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Chapter One: New Assignment
A man in his mid-forties, with graying brown hair and steel blue eyes sat with his feet propped up on the desk in his study, smoking a rolled cigarette. He studied the younger man who sat across from him, trying to gauge his reaction. The question hung in the air for several seconds before the younger man's expression changed from one of confusion to disgust.
"You want me to babysit your daughter," the young man slowly said.
"To a point, yes. This wedding is imperative for our survival. Maggie must marry Thompson's son, or that's it for us," the older man stated.
"What's wrong with the usual guy?"
"Mr. Young is capable as her bodyguard, but I need to amp up her protection. Mr. Ross is relentless. He has let it be known his attentions on my daughter."
"Mr. Piper, with all due respect, I think my services can be of better use elsewhere."
Colton Piper took another drag from his cigarette, expelling the smoke in the younger man's face.
"I need someone with your special set of skills to protect my Maggie, Mr. Cooper. You will be handsomely rewarded when she's delivered safe at her wedding."
Eric narrowed his eyes. Special skillset? She's just a girl. A young woman my age, he corrected himself. Why would she need someone of his caliber to watch over her? He was a highly trained marksman; however, his weapon of choice was his knife. Eric was well-known for being ruthless, cunning, and deceptively strong. Why would Maggie Piper need a man like that by her side?
No, it wasn't the lady. It was Wade Ross, he quickly remembered. An import from England, Wade had made a name for himself in the Dallas area as a rival for Colton Piper's empire. Kidnapping and marrying the beautiful daughter of the leader of the West Texas crime syndicate would be a feather in Wade's cap for sure.
�How she managed to reach her mid-twenties without her family marrying off, he hadn't a clue. He thought about protesting further, but he could clearly see Mr. Piper had made up his mind.. He could always refuse the job, but no one who crossed Colton Piper lived long enough to tell the tale. Still, the idea of having to keep watch over his brat of a daughter gnawed at him. Surely Colton could find someone lesser than him to do this job? He had been Mr. Piper's right hand man for years.
Still, he had never actually met Maggie. He had seen glimpses of her around the home, however. His boss was protective of his daughter and wouldn't let any of his men near her. He could just assume because she was brought up as a proper lady in Midland, Texas high society that she would be insufferable. Maybe he would come across some surprises there, but he doubted it.
Eric may have been many things, but stupid wasn't one of them. He highly respected Mr. Piper. Colton was often considered to be the Texas version of Joe Masseria and with good reason. The man demanded, and received, loyalty and obedience. Eric had worked for him for a number of years, working up the ranks to become his top man. Colton even let Eric run a number of bootlegging operations on his own. The fact that his boss even asked this lowly request from him meant it was of high importance. Slowly, he nodded.
"All right, I'll do it."
"Excellent. Vigilance is the key here, Mr. Cooper. I hear rumors that Mr. Ross is sending his best man out for her, which is why I need you. I don't need to tell you how much I value my daughter's life."
"I understand, sir."
"Maggie needs to remain safe and protected at all times. If a hair is damaged on her head, I'll have yours. If I find out that you have touched my daughter, you'll pay the consequences."
"Maggie has never known the touch of a man, and this needs to stay unchanged. If you or any other man touches my daughter, the penalty is death.
Maggie Piper sat under her favorite oak tree, enjoying the cool spring day. She leaned up against the bark as she sipped sweet tea with her favorite book, The Convenient Marriage, in her lap.
"It doesn't get much better than this, does it, Mr. Young?" Maggie called over to her bodyguard, Darius, who was never more than several yards away from her.
"No, ma'am. It does not," he replied.
She looked up to see her father walking toward her with a strange man she only vaguely remembered seeing around the estate before.
"Mr. Young, who is that walking with Daddy?" she asked.
"I believe that's an associate of your father's," he replied.
"Help me up," she ordered, extending out her hands.
Darius jumped immediately at her request, pulling the young woman to her feet. He helped make sure that her dress looked presentable as her father closed in on her.
"My darling girl." Colton stretched his arms out wide, and Maggie ran into them.
Colton hugged his only child tightly before releasing her.
"My angel, this is Mr. Cooper," Colton introduced.
Maggie swept her eyes curiously over to the tall man with short, slicked back brown hair and cold brown eyes. His lips were pressed thin, nearly scowling at her. He had a handsome face, and by the way the suit molded to him she could see he was muscular. She automatically didn't like the look of the man. He didn't appear like any gentleman to her, no matter the color of his impeccably stylish pin stripe suit. Still, she managed a polite smile and extended her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Cooper," Maggie cordially said.
The man smiled blandly at her, as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world than with her right now. He accepted her hand and brought her knuckles to his lips.
"The pleasure is all mine, Ms. Piper."
Something in the way this man spoke made her feel awkward. Maggie couldn't pinpoint it, but the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
"Darling, Mr. Cooper is going to be accompanying Mr. Young for a little while," Colton explained to her.
"Daddy?" She looked curiously over at her father.
"I just want to make sure you stay safe before the wedding, my pearl. Mr. Cooper is to ensure your safety."
"Sir," Darius spoke up. "I would never be as bold as to question you-"
"So don't begin now, Mr. Young," Mr. Piper cut him off.
"Do you really think another guard is necessary?" Darius continued.
"Yes, Mr. Young, I am afraid it is." Mr. Piper glared.
Colton was not accustomed to any of his men questioning him, especially some proletariat bouncer he found working at a dilapidated club before he bought it, turning it into a gentleman's club in which to run his day-to-day operations. Still, Darius didn't seem to take notice of Maggie's beauty like the others had, which was the only reason he had chosen the man to guard her.
Maggie stepped back, not really sure of what was going on. Eric smirked as he watched the young woman try to make sense of it in her head. She really didn't know the danger that she potentially faced.
Maggie looked over at the newcomer, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the way he watched her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Darius getting ready to protest further. If he angered her father, he could be reassigned or fired, leaving her alone with this menacing man.
"All right," Maggie placed a gentle hand on Darius's forearm. "If Daddy says it's necessary, then it is."
A slight grin tugged at the corner of her father's mouth. "See, Mr. Cooper, I told you my daughter can be reasonable."
Dean Lawrence stood just out of bounds of the posh estate with a cigarette clamped in his teeth and another one behind his ear. He had been watching his intended target for a while now, getting to know her routine. She often sat reading under an oak tree or tended to her garden. He rarely saw her out of the sight of a tall, dark-skinned man named Darius, but Dean didn't think the guard would pose as a challenge.
His eyes narrowed as he watched his boss' adversary, the head of the Piper house, walk toward his daughter with another man in tow. He immediately recognized the other man. Damn. It had to be Eric Cooper. Did Piper really trust the safety of his daughter to that ruffian? He must be more desperate than his boss anticipated.
Dean's eyes darted over to her bodyguard, giving him a quick assessment. Now he could understand why Piper would put Cooper on as an extra guard. Darius looked capable enough to deal with the usual hangers who seemed to fill the massive estate looking for handouts. Clearly the dark-skinned man was strong, but in a real fight, Dean doubted Darius would be of any real use to the girl. If the lady was that important to the future of either enterprise, then she needed all the protection Colton could give.
His eyes shifted back over to Maggie. Even from a distance, she was something else. She was beautiful. Maggie had long fiery red hair that curled at the ends and sparkling green eyes. Dean could almost smell the freshness of her flawless skin and feel the softness of her perfect, ruby red mouth. The sight of her would make any man's blood boil. Everything about this girl made him hunger.�
�Whoever married the girl would get control over west Texas. She would be the perfect trophy wife, just not for him. A smile spread her ruby lips, making Dean subconsciously lick his. He wanted to know what she tasted like. He shrugged, letting out a puff from his smoke. He would find out soon enough.
How Colton Piper created such a beautiful daughter was beyond him. Her mother must have been a looker, too. Dean's lips twitched into a smirk as he took another drag from his cigarette. Maggie Piper had all the wrappings of a perfect lady. All the more for him to enjoy hearing her cry out, either from pleasure or pain.
His boss had already told Dean he could do what he wanted to her once she was no longer on her way to New Mexico. If the girl could somehow see him and read his mind at this moment, she would run into the arms of her intended husband right now.
Mr. Cooper would certainly throw a wrench in his current plan. Dean knew the man all too well. They used to work together for Wade Ross years ago. He’d have to take the time to rethink things. Maybe he'll send Luke Olsen in tonight to shake things up a bit.
"Soon," he whispered to the wind.
He would have the girl. Make no bones about that.
Eric started to think he was wrong about this assignment after all.
Maggie sat quietly in a chair in the drawing room, looking completely engrossed in her needle point. Their limited interaction earlier in the day gave him the same feeling he had when Mr. Piper gave him the new assignment. She seemed vapid, conceded, and... boring. The only attraction he could have to her was her beauty, which he could overlook due to the simple fact that she was just like every other spoiled woman he had ever met.
"Do you like to read, Mr. Cooper?" her voice sounding light and airy.
"Pardon me?" he snapped to attention.
"Do you read books, Mr. Cooper?" Maggie asked again.
"No, I don't." He shook his head.
"Do you know how?" she asked.
Eric had to grip his hand into a fist to control the flare of anger. How dare this woman insult him in such a manner? She blanched at his visible reaction.
"I'm sorry, sir. I did not mean to offend. I love to read. Daddy says I read more than a lady should. If you didn't know how, I was going to offer to teach you. I taught Mr. Young."
Maggie turned bright red, which helped to calmed him down. She really didn't mean to act condescending.
"I know how," Eric evenly replied.
"So you are an educated man."
Mr. Young cleared his throat from across the room. Again, Maggie blushed. There was something so sweet to her reaction. It almost made him smile.
"Forgive me, sir. I don't mean to sound rude," she apologized.
"Forgiven, Ms. Piper. You didn't."
"I hope very much that you don't mind my questions. You are, after all, going to be with me for the next month or so. I just wanted to know a little about you."
"It's quite all right," Eric nodded.
"Daddy tells me that you are originally from Chicago. What brings you to west Texas?"
"My brother...He stole a bunch of money from me. I tracked him down here and found out that he owed a great debt to your father. I offered to work it off, and I've been here ever since," he paused for a moment, his brown eyes guarded. "Matthew later died by the hands of a nefarious Texan criminal."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Maggie said.
"I appreciate that, Ms. Piper."
"Do you like working for my father?" Maggie raised a polished eyebrow.
"Miss Maggie, it's not appropriate for a lady to ask such things," Darius admonished her.
"My apologies. I seem to forget my place." Maggie looked down at her needle point.
This little interaction only made Eric even more curious about her. The way she shifted her weight in the chair and pursed her lips together showed her disapproval, but she still obeyed.
"You didn't bother me," Eric insisted.
"Miss Maggie is a proper lady," Darius told Eric.
"It's all right, Mr. Young. Ladies are better seen and not heard," she tried her best to keep her tone light.
"You don't sound like you agree," Eric noted.
"Agree... Disagree... What purpose would it serve? My opinion matters not."
"I don't think that's true."
"Regardless of what I think, Mr. Cooper, I am still being carted off to marry a man whom I haven't seen since I was a child. A man whom I only remember as a little boy who liked to set my hair on fire. My marriage is advantageous to my father and his enterprise. My life, my dreams, are being sold. What I want, sir, is irrelevant," she admitted, her voice void of emotion.
Eric stared at her agape at her admission. Maybe there was more to her than he thought.
"But I'm not supposed to think like that, am I?"
She looked over at Darius, who confirmed with a nod.
"I'm only to be concerned with fancy parties, pretty dresses, and making sure I look perfect at all times. Lest I forget for a moment that I am only a woman. My dreams of traveling the world are only that."
Her tone conveyed a gentleness, but her eyes told another story. Her eyes showed him she had a deep passion, one she wasn't allowed to express.
Her fingers pulled delicately at the lace she worked on. Eric realized she absentmindedly worked on the project. She was just as bored as he was.
Maybe Maggie had more depth than he thought. The awareness made him suddenly uncomfortable. The threat Colton gave him still rang in his ears. Any divination from the current role would result in his death. The only problem was when she looked up from her lace, something in her eyes told him she would be worth dying for.