Tell It Like It Is, страница 1
Table of Contents
Kudos for Stanalei Fletcher
Tell It Like It Is
Notes from the Author
A word about the author…
Thank you for purchasing this publication of The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
Taking the opportunity
to inspect her, Kane realized she wasn’t an old lady at all. The full skirt of her black cocktail dress draped over her knees and gave the illusion of being demure. But with her hands pulled behind her back, the outline of small breasts jutted temptingly forward, and the deeply scooped neckline rising from a high waistline revealed an expanse of ivory skin. Toned shoulders peeked through the sheer fluttery sleeves that barely reached her elbows. Her eyes seemed too large in the unlined smoothness of her heart-shaped face. He tried to put her appearance in context with his first impression. The silvery-white hair had thrown him off. There was no way she was the age her hair color proclaimed.
Kudos for Stanalei Fletcher
2013 East Texas RWA Southern Heat—Finalist
2013 Utah RWA Great Beginnings—Finalist
2012 Utah RWA Heart of the West—Finalist
2009 Utah RWA Great Beginnings—Finalist
Tell It Like It Is
The Northstar Security Series, Book 5
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Tell It Like It Is
COPYRIGHT © 2017 by Kim Finnegan
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art by Diana Carlile
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
PO Box 708
Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708
Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com
First Crimson Rose Edition, 2017
Print ISBN 978-1-5092-1793-9
Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-1794-6
The Northstar Security Series, Book 5
Published in the United States of America
This book is dedicated to the heroes who commit
their family time, their safety, and sometime their lives
in the service and protection
of ordinary citizens every day.
Thank you for your dedication and sacrifices.
A special thanks to ELF for her dedication and commitment to make each book better than the last.
As always, thanks to my critique partners; Steve, Tracie, Kent, Lyn, and Mary for their time and input.
And thank you to my readers for sticking with me during the Northstar Security series run. I hope you’ve enjoyed the Northstar Security team as much as I have.
“Wasn’t the awards reception lovely, Byron?” Rosalee Kane turned to her companion and long-time friend, Byron O’Neal. Subtle lighting from the upscale New York hotel corridor cast a flattering glow on his graying light brown hair and still ruggedly handsome face. At seventy-seven, she wasn’t too old to flirt, and Byron was gentleman enough to show he didn’t mind. “I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to have you take time from your busy schedule and escort me tonight.”
“I’m glad you called.” Byron’s deep voice was comforting. “I’ve had a wonderful time. Besides, you’re right to take the threats seriously and request some protection while you’re away from home.”
Rosalee sighed. The night had been long, the food rich, drinks plentiful, and the accolades…well, they’d been embarrassing. Thanks to Byron’s presence, it’d been nice to not worry about the ugly threats plaguing her these past couple of months.
She’d received fan mail and threats most of her adult life. That was routine for a bestselling author. Byron, bless his heart, had heard the undercurrent of fear in her request for him to join her at tonight’s awards dinner. He dropped everything and flew from Washington, D.C. to attend.
“Nelson’s convinced this latest round of ugliness is just another crazed fan with a harmless obsession.” She’d played the frail-old-woman card to convince her great-nephew, a special agent in the FBI, she needed protection, but to no avail. “Don’t get me wrong, he is worried about me—he just can’t take a case to the FBI without definitive evidence that I’m truly in danger.”
“Northstar doesn’t need definitive evidence. If you feel threatened, that’s good enough for me.” Byron patted her hand resting in the crook of his arm. “And I don’t need an excuse to escort a beautiful woman to dinner.”
Rosalee touched Byron’s arm, her bracelets jingling in the quiet corridor. “If I didn’t know how much you still loved your wife, God rest her soul, I’d make a play on that flattery.”
Byron took her fingers and pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. “You’ve always been a temptress, Rosalee.”
A girlish thrill shivered down her spine. “You, dear boy, are a devil.” She giggled. Giggled! When was the last time she felt this giddy and relaxed? She reined in the ponies prancing about her brain, opened her clutch, and took out her room card. She could easily afford a suite, but liked the simplicity of a smaller room when traveling.
“Allow me.” Byron took the card and slid it in the lock until the green light flashed. He opened the door, blocking her entry. “Let me do the job I came to do.”
He preceded her inside, but she refused to wait in the hall like some entitled dame.
Byron took three steps into the small entryway and froze.
She bumped into his back. “Byron?”
“Turn around, Rosalee.” His voice held a sharp-edged command. He stopped her from moving forward with an outstretched arm. “Don’t come any farther.”
Too late. She peered past him into the room.
Light from an overturned lamp shadowed the walls with harsh angles. Her entire wardrobe was strewn over the floor, bedding was tossed, and dresser drawers tipped upside down on the carpet. It looked as though a tornado had ripped through her room.
She gasped and the scent filled her nostrils. Death.
At first, the heap on the floor looked like clothing. Then she spied the tangle of dark hair splayed over blood-soaked carpet. “No! Oh dear. No!”
Justine Shelby hated changing time zones almost as much as she hated flying.
The trip east had begun in Los Angeles late the previous night after a call from Byron O’Neal, the director of Northstar Security Firm, telling her to be on the next flight to Dulles International. Her boss had arrang
The cold December Washington, D.C. fog permeated her skin, wrapping a somber haze around her as she hurried toward the single-story cinderblock building. She glanced at her watch again. 09:06 a.m., local time.
Although it was unavoidable, her heart pounded at the prospect of walking in late. She was a field agent. Trained to be precise, and on time. She often joked she’d be early for her own funeral—a feat that wouldn’t be all that surprising considering she routinely put her life on the line with each assignment.
She shifted her small duffel to the other shoulder and passed through the front doors while digging the security badge out of the back pocket of her jeans.
Hicks, the front desk guard, looked up as she entered, then he checked the clock on the wall. “A bit late, eh, Shelby?”
“I know, I know. Don’t start on me.” She dropped her duffel on the floor in front of the counter. “Or next time I’m in town, I won’t bring any of those sand dollars your wife likes so much.” It took a few months after joining Northstar for her and the retired highway patrolman to get past their mutual reservations. Not an easy task, especially after she moved to the opposite coast. A shared love of the ocean eventually broke the ice. “My connecting flight was delayed.”
He lifted a thumb and finger to his lips and made a zipping motion.
She eyed him suspiciously. “That was too easy.” Hicks usually jumped on any agent for being late.
He took her badge and swiped it through the infrared scanner. “Wife wants to make some fancy art thingy with more of those sand dollars.” He returned her badge and dropped a hand below the desk to unlock the passage to the firm’s inner sanctum. “Pays to keep her happy and the home front peaceful.”
Shelby nodded when she heard the buzzer release the inner door lock. “Then for the sake of home-front peace, I’ll send a shipment first chance I get after this assignment.” She picked up her duffel and crossed through the entry.
“Double my last order, and you can be late next time, too,” he called after her.
Not if I can help it. The bulletproof glass doors latched behind her. Her gaze was drawn to the far wall and the firm’s mission statement in standout gold lettering, draped in sparkling red holiday garland:
Northstar—Guided By the Truth
Truth. There was nothing more important to her than truth—a constant she held onto every day.
She hurried past the cubicle maze on her right and veered into the hallway toward the conference room. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee that wafted from the break room at the end of the hall eased her somber mood. It had been almost six months since she’d last roamed these halls, but it was still as close to home as any place she’d ever been.
The temptation to abandon all discipline and head straight for the brew was a sure sign of no sleep. She paused near the conference room door, drew a deep breath, held it for a five count, and released it through pursed lips. Not caffeine, but the rush of oxygen helped.
Behind her, another door opened. She turned and her bag swung wide, knocking a file out of Allison Cartland’s hand.
“Shelby!” A very pregnant Allison bent to retrieve the folder.
Shelby picked it up first and held it out. “Sorry.”
“Keep it.” Allison gestured at the folder. “It’s for you. I thought you were already inside.”
“Just arrived.” Shelby glanced up at the leggy brunette who presided over the Northstar’s lab as cyber-queen. With six inches on her own five-four, Shelby had to look up. “Getting to Dulles took a minor miracle.” She grimaced and tilted her head at the closed door. “Do you know what’s so urgent?”
“That.” Allison pointed at the file.
Since Shelby was already late, she might as well be prepared. She juggled her bag to a more comfortable position and opened the folder. Gifted with an eidetic memory, she skimmed the first couple of pages.
She’d drawn a bodyguard assignment for Ms. Rosalee Kane, a bestselling author from Long Beach, CA. If the author was in D.C., it explained why Shelby had been flown out in the middle of the night—probably to escort the author home soon.
She read further. Northstar would provide twenty-four/seven protection for the next week. Another agent, not yet assigned, would work the threat angle with the police.
Teamwork was standard operating procedure on all personal protection cases. After joining the firm, Shelby’s challenge was to get used to working on a team, but it became easier with each assignment. She wondered who her partner would be. With the approaching holiday, some agents were already off-duty.
“Let’s go in.” Allison tilted her head toward the conference room. “Byron’s waiting.”
“Sure.” Shelby nodded and continued to read the second paragraph. “Is this a joke?” The bio must be wrong. “What’s the point of a death threat on a seventy-seven-year old? If the bad guys wait long enough, she’ll die of old age.” The moment the words left her lips, hair on the back of her neck prickled.
Shelby turned. Allison’s hand was still on the handle of the now-open conference room door—shock on her pretty face. Inside the room, three people seated around a gleaming cherry wood table stared at Shelby with varying degrees of incredulity.
She winced and bit back an expletive. What had possessed O’Neal to think she had the tact to protect a gentlewoman on the frail end of the age scale? Her usual assignments entailed celebrity security—minimal personal interaction that required an abrasive approach to keep the paparazzi and crazies at bay. If Shelby had a middle name, “abrasive” would be it.
Allison leaned over. “Sorry,” she whispered. “Opened the door too soon.”
“Not your fault,” Shelby whispered back. Allison routinely offered suggestions to Shelby about keeping her impulsive tongue in check. Too bad the advice hadn’t connected as well as Allison’s right hook during their sparring matches when Shelby first trained as an agent. Moistening dry lips, Shelby anticipated the crow she was about to eat, and entered the room.
Byron O’Neal stood at the head of the table, long fingers splayed on the polished cherry wood. His imperturbable face rarely gave away his thoughts. Yet his mouth thinned to a bloodless line as he straightened to his full six-foot height. Even at sixty-plus years, the man’s intimidation filled a room.
Shelby’s skin chilled. Yeah, she’d crossed the line, all right. Only time would tell just how far and what penance she’d pay to get back in the director’s good graces. Sometimes, she wondered whatever possessed him to hire her. Even though her qualifications had enticed Northstar’s director to seek her out, she realized she stretched the boss-man’s patience.
Allison closed the door and crossed to a chair at the table as Shelby glanced at the room’s other occupants. Riley O’Neal, the director’s son, sat at his father’s left. When Byron retired—a day so far into the future, no one even spoke of it—Riley would take over Northstar’s reins. Until that day, he enjoyed the freedom of not riding a desk.
Shelby noted faint amusement on his rugged features. He coughed to cover his smile, then turned serious when his father speared him with a look that would send little children scurrying to their mothers. She felt a measure of satisfaction knowing the younger O’Neal wasn’t immune to his father’s wrath either.
She glanced at the person in the chair next to Riley. Heat crept up her neck. She’d never met this woman, yet recognized her from the eight-by-ten glossy fastened inside the case folder. The woman in the photo hadn’t looked a day over fifty. In person, without the benefit of an airbrush, Ms. Rosalee Kane appeared closer to her true age.
No condemnation reflected in Ms. Kane’s expression, but Shelby still squirmed under her assessing gaze. There was undoubtedly very little this woman missed.
O’Neal cleared his throat, his features mellowing as he addressed their client. “Rosalee, this is Justine Shelby.” He cocked an eyebrow in her direction. “Your bodyguard.” He wave
Shelby swallowed. Message received—loud and clear. She dropped her duffel to the floor and slid onto the seat, wishing she could rewind the last few minutes. “I’m pleased to meet you, ma’am. I’m sorry you overheard that remark.” She looked Ms. Kane directly in the eyes. Sometimes it wasn’t easy guarding celebrities, but respect was a Northstar hallmark.
Ms. Kane acknowledged Shelby with a tilt of her head. “You’re not apologizing for what you said.”
“I…” Shelby’s earlier comment was opinionated and rude. But it wasn’t dishonest.
“Shelby.” O’Neal scowled. “I suggest—”
Ms. Kane held up a long-fingered hand weighted with enough bling to pay Shelby’s salary for three months. Thin gold bracelets jangled in the charged silence.
O’Neal clamped his mouth shut.
Shelby had never seen anyone cut off the director. She took a closer look at the author.
Ms. Kane leaned forward. The reflective light in the conference room gave her stylish white hair an angelic glow and softened her angular features. However, the wicked gleam in her eyes was anything but saintly. “You and I are going to have an interesting couple of weeks.” She settled back in her seat, her gaze never leaving Shelby’s face. “Provided I live that long, of course.”
“Yes, ma’am—two weeks?” Shelby flipped open the file and glanced at the details again. The assignment dates definitely stated seven days. Ms. Kane must have misspoken.
“Part of my visit to the east coast is because I’m late with my book.” Ms. Kane shrugged an elegant shoulder. “The publisher generously extended the deadline until the end of December, and Byron agreed to work with my schedule.”
Shelby mentally backpedaled. She couldn’t spend the next fourteen days on this assignment. O’Neal had already approved her vacation the week between Christmas and New Year’s. She’d promised the administrator at the children’s home she’d be there to help through the holiday.
She glared at her boss. “Sir—”