Five months ago, early April
Sage threaded in and out of the streaming LA throngs and wished she’d didn’t have to leave for work at peak commute time. She liked people, but fighting through them wasn’t exactly her idea of a party. And it was all too easy to hide in a crowd—which would be more of an advantage if she knew who she should be hiding from. He didn’t have that problem.
She scanned the mass of humanity, looking for a familiar face, anyone she might have seen before, then checked her watch again. If she missed this train, she would be late. She had been distracted by her father’s email, which was chatty and full of news about the resort he was preparing to open that fall. He put on a good front of all-is-well, but she had known something was wrong—known it as only she could, despite his denials. The fact that he hadn’t come for his regular visit reiterated that. She’d have to use her break this afternoon to meditate and see if she could figure it out, since he wasn’t giving anything away.
A small boy weaved through the jungle of legs, followed by a man who called for him to stop. Sage shifted to the side so the boy ran into her, then she grabbed his shoulders, and stopped him from falling backward as he bounced off of her. She glanced up into the round face of a frazzled man. “I believe this one belongs to you.”
He hefted the tow-headed toddler into his arms. “Yes, sorry about that. He’s as slippery as an eel sometimes.”
Sage smiled in relief when the child giggled as if it had been a good game. The boy was comfortable with the man. “No problem.”
The man pivoted to the right, heading toward a store.
Feeling someone watching her, Sage adjusted her hemp macramé bag over one shoulder and glanced around again. Her eyes stopped on a tall man with a shaved head, mirrored sunglasses and a light brown goatee. He oozed dark alertness, an aura of control, and he was looking in her direction. Her heart sped up, her breath caught and she turned back toward the subway.
It wasn’t the first time she’d seen him, or even the third or fourth. In the past few days he seemed to pop up behind her all over town. There was no explanation for his repeated presence except that he was following her. Sage’s hands grew sweaty as she darted farther into the crowd. If he was the one who had been stalking her, she had to get away. There was a tough wariness about him, a hardened edge that said he went after whatever he wanted, and he never gave up. She hadn’t felt his presence until that week, though the stalker had been contacting her for a couple of months, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous.
If he was the one, there may be no safe place to hide in LA.
Just before the train pulled out, she managed to slide through the doors and find a corner to hide in while the panic attack took over. Standing on the far end of the car, she grasped a handle until her knuckles turned white. She put her back to the wall so she could see everyone and checked for the man several times, making sure no one else was paying attention to her while she dealt with the light-headedness and nausea that often accompanied her racing heart and difficulty breathing.
Maybe she should take her father up on the job offer in his Colorado resort. She couldn’t keep living like this.
While she provided reflexology treatments to the day spa’s elite clientele, Sage fought the implacable image of the man in her mind. She had been at work for nearly two hours and was finally starting to feel the inner peace her job usually provided when she opened the door to leave her treatment room. Standing on the other side, his fist raised to knock, was the Goliath of a man she’d seen in the street.
Her breathing stopped as terror filled her all over again. She tried to shut the door, but his hand shot out, blocking it open. “Go away.” She’d meant the words to be calm and forceful, but they’d come out tight and whispery as her panic grew. What would she do? What could she do against someone his size?
“Hey, I’m sorry I scared you.” His voice was a low rumble. He pulled off his mirrored sunglasses and hung them by one stem in the neck of his tight white T-shirt. He lifted his free hand as if to reassure her that he didn’t have a gun or a knife, but she seriously doubted someone that buff needed a weapon to maim or kill. “My name is Joel Watts,” he said, “and your dad sent me.” He handed her a business card which was printed with the name of a private security firm.
Though she wouldn’t take the card at face value, her throat unclogged a little so she could suck in some air. “My dad?” No one knew who her dad was—or almost no one. Her father had been surprisingly adept at keeping their connection a secret despite his high profile and his hundreds of phone calls and visits through the years.
“George DiCarlo,” he confirmed. “He’s concerned about your stalker and sent me to look out for you. Look, I’m sorry I scared you earlier today. I didn’t mean to. Call him if you need to verify my story.”
“Why have you been following me?” Her voice was returning to normal, though her senses were still on alert. This man was lethal; she knew it down to her core. Why would her dad send him to follow her without warning her first?
“He didn’t want me to introduce myself yet. We hoped I might be able to spot the stalker if I wasn’t too close to you. The letters you turned over to the police were pretty freaky.” Despite the otherwise intimidating exterior, when Joel said this, his jaw softened slightly, making him seem not quite as scary.
How did her father always know what was going on in her life, even when she didn’t tell him? She decided to take this hulk of a man up on his offer to check his identity. “Give me a minute, then.” When he removed his hand from the door, she shut and locked it, then fished her cell phone from her shoulder bag.
On the first try, the call rang several times, then went to voice mail. She hung up and called again—their agreed-upon signal that the conversation was urgent. If there was any possible way he could answer the second call, he would.
After three rings he picked up the phone. “Hey, honey, is everything all right?”
“There’s a man standing outside my door. Joel Watts.” Enormous, imposing, dark. “He said you paid him to follow me.”
“Excuse me for a moment,” he said to someone else. There was the sound of movement in the background, like her father was standing and moving away from a desk or table. “I’m sorry, sweetie. He was supposed to stay in the background for now. I didn’t want him to interfere or worry you.”
Sage felt her pulse begin to calm and the terror gripping her softened, though experience said it would take several more minutes to entirely dissipate—if she was lucky. “Dad, you didn’t have to hire someone.”
“Yes, I did. I was worried about you when I got a report about what was going on, and you never told me about it. You can trust Joel with anything, I promise. Look, I’m sorry, I’m in a meeting right now, but I don’t want to brush you off.”
She smiled, knowing he’d make everyone wait for her if she needed it. “No, that was the only urgent issue. I get off at five; call me this evening when you get a chance.”
“I will, and you’re in good hands. I promise.”
“I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
Sage closed her flip phone and held it in her hand. So Joel really was working for her father. She gave herself a few more minutes for the panic attack to subside before she turned to the door, unlocked and opened it. “Come in.” She gestured for him to take a seat and stepped out to verify the time of her next appointment before shutting herself in the room with him.
“How tall are you, exactly?” Sage asked as she leaned back against the door, studying him.
Making her feel even shorter than she had before at only five-three. “And you’re a body builder?”
“Former Navy SEAL, actually.” An unhurried smile spread on his face, transforming it completely. “Staying in shape is part of the job.”
“Of course.” Her dad would never settle for less than the best. Taking a deep breath, she offered him her hand. “Maybe we should start over again. I’m Sage Parker.”
His hand dwarfed hers, surrounding it in hard warmth. “Joel Watts, I’m here to keep you safe.”
For the first time in months, she thought she might be able to relax again.
Joel was relieved that Sage was smart enough to check in with her father, and then relaxed with him—at least a little. He glanced at the comfortable-looking treatment chair and then back at Sage. “Aren’t you supposed to be like a masseuse or something? Can you do massage on one of those?” It seemed like an odd shape—didn’t they usually use padded tables?
Sage chuckled. “I specialize in reflexology.” He must have looked as clueless as he felt because her lips quirked and she brushed back her unruly brown curls. “I focus on whole-body wellness through the feet.”
That had him looking down. She wore sandals, had her toe nails painted bright pink and sported silver toe rings. He never knew feet could be so sexy, but they fit the package from her pixie proportions, to her wild brown curls and haunting gypsy eyes. “If you say so.” Time to focus back on the reason he was there, though he’d been dying to get a closer look at her since her father had sent him her picture nearly a week earlier. “Your dad wanted me to stay incognito for a while longer, but I decided it would be best if I spoke with you after you spotted me. Again.” She always seemed to know when he was nearby. He could usually blend into the background when he tried—especially in a crowd that size—her ability intrigued him.
He continued. “I know you’ve been receiving notes and emails, but without more information, the chances of me catching him are minimal. The police reports only had a few details. What do you know about this guy?”
“Not much, but I’ve kept all of the notes that I didn’t turn over to the police—and I got another one last night. Most of them are signed by your future husband.” Sage folded her arms over her chest and kept her distance from him in the small room. “So how did my dad find out, anyway? I didn’t tell him.”
“The police report, though how he knew there was one, I couldn’t tell you.”
She checked her watch, something he noticed she did often, though he’d been following her for several days and she didn’t seem to run late. “Only ten minutes until my next appointment, and I have the feeling you’ve got more questions than there’s time to answer right now.”
Joel smiled. “I’d say that was a safe bet. How about if I meet you after you get off work? We’ll eat and you can fill me in.”
Sage smiled back, making something turn over in his chest. “I know just the place.”
Sage watched the dismay on Joel’s face as he got a look at the offerings at her favorite restaurant—a vegetarian deli a couple of blocks from the spa where she worked. Though she didn’t adhere strictly to her vegan upraising, she preferred a whole-foods approach to eating and rarely ate meat. Joel apparently had a different idea of what constituted a real meal.
She ordered a garden salad, he chose an egg salad sandwich—the only thing in the deli that qualified as meat in any form—and they found a table in the corner. She noticed he studied the room before sitting down, and took a seat with his back to the wall so he looked out over everything. His eyes tracked around the space and flicked back to the door every time it opened. She relaxed, knowing he was watching out for her. “You’re a former SEAL? How long did you do that?” she asked.
“I was in the Navy for twelve years, a SEAL for ten.” He lifted the edge of his rye bread and looked at the egg filling, and though his expression was doubtful, he lifted the sandwich for a bite.
“That’s quite a while. Why’d you get out?” Sage speared a tomato and popped it into her mouth, studying his face. She felt better about Joel, knowing her father had sent him—her dad was no fool and would have checked his background extensively—but there was still something dark and dangerous about him.
“I got injured on a mission, messed up my ACL. I’ve been through surgery, and am doing great, but I’ll never be at a hundred percent again.” His face was calm, expressionless, but his dark brown eyes revealed his regret.
“You miss it.” She didn’t know much about SEALs except that they were the Navy elite with advanced combat skills. She wondered if his experiences were what made him dangerous, or if the inner predator had already existed and the training merely enhanced it.
“Yeah, I miss it.” There was a flicker of loss in his eyes, though his face didn’t show it.
“I could never fight in a war. Violence makes my stomach turn. I’ve never even held a gun.” She didn’t know how she ended up in a situation where she needed a bodyguard.
“Good thing we’re allowed to have different jobs, then, isn’t it?” He took a sip of his water and turned the conversation back to her. “Tell me about this stalker.”
She washed down her salad with a drink of her tea and plunged ahead. “It started in late January. At first it was just emails, then I started getting letters to my home, and deliveries of gifts to home and work. They’re coming more regularly now. He seems to think we have a relationship already, but I have no idea who it is. I was a little wigged but didn’t really freak out until he started talking about things I’d done, places I’d been—things he couldn’t have known unless he was watching me.” The thought of some stranger obsessing about her made her shiver with revulsion. “That’s why I went to the police.”
“And why your dad hired me.” When Joel’s eyes switched from cool to frigid, she was glad he was on her side.