The protector, p.2
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       The Protector, p.2
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           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  Not even for a million! It’s a pass.

  I don’t add a thanks. Lucinda must have lost her fucking mind. And with that, I slam my laptop shut.

  * * *

  I swirl the amber liquid in the glass, watching the smooth swish of my drink as it coats the inside of the glass. How many is this tonight? Ten? Eleven? I breathe out and knock it back, slamming my empty on the bar. The bartender immediately refills my glass, and I nod my thanks, resting my elbows on the bar. I’m aware of the looks being pointed in my direction by the women here, all of them willing me to glance up so they can catch my eye. But if I give any one of them even a hint of my attention, the night will end up how most of them have recently. A fuck, a good-bye, and a slap. And repeat. Just a drink tonight. Just a drink.

  My knuckles wedge themselves in my eye sockets and rub harshly. With a lack of a distraction, whether it be an assignment or a woman to fuck, the fight to stop my mind from wandering to past, dark places is a battle like no other. Faces start to flicker through my mind, faces that haunt me daily. Explosions rattle my brain, and my resting heart starts to crank up in speed.

  “Motherfucker,” I breathe, looking up and finding a woman batting her eyelashes at me from across the bar. She’s a respite from my personal torture that I’m going to take, but just as I’m rising from my stool to go over, the deafening sound of smashing glass has me reaching for the bar to steady myself. My heart is in my fucking throat, my mind whizzing frantically through familiar scenes. Shattering windows, explosions from enemy fire, screams of fear. I try to talk myself down, my eyes darting around the bar in an attempt to remind myself where I am. The bartender curses, and I glance over to find him looking at the mess of broken glass at his feet.

  “Hey, handsome.”

  My eyes shoot to my side and find the woman from across the bar, smiling seductively. The notion that I could grab her, drag her back to my apartment, and fuck her until my heart is hammering for another reason doesn’t settle me like it should.

  I can’t see her face. I can only see my past. This isn’t going to work.

  I reach for the inside pocket of my jacket and pull out my pills, unscrewing the cap as I stalk out of the bar. I need something to focus on and I need it quickly. The flashbacks are becoming more frequent and my pills less effective.

  If I keep going at this rate, I’ll be taking Camille Logan’s room at The Priory Clinic. I’ll be back to where I was four years ago—lost, wasted and with nothing to do but constantly torture myself and relive my nightmares. They’ll never leave me, but I can limit them. I just need to force my personal shit to the side and see Camille Logan for what she is.

  A job. Focus on the mission. That’s it. That’s all I have.

  I pull out my phone and dial my lifeline.

  “I was just about to call you,” Lucinda says in greeting.

  “The Logan job. I’ll take it.” I don’t give a shit who the client is. A woman, a kid, a fucking monkey. I just need to work. Nothing could be worse than this.

  “Good,” she replies simply, not making a big deal of it. “Glad you’ve saved me from having to kick your arse into shape.”

  My heart starts to ease up a little. “Someone needs to,” I mutter.

  “Where are you?”

  “Chelsea.”

  “In a bar?”

  “Just leaving.”

  “With?”

  “No one.”

  She laughs, like she doesn’t believe me. Which she undoubtedly doesn’t. “Get a good night’s sleep, Jake. And be at Logan Tower tomorrow at three. One hundred grand will be deposited into your account in the morning.” She hangs up and I head home, my mind now centered on the job ahead and that alone. I’m the best at the security firm I work for. I’m not blowing smoke up my own arse. It’s a cold, hard fact.

  You want to keep someone safe, you hire me. I have a clean sheet. I plan on keeping it that way.

  My head is in the game.

  Chapter 2

  CAMI

  Camille!”

  I spin around, my bags whirling with me, creating what I know will be the illusion of a huge elaborate paper tutu. I smile when I see Heather hurrying toward me, her eyes bright and excited. Wrestling my hand up to my face, my bags bashing against my side as they lift, I pull off my sunglasses before the weight of my shopping forces my arm back down.

  “Hey!” I sing, matching her excitement. “No work today?”

  Heather’s happy face takes on an edge of repulsion, just before she throws her arms around me. I’m unable to return her hug due to the obscene amount of shopping bags in my grasp, and I’m not in the slightest bit sorry. She’ll love what I have to show her. “They fired me,” she spits resentfully, squeezing me to her.

  “Oh, shit! What happened?” I ask as she releases me, flicks her glossy auburn hair over her shoulder, and rearranges her Chanel purse.

  “Tuesday night. That’s what happened.” She links arms with me and starts leading us down Bond Street.

  “Ohhh.” Tuesday night comes flooding back to me. Or what I can remember of Tuesday night. Champagne. Lots of it, and some questionable dance moves at our favorite bar.

  “Yes, oh,” she counters, giving me a sideways smile. “I got to work on time yesterday, but I couldn’t for the life of me read the autocue. It was all blurred.”

  I laugh, picturing her squinting at the monitors beyond the camera. “Being on form is kind of necessary when you’re live on TV.”

  We cross the road and head toward a café like homing pigeons. I need an iced lemon tea pronto. “So what now?” I ask, letting all of my bags drop like lead from my aching hands when we reach a table.

  Heather rests her neat arse on a chair. “Now I get to focus on our dream, Camille!” Her eyes dance excitedly. “Any developments?”

  “We have another investor interested,” I tell her, trying to sound casual. I’ve not allowed myself to get excited about the potential of getting our clothing line off the ground. Not until we have a firm deal on the table. We’ve made that mistake already. We virtually had the pen on the dotted line when I noticed a clause that wasn’t mentioned in the negotiations. Something about making clothes up to a certain size, which basically meant that any woman with even the slightest curve or hint of an arse wouldn’t be wearing our fashion line. It was a deal breaker, and something Heather and I feel strongly about. We made it clear that our clothes should be available to every woman of every shape and size. The investors wouldn’t budge, and neither would we. “They sound keen.”

  “Really?” She gives me a big, toothy grin.

  “Really,” I confirm, unable to stop myself from matching Heather’s smile, but I’m so nervous. At the moment we’re just two pretty faces with bodies that look good in clothes. I love my job modeling, but the urge is fierce to prove to everyone, including my father, that I can be more than just a mannequin. I know Heather feels the same. Neither of us is willing to compromise on our dream, and on top of that, neither are we prepared to accept any funding from our fathers. Heather’s dad is minted, too. Not as minted as mine—granted, not many are, if any in London—but he’s obscenely wealthy, nevertheless. “We have a meeting with my agent tomorrow. She has a few things to run over with us.”

  “I’ll be there!” She smirks and points at my bags. “What have you been buying, since the Camille Logan and Heather Porter fashion range isn’t yet available? You do realize that we’ll only ever be able to wear our own label when it’s available.”

  The thought thrills me. Picking out fabrics, coming up with designs, creating good-quality, affordable pieces. Fashion moves too fast for women to spend a fortune on the latest trend. “Just a dress for Saffron’s twenty-fifth-birthday party.” I grab my purse from my bag. “And some fabric I picked up in Camden that I want you to look at. It’ll make an amazing dress.” I have the design in my head already, and I just know Heather’s dress-making skills will do it justice. “Iced tea?”

  “Please.” S
he’s riffling through my bags before I make it into the café. Still feeling the strain of my overindulgence on Tuesday night, my skin less radiant and soft, I grab a bottle of water to accompany my iced tea and chug it down before I make it to the counter. I need hydration and maybe a facial. Jesus, I’m twenty-five, and I already feel like I’m past it where the social life in London is concerned. “I’ll have a regular iced tea and a regular lemon iced tea. Thank you,” I say to the girl across the counter as I go to my purse and pull out a tenner. “Oh, and the water.”

  “Oh my God!” she gasps, knocking me back a few paces. “You’re Camille Logan, aren’t you?”

  I feel my cheeks flush, and I cast my eyes up to her, seeing a face riddled with awe. It’s both flattering and embarrassing. “Yes,” I confirm, hoping she doesn’t go on to make a big deal of it.

  “You’re even more perfect in the flesh!”

  “Thank you.”

  “I’m so jealous! Your life is perfect! I love you!”

  My smile now is forced. Perfect. Yes, of course it is. She must be seventeen, if that. She has no idea. No one has any idea about the constant battle to keep my mind focused on my future and not my past, the overbearing father who tries to control my life, or the challenge I face almost daily in London’s social scene that’s driven by cocaine and champagne. These are private battles that will remain private. Too many of my struggles have already been broadcast to the world…and my father. “You’re very sweet.” I strain my sincerity, despite the fact that she is, actually, very sweet. Naive, but sweet. “I have a friend waiting outside. Would you mind?” I nod to the machine behind her, hoping my subtle hint will snap her out of her starstruck moment.

  “Oh God, yes!” She flies into action, all in a fluster, and has my order ready in record time. Handing my drinks over, her face proud, she leans in a little. “I’m going to pay for these. Then I can say I bought Camille Logan a drink!”

  “Oh, no, you really shouldn’t.” I shake my head, point blank refusing to accept her kind gesture. “I’m paying for the drinks, but thank you anyway.”

  “No!” She places them down and steps back, out of reach so my tenner just floats in the middle of us over the counter. She adamantly folds her arms over her chest, a cheeky glint in her eye.

  I’m not going to win this one with convincing words, so I take the only other option. I go to my purse and pull out another tenner, then place them both on the counter, before scooping up my drinks and making a run for it. “Now you can tell people that Camille Logan bought you a drink!” I just hear her squeal of delight as I land on the pavement outside, only just upright in my wedges. Heather has the reams of the fabulous material I found in her grasp, her hand paused mid-stroke of the velvety fabric as she watches me drop into my chair.

  “All right?” she asks, folding it back up.

  “A lively one.” I hand over her iced tea as she laughs, craning her neck to see inside the café.

  “Bless!” Heather coos, taking a long slurp of her tea. “Love the material!”

  “Fab, isn’t it?” I poke the ice down with my straw and rest back in the metal chair, my skin soaking up the sunrays. “I’m thinking clinched-in waist—”

  “Full skirt.” Heather finishes for me, grinning.

  “Yes!” This is why I love her and why we’re such perfect business partners. We’re so in sync with our thoughts and ideas. “I’ll have a drawing to you by the end of the week.”

  “I’ll get straight to it.”

  “Perfect. And we need to make arrangements to visit that fabric supplier you were telling me about.” I grab my diary and flick through the pages. “Next week?”

  “Sure. It’s not like I’m busy in a day job anymore.”

  I laugh. She sounds devastated. “I’ll let you arrange that, then.” Glancing down at my tea, I note the ice melting rapidly. I take a long draw on the straw before slipping on my glasses. “What are you wearing for Saffron’s party?”

  She leans in, encouraging me to do the same. Anyone watching would think she’s about to divulge something juicy in the gossip department. “I was thinking red dress and gold heels.”

  “Good plan,” I assert quickly.

  “You?”

  “You haven’t helped yourself to that bag, then?” I ask, reaching down and pulling out my new dress.

  “That would be rude,” she sniffs, eyes widening as she takes in the lovely black piece. “Wow, I love it!”

  “Me too,” I agree.

  “It’s short.” She waggles a brow at me, and I get the gist straightaway.

  Paps.

  With photographers on the prowl on most of our nights out, we’re all fully aware of the potential damage a wrong photo could do if it were to turn up in a magazine the next week. Like your dress riding up and revealing that little bit too much leg, and, God forbid, a bit of cellulite. That’s a mild example in the grand scheme of things, however annoying it is. There’s a nastier side to the press, a more damaging side, and, regretfully, I’ve been on the receiving end of it during that particularly hard time last year when Seb and I split up. I know Dad paid many of the newspapers off to stop them printing the pictures. Whether with money or promises. But his connections and relationships didn’t stretch to the glossy mags. And there were far too many pictures of me out there.

  I shudder, remembering how hopeless I felt, how black my world was, and how disappointed in myself I was. Sebastian did that to me. Dragged me into his drug-induced haze and nearly ruined me. He took my money when he’d squandered his own and his parents turned their back on him; he got arrested on more than one occasion for violent, drink- and drug-induced outbursts; and when he had no one to lash out on, I was always to hand. I hope he never comes back to London. I hope he’s never released from rehab. I never want to see him again.

  “Camille?” Heather’s soft voice startles me, and I jump in my chair, trying to focus on my best friend. “Where were you?”

  “Nowhere.” I look down at my cup and find I’ve drunk my way through it while I was lost in the land of regret. I can feel Heather watching me, probably with a sad smile on her face, undoubtedly after reaching the right conclusion.

  I look up and paste on a strained smile, and she smiles right back, reaching over for my hand. “He’s gone,” she whispers, tightening her hold.

  I nod and breathe out slowly, gathering myself. Heather was there through it all with me, loyal to a fault. Thanks to the media, the world knew about my tangle with cocaine, but they didn’t know about Seb’s habit of venting his anger on me. That happened behind closed doors. Heather pieced it together and after I begged her, she didn’t tell a soul. The press reports already had my controlling father going into overdrive, chipping away at the independence I’d fought so hard for. Heather helped pull me back onto the right path. We’re kindred spirits. Childhood best friends. Every step of our life has been taken side by side. I hope that never changes. Heather is the only person on earth who knows the explicit details of mine and Sebastian’s relationship. I plan on keeping it that way.

  “Anyway!” she releases my hand and claps her own. “Fancy a trip to Harvey Nic’s?”

  My shoulders drop despondently. I would love nothing more, but I can’t. And I’m pissed off about it, because what I have to do is far less exhilarating. Far, far less. “I’ve been summoned by my father.” I give Heather my Elvis lip, which is more commonly known as a curled lip. “Actually, I’ve been summoned by his personal assistant, but who cares how I received the order. It came, so I’m going.”

  Her face screws up. “Is he going to try to force you into dating some boring business associate again?”

  My face matches Heather’s at the thought of Dad’s idea of a match made in heaven for me. Rich. They’re always rich. And deadly boring.

  I stand and collect my bags, leaning down to give Heather a kiss on the cheek. “I’d rather push hot pokers into my eyes. Want a lift anywhere?”

  She pushes her cheek into
my lips. “No, Saffron’s meeting me. She needs to find an outfit for her birthday.”

  I grumble my annoyance, wishing I could join them, and head off toward the NCP down the street to collect my C63. The entire journey to Logan Tower is spent trying desperately to conjure up some strength to get me through my “meeting” with my father.

  Which basically means that my strong head is screwed on tightly.

  Chapter 3

  JAKE

  Breaching the glass doors of Logan Tower, I’m not surprised to find an X-ray machine and baggage scanner in the lobby. But if they think that’s going to stop me from getting a weapon in the place, they’re stupid.

 
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