Saturday Excerpt: Defender by Diana Palmer
When Paul Fiore disappeared from Isabel Grayling’s life, he told himself it was for all the right reasons. She was young and innocent, and he was her millionaire father’s lowly employee. Three years on, Paul is the FBI agent assigned to Isabel’s case. Too late, he realizes what life in her Texas mansion was really like back then—and how much damage he did when he left.
Once love-struck and sheltered, Isabel has become an assistant district attorney committed to serving the law, no matter how risky it gets. But right now, the man she can’t forgive is the one thing standing between her and a deadly stalker. She knows Paul won’t hesitate to protect her life with his own. But if she can’t trust herself to resist him, how can she trust him not to break her heart all over again?
Isabel Grayling stuck her head around the study door and peered in. The big desk was empty. The chair hadn’t been moved from its position, carefully pushed underneath. Everything on the oak surface was neatly placed; not a pencil wasn’t neatly in a cup; not a scrap of paper was out of line. She let out a breath. Her father wasn’t home, but the desk kept the fanatical order he insisted on, even when he wasn’t here.
She darted out of the office with a relieved sigh and pushed back the long tangle of her reddish-gold hair. Blue, blue eyes were filled with relief. She wrinkled her straight nose, where just a tiny line of freckles ran over its bridge. Her name was Isabel, but only Paul Fiore called her that. To everyone else, she was Sari, just as her sister, Meredith, was always called Merrie.
“Well?” her younger sister, Merrie, asked in a whisper.
Sari turned. The other girl was slender, like herself, but Merrie had hair almost platinum blond, straight and to her waist in back. Her eyes, like Sari’s, were blue, but paler, more the color of a winter sky. Both girls looked like their late mother, who was pretty but not beautiful.
“Gone!” Sari said with a wicked grin.
Merrie let out a sigh of relief. “Paul said that Daddy was going to Germany for a few weeks. Maybe he’ll find some other people to harass once he’s in Europe.”
Sari went up to the shorter girl and hugged her. “It will be all right.”
Merrie fought tears. “I only wanted to have my hair trimmed, not cut. Honestly, Sari, he’s so unreasonable…!”
“I know.” She didn’t dare say more. Paul had told her things in confidence that she couldn’t bear to share with her baby sister. Their father was far more dangerous than either of them had known.
To any outsider, the Grayling sisters had everything. Their father was rich beyond any dream. They lived in a gray stone mansion on acres and acres of land in Comanche Wells, Texas, where their father kept Thoroughbred horses. Rather, his foreman kept them. The old man was carefully maneuvered away from the livestock by the foreman, who’d once had to save a horse from the man. Darwin Grayling had beaten animals before. It was rumored that he’d beaten his wife. She died of a massive concussion, but Grayling swore that she’d fallen. Not many people in Comanche Wells or nearby Jacobsville, Texas, wanted to argue with a man who could buy and sell anybody in the state.
That hadn’t stopped local physician Jeb “Copper” Coltrain from asking for a coroner’s inquest and making accusations that Grayling’s description of the accident didn’t match the head injuries. But Copper had been called out of town on an emergency by a friend and when he returned, the coroner’s inquest was over and accidental death had been put on the death certificate. Case closed.
The Grayling girls didn’t know what had truly happened. Sari had been in high school, Merrie in grammar school, when their mother died. They knew only what their father had told them. They were much too afraid of him to ask questions.
Now, Merrie was in her last year of high school and Sari was a senior in college. Sari had majored in history in preparation for a law degree. She went to school in San Antonio, but wasn’t allowed to live on campus. Her father had her driven back and forth every day. It was the same with Merrie. Darwin wasn’t having either of his daughters around other people. He’d fought and won when Sari tried to move onto the college campus. He was wealthy and his children were targets, he’d said implacably, and they weren’t going anywhere without one of his security people.
Which was why Sari and Paul Fiore, head of security for the Grayling Corporation, were such good friends. They’d known each other since Paul moved down from New Jersey to take the job, while Sari was in her last year of high school. Paul drove the girls to school every day.
He’d wondered, but only to Sari, why her father hadn’t placed them both in private schools. Sari knew, but she didn’t dare say. It was because her father didn’t want them out of his sight, where they might say something that he didn’t approve of. They knew too much about him, about his business, about the way he treated animals and people.
He was paranoid about his private life. He had women, Sari was certain of it, but never around the house. He had a mistress. She worked for the federal government. Paul had told her, in confidence. He wasn’t afraid of Darwin Grayling—Paul wasn’t afraid of anyone. But he liked his job and he didn’t want to go back to the FBI. He’d worked for the Bureau years ago. Nobody knew why he’d suddenly given up a lucrative government job to become a rent-a-cop for a Texas millionaire in a small town at the back of beyond. Paul never said, either.
Sari touched Merrie’s slightly bruised cheek and winced. “I warned you about talking back, honey,” she said worriedly. “I’m so sorry!”
“My mouth and my brain don’t stay connected,” Merrie laughed, but bitterly. Her blue eyes met her sister’s. “If we could just tell somebody!”
“We could, and Daddy would make sure they never worked again,” Sari said. “That’s why I’ve never told Paul anything…” She bit her lip.
But Merrie knew already. She hugged the taller girl. “I won’t tell him. I know how you feel about Paul.”
“I wish he felt something for me,” Sari said with a long sigh. “He’s always been affectionate with me. He takes good care of me. But it’s… I don’t know how to say it. Impersonal?” She drew away, her expression sad. “He just doesn’t get close to people. He dated that out-of-town auditor two years ago, remember? She called here over and over, and he wouldn’t talk to her. He said he just wanted someone to go to the movies with, and she was looking at wedding rings.” She laughed involuntarily. She shook her head. “He won’t get involved.”
“Maybe he was involved, and something happened,” her sister said softly. “He looks like the sort of person who dives into things headfirst. You know, all or nothing. Maybe he lost somebody he loved, Sari.”
“I guess that would explain a lot.” She moved away, grimacing. “It’s just my luck, to go loopy over a man who thinks a special relationship is something you have with a vehicle.”
“It’s a very nice vehicle,” Merrie began.
“It’s a truck, Merrie!” she interrupted, throwing up her hands. “Gosh, you’d think it was a child the way he takes care of it. Special mats, taking it to the car wash once a week. He even waxes it himself.” She glowered. “It’s a truck!”
“I like trucks,” Merrie said. “That cowboy who worked for us last year had a fancy black one. He wanted to take me to a movie.” She shivered. “I thought Daddy was going to kill him.”
“So did I.” Sari swallowed, hard. She wrapped her arms around her chest. “The cowboy went all the way to Arizona, they said, to make sure Daddy didn’t have him followed. He was scared.”
“So was I,” Merrie confessed. “You know, I’m eighteen years old and I’ve never gone on a date with a real boy. I’ve never been kissed, except on the cheek.”
“Join the club,” her sister laughed softly. “Well, one day we’ll break out of here. We’ll escape!” she said dramatically. “I’ll hire a team of mercenaries to hide us from Daddy!”
“With what money?” Merrie asked sadly. “Neither of us has a dime. Daddy makes sure we can’t even get a part-time job to make money. You can’t even live at your college campus. I’ll bet that gets you talked about.”
“It does,” Sari confided. “But they figure our father is just eccentric because he’s so rich, and they let it go. I don’t have any real friends, anyway.”
“Just me,” Merrie teased.
Sari hugged her. “Just you. You’re my best friend, Merrie.”
“You’re mine, too, even if you are my sister.”
Sari drew back. “One day, things will change.”
“You’ve been saying that since we were in grammar school. It hasn’t.”
Merrie touched her cheek and winced. “I told Paul I fell down the steps,” she said, when she noticed her sister’s worried expression.
“I wonder if he believed you,” Sari replied solemnly. “He’s not afraid of Daddy.”
“He should be. I’ve heard Daddy has this friend back East,” Merrie told her. “He’s in with some underworld group. They say he’s killed people, that he’ll do anything for money.” She bit her lower lip. “I don’t want Paul hurt any more than you do. The less he knows about what goes on here when he’s off duty, the better. He couldn’t save us, anyway. He could only be dragged down with us.”
“He wouldn’t let Daddy hurt us, if he knew,” Sari replied.
“So he won’t know.”
“Someone else might tell him,” Sari began.
“Not anybody who works here,” Merrie sighed. “Mandy’s kept house for over twenty years, since before you were born. She knows stuff, but she’s afraid to tell. She has a brother who does illegal things. Daddy told her he could have her brother sent to prison if she ever opened her mouth. She’s afraid of him.” She looked up. “I’m afraid of him.”
Sari winced. “Yes. Me, too.”
“I don’t ever want to get married, Sari,” the younger woman said huskily. “Not ever!”
“One day, you might, if the right man comes along.”
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