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" - Laissez-moi vous présenter le reste de mon équipe, reprit Pop en se tournant vers ceux qui n'avaient pas bouger de leur chaise. Vous avez déjà rencontré ma fille, Faith. Eh bien, voici son mari, Gray Montgomery. A côté de lui, Nathan Tucker, et à côté de Connor, Micah Hudson.

- Est-ce qu'ils vont constituer mon équipe de sécurité ? s'enquit-elle, la douceur même.

- Leurs compagnes vous étriperaient et eux avec, mademoiselle Jones, intervient sèchement Connor en se mettant debout.

Elle haussa un sourcil.

- Dans ce cas, pourquoi sont-ils ici ?

- Pour me regarder souffrir."

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— Écoute, rends-toi au moins à Los Angeles pour assister à son dernier concert, présente-toi et vois comment ça se passe. Tu ne risques pas grand-chose ! Je pense même que tu constateras que je ne te demande rien de si terrible. Il ne s’agit au fond que de passer deux semaines ici avec elle, à veiller à ce qu’elle ne s’attire pas d’ennuis et à la protéger.

— Elle est donc en danger ?

— Oh, tu sais, les trucs habituels pour les célébrités, sans doute. Sans dispositif adéquat, ça peut devenir dangereux. Philip va engager un gars du cru pour assurer la sécurité périphérique, mais il veut quelqu’un de confiance auprès d’elle, en attendant de faire passer les entretiens d’usage à des entreprises spécialisées pour assurer sa sécurité en tournée. Philip est inquiet, or il n’est pas du genre à s’en faire pour rien.

— Mais pourquoi ne pas tout simplement annuler sa venue au rodéo ? Il n’a qu’à l’enfermer dans un endroit tenu secret pendant deux semaines, le temps de régler leurs soucis avant sa tournée.

— Qu’est-ce que j’en sais, moi ? s’exclama Pop d’un ton irrité. Depuis quand le show-biz se comporte de manière rationnelle ? Ces gens-là ne réfléchissent pas avec leur tête, mais avec leur chéquier. Ils n’obéissent qu’au dieu argent. Ce sera ton rôle de leur tenir lieu de cervelle pendant deux semaines.

Connor émit un grognement.

— Difficile et écervelée, ça promet.

La porte du bureau de Faith s’ouvrit et Angelina Moyano passa la tête par l’embrasure. En apercevant les deux hommes, elle eut un moment d’hésitation.

— Euh… Je dérange ?

Le visage de Connor s’éclaira d’un large sourire, et il lui fit signe d’entrer.

— Bien sûr que non. Comment vas-tu, beauté ?

Angelina avança dans la pièce, petite et gracieuse malgré son ventre arrondi. La plupart des femmes de sa taille auraient ressemblé à une boule, à ce stade, mais elle continuait à se mouvoir avec agilité.

— Je vais bien, répondit-elle en rendant son sourire à Connor. Et toi ?

Elle se pencha pour lui faire la bise et il lui posa une main sur le ventre.

— La petite chochotte bouge beaucoup, aujourd’hui ?

— Arrête de l’appeler comme ça, le gronda Angelina. Elle s’appelle Nia. Bonjour, Pop, dit-elle en déposant un baiser sur la joue du vieil homme.

— Bonjour à toi aussi, mon ange. Où est Micah ? Il ne devrait pas être au travail ? Et les autres, où ils sont, d’ailleurs ? Ils fabriquent quoi, Nathan et Gray ? Nous sommes les seuls à travailler, ici ?

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"You're out of your goddamn mind!"

Pop Malone scowled at his son, Connor. "Watch your mouth. I can still wipe the floor with your scrawny ass."

Connor wiped his hand over his short-cut hair and clamped down on the top in an effort to pull it out. Nathan Tucker had the right idea by shaving his head. It was something Connor was going to have to look into if he kept getting bombs dropped on him.

"Pop," Connor said in exasperation. "We install security systems. Sophisticated, state-of-the-art computer monitoring equipment. We do consulting. We evaluate security for other people. We are not a goddamn bodyguard service."

Pop huffed, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against his adopted daughter's desk. Faith stared wide-eyed at her father and brother but didn't say a word. She was too glued to the conversation.

"If you'd stop your yammering for two seconds, I'd explain why you're perfect for this job."

"Oh boy," Connor muttered. "I can't wait to hear this. I better sit down for it."

He flopped into one of the chairs in front of Faith's desk and waited for his father's latest harebrained scheme. Not that his father wasn't a smart man. He was one of the most intelligent and cunning men Connor knew. It was the cunning part that bothered the hell out of him right now. He wasn't sure how, but he knew he was fucked. And it looked like he was about to find out.

"Phillip Armstrong is a longtime friend. We go way back. Served together in the marines. He's a big-shot record executive now and he has a big-name artist on his label."

"What's the name?" Faith piped in.

"Lyric Jones."

Faith frowned.

"What's the frown for?" Connor demanded. "What do you know?"

"You've never heard of her?" Faith asked.

"Does she sing country music?"

Faith chuckled and shook her head.

"Then I rest my case. So why the frown?"

"She's a bit of a . . ."

"She's difficult," Pop said with no preamble. "But you've dealt with difficult before. She won't be a problem for you."

"Why is she my problem at all?"

"Because most of her security detail was fired. What was left quit. She has two bodyguards that are as useless as tits on a boar hog."

"And I'm supposed to fix this?"

"Phillip is scrambling to hire a replacement firm. One better than the last since they sucked ass. His words, not mine. She only has one more show and then she's going to be sort of on vacation here in Houston."

Faith lifted an eyebrow. "Why the hell would she willingly vacation in Houston? I mean, a girl with that kind of money ought to go to Paris. Or Italy. Maybe a beach house in the Caribbean."

"I said sort of because she's doing a show at the Houston Livestock and Rodeo but she'll be here a total of two weeks. She also has some signing and fan meet and greet at one of the downtown music stores."

"Oh, I get it," Connor said as he pushed himself forward in his seat. "What they want is a babysitter. They want someone to sit on her so she'll be good for two weeks."

Pop had the grace to look abashed. "Well, yes and no."

Connor made a rude noise. "Why the hell are you asking me? There are three other guys in this office all capable of doing this job."

Faith made a show of blowing on her nails and whistled softly.

"Because everyone is either married or getting goddamned married and you're the only single guy left. If I try to send one of the other guys to spend twenty-four/seven with a gorgeous pop star, I'll have three pissed-off women on my ass. No, thanks. No offense, Connor, but you have nothing on the girls. I'll take my chances with you."

Faith smiled sweetly in her brother's direction.

"Don't think I won't get you for this," Connor muttered at Faith.

"Look, at least fly out to L.A., catch her last show, introduce yourself, see how it goes. What can it hurt? I think you'll find it's not as bad as you think. You'll spend two weeks with her here keeping her out of trouble and keeping her safe."

"Just how unsafe is she?"

"Oh, the usual celebrity shit, I'm sure. Everyone wants a piece of her. Without adequate security, it could get dangerous. Phillip is going to get a local firm to do the peripheral security but he wants someone he can trust next to her until he can go through and interview larger firms that will handle her security on the road. He's worried, and Phillip doesn't worry about much."

"Why the hell don't they just cancel the rodeo appearance, stash her somewhere private for two weeks and get their shit together for when she goes back on the road?"

"You're asking me?" Pop said in irritation. "When has show business ever made any goddamn sense? These people don't think with their brains. They think with their checkbooks and use dollar signs as their guides. It's your job to be their brains for two weeks."

Connor groaned. "Difficult and brainless. I can hardly wait."

The door to Faith's office opened and Angelina Moyano poked her head through. When she saw the two men, she hesitated. "Am I interrupting anything?"

Connor grinned and motioned her in. "Of course not. How are you, sweetie?"

Angelina walked in, graceful and petite despite her bulging abdomen. Most women her size would be down to a waddle by now, but she still moved with ease.

She smiled at Connor. "I'm good. How are you?" She bent down to hug him tight and he put his hand on her belly.

"Is Miss Priss moving around today?"

"Stop calling her that," Angelina said in exasperation. "Her name is Nia. Hi, Pop," she said as she brushed a kiss over the older man's jaw.

"Hey yourself, Angel. Where's Micah? Shouldn't he be working? For that matter, where the hell is Nathan? And Gray? Are we the only people working?"

Connor and Faith exchanged eye rolls. Pop was on his way to working himself into a dither.

"I came by to get Faith. Julie offered me a pregnancy massage and Faith was going to go hold my hand."

"More like get her own massage," Connor muttered. "You girls don't fool me one bit. I'll go hold your damn hand and then maybe Julie will massage me too."

"Find your own woman's hand to hold," Micah Hudson growled from the doorway.

Pop looked up and scowled. "It's about time you decided to show up. What is this, come to work late day?"

Micah ignored Pop. All his attention was on the curvy Latina woman heavily pregnant with his child. It amused Connor to no end to see Micah so gobsmacked over a woman. Not that he didn't love women as a rule, but there was nothing casual or flirty about Micah's relationship with Angelina. The poor boy was whipped and it was pretty pathetic to watch.

"How sure is Julie that a pregnancy massage is good for the baby?" Micah asked.

Angelina paused and turned with one hand on her hip. "I think the point is that it's good for the mother."

"But will it hurt the baby?"

Angelina smiled. "You worry too much, Micah. Go do some work so Faith and I can go have some girly time. We're going to be late, and Damon expects Serena to be home by noon."

"Or what?" Connor murmured. He always wondered what the hell went on in Damon and Serena's marriage. Of all the people who worked for Pop, Connor was the farthest out of the loop when it came to Damon Roche. From what he'd gleaned the man was a control freak and he kept Serena under his thumb.

Faith grinned, and he should have known by the devilish glint in her eye that she was going to say something outlandish.

"I'm pretty sure if she's late, she gets a crop to her ass."

"Something Gray needs to think about for you," Connor said pointedly.

"Who says he doesn't?" she teased as she grasped Angelina's arm and the two headed for the door.

Was the whole damn world crazy around him? He'd heard enough to know that his sex life had to be the only normal one in his group of friends. He didn't even want to know what kind of shit Micah put Angelina through. It would probably only piss him off. And Faith. God. His sister, for Pete's sake.

He shook his head. No, he didn't want to know the depravities that his friends indulged in. He was perfectly happy to be the boring, vanilla one in the bunch.

He turned to eyeball Micah after the girls had gone. "Any luck getting her to the altar?"

Micah snorted. "I'm trying. Believe me. I'm a persistent man. It'll happen soon."

Pop grunted. "The problem with men today is they're too busy being politically correct. You ought to just snatch her up and haul her to a priest. Or to Vegas like Gray did with Faith. If you wait around for a woman to make up her mind, you'll be old and impotent by the time your wedding night gets here."

Connor cracked up. "This might explain why you've now embraced bachelorhood indefinitely."

Pop shook his finger at Connor and Micah. "Mark my words. I'm right. Look at what happened when Nathan stopped pussyfooting around Julie. He went over to where she was and hauled her out over his shoulder. Then he told her how it was going to be and voila. Now they're married. He's happy. She's happy. End of story. Not like Micah over here who mopes around like a friggin' kicked puppy because he can't convince the woman he loves that he really loves her and really wants to marry her. Jesus has to be crying up there somewhere. Or laughing hysterically. I can't figure out which one."

Micah's lips curled into a snarl. "Enough already, Pop. You know I fucked up with her. I can't just run over her and make her do what I want."

"No, but you could damn well put your foot down and make her believe how you feel."

"I've tried!"

"Then try harder," Pop grumbled. "It's getting to be like some couples' retreat around here. It's damn nauseating."

Connor knew when a good time to escape was. Right now, when Pop was busy bitching about something else. Maybe by the time he remembered what he wanted Connor to do, the record company would have given up and hired someone else.

He was almost to the door. One more step and he would have made it home free.

"Your airline ticket is on your desk," Pop called. "You fly out tomorrow morning. Now go home and pack a suitcase."

Fuck a goddamn duck.

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