“Did you hear that?” the younger woman asked.
McKenna shrugged. “There are always strange noises down here. You just notice them more at night when everyone else is gone.” But this was the only time she could get any work done in the office she shared with two other junior legislators, in the back corner of the basement. The shiny offices upstairs were reserved for committee chairs and those who’d held office for a while. Eventually she’d be up there, but in the meantime…
McKenna pushed her glasses up on her nose and turned back to the health care documents she was studying.
Another noise sounded, almost like a shuffled footstep, and the hair on the back of her neck lifted.
The cellphone on her desk vibrated. Both women jumped, Janie’s start accompanied by a small shriek. McKenna frowned and glanced at the display. A different tension ran through her as she picked up the phone. “Hi, Dad,” she answered brightly.
“McKenna, where are you?” His rough voice had a deeper edge of urgency than usual.
“You need to get out of there. Now.”
Alarm zinged across her nerves. Her father could be overly cautious, but he didn’t panic. As she reached for her purse, she sought her shoes under her desk with her feet. Reacting before thinking, she turned her heels over with her toes and shoved her feet in. “What is it?”
“I’m on my way. Meet me at the west entrance. All right?”
He disconnected. Just like the man, brusque and vague. But concern followed resentment. She’d heard that tone before, and he didn’t mean dally.
McKenna looked up at Janie just as the lights went out. Janie whimpered. The emergency lights kicked on, offering a dim glow. The door handle jiggled, and McKenna’s heart jumped. God, who was it? Security wouldn’t be moving so quietly, would they? They might check the lock, but then—the handle jiggled again. Every muscle in McKenna’s body wanted to freeze, but she rose on shaky legs, lifting her finger to her lips, and motioned Janie to follow her. A door led from her office to that of another junior legislator, Cynthia Trevino. They could duck in there and slip into the hall to avoid whoever was at the door. When Janie hesitated, McKenna motioned more adamantly. The girl grabbed her purse and followed.
The door handle twisted—why hadn’t they locked it when the two of them were alone in the basement office? Her father would rake her over the coals for that simple oversight—if she got out of here.
As quietly as she could, she turned the knob into Cynthia’s office, pushed Janie through, and closed it again, flicking the flimsy lock in place. Casting her gaze around the room, she looked for something to block the door. The intruder would certainly figure out where they’d gone. But she didn’t see anything she could move easily. Maybe their best bet was to bolt through the door into the hall and up the stairs to meet her father at the west entrance. She kicked off her heels and motioned Janie to do the same. The shoes would slow them down and echo on the polished concrete floors. They needed to be stealthy. She thumbed her phone to silent and wished she’d had time to tell Janie to do the same. Instead, she grasped the girl’s arm and pulled her toward the door to the hallway. The creak of the hinge echoed through the basement. McKenna’s muscles tightened as she prepared to drag Janie to safety.
Her pulse jolted when the handle to the connecting door rattled insistently. The locked door wouldn’t buy them much time. The intruder might figure out they were passing through this office and cut them off in the hall. They had to hurry.
“Run for the stairs at the west end as fast as you can,” McKenna told the frightened intern. “Don’t stop running until you get outside. I’ll be right behind you. Go!”
Janie nodded and tore off. McKenna chanced one glance over her shoulder at the door, which was no longer rattling, and tucking her bag to her side, raced after Janie.
She was a few strides behind when Janie took the stairs, pressed hard on the door to the first floor, only to bounce back. The young woman staggered, stunned, staring at the doors. McKenna caught up with her. McKenna, too, pushed against the door and felt the resistance. Not locked, but blocked. She peeked through the slight crack she made between them. Something had been wrapped around the handles to keep them closed. To trap the two of them down here.
Terror kicked in. The intruder was between them and the other stairwell, and she already heard him moving down the hall toward them. And the elevator...well, they had no electricity. They had to either run past the man, or hide. Heart racing, she scanned the small hallway in front of her. The likelihood of one of those doors being unlocked was slim, but they were sitting ducks on the stairs.
She clasped Janie’s arm and tugged her down the steps. They had the advantage. They knew this place better than their pursuer. The women ducked into a recessed doorway, using shadows and the carved oak to hide them. McKenna’s hands shook. As quietly as she could, she twisted the knob, and hit resistance. Locked, of course.
The decorative carvings dug into her palm as she twisted with all her strength, but couldn’t pop the lock. One option remained. She lifted her King Ranch bag and punched it through the frosted glass window. The tinkling of falling glass was muffled by carpet on the other side, but no doubt the intruder had heard. McKenna reached through, a sharp edge slicing her forearm, and unlocked the door.
“Be careful of the glass,” she said, her mouth close to Janie’s ear before she shoved the girl through, closed the door as quietly as she could. She crouched below it, listening as her mind whipped through their options.
The intruder would see the broken window in a matter of moments. Footsteps quickened on the stairs. The doors rattled as he tested to see if they’d gotten through.
Then footsteps descended.
McKenna wedged a leather desk chair against the door, found Janie’s hand in the dark—God, couldn’t the girl sob later?—and headed back into the recesses of the office. Another door was there, this one unlocked. McKenna shoved Janie through and scrambled after her, closing the door with a click as the other door opened.
Seconds away. She had seconds now. She motioned Janie to hide in the corner as she curled her hands around a golfing trophy and rose, legs shaking, the trophy cocked like a baseball bat as the door handle turned.
The man who slipped through the door braced his gun in front of him, clearly trained as he swept the room, searching for her.
With all her strength, she brought the trophy up below his gun arm. He swung toward her, blocking the trajectory, closing one rough hand about her wrist. A squeal escaped as he pushed her backward, against the wall. The trophy fell to the carpet with only a glancing blow to his leg, and he pinned her with his body.
His breath gusted over her ear as he bent his head to whisper, “I work for your father. I’m Ethan Riggins. The code is paintbrush.”
Relief shimmered through her even as the pulse in her wrist drummed against his palm. Years ago, her father, a counterterrorist agent, had insisted she have a code word so she could know for sure when he was sending someone to help her. She’d thought him paranoid at the time but had given the name of her favorite Texas wildflower, and had never had to use it until this minute. Now, she was glad of it.
“Are they still—?” The question froze on her lips when she saw a shadow move behind him. “Janie, no!”
Too late, her assistant swung the three-hole punch down, hitting Riggins above the ear. He sagged against her for a moment, then shot a hand out and snatched the weapon from the trembling girl.
“You’re safe now. Safe.” He tried to straighten and staggered a bit. “I wish I could say you hit like a girl.” When he lifted a hand to his head, McKenna caught the coppery scent of blood. “Your father is waiting. We should go.”
She took a step back and nodded, then let him lead the way out of the office.
* * *
The coffee in the cardboard cup shimmered, not quite splashing over the edge as McKenna sat on the edge of the gurney in the ER. She hadn’t wanted to come, not for herself, but her father had insisted and no one argued with John Klein.
The nurse checking her blood pressure glared at the cup, but didn’t say anything.
Three men had been in the capitol building, but no one knew why. Her father and Riggins had disabled them and come for her. Presumably the three men would be interrogated but whether they revealed why they’d been after her remained to be seen.
Janie was being treated for shock in another room. McKenna had received eight stitches on her forearm where she’d cut it on the broken glass of the door, and Riggins was off somewhere getting stitches of his own for the blow Janie had delivered to his head.
And now her father was spouting off something about her getting out of town.
“I can’t.” Though, God help her, she would if she could. One man, she might have been able to take out on her own, but three, no way. “The bill on children’s health care goes for a vote next week.” The one she’d spent months in office writing. The one she still needed votes for.
“To hell with that.” His tone sharpened as he turned on her. “Three men came after you in the capitol building. They’re not messing around. Staying in Austin is ridiculous.”
“People are counting on me.” She thought of the young mother, Eva DeChant, with whom she’d been working. The woman needed assistance to help her care for her baby with a heart problem, and McKenna’s bill would help her get it.
“You won’t be any good to them dead.”
“Who are they?” Clearly he knew, if he’d called to tell her they were coming.
His lips thinned. “Do you think if I knew, they’d still be a danger to you? You have to give me time to find out. You can give the bill to someone else.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t work like that. If I don’t get it passed this time, I have to wait until the next session before I can bring it before the legislature again. Some of these families can’t wait that long.”
“Your life is more important.” He set his jaw.
Matching his expression, she squared her shoulders, not dropping her gaze. “No. It’s not.”
“Wonder where that trait came from.”
He braced his hands on the end of the gurney. “I told you not to work in the public eye. Sooner or later someone was bound to connect you with me. You could have gone into teaching or health care if you wanted to help people.”
McKenna’s vision blurred with anger. They’d had this argument too many times to count. “Maybe you shouldn’t have gone into counterterrorism if you wanted to have a family.”
His head snapped back and he blanched. The hit was a little more direct than she’d intended.
“I’m sorry you’re in danger. Keeping you safe is the most important thing. Please, McKenna, leave town for a while.”
“Dad, I can’t. Look, I promise to be aware. I won’t work late nights anymore. I’ll go home before dark and stay there. Just a week.”
“It’s a ridiculous risk. We’re talking about your safety here.”
She curled her fingers around the edge of the gurney and leaned forward. “We’re talking about single mothers about to lose their homes because they’re caring for critically ill children.”
He stepped back and held up a hand. “Don’t go into your spiel with me. If you do this, you have to promise to do everything I tell you.”
McKenna drew in a breath. She’d grown up with her father’s military precision. She didn’t know if she could promise, in good faith. But she also knew if she didn’t promise, he’d likely haul her out of here over his shoulder and hold her someplace he thought was safe.
“I promise,” she said on a sigh.
“The first thing is, you’re going to have a bodyguard.” He gestured to Riggins, who’d rounded the curtain, touching the gauze above his ear gingerly.
“Oh, Dad, no,” she protested, avoiding looking at the man who’d come to her rescue. How had her father anticipated her decision so easily? Now she was going to have someone following her around every minute of the day. For a moment, she considered how hard it would really be to hand off this bill to someone else and go into hiding, just to avoid this lack of privacy.
“This is Ethan Riggins. I trust him with my life. More importantly, I trust him with your life.”
McKenna looked up at the solemn-faced man with narrow features, a tight mouth and eyelashes that belonged on a supermodel over midnight blue eyes. McKenna was five ten, the same height as her dad. Riggins towered over both of them.
“You will listen to what he says as if you’re listening to what I tell you to do.”
She rolled her eyes. “You know how well that always works.”
Her father snorted, the closest sound to a laugh he ever made. “Ethan is going to take you to the Four Seasons tonight so I can check out your house and make sure it’s safe.” He held up a hand as she opened her mouth to protest. “I’ve got the room already. It’s a suite, so you’ll have your privacy.” He extended a finger in her direction before she got out the first syllable. “It’s this way or I’m taking you out of town.”
McKenna looked from her father to Riggins, whose face betrayed no emotion. Her shoulders tightened at the thought of spending time with this robot.
“Will he listen to me?” she asked, bracing her weight on her hands and staring at the man who did not return her gaze. “Will he meet my schedule? Will he talk?”
Riggins cut his gaze to her, his lips thin. “I’ll make every effort to do what you need, but my priority is to keep you safe.” He turned to the nurse, who had been listening with interest—and staring at him. “Is she ready to go?”
“Take her,” the nurse said with a wave of her hand.
The sound of quick footsteps approaching had her father and Riggins moving shoulder to shoulder to form a wall in front of her. Heart pounding, she stretched to see around them.
And recognized the blond-tipped curls of her boyfriend Nick Stanley.
“Dad, it’s okay.” She rested her hand on her father’s shoulder. “It’s Nick.”
John didn’t relax, but grumbled as he stepped aside to allow Nick to reach her.
His green eyes were troubled, the hollows beneath shadowed. “I got here as soon as I could. Are you okay?” He curved his hands on the sides of her face and looked into her eyes, searching for harm.
Accepting Nick’s affection in front of her father made her uncomfortable. She lowered her head, breaking contact. “I’m fine.”
He glanced at the nurse for verification and she nodded. He turned to her father, who betrayed no emotion. McKenna knew he didn’t like Nick, thought he was too soft. But a major aspect of Nick’s appeal to her was that he was nothing like her father.
“Can you come home?”
She went tense. They didn’t live together, hadn’t even slept together, but his words sounded too intimate in front of her father.
John addressed Nick for the first time. “She’s not going home.”
She touched her father’s arm to calm him. “Dad.” She addressed Nick. “Dad thinks it’s best if I go to a hotel while he makes sure my place is safe.”
“A hotel? A public place?” Nick’s eyebrows winged up. “After what happened tonight, do you think that’s the place to be?”
John drew in a sharp breath through his nose, unaccustomed to his decisions being questioned, especially by a man he didn’t respect.
“This is Ethan Riggins,” McKenna continued in a calm tone. “He’s my—bodyguard.”
Nick’s lips twitched in surprise as he looked up at the tall, solemn man. “You do that kind of work often?”
“I do a lot of security work,” Riggins replied.
“Well, I’m invested in McKenna’s safety.”
“As am I.” John’s voice was a low warning rumble. Did Nick hear it? It raised the hair on the back of McKenna’s neck.
“Yes sir, but she’d be perfectly safe at my place.”
John was not a big man, but he squared his shoulders to face off with her boyfriend. “I don’t think you’re the right person to judge. She’s going to a hotel with Mr. Riggins, and she will be back at work in the morning. Now you’ve made sure she’s safe, you’ve seen it with your own eyes, so you can go home.”
“Dad, will you give us a minute?”
Her father hesitated, then nodded to Riggins. Once John and Riggins moved away, she took Nick’s hand. “Thank you for being here.”
He stroked her hair. “I’ve told you not to stay so late.”
“You know better than anyone it can’t be helped sometimes.” Nick worked for the state agriculture office and put in long hours himself.
“Tell the bodyguard to take a hike and come home with me.”
She smiled. He’d never asked her that before, always very conscious of their positions and public lives. “I made a deal with my father, and it will make him feel better. Go home, get some sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”
He hesitated, like he was going to argue, but didn’t. Another way he wasn’t like her father. “All right.” He kissed her softly, lingering, as if aware her father was watching and he wanted to send a message. “Call me if you need me, no matter what time.” He walked out, having to take an extra step to edge around Riggins, who didn’t move out of his way.
As he walked away, she wondered who had let him know she was here.
Riggins returned to her side. “If you’re ready to go, ma’am.”
Ma’am? Oh, this was going to be fun.
* * *
The suite her father had reserved for her was in a hotel overlooking Lady Bird Lake in the center of Austin. McKenna crossed the room to the window to see lights from the city reflecting off the surface of the water. Behind her, Riggins inspected the suite, nearly as silent in his movement as he’d been on the drive over. She couldn’t decide if she preferred for him to be silent so she didn’t have to think of anything to say, or if she’d rather have him talk, at least a little.
Her father had thought of everything, had even packed a bag of her clothes and toiletries for her. She was afraid to see what he might have included, but she certainly wanted to get out of these clothes, smelling of fear and stained with the blood from her arm and from Riggins’s head wound.
“You did good.”
Riggins’s voice from the doorway of the bedroom made her jolt.
She turned to see him standing there, solemn, arms folded over that broad chest. “What?”
“I know what you did at the capitol, how you protected your friend. That took some quick thinking.”
Mimicking his stance, she planted her feet, though she was so tired she could barely form thoughts. “My father trained me well.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ve seen men trained to deal with it every day fall apart. You did good.”
She didn’t want to analyze why his words rubbed the wrong way. “How many stitches?”
He touched the gauze. “Six. I’ve had worse.”
No doubt, if he was anything like her father.
“Yes, well, I’m going to shower and go to bed. I have to be back at work in three hours. Let’s see if your training has prepared you for that.”
She closed the bedroom doors in his face and sank to the bed, finally giving in to the tremors of fear and exhaustion, and wishing she had someone to hold her.
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