High-Risk Investigation

By: Jane M. Choate

Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

—Isaiah 41:10





To my mother, Georgia Sampson McBride, and to my sister, Carla Sue Berger, each of whom waged a valiant fight against ovarian cancer, and to all the women and those who love them who battle this disease.





CHAPTER ONE

Nicco Santonni yanked at the too-tight collar of the starched white shirt. The tuxedo, a rental, felt like a straitjacket that at any moment might strangle him. He’d take a flak jacket or even the shalwar kameez—the traditional Middle Eastern baggy, pajama-like trousers paired with a long cotton tunic—over the monkey suit, but tonight’s job dictated formal wear.

He had as much use for a tuxedo as he did for the glitz and glamour of the ballroom at Savannah’s premiere hotel, but a bodyguard went where his client did and tonight that meant showing up for a charity fund-raiser.

He’d arrived early for the event. Another operative was watching the client in the hours before the gala began. Ranger to the core, he’d wanted to survey his surroundings. He didn’t like being taken by surprise. Constructing a grid pattern of the ballroom came first, followed by identifying any likely spots for a sniper attack. He didn’t expect to use his expertise in explosives or hand-to-hand combat tonight, but an operative for S&J Security/Protection never knew what he or she would be called upon to do.

Protecting a client required finesse and a boatload of other skills, but protecting one who didn’t know she was being guarded presented the distinct problem of keeping close without giving himself away. Not for the first time, Nicco wondered how he’d ended up with a job he didn’t want.

The answer was simple. Family. His brother Sal’s wife, Olivia, had asked that he protect Scout McAdams.

Olivia had stressed that her friend not know she was under S&J’s protection until it became absolutely necessary. “I know Scout. She’ll tell you to get lost. But the letters she’s been receiving are getting scarier all the time. I’m worried.”

Nicco couldn’t say no. Not to Olivia. She was family, and family was everything to the Santonnis. Family, and loyalty to the people who signed your paycheck.

Working for S&J had been the best thing to happen to him after he’d left the Rangers. Named for the founders, Shelley Rabb Judd and her brother Jake Rabb, S&J was quickly becoming a leading player in the growing protection industry with clients in both the private and public sectors.

Nicco had never regretted the decision to join the firm. Caring was the cornerstone of S&J. That, and passion for the job. He liked the work and sometimes even liked the clients. As Shelley said, “You don’t have to like the clients. You just have to protect them.”

He didn’t know whether he liked Scout McAdams as he’d never been introduced to her. He knew she was a reporter and that she had been receiving threats. His lips tightened. Whoever was threatening McAdams was just a bully, and if there was one thing Nicco was good at, it was protecting innocents from bullies. He’d encountered his share in Afghanistan—warlords who ordered death as easily as an ordinary person would order coffee.

As unobtrusively as possible, Nicco conducted a scan of the area surrounding his client. Accustomed to searing heat, blowing sand and the smells of war, he found the scents of perfume and flowers cloying. He watched as McAdams worked her way through the crowd, moving quickly with a self-assurance that belied her pint-size frame, her gold dress swirling about her ankles. There was an intensity to her that attracted attention, while the determination in her stride had people stepping aside to make way for her.

A pendant in the shape of a miniature gold pencil swayed gently as she walked. He’d noticed earlier that she occasionally touched it as one might a talisman and wondered at the significance of it.

The hair at the back of his neck prickled, and an unmistakable rush of adrenaline propelled his senses to high alert. A fraction of a moment later, he settled into a state of cool calm. His breathing slowed, steadied, as he assessed the possible risks.

Protecting the client came first. Always. He did not make a move for the Walther that he wore in a custom-fit shoulder holster. It was enough to know that it was within reach should he need it. A backup piece fit snugly at his ankle.

The weapons were a far cry from the M249 SAW, a light machine gun, and the 9 mm Berretta he’d carried as an Army Ranger, but they did the job. A half smile tipped the corners of his lips as he pictured the probable reaction of tonight’s well-heeled crowd if he’d appeared with the submachine gun cradled in his arms.

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