Safe by His Side
“Twinkle twinkle little star. I know where you are.”
Another threatening note sent to a beloved child star. But this time, the stalker got inside the house. Desperate to protect her young charge, guardian Blythe Cooper is grateful for the tall, strong bodyguard now standing sentinel at their door. Until Ethan Ryan awakens feelings in Blythe she can’t acknowledge.
The former secret service agent turned bodyguard makes it his mission to protect children. The rules: never make it personal, and everyone walks away alive. Amendment: somehow, someway, keep beautiful Blythe and the little girl out of his heart—and safe by his side.
Read an Excerpt from: SAFE BY HIS SIDE
The evening sky over Beverly Hills grew ever more dull and gray as sea fog rolled across the 101. Soupy haze lent a chilly cast to what had been a warm spring day.
As the old song said, maybe “it never rained in Southern California.” But Blythe Cooper would have much preferred a good thunder boomer to this creepy, opaque veil that uniformly covered palm trees, green grass and brilliant sunsets with its dark and somber mists.
Glancing at her winking computer screen, she tried to ignore the goose bumps running along her arms. She picked up the nearest file folder in preparation to continue her work. But her mind swung back to the murky shadows outside. She missed the old-fashioned, late spring thunder and lightning storms of her South Carolina childhood home. A good storm was exhilarating. It could take your breath away with its power and majesty.
Sighing deeply, she shrugged a shoulder and flipped open her folder. Blythe had long ago decided she couldn’t be happier to have taken this job as tutor-turned-guardian for child star Ashley Nicole Davis—even with the difference in weather. It was the job at which everyday, average Blythe Cooper had potential to be great. A job where her practical intelligence and her dogged eye for details meant she stood out and even excelled in the midst of all the fantasy, beauty and fanfare of the entertainment industry.
Here, she was needed and would be Ashley’s rock in the storm. A solid presence was exactly what Blythe had been born to be, despite her rocky past.
A chilly air draft curled around her ankles and brought Blythe’s head up from the stacks of travel plans and touring accommodations. Was there an open window somewhere? Both Ashley and the housekeeper knew better than to leave a window or a door ajar in inclement weather.
The house had felt especially gloomy ever since forty-year-old Melissa Davis, Ashley’s mother, had been moved. Along with her twenty-four-hour nurses, Melissa now resided in the guesthouse on the other side of the pool, where she no doubt was sleeping off another round of chemotherapy treatments. Melissa would continue living out there for the remaining months—or weeks—of her life.
At some point after her mother passed away, little Ashley would be free to open windows and invite friends over and be as loud as she wanted to be in her own house again. Blythe wished for Ashley’s sake that a miracle would happen and her mother could be cured. However, the most renowned physicians in the country had said there wasn’t any possibility of Melissa surviving her illness.
Life did continue in this house, regardless of the impending death of its owner. Melissa had seen to that. The three other females still living in the house continued to work every day and dreamed of their futures, while Melissa continued to organize everyone and everything to her exacting standards from her deathbed.
According to her mother’s wishes, Ashley would finish two more days of filming on the current season of her television show and then she would leave on the promotional tour for her summer movie. Mrs. Jenson, their housekeeper, would continue cleaning and cooking and taking care of the place as she had since the days of Ashley’s first TV appearance. And Blythe herself would begin taking full responsibility for Ashley’s personal well-being. Melissa wanted things to be that way.
Blythe had agreed to remain as Ashley’s guardian after Melissa was gone. It was a long-term commitment, she knew, but Blythe had been both ready and happy to sign up. She’d grown to love Ashley over the last two years, and she would stand beside her in grief as she stood beside her in all of life.
Tired of the omnipresent depression that seemed to hang over the house, Blythe got up from her desk and went to search for the origin of the draft. She couldn’t imagine where it might be coming from, but she supposed that seven-year-old Ashley’s room might be a good place to check. She started down the long hall.
The house felt too quiet.
By this time of day, the housekeeper usually could be heard downstairs either making dinner or ordering out. As Ashley played in her room, her muffled giggles would dance gaily down the halls. And oftentimes the sounds Ash made as she memorized her lines along with the taped version the director sent over would provide a low-key and happy buzz to the atmosphere.
Not this particular late afternoon. This afternoon, you could almost hear the foggy mists creeping in through unseen cracks. As Blythe reached Ashley’s half-open door, chills were already riding down the back of her neck. She eased through the doorway, half expecting to see her little star catnapping on the bed, though Ashley hadn’t been interested in taking naps since before she’d turned five.
“Ash?” Nothing. The bed was littered with coloring books and stuffed toys, but no sign of a droopy seven-year-old fast asleep on top of the covers. And the French doors to Ashley’s private balcony appeared to be closed up tight, too. So where was the draft coming from? And more important, where was Ashley?
Blythe stepped farther into the room for a closer inspection of the bathroom and the balcony. She needed to keep a closer eye on the little girl now that her mother had become incapable of most personal supervision. Especially now that the child star had begun receiving a few very odd pieces of fan mail.
Didn’t it always work that way? Just when things looked darkest, something came along that had the potential for making it all so much worse. Ashley already had been dealing with her mother’s illness and the somber reality of it when her guardians had been forced to cut off her Internet and free access to her fan mail because of a series of nasty e-mails and vague threats. Good thing Ashley was one tough kid.
As Blythe walked toward the bathroom, her attention was caught by a flashing dot at the top of Ashley’s computer screen. When they’d cut off Ash’s Internet, the technicians had set up an intrahouse circuit so that all the computers in the mansion could instant-message one another. But only one computer in the whole place— Blythe’s—could still receive and send via the Internet.
To Blythe’s surprise Ashley hadn’t really minded the change. She’d learned to like having her own personal message system direct to the housekeeper and to her mother. And what made her the happiest was that she still had the ability to play all her video games.
So who was trying to reach Ashley via internal IM now? Was it the housekeeper, wanting Ashley to come down to dinner? Or could it be the girl’s mother? And if so, was it something that Melissa Davis would need attending to right away?
Curious, Blythe sidestepped the bed and pressed the Enter button to read the message. There, against a cobalt-blue screen, came a six-line message in bold bloodred.
Twinkle twinkle little star
I don’t need to wonder where you are
Come down to me from up on high
I promise you the world and sky
Don’t fret, little girl, we’ll be together soon
Come to me, Ashley, and I’ll give you the moon
Blythe’s stomach turned over and her palms grew clammy. This was the same kind of rhyme, done in the same chilling colors and with the same icky connotation, as Ashley had received before. The earlier ones were awful notes that usually ended with disturbing lines, sounding a lot like the overtures of a pedophile on the prowl. The police hadn’t liked the tone of the letters and e-mail, but they’d said their hands were tied until the sender made an overt move.
To appear on Ashley’s computer, this particular message had to have originated from somewhere within the house. That seemed pretty overt to Blythe. Someone was here. The evil had broken in despite their efforts to keep it out.
Oh, Ashley, where are you?
Ethan Ryan checked his watch as he kept one hand on the steering wheel of his rental car. He waited with his usual impatience for his sister to answer her cell phone back in Texas while he sat in L.A. rush-hour traffic.
“Where are you?” His sister Maggie was always in too much of a hurry for the niceties. No “Hello.” No “How was your flight?” Just get right to the point. But that was okay by him. His own limited patience was legendary. It ran in the family.
“Sitting on the freeway in L.A.,” he said grumpily to the baby sister who was, at least temporarily, his boss. “But I’ve got plenty of time yet. My appointment to meet with our new client isn’t scheduled until seven thirty. I called you to double-check on—”
“Ethan, you have to get there now.”
“What’s up, sis?” Ethan approved of his sister’s and brother’s efforts to save their deceased grandfather’s business by turning his run-down private investigators’ office into a security firm that specialized in guarding children. It was poetic justice, if nothing else. That’s why Ethan had agreed to use his expertise to help them out. Well, that and the fact that he’d had to leave the Secret Service.
“You didn’t move the appointment time up without checking with me, did you?” he blurted, not letting her answer the first question. “We were lucky the plane landed on schedule. This is the big city, Maggie. Not Texas. You just can’t schedule things too tight. As it is, traffic will keep me on the freeway an extra—”
“I don’t care how you do it, brother. But you have to be at Ashley Nicole Davis’s house right now.”
“Have you heard something new from her manager? That, um… Grandpa Ryan’s old college friend, what’s his name?”
“His name is Max Slotsmeyer, as you would know if you’d read the complete info packet I put together for you. And no, he hasn’t contacted me.”
“Then why should I show up two hours early for a scheduled appointment?” Ethan asked a little too irritably. “I wouldn’t do that even if I could sprout wings and fly over this danged inconvenient line of cars. Which, as it happens, I can’t.”
“Ethan.” Maggie lowered her voice to a whisper in order to capture his attention and make him listen. “Remember what Abuela Lupe used to say when she’d have a premonition—about feeling someone’s bones walking across her grave?”
Ethan remembered all too well his maternal grandmother Delgado’s special words and curses. Her witchcraft was part of the Mexican side of his family heritage. Most of the time he was glad about knowing Abuela Lupe’s sayings and spells. But sometimes he wished he’d never learned them. His sister’s tone told him this wasn’t going to be one of the glad times.
“Yeah, I remember,” he told Maggie. “And the connection is?”
“I’m feeling that same thing right now. Don’t ask me how I know, but something is terribly wrong at Ashley Davis’s house. They need you there. Please do something. You have to go now.”
It would do no good to try talking practicalities to his sister. When it came to family witchcraft, spells and curses, they had all learned to accept each other’s feelings and wishes unreservedly.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said in as soothing a voice as he could manage.
He hung up and took a breath before reaching for his briefcase on the passenger seat beside him. There hadn’t been a reason to use any spells in a while. Not since the fiasco when none of his curses or magic would’ve worked to save him from an embarrassing and life-changing incident.
Abuela Lupe had spent most of their formative years teaching him, his older brother and their younger sister the art of being curanderos—Mexican white witches—much to his very American-Texan father’s chagrin. But when they’d entered their teen years, they’d begged Abuela to also teach them a few of the spells and curses of the black witches—the brujos.
By then the siblings had learned that hexes and blessings could be muttered with the same breath. And as teenagers, they’d wanted some of the fun of knowing black witchcraft. Ethan’s young mind had reeled at the idea of getting any date he wanted with just the right hex, or raising his grade in any class with the proper combination of potions and herbs.
Their grandmother refused their request. According to her, black magic could not be trusted. They’d tried a few spells on their own and were fairly successful. In the long run, however, their immature white and black witchcraft hadn’t turned out to be strong enough for everything. The brothers’ and sister’s magic had failed to make a difference when it had mattered most.
But today, Ethan felt sure he still knew enough magic to cause a break in this traffic jam. Enough of a break, that is, to transport him to his destination in a few minutes instead of hours.
Pulling a finger-size red amulet in the shape of an egg from a secret compartment in his briefcase, Ethan began channeling his powers. He reached into his memory for the right words to use and started an incantation.
Not sure what lay in store for him, Ethan nevertheless knew to trust his sister’s hunches. If she felt it was imperative for him to be at Ashley Davis’s house now, then his job was to make that happen.
Blythe quietly moved back to her office and picked up her cell phone to call the police. But as her hand hovered over the lighted keys, she remembered how unsympathetic they’d been the last time she’d called them about scary e-mails and letters.
They’d made her promise not to call again unless the threat was real and imminent. Could she swear an intruder was in the house now? She hadn’t heard a thing, and the place did have a security alarm that was activated—most of the time. With a seven-year-old in residence, it was difficult to keep a security system set during the daylight hours. Still, there were no sounds at all.
Undecided about her next move, Blythe reached the top of the stairs with the cell phone still in her hand. She looked down the hallway in the direction of Melissa’s old master bedroom, but decided she needed to check downstairs for Ashley first. This whole thing could just be a mix-up of some sort and in a few moments she would find Ashley sitting in the kitchen eating chocolate chip cookies.