Twenty minutes later, Kaylee was back in Lila’s office.
“What’s this?” Lila stared at the card Kaylee held out to her.
“You need to call them, they can help you.”
“I don’t need some damned rent-a-cop, Kaylee,” Lila snapped, glaring at her friend, “And I certainly can’t afford one.”
Kaylee didn’t bat an eye, “Good, because they don’t do rent-a-cop. Benton Security Services is the real deal. They provide high security, protective detail and they keep millionaires and witnesses alive while rent-a-cops are busy trying to figure out their asses from their front ends.” She smiled at Lila, patted her friend’s undamaged hand and then squeezed it reassuringly. “Trust me on this.”
Lila looked doubtful, the bruises on her neck ached and her right arm was in a sling.
She had managed to fight off her attacker, but only just. All of her years of martial arts training hadn’t prepared her for a dark garage and one incredibly fast opponent. If it hadn’t been for her neighbor George and his “damned insomnia” as he had put it, she was pretty sure she would have lost that fight, despite getting a handful of solid punches and kicks in, at least one of them to the man’s groin. She really hoped he was sitting somewhere hurting like hell and having to ice his balls.
It all happened so damned fast.
“Just call them,” Kaylee insisted, handing her the card.
Lila took it from her friend and examined it.
It was on plain white cardstock, with no frills black type that read Benton Security Services. Lila stared at the card, the feel of the paper was thick, heavy, made for a firm that didn’t need to advertise their services, because word of mouth did the job so much better.
“Kaylee, if these guys protect millionaires, they do it for some serious money. Maybe even tens of thousands of dollars. I’m just getting on my feet, I can’t afford this.”
“Lila, trust me, they can help you and they won’t charge you anything. Jack takes on special cases, I’ve already talked to him and he is interested in yours.”
“Jack? You know this guy by his first name? What the hell, Kaylee? How did you know these people?” Lila asked her friend, suddenly intensely curious. Kaylee was petite, with honey blond hair and big brown eyes. She certainly wasn’t the type to need the services of a bodyguard. Unless it was to protect her collection of high heels and designer bags. There is some serious cash going there. What did she know about all of this, anyway?
Kaylee gave a small, tight smile, “Long story. Maybe I’ll even get around to telling you sometime. Meanwhile, would you just call them? Just, call. Seriously, Lila. Call.” The look on her face was so full of worry that Lila found herself nodding.
“Okay, okay, I’ll call the number.”
“Yes, today. Right after I finish this report.”
Kaylee gave her a look. One that conveyed her doubt that Lila would make the call. She shook her head and left, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll hold you to that, Lila Benoit!”
But Lila couldn’t seem to bring herself to call right away after Kaylee left her office. Instead, she placed the card on her desk and did a little research. There was a website listed on the back of the card, and Lila pulled it up on her computer. It was as basic and no-frills as the business card. The owner, Jack Benton, was the only name listed on the website. His name seemed familiar and Lila clicked the About tab. There was little information – the company had been started over ten years ago by Benton and it showed a picture of him, well-dressed, professional, with a sprinkling of salt and pepper through his dark hair. He was handsome, very handsome.
Lila had seen his face before, but she just could not remember where. His posture and demeanor spoke old money to her – he obviously had tailored clothing on, but wasn’t wearing anything ostentatious – no large diamond cuff links or heavy rings. The watch, half-hidden by his sleeve looked like a Rolex. Someone that rich didn’t have a need to advertise their wealth. She wondered if he was old money.
Oh wait, there is his bio.
She clicked on the link and read through it.
There was the connection, that was why his name seemed familiar. Lila smiled. He was a benefactor for her alma mater and had actually helped pay for most of two years at her college through a scholarship. Lila had run track and played the cello in high school and college. Both of these interests had netted her a respite from the high tuition costs. Jack Benton’s name had been on the cello scholarship as she recalled. The Natty Benton Scholarship, named after his sister, who had been a cello player. Yes, that was it.
It had meant the difference between eating ramen and being able to buy fresh produce and not worry about student loans racking up the equivalent of indentured servitude once she graduated.
Lila’s mom hadn’t been able to help much, and Lila’s dad had died when she was sixteen. They had struggled ever since, so Lila hadn’t wanted to ask her mom for help. Her mom had been so proud of her, but Lila had known that she was barely making ends meet, helping Lila with tuition and expenses was simply not in the cards. As it was, Gina Benoit had been slowly dying for years from an aggressive cancer. By Lila’s last year in college, Gina was in bad shape, and insisted that Lila stay in school instead of caring for her.
“Don’t do what I did, Lila. Don’t drop out, stay in and get your degree, make something of yourself, or you will spend the rest of your life pushing paper around in some office. It’s a meaningless job, you deserve better.”
Gina Benoit had even made her death convenient, passing away during the Christmas break. Lila had gone home to be by her mother’s side as she took her final breaths. She had buried her, and returned to Georgia Tech in time to start the new semester. Only a few friends from mom’s work, along with their neighbor from across the hall, had attended the funeral with her. Her mother had kept to herself, worked hard and then returned home to be a mom to Lila. She had been good at it, better than most.
She closed the website, pushed the thick card to one side, and dove into her work. She had three major projects to deal with, plus the odd one, it was time she stopped wasting Kurgen Real Estate’s money and time and got to work. As a market research analyst for the firm, her job was to make the data talk – what materials would work best on a job site, how could Kurgen achieve the highest profit in the market, and how could they reduce expenses? She lost herself in the work, all of these questions kept Lila occupied the next few hours. She barely touched the clear clamshell that was delivered to her desk by the secretary, Trish. Even though it contained her favorite veggie sandwich with extra pickles, she kept her nose to the grindstone until well into the afternoon.
Finally, after two more check-ins from Kaylee, who voiced increasing concern, Lila could put it off no longer. She ate a few bites of the sandwich as she tried to figure out how to get out of making a pointless phone call. She couldn’t afford their services. And no matter what Kaylee said, nothing came for free in this world. She nibbled her bottom lip and stared at the phone on her desk.
Ugh. Might as well get it over with.
Nervous, her lunch already doing the rumba in her stomach, Lila reached for the phone and dialed the number with her slim, manicured fingers. The phone rang once, twice, before a smooth, calm voice answered, “Benton Security Services, how may I direct your call?”
“I was given your firm’s name, I’m…I’m not sure if I need your services or not, but…”
The voice on the other end was crisp and efficient, “Your name, please?”
“Yes Ms. Benoit, we have been expecting your call. One moment, please…”
Lila was surprised, “You have? But I…” a series of clicks, “Hello?”
On the other end was pure Southern drawl, which brought up visions of pecan pie, vanilla ice cream and a fantasy of all of it between twisted bedsheets, “Ms. Benoit?”
“You can call me Lila,” his voice, ye gods, his voice was amazing. She could feel herself blushing, had she just told him he could call her Lila? Why not ask him to whisper some sweet nothings? Or, or, or…
“My name is Shane Ellis.” She could hear him smile through the phone. He was probably a toad in real life, no one could ever sound that good, that yummy, it wasn’t possible. She found herself calculating how long it had been since she had broken it off with Todd. Two months? Three? He had been terrible in bed. He had actually asked her to rate him once and she had…“We need to meet.”
Oh, hell yes! Meet a man that sounded like sex and food all rolled into one? She could see how it would go from there, her closing her eyes, imagining Mr. Sexy Pants Shane Ellis, muscled, molasses dribbled over bare skin, big strong hands, and…
“Ms. Benoit? Are you there?”
Not yet but give me a minute.
“Umm, yes, but…”
Reality interceded. What in the hell was she doing? She didn’t have the money for this. Men were never as sexy as they sounded on the phone, and she didn’t need this. She didn’t need protection, she didn’t need Sexy Pecan Pie Shane Ellis whispering sweet nothings in her ear. She needed, she needed, I need to get laid so bad. Don’t care if that is a bad girl thing to say or not, it’s the truth.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ellis, I – I don’t think I need a protective service after all.”
“Ms. Benoit, Lila, based on the information given to me, I would suggest that we at least meet to discuss this.” He was persistent, she had to give him that. “This hit that was ordered on you, believe me, it is real.”
Oh, sure he would say that. In the end, everyone is trying for their piece of the pie, why would he be any different?
But the reality was, Lila couldn’t afford it. She was on track, making all of her payments, she was working on reducing that hefty car loan balance by just a little more each month, and life was finally starting to look up. But pay for a protective detail? Those things didn’t come cheap. Kaylee had misunderstood, and the whole thing was absurd in any case. The officer’s words came back to her, it had been a snatch and grab. Nothing more. She’d just pissed him off by fighting back. That’s why he had gone after her throat.
And as for the paper she had found, well, okay, so that didn’t jive. But I’m a nobody. You don’t put out a hit on a nobody.
“Look, just, just, forget it. Really. I’ll be fine. I promised my friend I would call, but really, I’m good. I’m sorry for taking up any of your time. You have a nice day.” She stabbed her finger down onto the plastic button and hung up the phone.
Brushing her hair away from her bruised face she straightened her shoulders, despite the pain in her arm. This was ridiculous. She didn’t need a bodyguard, she didn’t need protection.
I need to focus on work and stop wasting company time.
Her computer chimed and she saw it was a message from Kaylee.
KayleeS: Did you call?
Lila sighed, and typed back an answer.
LilaBe: Yep, it’s all taken care of.
KayleeS: Great! I’ve got a meeting for the next few hours, good to know you are in good hands!
Lila felt her stomach twist. She hated not telling her friend the entire truth, but honestly, she was too worn out to argue. She had a pile of work, two case studies she needed to dig deep into, and the last thing she needed was to argue with her best friend. Later she would put her foot down and explain that she was fine, and didn’t need some overpaid bodyguard.
Shane held the phone to his ear until the dial tone sounded. Lila Benoit had sounded nervous, but not scared. She should have been terrified. The crumpled paper that Kaylee had faxed over was standard in the industry. It had several candid shots in color, along with Lila’s basic information. Her address, basic schedule – it was enough for any professional to be able to find their quarry and eliminate the target. Someone had ordered a hit on the petite, raven-haired beauty. Shane didn’t know why but he was certain of one thing – whether she thought she was in danger or not, Lila Benoit had a price on her head. Her chances of surviving another attack were small and there would be others.
He pulled up the sheet on Tor and stared at it. After the failed attempt on Friday, the price on Lila’s head had jumped from twenty to thirty grand on the darknet. Whatever this woman had done, or whoever she had pissed off, she was in big trouble. He drummed his fingers on the table. She’s got no idea what is heading her way.
Frowning, he dialed Jack’s number.
The phone rang once. “Benton speaking.”
“Hey Boss, Ellis here. She says she doesn’t need protection.”
There was a pause. “And?”
“I checked the site and the bounty just jumped to thirty.”
“Round her up and take her to the house on the hill. Handle her carefully, but don’t take no for an answer.”
“Roger that.” A dial tone sounded in Shane’s ear. Jack Benton didn’t waste words or time. Shane stood up from his small, yet tidy desk and slid two extra clips into his belt loops and headed out the door.
As the hours passed, and Lila followed up on several leads, her gaze was pulled back to the phone over and over. She would call up the police later, show him the paper she had found. There had to be a good explanation for it. And if it was something serious, the cops would do something, protect her, or…I have work to do right now.
She dove back into her work, losing herself in the Cahill file and tried to forget the attack, Kaylee’s occasional IMs, and the way Shane Ellis’ voice had made her feel. Just thinking about his voice sent a thrill down her spine.