Saturday Excerpt: Bad Judgment by Sidney Bell
Sidney Bell’s debut male/male romantic suspense Bad Judgment delivers an emotionally charged and adrenaline-packed story perfect for fans of Josh Lanyon’s Fair Game. Read on for an excerpt.
Embry Ford was a quiet, ordinary guy—until tragedy ripped his life apart. Now he’s living under the radar, desperate to hide his identity and determined to learn the truth behind what happened. Even if that means working for—and bedding—a man he loathes.
As a bodyguard to a shadowy arms dealer, Brogan Smith knows distractions can kill as easily as a bullet. But when he sets his eyes on his client’s sexy assistant, he can’t get him out of his mind. Even more unnerving: the closer he gets to Embry, the more Brogan starts to suspect he might be protecting the wrong man.
Embry was sure nothing but vengeance would satisfy him—until Brogan offers him something far more tempting. Now Embry must choose: punish the people who nearly destroyed him or fight for a future with the man who has become his entire world.
“There are men you wouldn’t mind dying for, Brogan,” Timmerson said, his gaze distant, as if he were daydreaming about one of the good presidents. Lincoln, maybe. “Then there are men like Joel Henniton.”
Brogan Smith sighed. He’d been working for Security Division for three years now and this was the first time he’d heard his boss—polite, reserved Pete Timmerson—willing to bad-mouth a client.
“By that you mean…”
Timmerson reluctantly admitted, “He’s a dick.”
“And I’ve worked with dicks before,” Brogan said, resigning himself to another detail of annoying client behavior. Then he realized exactly what he’d said and added, “That’s not how I should have phrased that. Sorry.”
Timmerson’s lips twitched. He was tall and dark-skinned, with ears that stuck out and a low, soothing voice that he put to good use calming down people on the verge of violence. He could make joining the circus seem rational, which might be why Brogan kept showing up for work even though he spent most of his time following around assholes. Predictably, Timmerson was using that voice now.
“Joel Henniton is the COO here at Touring Industries.” Timmerson gestured to the room—and the building—at large. They were sitting in one of the tastefully appointed offices that Touring had set aside for Security Division’s temporary use—large windows, expensive mahogany furniture, fresh-cut roses in a glass vase resting on top of the low bookcase that housed thick tomes of classic literature that no one would ever read. Beyond the closed door, Brogan could hear the bustle of his colleagues in the big conference room they used as a base of operations.
Timmerson continued, “Henniton’s responsible for the day to day operation of the entire company, which manufactures armament. Mostly light arms for the military, until recently. Touring’s trying to grow their customer base, but they’re competing with defense contractors that’ve been around for decades and have way more money.”
“So they’re playing rough to catch up,” Brogan inferred, and Timmerson nodded.
“Henniton’s made some enemies in the process, and a few months ago, he received some death threats. That’s when Oriole Touring—the CEO—contacted me. Technically, the company is the client, but the threats target Henniton alone, so he’s the only one getting protection for now.”
“Sounds straightforward,” Brogan said, frowning. “On the surface, anyway.”
“The problem is that Henniton’s made very few concessions with his schedule and he refuses to call the cops.”
Brogan’s eyebrows flew up. “No cops? Oh, that’s not suspicious at all.”
“I’ve been told that they’re working on a project that’s vulnerable to industrial espionage and they’re unwilling to take the risk of leaks. We’re a precautionary measure only, and Touring Industries expects this situation to resolve itself as the project progresses.”
“I can’t decide if that’s naive or shady.”
Timmerson’s exhale seemed equally unsure. “Henniton’s given me next to no information, so I can’t even have my own investigators look into who’s behind the threats. Henniton hit the roof when he realized I was having the standard background research done into the employees here to find likely suspects, so that got nipped in the bud. He wants to be safe and he wants his secrecy, which is making my life hell, as you can probably imagine.”
“What about the CEO—Touring? He’s going along with this?” Brogan asked, shifting to sit up straight without thinking about it.
“So far. There’s been no violence and no signs that Henniton’s being followed, which leaves me without a leg to stand on. So right now we’re remaining vigilant while respecting his wishes. But that could change at any time, and I don’t expect that Henniton will handle the shift with any aplomb.”
“Ah. That’s where I come in,” Brogan said. “Okay.”
“I trust your judgment, Brogan.” Timmerson leaned forward, adding some heavy eye contact to his weighty tone of voice. Touring was a big client for Timmerson’s company—there was a lot of money at stake, in addition to the lives of the men and women on the detail. “I know you won’t let Henniton bully you into taking unnecessary risks. The fact that you won’t punch him in the face for trying is also a plus.”
Which explained why Brogan had been transferred from his post in Portland down to Salem.
The shift in location wasn’t an inconvenience—since Security Division had offices in both cities, Brogan had bought a house in Woodburn, roughly halfway in between. He liked Salem more, anyway.
That didn’t mean he was looking forward to the assignment. While the confidence his boss had in him was nice, Brogan couldn’t help thinking it might be time to start throwing some tantrums just to get an easy case for once.
Without any intention of doing so, Brogan had gotten a reputation for being drama-free and hard to rattle. A deserved reputation, if he was honest—after the way he’d been raised and six years of military service, petty concerns about clients rolling their eyes at him or who drank the last of the coffee seemed awfully…well, petty. However, that usually stuck Brogan with the nightmarish clients. His boss really needed a better reward system.
“If they want everything done their way,” Brogan asked, “why don’t they have us train their current security staff in personal protection techniques? I mean, I saw plenty of armed guys on the drive in, and they aren’t amateurs.”
“I suggested that. Mr. Touring repeated that this situation is temporary. He doesn’t feel it’s necessary for the company to develop a permanent protection department.”
“Money,” Timmerson agreed.
“Makes sense, assuming he’s right about that whole ‘temporary’ thing.” Brogan lifted his eyebrows. “Is he right?”
“God, I hope so,” Timmerson said heavily. “Henniton’s only part of my headache. Ford’s…well, he’s his own brand of challenging.”
“Henniton’s executive assistant. I kind of like the guy, actually—he’s exacting, and he’s extremely good at his job. But Ford’s also very sharp-tongued and he doesn’t suffer fools. There have already been several altercations with Ark.”
Brogan made a face. George Ark was not his favorite coworker—the guy was eighty-percent ego, and a raving homophobe to boot. “What happened?”
Timmerson smirked—it wasn’t an expression Brogan had ever seen him make before. “Let’s just say Ford has a deft hand when it comes to criticism.”
“Made Ark see stars, did he?” Brogan asked, trying not to sound like he wished he could’ve been there to see it.
Timmerson would never talk shit about employees, but he couldn’t hide the twinkle in his eye as he said, “Ark will be taking over your old post in Portland.”
Timmerson rummaged through a drawer. “Look, Henniton’s going to treat you like furniture unless you annoy him. Ford, on the other hand, will notice every single thing you do. Neither one of them is easily appeased. Watch your step and don’t take anything personally.”
“Sure,” Brogan said, resigned. Laid-back or not, he suspected he’d be spending the next few months trying not to punch people. Hell of a way to kick off the new year.
“I’ve got you scheduled as backup escort for this first week so you can get used to everything without having to take lead. You’ll be shadowing Mario today, but this afternoon I want you to familiarize yourself with the layouts of both of Henniton’s properties.”
Timmerson handed Brogan a ring of keys and a thick sheaf of paper held together with a large binder clip. “Client packet. It’s got the usual—addresses, floor plans, and what little info on Henniton’s staff, family, friends, competitors and suspects I was able to scrape together before he shut that down. The Touring NDA is a bit draconian—I’ll give you a few minutes to read and sign it. Join us in the morning briefing next door when you’re done. You can leave the form on the desk.”
“Okay,” Brogan said. Timmerson clapped a hand on his shoulder as he headed out, and then Brogan was alone. He took a minute to half-heartedly consider the pros and cons of getting a job at Best Buy or something, but as much as Brogan disliked drama, he loved his job—and the all-important feeling of being needed that he got when he did it well. He resigned himself to a few shitty months, and flipped back the cover of the packet to find a series of photographs of the client.
Joel Henniton was in his midforties, fit and good-looking in a slick, capped sort of way, but in most of the photos he was either glaring or wearing a sharp-toothed smile. With his golden tan, confrontational blue eyes, and red-blond hair, he looked like one of those pompous rich guys who lounged around country clubs playing tennis and bullying the wait staff. Not that Brogan had ever been to a country club.
Brogan turned the page and began reading about all the awful things Touring would do to him if he shared company secrets. It didn’t faze him. Non-disclosure agreements were very common. Bodyguards saw a lot of shit that clients wouldn’t want shared, and whether it was personal, embarrassing, or downright illegal, if it was covered by the NDA, it was one hundred percent confidential. Brogan signed it without thinking twice.
It was part of the job.
* * *
When the morning meeting broke, Brogan headed for the equipment cage. He swapped his personal firearm—a Colt 1911 A1, a .45 that he had a permit to carry concealed—for an M9 Beretta registered to Security Division. He preferred his own weapon, but if he had to shoot someone, it would make his life a lot easier if he was using one of Timmerson’s. He knew the M9 from his time in the army, so it was no hardship. He grabbed an earpiece and radio, too. There was a button on the cord that could be toggled to activate the mic clipped to his lapel, allowing for constant hands free use, or so it only picked up what he said while he was pressing the switch.
He depressed the switch. “Buenos dias, Mario,” he said, which was officially all the Spanish he knew.
“You’re supposed to say ‘testing,’ idiot,” Mario said into his own mic from across the room. Brogan was unconcerned by Mario’s complaints. Their conversations often had an air of Mario playing the exasperated older brother, even though Brogan was only a year younger—something he rubbed in with pleasure now that Mario had hit thirty—but Brogan liked it. Brogan had spent his childhood raising his younger siblings, so it was nice having someone boss him around for a change.
Mario was a mixed bag of genetics. He said that if you went back far enough he had a relative from every country in Europe and more than a few in South America as well. He wasn’t exactly handsome—his chin and cheeks were a little too round—but women loved him anyway. Mario said it was because the blood of a thousand sexy conquistadors thundered through his veins. Brogan said it was because he looked like a chump.
They met at the elevator to head upstairs, bullshitting as they went. They’d been friends since his first day at Security Division, and they worked well together. Once on the twenty-first floor, they entered Henniton’s personal reception area, a large alcove lined with small couches and low tables that gleamed from the attentions of some devoted janitor. Financial magazines were posed on a wooden rack in the corner, and an older woman sat typing behind a big desk. The night shift guys filled them in then took off, and Mario entered Henniton’s office quietly.
With Mario inside, Brogan took up his position at the door. The basic gist of their protocol was that the primary—Mario today—would shadow Henniton. As backup, Brogan’s duty was to ensure that nothing interfered with Mario’s ability to keep bullets away from the client. He made sure the car wasn’t tampered with, that their route was safe, that points of egress remained open, and he reviewed anyone who wanted access to Henniton in order to weed out trouble.
When the elevator dinged again, Brogan got ready to clear whoever stepped out, only to freeze in place when the doors opened.
The man who emerged was absolutely, excruciatingly exquisite.
For three entire seconds, Brogan couldn’t breathe. If the stranger had pulled a weapon, he’d have had the hit no problem because Brogan was standing there staring like a complete fucking idiot, barely able to keep his mouth from dropping open in full advertisement of his own stupidity.
The stranger was in his early to midtwenties, whippet-lean and graceful in a brutally tailored dark blue suit with a sharp vest and nearly obscene trousers that made his legs look ten miles long. Night-dark hair had been slicked into a conservative style and provided sharp contrast against pale, creamy skin. He had aristocratic features—high cheekbones, a slim, straight nose, a hard jaw and slashing brows that give him a somber, intent air—but his mouth, by contrast, was sweet, almost delicate.
Brogan’s brain finally woke up, and he took a second glance at the stranger, this time searching for signs that he was a threat. He carried a brown leather briefcase in one hand, staring down while he thumbed the buttons on a smartphone with the other. There were no bulges in his clothing to suggest he was carrying, and there was nothing overtly menacing about him.
The receptionist paused in her typing to say, “Good morning, Mr. Ford.”
“Suze,” he said politely, looking up.
His eyes were big, black and shrewd.
His gaze traveled to Brogan, cool to the point of disdain, and then he walked past him without hesitating.
Brogan fumbled to find his tongue. “Sir, if you could wait a moment.”
“I’m on the list,” Ford said without stopping.
“Yeah,” Brogan said, turning to follow gracelessly. He recognized the name from the conversation with Timmerson, and the fact that the receptionist knew him was verification of his identity, although Brogan still needed to give Mario a heads up. He was just a few seconds behind, though, and those trousers were as perfectly cut in the rear as they were in the front. Frankly, Ford had an ass that made Brogan’s mouth go dry all over again, because fuck—
Ford entered Henniton’s office without knocking.
And Brogan stood there like a stupid bastard and let him.
“Everything clear?” Mario’s voice sounded through his earpiece, the question vague enough, fortunately, that support wouldn’t realize that Brogan fucked up.
“Uh, clear,” he said, activating his mic.
It took him a good five seconds to recover.
“He is on the list, if that makes you feel better,” the receptionist—Suze, apparently—said, hints of a smile curving her lips. “He’s Mr. Henniton’s executive assistant.”
“Yeah,” Brogan managed. He gave her a flustered shrug. “He’s not gonna try to shoot Henniton, then.”
“Less likely than most,” she replied, the hint of a smile becoming a full grin. “And don’t be too embarrassed. More than a few of the women have had that same reaction.”
“Great,” he said, shaking his head. Now he’d broken protocol and outed himself in the same thirty seconds. An auspicious start to the day.
Brogan sat back down and Suze resumed her typing, the click-click of her fingers on the keyboard disappearing into the background. He studied the hall, determined not to mess up again, angry with himself for mishandling a simple thing. Verifying identity and telling Mario that Ford was here, that was all he’d had to do.
Brogan had never been that guy. He didn’t think with his cock, didn’t let himself get distracted. He wasn’t married to the rules or anything—he could improvise with the best of them, even preferred it at times—but he was a professional, for crying out loud. His brain had never stopped functioning just because something gorgeous walked by, and he’d be damned if he’d let it now.
Another issue was that Brogan wasn’t out at work. His family and a couple friends, Mario included, knew he was gay, and he didn’t live in the closet. He pulled at gay bars when he wanted to and he didn’t do a damn thing to conceal who he was beyond keeping his mouth shut on the topic around his colleagues. It was one of the few things that Brogan actively disliked about his job—a hyper-masculine field like security wasn’t even close to abandoning old-school bigotries about orientation, and while he doubted he’d be in danger if he were outed, he really didn’t want the hassle.
All in all, he wasn’t pleased with himself for how he’d reacted.
He had his game face on by the time lunch rolled around and he got his first look at Joel Henniton in person. The guy was six-and-a-half feet of brawn with shoulders that could put a freight train in its place, and hands like mallets. He made Brogan feel small—something he wasn’t used to—and towered over Ford, who was, unfortunately, every bit as impossibly beautiful as he’d been the first time he walked past.
As Timmerson had predicted, Henniton didn’t deign to notice Brogan.
Brogan held the elevator doors for the others, ensuring that he and Mario stood in front for the ride down, and he ignored the quick once-over of concern that Mario threw his way.
Henniton said, “I don’t like Neeley for this. He’s disloyal. He’ll turn on us as quickly as he’ll turn on them.”
“It’ll be free market information in less than six hours,” Ford replied. “If we don’t go with Neeley, we’ll lose our head start while we search for another source.”
Brogan listened with half an ear. Most of his attention was on his radio, where he’d hear about any trouble that might meet them beyond the elevator doors when they got to the lobby. Henniton considered Ford’s words then said, “Okay. Call him.”
“All right. Now, about facilities management. We need a new director. I’m not working with that idiot anymore.” Ford’s voice was pleasantly deep—not that Brogan cared—but his words were astringent.
“You put up with him for longer than I expected,” Henniton said. Given what he’d heard about Henniton, Brogan half expected fireworks. The tone didn’t seem to offend the man, though. If anything, he sounded amused. “Fire him, then. Although I’d like to point out that I’m supposed to be the cutthroat one, Embry.”
“Thank you,” Ford said.
The elevator stopped on the fourteenth floor, but Mario told the woman waiting there to catch the next one.
When they were on their way again, Ford said, “We should promote Kensing to the position.”
“Which one is he?”
“She is the one who argued for the new plumbing system in buildings ten through sixteen last year.”
“That cost a fortune, didn’t it?” Henniton mused.
“$26,755.” Ford rattled off the figure like recalling numbers from a year ago was nothing.
“Too much,” Henniton said.
“Not compared to the fortune it would have cost us if we hadn’t done it. The great flood of last winter, remember?”
“Oh, that. God, what a nightmare,” Henniton said. He heaved a melodramatic sigh.
“She’s my choice, and she’ll leave if we try an outside hire. Promote her.”
“Fine,” Henniton said.
Ford made a satisfied noise and typed something into his smartphone.
It appeared Joel Henniton allowed his executive assistant—someone who didn’t look old enough to rent a car—to dictate a surprising number of his business decisions. At least Ford seemed viciously competent so far.
The elevator doors opened on the ground floor and Brogan and Mario exited into the busy lobby first, surveying the area as Henniton stepped out behind them. The atrium rose several stories high and people on upper floors could look over the railings all the way to the lobby. The south wall, where the main doors were set, was entirely glass-fronted, letting plenty of gray January overcast in, and the lush greenery, mahogany reception desk and leather couches extended a quiet elegance to visitors.
Gorgeous, but a security nightmare. Too many lines of sight, too much space and cover. Brogan’s skin crawled.
“I’ll be back at one,” Henniton told Ford. “And don’t forget, we’ve got the evening meeting tonight.”
Brogan, in the midst of sweeping his gaze around the lobby, caught the quiet nod Ford gave Henniton.
Then Henniton was striding away, Mario at his side, and Brogan only got one last glimpse of dark, cool eyes and a lovely, unsmiling mouth before Ford vanished into the crush of people bustling through the lobby.
Stop looking at him, asshole, Brogan told himself. And get focused before you get yourself killed.
Don’t miss Bad Judgment by Sidney Bell
On sale September 19, 2016, from Carina Press.
Copyright © 2016 by Miriam Macrae