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People inspire me and so many of them are the inspiration for characters in my books. Case in point today? PROTECTING SUSAN. I am honored to have THE PROTECTORS series in Susan Stoker’s SPECIAL FORCES WORLD. She is a truly amazing person, with an incredible talent who is very supportive of other authors. So of course, in my PROTECTORS series, I had to write PROTECTING SUSAN. But she couldn’t be a weak heroine, or one who was defeated by challenges, or who scared easily. In fact, she needed protection because she was willing to wade into danger to protect and defend others. And the man who came into her life fits perfectly because….oh, wait! I think you should read it to find out why. Get started here with Chapter One.

Susan Stoker: This one’s for you.

Protecting Susan: Chapter One

“I’m not taking a keeper with me, and that’s final. I told Tex that, and he’s just ignoring me.” Susan Stryker glared at Amy and Quinn McCoy. Amy had called to invite her for dinner but it didn’t take her long to realize she’d been sandbagged. Now they were all sitting at the table in Amy and Quinn’s screened patio. She was doing her best to control her irritation, realizing her friends only had her best interests at heart.

But really.

When Tex Keegan had hooked the pair up, their connection had been instant and strong. But holy crap! Didn’t they think she was smart enough to know what she could and couldn’t do? After all, they’d been with her from Day One, when she’d shown up with equal parts of fear and determination. She was running from her past and, while they never asked for details, she’d given them the two-cents version.

She’d been determined to erase that past and build a whole new life here, create a strong new persona for herself. Tex had set her up so there was no direct path to her and made sure key people had a picture of Evan Hamilton, just in case all the fail-safes, well, failed.

“That won’t happen,” he’d told her a hundred times, “but I like to be prepared for the what-ifs.”

They both knew there was always a chance that could happen. That was just life. But he’d also put some traps in place as well as sending a picture of Evan Hamilton to key people. If, somehow, he managed to sniff her out, Tex would get word of it and be on the alert.

The first thing she did was sign up for self-defense classes, so she’d never be at anyone’s mercy again. That had given her the idea for the school she opened, with courses only for women. Tex had also found a handgun instructor who worked with her to get her concealed carry license and to be proficient with a gun. She’d worked hard to get where she was, and they’d cheered her every step of the way, so what was going on here now? This argument about having a “protector” with her on this trip had been ongoing for two weeks, ever since Tex had informed her it was all set.

“It’s important to me that I be in charge,” she told them. “You know that. Just me.”

Because, for one moment in time, she’d given up that control, and it was a near disaster.

She watched them exchange glances again and shook her head. The three of them had been discussing this—more like arguing—for more than an hour, and she hadn’t budged.

Besides, there was only one man she’d even consider as her so-called bodyguard, and the likelihood of that was zero to none. She hadn’t seen or heard from him in two years. There was no chance that her “protection” would be him, and she wasn’t sure she’d be comfortable with anyone else. It still baffled her that when she should have run from him the minute they met she’d felt an unexpected cocoon of protection.

“We’re just concerned for your safety,” Amy told her again and again. “All of us. That’s all. And taking protection is far from giving up control. We know you can take care of yourself, but you’ll be up there with targeted women. You’ll be trying to help them defend themselves against men who’ll want to beat the hell out of you when they discover exactly what your purpose is. That’s what this is about.”

“Uh huh.” Susan took a sip of her cold drink. “Call it anything you want, but the answer is still no. I can more than protect myself. And Tex should have minded his own business.”

She knew she should just give in and not fight it. They were right, but her independence was so important to her. Being in control topped her list. She had accepted certain things as important to her safety, like changing her name and letting Tex put the title to her house and car in the name of a fake business with an address in Pittsburgh. An address Tex used for things like this. It meant no one could find her.

She hoped.

Before Evan, things had been different. That was how she divided her life now. Before Evan, after Evan. She was smart, both in school and in business. Self-confident, comfortable in almost any situation. She had a great circle of friends and dated interesting men. None of them seriously, of course. Her standards were pretty high.

How stupid she’d been to ever think Evan ticked all the boxes. And what a great actor he was to make her think he did. He was charming, funny, caring, great in bed…until he wasn’t. But it had been so gradual, so insidious, she’d hardly realized their situation was changing. Until the first time it exploded. She should have walked away then. Maybe it took her so long to make her move because she couldn’t believe it was happening. And Evan had managed to exert his control into every corner of her life.

How had that happened? How had she let it happen?

But she was smart enough to finally make her move when reality smacked her in the face, and to be smart about it. Smart women could fall prey to abusers, but only the ones who weren’t stayed in the situation.

“Really?” Amy spoke up now, exchanging a private glance with Quinn. “If it hadn’t been for me listening to Tex Keegan—and Melody, of course—and him not minding his own business, Quinn and I would never have been hooked up. Look how well that turned out.”

Susan frowned. “So, you’re saying it’s like a matchmaking thing? Are you kidding me? Crap. I don’t think—”

Amy burst out laughing. “No, not at all. I’m just saying Quinn saved me when I was in the most danger, thanks to the Keegans. The rest is a bonus.”

“But damn it.” Susan shook her head. “I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I’ve been telling him that every day since he came up with this bodyguard idea. I run a self-defense school for women, for god’s sake. One that also includes a class on shooting and gun safety. Quinn, you’ve seen it whenever you brought Amy to the range, right?”

The school idea has been born when she was taking classes herself and realized how many women were in damaging situations and unable to protect themselves. If she’d had those skills, who knew how that one year of her life might have turned out.

“But you‘re heading into a really unknown situation,” Quinn pointed out. “A dangerous one. Haven Farm is in Northern Florida in the middle of a scarcely populated area. Kate Bartlett, who runs Haven Farm, contacted you because Tex told her you were the best for this. And…you’re already in Florida and not a bad drive from where she is. It wouldn’t be good advertising if you showed up to help these women protect themselves and got killed for your efforts. Not very reassuring to those women.”

Susan wanted to pound her fist on the table. Her Self Defense for Women program had come about because she’d managed to escape a dangerous situation herself. She’d moved halfway across the country, changed her name with Tex’s help, and, with his guidance built a brand-new life. She had always been a strong woman, confident and sure of herself. The situation with Evan had shaken her off her equilibrium, but she had fought back and was now in control of her life again. She’d grown into a strong, self-assured woman who had conquered her fear. Didn’t he know that?

Now she had this great contract she was really looking forward to, and she wasn’t taking some stranger with her who she knew nothing about. Strangers—especially—still put her on edge. Tex knew that. She was sure he’d picked out someone he thought was trustworthy, but mistakes could be made. She was living proof of that. Tex and Quinn were, at the moment, the only men she trusted. Well, except for…

No. Forget it. That belonged in the past and should stay there. If she had regrets, she kept them locked down. She had spent the last two years rebuilding her life, and that was her focus.

Amy and Quinn had become her best friends, along with Tex and Melody. She’d arrived in Tampa two years ago with a used car and phony documents provided by Tex. She had undying gratitude for these people who had literally saved her life. They’d helped her build a new existence, a safe existence —she hoped—so, why was she arguing with them?

“You’ve trusted Tex with your life since the day you and he connected,” Amy pointed out. “How do you think he’ll feel if you ignore what he says you need to do now? He’s only concerned for your safety, you know.”

“You’re right,” Quinn agreed. “Let’s get his opinion. He’d never have recommended you for this job if he thought you’d be foolish.”

“I’m aware of that,” she agreed, “but—”

“Hold on.”

Before she could stop him, Quinn speed-dialed a number on his cell and set the phone on the table to speaker so they could all take part in the conversation.

“Hey, Quinn.” Tex Keegan’s voice boomed from the phone. “How’s it going?”

“It would be going a lot better,” Quinn told him, “if you could talk some sense into your friend here. When you recommended Susan for this job in Northern Florida, did you not tell her she’d need protection? I’m pretty sure you did.”

“Absolutely. Susan, you giving everyone a hard time there?” His chuckle floated out from the phone. “As usual?”

Damn! Damn! Damn! She wanted to bite nails.

“You know I can take care of myself,” she reminded him. “That’s why you hooked me up with this job. Remember? And even more because I do not give people a hard time.”

Well, at least part of the time.

“I also did it because you’re smart, or at least I think so,” Tex told her. “There’s a lot of men who want to harm the women this woman is sheltering, some from Dixville, the little town the farm is close to. Those who are close are the most dangerous, but we all know distance means nothing if a man has revenge on his mind.”

Boy, did she know that. It had taken a lot of ingenuity and a lot of covering her tracks to make sure Evan Hamilton couldn’t track her. And if weird circumstances had not connected her with Tex she had no idea what would have happened. He’d helped her create a new foolproof identity with no trace of who she’d been. He was even able to access the State of Florida database for drivers licenses to manipulate her picture. If anyone was looking for her that way, it would take a pretty expensive, pretty sophisticated piece of equipment to match her picture with that one. But even now, in dark moments, the icy fear still raced through her. She wondered if she’d ever be free of it.

“I built my new life with help from you both, too,” she reminded him. ”And look where I am now. But you also know how I feel about being around strange men.”

“Listen. You’re successful and smart. I never would have recommended you to Kate Bartlett otherwise. And yes, I’m aware of how you feel about strangers. But can’t you trust me to send you someone you’ll feel comfortable with? You don’t want to show up at a client’s facility and get killed in front of women you’re supposed to teach self-protection to. Right?”

God. She could tell they weren’t going to leave her alone. The worst part of it was he was right.

“Susan?” Tex’s voiced boomed from the phone.

She sighed. It would take more effort to fight this than to go along with it.

“Fine.” She threw up her hands. “Fine, fine, fine.”

She should have known. Her friends were going to assure her safety no matter what.

“Just as long as whoever you send knows I can take care of myself, and he’s just extra insurance. And also, that it’s someone who won’t make me uncomfortable.”

“Good thing since he’s already on his way. In fact, he should be there in a couple of hours.”

Susan sat up straight, her back rigid. “You mean, you sent someone before I even agreed?”

Both Quinn and Amy burst out laughing.

“You know he never takes no for an answer,” Amy reminded her. “Besides, you leave tomorrow morning.”

“You’ll like him,” Tex told her. “He doesn’t talk much. Anyway, you’re leaving tomorrow, so…”

“That’s why you waited until the last minute to tell me he’s on his way, right?” She hated being pushed into something, especially when it made sense. “And Amy and Quinn are your backup team. You guys really sandbagged me.”

She was torn between being grateful for their concern and uncomfortable a strange man would be hanging around her for the next two weeks.

“Always said you were smart,” Tex agreed.

“Okay,” she told him. “If all he does is grunt, I’ll be happy. And he has to remember I’m in charge.”

“Yes, oh exalted one. You’re in charge. Listen.“ His voiced was deadly serious now. “If I didn’t think you knew what you were doing, I never would have recommended Quinn take Amy to your school for classes. Keep that in mind. But I also know you think you’re invincible, and Susan? No one is.”

Well, she certainly knew that.

“All right. Who is this guy, anyway? You know how I am about strange men. Why won’t anyone tell me his name? What’s the big secret?”

Quinn frowned. “Don’t you think Tex, who by this time knows you better than any of us, has a reason for it? And would take your feelings into consideration?”

She swallowed a sigh. “Yes. Of course. It’s just me being me.”

“And I hope one day,” Amy told her, “that the stuff in your past will be so far behind you that you won’t even think about it.”

“Me, too. Okay, can tell me anything about my bodyguard?”

Quinn nodded. “He’s a former SEAL, ten years on the Teams. He’s tough, and he’s been through hell, and he can handle anything. And you’ll be happy to know he doesn’t like incidental conversation any more than you do.”

A SEAL. Like Tex. Like Quinn. Like… Forget that. It couldn’t be him, right? But god. Could she handle another man like that in her life?

“Good. Not looking for conversation. What about travel arrangements? Who’s driving? You know what a control freak I am about that.”

“Just this once,” Tex pleaded, “let the guy drive. He’s got a heavy-duty tricked-out truck and a lot of road experience. And you need to save your energy for your work.”

“Jesus, Tex. You make me sound like a frail old lady.”

Both Quinn across from her and Tex on the phone burst out laughing again.

“That’ll never happen,” Quinn said.

“Listen,” Tex told her. “He’s got a bug about not riding in a vehicle when someone else is driving so just this once say, Yes, Tex. That’ll be fine.”

She wanted to pound her fist on the table. They knew her better than that. But he had gone out of his way for her so many times. She wouldn’t have the life she did now or this new contract if not for Tex.”

She sighed. “Okay, but just this once. I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Does he know that?”

“He does. In fact, he should be there shortly. Amy and Quinn have kindly agreed to let him stay overnight in the guesthouse.”

“Pretty damn sure of yourself, weren’t you? Especially having him arrive at the last minute.”

“Timing is everything,” he laughed.

Susan looked at the two people sitting across from her, trying to read their expressions. Was this some kind of strange plot? Was there something wrong with this guy? She had an uneasy feeling there was something she didn’t know, but maybe it was just her mind playing crazy tricks on her.

Amy had originally purchased the house in South Tampa, a beautiful old Spanish-style design, when she was hiding from her insane killer stepbrother. The house had come with a small guest cottage in the back.

Tex had told her the Molloys’ story when he called to tell her he was sending Amy to take the self-defense classes she taught. Amy was the only survivor when her stepbrother slaughtered the rest of her family then went after her. Susan knew the story of how Tex had sent Quinn to provide protection with the understanding he would stay in the cottage. She smiled to herself now, remembering the story Amy told her. He hadn’t lasted long in the cottage, and now the two of them were blissfully happy. Quinn took limited but well-paying security jobs, and Amy designed video game. And took the self-defense classes because there were still people like her stepbrother out in the world.

“Does he know that?” she asked. “That his bodyguard duties don’t start until we reach Haven Farm?”

“He does.” This from Tex. “But fair warning. Although he’s a man of few words, he wants to talk to you tonight about the setup where you’re going and the specific situations Kate Bartlett is concerned about. Go over it with him. It’s important. I gave him pictures and what information I have, but you’ve talked to the woman. Give him a sense of what you got from your conversations with her. And he’ll talk about the security plans he has. Please do me a giant favor and listen to him.”

“I’ll make sure,” Amy told him. “She’ll listen to me before Quinn. You men are all so bossy.” But she winked at her husband.

“Okay. Call or text with questions. Melody sends her best, and she would have gotten on the phone, but she had to run out.”

“Tell her we love her.” Amy looked around the table. “All of us.”

After the call ended the three of them sat there for a moment. Susan looked at her friends, a suspicion forming in her mind.

“You set this whole thing up, you and Tex. He’s been at me about it for two weeks but you were in on it from the beginning, Right?”

Amy shrugged. “Suz, all we want is for you to be safe. You’re going into an unknown situation in an unknown area. Is it so bad we want to stack the deck in your favor?”

She blew out a breath. “I guess not. But why didn’t you tell me before that you knew about it? I mean, the guy is coming here to your house so it’s no shock to you.”

Quinn burst out laughing. “Then we’d have to argue with you for two weeks instead of two hours. I’m the one who told you from the beginning it was dangerous for you to go alone.”

“I just want everyone to know this is my gig,” she insisted. “But I’m not going to be stupid. And…maybe…” She shrugged. “Maybe it will be good for someone to have my back.”

Amy leaned forward. “It will certainly make all of us feel better.”

“I know, and I assure you I it.”

For a long time, she’d had no one at her back, until a weird set of circumstances led her to Tex. She’d had pone big meltdown on her appreciate journey which had also, thanks to Tex, led to just what she needed to get her past it. Tex had helped her deal with that, too.

Her odyssey to put as much space between herself and Evan Hamilton had landed her in Tampa, a place where, for some reason, she felt instantly at home. Again, Tex had been right about this being the place for her. She had wanted to get into something where she could teach herself and other women self-protection from abusive men. God knows she wasn’t looking for a relationship. Maybe never again. Tex had been a godsend through it all, and now here she was, running a school for women and living a good life.

She wondered what whoever Tex had sent was like besides being a SEAL and quiet. She had to keep reminding herself that when she’d needed help the most he hadn’t failed her, even if the results weren’t always what either of them expected. Still, a little knot of tension tightened in her stomach at the thought of being alone with whoever this was. Well, not really alone except in the truck, but close enough her defenses immediately clanged into place.

“If you look at him with that expression on your face,” Quinn teased, “he may decide to turn the job down.”

Susan sighed and tried to relax. “Sorry. It’s just…”

“I know.” He shook his head. “I keep hoping that one of these days you’ll be able to let go of those remnants of your past.”

She wondered if that would ever happen. Since arriving in Florida, she had redeveloped herself as a person. One who was strong, who could defend herself, who had confidence in her abilities. She didn’t want to take a step back from that hard-won situation.

If only. And Quinn and Amy didn’t even know the half of the situation that drove her away from her home or the details of how she connected with the Keegans. With Tex and Melody’s support and connections, she’d learned things like Krav Maga and karate. He’d helped her purchase a Glock 19 then took her to an indoor range every day until she was as comfortable with the gun as she was with her cell phone. She had strength and self-confidence, now, and was never going to take shit from anyone ever again.

No one said anything for a few minutes. Then Amy rose and picked up the empty iced tea pitcher.

“How about a fresh drink for everyone?”

But before she could move from the table, a buzz sounded that meant someone was at the gate and wanted in.

“Maybe this is our guy already.” Quinn headed for the foyer where the alarm box was set up.

Susan lifted an eyebrow and looked at Amy. “Our guy?”

Amy sat back down and reached to touch Susan’s hand. “Just an expression Don’t read anything into it.”

Susan heard the front door open and close and the soft murmur of voices. Then Quinn opened the slider to the screened patio and stepped out, followed by…

Oh, my god!

Her breath caught in her throat.

The man who came into view was well over six feet and looked exactly the way he had the last time she’d seen him two years ago. His dark hair still hung to just above his shoulders and his beard, which she would have expected by now to be ragged and unkempt, was a neatly trimmed scruff. His face was tanned and craggy, his body lean and muscular. A brown T-shirt stretched across a taut chest, one earpiece of his sunglasses tucked into the neck. Worn jeans clung to lean hips and outlined long legs. His arms were tanned and muscular, with a Trident tattoo on one biceps and an American flag on the other. A long, thin scar ran from his right elbow to his wrist.

She stared at him, stunned, assaulted by memories she kept locked in a secret vault in her mind. His image was imprinted on her brain, and he’d starred in way too many of her dreams. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. Whatever invisible thread had connected them that one night was still there, vibrating with its intensity.

Holy shit! How was this even possible? Oh! My! God!

All the hormones she was sure were dead and buried decided to come to life and do a happy dance. If she didn’t get control of herself, she was going to be in big trouble. She hadn’t reacted like this to any man since Evan. Oh, well, you might count the little tingles that had teased her the night she met him and apparently had been hanging around all this time.

She’d met Levi No-last-name at a time when she was really desperate, and frightened. The last thing she’d been looking for was to spend time with a man. But despite their being strangers they’d made an instant connection. In less than twenty-four hours, he had diluted that fear riding her and helped her deal with it. Before they parted, he’d hooked her up with someone who made her old life vanish and helped her create a new one. And without asking anything in return. A miracle, for damn sure. In spades.

Then he’d disappeared as if he’d never been there. She hadn’t ever expected him to come back into her life. Not ever. Although despite her best efforts she’d never been able to get hum out of her mind. She’d buried the feelings for him she didn’t even want to give a name to. There was no room in her life for a man. Truth be told, she wasn’t even sure she could be with one after Evan. And Tex being Tex had never asked personal questions, so she’d successfully relegated Levi to a private corner of her mind. Tex Keegan probably thought this was a nice surprise.

Really? Holy shit! What did she do now?

Stop. Just stop. Take a deep breath. Get your shit together. That’s what you do.

“Ladies.” Quinn tilted his head at the man. “Meet Levi Hawke.”

At least now she knew his last name.

She opened her mouth to say something except she couldn’t seem to form words. What was worse, that invisible something that had surrounded that night they’d spent together hadn’t faded with time. Did he feel it, too?

Levi just nodded at everyone, alert, waiting. Waiting for her to set the tone, she guessed. To let people know they’d met before or to keep it a secret. She stood there for a moment, trying to figure out what to do.

Amy broke the silence. “Nice to meet you. Come sit down. Please.” She rose and pulled out a chair. “Would you like something cold to drink?”

“Thanks.” He looked at the glasses on the table. “Iced tea would be great.”

That gravelly voice still had the ability to call her senses to attention while at the same time soothing and calming.

Amy grabbed the pitcher and headed to the kitchen.

Susan still had not moved. She wasn’t sure she was capable of it.

“Susan.” Quinn nudged her. “Can you at least say hello to the man who’s going to cover your ass for the next few weeks?”

“Of course.” She blew out a breath. “We’ve met before. Hello, Levi.”

One corner of his mouth twitched in what Susan thought was his version of a smile. “Nice to see you again.”

“You two have met before?” Amy’s eyes lit with curiosity.

So, Tex hadn’t told them. Good for him. When he said he respected privacy, he really meant it.

“Nothing to do with this,” Susan hastily assured her.

She could do this. She could really do this. Tex must have had some specific reason for sending Levi Hawke for this particular assignment, and she was determined to find out why. Now she held out her hand to him. “Thank you for doing this.”

He shook her hand, the calluses on his palm pleasantly abrasive against her skin. The tiny flicker in his eyes was the only indication he felt that same heated tug she did. The sensation brought back a memory she’d done her best to bury. Although the look he gave her was, for a moment, intense, that quickly it disappeared, replaced by an expressionless mask.

“I guess we’re taking a trip together.”

His voice had the same husky sound she remembered, with the same pleasant gravelly tone to it, as if he’d had a sore throat that never quite went away.

“Yes.” She shrugged. “I guess we are. And we should talk about it.”

Set some ground rules, for her own emotional state. After Evan Hamilton she’d found no more relationships of any kind. But Levi just—

“Suz.” Quinn cleared his throat, breaking into her thoughts. “I don’t know how far Levi had to drive to get here, but maybe let him have his iced tea before you guys get into it. Levi, have a seat.”

Susan realized that to this day she had no idea where Levi was from geographically. She hadn’t asked when they’d met at what she was now thinking of as that other time because it had been such a strange situation. For a brief moment she wondered exactly how he thought of it when he remembered it. If he remembered it. Then she slammed the door shut on that line of thinking.

Tex must have had a reason for sending him, and she damn well was going to find out what it was.

Levi paused for a moment, as if deciding whether or not he should sit down. Then he pulled out a chair next to Quinn.

Amy bustled around filling everyone’s glasses then sat down next to Quinn.

“So where did you drive from?” she asked him.

Levi took a long drink of the cold liquid and set the glass back on the table. “I was actually in Pennsylvania visiting Tex and Melody when this came up.”

“But I talked to them about this a couple of weeks ago,” Susan pointed out. “That’s when I let Tex persuade me I might need some kind of protection. Might. So, have you been hanging out there all this time?”

“Jesus, Suz.” Quinn blew out a breath. “You don’t need to give the guy the third degree.

She hadn’t meant to come across that way, but she had such mixed emotions where Levi Hawke was concerned. And now, more than ever, she wondered if this was a good idea. Especially when he stared at her across the table, his face expressionless, but his ebony eyes burning a hole in her, banked heat flaring in them.

“I had an errand to do for them before heading down here.”

Oh. Okay. So, he didn’t share information. Hmmm. From his tone she got the message this was all the information she was going to get from him. At least for right now, she told herself.

“Okay. Well, let’s talk about this trip. How much did Tex share with you about Haven Farms?”

He took another swallow of his tea before answering her question. “Enough, but I’d rather hear about it from you.”

She took a moment to gather her thoughts. She wanted to be sure he knew how important this contract was.

“Haven Farm is located just outside the little town of Danville in North Florida, maybe an hour from Gainesville. It’s in an area of the state with low population because it’s primarily agriculture, so there is a lot of open space. Lots of produce is grown in the area. Haven raises about six or seven different types of produce. Some they make preserves out of or can, others they sell fresh. There’s a farmers’ market every Saturday at the fairgrounds. It’s a way for the women to build up a tiny nest egg for when they leave.”

He lifted one eyebrow. “And do they? Leave?”

“Of course. The goal is to teach them survival skills, which include job skills, to use once they are back in society.”

“And self-defense skills.”

“That’s why I’m—we’re—going there,” she snapped. Then she drew in a breath to settle herself. It wouldn’t help to piss off Levi Hawke before they even got on the road. “Sorry. Yes. Several of the women in this particular group are from towns in the area. Apparently, as usual, the men in their lives think they deserve punishment for daring to break away from them. Especially to a place that helps them build a new life. Kate Bartlett wants to make sure they are as well prepared to defend themselves as possible.”

Again, he nailed her with that piercing look.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but they’re going to need a lot more than punch and kick if some drunk redneck comes after them.” He took a long drink of his iced tea while managing to watch her over the rim of the glass.

She wanted to show him some of her punch and kick, but she held her tongue. If he was going to be her so-called protector, she didn’t need to have an antagonistic relationship with him. Actually, she was so stunned by the situation she wasn’t sure what kind of relationship they were supposed to have. But she also knew she had worked extra hard to perfect her skills. Krav Maga, for example, wasn’t easy to learn or to use effectively. She had become expert at it, along with her talents as a marksman. And she was damn proud of them.

Letting out a breath, she said, “I think when you watch me teach you’ll change your mind.”

He shrugged. “We’ll see. You know the reason I’m along on this trip, right? Tex feels there’ll be some antagonism toward you from the men these women are running away from. I have one responsibility—to protect you at all costs. That’s what I’ll be doing. It would help if you were on board with this.”

Something flashed in his eyes but was gone in the next second.

Susan slid a glance at Amy and Quinn, who were watching the whole conversation with fascination. Great.

She cleared her throat. “I guess we should discuss the setup at the farm. You know. The layout. The schedule. Any of the men particularly on the dangerous list.”

“Why don’t we have dinner first,” Amy interjected. “It’s that time.”

Levi glanced at his watch. “So it is. I don’t want to intrude on you people, so I’ll just run out and get something quick for myself.”

“Absolutely not.” Amy shook her head. “You’ll eat with us.”

Susan wondered idly if Levi had been made to feel he was imposing often enough that he jumped in before it could happen again.

“Steaks and corn good for you?” Quinn asked.

Levi shifted in his chair. “I don’t want to—”

“You’re not. I’ll get dinner started. Meanwhile, how about if Amy gets you settled in your quarters for the night, and you can shake off the dust from the road. By then, it should be close to ready.”

“If it’s all okay with you.” He stood up. “And thanks for the hospitality.”

Quinnsmiled. “You’re welcome. Come on, I’ll show you the way.”

The two men exited through the patio door to the path leading to the guesthouse. Amy waited a few seconds until they were out of earshot before she spoke.

“Holy shit, Susan!” She fanned her face, “He is h-o-t.”

“Is he?” She concentrated on her glass. “I hadn’t noticed.” When Amy didn’t comment, she looked up. “What?”

“Something’s going on between you two. Did something happen in the past? How do you know him?”

Susan shook her head. Even to Amy, she couldn’t open up about this. Instead, she carried her glass to the sink. “Come on. I’ll help you with the prep.”

“Avoid it now if you want,” her friend told her, “but I’m not forgetting this.”

That was exactly what Susan was afraid of.