It was a miracle nobody had recognized her, Max Walker decided as he watched Alyssa Paige Delacorte wait tables at the Honey Café. There was no doubt about it—if the press really wanted to find Ms. Delacorte, their search wouldn’t be too difficult. It was like looking for a cat hiding behind the drapes.
Finding her was easy.
For starters, she didn’t look like a down-and-out waitress. Even in typical Texas summer attire of black shorts and a yellow T-shirt that proclaimed the Honey Café had the best food in town, the woman's attitude screamed class and money.
Sure, she'd dyed her long blond hair a pale brown and chopped it chin length, and sure, it looked like she was now wearing glasses rather than contacts. She also now went by Paige Harris, her middle name paired with her mother's maiden name, but even a kid with good instincts and a cell phone camera could find her and get a money shot. Some of the paparazzi were excellent sleuths. He’d bet his best boots that soon the press would swarm over this small town like ants on a sugar cookie.
Deciding to get a little closer, Max took off his Stetson, crossed the street, and went inside the Honey Café. Man, it was hot today. Honey, Texas, was a cute little town, but like the rest of Texas, the summer months felt like you were cooking in a microwave. But inside the AC was cool, and jobs didn’t get much easier than this one. All he had to do was keep Paige from being mobbed by aggressive press and maybe convince her to at least talk to her father and her ex-fiancé. That was it. Piece of cake. In return, he’d get enough money to bankroll the cost of his own small ranch, and he could give up being a security consultant and occasional private investigator. It was a sweet deal.
Since he could seat himself, he found a table in the corner, pulled off his sunglasses, and watched Paige notice him. This close, he couldn't help admiring the view. Paige was one sexy lady. The light-brown hair suited her, but if she wanted to keep a low profile, being pretty wasn't the way to go. Every guy in the place was watching her.
What he couldn’t get over was that no one had recognized her yet. Talk about Clark Kent and Superman. Her disguise wasn’t exactly top-notch. All he could figure is that people saw what they wanted to see.
And when it came to Paige Harris, they saw a waitress in a small-town café. After a noticeable hesitation, Paige approached him, her walk as sexy as the rest of her. If nothing else, he was going to enjoy guarding this client. Since his last assignment had been a helping with the security at Paige’s father’s house, watching Paige was definitely a treat.
''May I help you?" She met his gaze straight on. He liked that. She might not be good at hiding, but she wasn't timid.
"Yeah, a beer. Whatever you've got on draft is fine."
She nodded. "Sure. Want anything else?"
Talk about a loaded question. Even though he was on the job, several possibilities ran through his hormone-charged brain.
But he resisted making a comment. No sense scaring her off when he'd just met her. "Nah, just the beer." He blew out a loud breath. "Man, it's hot here."
She nodded. "Guess that comes with the territory. Texas is known for its heat, and it is summer."
He chuckled. That was her polite way of saving “no duh” to him.
"Honey seems like a nice place to live." He drummed one hand on the table. "Small, but nice."
“It is." She took a step away. "I'll go get your beer."
He could tell he was spooking her with all the chitchat. She didn't trust him. He wanted to tell her why he was here, but he’d promised her father, Roger Delacorte, and her ex-fiancé, Adam Taylor, that he would find her and let them know she was safe. They’d told him repeatedly that if he told her who’d sent him, she’d bolt again. Apparently, she’d already done it twice. Since he needed her to trust him, he’d take things slowly.
When she’d taken a few steps away, he asked, "Hey, know any good places to live around here?" With a self-effacing smile, he added, "Gotta be someplace cheap, though. I just got out of the Marines and don't have a lot in the way of resources."
She narrowed her green eyes as she studied him. He continued to give her his best I-wouldn't-hurt-a-fly smile and waited for her response.
For a couple of seconds, she didn't say a word. Just looked at him. He watched with fascination as she shifted her weight, which only further reminded him of her skimpy shorts and the lush, impressive curves under that T-shirt.
"Any ideas?" he prompted when she still didn't say a word.
She shrugged. "There are lots of places in town."
With a chuckle, he said, "Thanks. That narrows it down."
A light flush colored her cheeks. A lady like Paige wouldn't be used to being rude. But she was being smart. He liked that.
After a couple of seconds, she said, "I don't know you, so I can't say what you'd like. Honey is a small town, but if you look, you can find some nice places. Beyond that, there's not much I can do to help you."
Deciding to throw her another curve, he said, "Plus, you don't want to help me because you think I'm hitting on you, so you don't want to tell me squat." He smiled again. "Can't say I blame you. You're cute. Guess lots of guys hit on you."
She blinked. His honesty had obviously caught her off guard.
"I don't think you're hitting on me," she said softly.
"Then you're giving me too much credit."
For the first time since he'd gotten there, she almost smiled. Came close, anyway. One corner of her full lips lifted slightly. Man, she was beautiful. Off-limits, of course. But beautiful.
"I really don't know any places for rent," she said, that pale flush once more coloring her face.
He held her gaze, his grin still firmly tacked in place. He wanted her to think he was just some guy looking for a place to stay who enjoyed flirting with pretty ladies. He could feel her sizing him up. She was trying to be smart. Trying to do the right thing.
But an accountant whose wealthy father was running for governor didn't know a thing about hiding from the press. Moreover, manners were in her upbringing, so he watched in fascination as she struggled to balance her need to be polite with her need to stay hidden.
"I'll go get your beer," she said finally, her gaze still filled with caution as she reluctantly added, "But good luck finding a place."
She took two steps toward the bar and stopped. She glanced at him, then turned back and headed over to his table. Tearing a sheet of paper off her pad, she drew something and handed it to him.
"There are good apartments a couple of miles from here." She nodded toward the map in his hand. "Maybe you'll find something there."
He glanced at the map, tipping his head to try to understand it. She was sending him on a wild-goose chase. He was sure of it.
"I know my directions stink, but you follow the main road through Honey for a few miles." She broke eye contact. "Then keep heading north."
Max scratched his jaw and studied her drawing. She was heading him away from her, sending him off. Stuffing the drawing in his pocket, he said, "Thanks."
"No problem." Her green eyes still studied him closely. He could feel her uncertainty. Feel her wariness. Without saying another word, she turned and headed to the bar.
He watched her walk away. Paige had a natural sway to her walk that made his libido howl. The lady was classy and sexy. He'd figured on the classy part considering her background. But the sexy part was a big surprise.
He didn’t follow news about celebrities, so he hadn’t known a lot about Paige before he’d agreed to this assignment. Sure, he’d been aware she’d been engaged to Adam Taylor because he was a famous ball player. And like everyone else in America, he knew who Paige’s father was, had known about him even before he’d gone to work for him.
But he really hadn’t known much about Paige. Well, just that she’d called off her wedding at the last minute, yelling, “I can’t believe you two did this” to her father and her now ex-fiancé as she left the venue. Pictures of her storming away from the hotel in her gown and veil had appeared everywhere, and in those pictures, Paige had looked pretty. Not sexy. Not hot.
Just pretty. Well, and mad. Really, really mad.
She’d taken off, telling her father and fiancé she didn’t want to talk to them, and she’d kept her promise. She hadn’t communicated with them in over a month.
Of course, she’d been busy, mostly leading the press on a merry chase. Things might have calmed down by now had the two men in her life not kept stirring the pot. Max was starting to think they wanted the publicity more than they wanted to find Paige. They both seemed to thrive on being in the limelight.
He glanced across the café at the lady in question. Man, she was beautiful. Maybe he should have taken some time off between helping Roger beef up his own personal security and agreeing to this assignment. Maybe then he wouldn't be affected quite so strongly by Paige.
Who was he kidding? He could've been dipped in the Arctic Ocean, and he'd still find Paige desirable.
Plus, if he'd taken time off before accepting this assignment, he would have missed the chance to find, and maybe help protect, Paige. His partner and brother, Travis, would have taken the assignment. Talk about putting a kid in a candy shop. Trav wasn't good at resisting temptation, and there was no doubt at all that Paige Harris was a major temptation.
No, it was a good thing he'd agreed to help Paige's father. If the press really was searching for her, then Paige might need him on her side. According to Roger, the hordes of press that had hounded her since she’d gotten engaged had really stressed her out. Now that she’d called off the wedding in a spectacular fashion, the number of reporters, photographers, bloggers, and podcasters chasing her was staggering. Everyone wanted to cash in with a picture or a story, and it was only a matter of time before she was found.
Personally, he hadn’t thought being chased by the press would be that big of a deal. His first reaction when Roger brought up the job was why didn’t she just give an interview and put it all behind her? But apparently, she’d tried that a couple of times, and things had just gotten worse. The press had become so aggressive that she’d finally taken off. If he had to guess, he’d guess she was waiting for the whole fiasco to die down. Except it wasn’t going to as long Roger Delacorte and Adam Taylor kept talking about the broken engagement.
She might not know it yet, but he could help her. He took his job seriously, regardless of what it was. He’d grown up on a ranch, and he’d put his whole heart into it. But when his father had sold it, he’d joined the Marines and been dedicated to it. He’d only left because his family had needed him, so he’d started working in security and private investigation so he could be with his dad during his final year.
Once the business had gotten off its feet, Trav had joined him two years ago, and they'd never looked back. The paparazzi was small potatoes compared to some of the trouble Max had faced. He would be able to keep Paige away from the press. No doubt about it.
He just couldn’t tell her that he could help.
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