Excerpt: The Bodyguard and the Bride
Book 3: A Very Charming Wedding Novel
Ashley Moore’s hopes died the moment the music stopped.
Rack up another dud of a wedding.
The groomsman she’d been about to target with the dance request glanced her way and did that icky up-and-down sweep.
Can’t hide the grimace at the ridiculous peachy-orange mermaid bridesmaid dress, can you? Or the thirsty look, either. She pictured him, wide-eyed and tongue hanging out, panting heavily and dripping sweat smack-dab in the middle of relations—as her mother so kindly put it. Ash shook her head to clear it and hightailed it in the opposite direction.
The other groomsmen were out of the question: either married, dating, or a friend slash coworker slash the bride’s cousin. Not going down that bumpy road.
She didn’t want a man anyway. She wanted a job. A big, fat juicy contract to end all contracts and then she could retire from cray-cray once and for all. Now, if only she could find one and set her folks up for permanent retirement and herself on another path.
Two teensy-tiny steps taken in the god-awful gown and she slammed into a humongous chest, and then bounced back. “What the hel—?” Her gold masquerade mask slipped to her chin, dangling there.
Warm, large hands settled on her bare upper arms, making her shiver at the contrast to her cool skin.
Tilting her head back, she looked up, taking in the immaculate tux, slightly crooked bow tie, long column of his neck, strong jaw, and landing on his lips, one side angling up at the corner. Ash gulped. Hard.
“You’re, um, big.” Never in her life had she felt eclipsed by a man. At five eleven, she’d posed with taller guys on modeling shoots. But never like this one; he commanded space.
His chuckle, deep and rough, arrowed through her, leaving a delicious tingle in its wake. She sucked in a sharp breath.
Replaying her words, she felt the sting of heat hit her cheeks. “I mean…wide, broad…not the other.”
“Did I say different?”
Gazing higher, Ash noted his features, yet there was something more to him then handsome, classical good looks. His eyes, dark and fathomless, captured hers.
“Ashley Moore, I presume.”
The way he said her name made her melt. “Do I know you?”
“Not yet.” His answer held promises. “Unmistakable. Your photos don’t do your sky-blue eyes justice.”
She’d heard hundreds of compliments through the ten years since she began modeling as a teen and earning her way to the top of her field; however, his words were somehow more sincere in their simplicity than all the others lumped together.
Finally, she pulled away. The noises around her returned, growing clear and sharp now. The band struck up a slow number, couples nudged her to get by, and the bride and groom squabbled less than five feet away.
Not again! Couldn’t they put a cork in it? The rumblings began from the moment they were introduced; her not-so-close former classmate whined at one thing or another. Her bridezilla mother joined in.
“Train wreck about to happen,” she whispered, aware of the just married twosome’s voices rising. It sounded like someone stabbed her ears with an ice pick. “Run!” Far. Fast. Anywhere, but here.
“In that?” he asked, but he’d already turned to shield her from the embarrassing barbs.
“You…you’re…” Meagan, the shrill bride, sputtered. “A cheapskate!”
“I’m trying to protect our future! Something you have no idea on how to do,” Rodney, the unlucky groom, fired back.
“In bed, too! You finish first and leave me hanging.”
The men groaned collectively. The women gasped.
She went there? Ouch! “Right for the manhood,” Ashley muttered.
“It happened one time and you hold that over my head?!” Rodney defended himself.
“Doomed.” The man at her side cupped her elbow, directing her and sticking his other arm out to ease back the mass of onlookers straining to get closer to the spectacle taking place in the center of the dance floor. “All marriages are.”
Had she heard right? “An expert?”
“I’ve seen my share.”
“Been in one, have you?”
The band seemed to play louder as he maneuvered her to the Westbrooke Museum lobby, drowning out the fight.
In the hallway now, she hurried to keep up with his long strides headed in the opposite direction of the main entrance. “You didn’t answer.”
He slowed his steps, adjusting to her pace. “Never married.”
His short, clipped answer pleased her. “Me, either, that’s if you wanted to know.”
Her cheeks flamed. No man, remember? Single pact with your two besties, Lacey and Heather, or have you forgotten so quickly? She came to an abrupt halt. “Ah, thanks for saving me back there, but I’m good now.” Ashley shrugged, pointing a thumb over her shoulder. “I’ll just go.”
A man of few words. “I don’t even know your name.”
She shook her head, wondering what intrigued her so much about him to hesitate in her escape.
“Come with me.”
Doubts crept up. He looked normal—whatever that looked like nowadays. But anyone could, right? The series of strange letters she’d recently received rushed back to her now. An overzealous fan perhaps? Ash backed away, one tiny step at a time. “No. I’m good.” She raised a hand in a geeky wave. “See ya.”
“I have something you want.”
“What?! Is that a pick up line?” She raked him with a gaze. He didn’t seem that type at all.
He laughed, long and hard, making him seem human again. The way his features softened and his eyes danced caused a swirling sensation in the pit of her belly.
Ash let out a shaky breath. “And you are…?”
“Your new best friend.”
His stare unnerved her, seeing deep inside her. “Wrong. I already have two of them. Don’t need any more.” So why are you following him as he backs away?
“Those are old friends.”
“Are you joking with me?” That also did not appear to be in his nature, as if she knew.
Before she realized it, they were just outside a closed door. A rugged man with short, cropped dark hair, in a less expensive black tux than his, stood there. Ashley swallowed hard. Fear kicked in. “Ah…you planned this?”
“That will be all, Felix.” The man left soundlessly. This one smiled at her. “I will never hurt you,” he whispered fiercely.
His words shook her. No one had ever been able to make good on that promise, especially a man. Don’t believe him! “You can make people vanish?” She nodded to the now empty space where the man named Felix had been only a few moments ago. Trying to inject some humor here, she whispered, “Are you in the mafia? ’Cause I have a few people I’d like to see, you know, disappear.”
Those fascinating lips of his twitched. “Not the mob. But I could possibly…” He left the rest hanging.
“So you’re for hire?” A hit man? A goon? What had she gotten herself into this time?
“I’m already working a job. So, no, you can’t hire me.” He reached out and turned the doorknob, shoving the door open.
“What kind of job?” She peeked in the room—a large office with an antique desk and a cozy sitting area. No one was there.
He remained silent; however, he waved a hand for her to enter and raised his eyebrows.
“You first,” she coaxed. Why are you checking out his beautiful, short brown hair and wanting to run your fingers through it? Seriously, Ash, you need a checkup from the neck up.
“A gentleman always lets a woman go first.”
“Manners. How sweet.” If she had any sense at all, Ashley would turn tail and skip or hop—whatever worked in this horrible gown—back to the reception. Curiosity nudged her. “And if I do, will you tell me who you are?”
If she walked, or half-stepped, away from him now she’d never find out the answer. Please don’t let me get murdered or anything! “I guess that’s an offer I can’t refuse.” Ashley came closer, but faced him even as she slid inside the room. A waft of his heady cologne tickled her nostrils. God, why did he have to smell so good?
“Miss Moore,” he said, closing the door behind him, leaning back on it and then crossing his arms over his wide chest. “You have just made the worst mistake of your life.”
Like a trapped animal, Ash jerked her gaze around, searching for a way out. Panic grabbed her by the throat—or was that the golden mask?— when there was nowhere to run. “I’m dead meat, right?” she squeaked out, tugging the mask up and over her updo. Clutching it now, ready to take aim with it, she laughed at herself. As if this will do any damage to him, big and tall. “Oh, crap, as Heather likes to say.”
“You trusted me.”
“And I wasn’t supposed to.” Her voice rose an octave.
“Strangers. You’re not to trust anyone you don’t know, understood?”
“What?! Are you lecturing me?” She eased back, her shaky knees bumping against the couch.
“Rule number one.”
He sighed. She heard the exasperation. “Please sit.”
“I don’t want to.” She sounded like a spoiled child.
“Open the computer on the coffee table.” He nodded to the slim, metallic object she didn’t realize was there.
“I’m not good with these things,” she muttered. “That’s not rule number two, is it?” She nibbled on her lip.
Coming closer, he placed his warm hands on her icy-cold arms. Gently, but firmly, he eased her down, so she sat on the couch. He flicked up the computer, pressed a few buttons, and then turned it to her. Blurry images slowly came into focus. The endearing faces, nearly glued together, filled the box.
“Dad? Mother? Where are you? Are you two all right?” She lifted a hand, touching the cool, impersonal screen.
“Oh, Ash, are you?” her father asked. “We got another letter, sweetheart. We couldn’t ignore this one.”
“Ashley, honey.” Her mother’s voice wobbled. “Don’t be angry, dear. We just couldn’t sit back and do nothing any longer.”
Seeing them up close and with worry etched on their features made her realize Eileen and Edgar Moore weren’t holding up well. Maybe she should put more money in their account. Finances were not their forte; her father’s lame business ventures always failed. She’d been the major breadwinner in the family for the last ten years. Someone had to be the grown-up. Money and send them on vacation, she noted silently.
They exchanged looks, which put Ash on high alert. “What’s going on?”
“Is he there?” her mother whispered rather loudly.
“You mean Mr. Tough Guy? Yes, he’s here.”
They let out gusty sighs. “Thank goodness.”
“You know him?”
“We, sort of-of…” Her mother tripped over the words, so unlike her cool, cultured way.
“Hired him, sweetheart,” her father finished in a rush.
“For what?” This time she jerked her gaze up and met his intense stare, longing for him to solve the mystery. “Now would be a good time to speak up.”
“I’m your bodyguard.”
“Oh, hell no!”