“Hey, Trouble,” she said to the goat who’d save Danny Larson’s life. “Want some company?”
The animal bleated her response.
Hannah set up a gravity chair under a shade tree next to the pen. Prince, her black lab, was leashed nearby and lying in the grass out of the hot August sun.
She sat down and reclined back. Her body ached from all the chores she’d done today. Danny Larson, her former farmhand, was unable to help because he was recuperating from his injury. Aloud she said, “Because he was shot by a rogue firefighter in cahoots with the mob. I lead a crazy life.”
Prince barked at her words, then settled down to sleep.
Would her life, her family’s lives, ever return to normal? She thought about how her sister Sasha and Danny had been brought together by the incidents two weeks ago. They were getting married this Saturday.
But would Hannah be able to participate if she didn’t have a farmhand to do chores? Was she going to have to ask the co-op for even more help and depend on neighbors again like had she injured her arm? Or just miss some of the pre-wedding events at the end of the week?
She didn’t know how long she’d been snoozing when she heard Prince bark again. Then, “I never reckoned I’d see Hannah Manwaring takin’ lazy naps in the afternoon.”
The husky voice made her eyes fly open. Slowly, she righted the chair so she was seated. She stared up at Zeke Carter in silence, at the man who broke her heart.
“Well, darlin’,” he added, his Southern accent thicker now, “I never expected I’d to see you speechless, either.”
Prince approached her, but stayed at her feet, remarkably subdued in a stranger’s presence. Hannah managed to stand; the man still towered over her. She folded her arms across her waist. “What the hell are you doing here, Zeke?”
“Now that’s a story.”
Dressed in navy pants and a navy silk T-shirt, his muscles and fit physique were on perfect display. His blond hair was a little longer, and those damn blue eyes were still the color of a lagoon. But he jammed his hands on his pockets, always a tell-tale sign he was nervous. Huh!
“I’ve been thinkin’ about you, Hannah. I heard through the Secret Service grapevine what happened with the mob. How you could have been…hurt or worse.” His voice got hoarse on the last word.
“As you can see, I’m fine and dandy.” Her sarcastic tone was armor against him.
“You look real fine. Fifteen years put some weight on you.”
He used to worry that she was too skinny. And before she turned eighteen, he’d called her squirt. “That’s none of your business.”
His expression turned bleak. “I know. I gave up that right.”
“You did. And I’ve forgotten all about you.”
“Yes. Go away. I won’t believe anything you say. What’s more, I don’t care.
“Han, I retired from the Secret Service.”
“The last person I guarded got hooked into a scandal that made protecting her near impossible. And she was guilty to boot.”
“Senator Akins. I read about it online. I didn’t know you were guarding her.”
“I got twenty years in anyway, so it was time.”
It hadn’t been time when he ditched her after a year-long relationship. “I’m shocked. But truly, Zeke, I don’t care. Leave me alone.”
He glanced at his watch, a fancier one than what he used to wear. “I have an appointment in town in an hour. But I’d like to talk afterward.”
“Fuck talking. Just get out of here and don’t bother me again.”
“I will, until I meet with Rockford’s mayor today. Then I’ll be back.”
Don’t ask Hannah. Don’t ask. “Why are you meeting with her?”
“I’ve applied for a job as her part of her security.”
“You said you’d never do private protection.”
“I said a lot of things that turned out to be stupid. Really stupid.”
“I. Don’t. Care.”
“I’m comin’ back.”
“Why, Zeke?” She hated the pleading tone of her voice.
Her raised that sculpted chin. “Because I miss you, sweetheart. And I want you in my life again.”
Zeke adjusted the gray sports coat he’d thrown on for this interview and took the chair offered. “Hello, Madam Mayor.”
“Hello, Mr. Carter.”
Reagan Rothchild sat behind a huge oak desk and remained unsmiling. She was an attractive woman with auburn hair pulled back into a bun and understated makeup. “I’ve read your application. Have you checked the list of the responsibilities of a mayor of this size city? I sent it out to the applicants.”
Her back was pin-straight. “I’ve been starting these interviews with questions from the candidates.” She arched a perfectly shaped brow. Zeke was used to noting everything about people.
“Why do you need a bodyguard?”
“Vanessa Jordan, the last mayor who became our state senator, had some issues with harassment. Before she left office, she put into place money for Rockford’s mayor to employ bodyguards. And the mob activity in town was a big part of my decision. A kingpin was killed.”
He waited. This wasn’t the whole story.
“Also, I’m the daughter of a very wealthy businessman. He’s had death threats.”
Her father headed a medical pharmaceutical company that has controversial practices. “Some say he’s cut-throat and indifferent to who he hurts.
“Some say that, yes.”
“Do you have any enemies?”
“Not enemies exactly. A reporter for the Rockford Sentinel seems to call me out a lot. He doesn’t like me or my policies.”
Now that was one thing Zeke didn’t know. But he’d done his homework. When Vanessa Jordan had left in the middle of her term to take a position of state senator, the person she picked to replace her had health issues and didn’t run for the permanent job. Ms. Rothchild did and was elected by a big margin.
“Go ahead and ask more questions.”
“Was your divorce amicable?”
“Yes. We just drifted apart.”
“What would be the scope of my responsibilities?”
“You’d guard me when I’m at work. I have a driver who takes me home and picks me up in the morning. I live at the mayor’s estate, which is well protected with electric gates.”
“Why the expression?”
“If I was in charge of your security, your bodyguard would pick you up and take you home then pick you up in the morning.”
“Those are particularly vulnerable times. Car accidents happen all the time. You need a driver who’s trained in evasive maneuvers.”
“And you have been, of course, in the Secret Service.”
“Yes, ma’am. And like that protection, you need a vehicle equipped with impenetrable tires, armored siding and bulletproof windows.”
“The windows on the mayor’s car are bulletproof. The other two we don’t have.”
“Easy job to put on tires and insert armored panels in the vehicle.”
“There’s no budget for that.”
He stared at her. She had family money coming out the wazoo.
“But I’ll consider your suggestions. More questions.”
“How many people have you interviewed?”
“Three men and a woman.”
“Were they good?”
“Yes, all of them.”
“Did they make any comments about your car? About drivin’ you home and pickin’ you up?”
He rattled off other things they should have queried.
“Only one asked about any of those.”
“Let me guess, the woman.”
The corners of a very lovely mouth turned up. “Yes.”
“How are you leaning?”
“I was leaning toward her. Until your application came across my desk.”
“Does she have Secret Service training and twenty years on the job like I do?”
“No, Mr. Carter. She doesn’t. She was a former police officer, though.”
He moved to the edge the chair. “I think you have an easy choice.”
“You’re very confident.”
“I wouldn’t want a bodyguard who isn’t. Would you?”
“No. Let me ask you a few more things. I don’t yet understand why you retired from the Secret Service.”
“There was a scandal involving my last protectee. It was a mess that I didn’t want to be in.”
“You left willingly?”
“Oh, yeah, I got a commendation from the President if you’d like to see it.”
“Yes, bring it in, but I’m sure you wouldn’t be telling me this if you weren’t above board.”
“Why do you want this job and not something in D.C.?”
Because Hannah’s here. “First off, I have friends here. And my parents are only three hours away. Second, I’ve had enough of Washington. Enough of the all-consuming life of an agent. Being dog-tired every night when I got home. No personal life to speak of. Too much scandal. A small town appealed to me and a job that isn’t twenty-four hours. Time off will have to be worked into the schedule.” He took in a breath before he told her something that could lose him this job. “I’m opening a security business in downtown Rockford. I already applied for my license and am going to look at a shop on Main Street to rent.”
Furrows marred her brow. “How will that affect my protection?”
“It shouldn’t. I have lots to do before the business can even open.”
“How long will you commit to me?”
“A year. I thought we’d reassess then.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
He nodded. “Understandable. One more thing, you need a main bodyguard to be with you during your work days, then drive you home pick you up in the morning. You should hire a parttime person to be with you for evening commitments and on my days off, which I prefer to be weekends. Maybe the female job applicant would consider those duties.”
She watched him through shrewd hazel eyes. “All right, Mr. Carter, the job’s yours. If we can agree on one more thing.”
“If you want this position, you’ll have to sign a non-disclosure agreement saying anything I do, anywhere I go, and with whom, is confidential. And before you agree, know that I’ll sue you if you break it.”
“I’ll sign that. First, I have integrity, so I wouldn’t go back on my word. And I was very good keeping information about the U.S. president and his family to myself. So you should feel secure after I sign it.”
She picked up papers in front of her. “Here’s the agreement. Take it to a lawyer if you want, but have it signed when we next meet before you start on Monday.”
“Then it’s time to call me Zeke.”
“Call me Reagan.”
After he left, Hannah couldn’t get Zeke out of her mind. And it was way too hot in late August to go running; even a walk outside wouldn’t cut it. Instead, she brought Prince inside and settled him on the porch, then headed down the steps to her basement where it was blessedly cool. Half of space had been converted to a canning and freezing operation and a spot to pasteurize Trouble’s milk. She by-passed the refrigerators, the sink, the small stove and several counters and made her way to the far corner where she’d set up a treadmill. Hannah had to stay in shape, and she used the machine especially during the winter for aerobic exercise. She’d developed plenty of muscles and strength working the land in the other three seasons.
She hopped on. Began to walk slowly. Accelerated wisely. When she reached her top pace, she let her mind wander to what had happened between her and Zeke in the past…
Hannah walked into her apartment after finishing a wicked day at the construction site where she was interning. She glanced at the clock across the room. Zeke was due here in fifteen minutes. She darted to the shower, soaped up quickly, and was dry enough to dress, though her hair was still wet when he came inside. He set his key on the table.
“Hi, darlin’.” She loved when he called her that. She crossed to him on bare feet, went up on tiptoes to kiss him. He still smelled like shaving cream.
But he eased her back.
She frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“We usually go in there…” she angled her head to the bedroom “…as soon as you can get here.” Their time together was precious.
She could tell he wanted to but he said, “No.” He crossed the room and dropped down on the couch. Held out his hand. “Come’re, babe.”
She sat beside him.
The fact that he took deep breath didn’t ease the fear curdling in her belly. “I’m sorry, Han, but we have to cut this off.”
“This as in?”
“Our relationship. It’s gone on too long, anyway.”
“Only a year.”
“It should never have happened.”
“So you said 365 days ago.”
One night, when the senior agent guarding her was called in for something, he’d stepped up and driven Hanna home from work. On a lark, went inside with her.
“I gave into my feelings against my better judgement when you turned eighteen.”
“I know that’s true. But after a year? You should be over those qualms by now.”
“I was…until yesterday.”
“What happened yesterday?”
“The head of the Secret Service called me in.”
“Oh, my God, does he know?”
“No. He wanted to go over my performance.”
“Zeke, spit it out. This is killing me.”
“He offered me another position. It’s not much of an advance, but it puts me in line for the PPD. I have to work my way up through the VPPD but I could guard your father in his last year. He wants me to start in the program now.”
She sat there staring at him. Then, “Why do we have to breakup? We can go on like this and you can advance.”
“First, it’s not fair to you, to hide here like we’ve been doin’.”
“I went into this with open-eyes, Zeke.”
“Did you? You were only seventeen when you started flirting with me.”
“Old enough to know what I wanted. When I turned eighteen, I moved out of the White House and got this place so we could be together. I don’t mind hiding our relationship now, if we can eventually go out in the open.”
“Things have changed. I have to concentrate on my job.”
“You’ve been doing that.”
He angled his body more toward her. “How do you see our relationship shaking out, Hannah?”
“I was hoping for a future with you. You said you wanted that, too.”
“Not anymore. If we reveal what we’ve been doing, there’ll be a scandal. And scandals won’t get me to the PPD, especially with your father. That’s always been my goal.”
“I know. That was okay by me.”
“Look, this is a done deal, honey. We have to be over.”
She swallowed hard, and felt her eyes moisten. “You don’t want me anymore?” She hated that she sounded like a love-sick puppy.
He stared hard at her. “No.”
She shook her head. “You’re lying. I can see it in your eyes. Please, don’t do this to us. I love you. I can make this work for us.”
He shook his head and stood. “Goodbye, Hannah. You’ll have a good life without me…”
The timer she set on the treadmill went off, startling her out of the memory. As she slowed down, she thought of the aftermath of his announcement. The crying, the gut-sick hurting, the immobility of it all. It was her sisters who got her through a funk so deep it scared her.
“No way I’m giving you another chance to devastate me, Zeke Carter. No way.”