Arms full of pink and blue balloons, Andrea West peered around the curved edge of one to make certain she wouldn’t run into anyone. The low thrum of noise permeated the room as guests talked amongst themselves, sipping punch or finishing cake. Ashlyn sat amid them all, glowing in her 5th month of pregnancy. Andrea thought she looked beautiful, though she knew her friend would disagree.
As she approached, all eyes settled on her. Unease snaked in her gut. She hated to be the center of attention. It reminded her of high school and the one time she tried out for drama class. To have all of her peers watching her proved too much and she nearly fainted. It became clear to her then that anything requiring an audience would not be for her.
Clearing her throat, she pushed past the shyness and said, “Everyone gets to pick one balloon. With the pins we passed out earlier, pop your balloon. If the baby is a boy, the blue balloons will have a prize in them. The same, if it’s a girl.”
“Oh, I must have the blue one,” Ashlyn’s mother said, coming forward to pick first.
Emme rolled her eyes behind the older woman’s back and said, “Well, I think pink is perfect.”
The two of them argued upon arrival about whether the baby would be a girl or a boy. They hadn’t stopped over the last hour and a half.
Josh, the only male guest at the baby shower, said, “Ladies, ladies. You’ll find out who is right soon enough.”
Margaret, Deacon’s mother, picked her own balloon, silent on what she thought the baby would be. Andrea gathered it was because she didn’t mind either way. Sometimes, given Emme’s attitude, she thought her friend only argued with Ann because the other woman could be goaded into arguing back. Though they all treated her with respect, Andrea knew that Josh and Emme were less than fond of Ann.
The only other guest of the party picked a pink balloon. Kate fast became a friend after taking care of Ashlyn in the hospital. She smiled in a way that told Andrea she enjoyed the banter. Together, she, Emme, Kate and Josh decided it was time to host a baby shower. Ashlyn insisted it be at her home.
Choosing her own balloon, Andrea took her seat next to Emme.
Hand resting on her growing belly, Ashlyn said, “Okay, on three, pop the balloons,” and she began the countdown.
Through laughter, the guests began popping. The sound echoed in the space between them like the sharp ring of gunfire. Hand trembling against her own balloon, Andrea closed her eyes and tried not to be drawn back to that day. The gunfire, the death, Benton being shot and Ashlyn being kidnapped. She couldn’t bring herself to press the pin into the rubber.
Lowering her balloon, she caught Ashlyn watching her with concern. Offering her friend a smile that belied the internal tension gripping her, she pretended interest in the reactions of the others. She would get past this. A little over four months passed since it happened. Some nights, she awoke, scrubbing her eyes in an attempt to rid herself of the image floating behind them. Though he considered her unwise for it, she refused Deacon’s offer of a psychologist. She didn’t want to talk about it to anyone.
“Hah!” Emme crowed in triumph. “I knew it was a girl!”
Josh laughed, though it sounded more like a cackle. “Oh, this is rich. Deacon is going to have his hands full. A girl.”
“Josh, it’s going to be a long time before we have to worry about dating,” Ashlyn told him.
In her periphery, something moved. Reminding herself not to be startled, though he lounged there like a silent, deadly rock, Andrea refused to acknowledge Benton. She would offer no more attention to him than he did to her. The last thing she wanted him to notice was her attraction to him. She drowned enough in embarrassment every time one of her friends brought it up.
“You forgot to pop your balloon, Andy,” Josh reminded her, reaching out to pop it with his own pin.
Flinching, she played it off, “Oh, yes, I guess I did.”
Throat suddenly dry, she rose and headed for the kitchen. She needed more punch.
Out of sight of the others, she allowed herself to lean against the counter, expelling a slow, tremulous breath. She closed her eyes, willing the past to stay in the past. But the darkness behind her eyelids was a ripe space for images to rise. All she could see, was Benton lying on the ground, bleeding.
“Are you all right?”
Swallowing a scream, she pressed her hand against her mouth and struggled to calm her stuttering heart. It fluttered against her chest like a bird desperate to escape the confines of its cage. When she righted her breathing and opened her eyes, she ordered them to focus on his face and nothing else. But it proved difficult when the man wore a shirt that molded to his body like second skin, showcasing every ripple of his muscles as he moved.
Finding this preferable to her memories, she dropped her gaze and studied his boots. Clad in jeans that hung well on his trim hips, Benton hooked a thumb in his belt and remained quiet. She knew he waited for an answer. The problem was, she didn’t feel like talking to him. No, talking was the last thing she wanted to do with Benton, and the shame of it had her face coloring.
Had it really been so long since she had sex that she fantasized about the bodyguard despite his obvious disinterest in her?
Shaking her head, she chastised her wandering mind and raised her eyes to focus on his serious, gray ones. She frequently wondered what Benton thought. The man certainly shared his inner world with no one. Andrea could count on one hand the time he revealed anything personal to her. And that she thought was simply an accident, a product of conversation.
“I’m fine, Benton. Thank you for asking,” she told him, all polite disinterest.
Those sharp, gray eyes narrowed. “You’re lying.”
“Honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just needed some punch.” She tried to move past him; he blocked the way, sculpted arms folded across his chest.
“Benton.” Andrea said, tempering her irritation.
“You should have taken up Deacon’s offer on the psychologist.”
Jerking back as if slapped, she said coolly,“I don’t see how that is any of your business.”
“You’re Deacon’s employee. You’re my business.”
Of course, Deacon’s employee.
“I’m fine, Benton. Now please let me get back to the party.”
He inclined his head, drawing a hand through his closely cropped, brown hair. “Andrea, I know you aren’t.”
Distress creeping into her expression, Andrea crossed her arms as if warding him off. “I don’t want to talk about this, Benton.”
“Talking would help.”
“Then, I’ll talk to one of my friends.”
She tried to go around him, and he stepped to the side, a solid wall of muscle. “Why don’t I believe you?”
Closing her eyes, searching for patience, knowing she should be more appreciative of his concern, she said, “You don’t have to believe me. Listen, I appreciate that you care, but-”
Benton grinned, teeth flashing in his handsome face. Warmth blossomed from her center, and she struggled to breathe, hating that this happened every time he smiled at her; which wasn’t often.
“For a quiet, little thing, you sure are more stubborn than men twice your size.”
“I’m not certain whether that is a compliment or not.” Why didn’t he just let her leave?
“Thank you, then,” she returned primly, smoothing her hands on her skirt. They itched to touch him. The man was 6′2" worth of temptation she didn’t need.
“You’re welcome,” he said, seeming in no hurry to move.
“Benton, Ashlyn will be opening her gifts soon. I promised to take pictures.” And she had a date this evening she wanted time to get ready for.
“I’m not stopping you.”
Supposing it was her imagination he kept her trapped in the kitchen, or wishful thinking, she felt her face flame. The curse of being a redhead. Her pale skin had no qualms with expressing her embarrassment.
“My mistake. Excuse me,” she murmured, attempting to go around him. He shifted again and she bumped into him. Her hip felt like it had been struck by lightning. Heat traveled from the spot and rose, clouding her thinking. This close to him, she caught his scent; male and woodsy, as if he spent all of his time outdoors.
Benton made no motion to move. “What’s your hurry?”
“I told you, I-”
“Ashlyn hasn’t even touched her gifts, Andrea.”
Lips pursing, she fired, “As if it’s any of your business, but I have a date I don’t want to be late for.”
The amusement drained from his expression; something dark crossed his face, but it fled as soon as it came and she thought it only another wishful thinking moment on her part.
“Oh? Brad from accounting?”
“Is nothing sacred?” She muttered, hating the rumor mill at work. If anyone so much as sneezed, everyone else knew about it.
“He’s a waste of time.”
Searching his face, finding nothing, Andrea shook her head. “I don’t know why you care, Benton.”
“I told you-”
“I’m Deacon’s employee, so I’m your business. I get it.” Believe me, I get it.
His eyes narrowed again, but he said nothing.
“Well then, if he’s a waste of time, you have nothing to worry about,” she tried breezily, shifting away from him.
His hand fell on her shoulder, stilling her. The contact burned, searing into her skin and leaving her scorched.
“If he tries anything, you tell me.”
Shrugging his hand away, she said, “I can assure you, Benton, I will be fine. I can handle myself.” Since the incident, she started taking self-defense classes in the hopes of regaining her sense of peace and control.
He arched an eyebrow. “Oh? All five feet of you?”
“Five foot two,” she told him.
“Yes, can’t forget the two inches.”
“Those two inches are very important when you are short,” she told him, making a show of looking down her nose at him.
The man honestly infuriated her. Sometimes, she thought he cared for her past being Deacon’s bodyguard and driver. But then he dispelled that notion with his actions and words. Yet, he seemed to take the time to make contact with her whenever they were in the same space, teasing her and pushing until she thought she might be rude with him. The man made no sense.
“Andy, where are you?” Josh called. “Did you get lost?”
“Thank you again for the concern, Benton,” she said dismissively, leaving him in the kitchen.
Once she reached the living room, Josh handed her the camera and Ashlyn started opening her gifts. Andrea tried to forget the strange encounter in the kitchen and focus on her friend. Not every moment with Benton need be deemed significant.
Mind drifting to her date, she could admit to herself that she wasn’t overly excited. Brad had been after her for a few months now to go out to dinner; she finally caved and agreed. The reason for resisting stood in the kitchen, though he didn’t know it. The reason she said yes was for her own benefit. She wasted time waiting for something that would never happen.
Hadn’t this last year proven just that?
If nothing changed in the year since Benton came to work for Deacon, she doubted it would in the next or the ones after that. If Benton stayed that long. He reminded her of a wolf, loyal to those he considered his pack, but just as apt to run when he felt it time. She didn’t know how she would feel when that time came. She didn’t want to think about it.
Thinking about Benton’s offer to do, what, to Brad (she didn’t want to imagine it) should he make a pass at her, her mind wandered to the night in the club. If Benton would smash a man into the floor for touching her, what would he do in a worse situation?
“You need to stop thinking about Benton,” she murmured to herself.
“What?” Emme asked.
“Nothing. That’s a cute outfit,” she said, taking a quick picture and shifting the attention back to Ashlyn.
After all, she doubted Benton thought of her.