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Excerpt - Her Guardian by Sharon Dunn

Her Guardian
Sharon Dunn

Julia Randel was thirteen when she was kidnapped by a cult leader.

It took her seven years to escape. Two years later her captor's trial is about to begin—and so are threats from his loyal followers. Julia is relieved when her father hires bodyguard Gavin Shane, but she's furious when he rushes her to a safe house. After years under lock and key, she doesn't want to be forced into hiding again. But with cultists seeking to stop Julia's testimony at any cost, it'll take both Julia and her determined protector to set her free for a new life—and new love.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Professional bodyguard Gavin Shane glanced around the small department store as a sense of foreboding spread through him. He looked at the young woman he had been hired to protect. His client, Julia Randel, picked up a bottle of tester perfume and sprayed it onto her thin wrist. A smile graced her pretty face. She didn't seem alarmed.

The other shoppers whirled benignly through the store. Yet everything in Gavin's training told him it had been a mistake to stop here, to let Julia out in public. Mentally he kicked himself for his poor judgment. He should have said no when she had looked at him with large blue eyes and asked to stop on their way to the secure location. Her request had held a tone of desperation, as if stopping to shop at this tiny department store meant the world to her.

Julia showed him the perfume bottle, her expression bright. "I think I would like to get this one."

Gavin stepped toward her. The citrus scent of the perfume she had just sprayed hung in the air. As he scanned the faces of the other customers, he couldn't pinpoint his reason for unease…something just felt off. If he had learned nothing else in his ten years as a bodyguard, it was to trust his instincts.

He leaned close and whispered, "We need to go."

"What?" She shook her head as the exuberance he'd seen a moment before disappeared. She turned a half circle, studying the people around her, disbelief clouding her features. "No, it can't be."

Julia was coping with the threat she was under through denial. He'd seen it before. She was shutting down. He had to push her past it. "Put the perfume back. Let's get out of here."

"Elijah's followers couldn't have found me that easily." She looked up at him, her eyes pleading. "They couldn't have." Her voice faltered.

"I don't think we should take chances." He didn't want to feed into the constant anxiety she must be under, but to be on the safe side, they had to leave immediately.

One of the customers caught Gavin's attention. A man dressed in a dated suit circled closer to Julia through the cosmetic section. How peculiar. Men usually didn't shop for lipstick and mascara. Gavin maintained a surface calm, but adrenaline charged through his muscles as he prepared to grab Julia and run.

Go, now, go.

Julia had been held captive for seven years by the cult leader Elijah True. Now two years after her escape, she was ready to testify against him. That meant his followers had ramped up their efforts to make sure she didn't set foot in a courtroom.

"Put the perfume back." Struggling to keep the sense of urgency out of his voice, he gripped her arm above the elbow.

"All right, if that's what we have to do." A tone of despair colored her words. She set the perfume on the display shelf. Her hand brushed over the top of the bottle. "I wish I had time to get this."

Why was she so fixated on getting such a small thing as perfume?

The man in the suit moved down the aisle toward them. He didn't have that vagueness in the eyes or long hair and beard that was common to male cult members, but the way he narrowed his eyes at Julia made alarm bells go off in Gavin's head.

"We gotta move, now." As gently as he could, he hooked his arm through hers and pulled her toward the door. She allowed herself to be directed out to the street. The winter cold of February in Montana hit them as he pulled his keys from his pocket. Julia rubbed her bare arms. She'd left her coat in the SUV.

He could be totally wrong about the threat, but it wasn't a chance he was willing to take. He looked directly into her blue eyes, hoping to shake her from her inertia. "Please trust me when I say we have to go."

The man in the suit came out on the sidewalk. Julia pulled free of Gavin's arm and stared blankly at him.

The denial was paralyzing her. He had to break her free of it. "Your father hired me to protect you. Do what I say. Get in the car." He enunciated each word.

Her lips drew into a tight, hard line. She shook her head, but she complied. As he slipped behind the wheel of the SUV, he checked his rearview mirror. The man in the suit was talking on his cell phone and casting furtive glances in their direction. It was possible he was only phoning a friend. All the same, Gavin was reminded of the mantra his boss down in Florida had repeated over and over. It was always better to be paranoid than dead.

Gavin pulled away from the curb and sped up as soon as he reached the city limits.

"When I say we need to go, we need to go." He shifted into fourth gear and revved the engine. He took in a deep breath. Being upset with her wouldn't do either of them any good.

Julia stared straight ahead. "It would have only taken a minute to get that perfume."

Why was she bringing up the perfume again? There was something deeper going on here. "It was a minute we didn't have," he said.

Frustration rose up in her voice. "Are you sure they were there? I didn't see anybody."

She still didn't want to believe that they were after her again. "Your father told me that you might not recognize all the cult members." He checked the rearview mirror. "A lot of them don't live at the compound anymore. They've fanned out into the surrounding towns, but they are still loyal to Elijah." A dark blue van had eased in behind them. When Gavin let up on the accelerator, the van remained behind them instead of passing.

"That's true." She combed her fingers through her long, blond hair. "I didn't even get to know many of the cult members at the compound." Her voice was a harsh whisper filled with pain. "Elijah mostly kept me in his house." She shook her head. "How did they find us so easily?"

"I don't know." If it had just been the man in the suit, he would have dismissed the incident as him being overly cautious. But the van was clearly tailing them, which meant his instincts had been right. "They must have been watching your father's house for days waiting for us to leave. That's the only way they could have found us."

Elijah's followers had been a concern since his arrest, but they had done nothing overt enough for the police to justify spending tight funds on protection. Though he could not prove a clear connection to Elijah, Julia's father had become alarmed when strange cars were parked outside their house, and it had looked as though someone might be going through their garbage. With the trial less than a month away, William Randel had hired Gavin and decided to move his daughter to a safe and unknown location.

Now as he watched the van edge closer, Gavin realized that all of William Randel's suspicions were confirmed.

In his peripheral vision, he could see that Julia's cheeks had turned crimson. She was growing more agitated as the reality of her situation sank in.

"What's going on?" He spoke as gently as he could manage.

"It's like that monster still has me in a prison even though I got away from him. I did what Elijah ordered me to do for seven years. Then I did what my father and the counselor said for two years. Now I have to listen to you." Her voice broke. "I just feel…like I'll never be free…that's all."

Gavin's glance bounced from the road and back to Julia. Sympathy washed through him as he comprehended why she was so upset. He'd known her for less than a week, and their conversations at the house had been brief. All the abuse and loss she had been through made any words of comfort he could come up with sound trite.

She laced her hands together. "Sorry, I know this is the way it has to be. I'm…it's just hard sometimes. Nine years is a long time."

The van was nearly touching his bumper. They'd have to talk later. He pressed the accelerator. "I've got to lose these guys."

Julia craned her neck and then turned back around, sinking in her seat. "That's them, isn't it?" A tinge of fear colored her words.

"I thought we took enough precautions." He kept his voice neutral, not wanting to add fuel to the panic she must be feeling. This wasn't her doing, it was his. They never should have gone into that store. Gavin pressed the accelerator. The car hugged the curves as the needle pressed past one hundred. The SUV didn't handle like a race car, but it would do.

Julia gripped the door. "Do you always go this fast?"

"Only when I'm trying to lose someone." The distance between the van and the SUV increased. "Let's just get you to that safe house your father set up."

"If we don't crash first, right?"

"Julia, would you trust me? I've done this before." Maintaining the same high speed, he drove for a few more miles. No sign of the van. He hit the blinker and veered toward an exit ramp.

She sat up straighter. "This isn't the way we need to go."

He came to a small town and zigzagged through the streets. "I can't take you directly to the secure location until we are sure we're not being followed." If the van could tail them through all this, he'd be impressed.

She pushed her head against the back of the seat. He could sense her rising frustration in the car's confined space. "I understand," she said softly, as though she was resigned to the conditions she had to live with.

"We'll just drive around for a while." He injected a false cheerfulness into his voice as he pulled back out on to a two-lane road. "These back roads can be kind of nice to look at."

She turned her head away from him. He drove without talking for an hour. He had to remind himself that her frustration wasn't because of something he had done, though he was the target. Even before he had been hired by William Randel, he'd known who Julia was. Two years ago, her face was splashed across the tabloids. Julia had been abducted at thirteen by Elijah True. Elijah had been born Leonard Reef but had changed his name, called himself a prophet and founded what he called the True Church.

Seven years later, after witnessing Elijah murder another cult member, Julia had slipped away from the cluster of houses that had been built in the remote Badlands of Montana. He'd seen the news photos of the compound—rows of trailers and modular homes surrounded by barbed wire. In an effort to ease their dependence on the outside world, the cult members grew much of their own food and kept goats and sheep.

Gavin suspected that the lawyers had had something to do with the lack of details about the murder charges against Elijah in the news stories. Most of the coverage had focused on Julia's captivity and escape. She had run five miles in winter conditions to a small town to get help. It had taken two years to put together the murder and kidnapping charges. Only Elijah and one other follower had been aware of the kidnapping. Elijah had told the other cult members that Julia was a niece he'd received custody of.

Even though they had not been a part of the kidnapping, the forty or so families at the compound viewed Julia as the enemy who had betrayed their innocent leader.

The True Church, which borrowed bits and pieces of theology from almost every other religion, seemed to be based around a distrust of the government. Their hypocrisy showed though, in that they had no problem collecting welfare checks. A belief that they were special and all outsiders were woefully misled also came out in the interviews that had been done with ex-cult members.

The words of Julia's father as he briefed Gavin floated back into his memory. "My daughter has had two years of counseling and she is doing much better, but she is still.fragile. We initially thought we would hire a much older man, but your experience is quite impressive for someone so young. I trust you won't think Julia is romantic material."

Though it seemed an odd request, William's protec-tiveness of his daughter was understandable; Gavin had given his word. After William Randel's description of his daughter, Gavin had expected a shrinking violet. The woman with the white-blond hair falling past her shoulders and intense blue eyes had exuded poise and strength as she reached out to shake Gavin's hand the first time he met her. The newspaper pictures hadn't done her justice. She was a stunning woman.

So far, he had seen none of the fragility William had referenced. Anyone who could run that far in freezing conditions, avoiding capture, had to be strong and smart. He admired that.

Still, he needed a level of cooperation from her if he was to do his job. He tried to understand her point f view. She was tired of confinement, tired of taking orders. He got that. She'd come this far; it was only a month until the trial now. With the end in sight, maybe all the emotion she had pushed down was rising to the surface.

Gavin focused on his driving. Ice covering the trees that lined the two-lane highway made them look as if they were made of crystal. At least the roads were clear. He checked his mirrors one more time. Nobody behind them. No cars had passed them in the last thirty minutes.

"We can stop if you like," he said. Julia turned back toward him. "I don't need to stop."

"I just thought maybe you would like to get some fresh air." He infused his voice with as much pleasantness as he could muster. They didn't have to be best friends, but he needed her to trust his judgment. They had gotten lucky with this incident. Next time, her hesitation could cost her her life. "It's only a month until the trial, Julia."

He caught a flash of hurt in her expression before she jerked in her seat and bent her head allowing her hair to fall over her face.

He pulled over on a shoulder of the road and killed the engine. They sat in silence for a long moment. Finally, he pushed his door open. "You can stay here if you want. I'm going to stretch my legs."

He got out of the car and walked a few feet away. In the distance, two horses gamboled through a snowy field. The sky was a robin's-egg blue. He'd missed winter. Florida had been nice, but five years away from Montana was too long. When he exhaled, his breath was visible. Behind him, the car door opened and slammed.

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