Protected deadly secrets.., p.1
Protected (Deadly Secrets Book 3), p.1
OTHER TITLES BY ELISABETH NAUGHTON
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2018 by Elisabeth Naughton
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Michael Rehder
Who’s always there to rescue me when I’m lost in every book.
Never leave me, girlfriend, because I don’t know how I’d do any of this without you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Congratulations. The papers were signed by the judge last night. You’re a free woman.
Kelsey McClane breathed a sigh of relief as she read the text from her attorney. Eight months of hell dealing with her ex were finally over. She felt as if a giant weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The only thing that could make this day any sweeter was if she’d never married the jerk to begin with.
Rolling her eyes because her track record in her personal life was shit and she knew it, she set her cell phone on the counter as she checked her reflection one last time. The lights on both sides of the mirror highlighted her blonde hair and showed every imperfection in her features. She knew the cameras would pick up each annoying freckle across the bridge of her nose, but it was too late to do anything about that now. In a matter of minutes she was scheduled to be on air with Portland’s hottest morning show, and not even the good news from her attorney could settle her frazzled nerves.
She fluffed out her shoulder-length hair one last time, thinking how stupid it was to get worked up over a local TV show. She’d recently had her big moment, sharing her designs with the world during New York’s famed Fashion Week, and even then she hadn’t been this nervous. Of course, back East no one knew her. Here, every person she’d grown up with would be judging whether she was a success or a total flop.
Please don’t let me be a total flop.
She breathed deeply and silently repeated the words that had gotten her through way worse than this.
Keep it together. Stay strong. You can get through this.
“Ms. McClane?” a woman called from the doorway. “Five minutes.”
Glancing over her shoulder toward the dark-haired woman wearing a headset and holding a clipboard, Kelsey forced a smile she hoped covered her nerves. The woman was some kind of assistant to the producer, but Kelsey couldn’t remember her name. Meeting the cast and crew of Good Morning Portland this morning had been a complete blur. “Okay, thanks. I’ll be right out.”
Instead of turning around and bustling out as Kelsey expected, the woman narrowed her eyes and tipped her head. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like that actress? The blonde who played in all those romantic comedies. What was her name?”
Annoyance pulsed inside Kelsey, but she was careful not to let it show. “Vivienne Armstrong?”
“Yeah. That’s the one.”
“Yes. I’ve heard that once or twice.” In fact, she’d been asked the same question more times in her life than she cared to admit. And right now it wasn’t helping settle her nerves any. “They say everyone has a twin. Mine happened to be famous.” And a drug addict. Lucky me.
“Too bad she’s dead. You could have done look-alike work for her.”
As if Kelsey had the time. Or interest.
“Oh well. Four minutes now. Don’t be late.” The assistant ducked out of the room and disappeared.
Frowning, Kelsey turned back to the mirror. Maybe it was time she colored her hair. She wanted people to start recognizing her for her designs, not because fate had decided she should be some dead actress’s doppelganger.
Enough wasting time.
Drawing a deep breath, she smoothed her blouse and repeated her inner pep talk. Keep it together. Stay strong. You will get through this. Then she grabbed her cell, stuffed it in the front pocket of her slacks, and headed for the door.
Just as she stepped into the doorway, a shadow filled her line of sight. She gasped but wasn’t able to stop her momentum. Seconds later she smacked face-first into a hard male body and ricocheted back.
“Shit.” Hunter O’Donnell’s long fingers and wide palms closed around her upper arms and jerked her forward, preventing her from hitting the ground on her butt. “Sorry. Dammit, I didn’t see you.”
Kelsey stumbled on her three-inch heels and reflexively lifted her hands to steady herself. Her fingertips landed against solid muscle, and the familiar scents of citrus and leather filled her senses, leaving her light-headed and weak in the knees in a way that made her feel fifteen again.
“Are you okay?” He ducked his head when she didn’t immediately look up at him. “Kelsey?”
As soon as she had her footing, Kelsey dropped her hands and stepped back, hating and liking the way his hands felt all at the same time. Stupid thoughts like that had gotten her into a bad marriage, and she had no intention of repeating past mistakes. Besides, even if she was interested, Hunter O’Donnell was her brother Alec’s best friend and off-limits.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Gently, she shrugged out of his grip, avoiding eye contact so she wouldn’t draw attention to how awkward she felt around him. “They’re ready for me out on set.”
“Yeah, I know.” Hunt stepped back so she could pass. “Everything looks good out there so you’re free to go.”
A whisper of disbelief rushed down Kelsey’s spine, and she looked up into his deep-brown eyes. She’d known Hunt more than half her life, and normally she’d look at him as an ally, but today, regardless of how good he smelled, he felt more like her enemy. She didn’t need him telling her what she could and couldn’t do. Julian had done that for three damn years during their marriage, and she’d vowed never to let any man boss her around again. If it weren’t for her overprotective brothers, she wouldn’t even be dealing with Hunt today. But they were so worried Julian was going to do something to retaliate because of the divorce that they’d hired Hunt to follow her around like a guard dog.
Clenching her teeth so she wouldn’t say something she’d regret, Kelsey moved out of the greenroom and stepped past him into the hall, heading for the set. She knew her brothers meant well, and she knew Hunt—a former Army Ranger who now ran a PI and security firm here in Portland—was good at what he did, but it still grated on her last nerve that he was here hovering at all. Julian was a bully, nothing more. He’d bullied her into dating him. He’d bullied her into marriage. And for the last year, he’d been trying to bully her into calling off the divorce. She’d been stupid to get involved with the man from the start, but she wasn’t afraid of him. Bullies only had power when you cowered from them, and she was done cowering from Julian Benedict. In a couple of days, when he realized it was finally over, he’d leave her alone. She was sure of it.
Thoughts of Hunt and Julian faded as she stepped into the studio and spotted the hosts on set. A red light to her right blinked, signaling the cameras were live. Her nerves kicked in full force as she watched the hosts banter back and forth during the opening segment, knowing she was almost up. Glancing around the room at the people gathered on the fringes to watch, she spotted the three models already dressed in designs from her latest line and decided to head that way.
They didn’t really need her. They looked gorgeous and totally showcased her work. But she needed something to keep her nerves at bay, and fussing with their collars and hems was the only thing she could think to do at the moment.
“Looks good,” she said to the closest model, running her hand down the sleeve of the girl’s jacket. All three were taller than she was, at least five years younger, and way more attractive, but Kelsey barely noticed. She was too fixated on making sure her clothing hung correctly and that the models hadn’t missed any buttons or loose threads.
The hosts continued to chat behind her on set. When the female production assistant tapped her elbow, Kelsey knew it was go-time. Those nerves went haywire in her belly, like Mexican jumping beans amped up on speed, and not for the first time she wondered how she’d let herself get talked into doing local television. New York Fashion Week had nothing on this insanity. Why did she care what her old peers in high school thought of her, anyway?
Because you’ve always cared what people think. Because you’ve never been good enough. Never smart enough, never talented or exciting enough for anyone to love the real you.
All her old neuroses came screaming back. With one simple thought, she wasn’t twenty-seven and an up-and-coming fashion designer on the cusp of real success. She was ten years old again, wondering why the hell Michael and Hannah McClane wanted to adopt her: a mousy little wallflower who’d flitted from foster home to foster home, never fitting in or connecting with a single person in her life.
Lifting her shaky hand from the model’s jacket, she told herself she wasn’t that kid anymore. She was strong. She was independent. She was so much more than she’d ever been before because of the McClanes and everything they’d given her.
Turning toward the set, she spotted Hunt standing not more than three feet away from her in the shadows, looking all dark and sexy and ruggedly imposing. But instead of being annoyed by his presence as she’d been before, a calm she didn’t expect settled over her, allowing her to take a deep breath that filled her lungs and gave her strength.
He’d never treated her as if she were less. He’d never acted like she was lucky to be in his presence, as Julian had since the day she’d met her ex. From the time she was a teenager, she couldn’t remember Hunter O’Donnell being anything besides a solid, quiet presence in her life, coming and going from the McClane home whenever he was with Alec. He hadn’t teased her as her brothers constantly did. Hadn’t talked down to her. Hadn’t done anything but just be nice to her, which was exactly what she’d needed during those crazy teen years.
So, okay. Maybe she was frustrated with the reason he was here now, but she couldn’t say she didn’t appreciate his presence. Because it did relax her in a familiar, comforting kind of way she could definitely use right now.
Before she realized what she was doing, she smiled at Hunt. It surprised him. She could tell by the way his brows lifted in response. All morning she’d been salty and brusque with him when he’d only been doing a favor for her brothers. For her family. For her.
“Speaking of celebrities,” Rachel Brown said on set, snagging Kelsey’s attention. Reluctantly, Kelsey turned toward the host, who was currently flipping her auburn hair as she glanced at her cohost, Adam Lancaster, then back to the camera. “We’ve got an up-and-coming local celebrity with us today. Fashion designer Kelsey McClane recently returned from New York’s Fashion Week and is here to share all the ins and outs of the big event. So stay tuned after the break to hear about her whirlwind experience and to see some of her work, which is being compared to that of Vera Wang, Stella McCartney, and Donatella Versace.”
“Oooh, I love Vera Wang!” Adam Lancaster exclaimed.
Someone on the edge of the set signaled the small audience in bleachers behind the cameras, and a chorus of claps and cheers filled the room. Seconds later, a voice yelled, “Clear!” indicating they’d gone to commercial break, and then things happened so fast all Kelsey could do was go with the flow.
The production assistant grasped her elbow and pulled her to the far side of the set. Voices echoed through the room as people darted right and left, fixing props and touching up the hosts’ makeup and hair. Across the stage, Kelsey spotted her three models, waiting in the wings for their signal to parade out.
Her nerves kicked back up as the assistant rattled off directions in her ear, so she searched the set for Hunt’s familiar face, hoping it would calm her again. The space where he’d been standing before was empty, and for a moment, panic crept in. But then she spotted him behind the camera, heading her way around the outside of the chaos, sticking close as he’d said he would.
The tightness in her belly relaxed once more, and she breathed deeply, knowing it was both stupid and juvenile to react to him like this but not wanting to think about that too much. When this was all over, she’d go back to keeping her distance, but for now she supposed having him around wasn’t such a hardship. He was easy to look at, after all, and when she thought about how nice his touch had felt against her arms just a few minutes ago . . .
Her belly warmed at the memory, and her gaze followed his movements as he stopped just past the third camera. One corner of her lips curled because, yeah, he really was gorgeous. All gathered strength and cut muscles. She guessed his physique was a result of his time in the military, but a lot of guys let themselves go when they got out. Not Hunt. He was still in tip-top form. Definitely in better shape than Julian had ever been. In better shape than 99 percent of the male population, for that matter.
Behind her, the producer started counting down from ten, signaling their return from commercial break, but she barely noticed. She was too busy admiring Hunt’s strong profile, his deep-brown eyes, and that tiny scar on the left side of his jaw that made her wonder how he’d gotten it . . . and when.
Her gaze skipped back to his eyes, and in a rush of heat that flamed her face, she realized he was watching her checking him out. Knew, because one corner of his lips lifted in a quirky half smile that told her loud and clear she was busted.
She quickly looked down at her feet, cursing herself for being so damn obvious. But she could still see the way his smile widened to encompass his whole face, and dammit, all she wanted to do was look back at him because the force of that smile was absolutely hypnotic.
A vibration radiated into her hip, distracting her—thankfully—from making an even bigger fool of herself. Geez, what was wrong with her? Blushing? Her cheeks absolutely burned. She never blushed. Tugging her phone out with a hurried motion, she tapped the button to turn it on.
Then froze when she read the words on her screen.
You might think you have everything, but soon you’re going to get exactly what you deserve. I know the real you, and this isn’t it. You’re nothing but a disappointment. A gigantic failure. Your own mother didn’t want you. No one wants you. The world will be a better place when you’re dead. And in a matter of minutes, starlet, the world will be able to thank me because I’m about to make that happen.
Her stomach rolled. She looked up and around the set, over the hosts’ laughing faces and the sea of onlookers bordering the room. Her vision blurred at the edges, and her head grew light as she looked from face to face, searching for the person who’d sent the text. Faintly, she recognized her name being called from a great distance, heard muffled claps indicating she was being introduced, but her feet wouldn’t move. All she could do was replay those last few words in her mind again and again as she continued to search.
When you’re dead . . .
I’m about to make that happen.
Panic wrapped icy fingers of dread around her chest, constricting her airway. She couldn’t see Julian in the crowd. He wasn’t here. She swallowed hard and tried to breathe. Tried to think logically.
It was just a threat, right? He wouldn’t be so stupid as to try to follow through on that threat. He was a coward, not a killer.
Turning quickly, she searched for Hunt in the sea of faces. The text was nothing more than Julian being upset about the divorce. Just Julian being a bully, trying to scare her like always . . . right?
She spotted Hunt, ten feet away, moving around equipment, still trying to get close to her. The smile faded from his lips when their eyes met, and his deep-brown gaze dropped to the phone in her hand then lifted back to her face. He quickly looked past her and over the people around them, but the way his shoulders stiffened and his body tensed told her he already knew something was wrong. She took a step toward him.
The production assistant stepped in her path, plucked the phone out of her hand, and shoved her toward the hosts. “Go!” she hissed. “You’re on!”
Hunt’s hissed voice echoed at Kelsey’s back, and the heat of his hand brushed her forearm for a split second. But the push from that assistant sent her stumbling forward, out of his reach, and when the camera swung her way with its flashing red light, she knew it was already too late.
Somehow, she managed to catch herself before she hit the ground and straightened her spine so she didn’t look like a complete idiot on live TV. She had to get through this interview without freaking out. When it was over, she’d show Hunt the text and let him decide what she should do about it. That’s why he was here, after all. Drawing a breath, she put one foot in front of the other and forced a smile she didn’t feel.