The protector, p.8
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       The Protector, p.8

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  “Arsehole,” I mutter, swinging my door open and marching over. I rap on his window and it begins to lower, though he keeps his eyes on the screen of his phone. “Move,” I order curtly.

  “No,” he retorts simply. The window starts to rise, and I gape at him, not that he takes much notice of my affronted state.

  I beat the side of my fist on his window, and the glass comes down again, his attention still on his phone. “I have an eleven o’clock meeting with my agent,” I inform him as calm as can be. “I haven’t got time for this.”

  “Then I suggest you stop being difficult and get in.” The window lifts again, denying me the opportunity to reach in and strangle the bastard.

  I let out a frustrated yell and stomp over to my car, swiping my bag from the seat and slamming the door. I’ve never met such an infuriating man!

  Getting in his car, steam virtually bursting from my ears, I slam my back into the seat and grab my phone from my bag. Sharp pulls off without a word, and I dial my father. I can’t deal with this. It isn’t fair.

  “Camille.” Dad’s straight voice does nothing to settle me. It simply reminds me who he is and that my protests are going to get me nowhere on this occasion. But I still try.

  “Dad.” I aim for sweetness, locking back the sass that I’m sure he’s expecting. “As much as I appreciate your concern, I can’t have this bloke following me around. I have work to do. Meetings to go to. He’s getting in my way.”

  “Camille, I already told you that this is not up for discussion.”

  “Is this about Sebastian?” I ask. “Because I can assure you I won’t be seeing him ever again.”

  “This is not about Sebastian. This is about a threat I’m not comfortable with. Sharp stays until we find out who sent it.”


  “Camille, I haven’t got time for this.” He cuts me off, and my Elvis lip takes shape. “I’m in the middle of an important meeting. Sharp is staying. I’ll hear no more of it.” He hangs up, and I throw my phone into my bag, so fucking wound up!

  I’ve always defied my control-freak father. Always done what I want instead of what he wants. This is the first time ever that I really don’t have any choice, because unless I kill Sharp off, I’m not getting rid of him. I’m powerless. And I hate it.

  Glimpsing out the corner of my eye discreetly, I see his profile, his eyes trained on the road. He hasn’t even flinched while I’ve been talking about him like he isn’t here. That’s what I need to do. Pretend he isn’t here. No more lapsing from stable to annoyingly admiring him. No more sneak peeks at his broad chest or the evident power of his muscles. No more wondering about him. Not in any capacity. He looks across to me, and I quickly avert my eyes, mortified that I was doing all of those things just then and he caught me doing it. I definitely hear him chuckle lightly under his breath, and I flip him a scowl, the salt-and-pepper fleck at his temple holding my attention. “How old are you, anyway?” It just falls right out of my mouth without warning, mortifying me.

  “Thirty-five.” He turns an amused half-smile toward me. “You?”

  My scowl deepens. Yes, because he wouldn’t know that after reading up on me. I turn away, ignoring him.

  “Where’s your agent’s office?” he asks, as he turns out of my street the correct way, telling me he already knows exactly where he’s going. He’s trying to get me talking. So I keep my mouth shut, ignoring him again. He’s making my life miserable, and I intend on reciprocating. He’ll quit by the end of the day.

  * * *

  We pull up outside my agent Kerry’s office in Hatton Garden and I jump out, shutting the door behind me without a word. I spot Heather waiting outside for me and hurry over, ignoring her small smile when she obviously spots Sharp. She embraces me. “So how’s—”

  “Don’t ask,” I warn, breaking away and opening the door. I know he’s a few paces behind us as we take the stairs to the first floor, and when we walk into my agent’s office and her eyes widen, looking past us, I know I’m going to have to explain. Like I said before, it’s not like he can be ignored. “Short-term arrangement,” I say, approaching my agent’s desk and taking a seat.

  Heather lowers to the chair beside me. “Daddy’s been upsetting people again,” she quips.

  My agent laughs a little, not in the least bit surprised. “Good old Daddy.”

  “What do you have for us?” I ask, trying to focus on work—something I love and that will distract me from Sharp, who’s lingering somewhere behind.

  Kerry takes a seat and slides a file across the table. “You don’t mind if I go over a few other bits with Camille, do you?” she asks Heather.

  “Don’t mind me.” My friend waves a casual hand in the air and looks over her shoulder. “Sure I can find something to pass the time.”

  I smack Heather’s knee, and she shrugs, begrudgingly returning her attention to Kerry, who is transfixed past us again. I cough to snap her out of it. “Right!” Kerry shakes herself back into the meeting. “Levi’s is launching a new line, and want your legs in their jeans.”

  “Ohhh,” I muse, opening the file and browsing through, ignoring Heather, who’s turning again to ogle my bodyguard.

  “And Dior is launching a new miracle cream. You’re top of their list of blondes to do it.” Kerry winks, pointing to my face. “Clearest complexion in the industry.”

  Heather laughs, turning back around. “Does that matter? They’ll still airbrush the shit out of her.”

  Kerry pushes her fingers through her severe crop, shrugging off my friend’s comment. “Interested?”

  “Of course,” I chime. “What are the themes?” I place the file on her desk and watch as her eyes constantly flick past me, making me wonder what Jake’s doing behind me. Is Kerry blushing? My hard-ball agent who never displays a hint of emotion? I frown and crane my neck, peeking over my shoulder. He’s standing by the door, hands joined in front of him…looking fucking sinfully gorgeous. I swing back around to Kerry before I can let my greedy eyes relish the sight any longer. “Themes?” I prompt.

  Kerry’s eyes whip to mine. “Oh, yes, themes!” She’s all a-fluster, grappling at papers on her desk as Heather giggles beside me. This is a first. Kerry doesn’t get flustered either. I suppose the sight should be a comfort. It isn’t just me who finds the arrogant wanker attractive. “Here.” She picks up a piece of paper and reels off the brief. “Levi’s is going back to its roots. Ranch-theme, cowboy, hats and boots, that type of thing. Dior is a minimal headshot. Minimal makeup, expressionless; you know the score.”

  “Sounds good!” My mood is lifting, some new projects giving me the nudge I need.

  “Great. I’ll start the negotiations. Any requests?”

  “Yes,” Heather pipes up. “She wants a bowl full of orange Smarties and the room temperature at 19 degrees. Not a sniff over,” she deadpans, and I burst out laughing.

  Kerry looks up as she writes something down—something I know won’t be a record of what Heather’s just demanded. “You know I’d get it for you, right?”

  I smile, amused. “I know. But I don’t like Smarties and there will be robes to keep me warm.”

  “God, I love how easy you are to deal with.” Kerry goes back to her scribbling. “I’ll call you with the finer details.”

  “Perfect. Now tell us about the new potential investor,” I ask, not liking the cautious flick of Kerry’s eyes to mine at the mention. “What?”

  “Yes, what?” Heather sits forward.

  “Well.” Kerry coughs, stalling.

  “Kerry, just come out with it.”

  “They want to work with you, Camille. They really do. They love the idea of you fronting the campaign, and have even championed the idea of extending the range for all women of all shapes and sizes.”

  “But?” Heather and I ask in unison.

  “But you don’t get a say in the designs.” She bites her lip. “Or the fabrics. Or the accessories.”

  I deflate in my chai
r. “So basically they just want my face and body to sell a new line of clothes that’ll have our names on, but we have no input on…anything?”

  “Where do I feature in this arrangement?” Heather asks indignantly.

  “You don’t,” Kerry answers, to the point, leaving my friend wilting in her chair, hurt invading her pretty face. “Sorry, but it’s still a great opportunity, Camille. And they’re offering great money.” She pushes a file across her desk to me.

  I reach over and rub my friend’s arm as I give my agent a tired look. Does she really think I’ll go for this? “Kerry, it’ll be no different from the modeling I do day in, day out. And they want me to ditch my best friend and partner? We have hundreds of drawings, some great designs!”

  Her lips straighten, a little sympathy making its way onto her face. “Take a look at their offer.” She taps the file, and I take it on a roll of my eyes. “They’re keen.”

  I stand and collect my bag, stuffing the file inside carelessly before nudging my dazed friend from her injured trance. She gets up slowly. “Call me when you have the details on Levi’s and Dior.” I swivel, and my despondency deepens when I’m forced to confront Sharp. Our eyes lock for a few moments, but he’s the first to break our stare, opening the door for me. I mutter my thanks as I push Heather past him.

  “They don’t want me,” Heather mumbles, plodding down the stairs on heavy feet. “They want you, but they don’t want me.”

  “We’re a package deal,” I remind her. “This isn’t happening unless we’re both involved. I’m not doing this without you.”

  She turns and looks at me through glassy eyes. “Do you really mean that?”

  “Yes! Heather, you’re a genius dressmaker, and your eye for detail, textures, and contrasts are immense! I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else but you.”

  Not to mention that this girl has been with me through thick and thin. She was there, holding my hand through my darkest days. She never gave up on me. I owe her everything. The reason I’m standing here now is because Heather didn’t give up on me. I’ll never forget that. We’re a team, and no one will change that. No matter how much money they throw this way.

  I see her doubts drain from her body, and she launches herself into me. “Thank you.”

  I let her squeeze me, smiling. “What are you doing now?”

  “Having lunch with my mum. Want to join us?” She releases me and straightens herself out.

  I ponder her offer for a few moments, wondering if making Sharp endure that will be awful enough for him to want to quit. “No, but thanks for the offer.” I need something painstaking. Not for me. For Jake. I smile to myself. “Free tonight?”

  “You want to go out?”

  “I was thinking a girlie night? Wine, maybe a manicure while we eat crap and watch something girlie on TV?” Sharp will hate it. I’ll make sure of it. “We could draft more ideas, too.”

  “Love it!”

  “Be at mine for six?”

  “Fab!” She jumps into the road and flags a taxi. “See ya then!”

  I wave my good-bye and turn to see Sharp scowling, but not at me. He’s staring across the road. Wondering what has his acute attention, I follow his line of sight, but all I see are rows of vehicles parked on the street.

  “Wait there,” he orders curtly, striding into the road. He’s all tense, coiled and focused.

  “Jake, what’s…” My words fade when he breaks out into a light jog. I feel my brow bunch, perplexed. Then I see a white van pull out of a space and take off down the road fast.

  Jake’s jog breaks down until he comes to a stop, the van disappearing around a corner. He reaches for his pocket and turns back toward me, pacing over. “White van,” he says down the line. “Didn’t catch the plates or a face. Could be nothing.” He hangs up, and I stare up at him, bemused. “What?” he asks, tucking his phone back in his pocket.

  “It was just parked on the street.”

  “It made a pretty speedy getaway.”

  “So would I if I saw you prowling toward me.” I shake my head and round him, walking off. He’s being paranoid.

  I can feel him tracking me as I cross the road toward his Range Rover, but before I have the chance to pick up speed and put a more comfortable distance between us, I spot a familiar face and pull to a sharp stop. Sharp bumps into my back on a curse and I jolt forward. “Watch it!” I snap, tossing a scowl over my shoulder while vehemently ignoring the sizzle of electricity from our contact.

  He immediately backs up, his jaw twitching. But his eyes remain on mine. “Sorry.”

  I shoot my stare away, locating what had me stuttering to a halt in the first place. “TJ!” I yell, breaking into a run toward my brother.

  “Hey, little star!” He laughs as I crash into him, embracing my fierce hug. Funny, the nickname doesn’t annoy me as much when TJ uses it. It’s so good to see him! Our catch-ups are rare, mainly because Dad works him to the bone. Not that TJ is bothered too much by it. He relishes the trust my father puts in him, as well as the responsibility. He’s been nurtured by Father to succeed him in all things where business is concerned, but TJ isn’t nearly as ruthless with it.

  “What are you doing around here?”

  He peels me off him and gives my cheek a cheeky squeeze. “Just picked up my suit from the dry cleaners.” He holds up a suit bag. “Now I’m heading to meet Dad at his lawyer’s office.”

  I’m not surprised. That’s a weekly event for my brother and Dad. “Who’s suing him now?”

  “The fucking world!” He laughs. “How’s tricks, kiddo?”

  “Fine,” I answer quickly. TJ will know what’s going down. Dad shares everything with him. “Has he got a killing machine tailing you, too?”

  He jabs my shoulder lightly, then gets me in a headlock, roughing up my hair. “All right, Miss Funny Knickers.”

  “Hey!” I wriggle free, and as soon as I brush some escaped strands of hair from my face, I find I can no longer see my brother.

  Because Sharp has put his big body between us.

  He’s so close I have to tilt my head way back to look up at the back of his head. I catch the signs of muscles bunching beneath his black T-shirt on my way.

  “You are…?” he asks, full of suspicion and hostility.

  Seriously? Can this man be civil and warm toward anyone? And come to think of it, he should know damn well who TJ is. He must have seen pictures of him in the extensive background checks he’s likely done. And, come to think of it, he’s the spitting image of my father. Sharp’s being pathetic. He’s still worked up. Because of that van?

  Placing my hand on Sharp’s arm, I put some weight behind me and push him to the side. Or I try to. He doesn’t budge. Not even a miniuscule jolt from my effort. “This is my brother.” I sigh, moving to the side so I can see TJ again, since Sharp isn’t showing willingness to move.

  As expected, TJ’s eyes are quite alarmed. “So this is the killing machine, eh?” He lifts his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Sharp.”

  I’m pretty sure I hear a growl emanate from my bodyguard as he raises his hand. He has a death stare locked on my brother, who, being even shorter than me, has to step back or break his neck in order to see Sharp’s snarling face.

  “And you,” Sharp replies, short, sharp and with no sincerity behind it.

  TJ virtually yanks his hand free from Sharp’s fierce grip and tosses me a questioning look. I step forward, taking my brother’s arm. Him, I can move. TJ laughs nervously. “Dad wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t hire him because he liked him. What an arsehole!”

  We come to a stop and I hum, thoughtful, as I cast an eye over my shoulder. Jake’s scoping everywhere. It’s beginning to make me nervous.

  “Anyway,” TJ goes on, pulling me back round. His face is serious. I know what’s coming. “I’ve heard a certain someone is of out of rehab.”

  “Funny, I heard that, too.”

  “Camille,” he warns, drawing out my name tiredly. “
We’re just…”

  I hold my hand up to stop him. “I’m done with him.” I strain to say the words, not because they’re hard, but because I’m pissed off with having to repeat myself for the millionth time. My initial worry when Heather told me that Seb is back in town has been replaced with a ton of resolve. I don’t plan on bumping into him. Anyway, from what I’ve heard, he’ll be back in rehab before long.

  “Funny how the day Sebastian is released, Sharp’s hired to protect me.” I give TJ a high arch of my eyebrow. It’s an accusing arch.

  TJ mirrors it, except his is a warning arch. “I saw the threat, kiddo. We can’t be too careful with our little star.”

  “What did it say, anyway? And who sent it?”

  “What it said doesn’t matter. And if we knew who sent it, don’t you think something would be done about it?”

  I sigh, admitting defeat. I know I have no place in business, even if the business involves me. “You want a coffee?” I indicate the café across the road.

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