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Under Pressure: A Body Armor Novel


LEESE PHELPS STOOD in the cold early evening air, his breath frosting in front of him. Lights at the nearby bus station blinked in an annoying mismatched pattern. A cascade of foil Valentine’s Day hearts hung loose, almost touching the ground. Not exactly romantic, but then, he wasn’t in a romantic mood.

Behind him, completely hidden in the shadows, his friend Justice complained, “My balls are freezing.”

Still watching the surrounding area, Leese said, “You should try wearing underwear.”

“The ladies would complain. They like me commando.”

Leese started to smile, until a shadow shifted from the right side of an alley that bisected the station from a cheap hotel. He said, “Shh.”

“This is it?” Justice whispered. “You see her?”

“Quiet.” Leese pressed farther back into the darkness, his gaze alert, his senses zinging.

A woman, small in stature, emerged dragging an enormous suitcase with a broken wheel. As it tried to pull her sideways, she relentlessly forced it through slush and blackened snow. Her narrowed gaze scanned the area with nervous awareness.

Leese didn’t move, but still her attention shot back in his direction. She stared, watchful and wary, until he stepped out.

Trying not to look threatening, Leese propped a shoulder on the brick facade of the vacated building. He glanced at her, then away, as if dismissing her.

She continued to stare.

Now what to do?

“What’s happening?” Justice whispered.

“Nothing. Be quiet.”

The girl wore jeans with snow boots, a puffy coat that covered her to her knees and a black stocking cap pulled down to her eyebrows. Straight brown hair stuck out from the bottom.

When she finally looked away, it was to drop the suitcase and whip around, facing the way she’d come.

Two men stepped out, followed by a third.

The third smiled at her. “Going somewhere, Cat? Without saying goodbye?”

Suspicions confirmed, Leese watched Catalina Nicholson take a defiant stance. That didn’t surprise him. As soon as he’d been given this assignment, he’d learned what he could of her.

She came from a wealthy family of lawyers and CEOs, people with far-reaching political and business connections. They were the movers and shakers of the world, influencing other powerful people effortlessly.

But Catalina had bucked convention by becoming an elementary school art teacher, something her family hadn’t liked. She clearly enjoyed her luxuries, but wanted to earn them herself. Some inheritances helped to pave the way on that, but from all reports, she’d proven herself to be headstrong and independent. Small in size but not in attitude.

Here, in the slums of Danbrook, Ohio, she was far away from her usual routine of dealing with middle-class families and their grade-school children.

“That’s right, Wayne,” she said, her voice strong. “I’m leaving.”

“I don’t think so,” the man called Wayne said, and his two cronies moved to surround her. “Not just yet. Not until you pay up on all those promises you made.”

Strangely enough, Catalina looked back at Leese again, her expression a touch desperate.

Even from a distance, he felt her silent request for help.

“Stay put unless you see that I need you,” Leese told Justice. He was pretty sure he could handle things without drawing his gun, but there was always a chance he’d cause a ruckus and then, to protect her, they’d need to make a run for it. “Be ready with the car.”

Justice grumbled, “I miss all the fun.”

His boots crunching in the frozen snow, Leese headed toward her in a casual stride.

Relief took the starch out of her shoulders. If he could defuse things without violence, that’d be for the best. Right now, the bus station was all but empty. But if a brawl broke out, for sure it’d draw attention from somewhere.

As he approached, the men all went still, watchful, before deciding he didn’t matter.


Leese stepped up in front of her, blocking the pushiest guy, forcing him back a step.


“Excuse me.” Insinuating himself between her and the big goon, Leese insulated her from trouble, then turned to face her. Catalina was probably a foot shorter than him, and even in the thick coat she seemed slim all over. She tipped back her head and stared up at him with big blue eyes that were both wary and defiant.

By silent agreement, she trusted him, when that was the very last thing she should have done. No wonder he’d been sent to her.

Leese hefted her bag, which weighed a ton, and maintaining the casual vibe said, “This way,” indicating where he’d been standing watch.

Without bothering to look at the other men, she drew a careful breath, braced herself and nodded in agreement.

Insane. The woman had no self-protection mechanism. She didn’t know him from Adam, but was willing to blindly saunter off with him.

When he’d been assigned this case, not once had he expected it to be this easy. On the contrary. Everything he’d been told had led him to believe it would be a total pain in the ass to keep her safe.

She took two steps.

The closest goon said, “This is bullshit.”

Pausing, Leese huffed out a breath. “Let it go.”

“The hell I will.”

Hearing the elevated voice, he turned just in time to dodge a thick fist. Still holding her bag, Leese landed a knee to the man’s midsection, then flattened him with an elbow to the chin.

The guy’s eyes rolled back and he collapsed like a rag doll, one leg bent awkwardly beneath him, his jaw slack.

Eyeing the remaining two, Leese popped his neck and waited. “Anyone else?”

Being wiser than they looked, they declined further violence.

As the downed man came around with a groan, Leese backed up with Catalina. “Get your friend out of the slush, before hypothermia sets in.” It was so bitter cold, it wouldn’t take long for the elements to affect a body, especially when drenched in wet snow.

While Wayne remained hostile, the other man rushed forward to help his friend back to his feet. Tottering, he made his way to a curb where he slumped, still unsteady.

There were no more smiles when Wayne said, “She owes me.”

“How much?” Paying off the guy would be easier than debating it on such a bitter night, and more expedient than refusing them with his fists.

Wayne’s eyes narrowed. “Not money.”

“Ah, well, I can’t even up with you, then. Guess you’re out of luck.”

Jaw grinding, Wayne glared at him. “I gave her a place to stay. I fed her. Bought her those boots and coat—”

“And you figured on getting paid how?”

Throughout it all, Catalina stayed behind him.

Wayne growled, “She knows what I expected.”

Leaning around, tone apologetic, Catalina whispered, “Yeah, about that... I never planned to sleep with you, Wayne. I’m sorry. I promise I will repay you, I just can’t right now. But I do have your address, so—”

“Fuck you,” Wayne snarled.

Growing impatient, Leese said, “Apparently that’s not happening.” He set down the suitcase and pushed aside his open coat, showing the Glock in a belt holster at his side.

The men stared uneasily. Catalina sucked in a startled breath.

Ignoring those reactions, Leese looked at her boots, then lifted the collar of the coat, examining it. While they were decent protection against the elements, they weren’t high-end items. Probably bought at a discount department store.

Definitely not worth Catalina prostituting herself.

He withdrew his wallet and pulled out a few hundreds. “This will have to suffice.” He folded the money, walked up to Wayne and held it out.

After a ripe hesitation, Wayne took the cash.

With a dose of menace, Leese warned, “Don’t come after her again.”

Wayne nodded, said something low to the uninjured man and the three of them retreated behind the tall buildings.

Leese felt Catalina retreating as well.

Out of patience and feeling stern, he faced her. “Don’t run.”

Eyes huge, her face pale except for the pink of her cold nose, she swallowed hard. “You were sent to bring me home, weren’t you?”

Body Armor, the agency where he worked, had sent him...but his job was to keep her safe, period. “You don’t have to be afraid.”

With a shake of her head, she stepped back.

Leese saw it in her eyes; she would run. “Don’t.”

She whirled to flee and plowed headlong into Justice. The impact was solid enough that she bounced back, her feet slid out from under her on the icy surface and she landed flat in the frozen snow. Given the way she wheezed, she’d knocked the wind out of herself.

She didn’t sink in the snow as the other guy had. Nope. She might as well have hit solid ground. At least he didn’t have to worry about her getting hypothermia.

Leese knelt beside her. “Shh.” He cupped the back of her head. “Hold still.” To Justice, he said, “You were supposed to wait at the car.”

“I saw it was clear and wanted to hurry you along.”

Justice was still learning patience. He was here today with Leese to get a handle on the job. So far, he failed with flying colors. “Carry her bag to the car. We’ll be right there. And, Justice, stay sharp, and stay with the car.”

On his way past, Justice told her, “Sorry about that, honey. Didn’t mean to startle you.” He carried the bag as if it weighed nothing, but then, Justice was a six-foot-five former heavyweight MMA fighter made of solid muscle.

Drawing her into a sitting position and raising her arms over her head, Leese said, “Take it easy. You’re all right.”

She sucked in a strained breath, coughed and wheezed again.

“Running into Justice is like hitting the side of a mountain. Did you hurt anything?”

She got her breath back with a vengeance. “Who are you people?”

Her hat had come loose and silky brown hair tangled around her face. With very cold hands, Leese brushed it back. Gloves would have been nice.

But gloves skewed his accuracy whenever he needed to draw his weapon.

He never discounted that possibility, so no gloves.

“I’m a bodyguard with the Body Armor agency. I was hired to keep you safe.”

“Oh God.” Elbows on her knees, she dropped her head forward and rocked in agitation.

Sitting in the cold was not his idea of fun. “You’re okay?” Instinct had him rubbing her back. She didn’t seem to mind.

“Yes.” She lifted her head and pinned him with her gaze. “You don’t look like any bodyguard I’ve ever seen.”

“Seen a few, have you?”

“Too many. They’re pretty obvious, but not you. You don’t fit the mold at all.” She studied his face. “How did you find me?”

Leese was unaware of any mold, but he also knew Body Armor was vastly different from most other agencies. “I was told you were in this general area. It’s a small town. Newcomers draw attention.”

“I was two towns over the last time bodyguards found me.”

So others had been sent to protect her, but she’d deliberately lost them, then tried hiding again? Leese wasn’t sure what was going on, but he had an objective, and he’d see it through. “I showed your photo around and tracked you here.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Since when do bodyguards track people?”

Since clients paid a small fortune to make it happen. Balanced on the balls of his feet, Leese let his wrists rest over his knees. “I learned a lot of neat tricks,” he told her.


So she wanted to have this whole conversation while exposed to the elements? Appeared so. “Like how to locate people.” He stood and pulled her to her feet.

She strained away. “What are you doing?”

Her unmistakable panic helped him to rein in his impatience. “Your seat is probably damp by now. The back of your coat too. You need to get somewhere warm and dry.”


“Let’s go to the car and we’ll talk about it.”

She balked. “So you’re taking me home?”

That sounded like an accusation. Leese tried to ignore the cold. “Is that where you want to go?”

Her brows lifted. “Not really, no.”

“Okay then, want to clue me in?” His balls were starting to freeze.

Puzzled, she narrowed her eyes on him. “You weren’t told to take me anywhere?”

“I’ve only spoken to my boss, and she said to keep you safe, period.” Why did he feel like he might be missing the big picture here? “That’s the beginning, middle and end.”

Incredulous, she asked, “For how long?”

He shrugged. “My understanding is that it’s pretty open-ended at this point.” Given her reactions so far, he could see why those who cared about her assumed she’d need protection.

But to be sure, at the first opportunity he’d give Sahara a call and have her fess up all the facts. Sahara Silver, the new owner of Body Armor, did like to do things her own way—and it was never conventional.

Catalina kept her gaze locked with his while working out something in her mind, and suddenly she stiffened. “Oh my God.”


Her hair whipped around as she searched the area again.

Who was she looking for? “Catalina—”

On a heartfelt groan of despair, she gripped the front of his coat. “You’ve probably led him to me.”

Leese didn’t know who she meant, but he saw honest fear in her expression. “Let’s get out of the area, somewhere safe.” He noticed that she limped a little as he led her quickly to where Justice waited with the car. “We’ll talk more once I know you’re secure.”

Justice sat behind the wheel of the black Lexus SUV, the engine running, so the car would be warm.

Catalina balked again at the sight of him, then squared her shoulders and hastened her pace.

“You don’t have to worry about Justice.” Leese reached the SUV ahead of her and opened the back passenger door. “Colorful as he might be.”

She said, “He’s fine.”

Right. Height and a brick build were enough to make Justice intimidating, but he also had black-as-sin eyes, a dark Mohawk and a goatee badly in need of a trim. His earliest fighting days had left him with a crooked nose from too many breaks and a right ear thickened from too many hits.

Overall, despite his massive size and capability, Justice was easygoing and considerate—especially to pretty girls.

“Let’s lose the wet coat, okay? You’ll be more comfortable.”

She bit her lip, then quickly stripped her coat off. Leese took it from her as she climbed in.

She was so skittish that he didn’t trust her to stay put and he definitely didn’t want her trying to hop out of a moving car. Still holding the door open, he said, “Scoot.”

“What?” Catalina pushed back her hair and blinked at him in question.

Rather than explain again, Leese took the expedient measure of getting in next to her, forcing her to make room for him. He watched her rump as she quickly crawled across the seat, moving as far from him as she could get.

As he draped the coat over her lap, he told Justice, “Go,” and to Catalina, said, “Buckle up.”

“Where to?” Justice asked.

“Head for the highway.” Because she hadn’t done it yet, Leese reached around Catalina and buckled her seat belt, then tucked the coat around her again. “We’ll go south.”

She pressed back in her seat. “Where’s my suitcase?”

“In back,” Justice told her, taking several peeks at her in the rearview mirror.

She confirmed that by twisting around to look in the cargo area. When she saw the battered suitcase, she dropped back into her seat and closed her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Welcome.” Then to Leese, he asked, “We expecting more trouble?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Yes,” Catalina said. “Expect it, because it’s definitely coming.”

Leese shared a look with Justice, but both chose to stay silent. As they drove out of the small town, the streetlights faded away and only the headlights of the SUV and the few other cars on the road lit the area.

After about twenty minutes, Catalina slumped in her seat and yawned. “I don’t suppose you have anything to eat?”

The guys shared another look.

Justice said, “Sorry, no. I take it you’re hungry?”

“Mmm. I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday.”

If true, that sucked, but Leese shook his head at Justice. “Don’t stop yet.”

“If I can’t eat,” Catalina said, “then do you mind if I nap? I’ve been even longer without sleep and now that I’m warm, I’m having a pretty hard time keeping my eyes open.”

Every minute with her got more confusing. “Why haven’t you slept?”

“I was planning my escape from Wayne’s little cult. He considers himself this benevolent guide, but he’s actually just creepy. I had to sneak out a window. Should have known he’d find out.”

Tension knotted the muscles of Leese’s neck. “You were in a cult?”

“Well, not an official cult or anything. Those are off in the woods or something, right? But Wayne has this weird setup where he takes in people in need.”

“You?” he asked with clear disbelief, because her family connections alone would forever keep her out of the category of “in need.”

She rolled one shoulder. “I had to lay low for a bit.” Rather than expound on that, she went back to explaining the setup. “So Wayne has these two big Victorians and a bunch of people stay there on a temporary basis. Homeless guys, alcoholics, a few addicts. Mostly men, but there was this older prostitute too. She helped me get away because, according to her, she didn’t like the competition of having another female around. Guess she had a thing for Wayne. He’s the only one who paid much attention to me.”

“He bought you clothes?”

“The coat and boots, yeah. See, we all had to take turns keeping up the property. Clearing the front walk and driveway and stuff like that. I was the youngest and healthiest one there, so I volunteered to help the others. Only I didn’t have the proper shoes and my coat was cloth and often got damp, so Wayne took it upon himself to replace them.” She worried her fingers over the zipper of her coat. “He took a lot for granted, trying to give me gifts and getting enraged when I refused them. I’m not sure what he expected...well, I assume he eventually expected sex. I mean, that’s obvious, right?”

Leese resisted the urge to look her over. “Probably a safe bet.”

“But why he’d expect me to be into it...I couldn’t figure that out. I never flirted, never led him on, not until I decided I couldn’t stay there anymore. Then I acted interested only so I could put him off until after dinner.”

“That’s when you left?”

“Out a window, yeah. See, tonight he was planning for me to join him in his room for a late dinner instead of in the dining hall with everyone else. So I figured I had to go.” She wrinkled her nose, which wasn’t quite so pink anymore. “I was mean, telling him how I was looking forward to it and that I’d see him at seven. I told him I wanted to primp and make myself pretty for him.”

She was already pretty, but as far as he could tell, she hadn’t primped in a while.

“He liked that idea, so he wasn’t hovering around me so much. It gave me an opportunity to sneak away. I dodged around for a while, figuring that was safer than making a beeline for the bus station, since Wayne would go there first to look for me, right?” Without waiting for Leese to reply, she continued, “But I guess he hadn’t given up because he was watching the station all the same, knowing I’d show up there sooner or later.”

Was the bus her only option? Her family was old money. Leese doubted any of them had ever stepped foot on a bus, much less made it their preferred mode of transportation.

That made about as much sense as her rooming in a shelter with a letch supervising.

“On principle alone, I’d have left the coat and boots, but when he gave them to me, he also swiped my old stuff. I didn’t have anything else and I didn’t want to freeze, so...” She slumped farther in the seat. “It was a gift, after all. And turns out, they are pretty warm.”

Leese rubbed his jaw. When the headlights behind them drove closer, he looked over the seat to check it out. The car cut away and went down a side street to the right.

Gone, and yet his instincts sharpened with the probable threat. “Turn left here,” he told Justice. If the other car had been following, hoping to circle ahead of them, he’d have to disappoint them.

The road was short and led back into a business district. New lights appeared behind them. There shouldn’t be anything alarming in that, and yet, warning bells went off in his head.

Checking a map on his phone, he said, “Go through this parking lot, then left again. About five miles down you’ll find an on-ramp for 75 north. We’ll try that for a bit.”

Catalina chewed her bottom lip, her arms folded around her.

She looked exhausted, apparently with good reason. He needed to make up his mind about what to do with her now, but there were too many unanswered questions.

Questions that would have to be answered later.

Hoping she’d have a suggestion, he asked, “Where would you like to go?”

Thinking about it, she inhaled and said, “If you want to find another bus station—”

“Not an option.” Leese reached over, took her chin, and turned her face toward him. “Like it or not, I was hired to keep you safe. I can’t do that if I can’t see you.”

“You also can’t keep me safe indefinitely.”

She sounded so sure about that. Did she really believe someone planned to do her harm? All he’d been told was that her father wanted her protected while she was out of reach, but he didn’t know anything about a specific threat to her.

Was there a chance Mr. Nicholson had hired a bodyguard because his daughter was confused, maybe a little irrational...even delusional? She wouldn’t be the first person to imagine a bizarre conspiracy theory.

As if she’d read his thoughts, she smiled sadly. “Bus station, after all?”

“No.” Until he knew what was going on, he planned to keep her very close. “Do some weaving until you hit the highway,” he told Justice, “then find us a place to stay for the night.”

“Swanky or low-key?”

Leese thought about it, then asked her, “Preference?”

Her gaze traveled over his face, his shoulders, down his body. “Most would assume you’d go low-key, thinking that’s what I’d want. But if we can afford swankier...?”

“We can.” He had an alternate credit card to use, without any ties to the agency, just in case Catalina wasn’t imagining anything. “It’ll just take a little longer to reach.”

Justice said, “We going to make her wait to get room service?”

Again, Leese deferred to her.

“I’d kill for a burger,” Catalina said. “Loaded. With fries. And a malt.” She made a sound of pleasure. “Man, that sounds good.”

“I just fell in love,” Justice said.

Ignoring Justice, Leese said, “A burger is doable, but we’ll pick it up and take it to the hotel to eat. Okay?”

“You two might be my new favorite people.” She curled into the corner, snuggling for a comfortable position. “At least for a little while.” After a yawn, she said, “Wake me when we’re there.”

Leese watched her fall asleep.

A whole lot of things weren’t adding up. For one, despite all the research he’d done on her, Catalina wasn’t quite what he’d expected.

The situation, too, was off. He’d planned to keep her safe, but now he had to wonder: from what?

“She’s out?” Justice asked with disbelief.

A soft snore was his answer.

Leese smiled, until she shifted, turning toward him and stretching out on the seat, her head on his thigh.

“Shh,” she muttered. “So tired.”

In the rearview mirror, Leese saw Justice’s wide eyes. Hell, his own were probably bugging. What woman escaped danger, met strangers, mistrusted them, then decided to doze?

It wasn’t normal. The idea of her being irrational seemed more plausible by the moment.

Justice turned the radio on low, and as she’d ordered, they both stayed quiet. But Leese stewed, at first in discomfort.

Where the hell was he supposed to put his hands?

Then he decided to hell with it and rested one forearm across her body. She shifted and his hand ended up on her hip.

Worked for him, and she didn’t complain, so he just went with it.

The discomfort turned internal. Confused on all counts, he wanted to call Sahara and insist on some additional details, but not while Catalina might hear. He’d have to wait for the right moment and some privacy.

Using his left hand, he double-checked their route. With that done, he read a few private emails, did a little more research on the woman dozing against him and basically bided his time.

When it occurred to him that he was lightly stroking Catalina’s hip without even thinking about it, he ceased...until she grew restless. Then he gave in to the urge again.

They drove for forty-five minutes before Leese decided they were close enough to the hotel to pull into a drive-through burger joint. In all that time, Catalina had slept soundly but now, as the car slowed, she stretched awake.

Feeling the lithe movement of her trim little body against him, Leese gave her a few pats. “Time to wake up.”

“Mmm.” Sluggish, she turned to her back, her knees bent against the door, and stared up at him, taking a moment to orient herself. Blinking in surprise, she asked, “How long was I out?”

Shadows kept her expression hidden, but he felt her intensity. “Less than an hour.” His forearm was now across her stomach, meaning he practically embraced her. “Ready to order some food?”

Cautiously, she sat up and looked around, then turned to stare at him. “No trouble?”

“No.” Did she think she’d have slept through it?

“Sorry I passed out.”

“Not a problem.” Odd as hell, but it had maybe made things easier, giving him time to sort through the altered situation.

She leaned closer to him to peer over the front seat and out the windshield. Several cars were ahead of them, and the line moved slowly. “Could we walk in? I need to use the restroom.”

“We’ll be at the hotel in just a few minutes.”

Blue eyes stared into his. “I need to go now.”

Leese wasn’t sure how he knew—she didn’t blink, didn’t lose eye contact—but he had no doubt at all that she planned to run the second she got out of his sight. “All right. I’ll wait by the door and Justice can wait right outside.”

She scowled.

He grinned.

Giving up, she sighed. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Leese Phelps. The big guy up front—”

“You’re both big.” She peered toward Justice. “But yeah, you’re gargantuan. Justice, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A dimple appeared in her cheek. “I like your style, Justice.” Sitting back again, she turned to Leese. “Credentials?”

A little late, but at least she finally wanted to see them. Leese removed his folded leather holder and flipped it open to show his ID.

She studied it longer than necessary, looking from the photo to him to the photo again. “Okay, so you’re really a bodyguard.”

“You had doubts?”


By the second she became more of an enigma. “And still you went to sleep?”

“I was seriously depleted and needed the rest. Besides, what was I supposed to do? Try to fight my way free?”

Justice snorted.

“Exactly.” As they pulled up in the line to buy food, her stomach rumbled. “Besides, even if I was a hulk like you two, I’m beat and I’m hungry. Fighting about the inevitable didn’t seem worth it.”

“Inevitable?” Leese asked.

“You were taking me, regardless of what I had to say about it. Right?”

What did she think? That he was holding her hostage? He was about to explain when it became their turn at the order window. Justice took and shared her food preferences, then ordered for himself and Leese too. Once they had two big bags of food, they drove away again.

Catalina sniffed the air. “Wow, that smells good.”

“We’re a block away from the hotel. Before we get there, you should understand something.”

She awkwardly pulled on her coat, working around the fastened seat belt, bumping Leese a few times. “What’s that?”

“I’m not holding you against your will.”

One of her brows lifted.

“I’m here to keep you safe.”

“So you’ve said. But if I chose to leave?”

He gave her the truth. “I’d follow.”

Copyright © 2017 by Lori Foster

Under Pressure: A Body Armor Novel
by by Lori Foster