The protector, p.13
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       The Protector, p.13
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           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  he thinks otherwise.

  “Don’t even think about it.” He turns and walks away from me, letting the towel fall away without a scrap of shyness, exposing everything to me. I slam my eyes shut to hide from the obscene flawlessness.

  “I’ll be with my mum and brother,” I protest to my darkness. “I’ll be fine.”

  “I’m not having this conversation with you, Camille.”

  I want to open my eyes and hit him with my filthiest look, but that would be a stupid move. “Are you dressed yet?” I ask, unable to hide my irritation.

  “Yes.”

  My eyes open and immediately find him with some trousers on, hanging open at the waist, his chest still bare and fucking divine. I gasp my annoyance. “Jake!”

  “Then turn around, Camille.” His motions falter as he pulls his shirt on.

  I hate how difficult I find it to turn away from him. But I do, begrudgingly, still seeing all those fine lines riddling his stomach. “There’s really no need for you to come with me.”

  “Your father wants me to shadow your every move. You saw the pictures. You are lucky you’re even allowed to leave this place, and you should note that the only reason you are is because I’m with you. I’m not averse to enforcing this.” He virtually spits the words, his frustration growing.

  “Enforce how?” My ears prick up for the wrong reasons as I imagine him pinning me down. Like he did when he captured me studying him when he was pretending to be asleep. My body springs to life.

  “Try me,” he says simply.

  A lick of desire mixed with curiosity beats its way up my spine, straightening it. I want to try him. I want to see what lengths he’ll go to in order for me to comply. I want him to tie me to him so we’re connected and I can relish in that lovely warmth that sinks so deeply into me. I want…

  “I’m coming.” His breath in my ear startles me, yanking me from my inappropriate fantasies, as he moves past me, fastening his tie as he walks away. “Call your mother and tell her there’s no need to send her driver.”

  I find a wall and let my forehead meet it with a little too much force, hoping the shockwave the bang creates will chase away my building desire for a man who should not be desired. And, more significantly, doesn’t want to be.

  Chapter 13

  JAKE

  I can still feel the dull pulsing in my cock, an aftereffect of an erection that has long outstayed its welcome.

  I don’t know what I was thinking, but Camille’s face when I barked at her nearly broke me. I hated myself in that moment. I’ve been an arsehole with many women and never felt even a smidgen of guilt about it. Kept them at a distance. Simple.

  With Camille, it’s different. I crave her closeness, and I felt like a first-class bastard when I snapped at her. Then I hated myself even more when I stopped her from leaving after telling her to. I could see the wonder in her eyes, her thoughts going into overdrive. I can guess what those thoughts were. Fucking hell, for a moment there, while I was holding on to her, I very nearly caved in. I nearly kissed her. I couldn’t fucking stop myself.

  Thank God for her mother. Eye on the ball, Jake, and the ball isn’t a face worthy of a goddess and a body made to be worshipped.

  I groan, fighting to ignore the dull pulse in my dick. It’s not my only frustration. Camille’s ludicrous idea—the one that involved her out in public without me—both angered and frustrated me. Logan’s still heard nothing and Lucinda is keeping track of his e-mails. What the hell do they want? Money is the obvious answer, yet Logan has stacks of the stuff and they aren’t asking for it. He’s hiding something. I’m convinced he is.

  I park down a side street after being advised, quite curtly by Camille, where we were headed. She jumps out and is on her way to the main road before I cut the engine. I fall into pace a few steps behind her, following quietly. She looks effortlessly lovely, having thrown on a little black dress, but those red-soled things on her feet look like death traps. The black material of her dress made her topaz eyes pop for the brief moment she met my gaze before we left her apartment. She hasn’t looked at me since.

  When we arrive at the entrance of the plush hotel where she’s meeting her mother and brother, the doorman is busy loading some flashy luggage onto a trolley, so it’s left to Camille to open the door. I watch as she wrestles with it, pushing her slim frame into the polished metal surround.

  I reach over and take the handle, brushing her hand innocently. I freeze, as does she, before she pulls her hand into her chest on a little gasp. We both remain motionless, my hand poised on the door, my spine tingling. Jesus, this is getting worse—the atmosphere, the innocent touches…my reaction to them.

  I peek down at Camille, finding her eyes darting wildly. I quickly pull the door open for her, standing back to eliminate the risk of us touching again. She rushes through without any thank you or acknowledgment, and breezes into the lobby like I’m not even there.

  I breathe in deeply and follow behind, but come to a stop when Camille does, a few feet in front of me. She turns to face me, but refuses to look at me. “Keep me in sight if you must, but can you do it at a distance so my mother doesn’t interrogate me?”

  “She doesn’t know?” I ask.

  “No, and I don’t want her to. She’ll only worry and proceed to annihilate my father. She does that enough already.”

  I run a quick scan of the area, assessing every nook and cranny, every person in the vicinity, storing it all to memory. “Where will you be sitting?”

  “She has the same table at the back of the restaurant every time.” She’s still refusing to look at me, but indicates the restaurant entrance.

  “Looks like I’m eating alone.” I gesture for her to lead on, which she does, ignoring my cynicism.

  I allow her to get a few feet away from me before I follow, holding back while the maître d’ greets her before leading her to a table. Camille’s mother looks exactly like she has in every picture I’ve seen. A well-turned-out woman in her mid-forties, with blond hair that matches Camille’s and topaz eyes that are a little less bright than her daughter’s. Apart from the uncanny likeness, I sense no other similarities. She looks overbearing and self-important. A diva, in fact. The same table every time? A driver? All that’s missing is a Chihuahua in a frilly pink jumper and a diamond-encrusted collar.

  They greet each other with hugs and double kisses as I make my way to an empty table a few feet away from Camille and her mother. It’s about as far as I’m prepared to be. I sit on an angle, the whole room in view, turned away enough to look inconspicuous, but just right to see her.

  “Sir?”

  I look up and find a smart waiter hovering at the edge of my table for two, a questioning look on his face. “I’ll have a water, please.” I resist ordering the Jack that I so desperately need.

  “I’m sorry.” He looks nervous. I’ve hardly said a word, and I was polite. What’s his problem? “Do you have a reservation?”

  That’s his problem. This place doesn’t look like the kind of joint you just breeze right into and expect to be fed. “Yes,” I answer smoothly, taking a menu from his hand on a smile that suggests he should accept my answer and hurry on his way.

  “Your name, sir?” he asks.

  I sigh. “Check your little book on that stand up front.” I wave a finger toward the entrance of the restaurant. “Whatever name you have down for this table, that’s me.”

  “I’m sorry, sir. This table is reserved.”

  I sense Camille watching me warily, aware of the potential upset I might cause. And that’s the only reason I begrudgingly relent. “Do you have another table?” I ask politely.

  “Yes, sir.” He smiles and indicates across the restaurant. “If you’ll just come this way.”

  I follow his pointed finger and spot the empty table he must be referring to. Then I scoff. Too far. “I’ll be staying here, thank you.”

  “But, sir, I’m—” His words cut dead when I look at him. I can only
imagine the threat in my eyes. Don’t make me get mad, I say to myself. “Sir.” He nods and backs away. “I’ll get your water.”

  “You do that.” I have a quick peek across to Camille and find her watching me, her mother chewing her ear off. I see her mouth murmuring the odd agreement here and there, her lips soft and inviting, moving slowly.

  I’m unable to stop my line of sight drifting up from her mouth when I feel her eyes burning into me. She quickly looks away, shifting in her chair and sipping some champagne, focusing on her mother instead of me. The loss does things to me beyond my comprehension. I mentally slap myself as a jug of water, laced with slices of lemons and limes, lands in front of me.

  “Sir, have you made a decision from the menu?”

  “Whatever you recommend,” I say, pulling my phone from my pocket, finding no calls or messages.

  “The Lobster Thermidor is famous, sir.”

  “Then I’ll have that.” I pull up my contacts list and Abbie’s name flashes up at me. I frown, waiting for the inevitable twisting of my stomach. It doesn’t come, and I find myself glancing across to Camille as my frown deepens. I try to think of what I’d even say to Abbie if I did call. Hi, did you miss me? I laugh.

  Dropping my phone to the table, I scrub my palms over my face before removing my jacket and hanging it on the back of the chair. I don’t know why I torture myself with this same dilemma day in and day out. She doesn’t want to hear from me. She’ll be happier if I stay away. She’s probably forgotten about me completely by now. Best not to upset that. Nothing good will come of it.

  A giggle hits me from the side, shocking me from my straying thoughts, and I turn to see Camille with her head tossed back, her mother laughing, too. My past is suddenly forgotten when my present smacks me in the face, making me smile. No woman has made me smile since…

  I grab my phone and call Logan. He answers promptly, as normal. “Sharp,” he says as I sit back, casting a quick eye over to Camille. She’s lost in conversation.

  “Anything?” I ask.

  “Nothing.”

  My teeth grind in frustration. “We checked the courier deliveries to Logan Tower the day you told us the threat arrived.” I pause to give him the opportunity to speak, and to listen for any unspoken reaction, like a hitch of breath, anything to tell me I’m onto something. I get nothing, so go on. “There’s no sign of a courier on the afternoon it arrived.”

  “There must be,” he claims. “Did you check the CCTV?”

  “Yes.”

  “The records?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then maybe it was delivered by someone else. Not a courier.”

  His claim gives me a moment’s pause. “You were quite clear that it was a courier,” I point out.

  “I…assumed. Maybe…I could be wrong.” He trips over his words, only heightening my suspicions.

  “I understand.” I brush it off, make his remark sound like it’s of no consequence, when on the inside I’m raging with frustrating curiosity. I get the feeling that if I push this, my services will no longer be required. He’ll get someone else in to protect his daughter. Someone who won’t ask questions. I don’t trust anyone else to do the job. Besides, it’s keeping me busy and distracted from my nightmares. “I’ll call with an update as soon as I have one.” I hang up, thoughtful, until the sweet sound of Camille laughing knocks me from my pondering. She looks happy. Relaxed.

  TJ arrives a few minutes later and greets both women affectionately. Camille’s mother, TJ’s stepmother, embraces TJ like he could be her own. The sweet scene makes me see something in Camille’s mother that I never would have expected. She’s stuffy, but she clearly has a fondness for her stepchild. Before TJ settles in his seat, he casts an eye over to me, nodding his hello discreetly. I nod in return and realign my focus on Camille.

  * * *

  Camille picked her way through a measly salad, hardly touching it. The laughs have been constant from their table. It’s actually been quite a pleasure to see her so happy in the company of her mother and brother. The whole few hours we’ve been here have been uneventful otherwise. No suspicious activity or characters, and no paparazzi.

  I settle my bill, anticipating Camille will be wrapping up very soon, and wait for her to stand. I watch her like a hawk, searching for any signs of drunkenness. There’s none, though her mother is a little unstable on her gold heels as she rises from the table, knocking back the last drops of her fizz as she does. TJ catches his stepmum’s elbow to steady her, and Camille links arms with her as they wander from the restaurant, me close behind.

  When we make it to the pavement outside, I hold back as they say their good-byes, not liking our distance, trying to be discreet. It’s hard to look casual and unassuming when you’re as tall as me.

  A Bentley pulls up and a driver gets out, rounding the car and opening the back door for her mother. “Sweetie pie, it’s been wonderful to see you.” She embraces her daughter and hugs her, before she moves onto TJ. “You take care,” she orders. “Let’s not leave it so long next time.”

  TJ laughs. “You’re the one with the hectic social life!”

  “Just keeping my finger on the pulse.” She winks and kisses his cheek. “Bye-bye, sweetie pies.” She lowers gracefully into the backseat and the driver shuts the door.

  TJ’s flash car pulls up behind and a driver passes him his keys. “Thanks,” he says as he slips him a twenty. “Be good tonight.”

  Camille rolls her eyes. “I’m always good. Why don’t you come?”

  He laughs, thoroughly amused. “I’ll leave the partying to you.” Leaning in, he kisses her cheek and flicks a look across to me. “Looks like you’re in good hands, but be safe, yeah?”

  Be safe? I realize he’s not trying to insult my ability to watch her. What he’s doing is gently reminding her of the shit she’s gotten into before. And judging by the soft, almost pleading expression in TJ’s eyes, he’s reminding me, too. He has nothing to worry about. She’s safe. From everything.

  Camille casts a fleeting look over her shoulder, biting her lip. “Yeah,” she says.

  I wait for the cars to pull away before I join her on the roadside. All that’s running through my mind right now, unjustified and inappropriate, is how relieved I am that Camille shares none of her parents’ traits. She’s molded herself into the person she wants to be, and despite a few blips along the way, she should be proud of herself.

  “Interesting woman, your mother,” I muse, coming to a stop next to her.

  “You mean pretentious, right?” She turns to look up at me. “You don’t need to be polite. She’s okay in small doses.” She takes her phone out, punches out a text, and clicks send. “The Picturedrome is a few streets away. Let’s go,” she declares decisively, strolling off toward my car. I deflate as I follow, reminded that the night is far from over.

  * * *

  The noise. Jesus, it’s unbearable. The speakers are booming out some hard, throbbing beats, and hundreds of kids in their mid-twenties fill the place, all drinking champagne. The seedy darkness bothers me as I scope the place. A few young women descend from every direction when Camille enters, with squeals of delight.

  A glass of champagne is thrust into Camille’s hand, courtesy of Heather, and hugs are thrown all round. I growl when the hugs start coming from men. A few looks are tossed in my direction—the women interested, the men wary—as I watch Camille hovering a few feet away. She’s relaxed, still happy, and it makes me loosen up somewhat as I take position by the bar a few feet away and settle in, preparing for a long night.

  An hour later, I’m at my wits’ end. I’ve endured some pretty torturous situations in my thirty-five years of life, but I can safely say, hand on my black heart, that the past hour has been the worst. Watching her shimmy around that dance floor is causing me physical pain. Every now and again, I fleetingly wonder if she’s purposely making this as hard as possible for me. Regardless, I’m a professional and I can withstand it. But I’m also
a man, a man who hasn’t had any for too long.

  I groan under my breath, trying not to look at her. It’s hard when she’s my client. A job. But damn, she’s perfect, effortlessly gorgeous and understated in her beauty and disposition. Not one man in this bar is immune to the attention she demands without actually demanding it. The other women, all beautiful, pale into insignificance with her in the room. I smile a secret smile, feeling an odd sense of pride.

  Then I mentally knock myself out, flicking my eyes up to the top shelf of the bar. I need a drink.

  “Hey!” Camille appears at my side, bubbly and smiley. “I need a wee,” she says, starting to shift from one foot to the other. “Wanna watch?”

  She’s drunk. Her cheeky declaration doesn’t faze me. If anything, I’m pleased she’s advised me instead of dancing off to the loo and leaving me to follow.

  “Come.” I place my hand in the small of her back, vehemently refusing to acknowledge how good it feels spanning nearly the entire width of it.

  She moves with ease, but has me faltering in my steps when she reaches behind me and detaches my touch. Given the chance, I might
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