Bernadette Hogan wished that when this night was over, she could tell Jeremy Bridges to go to hell. She was about ten times more emotionally stable than the average person, but if she had to spend one more evening watching him pick up vacuous blond women for fun and recreation, she was going to go insane. Yeah, he attended all these charity events as the philanthropic CEO of Sybersense Systems, but in the end it wasn't about generosity. It was about putting one more notch in his hand‑carved Louis XIV bedpost.
But it wasn't Bernie's job to plan a principal's itinerary. Her job was to protect him wherever he decided to go. And, of course, there was the small matter of the outrageous amount of money he paid her to put up with this nonsense, money she was going to need desperately in the coming years. So she kept that resignation letter only in her head, staring at it longingly with her mind's eye every time he aggravated her to the breaking point.
Tonight would be one of those times.
Carlos pulled the limo into the driveway of the San Moritz Hotel behind a string of unusually small and sedate vehicles. Tonight, it seemed, the filthy rich of Dallas society had left their Mercedes and Beemers and gas‑guzzling Hummers in their five-car garages, opting instead for their hybrids and electric cars.
Bernie sighed. "So which environmental cause are we championing this evening?"
Jeremy's brows drew together thoughtfully. "Hmm. Good question." He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out an invitation. "Ah. Global warming. Emphasis on diminishing polar bear habitats."
"And here you are in your limo. Last I checked, it gets about nine miles to the gallon. People are staring."
"People are hypocrites."
"True, but it's all about appearances."
"It's all about comfort," Jeremy said. "I didn't make all this money to cram myself into a car the size of a shoebox."
"You don't seem to mind cramming yourself inside your Ferrari."
"The Ferrari doesn't count. It's the only vehicle on earth that makes it worth giving up my wet bar and HDTV."
With that, he drained his Glenlivet and set the empty glass down with a contented sigh. There wasn't much that Jeremy denied himself in the way of creature comforts. He drank the best Scotch, lived in a gazillion-dollar house, traveled the world, and dated women who were knockout gorgeous with brains the size of golf balls. Nice to look at, Jeremy had told Bernie more than once, without all that pesky intelligence to get in the way of a good time.
Bernie sighed. With that one statement, he singlehandedly set feminism back fifty years.
There had been a time when total professionalism had dictated the way she dealt with Bridges. Yes, sir. No, sir. Very good, sir. But the longer she worked for him, the more she spoke her mind. Her attitude didn't mean she didn't take her job seriously. It just meant she had an outlet for the irritation she felt around him just about every minute of every day. Fortunately, because Jeremy was a bored rich guy who refused to play by the rules, a smart-ass bodyguard seemed to suit him just fine. Good thing, because if she had to hold her tongue around him, she'd probably end up killing him herself.
"Are you planning on tying that tie?" she asked him.
Jeremy looked down at the tie dangling around his neck. "The invitation said I had to wear a black tie. It didn't say how I had to wear it."
"Did it also say you had to wear athletic shoes?"
"No," he said with a smile. "That's my fashion statement."
Truth be told, Jeremy could show up in what he usually wore in his spare time‑‑crappy cargo shorts, a Ranger's T‑shirt and flip flops‑‑and they'd still let him in. If he wrote a big enough check, he could show up stark naked. But it wasn't like him to be in their faces about it. He always dressed well enough that they would admit him without question, but just shabby enough that they wished they didn't have to.
Over the years, the press had tried to dig up any dirt that might explain his quirkiness, but in spite of their diligence, his background was still pretty sketchy. He grew up in a suburb of Houston with his mother. Father unknown. Graduated from Texas Southwestern University. Short stint as a software engineer before starting his own company that eventually became Sybersense. Except for more current professional and civic activities, that was about it.
But Bernie didn't need to understand what was inside that calculating brain to know the truth: whenever a handsome, hyperintelligent, overgrown frat boy amassed more money than God, the result was Jeremy Bridges. Now that he was thirty-seven years old, Bernie thought maybe he ought to knock off the eccentricities and play it straight, but hell would probably freeze over first.
Bernie looked at the rich folks strolling into the hotel and sighed. "Must we do this?"
"Now, Bernie. This is a very special occasion. After all, how many times in this city does somebody have a benefit for such an outstanding cause and invite all the rich, pretty people?"
"About once a week."
"Exactly! Not nearly often enough. It's time for us to party."
"Okay. So it's time for me to party and you to watch for bad guys. Everyone should stick with what they do best."
Bernie glared at him. "It's a credible threat this time, you know."
"That also happens about once a week."
He was right. When a man had Jeremy's money and influence, somebody was always out to get him. She was reasonably certain the recent death threat had something to do with Sybersense's new medical management software that was due to launch early next year. Word on the street was that it was so revolutionary that it would forever change the way the medical industry conducted its business and bring untold riches right to Bridges's doorstep. But in order to accomplish that, he'd executed hostile takeovers of two of his hottest rivals, which allowed him, among other things, to cherry pick the best and brightest programmers and other employees who could help him develop and market his new product. Then he kicked the rest to the curb. Unfortunately, that had removed a lot of formerly wealthy, high‑powered executives from the gravy train at their respective companies and given them a reason to want to see Sybersense fail or Jeremy dead. Or both.
But in Bernie's experience, the threat could also be coming from some guy who drove a taxi or washed windows who decided he didn't like rich guys, which was why she had to stay vigilant.
"I'm sure your board of directors would prefer it right now if you limited the occasions you put yourself out in public," Bernie said.
"I agreed to be accompanied by a bodyguard wherever I went," Jeremy said. "I didn't agree to become a hermit."
Bernie felt pretty certain this event would be the harmless experience it seemed to be on the surface, but there was no way for her or Jeremy to know that for sure. All Bernie knew was that every time she tried to figure out why he behaved the way he did, she realized how pointless that was and merely concentrated on keeping his body and soul together.
"Don't you ever get bored doing this?" she asked him.
"What? Going to charity events?"
"No. Going to charity events, picking up Paris Hilton wannabes, and having your way with them."
"Oh. Well, when you put it like that..." His mouth turned up in a cocky smile. "Nope. Doesn't bore me at all."
"Good God, I hope you practice safe sex."
"Of course. You never know when some dread disease will rear its ugly head. Your concern is heartwarming."
"Concern, my ass. I just want you to do the world a favor and keep your genetic material to yourself."
"Not to worry," he said, patting his pants pocket. "I'm nothing if not prepared."
She shook her head. The man singlehandedly kept the latex industry afloat.
"Why go to all the trouble of attending these events?" she asked. "Why not just stay home and order out?"
"Haul out your little black book and take your pick. Send Carlos to pick her up."
"But if I did that, I wouldn't have the opportunity to...what is it we're doing again?"
"Saving the polar bears."
"Oh, yeah. We have to think of the wildlife."
"Come on, Bridges. The only species you're interested in preserving is the Perpetual Bachelor. Unfortunately, the world's never going to run out of those."
"Now that's where you're wrong, Bernie. Polar bears are at the forefront of my consciousness nearly every minute of every day."
"And I'll believe that the moment polar bears grow blond hair and big breasts."
"If you object so much to this event, stay in the limo. I restocked the DVD collection. Terminator, Alien, Die Hard--all your old favorites."
"I'm paid to stick close to you."
"Not too close. You have a tendency to cramp my style."
"I have a tendency to keep you alive."
"Do you have to be so dramatic?"
Bernie narrowed her eyes. "Are you forgetting the London incident?"
"That was an accident."
"That was an out-of-control car that may not really have been out of control."
"We'll never know for sure, will we?"
"Fine. Die. See if I care."
"Of course you care. Would you be able to abuse another client the way you abuse me?"
Jeremy leaned forward and tapped the Plexiglas window. "Carlos?"
The window came down. "Yes, sir?"
"Would you categorize Bernie's attitude toward me as abusive?"
"Oh, yes, sir. Absolutely."
"Thank you, Carlos."
As the window went back up, Jeremy turned to Bernie. "Now, there's a man who knows who signs his paychecks."
Bernie glared at Carlos. "Ass kisser."
"Tell me something, Bernie," Jeremy said.
"Exactly where do you hide your weapon when you're wearing a skirt?"
She met his gaze evenly. "That's none of your business."
Jeremy's gaze slid away from her eyes, slithered down to her breasts, fell to her thighs, then lazily made its way back up again. "So you're leaving it to my imagination?"
For a second, she felt the oddest twinge of awareness, as if she was one of those glowy, showy, magazine‑perfect women he was so fond of. Just the sound of his voice made her heart beat a little faster. And those gorgeous green eyes. Good God, it was no wonder women fell in his wake.
Then she came to her senses.
In a few minutes, he'd be zeroing in on some dazzling daddy's girl or elegant divorcee, at which time he'd suddenly go Bernie-blind. In the end, she was just one more employee at his beck and call, like his housekeeper or his pool boy. And that was fine by her.
"Knock it off, Bridges. All you need to know is that I'm armed, I'm dangerous, and whether it's good for the world or not, I'll get you home in one piece."
"Actually, I doubt you'd even need a weapon," Bridges said. "Didn't I hear that you once killed a man with a Popsicle stick?"
"A Popsicle stick?" She made a scoffing noise. "That's ridiculous."
"So the rumor isn't true?"
"Of course not." She paused. "It was a Q‑Tip."
Jeremy just smiled, then turned his attention to a glittering Barbie doll standing near the front door of the hotel beside a planter full of periwinkles. Her mile‑long legs protruded from beneath the hem of a sheath of silvery fabric that clung to her body like Glad Wrap, and her headful of stunning blond hair glinted in the evening light. Jeremy stared at her hungrily, as if he were a dog and Pavlov had rung the bell.
The car ahead of them drove away, and Carlos pulled to the curb directly in front of the hotel. A uniformed man opened the door of the limo and gave Jeremy an deferential smile. "Good evening, sir." Then he turned to Bernie, and his smile faltered. She could read it in his eyes as clearly as if he'd shouted it: What's a woman like you doing with a man like him?
He cleared his throat. "Uh...good evening, miss."
Miss? Bernie cringed. Nobody had referred to her as "Miss" since...well, ever. And it was none of his damned business what she was doing with Jeremy, anyway.
The man dutifully held out his hand to her, as if she needed help getting out of a car. She ignored him and climbed out, quickly scanning the area for anything out of place. She and Jeremy headed for the front door of the hotel, and she got a good look at the blond for the first time.
Even though the woman wore enough mascara to sink a freighter, Bernie thought she recognized her. Two days ago, outside the gates of Jeremy's house, a woman had been standing at the curb, watching as they pulled through the gates. Bernie also remembered a woman loitering outside a restaurant yesterday where Bridges had met his chief financial officer for lunch. Bernie couldn't say with absolute certainty that it was the same woman, but her instincts rarely failed her. Two sightings was a coincidence. Three was a pattern. And even though the woman was dressed to the nines, she didn't mesh with the sophisticated crowd here tonight. Bar hopping in the West Village seemed more appropriate. Her makeup was too extreme, her dress too flashy, her heels too high. When somebody didn't fit the profile of the occasion, it was always a reason for a heads-up.
As they passed her on their way into the hotel, the woman turned slowly and gave Bridges a suggestive smile. Not surprisingly, he matched her smile with one of his own. But Bernie sensed something about the woman's demeanor that went beyond the usual high society mating ritual she'd witnessed a hundred times before.
Then the woman shifted her gaze to Bernie.
Her smile vanished, replaced with an oddly irritated expression that made a chill snake between Bernie's shoulders. In spite of the fact that Bernie had arrived with Jeremy, there was no way on earth this woman considered her a romantic rival. Something else was going on, which meant Bernie needed to keep a close eye on her for the remainder of the evening.
* * *
As Jeremy stepped into the ballroom, the same feeling of déjà vu passed over him that he always felt on nights like this. Interchangeable hotels. Interchangeable causes. Interchangeable, ingratiating people who wanted his money.
Mile long buffet--check. Silent auction--check. Bar in every corner stocked to the hilt--check. Young, sexy society women looking for husbands‑‑check. Just once he'd like to see something different at one of these events. Maybe a margarita machine or a beer bong. A rock band instead of the symphony strings. Karaoke. A wet T‑shirt contest.
Anything to keep him from being bored out of his mind.
But if he showed up at these things, Sybersense held onto its reputation as a philanthropic leader in the community, and he held onto his reputation as a wealthy, eccentric bachelor. Then at the end of the evening, he invariably had several incredibly gorgeous women to pick from to entertain himself with later. As for the events themselves, he got his laughs by watching the looks on the faces of the old biddies as they tried to ignore whatever fashion faux pas he'd decided to perpetrate for the evening. They were all about propriety--almost all about it, anyway. In this crowd, money trumped taste, but just barely.
"Mr. Bridges! Good evening!"
He turned to see one of those old biddies waddling toward him. Genevieve Caldwell was a chunky senior citizen with silver hair, a brassy voice, and a gold-plated portfolio of oil fields all over the world.
"I'm just so delighted you could make it here this‑‑"
He knew the exact moment she caught sight of his slack tie and scuffed Nikes. Her voice faltered, and for a split second, he saw it. That look of disapproval. That expression that said, You're not one of us. That vibe of superiority that the socially blessed radiated to those less fortunate. But, as always, he consoled himself with the fact that for all her riches, he could buy and sell her ten times over.
In spite of her momentary gaffe, she recovered like a pro, pasting on a smile and holding out her hand.
"‑‑this evening," she finished.
Jeremy took her hand and kissed it, then flashed her a dazzling smile. "Mrs. Caldwell. What a joy it is to see you again."
The old lady practically quaked with delight, her disapproval momentarily vanishing in a wave of pure ecstasy.
Jeremy nodded toward Bernie. "Mrs. Caldwell, I'd like you to meet Bernadette. She's a family friend visiting from Arkansas. Rural Arkansas. It was a slow time at the chicken farm, so she put on her best dress, hopped a Greyhound, and here she is."
At the same time he got a furtive eye roll from Bernie, Mrs. Caldwell's nose crinkled as if she'd smelled something rotten. Hearing rural, chicken farm, and Greyhound all in one sentence made her disgust meter shoot through the roof.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Mrs. Caldwell said, even though it clearly wasn't a pleasure for her in the least. Then she tilted her head questioningly. "But I'm certain I've met you before." Her eyes narrowed. "Do you know you look remarkably like Mr. Bridges's astrologer?"
"My astrologer?" Jeremy said.
"Yes. Three months ago at the Sunshine Gala for Solar Energy, you had your astrologer with you. You said she told you that your moon in Pisces simply demanded you give an extra thousand dollars." She looked back at Bernie. "There is a resemblance."
"Ah, that's because she is my astrologer," Jeremy said. "Did I not mention the connection before?"
"Why, no, I don't believe you did." Mrs. Caldwell turned to Bernie. "Do you do readings for others?" She smiled. "I can only hope for more moons in Pisces tonight."
"It's more of a hobby of hers," Jeremy said. "She wouldn't want the responsibility of suggesting another person's path in life."
"But you'll be happy to know, Bernie said, "that Jeremy's moon is in Gemini today. The Twins. Which means he's going to give twice as much money as he did at the Sunshine Gala."
"That's wonderful!" Mrs. Caldwell said, beaming. "You're such a generous man, Mr. Bridges. With patronage such as yours, the polar bears will live on for generations to come." She glanced over Jeremy's shoulder. "Please excuse me. I have other guests to greet. I hope you and your friend have a lovely time tonight!"
Mrs. Caldwell moved toward her next victim, and Jeremy turned to Bernie. "You just set me up for twelve grand," he muttered. "Thanks a bunch."
"Consider it penance. Now maybe you won't go to hell for lying."
"That might cover this lie. But what about all the others?"
"You have no respect at all for these people, do you?"
"Their games aren't my games."
"So you make up games of your own."
"Just don't make me your financial planner again. I don't know a damned thing about the stock market."
With that, she turned and fanned her gaze over the crowd with the same intensity she always did, never relaxing for a moment, never cracking a smile. Bernie was nothing if not predictable. She wore the same plain black dress she always did whenever she shadowed him at events like these, one that hit her legs mid-calf. It was so shapeless that it was impossible to get a mental picture of what her body beneath it looked like. Dark hair that grazed her shoulders in no particularly style. Not a speck of makeup. Flat, sensible shoes. Jewelry? Perish the thought. In this room full of peacocks, she looked like a plain brown starling, so bland she faded right into the wall and so unmemorable that he was surprised Mrs. Caldwell had recognized her at all.
Sometimes he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes and looked at Bernie when she wasn't aware he was doing it, just to see if there was an actual woman in there somewhere. Occasionally he got a glimpse of one, but it was like seeing something fleeting on the periphery of his vision that was there one second and gone the next.
He wondered what she did with all the money she made working for him, because it sure didn't go toward nice clothes or a decent apartment. She wore discount‑store clothes and lived in a mediocre complex in east Plano full of questionable people. Not that it wasn't safe for Bernie. Somebody would have to have a death wish to mess with her. Aside of paying somebody to hack into her bank account or personal email, Jeremy didn't have any way of finding out much more, and hell would freeze over before she offered any personal information of her own accord.
Her professional history, though, was a different story. He might show the world a cavalier attitude, but he never hired anyone without vetting them from top to bottom. As bodyguards went, Bernie was the best of the best. Ex-military, she was a top-notch marksman and a martial arts expert. She had observational skills out the wazoo. And Jeremy had no doubt she could be lethal if the situation ever warranted it.
Still, she was a woman, and every once in a while he imagined what would happen if he sent her for a day at one of those stupidly expensive spas, then took her to Neiman's and sprang for the works. Just for fun. Just to see the result. Of course, if he ever actually suggested such a thing, he'd probably end up as one more notch on her Q‑Tip.
"I'm heading for the bar," Jeremy said. "Can I interest you in a glass of outrageously expensive champagne? I have to recoup my twelve thousand somehow."
"You know I don't drink on the job."
"Do you drink ever? Or smoke, or park illegally, or spit gum on the sidewalk? What do you do for fun, anyway?"
"I am having fun," she deadpanned. "Can't you tell?"
"Lighten up, Bernie. This is friendly territory. Not much chance of a kidnapping attempt around here."
Bernie's laser-like eyes zeroed in on something across the room. "I'm not so sure about that."
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you know that woman?" Bernie asked. "The one by the buffet table in the silver sequined skirt up to her ass?"
Jeremy turned to look at the woman in question, who turned out to be the same women he'd seen as he was coming into the hotel. She was indeed showing a few more inches of thigh than the average woman here tonight. Bernie didn't seem to approve, but‑‑funny thing‑‑he didn't object in the least.
Did he know her? No. Was he going to get to know her? Absolutely. Before this evening was out, he intended to get to know her very, very well.
"Never seen her before tonight," he said.
"I have. A couple of times in the past few days. She may be following you. She was outside the gates to your house two days ago, and on the street in front of Rodolpho's yesterday when you were having lunch with Phil Brandenburg. And she's barely taken her eyes off you tonight."
Jeremy smiled. "Ah, women...they just can't seem to control themselves around me, can they?"
"There is a chance she's just a groupie. She probably saw the article they did on you in Dallas After Dark and she's hoping to snag a handsome millionaire."
"So you think I'm handsome, do you?"
"I'm just quoting the article."
"Well, if it's in print, it must be true."
"Right. Dallas After Dark. Journalism at its finest." Bernie continued to eye the girl, then shook her head grimly. "There's something fishy about her. She doesn't belong here. She's dressed too slutty. And she's standing alone."
"Maybe you're right," Jeremy said. "Maybe I should check her out. Get closer to her. Infiltrate her evil plot."
"You're not taking this seriously."
"Now, that's where you're wrong. I'm very, very serious about taking her home with me." He glanced back at the woman. "And look at that. I don't even have to go on the hunt. The prey is coming to me."