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Elliott Tanner was in trouble. There was no denying it. Sitting in his parked SUV outside a downtown Denver nightclub, waiting for a very spoiled, overly made up daddy's girl to get bored and move on to her next hot spot, he tried to refrain from contemplating his utter stupidity.
Unfortunately the job he was onbabysitting said self-centered party girlrequired no real effort, leaving him far too much possibility for losing the battle he was waging with a brain that just wouldn't let go.
"I can't believe I'm telling you this, Elliott" Marie's voice repeated itself in his braina replay of a conversation he'd had with the daughter of another client that afternoon. Difference being that Sailor Harcourt, tonight's job, knew her parent had hired him to keep an eye out for her safety. Barbara Bustamante, Marie's mother, adamantly refused to allow Elliott to let Marie, her daughter, know that she'd hired Tanner Security Services to watch over Marie.
He'd been hanging out at Marie's coffee shop for over three months now. She'd gone through some tough times. Life changes. They'd talked. Become friends. But under false pretenses.
In fact, Marie thought Elliott was around to keep an eye on Liam Connellynot only her best friend's new husband, but also their business partner. Elliott had capitalized on Connelly's circumstances, presenting himself as a bodyguard when the fraud scheme exposed at Liam's father's company was impacting Liam's safety. It was the perfect way to be close to the situation and protect Marie without her knowing that he was watching out for her.
Gabrielle, Liam and Marie. Threefold. The name of the business they'd formed to purchase the old apartment building that was not only home to Marie's coffee shop, but their home, as well. Threefold was also an apt description for the friendship forged in college that had made the three of them more like family to each other than their biological counterparts had been.
Cars passed. Groups of people moved down the sidewalk. A woman strolled alone in the balmy April weather. Not smart, no matter how nice this part of town was. Not after eleven on a Saturday night
He'd taken on Liam as a paid client, albeit at a sub-rate fee, with the complete blessing of Barbara Bustamante, who had called him initially because Marie and her friend had just entered into the business deal with Liam, and Barbara had never trusted the Connelly heir. When threats and vandalism ensued just after the building purchase, Tanner had been present to ensure that no harm came to Liamor to his two new business partners.
Keeping his gaze on the side door through which he'd instructed Miss Harcourt to travel to and from the club's interior, Tanner rubbed a hand across his face in the darkness and groaned. While his association with Liam was somewhat convolutedthe other man assuming that his estranged father had sent Tanner to him through the elder Connelly's own highly paid bodyguardthat particular subterfuge was only the beginning of Tanner's troubles.
"I can't believe I'm telling you this, Elliott."
Liam Connelly's father had not been charged in the Ponzi scheme that had robbed investors of millions, but his company, Connelly Investments, had been the conduit for the scheme. Run by his corporate attorney and closest friend, George Costas, who'd been charged by a grand jury but who was still adamantly asserting his innocence to the point that the public wasn't sure who was misusing power and bullying by public persuasion and who was really the victim between the two men.
There'd been another couple of threatening letters left for Liam at Marie's coffee shop, which was on the bottom floor of the apartment building the three friends owned. With Liam and Gabrielle now married and occupying three-quarters of the third floor, Marie was alone in her large second-floor apartment, and Barbara Bustamante insisted that Elliott maintain his cover and remain right where he wason at least one daily surveillance of the apartment building and coffee shop, investigating Liam and staying on top of the investigation involving Liam's father, while keeping tabs on Marie.
She was paying him well. He was holding the checks for now. Not comfortable with cashing them, the way he was feeling. Another reason why he was escorting the dilettante, Miss Harcourt, during her two-day visit to Denver. Her father, Rod, a man Tanner protected anytime he was in town, had specifically asked him to do so, believing her to be at risk simply for being born a Harcourt. Tanner needed to maintain his client base of paying jobs.
Tanner Security Services, a one-man fully licensed and accredited operation with a better than average reputation, wasn't usually in the habit of babysitting. Or working for free.
"I can't believe I'm telling you this, Elliott!"
Marie. Long blond hair came instantly to mind. Followed by those eyes. So filled with emotion. Always.
When he'd first met her, more than three months ago, the compassion he could read in those eyescompassion for Liam, the man he'd been sent to investigate and protect her againststabbed him in a way he'd never forget.
He'd wanted her to look at him that way.
And more, he'd wanted to make certain that no one, ever, caused her open heart to close up, to wall off in pain. He'd sworn to himself that he'd never let anyone hurt her.
He had no control over Marie's heart. Who she gave it to. Or what they did with it.
He was just an overly large guy her mother had hired to protect her.
The door he was watching opened. Hand going immediately to the ignition, Elliott straightened. Lord knew where Miss High and Mighty would insist he take her nextas if he were her driver. His job was to see that she arrived safely.
Two couples emerged. Neither of the women was Sailor Harcourt.
"I can't believe I'm telling you this, Elliott "
She'd been leaning over the counter of her coffee shop, those big brown eyes warm and softand trained on him. It was as if the emotion that welled up inside her had overflowed onto him, into him. He'd glanced down quickly, breaking contact. She was completely off-limits.
"Liam's a great guy. I trust him with my life. It's just one of the reasons we were always just friends was because Gabi and I know all the nitty-gritty about him. He's always come to us to as his 'confessors,' he said. He likes women. A lot. He told us he 'd be with one woman and get feelings for another. He was younger then and he's done nothing at all, that I know of, to warrant my fears, but until Gabi and he got together he hadn't seemed to change his inability to stay interested in one woman. And they've only been married a month, and already he's out to dinner with this editor woman of his."
She'd thought the fact that they were alone in the shop had been a stroke of luck. An opportunity to talk to someone impartial so that she didn't make a big deal out of nothing. She'd thought that he just happened to show up to her popular coffee shop during a brief late-afternoon lull. In actuality he'd been watching the place for half an hour. As he did at some point every single day.
Either by stopping in for coffee. Or simply observing.
"The worst part is, I know I'm being paranoid, but I just can't stop myself "
When he'd noticed her alone in the shopher morning-to-midday-shift full-time employees gone and her late-afternoon shifter unusually late for some reasonhe was unable to stop himself from getting out of his vehicle parked across the street and going in.
"It's just, you know, I told you about my dad."
That first month he'd been around, she'd made a derogatory comment about Liam's father, implying that scaggy dads were something the three friends had in common, which had given him an opening to ask about something that made him curiousMarie's father.
Barbara's ex-husband. When she'd sent over the paperwork required by Tanner Security Services, the woman indicated that she was divorced. She'd given him no idea why she was so mistrusting of Marie's wealthy college friend, but he'd figured it had something to do with personal experience.
What Marie had told him only solidified that supposition.
Marie's father had been unfaithful to Barbara. Marie had been seven the first time. Barbara had forgiven him twice. The third time, when Marie was twelve, she'd changed the locks and filed for divorce. According to Marie, the man had spent the next five years earning his way back into their hearts and home. He was devoted, dedicated and 100 percent faithful to them and their family. Barbara, who'd loved only him since they'd first met in high school, had finally taken him back. And during the summer after Marie's freshman year of college, when Marie and Gabrielle were at Marie's parents' home for a visit, they'd caught her father cheating again.
Barbara, who'd nearly had a breakdown, had been in counseling ever since.
The backlit LED on the dashboard clock was too bright, garish in the darkness, shedding light where he'd rather not have it shed.
Who cared if it was eleven-thirty? Sailor was known to party until dawn. Might as well be at the elite nightclub as anywhere else. Better there, really. Less hassle.
"I can't believe I'm telling you this, Elliott, but I fell for a lot of the same lines my father gave my mother the first time I fell in love." Marie's words from that afternoon came back to him. His gut clenched again as it had then. The closest he came to expressing intense emotion.
She'd said she'd fallen in love. That there had already been a first time for her (completely expected considering the fact that she'd passed her thirtieth birthday) and he'd tensed up like a kid. For a split second there he'd been overcome.
Marie measured vinegar, poured it into the carafe. Added water. Poured the mixture into the water dispenser of the first of twelve professional-grade silver coffeemakers, flipped the button to make coffee and moved on to maker number two. One by one she filled carafes with the vinegar mixture, poured it into the dispensers and hit Brew.
Then, with all the blinds drawn so that she wasn't on display like a fish in a bowl, she stood there and watched twelve pots drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.
After midnight on a Saturday wasn't a good time to be calling anyone. So she was cleaning the water dispensers. It was a job that had to be done. At least once every three months.
Beat sitting upstairs alone in her apartment feeling sorry for herself.
She'd had a date. Of sorts. Dinner and the theater with Burton. A safe, completely boring man she'd met three years before during the intermission at Phantom of the Opera. Gabi had been going to go with her, but she'd had a custody emergency with a client. Unwilling to waste her ticket, or to miss one of her favorite shows of all time, she'd gone to the theater alone. Burton had been sitting a couple of rows back. He was a season ticket holder, as well. His companion had been his mother until she passed away.
Not wanting him to sit by himself, she'd invited him to join her.
Eventually they'd fallen into the habit of going to the theater together.
She was never going to fall in love with him. He was never going to expect her to marry him. The relationship suited her just fine.
Pot number one was full. Dumping it in the sink, Marie filled the carafe with clean water and dumped it back into the dispenser, hitting Brew again. And down the line she went. For all twelve coffeemakers.
And then another time.
Twelve-thirty. She had to be downstairs to open the shop at seven. Grace, the eighty-year-old spritely and self-sufficient resident who did most of her baking, would be there two hours before that. The stairs at the back of the shop beckoned. Or she could take the elevator next to them. Now that it was fixed, it required a code to travel upstairs from the coffee shop in order to prevent coffee shop patrons from having access to the private apartments on the remaining eight floors.
Her apartment did not beckon. After thirteen years of living with the same roommate, she found that adjusting to her best friend's marriage was proving to be even more difficult than she'd expected.
Hence the paranoia. She was letting things get to her that had no basis in fact simply because for the past thirteen years she'd run all of her thoughts by Gabi at night. She was becoming a ninny. Like worrying that Liam was heading toward a path of infidelity. And that Gabi could end up as heartbroken and destroyed as her mother had been.
Well, not exactly the same. Her best friend, a lawyer, had a stronger backbone than her mother had ever had. Gabi had been taking care of herself for most of her life and could give thugs on the street a run for their money.
Liam didn't stand a chance.
Nor did he need one. The two of them were besotted with each other. It didn't take a believer in true love to see that. The reason Liam had never settled on one woman was that he'd been in love with Gabi all along. That was the fact that was as clear as day.
Still, Marie would rather clean than face her own thoughts alone upstairs in the apartment she and Gabrielle used to share. She was going crazy with loneliness.
What she needed to do was talk to someone. Another voice to drown out the reverberating of her own mind.
And there was one person who owed her an abrupt awakening in the middle of the night. He owed her as many of them as she needed for as long as he lived.
He picked up on the first ring.
"Marie? Baby? You okay? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, Daddy. Are you alone?"
"Yes, of course I'm alone. You know the only woman I've ever spent the night with is your mother."
"It's only a little past midnight. You don't necessarily have to be down for the night." She was being petty. She knew it. Hated it. And took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. And sorry for calling so late."
"Don't you ever apologize for calling me, baby. You know I'm here for you anytime you need me. Anytime."
Hard part of it was that she did know that. Her father was a great dad. Had always been a great dad. Even when he'd been sleeping with his assistant while Marie and her mother thought him hard at work on whatever architectural plans his firm had been implementing. Or getting a little afternoon delight from a less reputable source before arriving right on time to coach Marie's softball team to victory.
"I need to understand, Daddy. I need to know why. And how."
"Sure. Of course. What are we talking about?"
"The women. All the women."
Silence fell on the line. In all the years since her parents' divorce, she'd never asked that particular question.
Because she'd been too afraid of the answer? Because she didn't want to see her mother in a new and less favorable light?
"I don't know that I can answer that."
"Can't or won't?" Now that she'd asked, she couldn't let it go. "It's making me crazy, Daddy. I Did you love her?"
Okay, then. Though she was actually shocked by his vehemence. Frowning, she slid down to a seat in a shadowed corner of the deserted shop. The one thing she'd thought a given through her rocky years growing up had been her father's love for her and her mother. Both of them.
She'd bet her life that her mother believed he'd loved her. Still did. Though he knew better than to ask for a third chance. For Barbara's sake.
"Does Mom know that now? Maybe if she knew you've never really loved her you'd set her free."
Because one thing was for sure. Barbara Bustamante was still helplessly in love with her cheating ex-husband.
"Wait. What? You were asking if I love your mom?" It sounded as though there was a bit of her shock running over into his voice.
"Yes. Of course." If she'd been referring to anyone else, she'd have had to use the plural. And then some.
"Then, yes! Unequivocally. I thought you knew that. All my life I have only ever loved one woman. Your mother."
Her heart sank. Liam loved Gabrielle that way, too.
Gabi said Liam and his editor had just had dinner once, to go over strategy for the series of articles he was writing on his father's life and the ongoing investigation. They'd needed to speak out of the office, and Liam was careful not to bring any aspect of his father's life to the historic Arapahoetheir apartment buildingnot only for Marie's shop and their home, but also to preserve the homes of the elderly residents who'd been there most of their lives and who had been soon to be put out on the street.
But Marie's father's first affair had started out with just one working dinner with his assistant. And then another had been necessary. After which he'd taken her home because her car was in the shop.
Or at least that was the story she'd been told.
"Why, Daddy? If you loved Mom, why were you unfaithful to her?"
"I wish I could tell you that."