Strike Fear

Head of the personal safety division for Hawk Elite Security, Tan is serious about teaching his clients how to stay safe. But, with a file two inches thick confirming Elizabeth Whitney as a world champion athlete, he's prepared to take on his newest assignment as the vacation he hasn't had in over five years. A little instruction, a couple hockey games on the side, and he'll be on his way to the next spoiled rich kid.

Elizabeth takes one look at Tancredo Byrnes and it doesn't matter that she can perform a triple lutz-toe loop blindfolded; clumsy becomes her middle name. Though trusting people outside her family has never been her strong suit, she finds herself drawn to the easy-going man who is supposed to make her into a superwoman. But she's been burned by those fickle feelings of attraction before and isn't about to let them ruin her life again.

As their training intensifies, the threats to Elizabeth darken, and Tan realizes that what should have been a cake walk is a fight between life and death.

Cover design by elaina Lee at "for the muse design"

Cover design by elaina Lee at "for the muse design"

Prologue

Rain fell from the sky on the day the prisoners were released.

Dark clouds covered the morning sun, sending shadows onto the road and deep into the trees.

Covered by a layer of wet, even the brick of the building glistened. The grounds were soggy and the blacktop puddled. A cleansing. A second chance.

Only the tall shiny, silver fencing stood as a reminder that sometimes what went in didn’t come out. Sometimes, life wasn’t fair.

Watching, Sophia’s heart beat harder as the small group of men crossed the yard to a twelve-passenger van. They were going to be free. Free. She blew out a breath, grabbing her raincoat and pulling it tightly around her neck. A shiver ran up her spine. From the cold?

No.

Because there was one missing from this group. One who should have a second chance.

But he’d been gone a long time…

Because of her. Her lies and deceit. A story to appease her dignity—phony.

A spasm of coughing seized her.

One of the men in line looked up and, seeing her, smiled. He waved.

Sophia rested a hand against her heart, smiled back. Gabriel had always been a good one. So sweet, gentle. He wouldn’t harm a fly. He was an angel, named after an angel.

Just like her son, who hadn’t made it out.

She clenched her shaking fist. Time had changed nothing.

Today she faced the injustice all over again, because if her son had lived, he might have had a second chance as well.

Falsely accused. Unfairly convicted.

…left to die behind bars.

A single tear left a trail down her cheek, and she wiped it away.

She was done crying. After all these years, it was time to move on…

Time to put her sadness aside, do what was right.

 

Chapter One

 

“Jay. I swear. One more word out of you, and I am going to walk straight past this place and let you deal with Dad.” Elizabeth Whitney could usually put her foot down and get her way with the men in her family. This time, not so much.

Jay snorted a laugh.

“I can’t believe this,” she muttered with an intent look through the front windshield. She narrowed her eyes. Rundown looking, graffiti sprayed along the outer walls and two tiny little prison-sized windows where side wall met storefront, this place didn’t give her a sense of security, personal or otherwise. “Did Dad even see this place?”

“You scared?”

Her heart stuttered, but she scoffed. “Of course not.”

Show no fear. She’d grown up repeating that mantra as she fell asleep each night. Her five brothers loved her. She had no doubt. They’d made sure she was smart, strong…and tested. “I can’t believe this is happening all over again.”

“He won’t be able to get to you.” Jay braked at the curb in front of the gym where she was supposed to learn self-defense and laid a hand on her shoulder. He turned her. The look of disappointment on his face told her a lecture was coming. “I know how much you want to fight this, but dad’s right. It can’t hurt to stay on top of your game.”

But it wasn’t a game either. And she hated the fact that fear was being dealt into her life so soon after she’d finally come into her own. “Maybe he rehabilitated. This might be completely unnecessary.”

“Dad doesn’t agree, and frankly, I’m on his side.”

“Oh, you’re never on his side,” she argued feeling ridiculously betrayed. And frustrated. She had too much to do to be stuck here with some dumb jock who thought fighting was the answer. “I have to get back to the shop,” she whispered as she grabbed her gym bag from the floor of the truck. “One hour. This guy has one hour, and I’m outta here, Jay.”

“Whatever, sis. I’ll let Dad know you made it. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Since when has that been an issue?” She questioned. But there had been that one time

“Never.”

“Don’t forget I’ve kicked your butt before.” Elizabeth slammed the door shut because sometimes having the last word was all she could get. She reached the grimy glass door at the front of the building and was pulling it open when her brother rolled the passenger side window down. There was no mistaking the squeaky sound of rusty levers and gears.

“I was five!” He revved the engine and pulled away, leaving her grinning.

The heavy door swung out when she opened it and grimy glass gave way to dingey lighting. Paused on the big blue entry mat that had the image of a hawk woven into it, she considered other options. What the freak was wrong with Gold’s Gym on the other side of town? Her frown deepened at the sound of leather on leather—the easy thwap of glove hitting bag, a speed bag, the rhythm oddly lulling and familiar.

Brothers.

Her entire life surrounded by boys and then men.

Blowing out a breath, she really looked at the place. Clean floors, well-maintained equipment. Nautilus machines. Lifting benches and racks with rows and rows of dumb bells. Okay. She felt a bit like she’d walked onto a movie set. A cheesy eighties movie set at that.

When no one approached her, she dropped her bag near the door and slowly made her way along the outer wall to the back corner where a man worked out. He wore black shorts and no shirt. Of course no shirt. He was bald, but she couldn’t tell if it was an age thing or just preference. She was betting age, though, by the way he wore the dynamite sweatbands around his wrists and head. Totally tubular, dude.

As she came around the edge of the empty boxing ring, her opinion changed with the view. Rock abs and lean, muscular legs. Could be thirties or forties. With a tilt of her head she decided to forgo any more speculation and just enjoy the view.

“Fifty-two,” someone whispered behind her.

Her heart sent an extra strong pump of blood through her body. She shook off the unexpected tremor of fear and turned slowly to a man with the prettiest face, framed by loose, dark curls. He was part Black American, the olive tone in his skin, giving away something a little more Mediterranean.

And the hazel eyes, a cold brown, yellow, and green combo… She could make a costume with the glitter from his eyes. But no smile, and men tended to smile at her, at least at first.

He wore a t-shirt, a tad too tight, and had on running pants and shoes.

She was staring. Her heart pounded, only it wasn’t exactly fear now. Oh, no. The package of a man in front of her wakened a four-years-running libido dormancy.

He looked at her through the tops of those eyes, waiting, and then his brow rose. “You were wondering.”

“Maybe,” she answered, a blush rising on her cheeks, and turned away.

The man with the gloves stopped. He tilted his head, like a dog listens…like someone who doesn’t have vision?

“Hey, Hawk,” the curly-headed guy addressed the boxer, “I’d like you to meet my new client, Elizabeth Whitney. Liz, this is Nathan Hawkins. He owns the place.”

Her frown for the nameless man at her side came from years of dealing with bigger guys who liked to be in control. Wouldn’t it be nice to work with the older guy? The one who wasn’t getting under her skin? “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hawkins.”

“We’re not that formal around here,” Nathan assured her with a smile. “My friends call me Hawk.”

“Very well, Hawk.” Liz glanced at Curly Hair, who was watching her, studying her, and making her nervous. He was waiting for her to make a mistake. She didn’t know how she knew, but…it was in those eyes. Turning back to the boss, she went ahead to kill the cat. “If you don’t mind my asking, how long have you been blind?”

The man grinned. “Couple years now. I have some sight and light perception on a good day. And I have good people. I don’t want you to worry. We’re a team here. Your protection is our priority, nothing will stand in the way of that.”

Horrified, she spoke quickly. “I don’t doubt it. No. My inquiry is curiosity alone. My brother had a teammate years ago…after a hockey accident, he lost his sight. He is still not over it. He started drinking, let himself go. It’s sad, but it must be hard to lose something so crucial to your job. He went from the top of his game, making good money and having scouts looking at him for the NHL, to nothing… Not that sight isn’t important in life—in general. But, I know what it’s like to be cut off from the most important thing. Or what I thought was the most important thing. Not that your work is the only reason worth living. What I mean is, you’re an inspiration.”

Curly hair was staring at her, biting back a grin.

“I’m rambling,” she conceded. “And I’ll shut up now.”

“Hawk’s been at this a long time, long before he started losing his sight. Now we do the things he can’t, but he still runs the place. He still trains the new guys and runs strategies and works out the orders. Blindness doesn’t make your brain stop working. And Hawk has a gift.”

My God, did they have to pass a good looks test to get a job here?

Hawk removed his gloves, pulled a sham from his waistband and rubbed the back of his neck. “What I have is a wife and three kids. And speaking of the wife, I need to get cleaned up. Keep me posted. I’ve got a conference call this morning that might go long, but I’ll be at the house by four, so if you need anything, Tan, just call.”

As they talked business, Elizabeth stepped aside and browsed the wall where picture frames hung in rows along the cement block. The collection was eclectic. Pictures of soldiers from years ago. Family vacations. Boxing events, here and some in other gyms. A few pictures in tropical places. And one of Hawk with a slim woman at his side. The wife most likely, by the way they glowed with contentment and love. She peered closer. And the wedding bands.

People said she’d been married to her skating. Men she dated claimed she was cold and too focused. What they’d meant was not focused on them. And she’d considered them babies and moved on. Never apologizing. No regrets…

And no fear.

The biggest lie she was still telling herself three years later.

***

Tancredo’s new client turned on her heel.

He was close enough that a whiff of air brushed his cheek as she stumbled back, but he grabbed her arm to hold her steady. Firm, toned arms.

He admired the glint of irritation and challenge in her eyes, and he held up his hands, a sort of surrender, to give her space. She obviously didn’t like his being too close. And that was okay for now, but by the end of her lesson, close was going to be her middle name.

Leaving her where she stood, he went to the equipment closet and opened the door.

Her silence behind him caused a smile as he rummaged through a pile of old gloves. She hadn’t come ready to work out. Her jeans were too cute and had rhinestones on the back pockets. Perhaps he had a bit of work cut out for him after all.

“I’m not boxing with you,” she stated dryly, her arms crossed over her chest.

He lifted the gloves, letting them dangle between them. “Daddy wants you to be able to protect yourself.”

Pleased laughter came out of her pretty mouth. He’d missed the joke. He understood that. What he didn’t miss was the crazy pull at the back of his brain at seeing a smile on her face. Okay. A little attraction, he could handle. He cleared his throat.

“So, what you’re saying is, if I’m—say—out for the evening and I get a funny feeling that I’m being followed, I should pull my boxing gloves from my purse and wait for the bell?” She shook her head, her shiny blonde hair shimmering in the bulb that hung from the ceiling. She waved away an explanation he didn’t have and continued. “Whatever you teach me, I have to be able to do in my street clothes…and heels are likely.”

He cringed inside. It was his curse to be surrounded by girlie girls and prissy women. “Point taken. You’d rather wrestle. Awesome. Let me just get a few mats out and we’ll go at it.”

She snorted a laugh, and the sound startled him so much that he turned back to her. A blush rose to her face, but she lifted that chin along with her brow. He understood that she had moved on with her life. Maybe she’d even put the worst of her past behind her, but would she really refuse her father’s wishes when they were meant to help her? “No wrestling either?”

At the slow, deliberate shake of her head, aggravation burst through him. “You don’t want to be here, do you?”

“Not particularly.”

He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “You don’t care about your safety?”

“I can take care of myself.”

He took in her painted nails and the hint of sparkling jewelry at her throat, wrists and ears. Someone didn’t think so, and despite her athleticism, her history as an athlete, which obviously spilled into present day, he had to agree. Just because she could run or bench press or even twirl through the air, didn’t mean she could defend herself against an attacker. “Unfortunately, you are not the client, Ms. Whitney. Your dad is, and he seems to think you need a refresher course.”

He waved her toward the office. They’d wasted enough time on the meaningless back and forth, it was time to get down to business. He could hardly do his job if she didn’t cooperate.

“Mister—”

“Just Tan,” he interrupted, turning to guide her through the doorway. “Have a seat.”

“Justin,” she continued. “My father means well even if he is on the overprotective side, but I’m no ninny. I have five brothers. I meant I’m well versed in self-defense—officially and unofficially.”

“Tan.”

“What?” The word came out short and resounding in frustration, the lines of her forehead pressing her brows together.

“The name is Tancredo Byrnes. Tan for short.” He straightened the already straight inbox on his desk and wished, for the first time, that he wasn’t such a neat freak. Then he’d at least have something to clean up. “I’m well aware of your background.”

She sat with her hands folded, trying so hard not to make waves, not be a nuisance. She maintained her manners even when irritated.

“Look. I’m not trying to be a jerk. But, your dad is worried, so before we get started on training, it would make me feel better to know what you can do—officially or otherwise.” He watched her move from the seat, a bundle of nervous energy as she took in the small details of his office, stopping in front of the large dry erase board where he kept track of his employees’ hours and schedules.

“I thought you worked for Hawk Elite Security.”

“I do.” He came around the desk and leaned on the edge, biting back a sigh. He really hadn’t expected her to pull this procrastination routine, didn’t expect her to be so nervous. Lots of women came to the gym to learn self-defense, nothing to be ashamed of. “I oversee one small part of the operation.” Somedays it felt like the babysitting part. “And I run the gym.”

She was a bundle of nervous energy, and from what her dad had said about the ex, being out of prison, he didn’t blame her. “You do have other options.”

“I do?” She looked at him skeptically.

Heaven help him if she agreed. “We could do this arrangement as a bodyguard contract. Me, by your side, twenty-four seven.”

Her eyes went wide; the pulse in her neck fluttered. Resignation came over her, her shoulders fell. If she was putting him on, she was good.

“Uh, no. No. Maybe you are right. A little wrestling, perhaps?”

Tan pointed to her outfit. “In that?”

“Oh, no.” She frowned. “I have a bag. It’s out on the bench.”

Well, this was going to be fun. Now she was mopey, like he’d kicked her dog. “It’s not going to be that bad. I promise. Some women like to learn, and most keep coming back, if only to practice and work out.”

She didn’t seem convinced. “We’ll see.”

She left his office, shoulders back, head held high. A real princess.

He sighed. He liked women, he really did. He dated occasionally, never taking anything deeper than the surface. There had always been too much on his plate with a job in the military. And sending his paycheck home to Mom and his sister had kept him from stumbling into anything long term.

And his focus had been best utilized at work, anyway. Until now. Until he’d taken the position at the gym and begun to manage personal security, anyway. During an operation, he was part of a team. Sometimes, his new position left him alone—for long stretches of time. He found he had way more time with himself than he wanted. To think. To analyze. To regret.

He shoved aside those thoughts as she made her way out of the locker room in her black leggings—holy long legs—that had swirls of glittering rhinestones and sequins all over them. The tank top matched—black but, thankfully, free of all the crap that would scratch the hell out of him. Her shoes were tiny little white canvas boppers, also covered in shiny shit.

At least she’d had the sense to remove the expensive stuff. Her ears were bare as were her neck and wrist. “Where do we start?” she asked.

“You do realize you might get sweaty, right?”

“I’m ready when you are.”

Tan shrugged.

They stretched first. And he let himself be impressed by her flexibility, the obvious attention she paid to her muscles. “Do you still skate?”

“No,” she answered quickly, not expounding, as she lowered her head once more to her knees and let her hands dangle over her feet.

The job had been handed to him less than twenty-four hours ago, with little to go on except for the father’s concern and a little background. Apparently, she wasn’t going to talk either…yet. But he’d learned, sometimes it takes a while to get the client talking.

Loose now, and obviously comfortable in her own skin, Elizabeth kept her muscles warm by moving. She shook out her arms and paced. Fluid grace.

“Let’s start with a stalker scenario.”

She snorted a laugh. “That’s easy. I’m going to cross the street…and probably run.”

“Maybe this guy can run, too.” Tan twisted at the waist, stretching the muscles of his lower back. “He gets you from behind. Come here.”

She rolled her eyes but did as requested.

“You’re running and he gets your arm.” Grabbing her arm, Tan pulled her against him, wrapping his arms around her chest and giving her a lift off the ground. Wow, she was light.

Immediately, she threw her head back, catching the side of his jaw. He groaned, the surprise making him drop her. She slammed her foot onto his instep, elbowed his gut, which left him breathless, then turned and kneed him in the groin.

He moaned and slowly lowered himself to the floor so he could lie in the fetal position. Holy crap. Taken down by a sparkling princess. Thank God he was the only one around today.

She leaned over, and her hair brushed against his cheek. “How about you tell my dad I passed, and we’ll call it even.”

Not in a million years, he promised as she picked up her bag and walked out the door.

 Add the cut scene which describes her work space…somewhere.