After a stalker breaks into her home, internet entrepreneur Bee Langston decides Kelly Connolly is the only man who can help her—but seeking help from the former Marine isn’t easy, especially after she made a spectacular fool of herself trying to kiss the sinfully sexy bodyguard.
When Kelly spots Bee weaving her way through the Houston nightspot where he’s working security, all those feelings he’s desperately tried to deny for his best friend’s sister come flooding to the surface. He’ll do anything to keep her safe, even if means getting up close and personal with the one woman he simply can’t have.
Soon, Bee’s stalker isn’t his only problem. His gambling addict father is tangled in a mess of debts to two of Houston’s toughest loan sharks. With the family gym on the line, there’s only one way for Kelly to make everything right. He agrees to fight for the Albanian mob in an underground bare-knuckle fighting tournament.
But winning the tournament and saving his family’s legacy comes at a high price—one that just might cost Bee her life.
The thumping, stretched beats of the trap track ricocheted off the walls of the night club and slammed into Kelly’s brain in a way that made his ears ache. Rolling his aching neck, he moved around the packed dance floor of Faze and scanned the crowd for any signs of impending trouble. So far, the night had been quiet but he never counted on it staying that way for long.
He hadn’t pulled any bouncer shifts at the club since Yuri, the billionaire who owned the place, had finished the expansion of the space. It had taken him almost an hour to get his bearings. He couldn’t believe how many damn people were packed into the joint.
Apparently being the hottest nightspot in Houston wasn’t enough. The Russian tycoon seemed determined to put Faze on the map as one of the clubs worldwide. Considering he’d already done it with his club in Paris and the one in Moscow, Kelly figured Yuri would push Faze onto that extremely elite list by the end of the year.
A couple of fanboys hanging around the DJ booth caught his eye. Cobalt’s latest album was burning up the charts. Because there weren’t many female DJs operating at her level of notoriety, she garnered a lot of attention. Tonight, her devoted followers had come out in droves to hear her drop new tracks and mixes.
As Kelly angled in that direction, he studied the two guys pressed up against the booth. They weren’t very old. Nineteen or twenty, close to Coby’s age. In his many years a Marine and then working in private security, he had developed a good sense for reading people. These two were music lovers and maybe even wannabe artists but they meant Coby no harm. Even so, Araceli, the general manager at the club, had a standing order that no one got close to the entertainers.
It took a flick of his fingers to send the two men back from the booth. He did it with a smile so as not to provoke an incident. The two guys nodded understandingly and did as directed without causing a scene. He was glad to see the pair weren’t going to behave like dicks about it.
Behind her laptops and audio gear, Coby shifted her headphones and tapped her chest. Kelly understood the signal and reached into the pocket of the black blazer he was required to wear on duty to retrieve a couple of VIP after-party cards. He handed them to the guys and bent down to address them. “Stick around after we close. Coby will visit with you for a while.”
Kelly nodded and continued his round. A familiar face coming through the front entrance caused his heart to stutter wildly in his chest. His reaction to spotting her irritated him. Of all the women in the world to have that effect on him it had to be Beatrice Langston—the one woman he simply couldn’t have.
There were few rules that Kelly followed without question but dating the baby sister of the best friend who died in your arms? That was one line he couldn’t cross—even if it ripped his damn heart out of his chest to see Bee with anyone else.
But she was alone tonight and looked tense and almost fearful. If she hadn’t been on Yuri’s list of VIPs, Big V, the club’s head bouncer and security head, never would have allowed her past the velvet rope in that casual getup. Among the sea of scantily clad women in curve-hugging dresses and criminally short miniskirts, Bee looked out of place in her vintage Rice University t-shirt and skinny jeans. Why the hell was she still wearing her backpack?
The sight of her so under-dressed and with that strange expression on her face tipped Kelly’s internal alarm. Something wasn’t right. Sticking to the shadowy edge of the club, he matched her weaving movements through the dancing throng. He caught up with her a few steps from the DJ booth and tapped her shoulder.
Startled by his touch, Bee pivoted toward him with her balled fist raised and ready to strike. His battle-hardened instincts were instantly activated. He closed his fingers around her smaller hand, slowing the momentum of her swing with his much stronger arm. “Bee!”
The sound of his voice and his friendly face must have finally registered. The panic in her dark eyes instantly fled. Her shoulders slumped with relief. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Concerned, he stepped closer to her. The urge to brush her wispy bangs behind her ears and cup her sweet face overwhelmed him but he shoved it aside. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
She gulped and glanced around nervously. “I just didn’t want to be alone tonight. I thought I’d come hang out with Coby.” She offered him a stiff smile. “I need to troubleshoot that new software I built for her anyway.”
Kelly wasn’t fooled by her casual act. Where was the easy, flirtatious grin she always shot his way? Bee never missed a chance to push the boundaries of their relationship. What had her so scared tonight?
He slid his fingers under her chin and tipped her head. Unable to avoid his gaze, she swallowed hard again. He lowered his face so he didn’t have to shout to be heard over the music. “The truth, Bee. What’s wrong?”
She gripped his wrist. “Someone was in my apartment.”
The words punched him right in the gut. “What! When? Tonight?”
She nodded. “I came home from working late at the coffee shop and there was a package in my living room.”
Kelly’s stomach dropped like a runaway elevator. Instantly on alert, he slipped his arm around her shoulders and dragged her closer. His practiced gaze scanned the club for anyone that looked out of place. Dipping his head, he asked, “Did you call the police?”
Incredulous, he gawked at her. “Why the hell not, Bee?”
Her lips tightened. “What are they going to do? Dust for prints? Tell me to get a restraining order against an anonymous stalker?”
His eyes narrowed. Frustration flared within his chest. “What stalker?”
She licked her lips and glanced away from him. No doubt she understood how upset he was at being in the dark about all of this craziness. “Someone has been following me and leaving sick photos for me to find.”
He swore softly and tried not to grit his teeth. “And you didn’t think I should know about all this?”
The light overhead shifted to a pop of yellow that illuminated her beautiful face. Her eyes flashed with anger. “Why do you think I’ve been calling and texting you?”
The realization that the calls he had been dodging put her in this incredibly unsafe situation made him feel like shit. “I’m sorry, Bee. I meant to call you back once the detail was over but—”
His jaw clenched. “I didn’t.”
Before he could make a better apology, the bud tucked into his ear clicked. “Kelly? We need you up in the VIP section.”
His lips settled into a frustrated line as Ryan’s voice dinged his ear. He lifted his arm and spoke into the mic attached at his cuff. “Copy. On my way.”
Grasping Bee’s smaller hand, he tugged her over to the DJ booth where Coby watched them curiously. He clasped her trim waist and lifted her petite weight without much effort at all. Her hands flew to his shoulders as he placed her on the other side of the short wall that acted as a barrier between the entertainment and the dancers. Her eyes were still wide at his manhandling when he pointed a finger at her. “Don’t even think about leaving without me. You stay with Coby until we close. I’ll come get you. Understood?”
She nodded. “Okay.”
Satisfied that she would be safe, Kelly headed for the VIP section and tried to ignore how damn good it felt to hold Bee. He refused to acknowledge the way his heartbeat had sped up when their bodies had brushed together, her breasts so soft against his hard chest. He really didn’t want to think about how badly he’d wanted to nuzzle her neck and inhale the sweet, bright apple scent that she favored. Remembering the short but sizzling kiss they had shared at New Year’s sent heat rolling through his belly.
Jeb had entrusted him with Bee’s care. If his friend were alive today, he would have kicked Kelly’s ass up and down the street for the dirty thoughts racing through his head right now.
Up in the VIP section, he spotted Ryan watching a loud group of guys. He immediately recognized the men as professional baseball players. One of them had a nasty reputation for picking up—and roughing up—college girls exactly like the perky blonde one perched on his lap. How he’d gotten by Big V at the door perplexed Kelly. The giant bouncer and ex-Army sergeant never let assholes like that into the club.
Phoebe, the harried host of their table, smacked away the grabby hand of one of the ball players. Kelly’s jaw tightened at the sight of a Faze employee having to defend herself against some prick who thought his high credit card limit and mediocre batting average gave him the right to abuse her.
Movement in the far corner of the VIP section caught Kelly’s eye. Yuri stepped into view. He flashed an irritated glance at the offending party and gave a little jerk of his head. His message sent, Yuri slipped back into the ultra-private zone partitioned with gauzy curtains.
Kelly and Ryan didn’t rely on their wrist mics and headsets to communicate. Like most of the private security agents on LSG payroll, they were both former military. Where Kelly had been a Marine, Ryan had been a corpsman in the Navy. He’d served alongside numerous Marine units during his many deployments so they were on the same page when it came to situations like this.
There were two ways this would play out—an easy ejection of the group from the club or an altercation. After the relative quiet of the night, Kelly had a sneaking suspicion punches were about to be thrown. Working for Yuri as a bodyguard, he’d learned that the billionaire had a fondness for getting things done quietly and with finesse. This was one time when he might have to step on Ryan’s toes a bit to keep the situation calm.
“Look, guys, you were told to keep it down but it seems like your party is unable to comply. Management has asked that you settle your bill and head on out for the night.” Ryan diplomatically offered the group a chance to save face and leave without a scene. “You crossed a line touching one of our employees.”
“Come on, man! It was a love-tap. You can’t expect us not to reach out and touch the merchandise when it’s on display like that.” The spokesman for the group had consumed enough alcohol to activate the stupid section of his brain. “Look, we’ll leave her a nice tip, and it’ll be fine.”
“Oh, you’re going to leave her a very nice tip—but you’re all out of here. Now.” Ryan leveled one of those icy glares. “Quietly.”
The man closest to Ryan shot to his feet and purposely knocked into the bouncer. Kelly groaned inwardly and took a quick step forward to make his presence known. Like Ryan, he was taller and stockier than the athletes attempting to make a ruckus. “Is there a problem?”
“No.” The smartest one in the group gently insinuated himself between his friend and Ryan. “We’ll pay our tab and go. Can, uh, can you get our driver?”
Phoebe appeared from the sidelines of the almost dust-up with the small black folder holding the check. “He’s already waiting out back.”
While Ryan and the hothead remained in a staring match, Kelly carefully watched for any signs that things were about to kickoff. The guy paying the tab made an outraged sign when he saw the bill but one look from Kelly prevented a protest. With a swipe of his pen, he settled the tab and handed back the check.
Kelly put a gentle hand on the shoulder of the young woman to prevent her from following the ball player with the bad reputation. He wouldn’t let Bee leave with a man like that and he sure as hell wasn’t letting this woman either. “Not tonight, sweetheart.”
She shot him a strange look. “But I—”
Kelly shook his head. “Believe me. You don’t want what he’s offering.”
A rough hand shoved at his chest. “Mind your own fucking business.”
Kelly carefully pushed the player’s hand off his chest. “Don’t touch me again.”
“Or what?” He sneered and wavered on unsteady feet.
Kelly took one step forward and invaded the man’s personal space. “Or this Marine is going to unleash the fucking beast that kept him alive through four tours in hell. One of us will be leaving in an ambulance. Understand?”
The drunk blanched and nodded shakily. He backed away slowly and didn’t even try to make eye contact with the girl as his group beat a hasty retreat. Ryan shadowed them out the back exit while Phoebe started clearing away the table. The coed looked around, almost as if scoping out the joint for a better offer, before settling on him.
Flipping her hair, she licked her lips and smiled coyly. “So, soldier, you want to dance?”
His eye twitched at the soldier remark. She obviously didn’t realize there was a world of difference between a soldier and a Marine. This didn’t seem like the time to enlighten her. “No, thanks. I’m on shift.”
She trailed one manicured finger down his chest and stopped right above his belt buckle. “Maybe later?”
Her touch didn’t have the effect she intended. Instead of feeling good, it made his skin crawl. This woman was a knockout with that bombshell figure. There was a time when he would have craved the touch of a woman exactly like this. Now he found himself pulling away from her and trying to ease his rejection with a kind smile. “I’m flattered but I’m taken.”
Taken? Where the hell had that come from?
Undaunted, she shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll see you around later.”
“My answer won’t change. You’d better find someone else to take you home. Be more careful this time.”
While Ryan dealt with the aftermath of tossing the group, Kelly kept his eye on the VIP lounge. He moved closer to the balcony overlooking the dance floor below and allowed his gaze to drift to Bee. Standing next to Coby, she now wore a borrowed set of lime green headphones but kept the ear closest to her friend uncovered so they could talk as she tapped away at the laptop opened in front of her. The screen lit up her face with an ethereal bluish glow. Even in that safe spot, she seemed tense and nervous.
Yuri sidled up next to him at the balcony. “Does she ever stop working?”
Kelly snorted. “That question from you, huh?”
Yuri laughed. “Careful. You’re starting to sound like Lena.”
“I didn’t see her tonight. Is she away on business?”
“No, she’s having a night with her friends.”
“You’ll tell her I said hi?” Of all the security clients he’d ever guarded, Kelly had enjoyed Lena’s detail the most.
“Absolutely,” Yuri answered with a smile. Then, gesturing toward Bee with a bob of his head, he said, “Backing her might be the best business decision I made this decade. The advertising on LookIt has been phenomenal and that cloud program for music that she’s about to beta test will be huge. Have you seen this new program she’s built for Coby so she can interact with her fans? Musicians will be all over it.”
Kelly shook his head. “Tech isn’t my thing.”
Yuri studied him for an unnervingly long moment. “You should start brushing up on it. LookIt grabbed its twenty millionth user this earlier this month. Bee and I have discussed the outlook of the company and she’s considering dropping out of Rice altogether to move forward with the expansion. Whatever she decides, she’s going to need a strong supporter in her corner. Especially now that there’s an offer on the table for LookIt,” he added almost as afterthought.
Kelly’s stomach clenched upon realizing he was that out of touch with Bee. “What offer?”
Yuri seemed surprised. “She didn’t tell you?”
Guilt squeezed his chest like a vise. “I’ve been out of the country for the last few weeks. Dimitri convinced me to take a detail for a sheikh and his family. I’ve been bouncing between Houston and Dubai.”
“Well, I’ll let her give you the details. Personally, I think it’s a smart move to slide LookIt under the umbrella of a multinational internet-related corporation. Whether she agrees to sell her baby is another matter entirely. But,” Yuri tapped Kelly’s arm to draw his attention, “you need to convince her that it’s time to hire round-the-clock protection. She might have been able to exist in that safe little bubble on campus but once the news leaks about this deal or even how much advertising cash LookIt is drawing?” Yuri shook his head. “She’s going to be an easy target.”
Kelly’s protective instinct ignited. “No one is going to hurt Bee.”
“I said the same thing about Lena once. We both know how that ended.”
The sadness and guilt lacing Yuri’s voice reminded Kelly of the day a fellow bodyguard had tried to kill Yuri and Lena. His inability to see Jake as the threat still haunted him. “We both learned something from that experience.”
“Yes, we did.” Yuri clapped him on the back. “I need to go network and mingle but I wanted to chat with you first. I hardly see you anymore.” With a lopsided smile, the billionaire added, “I can’t decide if that’s a good or bad thing.”
Kelly snorted with amusement as Yuri left to work his way through the VIP section. That giant man-beast Vasya trailed his boss. The Hulk-sized Russian spoke perfect English but he rarely uttered more than two words together in any language. Still, Kelly had enjoyed working with him. The guy took pride in a job well done and that was something he really respected.
When Ryan returned to his usual post, Kelly moved back down to the main dance floor. Though he maintained focus on his job, he allowed his gaze to wander to Bee every now and then. As instructed, she remained with Coby, safe behind the barrier.
While he worked, Kelly couldn’t stop thinking about how disappointed Jeb would be in him. He stretched his tight neck again and tried not to remember why he had put so much distance between himself and Bee. That kiss!
There weren’t many people who could throw him off-kilter but Bee was one of them. His mouth went dry as the memory of her soft lips pressed to his made his entire body buzz. His gut clenched as the image of her hurt face flashed before his eyes. Shutting her down and denying them both the one thing he wanted more than anything in the world had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done—but it was for the best.