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Protection for Hire Series

Book #1: Protection for Hire

(Zondervan, November 2011)

Tessa Lancaster's skills first earned her a position as an enforcer in her Uncle Teruo's Japanese Mafia gang. Then they landed her in prison for a crime she didn't commit. Now, three months after her release, Tessa's abilities have gained her a job as bodyguard for wealthy socialite Elizabeth St. Amant and her three-year-old son.

But there's a problem or two ... or three .... There's Elizabeth's abusive husband whose relentless pursuit goes deeper than mere vengeance. There's Uncle Teruo, who doesn't understand why Tessa's new faith as a Christian prevents her from returning to the yakuza. And then there's Elizabeth's lawyer, Charles Britton, who Tessa doesn't know is the one who ensured that she did maximum time behind bars. Now Tessa and Charles must work together in order to protect their client, while new truths emerge and circumstances spiral to a deadly fever pitch.

Factor in both Tessa's and Charles's families and you've got some wild dynamics--and an action-packed, romantic read as Tessa and Charles discover the reality of being made new in Christ.


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Protection for Hire Extras!

Excerpt from Chapter One

Prologue



Tessa Lancaster's rather freakish paranoia was what almost got her in trouble.

Her automatic reaction as she exited her uncle's club was to scan the dark streets. Seven cars, two on this side of the street and five on the other. Hard to tell if anyone sat inside them, but she didn't catch shadowy movement. A homeless man huddled in a doorway of a shop a few doors down, the same man she remembered seeing when she entered the club.

Her cousin, Ichiro, saw her movements and laughed. "Like somebody's going to jump you right outside Uncle Teruo's club? Nobody's that stupid."

"They may not know who owns the club. It doesn't exactly have 'Japanese mafia' in neon letters over the door."

"Everyone knows it belongs to Uncle Teruo." Itchy's arrogance was about as extreme as Tessa's paranoia.

A stiff breeze from the San Francisco Bay cut through her black leather jacket, and she curled her body tight as they headed toward his car, parked a block down the street.

They walked past the homeless man. Even though she remembered seeing him an hour ago, she still cast a furtive glance at him through lowered eyelashes. His clothes were worn and dirty, and his body was coated with mud, but in streaks--as if he'd slathered it on himself. His hair was dirty, but maybe not quite as oily as it would be for someone who hadn't washed in weeks. And as she drew closer, she realized he also didn't smell ripe enough.

Her muscles bunched just as the homeless man jumped at them.

She reacted faster than Itchy, so she couldn't be sure who the man meant to attack first. She stepped directly in his path and captured his arm in an armbar.

However, instead of the counter-move she expected from an assassin, he yelped like a dog. "Ow! I'm sorry, it was just a joke!"

"What do you mean, a joke?" She didn't immediately release him.

"My dormmates ... a stupid bet ... how much I could get panhandling as a homeless person in one night ..."

A college prank? Tessa thrust him away with disgust.

"He was only going to ask you for money?" Itchy smirked as they walked away, leaving the man moaning and clutching his tender arm. "Your paranoia is getting psychotic, cuz. You could have killed him."

Maybe he was right. She'd been working for Uncle Teruo for seven years, since she was sixteen, and seven years was a long time to be always on the alert, to be expecting attacks from her uncle's enemies and her own.

Uncle Teruo had never given her orders to kill anyone, but she knew it was only a matter of time. She could take down a 250-pound man and knock him out with a rear-naked choke in less than thirty seconds, but she wasn't sure if she'd be able to take a killshot or snap a man's neck.

She rubbed her forehead. She realized that she was tired of all this. And she could see that her lifestyle and the danger in it was going to make her seriously crazy.

She had Itchy's car keys since she hadn't drunk anything tonight. She fumbled for the remote in her pocket when movement from a shadowy building made her spine stiffen. Itchy saw it a few seconds after she did and pulled his gun. She did the same with hers.

A scuffed sound came from the alley between a nail salon and Chinese restaurant, both of them dark with their windows glinting in the dim street lights like glowing orange eyes. Itchy raised the gun.

"Tessa," came a reedy voice.

She recognized it, although she almost didn't because her cousin Fred usually had a snarling, sneering tone when he said her name. She holstered her gun. "Itchy, it's Fred."

Itchy hastily stowed his gun, not wanting to get in any more trouble by accidentally shooting the son of the Japanese mafia boss.

She approached the alley carefully, because even though she knew it was Fred, she didn't like the darkness shrouding him or the strange thinness of his voice. "Fred?" She paused, allowing her eyesight to become accustomed to the darkness before moving any closer.

"I'm here." He sounded tired. "You have to help me."

She listened, and caught the sound of movement in the distance. Footsteps. Maybe boots. Men's voices. Then she heard something she had never heard before--Fred sobbing. Alarm shot through her and she walked quickly toward him. "Fred, what's wrong?" The acrid smell of garbage burned her nostrils as she passed a dumpster.

He seemed to materialize in front of her, his face a pale moon, but she could see dark splotches across his chin and cheeks, like black paint had splashed at him. This close to him, she could detect a sharp metallic scent that filtered its way past the smell of garbage.

"She's dead," Fred moaned, his eyes becoming crumpled lines in his face. "I killed her."

"Who's dead?" This wouldn't be the first dead body she'd had to dispose of, although most of the time, it was for her uncle, Fred's father, not for Fred himself.

"Laura."

It took a second for her to realize why the name was familiar. Fred's girlfriend. That's right, Laura Starling lived in a loft apartment in this area.

"What happened?" Itchy asked.

"We got into a fight. And I got so mad. And the next thing I know, she's dead and there's this in my hand." Fred held up his right hand, holding a bloody steak knife. He glanced behind them. "Where's your car? We have to get away."

"It's fine," Tessa told him. "You'll be fine. We'll get rid of the knife--"

"The police are after me."

"What?" Itchy cast frantic glances around them.

"A neighbor called them when we were fighting. I ran."

"Did they see you?" Itchy asked.

Tessa already knew they had. The booted footsteps were sounding closer, probably coming from the narrow street that ran behind these buildings. They were pursuing Fred.

They only had a few minutes.

They could take Fred in the car and go, but Fred's fingerprints were all over Laura's apartment, and the police would come to question him right away. How likely was it that he hadn't been seen running away by a neighbor? Maybe the police would lie and tell him someone saw him, just to get him to confess. Regardless, Fred would crack like a crystal glass. He just wasn't strong.

Not like Tessa. The only way to save Fred was to deflect suspicion away from him.

Did she really want to save Fred? No. But she loved her uncle, and she'd do it for him, because he loved his only son.

"Give me the knife." She spotted a gallon container of bleach against the wall of the restaurant and nabbed it. It had maybe a half cup left, but that was enough.

She slid off her jacket and pulled off her black long-sleeved shirt, shivering in her sports bra. Tessa used the shirt to wipe the knife down, then cleaned it again with bleach. Luckily, the steak knife was one of those fancy modern knives that had been forged from one piece rather than having a tang and handle. She hoped she could compromise the blood so any of Fred's blood wouldn't show up on a DNA swab.

She tossed the bloody shirt to Itchy along with his car keys. "Take Fred and go. Put him in the back seat and make him lie down so no one can see him--knock him out if you have to."

"Hey," Fred protested weakly.

Tessa slid her jacket back on and gave Itchy her gun. "Tell Uncle Teruo. Make sure he has your car cleaned so there's no blood, and give him the bloody shirt to burn." She didn't trust Itchy not to do a thorough enough job of it.

"What are you ..." Itchy's eyes were incredulous as he stared at her. "What are you going to do?"

"What I have to." She tossed the knife in the dumpster. It would have her fingerprints on it and it would take them a few minutes to find it. The footsteps were coming closer. "Go, hurry!"

Itchy dragged Fred with him. Luckily he was smart enough to drive sedately away rather than burning rubber and attracting attention.

Within a few minutes, she heard the footsteps at the other end of the alley. "Stop!" someone called to her.

She broke into a run.

A cruiser pulled up in front of the alley, lights whirling. She hesitated, then tried to run around the car.

Someone rammed into her from behind, slamming her into the asphalt, scraping her cheek and smearing motor oil on her face.

As they cuffed her, the full realization of what she was doing finally hit her.

She was going to prison for a murder she didn't commit.



Chapter One

Seven years later



The young woman was as out of place here as a Ferrari in a used car lot.

The first thing Tessa Lancaster noticed about the mother watching the kids in Tessa's game of Simon Says were her expensive shoes, gold and pearl colored heels with a dark gold rose over the peekaboo toe, which sank into the grass of the tiny backyard.

The second thing Tessa noticed about her was the gigantic black eye swelling the entire left side of her face.

She must be new at the San Francisco domestic violence shelter, because when she noticed Tessa looking at her, she smiled instead of turning away with a nervous glance.

With shoes like that, she didn't quite look like she belonged. Then again, the shelter was for any abused woman needing a place to stay, and who said rich women didn't get knocked around the same as prostitutes or waitresses?

Tessa raised her voice above the boisterous throng of children. "Simon Says ... jump on one foot while patting your head and rubbing your tummy and turning in a circle!" Tessa bounced around in front of them, her hair flying out of its ponytail and hitting her in the face, while the kids giggled and screamed and twirled in circles. They loved her. They didn't care who she'd been or what she'd done. They only cared that she would play with them for her entire volunteer shift at the shelter.

"Snack time!" Evangeline, one of the shelter volunteers and one of Tessa's only friends, called to the children from the doorway behind Tessa which led back into the main building. Like a gigantic blob, the kids raced into the shelter from the building's tiny backyard, still screaming, and some still whirling around from the Simon Says game.

One tow-headed boy ran toward the woman with the sweet shoes, clasping her around her knees and laughing up at her. She smiled as she reached down to pick him up, but he squirmed to be let go. He scurried after the other kids.

"He hasn't laughed in so long," she said wistfully as Tessa walked up to her. Her accent was like maple syrup. Southern. She could have been Scarlet O'Hara in the flesh--flashing eyes, graceful hands, gigantic bosom.

Tessa squelched a sigh of bosom-envy. "What's his name?"

"Daniel."

The sight of the woman's black, yellow, purple mark in the distinct shape of a fist made a dark, growling blaze burn in Tessa's gut. She tried to keep her voice light. "He's made friends quickly. One of the little girls was already flirting with him."

"He's just like his fa ..." Her smile faded as her voice caught on the word.

The boy's father? "Is he the one who gave you that shiner?" The words burst out of Tessa's mouth before she could think to temper them.

Oh, no. She looked away from the woman's shocked face and breathed in deep through her nose, trying to calm her temper. The one thing she'd battled the most since giving her life to Jesus three years ago, and it still rose like a gladiator in her soul. "I'm sorry, that wasn't very sensitive of me."

A beat of silence. Then Tessa asked, "So, where are you from?"

"I grew up in Louisiana, but I've been in San Francisco for five years. Daniel was born here."

"Oh. What do you, uh, do?"

The woman gave Tessa a small smile. "I can shop like nobody's business."

Tessa laughed. It seemed like that's what she wanted her to do. But someone affluent like this ... "How'd you find the shelter?" Wings Shelter wasn't exactly in the Presidio area of San Francisco.

Tears gathered like jewels on her long, dark lashes. "I was at the San Carlos Motel, but we had to leave."

She didn't have to say it, but Tessa knew her story, the same story as many other women here. She'd probably left her home and checked into a hotel under a false name, but the man who abused her found them there.

"A man on the street saw us. He led us to the shelter."

An otherworldly stirring in Tessa's heart made her suddenly feel both small and huge at the same time. God really had led this woman here.

"Tessa!" Evangeline called to her from the shelter doorway. "I know your shift is over, but Mina wants to see you."

Ooh, good news? She couldn't think of any other reason the shelter's job employment helper-er would want to talk to her. "It was nice chatting with you."

"I better make sure Daniel doesn't get into trouble." The woman smiled at Tessa and then headed into the shelter.

She didn't even know the woman's name. But it didn't matter--the other women here would eventually tell her who Tessa was--or specifically, who her uncle was--and then the woman would delicately avoid Tessa the next time she saw her.

The thought made her feel like a glass ornament, teetering alone on a mantle. She should be used to it--now that she'd been out of prison for three months, women still feared her just as they'd done seven years ago when she'd been an enforcer for her mob boss uncle and her "dangerous" reputation on the streets had been slightly exaggerated.

Now they feared her because they weren't quite sure what she was doing here at Wings.

Tessa took the stairs of the old Victorian house two at a time, each step punctuated by a creak. The second floor landing opened up into a long narrow hallway, and she remembered to skid to a stop and knock on the office door before entering.

Tessa had to wiggle between two of the three desks cramming the small office--once a bedroom--to plop herself in front of Mina's desk. "You wanted to see me?"

Mina's light brown eyes clued her in--not the joyful, We found you a job look, but a sad, These employers are idiots look.

"Oh." Tessa sagged a bit in the narrow folding chair. "What happened?"

"Well, I've been the one taking calls from employers because you put the shelter down as a reference."

Tessa wasn't supposed to know that. She straightened at the information. Why would Mina break the rules by telling her?

"There's a, um ... theme to the questions they ask."

"Theme?"

"They almost all want to know if you're the Tessa Lancaster who's the niece of Teruo Ota, the head of the San Francisco yakuza."

"Seriously?" Tessa closed her eyes, leaned forward, and bonked her forehead on Mina's desk a few times. She just couldn't get away from her past with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Would she ever be able to?

She suddenly sat up again. "They're not journalists, are they?"

"No, although I had a few of those. I always check the caller name and company with the list you give us each week of where you've applied for jobs. If the person isn't on the list, I tell them to go away."

Whew. The last thing she needed was some rabid dog reporter with grandiose dreams of using Tessa to somehow take down the entire San Francisco Japanese mafia. Or worse, some gossip mag wanting the scoop on why one of the yakuza's "unofficial" strong-arms was now volunteering at a battered women's shelter and applying for a janitor position at Target.

Tessa bit her lip. "You, uh ... tell them the truth?"

Mina's eyebrows raised. "Of course I do. Well ..." Her eyes slipped away from Tessa's gaze. "I'll admit after the third one of the day, I'm always tempted to tell them you're Amish."

Tessa giggled, then sighed. "I wouldn't want you to lie. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that I have to take the consequences."

"It's just unfair, because you really have changed, but they don't believe it."

"No, it's more like they don't want to get involved." Tessa had known it for a few weeks now, but hadn't wanted to admit it to herself. She seemed to have acquired a highly developed ostrich mentality lately. "They don't know why I'm applying for these minimum wage jobs, if I have an ulterior motive or if I've had a falling out with my uncle. They're not stupid--they're not going to hire a someone who might cause problems for them, and they're not going to hire me if it's going to make my uncle mad."

Mina pitched her voice low and leaned in to ask, "What exactly did you do for your uncle? You didn't ... kill anyone, did you?"

"No, never. Aunty Kayoko saw to that."

"Who?"

"My aunt Kayoko. Uncle Teruo's wife." More of a mother to her than her own mother. An ache blossomed under her breastbone, and she rubbed at it. "She protected me. She dissuaded Uncle from giving me any job that crossed some invisible line she had in her head. She was closer to me than my own mother, in some ways."

"Was?"

"She died last year." And Tessa had cried in her cell all day the day of her funeral, wanting to go but not allowed to. If Tessa had been released a year early, she'd have been able to say goodbye.

Mina cleared her throat. "So, you roughed people up?"

"I did whatever my uncle asked me to do." Tessa looked down at her hands. "It's probably best I not talk about it."

"Oh, of course. I was just thinking ..." Mina flipped through a stack of file folders on her desk, then grabbed one and skimmed through the pages. "You can ... basically take care of yourself, right?"

"Uh ... yeah. I studied Muay Thai from when I was in grade school, and I also studied Brazilian Jiu jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, and a little Capoeira." And basic no-holds-barred street fighting, too, with a reputation among her cousins and her uncle's kabuns for having a streak of creative ruthlessness.

Mina's eyes widened at the list, but they also shone with excitement. "So how about a bouncer?"

Tessa wasn't sure what to think about that. "You really think someone would hire me as a bouncer?"

Mina made a face at Tessa's job applications folder. "They obviously won't hire you as a janitor, a burger flipper, a cashier, or a stock boy. Why not a bouncer?"

Why not? "I guess ... although I don't know if I'd be comfortable working for a particularly shady nightclub. I've known the girls who work there, and sometimes it's only a step above slavery."

"It might be a step toward doing bodyguard work." Mina was on a roll. "You'd be perfect for that. Your own private company, you can pick and choose what clients you'll take, and you can more than take care of yourself."

Wow. That would be really cool. "Yeah. Okay, got any leads on bouncer jobs?"

"Uh ... no."

"Oh, right. Battered woman not the top of the bouncer qualifications list. I'll look online." Tessa rose and held out her hand to Mina. "Thanks for the idea."

"I'm sorry about those other jobs. I thought for sure that Fat Burger would hire you, but ..."

Yeah, but was she really surprised? Aside from the fact she was an ex-convict, being an ex-yakuza didn't place her high on anybody's hiring priorities.

She walked down the stairs much slower than she'd gone up, and she headed to the quaint living room on the first floor, situated near the back of the house. A fire might be lit in the antique fireplace, and she loved the crackling sound and the smell. As she entered the room, she spotted the Southern woman's glossy dark head next to a couple other women at the shelter. They all glanced at her with identical Oh my gosh there she is stop talking about her expressions.

Tessa looked away, just in case they could see the slicing in her heart reflected in her eyes. She didn't want to be feared anymore. She wanted to have friends who didn't know how to shoot an automatic weapon or boost a car. She wanted somewhere she belonged ... but where would that be? She was drifting in between the world of the yakuza and the world of Normal, and she wasn't in either one. She didn't want to belong to the yakuza world, but she was starting to think she'd never belong to Normal, either.

A stampede of footsteps. Tessa expected to see a rampaging gang of (rather quiet) kindergartners come to attack their favorite playmate. Instead, the woman's perky head popped up in front of her.

"Tessa? Hi, I didn't introduce myself earlier, I'm Elizabeth St. Amant."

Tessa took the smooth, manicured hand. "Uh, hi." She glanced at the women Elizabeth had been talking to, and they had alarmed looks in their eyes.

"Oh, don't mind those cats," Elizabeth said. "They thought they were warning me off of you, but as soon as they talked about your unsavory past, I just knew you were perfect."

"Excuse me?"

"Even though they don't believe you've changed, why, as soon as I saw you with those children I knew that you'd done a 180 like a flapjack on a griddle."

Flapjacks? Elizabeth had a way of talkingreallyfastanddraaaawlingatthesaaaametiiiiime that made it hard for Tessa to follow her. "What exactly did they tell you?" Tessa asked carefully.

Elizabeth actually started ticking them off on her fingers. "Let's see. First, you used to do some nasty things for your uncle, who's some sort of head for the yuck ... yak ..."

"Yakuza. Japanese mafia."

"Second, you've been in prison for murder."

"Manslaughter," Tessa automatically corrected. Not that it made that much difference, since she hadn't done it in the first place.

"Third, the only reason you're volunteering at this shelter is because Evangeline, who used to be your cellmate, stayed here a few months ago because of an abusive boyfriend, but then she started volunteering here, and she vouched for you when you wanted to volunteer here, too."

The problem was that some of the women here didn't trust Tessa because she wasn't really one of them. Tessa had never been abused, had never been a mother. In fact, because of her background, she had never been afraid for her own life.

"Fourth, you've been going to the church here at Wings. And after hearing that, and seeing you with my Daniel, I knew you must be trying to turn your life around. You're exactly the kind of person I need."

"What do you need?" The woman didn't seem too loco, so Tessa wouldn't mind helping her. She guessed.

"My husband is trying to kill me," Elizabeth announced, "so I want to hire you as my bodyguard."