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Protection for Hire series

Book #2 A Dangerous Stage

(Zondervan, November 2012)

Tessa Lancaster worked for her uncle in the Japanese mafia until she was sent to prison for a murder she didn't commit. Now, after finding God behind bars, she takes odd jobs as a bodyguard to keep her distance from the family business.

In A Dangerous Stage, the second book in Camy Tang's Protection for Hire series, Tessa gets caught up in the web of lies surrounding a shady singing competition. Hired by one of the contestants, she works with Charles Britton---the lawyer who sent her to prison---to discover the dark figures manipulating the contest from behind the scenes.

Tessa's abilities will be tested like never before as she's forced to balance the safety of her client's family and her deepening relationship with Charles. In the midst of the chaos, she holds on to her faith to keep her safe and bring down the shadowy organization.

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Excerpt of chapter one

Tessa Lancaster checked in her car’s rear view mirror and spotted the headlights of the slightly battered black pickup truck again. Yup, they were definitely being followed.

And he was really bad at it.

He’d nearly crunched into her rear bumper when he had to jam through an intersection in order to keep up with them when the light turned from yellow to red. It gave Tessa a good view of his face—coarse and red, almost as fiery as his short spiky hair, with a mean sneer that curled the thin mustache on his upper lip.

She turned to Erica, sitting in the passenger seat. “Don’t turn around to look, but I think your ex-boyfriend is behind us.”

Erica bit her lip and paled so much Tessa worried she might throw up. “How’d he find us? How’d he know we were going to the bus station tonight?”

“I don’t think he knew,” Tessa said, switching lanes aggressively and causing a cacophony of car horns behind her. “He might have followed us from Wings.”

“How did he know we were at the women’s shelter? Wings didn’t tell him we were there, did they?”

“No, they don’t do that.” Tessa yanked hard on the wheel of her ancient Toyota, nicknamed Gramps, and sent the car into a tire-squealing left turn just in front of a wave of traffic from the opposite direction.

“Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh.” Erica grabbed onto the door handle with both hands.

They zipped away from the sound of more car horns, but Dan’s black pickup was left stranded in the left turn lane, unable to follow them.

The rather neat maneuver—if Tessa did say so herself—woke up Emily, strapped into her car seat in the back, and she sent up a wail. Erica turned in her seat to soothe her daughter. “It’s all right, honey. Tessa’s just trying out for the Indy 500.”

A flash of headlights made Tessa glance in her rear view mirror again. “I don’t think we lost him, though.” Dan had jammed into a left turn in between two oncoming cars, making one driver slam on the brakes, and now roared down the street trying to catch up with them. Subtlety really was not Dan’s middle name.

“What are you going to do?” Erica’s voice had a low tremor, a remnant of her fear of Dan and his flying fists. The young hair stylist still had yellowing around her cheek and left eye from the last time she’d seen him.

“Erica, I am going to get you and Emily on that bus tonight,” Tessa said firmly. “I promise you that.”

She weighed her options. It was possible Dan had figured out they were heading to the bus depot since she had left Wings domestic abuse shelter heading northwest, but when she suspected they were being followed, she’d pulled four right turns in a row to make sure—and Dan had followed for all four right turns. After that left turn, now they were heading southeast.

Right toward the Caltrain station. Perfect. That’s where Dan would assume they’re heading.

But first she had to make sure Erica and Emily were safe.

She could totally see Demented Dan charging into a wild car chase in the middle of San Francisco, but she didn’t want her passengers in the car if that happened. But this was the middle of the city. Where could she drop them off where they’d be safe?

“Erica, get into the back seat with Emily,” Tessa said. “And unbuckle her from the car seat.”

“What are you going to do?” Erica’s elbow clocked Tessa in the temple as she scrambled between the front seats into the back.

“I can get enough ahead of Dan and then make a right turn.” Tessa checked out the street signs. Yes, she was now on 4th street. “It’ll give us a maximum of two or three seconds where he won’t see us. When I stop the car, I want you to get out fast—and I mean fast—and run into the In-N-Out with Emily. Then hopefully by the time Dan turns the corner, you’ll be inside the restaurant and I’ll be down the street, and he’ll never know you’re not with me in the car.”

Tessa floored Gramps’s accelerator and he responded with a hack and a wheeze from his ancient engine before picking up the pace. She wove in and out between the cars on 4th street, a wide, straight shot toward the Caltrain station. Dan tried to catch up, but his larger truck had a harder time maneuvering into the small spaces in between the cars, even though he made an attempt to muscle his way in a few times. The drivers reluctantly let him in, but he had to move slowly so as not to take out someone’s front bumper, and Tessa zipped Gramps further away from him.

“Are you ready?” Tessa glanced in her rear view mirror at Erica’s tense face. She’d dragged Emily into her lap.

“Yes.” Erica reached for the door handle.

Tessa cut across two lanes of traffic and swerved right toward the new In-N-Out burger joint, flashing bright and new since it had just opened off of 4th and Brannon a few weeks ago. She slammed the car to a halt, earning her a car horn blast from the SUV behind her, who then swerved around her and continued down the street. “Go!” she shouted to Erica.

Erica was already out the door, her daughter in her arms, before the car came to a complete stop. She slammed the door shut and raced toward the bright lights of the building, which was milling with people. She instantly blended in with the other twenty-somethings grabbing a quick bite in the late evening.

Tessa threw Gramps in gear and jerked away from the curb. About a second and a half later, she saw Dan’s pickup turn the corner onto Brannon and head toward her.

Showtime.

She cruised down the street, making a few turns to head toward the Union Square Park area. As she drove, she dialed 9-1-1 on her cell phone.

“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?” The woman sounded faintly bored.

Tessa injected as much theatrical fear as she could into her voice. “Please help me, I think someone’s following me. I’m nearing the corner of Maiden Lane and Grant Avenue.” She didn’t disconnect the call, but she tossed the disposable phone onto her passenger seat so she could concentrate on her driving.

She turned onto Maiden Lane, a narrow one-way street bordered by tall buildings that housed boutiques and art galleries, heading toward The Gambit, a small nightclub and bar that opened a few months ago. She passed the restaurant, fronted by a line of people waiting to get in while colored lights flickered out from the open doorway and the deep bass of a dance beat made Gramps’s steel frame shudder as she drove by.

She slowed as Dan’s pickup turned onto Maiden Lane. When he was only a couple car lengths behind her, she sped up toward the intersection of Grant and Maiden.

Then she swerved the car sideways in the middle of the street and came to a halt.

Dan was too close to stop. His brakes squealed a split second before the truck rammed into the tiny Corolla.

The impact made Tessa jolt upwards in her seat while her seatbelt sliced into her torso like a sword blade. She couldn’t breathe for a few seconds, her stomach crushed with pain.

She came to her senses before Dan did, staring at the steering wheel and out the front window. She’d hit a lamppost at the corner of Maiden and Grant, and the white steel pole looked a bit slanted from where it rose out of her car’s front bumper.

But she remained in the car, waiting.

Dan seemed to take forever to finally get out of his car. Tessa grabbed her head, pretending to be dazed, as she heard his car door open and then slam shut.

Then she heard a second car door slam. There was a second person with Dan. She’d been so focused on her driving she hadn’t realized he’d had a passenger.

No problem.

Dan yanked open her car door so hard it rocked on its squeaking hinges. He grabbed at her shirt front to pull her out of the car, but her seatbelt was still firmly fastened, and it dug into her already-bruised stomach with a sharp snap. She winced.

Cussing, he popped her with a jab to the cheek.

She had seen him crank his arm back and was able to roll with it, reducing the impact so that it felt more like a hammer rather than an anvil, but it still made her cry out as his fist crunched into her face. Breath hissed between her teeth as the pain radiated out from her cheek.

Dan hit the button to unfasten her seatbelt and untangled her from the strap to drag her out of the Corolla. “Where is she?” he roared, spit flying in Tessa’s face.

“Hey,” said a man’s voice over his shoulder.

Oh, no. Tessa glanced over to see a young man dressed in black slacks and a silk shirt, obviously one of the people in line to get into The Gambit. He approached Dan warily. “Let her go, man.”

Tessa wondered if Dan would let her go to engage with the Good Samaritan, but his fists tightened in the fabric of her T-shirt, and he glanced back towards the truck.

The collision didn’t even look like it had dented the front of his truck, aside from a frowning front bumper. Tessa got a look at his passenger, now, and saw not one but two people.

One was a burly man, black goatee and long black hair that he flipped out of his eyes. She noted the gesture.

The other person was a woman, sporting a gigantic black eye, cut lip, and hair mussed as if it had been grabbed by a meaty fist. What was surprising was that she was dressed in a cream colored business jacket and matching skirt, a crumpled white silk blouse underneath. She limped on Italian leather heels next to the burly man, her thin arm firmly in his grasp.

They’d beaten this woman up. And brought her with them in the truck. Tessa’s jaw clenched tight.

The burly man tossed the woman aside onto the street, where she lay exhausted on the asphalt. The man then approached the Good Samaritan and shot his hand out with a punch to the nose.

Blood spurted as the young man whirled away, staggering and grabbing his face.

No, she wasn’t going to stand for this. She grasped at Dan’s hands still full of her shirt.

He removed one hand to slap her across the face.

The blow, coming on top of the other blow to the same cheek, rocked her more than she expected. Maybe because she hadn’t been sparring as much for the past sixteen months as she had when she was in prison. She’d gotten soft. She blinked away the stars in her vision and took advantage of the opening Dan gave her by slamming the heel of her hand into his nose.

His other hand released her shirt and he jerked back a half-step. She followed up with a knee to his groin, a fist to his kidney, and an elbow to the back of his exposed head as he folded in half in pain. He dropped to the ground.

Her elbow stung from where it had collided with his skull. She shook it off and turned to face Dan’s sidekick.

He approached her with more caution than Dan had, his fists up. He moved like a boxer, and he had the shoulders of one. She brought her fists up as he took a swing at her, testing her, and she easily dodged him. He took another swing, this time more forceful, and she ducked, feeling the air whooshing against her skin as his knuckles just missed her temple.

He took a third shot at her, a beefy uppercut, but as his hand retracted, his long hair fell partly over his eye. She took advantage of his impaired vision and snapped her leg up in a front kick that slipped between his hands and collided squarely with his jaw.

He reeled backward, his eyelids already starting to fold as her blow knocked him for a loop. She advanced with him, swinging in a reverse roundhouse kick that caught him hard in the temple. He was unconscious even before he dropped to the ground with a satisfying smack, his entire body limp.

Tessa’s hands shook with the adrenaline, and the entire left side of her face was a swollen mass of throbbing pain. She stumbled as she walked toward the woman in the business suit. “Are you all right?”

The woman looked up at her through her one good eye and nodded numbly.

“You’re okay now.” Tessa looked up as a few people from the crowd that had gathered in front of The Gambit approached her.

“Are you okay?” asked a young blonde woman with a short silver skirt and glittery purple top came up to them.

“Did you call the police?” Tessa asked.

“People called as soon as the cars crashed.”

“Did anyone call the club manager?”

“I saw the bouncer head inside,” the girl said.

At that moment, a short, stocky Japanese man pushed his way out of the club doors and rushed toward them. His black Hugo Boss suit made him almost invisible in the darkness of the narrow street, but Tessa recognized him. “Itchy,” she said as he drew near. “I thought you might be here.”

Especially since The Gambit was owned by her uncle Teruo Ota, leader of the Japanese mafia in San Francisco, and her cousin Ichiro always liked going to their uncle’s latest clubs. She’d deliberately avoided her family connections in the twelve months since she’d gotten shot by a Chinese Triad assassin, because she wanted to be legitimate and she didn’t want to be dependent on her uncle’s money or resources, but right now, she could use Itchy’s help.

“When the bouncer told me about an Asian girl taking on two guys, I knew it had to be you, Tess.” Itchy’s deceptively sleepy eyes took in Tessa’s aching face and the woman’s black eye. “What happened?”

“Those two guys were tailing me.”

“Oh, that completely explains why you wrecked my dad’s car in front of The Gambit.”

“I wrecked the Corolla in front of The Gambit because I knew there would be at least one kobun here who could lend me a car.” Tessa hoped the woman didn’t know that kobun was Japanese for a yakuza member.

Itchy rolled his eyes. “You really think someone’s going to lend you a car after you did this?” He flung his arm out toward the smashed Corolla.

“I’ve got a single mother and her daughter stranded at In-N-Out on Brennan. I have to go get them so they can make their bus tonight.”

“Erica Parker,” the woman croaked.

Tessa regarded her with narrowed eyes for a long moment. “Who are you?”

“Charlotte Quilly. I’m Joseph Tucker’s admin.”

“Wait a minute. Joseph Tucker, Erica’s lawyer?” Then the pieces fell into place. “You’re the one who messed up and sent those papers to Erica’s home address rather than to Wings shelter.”

The woman drew in a sharp breath, looking offended. “I didn’t mess up.”

This Charlotte Quilly had been the sole cause of all of Erica’s problems with her abusive ex-boyfriend, Dan. He had opened the envelope from Erica’s lawyer, which were copies of documents Erica had signed a couple weeks ago, and discovered his girlfriend suddenly had inherited a cool ten thousand dollars from a great-aunt. He’d then been scouring San Francisco to try to find Erica.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Charlotte insisted. “I’ve sent papers to the wrong addresses before, and it’s never been a problem.”

“They beat you up to get you to tell them where Erica was staying,” Tessa said, her voice neutral. “Then they followed us from Wings.”

Tessa supposed she couldn’t blame the woman. Most people who had been tortured this way would give up the address of anyone, even a single mother staying at a domestic violence shelter. Her new faith in Christ demanded that she give grace the way grace had been given to her, who had beat plenty of people up for her uncle.

But she guessed that Charlotte wouldn’t mess up an address again anytime soon.

The police finally arrived with flashing lights and solemn beep beeps from their squad cars as they parked a few feet from the accident and the men’s prone bodies.

Itchy groaned. “You had to wreck in front of Uncle’s club, didn’t you?”

“They’re not going inside the club. All the witnesses were out here. Besides, Erica and Emily’s lives were in danger. I had to take care of these guys somehow.”

It took twenty minutes before Tessa could leave. While waiting for the police to take her statement, she crawled onto the seat of her totaled car and rummaged for her cell phone. She found it where it had fallen on the floor of her car and straightened, tugging her shirt down over her briefly exposed lower back. She then called Erica.

“We’re fine.” The young woman had to shout a little to be heard over the noise inside the In-N-Out. “We’re snacking on fries at an inside table.”

“I might be a few minutes late,” Tessa said, “but we’ll make your train tonight.”

“Okay.”

The policeman who talked to Tessa was young, too young to remember her face from when she and Itchy had been involved in shady dealings in San Francisco more than eight years ago. He took her statement but seemed disbelieving when she said she threw a few punches and kicks to get the two men to leave her alone.

He seemed more interested in the two men handcuffed and sulking in the backseat of the squad car. The police obviously thought the Good Samaritan had been the one to dispatch the men and not the slender girl in spandex leggings and a long-sleeved T-shirt. The Good Samaritan talked to another officer and seemed to be feeding their impressions, mimicking punches in between dabbing at his broken nose.

She was relieved, truth be told. The street was a bit dark and maybe the other witnesses would only give vague accounts of a fistfight. She just wanted to fade away as a hapless victim rather than be drawn into anything that would bring her family connections to light.

She nagged Itchy into letting her borrow his car, a brand-new black BMW coupe, and she picked up Erica and Emily and drove them to the bus depot.

Standing in front of the waiting bus, Erica folded Tessa into a hug, holding her tight, conveying her gratitude.

“Remember what I told you about how to stay off the radar. In case Dan gets out of jail faster than we expect.”

“Thank you for setting all this up and helping us to get away. I wish you’d let me pay you, especially now that I have my aunt’s money.”

Tessa shook her head. “You’ll need it soon enough. Emily will probably want to go to some expensive private college.”

Erica laughed and gave her another strong hug. “I’ll keep in touch.”

“You can email me or write to me through Wings. I volunteer there twice a week, usually.” Tessa gave Emily a smacking kiss on her round, soft cheek, making the little girl giggle. “Goodbye, sweetheart.”

“’Bye, Tessa.”

She sent them off on the bus, waving at them through the window as it drove off into the night. The satisfaction of helping Erica warred with the empty feeling of another person moving out of her life.

Well, her clients came and went, and Tessa had chosen to step back from her old yakuza connections. And from Charles.

She felt a small stab to her heart. She had been proud of herself for only thinking about him once a day now.

Tessa drove back to The Gambit where Itchy was pacing outside the club, waiting for her. He circled the car as she drove up, inspecting it for scratches.

“This wasn’t here before,” he accused her as he fingered an almost invisible scratch along his left rear panel.

“Yes it was,” Tessa shot back. “What, like there are any bushes for me to drive through on the streets of San Francisco?” She tossed him his car keys. “Thanks for the ride.”

“It’s only because you could kick my butt if I said no,” he groused.

“And don’t you forget it.” She gave him a quick peck on his clean-shaven cheek. “It’s good to see you, Itchy.” She thought back and realized that the last time she’d seen him had been ten months ago at Christmas at her uncle’s house, because she hadn’t made it to Uncle’s Fourth of July barbecue.

He nodded toward Gramps, now a crumpled heap and being loaded onto a tow truck Itchy had called for her. He gave her a sidelong look. “Not that I intend to be your personal car supplier, but you need a new one now, right?”

She gave him an evil grin. “Why thanks, Itchy, I’d love to take your Beamer off your hands—”

“No, no, no,” he said hastily. “Keep your paws off my new baby. But Dad just got a 1991 Suburban from a friend of his for cheap.”

“Really?” Tessa couldn’t help but be interested. A ’91 Suburban was built like a tank. With her new bodyguard business, Protection For Hire, the extra protection of solid steel would make her—and her clients—feel more secure.

“I’ll have Dad call you.”

“Thanks, Itchy.”

He waved back at her, already circling the car to get into the driver’s seat so he could find it a nice, safe parking spot. She waved as he drove away, then dialed Wings on her cell phone.

“Hello, Wings domestic shelter, this is Karissa.” Karissa’s voice sounded as young as she was, a perky twenty-two year old.

“Hi, Karissa, it’s Tessa. I didn’t know you were still there tonight.”

“I was just about to leave. What’s up?”

“I hate to bug you, but could you pick me up near Union Square Park?”

“What happened to Gramps?” Karissa asked, surprised.

There was the sound of a motor as the Corolla was slowly lifted from the street onto the tow truck. “Um … he finally retired.”