Waverly Sinner timed her escape perfectly so that the glossy Mercedes slid through the opening security gate at the foot of the driveway with inches to spare. Heart pounding, head aching, she accelerated past the two photographers, one next to a street bike and the other leaning against a dented Toyota the color of the pollution that clung to L.A. like a wool blanket in the summer.

She made it through the gate and down the street before they’d even shifted into drive, feeling like a small victory had been won. The element of surprise was the only way she could get a head start on the photographers that followed her everywhere these days.

She heard the whine of the motorcycle engine and spotted it in her rearview mirror as it came over the crest of the hill. Damn it. The Toyota she could lose, but that beat-up bike was going to be a problem.

She shouldn’t have taken the car. Ruby red, it was an attention magnet, which is why it usually sat in the garage unless her mother was feeling convertible-ready and took it on a joy ride for the gossip sites. But it was the first set of keys she’d blindly grabbed while trying to unsee the naked bodies sprawled on her couch. The couch that she would now have to burn.

The car handled the corner as if it were a straightaway, and the guy on the street bike behind her leaned into the turn, but she heard the squeal of the Toyota’s tires.

Why couldn’t they just leave her alone? What was it she had that they needed so desperately?

She snaked her way through the hills, disappointing the photographers when she headed away from town. Away from the chaos that had invaded every aspect of her life. Away from her father and the brunette he’d decided to undress in the pool house where she lived. Away from her mother and her never-empty glass of vodka that fooled no one.

Waverly just wanted to be normal. She wanted a house that didn’t need security. A family that didn’t spend their entire lives pretending for the cameras. She wanted a job where people didn’t follow her around demanding to know what she had for breakfast and who she was sleeping with. Where no one wanted a piece of her or maliciously hoped to witness a very public and humiliating downward spiral.

It was the real Hollywood story. The industry built you up so the audience could gleefully tear you back down.

She’d never had a chance at normal. Not the daughter of two Hollywood legends whose volatile love story was more fascinating than any film. Their partnership had cemented a renown more permanent than their side-by-side stars on the Walk of Fame.

After a conception timed perfectly to coincide with one of her parents’ movie premieres, Waverly joined the Sinner clan. She’d inherited her mother’s golden looks and her father’s acting range. But their desire for the spotlight seemed to have skipped a generation. However, not following in the family footsteps was not an option.

At twenty, she already had twelve movies under her belt. She’d won an Oscar at fifteen, been gifted this very Mercedes from a studio at sixteen, and filed her first lawsuit against tabloids at eighteen. She had her own star on the Walk of Fame. She’d never attended a day of school, instead getting her education crowded around tight tables in trailers with on-set tutors. Prom and Homecoming had been traded for hundreds of red carpets.

She wasn’t ungrateful. The opportunities that this life, this career, had provided for her were immeasurable. But they came at a price.

As the rarified air of Bel Air fell away behind her, the wind, dry from the desert with just a hint of salt from the Pacific, whipped over her. Estates and lush, green country clubs gave way to rows of Spanish style houses crowded along congested roads that snaked their way around canyons. She wasn’t sure where she was going. Maybe the canyon, maybe the coast? But she knew exactly what she was leaving behind.

All those demands that piled up on her shoulders were beginning to take a toll. She had a family legacy to live up to, her mother liked to remind her. And her success provided for others. She couldn’t just walk away from agents and assistants and stylists and attorneys. They depended on her.

An image of her mother flashed into her mind as she squeezed into traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Waverly didn’t know whether her father’s philandering had spurred her mother’s drinking or vice versa. But the two had fed each other’s vices for years now. It didn’t surprise her to find her father in such a compromising position, however, his decision to bring his date into her home did.

A glint in her rear view mirror caught her attention. The motorcycle was splitting the lanes to get to her while the dented Toyota struggled a few cars behind. They never gave up. She was either going to have to give them what they wanted or lose them. And she was tired of giving.

Waverly swooped off of Sunset and wound her way through a neighborhood of dust-colored townhomes with orange tile roofs. Two careful turns later, she was on a lonely highway that climbed through desert and hills.

The motorcycle stuck with her and, on a straightaway, swerved out around her to speed alongside her car.

“Geez, got a death wish?” Waverly muttered, hugging the edge of the pavement. As much as she hated giving this crap sandwich a shot he could use, it would be worse to see his body splattered all over the road. She gripped the leather wheel a little tighter and slowed down. The idiot shoved his camera at her and snapped away.

He was wearing a half helmet with a scarred visor that looked more appropriate for bicycle use. Stringy brown hair curled limply around his face. His Pantera t-shirt and black denim shorts had both seen better days. He was grinning like the winner at a cock fight.

Reluctantly Waverly slowed to a crawl as they crested another hill.

“Get back in the lane,” she yelled, hoping she wasn’t about to witness a vehicular homicide up close and personal.

He flipped her the bird and swung his bike in front of her car, cutting her off.

Waverly jammed on the brakes and swerved across the double line narrowly missing him. Her fingers gripped the wheel in a rigor mortis grip. Death Wish wasn’t just going for pictures, he was trying to create a story. One where she got hit head-on.

Her heartbeat was thudding in her ears as adrenaline surged through her system. She made sure the world’s stupidest man was still upright before stomping on the accelerator. The second she was clear of the photographer, she cut the wheel to the right, squeaking back into her lane just as a silver Range Rover sped around the turn. The driver laid on the horn as she narrowly avoided his shiny bumper of death.

“Holy shit. Holy shit. Oh my God,” Waverly chanted. This guy was trying to get her killed. She hit the Bluetooth button on the steering wheel and, through clenched teeth, called 911.

“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”

“I’m on Promontory Road and there’s a man on a motorcycle trying to—”

Waverly watched in horror as the motorcycle once again drew alongside her.

“Smile pretty for the camera, sweetheart,” he shouted. She saw the glint of a gold tooth.

He didn’t see the pick-up truck coming down the hill, but Waverly did.

“Jesus, look out!”

The photographer gunned the bike and swerved in front of her, clipping her bumper. She cut her wheel to the right and hit the brakes as Death Wish lost control of the bike and went into a slide.

She heard the scraping of metal on metal as the Mercedes met guardrail and felt a small sense of relief when there was no sickening thump of a human speed bump.

“Ma’am? “Ma’am?” the 911 operator’s dispassionate voice came through her car’s audio system.

“There’s been an accident,” Waverly said, her voice miles calmer than she felt. “We’re just south of Mountaingate. Send an ambulance.”

She cut her engine and shoved open her door. She hurried around the front of her car, her flip-flops echoing on the asphalt. Death Wish was facedown and motionless. His bike was a tangled mess wrapped around the guardrail.

“Crap,” Waverly muttered.

The pick-up truck had come to a harmless stop on the opposite side of the road. “Are you all right?” A man in his fifties decked out for a day on the golf course called out the window.

Waverly nodded. “Yeah. Are you?”

“Better than that asshole on the ground. I’m gonna move my truck back to the other side of the hill to control the traffic,” he told her.

Waverly nodded and returned her attention to Death Wish. She tiptoed her way through glass and metal to kneel down next to his unmoving body. Blood trickled from a dozen shallow scrapes on his legs, but it was the nasty gash on his forearm that looked dangerous. Blood was pumping out of the jagged tear at an alarming—and disgusting—rate.

“So gross,” Waverly muttered under her breath. They were miles from the closest hospital, which meant Death Wish might just get what he wanted if she didn’t do something.

She yanked her tank top off over her head and wrapped it around the wound. When she applied pressure, Death Wish flinched.

At least he wasn’t already dead.

When he started to move his legs in a bid to sit up, she shoved him back down. She flipped up the half visor on his helmet. “Stop moving or you’ll probably die,” she warned.

“Where’s my camera?” he whined through gritted teeth.

Waverly glanced around the debris field and then grinned.

“Ah, gee. It looks like your camera went over the cliff.”

“Un-fucking-believable. I’ve got Waverly Sinner involved in a car accident doing first aid with her shirt off and no god damn camera.”

“Un-fucking-believable,” Waverly agreed and flipped the visor back down.

“Holy shit.”

It looked like the driver of the Toyota had finally caught up. A shaggy stick figure in jeans and a camo t-shirt picked his way around Waverly’s car, fancy camera in hand.

“You know this guy?” she asked.

“Sure, that’s Douchebag Joe,” he nodded, still studying the scene with more curiosity than concern.

“Fitting,” Waverly muttered under her breath.

“Hey!” Douchebag Joe had apparently taken offense.

“He’s not dead?”

“Apparently not.”

“Hey, kid. I’ll give you a thousand bucks for your camera. Gotta get this bitch doing first aid,” Douchebag Joe said, reaching a road-rashed arm toward the other photographer.

“Bet you can’t guess how he got his nickname,” the guy said, ignoring Joe’s charming proposal.

“What’s your name?” Waverly asked.

“Arnold. Arnie,” he corrected himself, kicking at the bike’s front fender.

“Arnie, if I have to take my pick between you and Douchebag Joe here, it’s gonna be you. So if you can back your car down around the turn and leave the four ways on so oncoming traffic doesn’t turn us into a guardrail sandwich, you can take all the pictures you want.”

“Sweet,” Arnie said, perking up. “Make sure you smile pretty for the camera, Joe.”

 

——–

 

Xavier Saint held himself upright on the low, cloud-like sofa that was threatening to swallow him. His friend and partner, Micah Ross, shifted his rangy, six-foot five-inch frame next to him.

“I feel like we’re in a circus tent,” Micah muttered under his breath and Xavier smirked in agreement.

The butler, house manager, majordomo—whatever he was—had stoically led them into “Mrs. Sinner’s private sitting room” where they had been waiting amongst cream-colored leather, ivory cashmere throws, and dizzying wallpaper that glinted like gold in the late afternoon sun. The ceiling was draped with billowing fabric that gathered above a gilt chandelier decked out with about a thousand crystals.

It was nothing like the tents Xavier and Micah had grown used to. After a long stint in Afghanistan with Army intelligence, Xavier had been recruited by the Defense Clandestine Service. There he met Micah when they spent a week crouched in a frozen ditch watching for a particularly slippery Taliban leader in Tikrit.

Many missions later and Xavier and Micah were disillusioned alumni of the intelligence world with a wealth of security knowledge. They’d put that expertise to work on the West Coast with Invictus Security, a private security firm that provided military-grade protection to those who could afford their services.

Two years out, and Xavier was still getting used to Hollywood mansions and diamond-studded clients. Micah had transitioned to the management side of things, while Xavier continued to chase the adrenaline out in the field and train new personnel. They earned their astronomical fees by offering security services that ran the gamut from protecting high-level executives from kidnapping and ransom threats all the way down to Xavier’s personal nightmare, baby-sitting heiresses whose worst enemies were themselves.

Xavier had a feeling about this job. Through training and experience and well-honed instincts, his gut was practically clairvoyant. And his gut told him this job was trouble.

He glanced out the wall of windows that overlooked a freeform pool bigger than most waterparks and checked his watch. “I thought she said this was an emergency?”

Micah grunted non-commitally. The man’s patience knew no bounds at work or home, where a hobby-of-the-month wife and three daughters—each with his dark hair and bronze skin that spoke of their Colombian ancestors—waited for him nightly.

They’d been waiting for twenty-two minutes for the “emergency” that had required them to drop everything and fight their way through mid-day freeway traffic. Xavier didn’t trust people who threw around the word emergency.

“A delicate matter” that Sylvia Sinner hoped to discuss in person rather than over the phone.

Finally, one of the ornately carved French doors across the room opened. A woman he’d seen on screens large and small glided in. She was a tiny figure in a billowing kimono over what looked like a silk and lace nightgown. Her blonde hair was pinned up in an artful twist and her face glowed with painted on color and contour. It was four-thirty on a Wednesday, and the woman was lounging in a nighty and fake eyelashes.

His gut was never wrong.

“Gentlemen,” she said, floating across the Aubusson rug toward them holding a crystal glass in one hand. “Please forgive me for keeping you waiting. A meeting ran terribly late. Forgive me?” Her voice was a breathy sigh.

Judging from the slick look of her raspberry fingernails and the faint odor of acetone, Xavier was fairly certain what kind of “meeting” it had been.

She was on the early side of forty-five but could easily pass for younger. Even this close, Xavier couldn’t tell if it was good genes or the steady hands of a very talented plastic surgeon.

“Mrs. Sinner,” Micah said, extending his hand. “I’m Micah Ross, and this is Xavier Saint. We understand you have a delicate situation.”

Her laughter, light and airy, trilled through the room. She brought a hand to the swell of her breasts in a practiced flirtation. The woman was used to having an audience.

“Sinner and Saint,” she said, with a slow wink. “It can’t be a coincidence. And please, both of you call me Sylvia.”

Sylvia looked Xavier up and down appreciatively as she held out her hand knuckles up. He wasn’t about to start off a business relationship with a kiss. He firmly gripped her hand in both of his and shook.

She shot him a calculating look before offering her hand to Micah.

“Please sit,” she said, gesturing toward the couch they’d just pried themselves out of. Sylvia arranged herself on a wingback chair covered in stark white fabric. They sat and waited. The elicitation training Xavier had aced with the DCS served him well in business. The quieter they were, the chattier the clients became.

Sylvia’s expression seamlessly transformed from welcoming to distressed, her baby doll blue eyes filled with unshed tears. “I’m afraid my daughter is in danger,” she said, wringing her hands together, careful to avoid smudging her fresh paint.

Xavier had done his due diligence in the car on the way over. Waverly Sinner was a twenty-year-old all-American beauty with a list of movie credits that any actress twice her age would envy. He’d actually taken his younger sisters to see one of her movies years ago after losing a bet with them. She’d been a pretty, long-legged teen then and had since grown into a genetic lottery winner.

She was also paparazzi bait, if the accident last week was any indication.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the news,” Sylvia continued.

They both had. The three-vehicle accident in the hills had gotten its fair share of screen time. First with the media outlets’ speculation that Sinner was at fault and then again when police released the 911 call and dash cam footage from her Mercedes. This time around, she was labeled a hero.

“The photographer involved in that accident was extremely aggressive,” Micah stated. “Is that common?”

“It’s not an everyday occurrence,” Sylvia said, pulling her feet up under her. “But it’s something we’ve all had to get used to. It goes with the territory.” She sipped delicately from her glass.

“What’s your main concern about your daughter’s safety?” Xavier asked, his curiosity piqued.

Sylvia shifted again, this time from concerned mother to beleaguered parent, her lovely features rearranging themselves effortlessly.

“Honestly, she’s going through some sort of willful phase. She’s turning down movies, refusing interviews—”

“Mrs.— Sylvia,” Micah interrupted. “That isn’t the kind of situation that we generally work with.”

It was, of course, a service they did reluctantly provide. For a fee.

She waved a slim hand that looked too fragile to hold the cluster of diamond rings she wore. “Of course not. It’s just that this little rebellion of Waverly’s is putting her in danger. That accident occurred shortly after she and her father had some sort of argument over who knows what? Neither of them tell me anything,” she said with a charming eye roll. She took another sip from her glass. “I need someone who can protect Waverly from herself.”

 

——–

 

“Thoughts?” Micah asked as Xavier drove the company Tahoe down the drive.

Xavier waited until they were through the security gate before answering. “She wants a glorified babysitter.”

“And?”

“And yet she seems to be painfully unaware that her daughter actually finds herself in dangerous situations. That guy on the bike could have killed her, but she’s more concerned that her daughter get used to it and start picking up parts again.”

“And?” Micah probed again.

“And that wasn’t water in her glass,” Xavier concluded.

“Same page. So are you up for a security detail with some babysitting thrown in to appease a very insistent client?” Micah asked, breaking the rules of an operative and rolling down his window to let the early summer air into the car.

“I have no interest in making this my specialty,” Xavier warned his friend.

“But you do it so well,” Micah said with a grin.

He was referring to Xavier’s last princess-sitting job. The daughter of a British business magnate with a trust fund in the eight figures. She’d pranced around in lingerie and sunbathed topless by the pool for two weeks before realizing he wasn’t going to bite. Once that realization had set in, she’d thrown a hissy fit and tried to go on a cocaine binge in the bathroom of a club. He’d gotten her out of the club, cleaned up, and dumped in a swanky rehab facility without anyone snapping any embarrassing pictures.

The bonus the grateful father gave them was enough to send an entire kindergarten class to a four-year college.

If Waverly Sinner thought she could get around him, she was going to learn very quickly that no one swayed Xavier Saint from his purpose.