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Debra's Protector
Author: Janie Crouch





The courtesy car pulled to a stop and Debra Wheeler hesitated for just a moment. Toward the west, the sky was a blaze of color. Indigo, hot pink, and orange blended as the sun sank low. The Key West sky always took her breath away.

A movement across the street caught her eye and a shiver slid across the back of her neck. Ridiculous to be jumping at shadows, seeing familiar faces where there weren’t any. She was safe here, surrounded by Ellington Cove staff and friends.

Settling into the passenger seat, she realized the driver was new. Vetted, of course, and she’d been briefly introduced upon his arrival to the Cove, but still, a stranger.

“Thank you for driving.” Debra resisted the urge to pluck at her sleeveless blouse. This was the worst time for a hot flash. She adjusted the vent to blow more cool air her way.

The man behind the wheel glanced at her. “My pleasure. Helps me learn the area.” His hazel eyes sparkled in a face that had aged well with interesting crow’s feet at his eyes and brackets around his mouth when he smiled.

Of course. She’d noticed, during their first conversation, that Wes Slater was both practical and thoughtful. Having a handsome, soft-spoken, mature man chauffeur her around with the Ellington Cove courtesy car would likely stir up a few more hot flashes in her immediate future.

She couldn’t label that as a real problem.

Wes had arrived two days ago, the first candidate in a training program with the special security team at the resort. The re-imagined approach to the original “house detective” was a cooperative effort between the Ellington Cove owners and the Guardian Agency, an elite protection and investigation firm.

Debra had been assured by Bruce Ellington, head of security across all Ellington properties, that the original team members planned to stay on for at least another year at the Key West location. A good thing, too. She adored Brent Stafford, Nick Waters, Tony Marino, and Gabby Ladd-Marino. The expertise they demonstrated week in and week out kept her staff and guests safe.

Kept her feeling secure even when her imagination took over, stirring up impossible dangers.

Pulling to a stop in front of a newly opened bed and breakfast, Wes put the car in Park. She stared at the lovely, inviting details of the venue for this month’s networking meeting. Part of her wanted to tell Wes to keep driving, to take her home.

A good plan in theory, except then she’d only be home feeling guilty about bailing on her commitment to the community.

“Send a text when you’re ready to be picked up.” Wes handed her a Cove business card with a phone number on it. Presumably his. “Should I come around and get your door?”

She nearly sighed, utterly charmed by his soothing voice and kind smile. “No, thanks. I’ve got it.” He made it easy to pretend this favor was just about him, when they both knew it wasn’t. Her friends in and around the Cove were making up excuses for sticking close to her after her recent brush with a murderer. The incident had left her on edge, imagining danger around every corner.

“Why don’t you park the car and join me,” she suggested.

He arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t it a women’s networking deal?”

Fair point. She swiveled to face him, closer to the muscled arm he’d stretched along the back of the seat. He kept himself in shape. The sleeve of his cotton shirt rode up a little, revealing the edge of a tattoo. “Please come in. It’s my turn to bring the sacrificial male,” she joked. Hearing herself, she cringed at the potential HR nightmare. Would it matter that the security team was technically not employed by the resort? She didn’t think so.

To her relief, Wes laughed, the deep rumble filling the car and sending a flutter through her belly. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.” She opened her door. “But if you do get uncomfortable, feel free to take a snack and make a quick exit.”

“Now there’s an offer I can’t refuse.”

With his laughter following her, she stepped out of the car, pausing to let the dull ache roll through her back and feet. It had been a day of dousing one small fire after another with two interviews in between.

Most days, she didn’t feel particularly old or caught up in the throes of anything resembling a mid-life crisis. Today, however, was the exception that proved she was no longer twenty-something. Not even thirty-something. In fact, staring at the steps leading to the wide porch and open double doors, she wondered how soon she could retire.

Nonsense. This tired feeling would pass. She shook her head, her blonde hair swinging. It was time to network, talk a little shop, and have some fun. She’d introduce Wes to a few friends, and not count the minutes until she could ditch the heels and slip her feet into the fuzzy slippers waiting for her at home.

Passing forty had been far more liberating than she’d anticipated, giving her a chance to evaluate what she wanted most. She’d indulged in some personal time and found the headspace to let go of what had seemed vitally important a decade ago.

Of course, there were still expectations and appearances to maintain for a career she wouldn’t trade for anything or anyone. She didn’t begrudge those demands, physical or emotional. Managing the hotel at the Ellington Cove resort was the best hospitality job ever. Welcoming people to Key West, doing her part to make sure they had a wonderful visit, filled her up inside.

There were moments when she’d wished for that much joy in her personal life, but it hadn’t worked out. She enjoyed dating, and continued to go out, but she was no longer seeking a serious relationship.

And though gatherings like this one were held after normal work hours, she usually enjoyed them. On days like this, when she was exhausted, well, she figured it balanced the scales, making her appreciate the abundance of good days even more.

“An hour,” she muttered under her breath. Two hours at most. It was all she had left for effective networking tonight.

Her commitment propelled her up the steps. Staying in touch with other businesswomen on the island helped them all thrive. Besides, she had a massage scheduled at the Cove spa after her half-day on Friday. The delightful thought buoyed her as she joined the noise and energy of dozens of people caught up in various conversations.

It was a good crowd tonight and, thankfully, she noticed Wes wouldn’t be the only man present. She lingered close to the door, pleased when he did in fact walk in. Guiding him through the room, she made introductions. New faces were common due to the hospitality industry’s high turnover rate, even down here in paradise.

She was grateful to work for an organization that valued loyalty and groomed their employees with longevity in mind.

“This place is gorgeous,” she observed. “It’s my first visit since the ownership changed.”

French doors were open to a library on one side of the reception area and an expansive archway with exquisite detailing framed a sitting room on the other side. The chandelier overhead was antique and polished to a gleam. Possibly original to the house.

“Would you like a drink?” Wes asked as they passed the bar.

She opted for red wine and sipped judiciously as she mingled. Wes, as her designated driver, chose sparkling water and somehow stuck close to her without hovering or interfering. A valuable skill for someone in his line of work. They cruised by a long buffet table and she sampled just about everything, enjoying bacon-wrapped scallops, fruit slices topped with superb cheeses, and brownie bites with caramel centers. Every item was labeled with the host’s logo. Made her wonder if the new owner had a chef on staff, or was just supremely skilled on their own.

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