If danger lurked, Marlene Parks surely wasn’t aware of it. She appeared graceful, poised, and was clearly used to being in front of an audience. She seemed to glide along the red carpet without missing a step, while keeping her eyes on the fans, graciously accepting the open adoration and basking in the admiration. Even from a distance, she was radiant.
Garrett Flynn was smitten, as any red-blooded male who cast eyes on her would be. He worked his way to the front of the crowd to get a better view of the beloved movie star. He admired her support of organizations to help veterans, and this event to raise funds for wounded warriors had gotten a lot of publicity. It was at the Beverly Hilton, with the red carpet rolled out on the walkway so the throng of fans could interact with the stars in attendance for the fundraiser.
Awareness of his surroundings was second nature. Garrett’s Navy SEAL training kicked in, and he took in the crowd, alert for any sign of threat. Yet he didn’t spot anyone who wasn’t gazing in awe at the lovely celebrity, or anyone exhibiting signs of unsavory intentions. Scanning faces and reading body language as he threaded his way through the crowd revealed no cause for alarm. But he didn’t like the setup.
The fans were under control for the moment. But the excitement level was high, so the atmosphere was primed for trouble. When he made it to the front, Garrett noted where security was posted. The men were staggered along the walkway and hovering at the ropes, warning any overzealous attendee to stay back. In his estimation, security was insufficient. Technically, it wasn’t his responsibility. He was off the clock, and Marlene Parks wasn’t a client.
After leaving the service due to injury, Garrett had trained as a bodyguard for Stealth Security in Los Angeles. He was up to speed on the protection of celebrities. It wasn’t solely about avoiding risk. If so, a high-profile personality would stay barricaded at home. That wasn’t an option.
Fame had inherent risk. Social media and live events made stars accessible, raising the public’s expectations. Interacting with fans, shaking hands, being up close and personal was good for sales. Movies tended to be more successful if the fans felt connected with the star—better yet, loved the star. Any big star was way too visible, even touchable as Marlene was now.
The crowd roared, and as if to encourage them, Marlene stepped closer to the ropes. It was a chilly February day, so she wore a white mink coat. The soft waves of her blond hair flowed over her shoulders, and her gold shoes glittered in the afternoon light. She opened her arms to embrace the crowd, and her brilliant smile held the crowd spellbound.
Cameras flashed and a cacophony of screams from fans nearly drowned out the music. Marlene beamed at the crowd, before continuing to walk toward a podium at the end of the red carpet. The news release had boasted that other major stars would perform at the main event to be held inside. But Marlene was the spokesperson, so she appeared first. With an air of confidence, she headed toward the media representatives, hovering in anticipation of sound bites that they would later quote.
Garrett assumed the other stars would grace the red carpet once Marlene got things started. This was the first time he’d seen her in person, and he hadn’t expected to be so drawn to her. Seeing her on the big screen didn’t do her justice. Glossy magazine pictures or glimpses of her on social media didn’t capture her true beauty.
Up close, Marlene exuded warmth. Her appreciation for all the attention she garnered was evident in her demeanor. Although she had every right to be a bit arrogant, Garrett didn’t observe any of that. She was the girl next door, a friend, a woman like any other. Only she wasn’t.
Garrett was at the event to see her, as there was no other reason he’d participate in such a glorified affair. He much preferred the shadows to the limelight, but his goal was to make sure that Marlene was safe. Memories of a battle, bloody and deadly, pushed into his consciousness. The image of Andrew Parks dying in his arms haunted him.
Marlene’s older brother Andrew had been a young marine, a brave soldier who hadn’t survived one brutal battle. Now Garrett was there to see the younger sister Andrew had been close to, and make sure that she was okay. That was something her older brother could no longer do, so Garrett felt an obligation to stand in his place.
If all went well, Garrett hoped he’d have a chance to speak to Marlene. It wasn’t as though he could contact her manager and make an appointment. He was a former Navy SEAL turned bodyguard. But no one she’d know. From brief talks with her brother, Garrett knew her life was busy, and it made sense that there was a screening process for anyone who wanted to meet with her. At least, he hoped her security checked a person out before allowing access to her.
Garrett looked up at the podium swarming with press and took in the rabid fans pressing closer. His chances of meeting with her were slim at best. Maybe another time he could arrange circumstances more to his advantage. It hadn’t been that great an idea to meet her for the first time at a well-publicized event, but he’d put off seeing her for long enough.
Although ever vigilant about keeping an eye on the crowd, Garrett observed Marlene maintaining control under the onslaught of fans and press. She was confident, a personality trait he admired. And she wasn’t just pretty, she was absolutely gorgeous. Garrett hadn’t expected her to have such an effect on him.
He felt like he knew her, and in a way he did. When Andrew had spoken of home, he hadn’t failed to mention his sister. But it wasn’t her fame or money that he bragged about. It was what a good sister she was. Growing up, Andrew had been close to his sister. He’d told Garrett about all the charity work she was involved in. She used her name to bring attention to worthy causes, and her passion was providing assistance to former soldiers and their families.
There was no way to look into her lovely green eyes without being assured of her sincerity. The real Marlene resembled the photo Andrew had carried in his wallet, more than any airbrushed image created for publicity. The first time Garrett had seen that photo, he’d known Marlene had a good heart. He couldn’t say how he’d known, but he had.
Despite the goodness inside, Marlene was no pushover. She bantered with the press, holding her own, without wavering. Her poise was admirable, especially to Garrett. His worst nightmare was being thrust into public view. He’d had too many years of clandestine activities and secret missions to be comfortable under bright lights. Staying in the shadows was Garrett’s specialty.
Observing the crowd, he noted that they dressed rather casually in jeans, as he’d known they would. Paired with some outer garment to fend off the cold and comfortable shoes, as was common in California, the outfits were complete. He’d dressed in kind, wearing faded jeans, well-worn jogging shoes, and a brown jacket. A casual observer wouldn’t pick him out of any crowd, which was his preference.
Marlene’s bubbly laugh drew his attention. She seemed to glow as the press continued to barrage her with questions. Her security was closer now, yet she was still too vulnerable for Garrett’s taste. A golden rope stretched along the length of the red carpet and in front of the podium. It was all that separated the adored star from the media and the fans.
The twist of rope was a deterrent as long as it was respected. So far the media had maintained decorum, and no fan had dared to leap over it. But Garrett was prepared for any possibility. He’d had to be for so many years that it wasn’t something he could turn on and off. Hypervigilance had saved him or his team on too many occasions to count.
The ordeal with the press was finally over, so Marlene put her hand over the microphone then stepped away from the podium. The press continued to shout questions, but she held up her hand to signal that the interviews were over. The music volume increased and the crowd roared in unison. Garrett stood at the edge of the walkway near the rope, taking it all in. He was close to Marlene, almost near enough to reach her.
At the far end of the red carpet, a couple of other recognizable faces appeared. Garrett knew them from their blockbuster movies. As the audience focused on the new arrivals, Marlene took a step back, a gesture signifying that she was no longer the center of attention. The charming smile she’d maintained during the interviews faded. And her green eyes lost some of their luster.
She was a talented actress, and it struck Garrett that she’d put on a performance for the audience. That maybe the outward show of vibrant happiness wasn’t all there was to her. She didn’t think anyone was watching her particularly. And she certainly didn’t have any idea that Garrett was observing. In that private moment, a fleeting second in time, Marlene’s eyes revealed more of what she held close to her heart. Honest emotion showed in her expression but was gone as quickly as it appeared.
Yet Garrett noticed. It was a skill to observe reactions, one that he had honed to perfection. Now he couldn’t brush aside the awareness that Marlene was sad. She took care not to reveal her unhappiness. Garrett saw that she played her role, whether in public or in a movie, showing only what she wished to. The world only saw the Marlene she created for them. But Garrett had seen beyond that.
Without being obvious, Garrett kept the throng of fans in his peripheral vision. Then he turned casually, as if looking for a friend, so no one would notice his movement. The audience was riveted on the famous figures emerging, hoping to get a good look as they became visible at the other end of the carpeted walkway.
All except for one man. Garrett noted his faded jeans with combat boots, likely purchased secondhand. The crowd had moved closer to the ropes at the far end of the walkway, to get a better look at the stars they’d come to see, leaving the combat-boots guy more in the open. For a couple of seconds, Garrett had a clear view of him.
The guy looked at Marlene, but something was off. The man’s eyes were glued to her, as though he was stalking her. Any movie star had stalkers, at one time or another. Or just rabid fans that were a little too infatuated. But not all posed a threat.
Then the man’s eyes went to Garrett, just before his right hand swept his long coat open. There wasn’t time to consider whether the man had been looking purposely at Garrett or not. Instantaneously, the man’s action was clear. Garrett saw it in his mind before it happened.
When the coat swept open, it stayed back as if the pocket was weighted. Likely the man had something heavy in there, so when the coat opened it would stay back. Garrett had done the same thing many times. The coat hid the gun, but it was important when drawing the weapon that the coat didn’t flap closed and get in the way.
Then the man reached for his waistband. Garrett didn’t need to watch the rest; he knew the man had a gun. But the guy was too far away to reach quickly. There were too many people in the way for Garrett to tackle him in time.
With split-second reaction time, Garrett leapt over the gold rope. He threw his body in front of Marlene, and propelled her to the ground in a fluid motion. A gunshot cracked in the air a moment before he hit the carpet, barely avoiding tragedy. With one hand on the back of her head and the other around her waist, he protected her from the fall. The padding of his coat buffered his forearms, and he took the impact on bent knees so his weight wouldn’t crush her.
In the din of noise that ensued, Garrett heard screams and the general roar of all hell breaking loose. With Marlene underneath him, time seemed to stand still. She felt awfully good pressed against him. He breathed in her floral perfume and looked into her eyes.
Then he turned his head and yelled, “Shooter in the crowd!” But he didn’t move immediately. It was best to shield Marlene until he knew the situation was under control. Her breathing was rapid and her eyes showed fear. But she didn’t struggle against him, as she was probably in shock.
“You’re okay,” Garrett said. “The guy had a gun. You’re safe.”
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