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Justify Me, Page 2

J. Kenner

  "Have you talked with Hunter?"

  "Ryan Hunter? Not about this, and I won't. He's got his hands full with something, and I don't want him to feel obligated to cover for a friend."

  Riley scowled, thinking of his early conversation with Hunter. "What's he chasing?"

  "Who knows? But I figure a man like Damien Stark gets a lot of threats. And you know damn well that Ryan's going to take each and every one of them seriously."

  It was a good point. Suddenly Hunter's cushy job for the billionaire seemed a little less cushy.

  "I have a few names I could give you. Does Laine have any personality preferences for her security detail?" Most of the celebrity wives he'd dealt with preferred a bodyguard to fade into the background like wallpaper. But Sugar Laine was not most celebrity wives. She had a sweetness and charm about her that set her apart from the crowd.

  Lyle's brow furrowed in confusion. "Sugar?" he asked. Lyle was the only one who called Sugar by her given name. Everyone else called her by her surname, Laine. "Oh, no. She's going with me on the tour."

  "Oh." Honestly, Riley should have assumed as much. "Then who are you protecting?"

  "Natasha," Lyle said, the name sinking like a stone in Riley's stomach. "A couple of things have happened, and I just want to play it safe."


  Riley didn't bother to ask for details. If Lyle was worried, then so was he. Without even being aware he'd made a decision, he snapped his fingers for the driver's attention, then pointed toward the next exit. As the car veered across three lanes of traffic, Riley clutched the door handle. Not for safety, but because otherwise he'd have put his fist through the glass out of worry for Tasha. "Are you at your office? I'm on my way."

  "What? Why--"

  "I'm staying," Riley said in the kind of voice that brooked no argument. "I'll watch out for Natasha."

  Chapter Two

  "You're sure you don't mind?" Allison McCray asks. Allison McCray Kealing, I remind myself, though it's still hard to get used to. Aly is my oldest friend, and she and I bonded over twenty-five years ago in nursery school, both at the tender age of three.

  "Sweetie, you're pregnant and your husband's out of town. I'll bring you whatever you want." I reach up to adjust the earpiece that is perpetually attached to my head while I'm at work. "Just give me the list."

  "You're a doll. I'm not technically on bedrest, but the doctor told me I should stay in bed as much as possible these last three weeks. And of course Ben translates that into a carved-in-stone edict. You know how he is."

  The truth is, I don't know how he is. Not really. An attorney, Allison had temporarily moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan two years ago because of some huge corporate case that was eating her life. The case finally settled, and when she came back, she was not only married, but two months pregnant.

  Which means that I've only known Ben for the last six months, and during that time my boss's exploding career has been keeping me crazy busy. All I know is that he works on the business side of one of the networks, that he dotes on Aly, and that she's convinced he hung the moon. For the time being, that's good enough for me.

  "Got it," I say, after scribbling down the list she rattles off to me, although it's so short I don't know why I bothered. "No ice cream? No pickles?"

  "Don't tease the pregnant woman," she warns. "It's like poking a bear. And you might as well throw in some of those fudge brownie bites. The ones in the bakery section."

  Considering every item on her list is from the bakery section, the cookie aisle, or the frozen dessert section, I'm thinking that Little Bit is going to share her momma's sweet tooth.

  "Should I grab some Peanut Butter M&Ms at the checkout stand?" I ask.

  "Oh, Natasha, this is why we're besties."

  I laugh. "Who knew friendship could be bought with chocolate?"

  "Ha! And seriously, thanks. Just let yourself in when you get here. I'm in the bedroom with my headphones on watching my way through the entire Marvel catalog. Just don't tell my boss. I'm supposed to be reviewing depositions since I'm not technically on maternity leave yet."

  "Your secret's safe with me." I check the time and do a quick calculation. "I've probably got another three hours of work here. Lyle's heading to London tomorrow to start the publicity tour for M. Sterious, and I'm buried in checklists."

  "Tell him congratulations. I'm all caught up with the Blue Zenith films. I can't wait to see him as M. Sterious. The trailer looks amazing."

  "The movie's even better," I say before we end the call. Then I drop my phone on the desk and roll my chair to the bookcase so I can grab one of the rough cut DVDs. I know Lyle won't mind if I give my friend an advance peek, but just to be safe, I lever myself out of the chair, grab my portfolio, and cross the open area to the closed door of his private office.

  The condo was originally Lyle's residence, but he converted it to an office when he moved to Venice Beach. Now the entire living room/kitchen combination is my domain, and since we're on the thirtieth floor, my desk has a stunning view all the way to the Pacific. Can you say job perk?

  Even without the stellar view, I'd still love this office. Not only is the interior roomy and inviting, but as part of a high-end development in Century City, the building has great security. And that's something I've begun to appreciate lately.

  A lot.

  I shake my head, forcing the thoughts back into the dark little corners of my mind where I store all my unpleasant thoughts and memories. Yes, some creep has clearly taken a liking to me, but LA is a town full of creeps, and as Lyle's assistant, I'm bound to get some of the fallout from his merry band of groupies, right?

  Besides, one creepy postcard and an icky email does not a stalker make.

  At least that's what I keep telling myself.

  I rap on the door to Lyle's private office--formerly his bedroom--then enter when he calls back for me to come in. It's lined with bookshelves now and a large desk fills the space, along with two guest chairs that face the desk and a comfy couch tucked in front of one of the bookshelves.

  Usually, it's only Lyle in this room. But it's set up to be a comfortable meeting space, too.

  I stand in front of his desk, then hold up the DVD. "Okay if I give this to a friend who's a fan? Normally I wouldn't ask, but she's knocked up and on bedrest, so..."

  "Are you kidding? You should know you don't even need to ask."

  I do know, but I figure it's a good work policy to never take anything for granted.

  "Actually, hand it here," he says, grabbing a Sharpie off his desk. "All pregnant fans on bedrest get autographed DVDs."

  I laugh. That's another reason I love my job. Even though Lyle's a total A-lister, he's a great boss, without any of the typical celebrity ego and bullshit that often comes with the Hollywood package.

  Not that he doesn't have a dark side--he does, as pretty much the whole world recently discovered when he and Laine got caught up in the kind of scandal that keeps social media hopping. But at his core, he's one hundred percent solid, and one of the best guys I know.

  "So what can I help you with?" I ask as he signs the DVD. He gives me back the movie, then scans the desk before glancing up at me with a shrug, obviously realizing there wasn't a thing he needed to do at the office.

  My lips twitch. "I told you that you didn't need to come in today. I already sent everything you need to the house yesterday. And," I add with a nod to his computer, "you could have answered all those emails at home."

  He frowns, looking slightly abashed, and more than a little charming. It's that combination of farm boy looks and serious sex appeal that helped rocket him to the top.

  What I also notice is that he looks a little guilty, too.

  "Oh, no, you didn't," I say, dropping into one of the leather chairs opposite his desk. "Please tell me you didn't come all the way to the office just to keep an eye on me."

  "You know you can still change your mind and come on the tour."

  I slide my port
folio onto his desk before leaning back and crossing my arms. "One, the flight arrangements are already made. Two, half the studio PR department will be there to take care of you. Three, I have big plans for plowing through the insane pile of work I never seem to get to because my boss is so high maintenance."

  He rolls his eyes at that. Lyle is so not high maintenance.

  "Look," I continue, before he can grab control of the conversation, "it's really not a big deal. You're acting like I have some psycho stalker after me, but it was just a creepy postcard and an email." I congratulate myself on sounding convincing. Because yes, I am a bit wigged out. But I also know it's probably nothing. Even so, I'm not going to jog by myself after dark or do a hop-skip routine down an abandoned alley. I'll be smart, and I'll be fine.

  And the more I repeat that to myself, the more I believe it.

  Bottom line, Lyle is not altering his plans because of me. And I'm not altering mine because some jerk has put me on edge.

  "Just an email and a postcard? Did you forget that someone tagged the hood of your car?"

  I wave that away. There was no reason to believe that was personal. More likely some teens acting out. A conclusion I've told him at least half a dozen times.

  "Just do me a favor and stay here. The couch folds out, and it's comfortable."

  I roll my eyes. "I have a house in Studio City. Plus a cat I have to feed. I'll be fine."

  His phone chimes, indicating that someone is downstairs waiting to be buzzed in. More folks from studio publicity, I assume. "I'll meet them at the door," I say, as he presses the button to authorize them to enter the foyer and operate the elevator.

  "We're going to find a compromise," he says as I head out of the room. "I'm not leaving the country unless I'm certain my staff is safe."

  I pause long enough to glance over my shoulder at him. "You've read too many action scripts." I see him roll his eyes as I head to the door. "I'm serious," I call out, because I don't want to admit that his concern is making me a little bit nervous. "I'm perfectly safe," I say as I start to open the door. "No one is going to hurt me."

  "They damn sure aren't," Riley Blade says as I pull back the door to reveal him leaning against the frame, his arms crossed over his broad chest and his eyes lost behind the kind of dark glasses that hide a man's secrets. "Not on my watch."

  He smiles, wide and slow, then tugs the glasses down with the tip of his finger to reveal gold-flecked brown eyes that he uses to rake his gaze down my body and then back up again, leaving my skin unexpectedly--and unwillingly--humming.

  "Don't worry, Tasha," he says when his eyes meet mine. "I promise I'll keep you safe."

  Chapter Three

  Within seconds, Riley has stepped over the threshold, and Lyle has emerged from his office.

  As for me, I've been standing like an idiot, my feet practically glued to the floor as my mind whirs through the situation, finally arriving at one painful, unpleasant, inescapable conclusion--my boss sold me out.

  Son of a bitch.

  Furious, I whirl toward Lyle, only to find myself that much closer to Riley, which really wasn't my intent. The man exudes a sensual kind of heat that's hard to ignore--and believe me, I'm trying. I neither want nor need Riley Blade in my life, and I really don't understand what the hell he's doing here and why he's talking like he already knows my situation.

  Except, of course, I do know, which takes me straight back to that whole my boss sold me out analysis.

  "Seriously?" I snap at Lyle, who holds his hands up in self-defense as he starts to talk, presumably intending to calm me down.

  "Now, just a second, Tasha," Riley says, but that's as far as he gets because I round on him, my throat full of tears and my eyes burning from the strain of not letting them escape.

  "Do not call me that. Dammit, Riley, you of all people should know not to call me that."

  I turn away, because if I look at him I know I'll burst into tears, and as I do, I see Lyle's baffled expression.

  Oddly, that gives me comfort. It means that Riley Blade kept my secret. I'd never really doubted that he would. I've known Riley since I was twenty-two, and even though I've made it perfectly clear that I'm not interested in dating him, that doesn't mean that I don't trust him.

  But even so, it's nice to know I was right.

  "Okay, hold up," Lyle says. "What do you mean, Riley of all people? You two barely spoke twelve words to each other the entire time Riley was consulting." What he doesn't add is that those twelve words mostly consisted of me saying no to his repeated advances.

  I look between the two men, both of whom I respect, and feel my shoulders go slack as the fight drains out of me. "Dammit, Lyle. Why'd you pull Blade into this?"

  "He didn't," Riley says gently. "He called to ask me to recommend a bodyguard. That's all."

  I scowl at him. "Then recommend somebody, dammit."

  "Come on, Natasha," he says. "You know what an arrogant son-of-a-bitch I am. Do you really think there's someone in this town I trust more than me?"

  The answer, of course, is no.

  I run a finger through my hair, tucking one long strand behind my ear in frustration.

  "Let's sit," Lyle says. "We'll bring Riley up to speed, and then we'll figure out what to do next. And if you want to take pity on me, you can explain to me why you two know each other a hell of a lot better than I thought you did."

  "My dad and Riley were part of the same FBI SWAT team," I explain grudgingly once we're settled. I'm on one section of the L-shaped sofa, and I slip my feet out of my heels and tuck them up under me, then pull a pillow into my lap, as if somehow that will keep me safe. Then I draw a breath and look down, my focus on the geometric pattern of the area rug. "I don't--The memories," I say, switching gears. "It's not a time I like to think about."

  I glance up to see Lyle nod from where he sits in an Eames chair, his back against the buttery leather. He never knew my father, but I told Lyle about my dad one long night when he was shooting The Price of Ransom, a true crime movie about a horrific kidnapping. Since my father had been killed in the line of duty during a nightmarish raid in a human trafficking case, I'd been more than a little edgy during filming, and I'd shared more than I usually did with my boss. Lyle had been kind. He'd thanked me for sharing, told me that I'd helped him center the character, and then offered his condolences for my loss.

  That night, honestly, had been a turning point for me. Before, I'd liked my job. After that day, I knew my boss would have my loyalty forever.

  Now, Lyle looks over at Riley, who's sharing the sofa with me, albeit on the other section. His long, muscled legs are stretched out in front of him, and he's leaning back, as if he's completely at home. It's not until Lyle speaks that I remember just how well he and Riley know each other. "Didn't you leave the FBI for the private sector after the take-down of a human trafficking ring in East LA went south?" Lyle asks.

  Riley nods.

  To his credit, Lyle doesn't look at me. But he's a smart man; he knows there's history between me and Riley--and more than the basic fact that Riley and my father worked together. Lyle doesn't know the details, though. And he doesn't ask.

  Just one more reason to sing my boss's praises.

  As for him expecting Blade to babysit me...

  I shift on the sofa, my head tilted so that my eyes are fixed on Riley. "I don't need you to stay."


  "No," I assure him, then turn to Lyle. "Really. No."

  Riley sits up and leans forward, his elbows on his knees. "Dammit, Natasha, you know I'm good at what I do--and with all the work I've been doing with McKay-Taggart, I'm even better at the bodyguard gig than I was before. I can keep you safe. Don't be an idiot and turn down my offer."

  He aims those dark eyes at me, and I swallow. With that piercing gaze and his sexy swath of five-o'clock shadow over a strong, rugged jaw, the man really does ooze sensuality. More than that, though, he gives the impression of strength. Of solidity.

Of safety, pure and simple.

  And, yeah, some part of me wants to know that he has my back.

  I'm going to cave--I know it. I'm not stupid, and now that I've seen Riley again, up close and personal, I don't want Lyle to give in and hire me a rent-a-cop.

  I want Riley. I just don't want Riley.

  But I'm damn sure not going to admit it just yet. Do that, and I'll never manage to erase his smug expression.

  He says he wants the job? Fine. He can work to convince me. At least then we'll be on somewhat even footing.

  Not that I've ever felt like I'm on even ground around Riley. I'm far too attracted to the man, and always have been.

  I'll let Riley watch over me. But that's as far as things will go between us. I'll tell him the same thing I told him when he consulted with Lyle. No passes. No flirting. Business only, or else I'll shut it down and find my own damn bodyguard.

  I don't say a word, but he must have picked up on my acquiescence, because he looks between Lyle and me and then says, "So fill me in, and we can talk about the best approach."

  I meet Lyle's eyes, and when my cheeks start to heat with a rising blush, I nod, silently urging him to tell the story.

  "Matthew Holt's pushing me hard to sign on to a new project. A thriller with an erotic edge."

  "Nice," Riley says, his eyes cutting to me. I'm sure the look is simply a question mark--What does this have to do with Natasha? But to me it feels personal, as if he's sizing up my own erotic potential.

  I know that's ridiculous--more than that, I know that my reaction is fueled by the simple fact that I know where this story is heading--but I can't deny the sudden sense of awareness that floods my body, pooling most intensely at my breasts and between my thighs.

  I force my attention back to Lyle and keep it locked there.

  "The thing is, I really want to do the project--Holt's company, Hardline Entertainment, is doing some terrific work--but the script's not finished, so I'm hesitant to commit. But the screenwriter is willing to shoot me pages as she works for feedback, which is great. But if I'm going to be able to comment intelligently, I need to have a better sense of the world."

  "The world?"