In the dark, Ellie St. James scanned the mountainous terrain out her bedroom window at her new client's home in Colorado, checking the shadows for any sign of trouble before she went to sleep. The large two-story house of redwood and glass blended in well with the rugged landscape seven thousand feet above sea level. Any other time she would appreciate the beauty, but she was here to protect Mrs. Rachel Winfield.
A faint sound punched through her musing. She whirled away from the window and snatched her gun off the bedside table a few feet from her. Fitting the weapon into her right palm and finding its weight comforting, she crept toward her door and eased it open to listen. None of the guard dogs were barking. Maybe she'd imagined the noise.
A creak, like a floorboard being stepped on, drifted up the stairs. Someone was ascending to the second floor. She and her employer were the only ones in the main house. She glanced at Mrs. Winfield's door two down from hers and noticed it was closed. Her client kept it that way only when she was in her bedroom.
So who was on the stairs? Had someone gotten past the dogs outside and the security system? And did that someone not care that he was being heard coming up the steps? Because he didn't intend to leave any witnesses?
The latest threat against Mrs. Winfield urged her into action. She slipped out of her room and into the shadows of the long hallway that led to the staircase. Having memorized all the floorboards that squeaked, Ellie avoided the left side of the corridor as she snuck forwardpast Mrs. Winfield's door.
Another sound echoed through the hall. Whoever was on the steps was at the top. She increased her speed, probing every dark recess around her for any other persons. Near the wooden railing of the balcony that overlooked the front entrance, she found the light switch, planted her bare feet a foot apart, preparing herself to confront the intruder, and then flipped on the hall light.
Even though she expected the bright illumination, her eyes needed a few seconds to adjust to it. The large man before her lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the glare. Which gave Ellie the advantage.
"Don't move," she said in her toughest voice, a husky resonance she often used to her advantage.
The stranger dropped his hand to his side, his gray-blue eyes drilling into her then fixing on her Wilson combat aimed at his chest. Anger washed all surprise from his expression. "Who are you?" The question came out in a deep, booming voice, all the fury in his features reflected in it.
"You don't get to ask the questions. Who are"
The click of the door opening to Mrs. Winfield's bedroom slightly behind and to the left of Ellie halted her words as she shifted her attention for an instant to make sure the man didn't have an accomplice already with her client.
"Winnie, get back," the intruder yelled.
By the time Ellie's gaze reconnected with the man, he was charging toward her. She had less than a second to decide what to do. The use of her client's nickname caused Ellie to hesitate. In that moment the stranger barreled into her, slamming her into the hardwood floor. The impact jolted her, knocking the Wilson Combat from her hand. The thud of her weapon hitting the floor behind her barely registered as she lay pinned beneath two hundred pounds of solid muscle. Pressed into her, the man robbed her of a decent breath.
Her training flooded her with extra adrenaline. Before he could capture her arms, she brought them up and struck him on the sides of his head. His light-colored gaze widened at the blow. She latched onto his face, going for his eyes with her thumbs.
"Miss St. James, stop!" Mrs. Winfield's high-pitched voice cut into the battle between Ellie and her attacker.
The man shifted and clasped her wrists in a bone-crushing grip.
Ellie swung her attention from the brute on top of her to her employer standing over them with Ellie's gun in her quivering hand. Pointed at her!
"He's my grandson," Mrs. Winfield said. "Colt, get up. She can hardly breathe."
The man rolled off her, shaking his head as though his ears rang. After her attack they probably did.
Sitting up, he stared at his grandmother who still held the weapon. "Please give me the gun, Winnie." His soft, calm words, interspersed with heavy pants, contradicted his earlier authoritative tone.
Ellie gulped in oxygen-rich breaths while he pushed to his feet and gently removed the weapon from Mrs. Winfield's hand. He dwarfed his petite grandmother by over a foot.
With her gun in his grasp, he stood next to her client and glared down at Ellie. "Now I would like an answer. Who are you?" Anger still coated each word.
She slowly rose from the floor. "Ellie St. James."
He put his arm around his grandmother, who stood there trembling, staring at Ellie as though she was trying to understand what had just happened. "What are you doing here, Miss St. James?" he asked.
With a shake of her head, Mrs. Winfield blinked then peered up at her grandson. "She's my new assistant."
"What in the world are you doing carrying a gun?"
His question thundered through the air, none of the gentle tone he'd used with his grandmother evident. He glared at her, his sharp gaze intent on Ellie's face. Although he'd lowered the gun, Ellie didn't think it would take much for him to aim it again. Fury was etched into his hard-planed face.
"My dear, why do you have a gun?"
Mrs. Winfield's light, musical voice finally pulled Ellie's attention from the man. Her employer had regained her regal bearing, her hands clasped together in front of her to control their trembling.
"I've lived alone for so long in a big city I've always had a gun for protection," Ellie finally answered.
Although Mrs. Winfield was her clientthe person she'd been assigned to guardthe older woman didn't know it. Her lawyer and second-in-charge at Glamour Sensations, Harold Jefferson, had hired Guardians, Inc., to protect her. Ellie was undercover, posing as her new assistant. Her cover had her growing up in Chicagothe south sideand still living there. But in reality, at the first opportunity she'd had she'd hightailed it out of Chicago and enlisted in the army. When she'd left the military, she hadn't gone back home but instead she'd gone to Dallas to work for Guardians, Inc., and Kyra Morgannow Kyra Hunt.
"You don't need a weapon now. This isn't a big city. I have security around the estate. You're safe. I prefer you do something with that gun. I don't like weapons." A gentle smile on her face, Mrs. Winfield moved toward her as though she were placating a gun-toting woman gone crazy.
Ellie didn't trust anyone's security enough to give up her gun, but she bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from voicing that thought. She would need to call Mr. Jefferson and see how he wanted to proceed. Ellie had wanted to tell Mrs. Winfield that her life was in danger, but he'd refused. Now something would have to give here.
"I'll take care of it, Winnie. I'll lock it in the safe until she can remove it from here." The grandson checked the Wilson Combat, slipped out the ammo clip and ejected the bullet in the chamber, then began to turn away.
"Wait. You can't"
He peered over his shoulder, one brow arching. "I'm sure my grandmother will agree that this will have to be a condition of your continual employment. If I had any say in it, I'd send you packing tonight." He rubbed his ears. "They're still ringing. You have a mean punch. Where did you learn to take care of yourself?"
"A matter of survival in a tough neighborhood."
That was true, but she'd also had additional training in the army.
"As my grandmother said, that isn't an issue here. We're on a side of a mountain miles away from the nearest town. No one bothers us up here."
If you only knew. "I'm licensed to carry"
But Mrs. Winfield's grandson ignored her protest and descended the staircase.
Ellie rushed to the railing overlooking the downstairs entrance. Clutching the wood, she leaned over and said, "That's my weapon. I'll take care of it."
"That's okay. I'm taking care of it." Then he disappeared into the hallway that led to the office where the safe was.
"I certainly understand why you got scared." Mrs. Winfield approached her at the railing and patted her back. "I did when I heard the noise from you two in the hallway. I didn't know what was happening. I appreciate you being willing to protect me, but thank goodness, it wasn't necessary."
This time. Ellie swung around to face the older woman. "Yeah, but you never know."
"The Lord watches out for His children. I'm in the best care."
"I agree, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be proactive, Mrs. Winfield," Ellie said, hoping to convince Mr. Jefferson to tell her about the threats tomorrow.
"Please call me Winnie. Christy, my previous assistant, did. I don't like standing on formality since you'll be helping me." She smiled. "Colt gave me that name years ago, and everyone calls me that now."
"Was he supposed to visit?"
"The last I heard he wasn't going to come back this
13 year for Christmas. He probably heard my disappointment when we talked on the phone a few days ago. If I had known Colt was coming, I would have said something to you."
She'd read the dossier Kyra Hunt had given her on Colt Winfield, the only grandson Mrs. Winfield had. She should have recognized him, but with a beard and scruffy hair and disheveled clothes he'd looked like a bum who had wandered into the house intent on ill gains.
"He was supposed...