Copyright © 2016 by Christie Adams
“The old man wants to see you.”
Seven little words, and they stopped Ros Edwards dead in her tracks. She levelled a stony glare at her fellow officers lounging around the large open-plan office. Given that she got the summons, and not one of the boys currently cluttering the place up between assignments, previous experience dictated only one possible conclusion.
“Not again! When are you delicate little blossoms going to man up and get typing lessons? Then you can go undercover as secretaries!”
The unanimous response to her largely rhetorical question was much as she anticipated—raucous male laughter peppered with colourful expletives. Men. Ros dumbed down her response to a suitably explicit gesture, something simple so they’d all understand. Of course, there was more to the mutual, good-humoured abuse than friendly sniping—it was also a bond that connected the tightly knit group, and a method of coping with a job that could kill any one of them at any time.
Every one of them had served in the armed forces, before joining the covert unit to continue working in the defence of their country. In Ros’ case, she’d been an officer in the Royal Military Police. When they weren’t on assignment, a sense of competitive camaraderie prevailed among the group. That drive to be the best was especially evident during training, and at one time or another, in one discipline or another, Ros had managed to beat all of them, although the semi-cathartic experience was a poor substitute for knocking them into shape with the judicious use of chains, cuffs and a single-tail whip…
However, the fact remained that she was the only one out of all of them who could convincingly carry off a skirt. Bearing that in mind, Ros walked smartly down the corridor to the office of their commander, former Army officer Sir Guy Somerton—also known to Ros as “Uncle Guy”, and at one time, her legal guardian.
Guy’s office was at the end of the corridor. Coming towards her was one of the more recent recruits to the unit. From the way Logan Simmonds—or Simmo as everyone called him—was scowling, Ros was willing to bet he’d just had another run-in with Guy’s new secretary, Lucy Winter. Every time those two were in close proximity, it was a toss-up as to whether the result would be Armageddon or merely World War Three. Ros had never seen two people rub each other up the wrong way so much, so often, or so easily. Simmo gave Ros a curt nod in acknowledgement as they passed, and carried on back in the direction from which she’d come.
The former Royal Marines Commando, currently on light duties while recovering from an injury he’d sustained on his last assignment, mostly kept to himself. Even though Ros had worked with him on a couple of occasions, she still wasn’t entirely comfortable around him. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him or doubt his ability—it was the hint of darkness about the man. Not that that made him unusual in a squad of seasoned military veterans.
Oh yes, there’d definitely been another spat between Simmo and Lucy. When Ros entered the outer office of her uncle’s domain, the normally even-tempered Miss Winter looked as if she were ready to spit nails. She was even muttering under her breath. Ros couldn’t hear everything she was saying, but she was pretty sure she heard the words “Simmonds”, “balls” and “blunt knife”.
Ros winced on Simmo’s behalf. Lucy Winter may have been a picture of twenty-something innocence, but she most certainly wasn’t lacking when it came to imagination—in fact, hers was particularly lurid. From the day Lucy had started working for her uncle, Ros had suspected that the velvet glove concealed the proverbial iron fist, although she and her colleagues had yet to witness it in action.
Caveat—with the possible exception of Logan Simmonds. Ros had the distinct feeling that Simmo was well ahead on that score.
“Hey, Luce, how’s it going?”
Maybe she shouldn’t have asked, at least not in such a light-hearted tone. The kind of look Lucy flung over her shoulder could bring strong men to their knees, but in the next second, she was smiling as if there’d never been anything wrong.
“It’s going very well, Miss Edwards, thank you for asking. I can’t believe I’ve been here four months already. Sir Guy said you were to go right in.”
“Thanks—and it’s Ros, remember? ‘Miss Edwards’ would be my spinster aunt…if I had one.”
Even though he was her uncle, Ros still knocked on the door to Guy’s office before entering and taking up a position in front of his desk. Her stance was almost that of a soldier standing at attention. Though not a part of the British military, the organisation, which had no official identity and no official existence, and whose remit covered a grey area between the armed forces and the police, ran on a loosely military structure.
Guy looked up. His rather sombre expression transformed instantly into a broad smile. “Stand easy, Ros.”
The command, and the informal way in which it was delivered, told Ros she was talking to her uncle rather than her CO. Her face relaxed into a smile that mirrored his—for a moment. Then she raised a cynical eyebrow.
“So,” she said, “I was told you wanted to see me. What are you getting me into this time, Guy?”
Her uncle feigned affront. “Rosamund, you wound me to the core!”
Guy knew she hated her full name, as did her colleagues. When she’d first joined the unit, they’d deliberately used it to wind her up. Her threats to ensure they sang soprano for the rest of their days—by bringing their junk into sudden and violent proximity to a couple of house bricks—soon put a stop to it. Not that she’d ever have done it, but they weren’t to know that.
At least, not unless they asked her nicely first.
And as much as she hated being addressed by her full name, Guy nurtured similar feelings towards the word that described his relationship to her. On her eighteenth birthday, she’d received strict instructions never to call him “Uncle” again. So she hadn’t. Mostly, she hadn’t.
In his early fifties, Guy was still a striking man, and no one’s idea of a typical Whitehall mandarin. He was also a man of many facets, and in the years since he became her guardian, Ros had seen most of them. One aspect of his life she hadn’t seen, though, was the women he’d dated over the years. He’d never married, and if he did indeed date, he was very discreet about it. Not that it was anyone’s business but his.
“Sorry, Ros.” His disarming smile was as purposely unconvincing as his apologetic tone. “I couldn’t resist.”
As if she believed that. Guy had a will of iron—it had made for some interesting…discussions during her teenage years. “Next time, try harder.” She threw the familial teasing back at him with a grin. “Why am I here?”
The smile left Guy’s face—evidently the reason he needed to see her was not a subject for levity. He stood, one arm extended towards the pair of leather armchairs that provided a less formal setting. “Come and sit down. I need you to leave whatever you’re working on—someone else can pick it up. I have a special job for you.”
When her uncle wanted her to drop everything, Ros’ sixth sense for trouble went on high alert. Special jobs usually brought with them a unique brand of mess.
“Tell me more.”
“It’s close protection, but the subject is a private individual and as such, atypical of our usual brief.”
“A private individual? Guy, since when did we get involved in bodyguarding the general public?”
Her uncle rolled his eyes in disapproval and slanted a look at her. She knew that look. It was the one he gave her when he knew she was deliberately poking him with a stick. On this occasion, the stick was her use of the word “bodyguarding” to describe close protection duties. He hated the word with a passion.
Expecting a reprimand, she was surprised to see his expression become thoughtful instead. “Since the subject in question is a man who happens to be considered a national asset of unequalled importance. You’ve heard of Enwood Technology?”
Ros’ eyebrows rose. Who hadn’t? Enwood Technology was one of the most revolutionary companies in the UK, some even said the world. Led by its reclusive, enigmatic genius of a CEO, the company was at the forefront of technological innovation in the twenty-first century.
“Dr. Simon Northwood? That’s who you want me to babysit?”
Now he was giving her that long-suffering look again. “How many times, Ros? We are not in the business of child-minding.”
“I know, I know. Does anyone know what the doc actually looks like? Just so I know who I’m actually looking out for?” While he held a prominent position, in both the company that bore his name and the country’s economy as a whole, Northwood also kept his private life extremely private. Very little was written about him beyond his work, and what there was never included any images of the man himself.
“That’s him, and you’ll find out soon enough what he looks like.”
“What’s the problem, then?”
“A bungled kidnap attempt a couple of months ago. It was kept out of the news at the time. Simon’s late father was an old friend of mine—I was having dinner with Simon a couple of nights ago when he told me about the attempt. He also mentioned further incidents that give me cause for concern.”
“What sort of incidents?” Ros’ eyes narrowed—her professional curiosity was sitting up and taking notice now.
“Suspicious vehicles following him, silent phone calls, the usual tactics if you want to instil paranoia in your victim. I’m assigning a small team to investigate, but as a precaution, I want you to handle close protection.”
Leaving aside the slightly unusual elements of the case, on the face of it, the job sounded fairly straightforward, but Ros doubted she’d heard the full story. However, it was clearly very important to Guy, and for that reason alone, she wasn’t going to object to taking on the assignment.
Besides, orders were orders, and in a job like hers, a person didn’t get to pick and choose.
“Fine. Do you have any preference over whom I rotate duty with on this one?” Ros already had one or two of her colleagues in mind, officers who’d gone through the same training she had.
“Ros, you won’t be following the standard operating procedure with this assignment—I want you with Simon 24/7. He will be your main, preferably sole, focus. Leave the investigation to the guys back here. If you find any useful intel, just pass it on to them.”
She was glad she was sitting down. Sometime that morning, her uncle had clearly lost his grip on reality. Either that, or she was talking to his evil twin. “Are you serious? You’re throwing your own rules out of the window.”
“Yes, I am.” The blunt confirmation almost dared her to challenge him. Ros liked a challenge.
“Would you like to tell me why? And how you expect me to make this work? I know I’m good, Guy, but even I need to sleep.”
“Ros, of course you’ll sleep—when he does. Don’t worry, you’ll always have a backup team in place, they just won’t be evident. Stay close to Simon at all times. I want you to move in with him. Or have him move in with you—I don’t care which, but I want the two of you under the same roof.”
Ros snorted. “Is he aware of that? Will he cooperate?”
“It’s the only way this will work. If you need backup for any reason, call it in as usual and it’ll be there. Unless that happens, though, I want this to be kept as low-key as possible. Simon is working on something very important to the future of this country—”
“Then shouldn’t he have a full complement in place? All the bells and whistles?”
“That would just serve to draw the attention of his competitors and this country’s enemies to his activities. That’s the last thing we want, especially in the current volatile climate. No, this has to be under everyone’s radar, Ros.”
Although there was a certain logic to that argument, she still fixed her uncle with a piercing glare. Nope, no visible signs of insanity. He was masking it well. “What if he doesn’t like me? Not that I care whether he likes me or not—I’m just thinking that under these particular conditions, it may make the situation more difficult than it needs to be.”
“We’ll cross that bridge as and when we come to it. Anyway, who’s to say he won’t like you? I like you.”
Ros closed her eyes and shook her head at her uncle’s subtle grin—in the context of his work, about which he never joked, it was the equivalent of a belly laugh. When he was in this kind of silly mood, at least in civilian life, getting any kind of sense out of him could be an uphill struggle. “Do you have a dossier on him?”
Serious once more, Guy pulled a memory stick from his waistcoat pocket. “It’s all on here, and it’s encrypted. Eyes only.”
Ros took the stick. “When do I get to meet him?”
“In a day or two. I need to have a word with him first. He came to me with the problem, but he has to agree to the solution, otherwise he’ll never cooperate.”
“Stubborn bastard, then.”
“A candid observation, and surprisingly true. If he does agree to this, it’ll be up to you to keep him in line. I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that.”
Ros shot her uncle a narrow-eyed look. That knowing tone…he couldn’t possibly be aware of that part of her life. She’d been so careful to keep it under wraps. “If he wants our help, it’s in his own best interests to follow our rules.”
“True, but as you so succinctly pointed out…he’s stubborn. Assuming, though, that he does accept the solution, I want you to handle this assignment as you see fit. Do whatever you need to—remember, standard protocols don’t apply in this case.”
What? Was her uncle saying what she thought he was saying? “Guy—”
“His work is important to the country, Ros. I don’t pretend to understand the details, but I do understand the overarching concept. National security isn’t just about guarding against terrorism anymore. The heart of Simon’s work is the energy security of this country. You have carte blanche to do whatever it takes to protect him. Whatever it takes. For this one, you can throw the rule book out of the window, and that’s my final word on the matter.
“Now, changing the subject completely—are you attending the team-building exercise tomorrow evening?”
The glimmer of humour was a welcome relief after Guy’s serious statement.
“Oh, is that what they’re calling it now?”
It was attendance at a karaoke evening in a pub not too far from the office. In the interests of motivating his people to function as a cohesive unit, her uncle periodically encouraged team activities that had nothing to do with the sometimes grim, life-or-death nature of their work. Ros had experienced this particular torture before, and was seriously considering claiming acute appendicitis to get out of it. The problem with that little scenario, however, was faking the emergency surgery required to put it right.
“I may be wrong here, but I suspect you’re trying to work out how to wriggle out of it.”
He knew her too well. “Have you heard that lot? Last time we did this, they made my ears bleed.”
“All the more reason for you to go, my dear.” Her uncle was nothing if not persistent. “At least then the audience would get some respite from the pain.”
He was appealing to her better nature. If there was one thing her uncle was spectacularly good at, it was appealing to her better nature. In her work environment, he was probably the only person aware of its existence. It didn’t mean, though, that she was a pushover.
“Don’t look like that, Ros. After all, you’d be putting those singing lessons to good use, for the benefit of the unit and team morale.”
And now, in a classic pincer movement, he was targeting her sense of duty. She’d always had a passable singing voice, had even made it into the school choir as a soloist. When a case had needed someone to go undercover as a singer in a nightclub, it made her the obvious choice. Guy had authorised a crash course of singing lessons to add a professional polish.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think—do. Anyway, are you coming out to Stonehaven this weekend? Heather’s missing you. She said something about three very long, very dull months without you giving her an excuse to ask Della to make one of her chocolate fudge cakes.”
At that, Ros had to laugh. While Heather Tregowan managed the household staff at her uncle’s home, and her husband Robert managed the estate, Della was the cook. Her chocolate fudge cake had long been recognised as a confection made in heaven, delicious enough to make angels weep. “I’m sure she doesn’t need me there to justify putting Della to work, but yes, that’s the plan.”
“Good. There is one thing, though. It looks like I may get caught up in a review of the security arrangements for the Royal tour to Australia and New Zealand over the weekend. The Duchess is naturally concerned about ensuring that the young Royals are properly protected.”
Ros smiled. Before the wedding, escorting His Royal Highness’ then-fiancée had been one of her first assignments for the unit. Everything had gone very smoothly, and Ros had quickly succeeded in establishing an excellent working relationship with the young woman who was now a senior member of the Royal Family. “Do you need my input for that?”
Guy shook his head. “I don’t believe so, but I would appreciate it if you could be on standby, just in case. You know the young lady better than any of us.”
“Not a problem.”
“Thank you. I’ll be heading out late tomorrow night if I can, but it could get to Saturday morning, so go on over when you’re ready. I’ll let Heather know to expect you.”
“Thanks. It’ll be good to see her and Rob again—it’s been too long. The problem is, I have this tyrannical boss who keeps me hard at work.” Ros knew her uncle would take the teasing words in the spirit in which they were intended. “Right, if there’s nothing else, I have paperwork to catch up on.”
“Oh yes. You owe me three reports, if I recall correctly. Before you go, though, there is one more thing.”
“You still haven’t told me what you got up to on your holiday. Are you going to let me in on the secret, or don’t I want to know?”
He’d taken his own sweet time to ask the question. A couple of months or so earlier, she’d been in the Middle East, acting as ground transportation expert on a clandestine civilian operation to rescue former SAS staff sergeant Cameron Fraser following his capture by fundamentalist rebels, while on a mission to retrieve a group of consultants kidnapped by those same rebels. The op had been organised and led by Alex Lombard, Cam’s friend and business partner, and although it had been successful, no one on the team had returned completely unscathed. Her uncle had seen the cuts and bruises she hadn’t had before her supposed vacation, but hadn’t questioned her about it until now.
“Trust me, Guy—you really don’t want to know.”
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