Authors: Jane Graves
NEW YORK BOSTON
Table of Contents
A Preview of
Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
To Michele Bidelspach, for being the
patient, supportive, insightful editor every
writer should have.
Bernadette Hogan wished that when this night was over, she could tel Jeremy Bridges to go to hel . She was about ten times more emotional y stable than the average person, but if she had to spend one more evening watching him pick up vacuous blond women for fun and recreation, she was going to go insane.
Yeah, he attended al these charity events as the philanthropic CEO of Sybersense Systems, but in the end it wasn’t about generosity. It was about putting one more notch in his hand-carved Louis XIV
But it wasn’t Bernie’s job to plan a principal’s itinerary. Her job was to protect him wherever he decided to go. And, of course, there was the smal matter of the outrageous amount of money he paid her to put up with this nonsense, money she was going to need desperately in the coming years. So she kept that resignation letter only in her head, staring at it longingly with her mind’s eye every time he aggravated her to the breaking point.
Tonight would be one of those times.
Carlos pul ed the limo into the driveway of the San Moritz Hotel behind a string of unusual y smal and sedate vehicles. Tonight, it seemed, the filthy rich of Dal as society had left their Mercedeses and Beemers and gas-guzzling Hummers in their five-car garages, opting instead for their hybrids and electric cars.
Bernie sighed. “So which environmental cause are we championing this evening?”
Jeremy’s brows drew together thoughtful y. “Hmm.
Good question.” He reached into his breast pocket and pul ed out an invitation. “Ah. Global warming.
Emphasis on diminishing polar bear habitats.”
“And here you are in your limo. Last I checked, it gets about nine miles to the gal on. People are staring.”
“People are hypocrites.”
“True, but it’s al about appearances.”
“It’s al about comfort,” Jeremy said. “I didn’t make al this money to cram myself into a car the size of a shoebox.”
“You don’t seem to mind cramming yourself inside your Ferrari.”
“The Ferrari doesn’t count. It’s the only vehicle on earth that makes it worth giving up my wet bar and HDTV.”
With that, he drained his Glenlivet and set the empty glass down with a contented sigh. There wasn’t much that Jeremy denied himself in the way of creature comforts. He drank the best Scotch, lived in a gazil ion-dol ar house, traveled the world, and dated women who were knockout gorgeous with brains the size of golf bal s.
Nice to look at,
Jeremy had told Bernie more than once,
without all that pesky
intelligence to get in the way of a good time.
Bernie sighed. With that one statement, he singlehandedly set feminism back fifty years.
There had been a time when total professionalism had dictated the way she dealt with Bridges.
No, sir. Very good, sir.
But the longer she worked for him, the more she spoke her mind. Her attitude didn’t mean she didn’t take her job seriously. It just meant she had an outlet for the irritation she felt around him just about every minute of every day. Fortunately, because Jeremy was a bored rich guy who refused to play by the rules, a smart-ass bodyguard seemed to suit him just fine. Good thing, because if she had to hold her tongue around him, she’d probably end up kil ing him herself.
“Are you planning on tying that tie?” she asked him.
Jeremy looked down at the tie dangling around his neck. “The invitation said I had to wear a black tie. It didn’t say how I had to wear it.”
“Did it also say you had to wear athletic shoes?”
“No,” he said with a smile. “That’s my fashion statement.”
Truth be told, Jeremy could show up in what he usual y wore in his spare time—crappy cargo shorts, a Rangers’ T-shirt, and flip-flops—and they’d stil let him in. If he wrote a big enough check, he could show up stark naked. But it wasn’t like him to be in their faces about it. He always dressed wel enough that they would admit him without question, but just shabby enough that they wished they didn’t have to. Now that he was thirty-seven years old, Bernie thought maybe he ought to knock off the eccentricities and play it straight, but hel would probably freeze over first.
Over the years, the press had tried to dig up any dirt that might explain his quirkiness, but except for the basics, his background remained something of a mystery. He had grown up in Houston with his father.
Southwestern University. Short stint as a software engineer before starting his own company, which eventual y became Sybersense. Except for more current professional and civic activities, that was about it.
Bernie looked at the rich folks strol ing into the hotel and sighed. “Must we do this?”
“Now, Bernie. This is a very special occasion. After al , how many times in this city does somebody have a benefit for such an outstanding cause and invite al the rich, pretty people?”
“About once a week.”
“Exactly! Not nearly often enough. It’s time for us to party.”
“Okay. So it’s time for me to party and you to watch for bad guys. Everyone should stick with what they do best.”
Bernie glared at him. “It’s a credible threat this time, you know.”
“That also happens about once a week.” He was right. When a man had Jeremy’s money and influence, somebody was always out to get him.
She was reasonably certain the recent death threat had something to do with Sybersense’s new medical management software that was due to launch early next year. Word on the street was that it was so revolutionary that it would forever change the way the medical industry conducted its business and bring untold riches right to Bridges’s doorstep. But in order to accomplish that, he’d executed hostile takeovers of two of his hottest rivals, which al owed him, among other things, to cherry-pick the best and brightest programmers and other employees who could help him develop and market his new product. Then he kicked the rest to the curb. Unfortunately, that had removed a lot of formerly wealthy, high-powered executives from the gravy train at their respective companies and given them a reason to want to see Sybersense fail or Jeremy dead. Or both.
But in Bernie’s experience, the threat could also be coming from somebody who drove a taxi or washed windows who decided he didn’t like rich guys, which was why she had to stay vigilant.
Bernie felt pretty certain this event would be the harmless experience it seemed to be on the surface, but there was no way for her
Jeremy to know that for sure. Al Bernie knew was that every time she tried to figure out why he behaved the way he did, she realized how pointless that was and merely concentrated on keeping his body and soul together.
“Don’t you ever get bored doing this?” she asked him.
“What? Going to charity events?”
“No. Going to charity events, picking up Paris Hilton wannabes, and having your way with them.”
“Oh. Wel , when you put it like that…” His mouth turned up in a cocky smile. “Nope. Doesn’t bore me at al .”
, I hope you practice safe sex.”
“Of course. You never know when some dread disease wil rear its ugly head. Your concern is heartwarming.”
“Concern, my ass. I just want you to do the world a favor and keep your genetic material to yourself.”
“Not to worry,” he said, patting his pants pocket.
“I’m nothing if not prepared.”
She shook her head. The man singlehandedly kept the latex industry afloat.
“Why go to al the trouble of attending these events?” she asked. “Why not just stay home and order out?”
“Haul out your little black book and take your pick.
Send Carlos to pick her up.”
“But if I did that, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to…
what is it we’re doing again?”
“Saving the polar bears.”
“Oh, yeah. We have to think of the wildlife.”
“Come on, Bridges. The only species you’re interested in preserving is the Perpetual Bachelor.
Unfortunately, the world’s never going to run out of those.”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong, Bernie. Polar bears are at the forefront of my consciousness nearly every minute of every day.”
“And I’l believe that the moment polar bears grow blond hair and big breasts.”
“If you object so much to this event, stay in the limo.
I restocked the DVD col ection.
al your old favorites.”
“I’m paid to stick close to you.”
“Not too close. You have a tendency to cramp my style.”
“I have a tendency to keep you alive.”
“Do you have to be so dramatic?”
Bernie narrowed her eyes. “Are you forgetting the London incident?”
“That was an accident.”
“That was an out-of-control car that may not real y have been out of control.”
“We’l never know for sure, wil we?”
“Fine. Die. See if I care.”
“Of course you care. Would you be able to abuse another client the way you abuse me?”
Jeremy leaned forward and tapped the Plexiglas window. “Carlos?”
The window came down. “Yes, sir?”
“Would you categorize Bernie’s attitude toward me as abusive?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Absolutely.”
“Thank you, Carlos.”
As the window went back up, Jeremy turned to Bernie. “Now, there’s a man who knows who signs his paychecks.”
Bernie glared at Carlos. “Ass kisser.”
“Tel me something, Bernie,” Jeremy said.
“Exactly where do you hide your weapon when you’re wearing a skirt?”
She met his gaze evenly. “That’s none of your business.”
Jeremy’s gaze slid away from her eyes, slithered down to her breasts, fel to her thighs, then lazily made its way back up again. “So you’re leaving it to my imagination?”
For a moment she felt the oddest twinge of awareness, as if she was one of those glowy, showy, magazine-perfect women he was so fond of. Just the sound of his voice made her heart beat a little faster.
And those gorgeous green eyes. Good God, it was no wonder women fel in his wake.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t know he was pushing her buttons. Jeremy thrived on knocking people off guard, and he wasn’t above using every weapon in his arsenal to do it, including sex. But that didn’t mean she was immune to him as a man, and when he looked at her with that unrelenting stare, she couldn’t help the hot, sexy thoughts that entered her mind.
In a few minutes, though, he’d be zeroing in on some dazzling daddy’s girl or elegant divorcee, at which time he’d suddenly go Bernie-blind. In the end, she was just one more employee at his beck and cal , like his housekeeper or his pool boy. And that was fine by her.
“Knock it off, Bridges. Al you need to know is that I’m armed, I’m dangerous, and whether it’s good for the world or not, I’l get you home in one piece.”
“Actual y, I doubt you’d even need a weapon,” Bridges said. “Didn’t I hear that you once kil ed a man with a Popsicle stick?”
“A Popsicle stick?” She made a scoffing noise.
“So the rumor isn’t true?”
“Of course not.” She paused. “It was a Q-Tip.” Jeremy just smiled, then turned his attention to a glittering Barbie dol standing near the front door of the hotel beside a planter ful of periwinkles. Her mile-long legs protruded from beneath the hem of a sheath of silvery fabric that clung to her body like Glad Wrap, and her headful of stunning blond hair glinted in the evening light.
The car ahead of them drove away, and Carlos pul ed to the curb directly in front of the hotel. A uniformed man opened the door of the limo and gave Jeremy a deferential smile. “Good evening, sir.” Then he turned to Bernie, and his smile faltered. She could read it in his eyes as clearly as if he’d shouted it:
What’s a woman like you doing with a man like him?
He cleared his throat. “Uh… good evening, miss.”
Bernie cringed. Nobody had referred to her as “Miss” since… wel ,
And it was none of his damned business what she was doing with Jeremy, anyway.
The man dutiful y held out his hand to her, as if she needed help getting out of a car. She ignored him and climbed out, quickly scanning the area for anything out of place. She and Jeremy headed for the front door of the hotel, and she got a good look at the blond for the first time.
Even though the woman wore enough mascara to sink a freighter, Bernie thought she recognized her.
Two days ago, outside the gates of Jeremy’s house, a woman had been standing at the curb, watching as they pul ed through the gates. Bernie also remembered a woman loitering outside a restaurant yesterday where Bridges had met his chief financial officer for lunch. Bernie couldn’t say with absolute certainty that it was the same woman, but her instincts rarely failed her. Two sightings was a coincidence.
Three was a pattern. And even though the woman was dressed to the nines, she didn’t mesh with the sophisticated crowd here tonight. Bar hopping in the West Vil age seemed more appropriate. Her makeup was too extreme, her dress too flashy, her heels too high. When somebody didn’t fit the profile of the occasion, it was always a reason for a heads-up.
As they passed her on their way into the hotel, the woman turned slowly and gave Bridges a suggestive smile. Not surprisingly, he matched her smile with one of his own. But Bernie sensed something about the woman’s demeanor that went beyond the usual high-society mating ritual she’d witnessed a hundred times before.
Then the woman shifted her gaze to Bernie.
Her smile vanished, replaced with an oddly irritated expression that made a chil snake between Bernie’s shoulders. In spite of the fact that Bernie had arrived with Jeremy, there was no way on earth this woman considered her a romantic rival. Something else was going on, which meant Bernie needed to keep a close eye on her for the remainder of the evening.
As Jeremy stepped into the bal room, the same feeling of déjà vu passed over him that he always felt on