The protector, p.10
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       The Protector, p.10

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  shoot my brain out. If I was shadowing a bloke, I’d probably be standing at the end of a bar in some pub right now, or, better still, be half-enjoying some live sport. Fucking shopping! And for underwear? Lucinda must fucking hate me.

  “This way,” she sing-songs, wandering off to the changing rooms.

  I follow obediently and overtake her, having a quick check of the area before wandering back out and positioning myself at the entrance. “Use the cubicle closest and you’ll be good.” It’s ten feet away. I can live with that.

  She gives me a dubious look. “You’re going to stand there?”

  “It’s as much space as you’re going to get,” I tell her straight.

  I see her crane her neck around the corner to the corridor of cubicles. “The first cubicle?” she questions.

  “Yes.”

  “I prefer the ones at the back,” she replies offhandedly, going on her way.

  I try to hold back my tired sigh. Really, I do. “Camille, don’t think I won’t come in there.” She’s underestimating me.

  “Don’t think I care,” she retorts.

  My eyebrows jump up in surprise. She’s not suggesting…?

  I laugh to myself, but I’m not amused. “Camille, just use this one.”

  I step into the corridor and rap my knuckles on the wood to confirm it’s empty before pushing the door open. She reaches the end of the changing rooms and tosses a cunning smile over her shoulder before disappearing into the cubicle of her choice. I stand like a twat for a few disbelieving moments, staring at nothing. It would seem that I am underestimating her. I look over my shoulder, seeing the assistants busy, and slowly accept my fate.

  I want to kill her. Slowly.

  As soon as I arrive outside her door, I hear shuffling from beyond. Camille Logan stripping. I look to the heavens for help. The door opens a smidgen, her arm appearing from behind. I scowl at her hand, where a pair of the smallest red lacy knickers I’ve ever seen are hanging from the tip of her index finger.

  “These are a yes,” she calls smugly.

  I breathe in and close my eyes, gathering patience, and blindly snatch them off her finger. There’s two minutes of more shuffling and puffing from behind the door before it opens again, this time the matching bra coming toward me.

  “Another yes.”

  I leave her hand hovering in midair, thinking what a great gag that bra would make. I surprise myself. My thought isn’t sexual at all. I want to ram that sexy underwear into her obstinate mouth so she can’t talk. Then she opens the door a little more and peeks out. Our eyes meet, and that thought turns into an image. A sexual image. An image of Camille Logan on all fours, that bra shoved under her tits, and me smashing into her.

  “Sharp!”

  I jump, snatching the bra from her dainty hand on reflex. Fuck me, I need to sort myself out.

  “I’ll be outside.” I stomp off, sweating, feeling so damn claustrophobic. When I reach the entrance of the changing rooms, I rest my back against the wall and breathe deeply, fighting away that image with all I have.

  “Sir?” An assistant appears, pointing to the red matching set in my hand. I look down and immediately regret it, that mental image popping into my head again.

  “They’re a yes!” I thrust them forward and brush off my hands, like the action might brush my inappropriate mind clean, too. This is fucking torture. I make a mental note to e-mail Lucinda to reinforce the point that I never want a female client again.

  The sales assistant takes the underwear on an unsure smile. “I’ll get them wrapped.”

  “Thank you.”

  She leaves me to finish unraveling my tight muscles, but Camille appears, halting my task. They all coil back up again.

  “Done?” I ask, praying the answer is yes. She has a knowing smile on her face that I wish I could wipe off. With my mouth, maybe?

  She holds up both hands and more sexy lace sucker punches me in the face. “I like these, too.” She sashays off and places the sets on the counter, looking over her shoulder on a small smile. I keep my curled lip at bay and look away from her. Yes, I hate her. With a vengeance.

  Ten minutes later, I can smell freedom as the exit comes into sight. I just need to make it through the beauty department again and hope Camille isn’t distracted by something shiny. I need air. My trained eyes split their attention between Camille and the door up ahead that’ll get me out of this god-awful place, my hand twitching at my side, wanting to push it into Camille’s back and hurry her along. No touching, I remind myself. Do not touch her.

  I spot a woman up ahead armed with a bottle of perfume, spritzing lengths of cards and handing them to people as they pass. With the sunlight streaming into the store from the glass doors, I can see the air before her is a mist of dancing scented particles.

  “Poison, madam?” she asks Camille as we pass, taking the liberty of squirting a card ready to hand to her. Except she misses the card and the spray hits Camille’s arm, startling her. I look down to see her rubbing at her arm, smiling at the woman. “No, thank you. It’s not my scent.”

  “I’m so sorry!” The woman, mortified, brushes at Camille’s arm, too. “The atomizer must have turned!”

  “It’s fine, honestly.” Camille pacifies the assistant. “It’s a bit strong for me.”

  Forgetting my boundary, I push Camille on, through the haze of perfume-sprayed air. The particles drift up my nose, and I sniff, wincing. Then I cough, and the scent overwhelms me. I drop Camille, my feet grinding to a halt.

  That smell.

  My heart rate drops, my skin turning cold.

  That smell.

  I swallow and blink, seeing floating specks of torture closing in on me.

  That smell.

  I feel a flashback taking hold, nailing me into position, locking down all my muscles. I can’t move. Can’t escape it. I need to breathe, and when I gasp for a breath, my nose is invaded by a huge dose of the heavy scent, going straight to my brain. Poison. I haven’t smelled it in four years.

  She used to wear Poison. My surroundings blacken, leaving room for only one image. Her face. Her face followed by the bloodbath in Afghanistan. Screams, gunfire, my out-of-control rage. I bend over and brace my hands on my knees, starting to hyperventilate. Fuck, I need to get out of here.

  “Jake?” Camille’s voice is a distant hum. “Jake, are you okay?”

  I draw in air through my nose, unable to control where I get my oxygen from. I get another potent hit of perfume and start to wretch, my heart smashing in my chest. “I need to get out,” I say tightly.

  I steam forward aimlessly, bumping into people as I go, knocking aside anyone who’s in my way. The doors, so close but so far away. I fall out of the store, perspiring like I just ran a marathon, and fall against the wall in a heap of anxiety.

  My shaky hand goes to my inside pocket as I drink in clean air, fumbling for my pills. It’s stupid; there won’t be any miracle effect from swallowing one now, but the psychological need is there. I pull them free and fiddle with the stupid small twist-top, the bottle slipping from my grip. They hit the floor at my feet.

  “Fuck,” I curse, dipping, trying to straighten out my vision to locate the small bottle. I’m seeing ten of everything. Breathing ten times faster than I should. My hands feel the floor as I desperately try to home in on my target.

  “Here.” The blur of another hand appears in my hazy vision, claiming the bottle and holding it out to me. My vision clears in an instant, and I look up to find concerned topaz eyes staring at me.

  I swallow and take the pills, trying to unscrew the top as I rise and slump against the wall again. Camille puts me out of my misery and claims the bottle, opening it with ease and tipping a pill out into her palm. She holds it out to me, and I stare at the little tablet for a few seconds before taking it and knocking it back.

  I close my eyes and force some deep breaths, hating myself for exposing the weak side of me to my subject. This has never happened before. Not
to this extent, perhaps only in my dreams. But that perfume. It was a trigger. Fuck.

  “Beta-blockers,” Camille says quietly. “They control adrenaline. Stop anxiety attacks.”

  I drop my head, finding her screwing the lid back on, chewing her bottom lip. I can’t lie. But what the fuck would I say?

  I reach forward and take the bottle from her, slipping it back into my inside pocket before assessing the stability of my legs. A quick tense of my thighs confirms they’re good enough. I push myself away from the wall, feeling her watching my every move.

  “Where to next?” I ask, evading her eyes.

  “I have some paperwork to go over at home this evening,” she replies quietly.

  “Home, then,” I declare, gesturing for her to lead on.

  But after a few uncomfortable seconds, she still hasn’t moved and I’m forced to search her out, set on giving her an expectant look. The expectant look doesn’t happen. She’s looking at me, not in interest and not in curiosity. It’s compassion, and as much as I know it shouldn’t be, it’s comforting.

  “Don’t feel sorry for me,” I say quietly, our eyes glued, neither of us breaking the connection.

  “Why?”

  “Because I don’t deserve it.” I find myself falling victim to the intensity of her beautiful eyes, hauling me in, enhancing the comfort that I don’t deserve.

  “What happened to you?” she whispers.

  “War,” I say simply, surprising myself with my easy, if not detailed, offer. I see understanding surface on her flawless face, and I finally yank my eyes from hers before I spill any more shit on her.

  “Home.” I sweep my arm out and hope she follows this time. She does. Quietly and pensively, she passes me.

  Camille Logan has exhausted her sass for today. She’ll never know how grateful I am.

  * * *

  As I tail Camille into the lobby of her apartment block, my mind is still reeling, my nose still full of the scent. I press the call button for the elevator, turning when I hear footsteps approaching. The concierge is holding up an envelope, smiling. “Miss Logan, your mail.”

  Camille takes the envelope just as the elevator pings its arrival and the doors slide open. “Thanks,” she says, pulling the seal open as she wanders into the lift. Her steps stutter and I frown, following her in.

  “What’s up?” I ask, not liking the visible goose bumps that have jumped onto her bare arms. She gazes up at me, a little vacant, forcing me to take the envelope that’s held in her limp hand.

  An image hits me square between my eyes. “Fuck,” I curse, staring down at the photo of Camille wandering down a street with bags hanging from her hands. I flip the picture and am immediately confronted with another, this time her getting into her red Merc. There’s text at the bottom of this one, and I get tenser with each word I read.

  YOUR FATHER HAS 3 DAYS TO COMPLY.

  The elevator doors start sliding shut, and my hand shoots out to stop them. “Hey!” I shout to the concierge as he wanders away. He turns, still smiling. “Who delivered this?” I hold up the envelope.

  “Royal Mail,” he answers, making me turn the envelope over and search out the postmark. There’s nothing, just Camille’s name and address on a typed label. I let the doors close this time, getting my phone from my pocket. Logan answers after the first ring.

  “Camille’s had some photographs delivered.” I cut straight to the chase. “Whoever this is has been following her. I saw a white van outside her agent’s office yesterday morning. I approached and they drove off rather hastily.”

  Logan lets out an audible gasp. “What are the photographs of?”

  “Camille,” I snap. What the fuck does he think they’re of? “There’s a note. They say you have three days to comply. Comply with what?”

  “I don’t know! How can I comply if I don’t know what they want?”

  I resist punching the wall of the elevator, glancing down at Camille. She still looks vacant. “You’ve had no further threats?” I ask.

  “No, damn it! Don’t you let her out of your sight, Sharp!”

  “I don’t plan on it,” I grate, hanging up and immediately calling Lucinda. She answers with silence. “I’m sending you something by courier within the hour. Have it checked for fingerprints.” The doors to the elevator open and I make quick work of guiding Camille out.

  “Got it.”

  Stuffing my phone back in my pocket, I come to a stop at Camille’s apartment door and look down at her. “Keys?” I ask, knocking her from her trance.

  She looks up at me, making no attempt to get her keys out. “How serious is this?” she asks quietly. The fear I’d expect to be riddling her expression isn’t there. There’s still that compassion instead.

  “Threats are usually exactly that,” I say robotically. “Just a form of scaremongering. Besides, nothing can happen to you while I’m around. Open the door.” I force my eyes away from hers. It’s harder than it should be, when she’s looking at me with a million questions in her eyes. But I know they’re not questions about the threat and what it means. They’re questions about me.

  Chapter 10

  CAMI

  I spent the night lying awake, but the photographs that showed up weren’t the cause for my insomnia. It was my curiousity about Sharp. Once I’d let us into my apartment, he only spoke to me when he absolutely needed to, giving one-word answers. The tension was thick. Horrible. And I know it had nothing to do with the photos that arrived. I knew what I was doing in Harvey Nic’s, baiting him, making him suffer, forcing him into a man’s hell. I loved every moment of it, seeing him squirm and sweat.

  Yet every time our eyes connected, my amusement was stripped away and replaced with something I didn’t love so much. But I can’t deny it was there. I tried my best to disregard it, but I couldn’t deny it. A sizzling electricity that I concluded wasn’t my imagination. Not that it matters now.

  Since Sharp had that shocking episode in the store, he’s shut down. Hardly even looks at me. I should be grateful. It’s removed the awkwardness of us constantly catching each other’s eye, but unfortunately that awkwardness has been replaced with something else. Tension. Intrigue. At least it has on my part. He’s here but not here. He’s like a robot, and I can’t help wondering if it’s because he let his defenses down. Let me see deeper into him. Not that he looked like he had much choice. He wasn’t in control. It was pretty agonizing to see his big, strong body reduced to such a mess. I can imagine how he felt. So strong, but so vulnerable. It reminds me of someone else. Me. Much of me is a front. Privately, I feel like I’m constantly battling my demons. Sharp and I are more alike than I’m comfortable with. Because whatever his internal battle is, I understand. I get it. And it’s humanized him a bit more, made me see him a little differently.

  As I enter the lounge, pulling my hair up as I go, I find the space empty. Sharp isn’t in his usual spot on the couch. It looks odd without his big body reclined on it. I hear sounds from the kitchen and follow my ears, entering to find him by the sink, just finishing a glass of water. I momentarily wonder if he’s had to take another pill. Beta-blockers. One thing I have figured out about Jake Sharp is that he’s definitely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I know, since he told me indirectly, that he’s a war veteran. He also has what I know now must be a bullet wound.

  But it’s not my place to pry further, and after the state he was in at Harvey Nic’s, I dare not. It was painful to witness. I wouldn’t want to expose him to that again.

  I make my way to the fridge to grab a detox juice. “I’m meeting Heather for coffee,” I say, unscrewing the cap of my juice as I turn.

  Sharp hasn’t moved and he doesn’t seem to have heard me. He’s in a daydream.

  I assess him as I wander away, sipping my juice. Then I notice a bag at his feet. “You going somewhere?”

  He looks across to me, still appearing a bit spaced out. “I’ve been assigned to another job,” he says mechanically.
<
br />   My heart sinks, which is daft. Him leaving is undoubtedly the best thing that could have happened.

  “Someone else is on their way to take over,” he adds. “You’ll be safe.”

  My heart receives a sharp shot of pain. It baffles me beyond measure, yet I carry on my way, my grip of the bottle in my hand tightening until the plastic starts to crunch loudly. What’s most fucked up here is that I’m disappointed he’s going instead of worried about the photographs that were delivered. It’s crazy.

  “Fine.” I force the word through my clenched jaw, spotting my handbag across the living room as I enter.

 
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JODI ELLEN MALPAS SERIES:

One Night
This Man

 

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