”
They had. But she'd been a fool, and she knew when to change tactics. If she gave this man one more inch, he would take over. She'd seen it with Jamie. One day, she and Jamie had been ordinary teenagers, and the next thing she knew her brother had his own armed escort. He was ostensibly an adult now, but he reported his comings and goings to a team of people who monitored his food, screened his friends, and installed an alarm system in his house that had a habit of going off a three a.m. in irritating bursts of shrieking that no one knew how to stop.
Security guards oversaw Jamie's whole life. They told him where he could go and when, controlled him, choked him. Ellen couldn't handle that. Not after Richard.
So she folded her arms over her chest and stood up straighter. Caleb's gaze locked with hers. Let him try, she told herself. Just let him try.
But he only smiled, his eyes too kind and a bit bewildered. “I'm here to help you. The way I see it, Breckenridge put me under contract, but I work for you.”
“Excellent,” she said. Because it didn't matter whether he was kind. It only mattered that he would wreak havoc with her life if she let him. “In that case, you're fired.”
Copyright 2013 by Ruthie Knox.
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