Protecting Our Family
Three years ago
Crescent Bay is a small town. Main Street is exactly as you would picture it. There’s a hardware store owned by the same family for generations, a general store also family owned, a florist, and a candy store. The Blackthorne office, and The Nook is next door. My research of the area indicates it’s the newest addition to the quaint street.
Parking across the street from the nondescript brick building, I take a deep breath and hope for the best. Nothing about my background would indicate personal security would suit me, but here I am. The challenge will be worth it to support myself. From a young age, I’ve been on my own, alternating between retail and food service jobs, usually two at a time to keep a roof over my head. My last food service job was in DC, and the tips were exponentially higher, which enabled me to maintain only one job. Unfortunately, the restaurant was shut down in a sting operation by the FBI. Now I’m scrambling for a way to feed myself and a place to live.
“Good morning. Welcome to Blackthorne Security. How can I help you?” A woman about my age with short pink hair greets me as I step over the threshold.
“Morning. Maia Park. I have an interview.”
“Of course. I’m Gemma. Nice to meet you.” She extends her hand to me. “Would you like a drink?” Although her hair color makes her stand out, Gemma has a similar build to me.
“No, thank you.”
“Right this way.” She leads me into a masculine conference room where a fit, built man is waiting.
“Morning, Mr. Blackthorne. Miss Park is here for her interview.”
“Thank you.” He extends his hand to me, and I take it. “Nice to meet you, Miss Park.”
“Mr. Blackthorne. Nice to meet you as well.”
He motions for me to take a seat. “I’m a bit unorthodox when I interview candidates. Although you’ve never worked in personal security, you meet the requirements for self-defense training. Our program will hone those skills and teach you the other skills necessary for the position. Why apply here?”
Concerned my chances of being hired are minimal, I decide to be completely honest. “My life before now hasn’t been roses. I’ve been on my own since I was sixteen. Managing two or three jobs is stressful. This position will afford me the opportunity to have one job and build my future.”
“I understand. Why have you been on your own?” he asks, direct and to the point.
No reason not to share. I’m confident my background check was deep and extensive. “My parents came here on student visas from Vietnam. They never returned home after their schooling. The system caught up with them when I was in high school.”
“They left you here?” Unmistakable disgust laces his response.
“Yes.” Their choice was likely a gut-wrenching decision. However, it still pisses me off to know they left me on my own. “I belong here. They don’t. Their words, not mine.”
“Are you in contact with them?”
“Initially, I was focused on my survival and not drawing a straight line from me to them. I should’ve become part of the foster system, but I didn’t want to become a ward of the government. I stayed with a classmate through high school. My living arrangements weren’t official or anything. Once I graduated, I was on my own. I received cards on my birthday until two years ago, but nothing else.”
Mr. Blackthorne steeples his fingers. “How did you pull that off?”
“I forwarded my mail from our old apartment to a drop box and checked it periodically.”
He nods. “I appreciate your candor and empathize with your position about being in the foster system.”
Intriguing statement, but I don’t press him on it.
He continues. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the position includes paid training and a room in the bunkhouse. Food expenses are shared among the staff. Still interested?”
“Okay.” He pulls out his phone and taps out a text. “I sent you the address to the farm. It’s a large compound where my home and the bunkhouse are located. Can you meet me there in thirty minutes?”
“Sure. Thank you, Mr. Blackthorne.”
“You’re welcome. Please call me Jake. I look for my father when I hear ‘Mr. Blackthorne.’ I’ve asked Gemma numerous times as well, but it hasn’t stuck yet.”
“I’ll meet you there, Jake.” After using the restroom, I hop into my beat-up Honda and regroup a bit. Everything seems to be going fine. He wouldn’t invite me to see the provided accommodations without me having a shot at the position. Right? Right! I input the address into my phone. A few minutes after I park behind a large steel gate, a tinted SUV pulls beside me. Mr. Black… Jake hops out, inputs a code, and waves me through the gate. I follow along the driveway and park near a small, fenced area.
The property is beautiful. There’s a large—but in dire need of updating—colonial with a huge wraparound porch off to the right. Beside it is a barn that has also seen better days. Beyond where I parked, a large building sits parallel to a smaller one that looks like a motel. Further back is the shore along a rolling river.
“Your property is gorgeous,” I state when he joins me in the driveway.
“Thanks. I’m working on the house myself.”
I follow him into the larger building. Awe strikes me. The interior is a state-of-the-art gym, including a boxing ring. Two guys are sparring in the ring. One is tall, blond, and built similarly to Jake. The other is tall and fit but more like a martial artist rather than a gym rat.
“As an employee, you would have full access to this gym as well as the bunkhouse. When you aren’t on assignment, we have weekly meetings on Mondays at nine. If you’re on assignment, you’re exempt from attending and will receive an email with pertinent information from Gemma, if necessary.”
Jake waves the two guys over. “Connor and Nolan, please meet Maia.” He indicates Connor is the blond.
Both acknowledge me and move to our side of the ring.
“Nice to meet you.” Nolan tugs off his boxing glove, leans down, and extends his hand to me.
I shake his hand. “You as well.” Then I follow suit with Connor.
“Do you have a few minutes to spar with Maia?” Jake asks Nolan.
“Sure. There are spare gloves in the bin to the right.” Nolan directs me.
I flip open the bin and pull out the smallest pair of gloves. After shucking my hoodie and watch, I tug them on. Once in the ring, we tap gloves.
“I won’t go easy on you,” Nolan warns.
I like him already. No bullshit and doesn’t care I’m a woman. Forget the fact he’s exactly my type: lean, fit, and deceptively handsome. “Don’t expect you to,” I reply and strike out with my right hand. “How long have you worked for Blackthorne?”
He blocks me. “A few months. I worked for another company in Florida, but they folded.”
We spar for a solid ten minutes, trading jabs and crosses while circling the ring. Jake and Connor watch but don’t comment. The door to the gym opens, and I seize the opportunity to knock Nolan on his ass with a swipe of his ankles.
Shock appears on his face. He rises from the floor, offers a fist bump, and says, “Well played. You caught me distracted and used it to your advantage.”
“Ready to move on?” Jake shouts from the floor. Apparently, he’s seen enough.
Nolan and I tap gloves before I exit the ring. “If you have any questions, please ask when your tour is over,” Nolan offers. “I’ll be here.”
“I will. Thank you.”
I remove the gloves, set them in the bin, and wash my hands and face in the small bathroom. Dutifully, I follow Jake to the motel-style building next door. My description from afar is on point. The upper floor has six semiprivate sleeping areas and two bathrooms similar to the sleeping quarters on Chicago Fire. The lower floor has a kitchen, large living room, office, laundry room, and an additional powder room.
“The job comes with a bunk. Currently, there are three other staff members rooming here. You met Nolan. Callen and Christoph are on assignment right now. Connor doesn’t live on the property.”
“Do you have any questions?”
Jake continues, “I have two more candidates to interview tomorrow. I’ll reach out by the end of the week with my decision.”
“Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you.” We shake hands, and I walk to my car. Before closing my door, I inhale the fresh air, hoping it won’t be the last time I’m here.
Four months ago
“Last chance to back out. My family thinks you and I are dating,” I offer.
“You’re my best friend. Well, guy best friend. If you tell Alex, I’ll deny I said that. You need a buffer for your sister’s engagement party. I’m here for you,” Maia replies.
Alex—short for Alejandra—is our coworker. She was assigned protection detail for Reese, the daughter of a top NFL wide receiver. While she was on the job, she and Reese’s father, Jordan, fell in love. Alex operates the company gym and training program for new hires instead of taking client assignments to remain closer to Reese.
Extending my hand toward her, I take her luggage and set it in the back of my SUV. “Thanks. I would do the same for you.”
She dropped me on my ass in our first sparring session during her interview. Her confidence alone was the spark of our immediate friendship. Over the last few years, I’ve tucked away my growing feelings for her. We can’t be a couple and work together. More accurately, we shouldn’t be a couple and work together. I refuse to put either of us or our bosses in a bind.
Halfway through our car ride, I pull off the interstate for coffee and snacks. “Want anything?”
“A coffee would be great. I’m going to use the restroom while we’re here.”
Over the last three years, I’ve learned many details about Maia, including her coffee order and penchant for Millie’s dark chocolate caramel bars. Millie’s is the chocolate shop in the center of Crescent Bay.
When I return to the car, Maia is nowhere in sight. If she were my girlfriend and didn’t have skills to protect herself, I would be worried. Maia is petite and fit. Her eyes are a unique shade of brown similar to the center of her favorite chocolate bar. She’s flat-out gorgeous. Most people would mistake her for a pushover. She’s anything but. Her self-defense skills are finely honed to the point she’s defeated me in sparring matches more times than I care to admit.
“Everything okay?” I ask.
She waves me off as she approaches the car. “Yeah, there was a line, and I let a little girl go first. It seemed urgent for her.” Her actions don’t surprise me one bit. Maia puts everyone ahead of herself. It’s a great quality to have for this line of work from the client’s perspective. I benefit from that particular quality, given our previous conversations about taking our friendship into a romantic relationship.
Each time we end up in the same spot. Losing our friendship isn’t worth the risk to our hearts or jobs. Out loud during those conversations, I agree. Deep down, I know we would be amazing together.
“Can you remind me of your family again?” she asks as we enter the last half hour of driving.
“Sure. My parents, Michael and Sharon, have been married for nearly thirty years. Not all those years were happy, but they stuck it out.” A tiny white lie, but a necessary one.
Maia nods. “What’s Lara’s fiancé’s name again?”
“Paul.” After a few terrible country songs on the radio, I pull into my parents’ driveway. A massive mansion looms in front of my SUV.
Her eyes widen, and she twists in my direction. “Did you fail to mention you’re rich?”
I laugh. “I’m not rich. My parents are.”
An undiscernible look crosses her face. “Only a person raised with money would say that.”
“Have I ever given you the impression I have obscene amounts of money in the bank?”
“No, not at all. Could’ve warned me though.”
“Fair. Maia, my parents are uber rich. My father is a partner in an international commodities firm and has hundreds of millions of dollars.”
She laughs and moves to get her door.
“I’ll get your door. If you were mine, I would always get your door.”
Maia’s hand slides off the door and into her lap. A sigh echoes in the front of my vehicle.
Did she change her mind about us? I ignore my thoughts and offer her my hand after pulling our luggage from the trunk. “Last chan—”
“Nolan, it’s been so long!” My mother is a tall, thin woman with sharp, angular features. She’s dressed for dinner at a five-star restaurant. Yet, she’s welcoming her son into the family home, his childhood home.
“Times up,” Maia replies with a wink and a smile on her face.
I thread our fingers and lead her to the door. It’s the first time I’ve held her hand, and it feels spectacular. Her hand fits as if it were molded for mine. If the goose bumps on her skin are any indication, her reaction is similar.
“Aren’t you stunning,” my mother states as we approach.
“Thank you,” I reply.
“Nolan, I was speaking to your lovely girlfriend,” Mother scowls at me.
I shake my head inwardly. Without a doubt, I know my mother wasn’t speaking about me. It appears my attempt at levity missed the mark, at least from her perspective.
“Thank you, Mrs. Dalton. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Please call me Sharon. Let’s get inside so you can show her off to everyone, son.”
I tighten my fingers in Maia’s, and she squeezes back, a silent show of support, and I’m grateful.
“Who is everyone? The party is tomorrow.”
She waves her hand to cast away my statement. “Your father invited his business partners for dinner tonight as they aren’t able to attend tomorrow.”
I lean into Maia and whisper, “I’m sorry.”
A shiver cascades through her. She turns her head and catches my gaze. Her lips are a hairsbreadth away from mine before she replies, “We’ve got this.”
I’m glad one of us is confident about this weekend. Our proximity is already messing with my head. Her nearness messed with me daily when she was in the next bunk. However, now she lives in Connor’s condo alone. When Connor met Callie and became a partner in the business, he built a house at the compound. He decided to keep his condo, mostly due to the amazing rooftop patio, and offer it to long-term staff members. I declined to keep distance between me and Maia. Sharing a home, only the two of us, would have broken my resolve much sooner. She accepted and lived alone for a little while until Alex joined the team. Now she’s alone again.
After an exhausting round of introductions, small talk, and a four-course meal, Carl, my parents’ house manager, leads us to the guest suite.
“Thank you, Carl. Where will I be staying?” I ask, assuming he brought us to Maia’s room first.
“Master Nolan, I’m afraid there’s only one available suite for your visit. Your mother indicated you and Miss Park are a couple and didn’t see the need to adhere to antiquated norms.”
Maia sets her hand on my forearm and grips lightly. I look into her eyes and know she’s in to figure out a suite with one bed for this trip.
“I see. Surprised, but I understand.”
“As was I. Will there be anything else this evening?”
“No, thank you. Good night, Carl.”