Part of the Coltons Series
He’d been hired to protect her…not fall back in love!
Acting as his ex’s bodyguard pushes Stanton Colton beyond his limits. Thanks to Dominique de la Vega’s determined investigative reporting, he’s vowed to keep her safe…and guard his own heart. As Dominique delves deep to get her story, Stanton works to find out who’s put a bullseye on her back. But can their rekindled attraction survive a threat on her life?
Heat Level: Boat Rocker
Books in this series:
Find out more about the Coltons Series →
Read an Excerpt
Share This Excerpt
The elevator dinged at the building’s lowest level and opened to the garage’s concrete floor.
He motioned for her to wait as he exited and cleared the area. There were security cameras on his vehicles and he’d checked them from the apartment before they left, on a phone app. The garage was well lit, clean, and there were no signs of bad guys. No matter, he’d feel better once he had Dominique safely in a car and they were en route to the police station.
“Okay, good to go.” He held out his hand to her. It was an automatic gesture, but not one he’d do with a typical client. When she slipped hers into his, he vowed to stop overanalyzing himself, his thoughts. A lot of things were different when it came to guarding her. It didn’t matter as long as the end result was the same: Dominique remained unharmed.
As they walked toward one of several Colton Protection vehicles stored in the parking garage, he allowed the naturalness of being with her sync with his protection skills. The mark of a good bodyguard wasn’t how big or badass they were, although that helped. No, it was being able to accept one’s surroundings and utilize them to your advantage. As long as Dominique trusted him enough to stay by his side and follow his lead, he’d keep her safe.
“Here.” He held open the passenger door of a low-slung sports car and waited as she got in. Dang it, he should have considered her aches and bruises and picked the SUV parked next to it. But he wanted to ensure a quick escape if need be.
“You’ve improved your transportation means in two years.” She spoke as he started the engine and backed out of the space.
“Business expansion.” He was half listening as he prepared to egress the garage, his gaze constantly scanning the concrete floor, the walls, the spaces between other vehicles.
“The blacked-out windows are cool.”
He drove up two ramps, entered the street-level floor. The exit was in view, onto a one-way, side-access street. Traffic moved along, toward Main Street. The gate arm at the sentry station was down, but was automatic. It would rise as he approached.
“Stanton!” Dominique’s scream pierced the air a split second before the gunfire exploded.
“Get down!” His arm reached toward her but then he pulled back when he saw she was already under the dash. He used both hands to maneuver, flooring it through the exit, past the garage tender’s booth. Wood splintered as the barrier gate arm broke over the front hood and split in half on the windshield, which thankfully remained intact. Colton Protection had paid dearly for the precautionary extras, including bulletproof windows and double-framed reinforced doors. Still, depending upon the type of bullets flying, “bulletproof” could be a misnomer. He’d had an armored car shot at by tank piercers last month, in the desert between LA And Las Vegas. Their client, a multibillionaire oilman, had remained unharmed, as had the agent assigned, but the car was destroyed.
He drove through the exit, the pings of bullets ricocheting off the car’s body filling his ears, and when he heard a definitive crack, he looked at the passenger side to see a long line across the passenger window, with Dominique’s head popping up to take a photo with her camera.
“Stay down! What the heck are you thinking?”
“I wanted to get photos of the shooters.” Triumph rang in her voice and he wanted to stop the car and make her see how risky this all was. The impulse rattled him, right in the midst of his automatic motions to keep her safe and his decision to trust her to stay under the dash.
“We don’t need photos! We need to get out of here.” He turned toward Main Street, clipping two parked cars and a bicycle chained to a lamppost as they sped down the narrow road. The car’s extra layers of protection made it take turns a bit wider at times. He ignored the wreckage he left behind as well as he ignored the constant crunch of numbers his accountant fired at him for incidental damages. Colton Protection was insured for any vehicles damaged during the course of duty.
“They’re blurry anyway.” She grumbled but at least she was slouched down, as safe as she could be at this moment.
A black Porsche cleared the exit behind him and was on his tail almost immediately. The armored car’s heft made it an easy target in the short run. Stanton knew Grave Gulch as well as the backyard he’d played in as a boy. He’d lose these jerks with a lot of concentration and a little luck.
Instead of turning left toward the station, he went right, then left down a side alley, turning onto the street that paralleled the main drag. Up and down the side streets, farther and farther away from the center of the city, he kept up the avoidance maneuvers until they were safely on the highway that led out of town, toward Lake Michigan.
“You’re circling back, right?” Dominique’s query broke his state of flow—the place his mind went during an op. Where nothing existed except doing whatever it took to keep a client safe. He finally let out a breath and risked a glance at her. Instead of her earlier pallor and the stressed posture, Dominique was the energized version of herself, her enthusiasm contagious. A bark of laughter escaped his parched throat.
“You get off on this, don’t you?” The words escaped his mouth and he knew he wasn’t over the adrenaline rush either, not by a long shot. It was always a kick in the pants to outwit the bad guys, no matter how many times he did it. But it wouldn’t last for long, and he had to stay miles ahead of the cartel clowns.
“If by ‘get off’ you mean I had something to focus on other than my mind’s replay of that loser’s paws crushing my throat, yes. Where are we going, Stanton?”
He gripped and released his hands on the wheel a few times, double-, triple- and quadruple-checked the side and rearview mirrors. He’d lost them. For now. He’d never expected Jimenez’s outfit knew what his vehicles looked like, where he stored the extras. They wouldn’t outwit him again.
“What can I do? I’ll call 911.”
“Hang on a sec.” He used the hands-free phone to call in to GGPD, directly to his sister.
“Chief Melissa Colton.” Melissa’s warm voice answered with its customary professional clip.
“Melissa. Stanton. We’re on speaker and Dominique de La Vega is with me. I called the station number because I’m reporting an attack.” He outlined what had happened in the parking garage, and the ensuing pursuit. “Troy expected us to show up at GGPD to file a report. I assume you’ve heard that Dominique was assaulted this morning on her way to an interview with the trial witness for Charlie Hamm. Witness’s name is Johnny Blanchard. Both Dominique and I agree that this is most likely the work of Pablo Jimenez. He’s the only one has everything to lose if her story uncovers evidence of witness tampering. We’re not heading into the station this afternoon after all. We’ll swing in tomorrow, or the next day, whenever it’s safe. I’m not messing around with threats from Jimenez.”
“That’s wise. Troy’s filled me in about the attack. I’m sorry, Dominique. Glad Stanton was there to help out. Where are you and Dominique going? To Colton Protection headquarters?”
“No. I can’t risk that they knew who I was, what I do. We’re going to the lake house.”
“Gotcha. Be safe, bro. And Dominique?”
“Hi, Melissa.” Dominique’s tone was wary.
“My brother’s the best in the business. Best listen to him.”
The call ended and he continued westward, as though drawn by a beacon.
“That was your sister’s friendly way of telling me to stop bothering her police department. And it’s pretty clear she still blames me for our breakup and hurting you.”
He chose to ignore the reference to them, focused on the case. “Yeah, she’s not happy about the Gazette’s endless inquiries. But she’s as concerned as anyone about the possibility of corruption in GGPD.” As chief of police, Melissa had done a fantastic job. Her efforts were currently buffeted by a constant barrage of crime, and the last thing she needed was the local paper questioning the integrity of her force. Stanton felt for his sister, but also hoped she’d get to the bottom of GGPD’s bad apple barrel quickly.
“She must be stressed to the max. But still, then why won’t she talk to me about it? She’s refused every single request for an interview.”
“You’ll have to take that up with her.”
“Please tell me that by the ‘lake house,’ you don’t mean your parents’ home.” Dread soaked every one of her words.
He couldn’t help it; he laughed. A record for him, to find humor during an op. And he’d done it several times with Dominique. “You used to love our weekends out there.”
“Sure I did, when your family accepted me as one of their own, and not the traitor I became the minute we split. Answer the question, Stanton.” Her icy tone told him she wasn’t reminiscing about the times they’d skinny-dipped in the hot
He hesitated. He didn’t have to take her to his parents’ place. They could go out to his family’s cabin, in the remote woods of Michigan’s “mitten,” but that was at least a five-hour drive on a good day. It was impractical for him, personally, to take her to his parents’ place, but it was the best idea he had in terms of her safety. Frank and Italia kept a very low profile for security reasons, as his father traveled frequently for his job since they’d become empty nesters, leaving his mother alone in the big, rambling home. There certainly was plenty of room at the house, so combined with the optimal security provisions, it was an ideal safe house.
“Stanton?” Annoyance weighed her words.
“Yes. We’re going to my parents’.”
She huffed sharply in displeasure and he knew if he took his gaze from the road he’d face her ferocious expression, the one that always made him think of a lioness.
“I’m not going. No way. A hotel would be a better idea. You lost the crooks—what does it matter where we hole up until the threat passes? Please tell me you’re joking. Just circle back, and let’s go to GGPD. You lost the shooters miles ago. I doubt they were able to follow us out of downtown even if you hadn’t, with the traffic and construction.”
“I’m not messing around here, Dominique. Someone tried to kill you this morning. Do you have any doubts that they meant to kill you? You don’t seem to know when to stop. Last month you reported on Tatiana Davison, how her father’s a serial killer. Besides digging into Tatiana’s private life, how do you think Len Davison took you exposing his daughter like that? But getting yourself in the crosshairs of a serial killer isn’t enough, now you had to stir up the hornet’s nest that is this cartel.”
“I was doing my job, I am doing my job.” She hadn’t been thrilled to report on Tatiana, but it was part of her assignment. “But yes, you’re right. Those men who shot at us want me dead.”
“Right. Jimenez will send in more men the closer you get to the truth. I can’t risk keeping you at my place or anywhere in the city.”
“What’s wrong with my apartment? You know how to drive anywhere without a tail.”
“Come on, Dominique. Stop being obtuse. I know how intelligent you are, remember? They already know where you live. We’re talking about some very powerful people here. Think about it. If you want this story done right, you need to write it. That requires following leads that will be inconsequential if you’re dead. You of all people know the resources a successful drug cartel has at its disposal.”
He saw her blanch in his peripheral vision and he wished he could soften the blow for her, but if this was what was needed to make sure she didn’t do anything to add to her risk, then so be it.
“I do know their power. They killed Charlie while he was in prison, a place they illegally sent him to.”
“There are probably many other victims yet to be discovered. It appears they’ve infiltrated the legal system.”
She nodded, her eyes downcast. “Okay. You’ve made your point.” She sighed, and empathy for her situation yanked at the calm detachment that had taken over from the minute they left his apartment. “I can do this.”
He gave a quick glance her way and bit back a laugh—Dominique looked like a victim about to walk the plank and not a grown woman en route to a luxury estate on Lake Michigan.
The more he thought about his decision, the better he felt. His family home was the best place for now. Removed from Grave Gulch, on a rural route, yet fully modern so that Dominique could access Wi-Fi and work. His parents were meticulous with their security, he’d made certain of it, and he’d double-check all of the systems once they arrived. Unless they were directly followed, they wouldn’t find Dominique out here.
“You’ll be able to hike all you want.” He didn’t want to examine why it was so important to him for her to have something to look forward to.
“It’d have to be with you, though.” Her flat tone stung.
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic. But yeah, you’re not getting rid of me, not even in the woods.” No place was safe until she had her story and GGPD had Pablo Jimenez behind bars, along with his troop of thugs.
“I have no problem with you doing your job. My father’s paid you to do it. I’m not happy about being forced to spend time with a man who belittles me and thinks I’m ‘obtuse.’”
Crap. He’d let the words fly when all he’d wanted to do was communicate that he knew how intelligent she was.
“I didn’t mean it personally.”
“Save it, Stanton. I’ve got to get back to figuring out my next steps. The sooner I get corroborating evidence that Charlie’s conviction, and death, were criminally motivated, the sooner GGPD can straighten itself out. And if we’re lucky, we’ll catch the big one.”
He didn’t have to ask her what she meant by “the big one.” His gut took a nosedive at the stark truth of the danger she’d put herself in. How many journalists were willing to go after criminal mastermind Pablo Jimenez? And why did it have to be Dominique?
Most important, why did he still care too damn much?
Dominique’s head pounded and her neck was beyond sore from the roughing up Jimenez’s hitman had imparted earlier, but nothing compared to her fury at the way Stanton so easily slipped back into his condescending tone. She knew he didn’t mean to sound so dismissive; when it came to security details, he was top in his field, without question. What was easy to see as complete arrogance was in fact his confidence. No one would want anything less from their bodyguard. But as the Michigan countryside whipped by and day turned to twilight, she couldn’t stop the sense of complete powerlessness that at once left her despondent and outraged. Not wanting Soledad to worry about her, she texted her, gave her a brief overview of her day. When her sister replied with “hang in there,” she wished she was with her now instead of facing her past with Stanton and worrying if she’d live to have a future. Since she didn’t do self-pity as a rule, she had to channel her energy into being “ticked off.”
There’s another way you used to work off your frustration with Stanton.
Heat hit her cheeks as quickly as it pooled in her midsection, then between her legs. A giggle bubbled up and she forced it back, unwilling to share any of her inner thoughts with him. It was ridiculous. She was being immature at best. Stanton was right: she could have died today, before she found justice for Charlie. The story might have been squashed right there. She kept backup, hard-copy files at the Grave Gulch Gazette, but it wouldn’t be the same if something happened to her. The reporter who dug up all the evidence and connected the pieces was always the best one to file the story. It was hard enough keeping her enthusiasm up for a story when it was her piece, her passion. Another reporter couldn’t be expected to carry the baton for her. Not when the Gazette was swamped with countless leads relating Pablo Jimenez’s ring here in Grave Gulch. Charlie’s death was just one of too many tragic stories surrounding Jimenez’s Michigan operation.
The silence between them grated on her.
“This isn’t like us.” The words shot out of her mouth and she fidgeted with her seat belt. “One thing we’ve always been able to do is talk. It doesn’t feel right, always trying to cut each other off.” Her voice still shook, and it sounded like her voice box had been replaced by a toad’s, but the quiet had grown too heavy. They still had another twenty minutes to the Colton lakefront estate, and she didn’t want to see his parents for the first time in so long while she and Stanton were at each other’s throats.
Italia Colton’s intensity was going to be tough enough to cope with. Dominique had no doubt that the family matriarch would question her motives about spending time with Stanton again.
“No, it doesn’t feel right. I agree.” He shifted in his seat and she realized he might be tired. Where was her compassion? With Charlie Hamm.
“It’s been a long day for you, too, Stanton.”
He shot her a quick, wry glance. “Every day is a long one at Colton Protection. You know that. Your hours are as nuts as mine.”
“Yeah. Although I’ve been thinking about forcing myself to take two full days off each week.” She’d committed to one, but then Charlie’s death had launched her back into workaholic mode.
His grunt should have been a typical male response, but to her, it was so achingly familiar that tears flooded her vision. Her mind may have let go of Stanton and their connection, but her body, her heart, certainly hadn’t.
He chuckled. “The day you take a decent amount of time off to take care of yourself will be—”
He cut himself off, focused on the road. Fear sliced through her. “What is it?” Had he spotted the Porsche again in the rearview mirror? Or another follower?
“Relax. We’re safe. Give me a minute.” His profile was unreadable in the dusk, no matter that they were driving toward the setting sun. Stanton exited the highway, slowing at the bottom of the ramp to turn right, and followed a local road for a mile or so. Into the entrance of a park where they’d once spent a lot of time hiking, camping and exploring.
“It’ll be closed, Stanton.” Her voice hitched on his name and she silently cursed. No need to sound as if she was excited to be alone with him, even if she were willing to admit it to herself.
“I know a back way in. We won’t be long.” He took a side road, and within a few hundred yards they were on gravel, rocks dinging off the bottom of the chassis.
“This isn’t the best car for these dirt roads. Aren’t you worried you’ll damage it?” She raised her voice over the noise.
“It’s more than a typical vehicle, remember?”
Sure enough, the car acted more like a four-wheel drive than a fine-tuned sports car. “I’m impressed.”
The dash lights reflected off his white teeth as he smiled. “Here we go.” He pulled into what looked like a camping site, except it had one special feature. It was up on a hill and overlooked Lake Michigan, still several miles distant. A full moon rose against the inky blue sky and Dominique didn’t think she’d witnessed anything so beautiful in a long while. She had been working too much. And, truth be told, seemed to have lost her desire to seek out the beauty in everything. Since their breakup, her world had turned from an assortment of flavors to vanilla.
Stanton cut the engine and rested his hand on the steering wheel’s twelve o’clock position as he stared straight ahead. His body language was clear. This was to be a conversation, pure and simple. She bit her lower lip, chastised herself for wishing they could both let down their guard, be who they used to be.
No. That woman was gone. In her place was a hardened professional who knew how to get a story down. The Charlie Hamm story could very well give the Grave Gulch Gazette, and her, national attention. Nowhere in the mix was getting involved with an ex.
She waited in the silence, unwilling to guess at his motive for stopping at the romantic spot.
“We need to talk, Dominique, and I didn’t want to do it with the distraction of driving. The last thing we deserve, in the middle of all of this, is for my parents to add stress to the situation. I’m still taking you to their home, because I do believe it’s the safest place for now, but we should have some ground rules established. The first is always remembering that your life is in danger.”
So was her heart.