The Protector

an excerpt

One

The air over the marina was thick with September humidity. Moored to the dock, boats gently swayed as moonlit waves slapped up against their hulls. The scent of the Pacific saturated the night: brine and salt with a dead fish and diesel finish.

Mason Ward smiled to himself. But while the scene was idyllic, the situation was far from it. For one thing, the redhead walking down the dock beside him wasn't a date, and he wasn't walking as much as he was dragging his feet. Mason didn't date much, had in fact not been on a date in months, but men weren't usually this reluctant to share his company.

Of course, he had a lousy track record where redheads were concerned. Right out of high school and still very much in denial about his attraction to men, he'd married a lovely and fire-headed girl. Today, Angela, his ex-wife of ten years, was as disinterested in him as the young man walking down the dock next to him. Mason couldn't help but wonder what he'd gotten himself into.

Not two hours before, past a time when polite people decided it was too late to call anyone in the same time zone, Mason's phone had rung. Although determined not to answer it, he'd still checked the display. His friend Kaoru called him infrequently enough that this late night call had aroused Mason's curiosity. He'd answered, and in typical fashion, Kaoru--only the second FBI agent to be born and raised on Guam--had skipped the small talk to come right to the point. "Listen, Mason, old buddy, I've got this kid who's in trouble. I need a safe place to stash him for a week or two."

Mason groaned, seeing his weekend plans grinding to a halt. "Are you looking for a babysitter or a bodyguard?"

"Both. The kid's knee-deep in some serious shit. But I'm having issues with his story. I need him somewhere safe and out of reach."

"How out of reach?"

"Extended cruise out of reach. I need him sober and away from his father."

"This father, is he a problem?"

"Yes," Kaoru said. "I'm going out on a limb here for the kid. I need someone I can trust to take him off my hands for a while, someone who can handle him and, if worse comes to worst, the father."

Really, the call itself told Mason all he needed to know. His friend wasn't in the habit of looking for help outside the department.

"You won't regret it," Kaoru promised before he hung up.

Oh yes, I will, Mason thought. He had a feeling that bringing Soren Buchanan, James "The Smile" Buchanan's son, home with him had trouble written all over it.

Mason and Soren reached their destination at the end of the long dock and Mason shot the sullen shadow to his right a very deliberate, very slow look, letting his eyes travel down Soren's lean frame. A few months shy of twenty-three. Just under six feet. Rangy. Hair like burnished copper. Eyes like jade. Cheekbone and jaw discolored with bruises. T-shirt stained with his own blood.

The kid shoved his hands into the front pockets of his faded Levis and stared at the dark yacht before them. "What's this?"

"A boat."

"I can see that."

Mason arched a dark brow and shrugged. The FBI's notes on Soren suggested that challenging authority came as naturally to him as breathing. And drinking. "Your home for the next two weeks."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I've been hired to keep you sober and out of your father's long reach. This will be it for the next two weeks."

The boat--a 58-foot Alaskan-style trawler--was a good idea. Not exactly Mason's first choice, because it was his home, but a good idea nonetheless. Still, the kid didn't seem inclined to board the yacht voluntarily. Mason gave him a firm nudge onboard when glaring at him didn't do the trick.

"Let me show you something." Mason maneuvered his guest into the pilothouse. He pointed to a navigational chart unrolled on the table. "We'll be here." He tapped the vastness of the paper Pacific ocean with a manicured finger. "This is us right now." He swept his finger to the eastern edge of the chart where Guam's coastline was visible, making his point. He let that sink in.

"Now," he fixed the redhead with a measuring look, "let's get some things straight. There is no alcohol on board. None. And I'm a very thorough guy."

Soren shoved his hands back into the pockets of his jeans and tore his attention off the chart. "What does that mean?"

"That means," Mason explained, "I even threw out the mouthwash and the rubbing alcohol under the sink. You get into any scrapes, we've got peroxide."

"Screw you."

Mason grunted. On an island populated with tawny-skinned, dark-haired beauties, Soren was an exotic exception that drew the eyes of men and women alike. Mason's weakness for redheads aside, he wondered just how Soren would react to a come-on. Did Soren follow through or was he just a tease?

Mason grabbed him by the sleeve of his T-shirt, determined not to fall into the kid's trap. He led the redhead down two sets of stairs and a narrow passageway, into a large stateroom where Soren shook off his hand and turned to face him with narrowed green eyes that radiated disdain.

Mason straightened and crossed muscular arms in front of his chest. "Take your clothes off."

"What?"

Mason enjoyed the moment. Ruffling the kid's feathers wasn't easy, but it was certainly satisfying. "Your clothes," he repeated. "Take them off. I want to look at"--he gestured, not sure what to call the result of abuse--"you."

Soren ignored him, turning his back. He chose to inspect the spacious stateroom instead. His curious glance swept over gleaming teak and the dark sheets and blankets on the large, neatly made bed that dominated the room. He looked at books organized on shelves. Touched fingers to framed photographs grouped together between two open ports that let in the humid night air. Eyed the alphabetized CD collection. "This is nice."

"Yes, it is. Thank you. Don't get used to it. It's my bedroom. Yours is down there. Less nice." Mason pointed absently, sat on his bed and spread out the contents of his first-aid kit before him. There was the usual: adhesive bandages of all sizes, gauzes and such, and a few things he'd added over the years. Like Ben's homemade and pungent cure for rashes of all kinds. And his grandmother's ointment that soothed most aches and pains.

"Strip. Sit," he said, pointing at the edge of the bed.

Soren wrinkled his nose. "What's that smell?"

"Menthol."

He didn't move. Mason waited, stared. It was a short standoff. The kid caved in first. Mason heard Soren's muffled wince that accompanied the shirt sliding past red hair and saw the color drain from already pale skin.

Soren tossed the shirt to the side. It slid over the edge of the bed and onto the floor. He obviously didn't give it a second's thought, but Mason's fingers itched to pick it up. Instead, he waited until his guest sat gingerly on the bed, then moved behind him.

Someone had indeed been very pissed off, and from the looks of it Soren's back had suffered the brunt of the aggression, probably having been slammed up against a few hard surfaces. Mason suspected the kid was either still drunk or high on painkillers. Probably both. All the same, Soren hissed, cringed and flinched away from Mason's gentle touch and the cool salve he spread across the bruises and scrapes.

"So, who did this to you?"

Soren hung his head and his tousled hair--a tad too long for Mason's taste--fell to hide his face. "What do you care?"

His father, James "The Smile" Buchanan, was an active player on the political court. Despite four marriages, their failures and his appetite for vastly younger women, Buchanan could have been governor twice over. His whirlwind marriage to Soren's mother, a Swedish supermodel--a relationship whispered to have been a publicity stunt--had catapulted him out of the realm of politics and into full-fledged celebrity status. His list of wealthy and influential friends and acquaintances read like the Who's Who? of Guam.

But there was more to James Buchanan than his public persona. He wasn't a man to cross. He was too influential, too well connected, and, if rumors were true, too ruthless. Mason had the feeling that talk of a short fuse and a bad temper wasn't just idle gossip, not with the man's battered and bruised son sitting before him.

He watched the kid's shoulders tense as he ran a salved and slippery hand down his bruised flank. Soren had the porcelain complexion of a natural redhead. The touch of bronze the constant and unrelenting Guamanian sun had added was barely enough to produce a tan line. It was quite a shame that the freckled skin was marred with bruises.

"So, Kaoru said your father did this to you. That true?"

"Do you always ask so many questions?"

"I get paid to ask questions."

"Ah."

"So, is it true?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

Soren sighed, shrugged, and winced. "I wasn't a model son. I embarrassed him in front of his business associates."

Mason made a low noise in the back of his throat. The Smile had a temper. Even Kaoru suspected violent opposition or he wouldn't have suggested taking the kid off the island. "How did you embarrass him?"

"I was drunk."

"You're drunk a lot." It was in the notes he'd read.

Soren's head came up. He looked over his shoulder and held Mason's even stare with a fierce glare of his own. "No, I'm not."

"Uh huh."

"I am not." He jerked back when Mason examined a large bruise covering his ribs. "I'm not," he said again. "I don't drink all the time. Matter of fact, I don't drink all that often." He glared and sucked in a startled breath when Mason touched the bruise. "But when I do, I'm serious about it. I drink to get drunk. Shit. That hurts." He clamped his mouth shut and grimaced.

"I see." Mason's unsympathetic hand prodded the bruise again. "I don't think it's cracked. Take a deep breath."

"Why?"

"Just do it."

Soren pursed his lips and took a breath.

Mason sat back and fixed him with a look that would have had another man sucking more air into his lungs. "The idea is for you to move that rib when you breathe."

Soren did and grimaced again. "He waited until the next day. My father. Waited till I was sober. Even gave me an aspirin for the hangover. Then he beat the shit out of me."

"Considerate."

"Yeah. You were kidding about the boat and the two weeks, right?"

"No."

"Shit. What if I get sea sick?"

"Do you?"

"I just might. You know, apparently being a recovering alcoholic and all."

"Wiseass." Oh yeah, he'd invited trouble onboard for sure. Trouble that had nothing to do with Soren being The Smile's son and everything to do with him sitting on Mason's bed, half naked, vulnerable, red hair tousled. He was a temptation, and Mason's dormant hormones--jarred awake by hands sliding over warm flesh--were begging for a taste. There was such a thing as professionalism, though. Hormones notwithstanding, Mason knew he'd reached the line that separated medicinal touch from caress. Reluctantly he took his hands off the kid.

"I don't have any clothes."

Mason nodded toward his dresser. "You can borrow some of mine."

Mason felt Soren's appraising glance slide over his body like a warm touch. He groaned and got to his feet, bringing distance between the tease and his willpower.

"I'll doubt they fit."

Mason took his own lingering look. "Feel free to strut around naked."

Soren pulled his split lips into a grin. "You wish."