Luke Indigo parked his car across the street from Hang Tough Café, a small but renowned eatery staffed by ex-cons trying to make a fresh start and run by a renegade nun. He’d been to Hang Tough before—the place made the best carnitas in LA. It was a great place to eat and a good cause to support, but he was still annoyed that Katherine Bailey had insisted on meeting him here rather than at Frontline Inc.’s offices. The neighborhood was crime-ridden, the café catered to a rougher crowd, and the spacious outdoor seating area that adjoined a small park, while a surprisingly pleasant feature, was also a security nightmare.
Usually Hollywood bigwigs wanted to meet at fancier places in order to flash their money around and show the world how good they had it. Maybe by selecting Hang Tough Café, Bailey was sending him a snide message—me, rich celebrity actress; you lowly bodyguard I’m only meeting at my manager’s insistence.
Then again, maybe she was hoping the paparazzi would catch sight of her and plaster her image across the web, or maybe, in true entitled star style, she figured she’d get free carnitas for life just for showing up at the café.
There was no way to tell what the rich and famous were thinking or why they did what they did. But from everything Luke had ever seen, the rich and famous never did anything unless it benefitted them.
Exiting his car, Luke immediately spotted Bailey sitting at a table in front of the café, closest to the park. According to her manager, she’d received several death threats in the last two months, yet there she was, sitting outside without any protection, completely exposed to anyone walking by or a bullet originating from any of the surrounding buildings or roadways.
Stupid. Stupid and arrogant, not to mention careless. She’d be a nightmare to guard. Maybe even more than the senator who’d worn a maid’s uniform and wig to sneak out when he was supposed to be sleeping, and all so he could get a fucking hamburger. Bailey’s carelessness highlighted her need for a bodyguard, but it spoke volumes about why Luke was reluctant to take the job in the first place.
He’d spent more than one miserable night in his career watching over a selfish, spoiled celebrity. The last one had been prone to hissy fits and fond of telling everyone within earshot they should be bending over to kiss her ass. In fact, she’d wanted Luke to kiss more than her ass. When he’d declined, she’d gotten first hysterical and then hostile. She’d started to play even more games, jeopardizing not only herself but also Luke and his men. He shuddered at the memory. It had been the longest four weeks of his life.
With a muffled curse, Luke slammed his car door closed just as Bailey stood and stretched. He was a bit of a clothes hound himself, preferring tailored suits like the one he was currently wearing when he was on the job, but her outfit—a wide-leg white jumpsuit with a square neckline with cut out notch—made her an even bigger target. It also highlighted each and every one of her assets with a nipped in waist, and a halter style that left her back and shoulders bare. Her wedge heels added to her lean and lithe look, and her oversized sunglasses and scarlet lipstick advertised how much she liked attention, not at all surprising given her chosen profession. The only low-key thing about her appearance was her hair. The red locks, usually worn loose and wavy to her waist, had been pulled back in a messy braid down her back. Everything about her screamed sex goddess, drawing the eyes of everyone around her.
Drawing out Luke’s baser instincts. God, she was gorgeous.
Suddenly, despite trying to keep his mind on the business of her safety, he was overwhelmed by the urge to loosen those thick red waves from that braid, and wrap his fists into her long tresses while he kissed her full lips. He wanted to plunge his tongue into the hot, wet recesses of her mouth as her body melted against his. He could almost feel her heat and softness, the hard angles of her ribs and the curve of her waist.
Shaking his head, Luke strode to the sidewalk and stopped at the curb to wait for the green light and for a sudden group of bikers to pass. Bailey had stopped stretching but remained standing, staring off in the direction of the park. He took a quick glance in that direction, saw nothing out of the ordinary, then returned his gaze to her. His fists clenched as yet another strong blast of desire hit him.
Luke had read reports of nude photos of her circulating the Internet, allegedly leaked by her former director and cheating ex-boyfriend, Ray Hamilton, but he’d never looked at them. His imagination, however, coupled with the tabloid cover shots he’d seen of her on the beach in her bikini, left his mouth watering. Damn, he’d love to suck one of her full breasts into his mouth and taste her hard nipple, let his hand dip down between her legs and explore her wet depths.
He was getting way off track. He was here in his capacity as a bodyguard. She was a potential client, not a potential fuck. Her looks and innate sensuality were irrelevant. His response to her was irrelevant. All that mattered was getting the information needed to decide whether he wanted the job to protect Kat Bailey.
The light turned green and Luke crossed the street, ever aware of the gun he carried in his shoulder holster. Anyone and everyone could be a threat, and he’d have to act fast to get to her if he needed to.
A yellow Labrador covered in mud and carrying a heavy stick in its mouth ran toward her from the direction of the park. The dog stood, placing its big dirty paws right against the front of Bailey’s pristine white pants.
Luke waited for it—the screaming hissy fit he knew was coming—but instead she threw her head back and laughed. She petted the dog lavishly behind the ears, and her low contralto voice carried across the traffic noise.
“What a good boy. You’re a big one, aren’t you? Yes, you are. Let’s play. Do you want to play?”
Why the hell wasn’t she fazed by the dirt now streaking her fancy clothes? And, Jesus, the woman could make some simple crooning to a dog sound like an invitation to take her bed.
With a mental what the fuck, he shook his head, determined to rid himself of the siren’s spell she’d cast over him from ten feet away. In that moment, Luke imagined he didn’t look much different from that panting dog. He was practically staring at her like a horny, dreamy-eyed kid.
He wasn’t the only one. She’d captivated the attention of every man around, including a big homeless man heading from the park toward her.
Luke quickened his pace. When the dog suddenly darted toward the street away from where Luke stood, Bailey let out a high-pitched yelp and ran after it.
Fuck! She was going to get herself hurt trying to protect the dog. Luke bolted after her, knowing he might be too late, and hating himself for being so distracted by her beauty. He ran hard and fast, but was still some distance away when a couple of cars skidded to a stop inches from her. Not even looking ruffled, she took hold of the dog’s collar, smiled and waved at the drivers. She led the dog back to the homeless guy.
Luke’s heart thumped against his chest. Of all the crazy, stupid things to do! He wanted to turn her over his knee, and spank her for her carelessness. Then spank her again, but not to punish her. To pleasure them both.
A small bead of sweat ran down his temple. Oh, hell. The idea of spanking Kat Bailey was so appealing his cock had gone hard, so hard that it caused the front of his pants to tent out.
That absolutely cinched it.
He couldn’t take the job as her bodyguard. He hadn’t even talked to the woman and he was beyond attracted to her. He felt possessive of her in a way that didn’t make sense and would get in the way of a client/bodyguard relationship.
As he watched, the homeless man retrieved his dog, said a few words to Bailey, then headed back to the park. When they were gone she took her seat once more. Luke walked out of earshot, then pulled out his phone.
Bailey’s manager answered on the first ring.
“Charlie, it’s Lucas Indigo.” He made it a point to always use his full first name at work; Luke was reserved for family and friends.
“Indigo, aren’t you supposed to be meeting with Kat Bailey right now?”
He kept his eyes on her, and not just because someone might try to kill her in the next few minutes, but because he couldn’t seem to rip his gaze away. His cock throbbed again, painfully reminding him why this call was necessary. “Something unavoidable came up. Please give her my apologies, but I won’t be able to take her on as a client right now.”
Charlie sighed. “That’s disappointing. Frontline Inc. is the best there is. That’s the only reason she agreed to meet you.”
“I regret having to say no. Call Guy Myers over at Myers International. I’ve worked jobs with him before and he has a competent, professional staff. Tell him I referred you.” Yeah, Frontline Inc. was all about building its clientele, especially now that they were expanding the business into San Francisco, but Myers International would keep Kat safe.
“You’re sure about this? We could pay you more than your usual fee…”
“I’m not looking for more money. I just can’t take the job.”
Charlie sighed heavily. “Fine. I better call and let Kat know.”
Luke hung up. He watched Bailey as she answered her cell phone, then frowned at what the caller told her. She tossed her phone back in her purse. Instead of picking up her things and leaving, however, she sat back and continued to drink her coffee, occasionally smiling for no apparent reason, though something about the smile looked a bit forced. Soon, an elderly couple with two teenage boys approached her, looking nervous. The kids jostled each other. Kat pulled off her sunglasses. They talked for a few seconds and then one of the boys stood behind her while the other took a picture on his phone. The two boys traded places and another photo was taken before the boys walked away grinning.
She was gracious to her fans, which surprised Luke. In his experience most stars weren’t, unless there were cameras around to capture the moment and garner publicity. They didn’t talk to fans much less take pictures with them. Most of the stars he protected had crazy rules about interacting with people. He’d even worked for one man who demanded that none of his staff make eye contact with him, and that anyone who touched his dishes wore gloves.
Kat Bailey was a sexy bundle of surprises and he wanted to know more about her. But that wasn’t going to happen. Despite what she did to his body, they had nothing in common. She might have surprised him with how down-to-earth she seemed, but he’d met several famous actresses, and they’d all been divas. They were the ones in restaurants sending their meals back over and over, rolling their eyes because, “How hard is it really?” The ones sitting at the bar in their “look at me” dresses but acting annoyed when every man in the place tried to pick them up. The ones difficult to resist, strutting into men’s hearts before they knew it, feisty and irresistible with the confidence of ten runway models. But eventually? Difficult. Manipulative. Sucking all of the oxygen out of every room.
If there ever came a time that Luke was ready to settle down, he’d want a far simpler woman, attractive and intelligent and kind, of course, but not full of herself. One that respected his opinions and skills.
Bailey was too gorgeous and too famous. The worlds they came from would not mix well. Most of all, she craved the spotlight yet didn’t take her safety seriously.
And that wasn’t something Luke could ever accept.
* * *
Outside Hang Tough Café, Kat Bailey smiled for pictures with two teenage fans even as she willed her racing heart to slow.
You’ve got this, Kat. It’s only a little anxiety. It’ll pass.
Sure enough, by the time the pictures were done and the family left with murmured thank yous, she’d managed to regain her composure.
She took a sip of her coffee, pleased that her hand was steady. Still, the fact Charlie’s call had spiked her anxiety at all bothered her. So did the fact she’d been anxious when she’d first arrived at the café. Not too long ago, she’d thought all that was behind her. Despite the demands of her job and the appearances she had to make, she hadn’t suffered from anxiety in years. But then came the public scandal with Ray and the threats by one of his fans, which had caused her anxiety to return. She was determined, however, not to let it stop her from living a normal life—well, as much of a normal life as a celebrity actress could have. That was the reason she’d decided to meet the bodyguard here. To take advantage of neutral territory so she’d feel more in control during their meeting, sure, but also to prove that she could still sit outside a café just like any other person and not have anything terrible happen.
Even so, she wasn’t stupid.
She had back up just in case things took a turn for the worst.
Scanning the park adjacent to the café, she smiled when she saw the big homeless-looking man playing with his dog. Catching his gaze, she waved at him. He nodded, and headed toward her.
The dog, a golden Lab named Mamie, reached her first. Instead of jumping on Kat again, she sat next to her, panting happily. Kat scratched her behind her ears. “Well, hello again, sweet girl. You done playing?”
The homeless man—who wasn’t homeless at all, but rather her friend, Ben, an actor pretending to be homeless—walked up to her table, sprawled into the seat across from her, and sighed. “Well I’m done playing. Method acting is a pain in the ass,” he said as he stretched out his long legs. “I’ve been at this for hours, and my face is itching like crazy.”
She tilted her head and studied him. “The beard looks great, though. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was real.”
He tugged on the fake facial hair. “Thanks. I just wish they hadn’t waited two weeks before filming started to give me the part. Then I could have grown my own damn beard.”
“But Sergio hates facial hair,” she teased.
Ben’s eyebrows popped into his hairline. “Sergio also broke up with me last year—without telling me why, mind you—just so he could convincingly portray a character in the midst of a depressive episode. Believe me, he wouldn’t dare complain.”
Kat winced at the memory of how devastated Ben had been when Sergio had suddenly broken up with him. It had taken Sergio the better part of a month to convince Ben it had all been part of his process and to take him back. God, actors were a crazy lot.
Reaching out, she tugged on a lock of Ben’s unkempt hair. What a pair they made. Him, dirty and bewhiskered; her, dressed in her couture white pantsuit with the dirt stains from where Mamie had jumped on her earlier. She’d felt more than a little silly wearing the pantsuit for her appointment, but the photo shoot she’d scheduled before the meeting had run late. She’d decided she’d rather appear to be the kind of diva that wore fancy clothes to a business meeting than the kind of diva who didn’t show up on time.
“Well,” she said, “I, for one, am so glad they gave you a call back. A year ago you were doing Pepto-Bismol commercials and now look at you, starring in a made-for-television drama that might just turn into a series.”
He nodded. “I’m thrilled, trust me. This get up is just going to take some time to get used to. But enough about that. Where’s the bodyguard?”
“Fuck.” He peered at her more closely. “You feeling anxious?”
“No,” she said automatically.
He raised an eyebrow.
She opened her mouth, shut it then shrugged. “You always saw through my act, even in high school,” she grumbled.
“So why do you try to con me?”
“No, it’s you taking your daddy’s lessons to heart. Never let them see you sweat, right?”
She snorted. “I’ve been sweating plenty. Long before I received that bouquet of dead flowers at my doorstep the other day. I still don’t understand how the person got through my gates to put them there. What’s the point of having security measures if someone can bypass them so easily?”
Ben reached out and took her hand. “That won’t happen with a bodyguard. A trained professional won’t let anyone get that close to you again. Now tell me why the guy you had an appointment with cancelled.”
She squeezed his hand back. “Charlie just said this Mr. Indigo turned us down and referred us to another company. Maybe it’s a sign.”
“Of what? You need a bodyguard.”
“Not if I walk away,” she said quietly.
He blinked. “What?”
She swallowed hard, not sure she had it in her to voice what she’d been thinking lately, but this was Ben. Finally, she said, “I need a bodyguard because I’m in the public eye. Because I’m a famous actress. Because my ex cheated and published topless pictures of me, and one of his crazy fans decided he was the injured party and wants to hurt me. But if I walk away, if I…”
“If you what? Stop going out in public and lock yourself up in your apartment again? I thought you were determined not to become like your mother?”
She scowled and pulled her hand out of his grasp. “I’m not going to become my mother. But I don’t want a life where I need to be protected by a bodyguard, either.”
“You need to take these threats seriously right now. It doesn’t mean you’ll always need protection. Even if it does…you love acting. And the fact is, you are famous. You’ve worked damn hard to become famous. You can’t just throw that all away because you don’t want to rely on someone else to protect you.”
“But I don’t want to rely on someone else,” she said. “Relying on others to protect me will make me careless. It also puts that other person at risk. I’d rather take my chances on my own, and if something happens, so be it. At least it was my doing and it only happens to me.”
“But it’s the person’s job—”
“No one expects it to happen to them, Ben, but it could. Someone could get hurt. Or killed. Because of me. And I don’t know if I could live with myself if that happened.”
“At least you’d be alive to find out!” he snapped. “And if you hire someone good enough, nothing will happen to anyone. That’s the whole point.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. But it looks like the best of the best has passed on the job. What I need to decide is whether to hire the second best company.”
“There’s nothing to decide. You know it’s what you need to do, Kat. Don’t back out now.”
She stared at him. Saw his resolve and felt it flow into her. He rarely lost his temper with her or got bossy, but he was worried. And he was right to worry even if she wished he wasn’t—those dead flowers delivered to her front door had been proof of that.
“I just want to live my life. Is that too much to ask?”
“Of course not. But we all have our burdens, baby. We rely on our inner strength and those close to us to help us through them. Like you’ll be keeping me company tonight while Sergio is away…”
Her mouth twisted. “And then tomorrow you’ll come with me to visit my agoraphobic mom. A true friend indeed.”
“Stop it. I love your mom and am looking forward to seeing her.”
“I know. And she looks forward to seeing you more than she does me sometimes.”
He grinned and winked, and the heaviness in Kat’s chest lightened.
“It’s the cheesecake,” he said. Ben went with Kat to visit her mother about once a month. He was the only other person she’d let into her house other than Kat, and every time he came, he always brought her a homemade cheesecake.
“I know. That’s why I love you,” Kat teased. “That, and because I like hanging out with Sergio and playing with Mamie.”
At the mention of her name, Mamie raised her head and licked Kat’s hand. She put her face down close to the dog’s and nuzzled noses with her. “I think I need a dog more than a bodyguard.”
“Baby, what you need is a man.”
She straightened with a scowl. “You do remember what happened the last time I had a man, right?”
“Ray is a moron. You can’t let what he did stop you from living and having fun. If you do that, he wins. Besides, you don’t have to get into a relationship. Find a hot guy, take him home, fuck his brains out and send him on his way. If he has a nice ass, give it a pat on the way out the door.”
She shook her head. “Thanks for the tip, but I think I’ll pass. I don’t want a man who wants to fuck a famous actress. And that’s all it would be.”
“You’re deluding yourself if you think men want to fuck you because you’re a famous actress. Here’s a thought—find a man to protect you and a man to fuck. Preferably before I leave to start filming. I’ll feel better, knowing you’re being taken care of.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t want you to go to Connecticut. I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, desperately. But you can come visit me in Mystic anytime.”
“Is Sergio still going with you?”
“Are you kidding? He’d never let me go three thousand miles away without him. He wants to take care of me, and unlike you, I see the benefits in letting a man do that.”
“Well, you struck gold with Sergio. He’s one in a million.”
He reached out and took hold of her hand again. “I struck gold twice.”
She felt her heart swell. “Thank you for everything. But you gave me tough love and now it’s my turn. Get back to work. I’m going to head home and prepare for our movie night. But…” She exhaled, then said, “But only after I tell Charlie to set up an appointment with that other bodyguard company.”
He grinned. “There’s my girl,” he said.
As he walked Mamie back toward the park, she glanced at her watch. If she waited five more minutes, she would have been at the café for half an hour and except for that little bit of anxiety she’d suffered after Charlie’s call, she’d had a pleasant time. Just as Ben had said earlier, she had her father to partially thank for that. Despite her anxiety, she’d acted confident. She’d smiled. And she’d survived.
Fake it till you make it, right, Daddy?
While Richard Bailey hadn’t suffered from anxiety, both Kat and her mother did. And despite the stress and long hours he’d experienced as a congressman, he’d had nothing but time and patience for them, teaching them skills to distract themselves and act more confident.
That was the most important lesson she’d learned from her father before he’d died: If she acted confident, she’d feel confident and people would respond accordingly.
“Appearing insecure is what makes most people victims, Kat,” her father had said. “If you project confidence, most of the time people will leave you alone.”
Kat had gotten very good at projecting confidence. She’d done it for years, and had a successful acting career as a result of it. A career she wasn’t going to give up without a fight.
Ben was right. Not about finding a man to fuck, but about her loving the career she worked so hard to have, and finding someone to protect her—temporarily—until all this craziness blew over. She didn’t like it, but she’d muddle through.
Seven minutes later, she gathered her things. She slipped on her purse and headed toward the garage where she’d parked her car. For now, she’d focus on hiring the best bodyguard she could, even if he would technically be second to the actual best.
No biggie, Mr. Indigo. I survived today. I’ll continue to survive. With or without you.