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Excerpt - Defender for Hire by Shirlee McCoy

Defender for Hire
by
Shirlee McCoy


Someone was watching her…

No matter how many times Tessa Camry moves, her mysterious tormentor always finds her…and leaves a grim reminder of all she's lost. But this year, no longer content to deliver roses, her stalker wants her dead. When former soldier Seth Sinclair becomes her bodyguard, he encourages her to stand her ground, even if it means letting go of long-held secrets. Seth realizes that Tessa may be his second chance at love, but their future depends on finding the man determined that Tessa never forgets the past….

Excerpt of chapter one:

Black.

Not the color of love, friendship, admiration. The color of sorrow and death. Tessa Camry lifted the single long-stemmed rose from the hood of her car and tossed it into her yard. Five years. Five black roses.

She glanced around the quiet neighborhood and saw nothing out of place. She never did. One rose every year to remind her. That was it. As if she needed anything to keep the memories from dying.

She slid into her Ford Mustang, backing down the long driveway, her skin crawling. Five towns. Five states. And still the flower had found her. She'd come to expect that it would, but that didn't mean she was happy about it.

"It's not like you went to a lot of effort to hide," she muttered, her words echoing hollowly in the car.

True. She hadn't been hiding, but she hadn't announced her location, either. No Christmas cards or phone calls—no contact with anyone from the past. Nothing to tie her to her college years, her married years.

The mission trip.

She shoved the thought away, checking her mirror several times as she made her way along the winding country road. Not a car in sight, but she couldn't shake the feeling that the person who had left the rose was following her; that the past was running toward her and one day it might catch hold and refuse to let go.

She shuddered as she pulled into the nearly empty parking lot of Centennial Physical Therapy. The small white building gleamed in the early morning sunlight. Tessa had been working there part-time as a physical therapist for five months. She didn't need the money—she needed the distraction.

And today, she needed it more than ever.

She jumped out of the car and jogged to the small reception area, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. The memories were too close, and she wanted nothing more than to lose herself in her work. To forget what day it was, bury what had happened five years ago in flurry of activity that would exhaust her.

"Finally!" Dana Langtry looked up from the computer. Small and compact, her blond hair cropped short, Dana was energetic, efficient and friendly. She was also blunt and tough—a good combination for a physical therapist's assistant.

"I'm fifteen minutes early," Tessa pointed out as she went through the motions of shrugging out of her coat and pulling her hair into a ponytail, trying to pretend it was any other day rather than the day.

"Well, our first patient beat you by ten minutes." Dana handed Tessa a clipboard with the patient's chart.

"This is the new client that called last week, right?"

"Yes. I put him in room one." Dana glanced over her shoulder, then leaned close. "And, just between you and me, I think he looks like trouble."

"How so?" Tessa asked absently, her heart still thumping too hard, her pulse thrumming in the aftermath of her frantic drive from home.

"Just a vibe that I'm getting." Dana lowered her voice a notch. "Too bad Sam isn't here. I'd rather he deal with the guy."

"I'll be fine, Dana." The last thing she needed was Sam Marne coming to the office to take a patient that he'd assigned to her. Sam had opened Centennial Physical Therapy five years ago and had slowly been building his clientele since then. The fact that he'd needed help at the same time that Tessa had wanted a part-time job had worked out well for both of them, and Tessa had no intention of messing with the arrangement.

"Probably, but I could just call Sam and—"

"It's his day off. If we call him in, he won't have any use for me, and I'll be out of a job." Tessa forced a smile as she glanced through the chart. Seth Sinclair. 34. Recovering from shoulder surgery.

"I still think we should call him," Dana huffed.

"I've been a physical therapist for a long time, and I've dealt with a lot of patients who look like trouble. There's no reason to call for backup," Tessa responded. "Besides, Darius Osborne referred the guy. He wouldn't have done it if he thought the man was a serial killer."

Darius, a childhood friend, was the reason Tessa had moved to Pine Bluff, Washington. She'd attended his wedding the year before and fallen in love with the area. After so many years of wandering, it had seemed like the perfect place to settle for good.

Now, it just felt like another pit stop.

"I didn't say he was a serial killer. I said he was trouble," Dana protested, glancing over her shoulder again. Obviously, the guy had her spooked, but Tessa had dealt with a lot worse than troublesome patients in her life.

"I'll holler if I need help," she joked as she walked down the narrow hall.

Her smile fell away as soon as she was out of Dana's sight. She didn't feel like joking. She felt like going home, packing her things and leaving town. She was tired of moving, though. Too many places, too many faces, all of it fuzzy and muddied by her constant need to outrun the past.

She wanted to put down roots, but maybe that dream—the one she'd been holding on to since her parents had passed away when she was ten—had died with Daniel.

She knocked on the door to room one, pushing it open without waiting for a response.

"Good morning—" She glanced at the chart as she stepped into the room. "Seth. I'm Tessa Camry."

"Ma'am." One gruff word, tinged with a hint of Southern charm.

She looked up from the chart into the most amazingly blue eyes she'd ever seen.

Seth's face didn't match his voice. There was no charm there, not even a hint of a smile. Just dark blond hair, those blue, blue eyes and a faint scar that ran from his ear to under his chin. Another scar edged his hairline, deep purple and much newer than the first one.

Dana had been right. He looked like trouble, but Tessa couldn't pinpoint why. Aside from the scars and the unusual color of his eyes, he was average—average build, average features, nondescript hair. Better than average muscle tone, though. She could see that in the corded strength of his shoulders and biceps.

She looked at the chart again. Better to focus on that than her new patient's bulging muscles.

"You're a friend of Darius's, right?" she asked, hoping she'd get more out of him than another ma'am.

"We're coworkers," he explained.

"So, you're in the private security sector?" She met his eyes and was shocked again by the vivid color of his irises.

"That's right."

"You work as a bodyguard?"

"I work as whatever my boss asks me to be. Until my shoulder heals, that's desk duty."

He didn't smile, but she had the distinct impression that he was amused—by her or the conversation or whatever situation had put him on desk duty.

She took a seat in one of two chairs next to the exam table and motioned for him to do the same. "I take it you'd like to get back to a more active job. Let's come up with a plan to make that happen."

"The sooner the better," he murmured, dropping into the other chair, his legs stretched out so that his feet were almost touching Tessa's.

She didn't shift away, but she wanted to. At first glance, she'd thought Seth was average, but the more she studied him, the more obvious it became that he was anything but that.

Maybe Dana had been right. Maybe he was going to be trouble.

She frowned, thumbing through his paperwork and reading the information he'd provided. There wasn't much. A shoulder injury that had required extensive surgery and therapy. A concussion. He'd marked a level seven pain in the affected shoulder and shaded a painpoint indicator through the shoulder and up into the neck, but he hadn't specified a cause for the injury.

"Were you in a car accident?" she asked, glancing up and straight into his eyes. Blue flecked with silver and rimmed with thick gold lashes.

"No."

"Sports injury?"

"No."

"I could spend the rest of the day guessing, or you could just tell me what happened and save us both some time."

He smiled, amusement flashing in his eyes.

"You know, Tessa, I think we're going to get along just fine," he said, leaning forward so that his elbows rested on his knees. "Here's the deal. I was in Afghanistan. My convoy was attacked and my shoulder got blown to bits. I came back to the States, had surgery and then rehabbed for a year."

"How long ago was that?" Tessa asked, making a production of taking notes because she didn't want to look in his eyes again. He was way more than she'd thought when she'd first seen him. Way more…interesting. Today of all days, she didn't want to notice.

Shouldn't notice.

"The first injury? Two years ago. I completed rehab a year ago and started working for Personal Securities Incorporated six months after that."

"When did the reinjury occur?"

"A couple of weeks ago. One of my clients was attacked, and I stepped in." He shrugged as if it hadn't been a big deal, but Tessa had a feeling it had.

"Did you have an X-ray or MRI?"

"Both. Everything is clear. My doctor thinks it's just pulled muscles and inflammation from old scar tissue."

"Let's check your range of motion. Go ahead and sit on the table."

He nodded, moving silently and easily, his white T-shirt skimming firm muscles and a flat abdomen. He wore black gym shorts and running shoes, and his left knee was crisscrossed with scars and swollen above the patella.

"Looks like your knee is bothering you, too."

"If we tried to fix all my problems, we'd be here for the rest of the day. How about we just concentrate on the shoulder?" His tone was easy, but there was an edge of steel in it.

"It's all connected. If one thing is out of alignment, the rest of the body suffers." She put a hand on his elbow, maneuvering his arm in the damaged socket.

"Does this hurt?"

"Yes." He didn't wince, though, and there was no hint of pain in his voice or eyes.

"Mind if I take a look at the surgery scar?" She rolled up his sleeve, but could see only the edge of the scar, still deep purple and angry-looking.

"This doesn't look two years old."

"I've had two surgeries since the first one."

"You should have mentioned that before we started." She frowned and jotted a note in his file. "When was the last surgery?"

"Eight months ago."

"Your surgeon?"

"Guy on the East Coast." He offered the name, and she jotted that down, too.

"Okay. Let's work through a few exercises, see how far we can push things without making them worse."

"Sounds good." He flashed a smile.

Despite the quick grin, Tessa had the feeling that Seth was assessing her. Whatever conclusions he was coming to, he kept them well hidden as she worked him through a series of exercises.

Thirty minutes later, sweat beaded his brow and his muscles were taut with effort, but he didn't say a word about pain or discomfort. He seemed determined to push through whatever he was feeling.

"That's good." Tessa put a hand on his arm, stopping him before he could begin another rep. "We don't want to overstress the joint or cause more pain than you're already in."

"I'm good."

"No, you're not. You're pushing too hard. That's only going to lengthen the recovery process. Lie down." She patted the exam table. "I'll have Dana come in and start some heat and stimulation while I print out exercises you can do at home."

"Anyone ever tell you that you're bossy?" Seth asked, standing up and stretching despite her instructions.

His question surprised a laugh out of her.

"More than one person. I took it as a compliment every time."

"This should be an interesting relationship, then." He used the hem of his shirt to wipe sweat from his brow and, without a smile, aimed his blue eyes straight at her. "I need to run. We can try heat and stim next time."

She didn't argue. Seth had to make the commitment to his recovery, and he had to be the one to follow through on it. "That's fine. I'll want to see you twice a week for at least a month. Why don't you set that up with Dana? I'll print out the exercises and meet you up front."

She tossed the words over her shoulder as she walked into the hall.

"Tessa!" Dana hurried toward her, a small package in her hand. "Are you finished?"

"Yes. I want to see him twice a week for the next few weeks. Can you set that up?"

"No problem. But, before I do, this was sitting on the reception desk when I got back from bringing Ms. Edna to room 3." She held up the package as if she'd just won the lottery.

"What's in it?" Tessa asked, impatient to move on to the next client. Like Seth, Edna was early, and that suited Tessa just fine. Keeping busy would keep the memories at bay, and she needed that.

"I don't know. It's addressed to you. Why don't you open it and find out?" Dana thrust the package into Tessa's hands, the brown paper packaging cool and a little rough. A white envelope was taped to the top, Tessa's name scrawled across it in bold black letters.

"So…" Dana leaned close, her eyes gleaming with excitement. "Who's it from? A boyfriend? A secret admirer?"

"No to both," Tessa responded, her gaze jumping to Seth's room. He stood in the open doorway, his good shoulder resting against the doorjamb, his arms crossed over his chest. Even his forearms were well muscled.

She pulled her gaze away, focusing on the package again. "I'll open it later. I need to print a couple of things for Seth. Set up his next few appointments, okay? Then run the sonogram on Edith's knee. We'll start her on the treadmill when you're finished."

She didn't wait for Dana's response, just hurried into Sam's oversize office. As a part-time employee, she didn't have her own space, but Sam had given her free use of his.

She set the package on his desk, doing her best to ignore it as she booted up the computer and found the exercises she wanted to print. No one sent her packages. Getting one on the fifth anniversary of Daniel's death seemed…ominous.

She shut the thought down, jotting a few notes in Seth's file as the printer ran. Crisp winter sun poured in through the window behind her. But it couldn't warm the chill that filled her heart.

Five years, but she could still hear the wails of terrified children, still feel the blazing African sun, still smell the blood.

She gagged, stepping away from the desk and the package, and wishing she could step away from the memories.

Just then, the package moved, something inside of it scratching against the box. Tessa jumped back, knocked into a rock-hard chest and swung around, a scream dying on her lips as she looked into Seth's vivid-blue eyes.

"Careful."

Seth held his newest physical therapist's arm and looked into her misty-green eyes. Her skin had gone three shades of pale, and she looked as if she was about to jump out of her skin. Based on the way she was eyeing the package Dana had handed her, he'd say it had something to do with whatever was in it.

"You're supposed to be setting up appointments with Dana," she snapped, her eyes flashing with irritation and something else. Something that looked an awful lot like fear.

Leave it alone, his brain warned, but he'd never been all that good at taking orders.

"I already did. Now I need the printouts so I can get on with my day." He touched the box, his curiosity piqued. "What's this?"

"A wrapped box," she responded dryly, grabbing a few pages from a printer and thrusting them toward him. "Here are the exercises. I'll see you next week."

Her dismissal couldn't have been more obvious, but Seth wasn't quite ready to go. Tessa and her mystery box were way more interesting than desk duty, and that's what he'd be heading for when he left her office.

He tucked the printouts into his coat pocket and lifted the box. It was light and just a little off balance, as if whatever was in it fit in one corner, leaving the rest of the space empty.

"Put that down," she said without looking away from her computer.

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