Book 1 in the Body Armor Series
He can protect anything except his heart
Leese Phelps‘s road hasn’t been an easy one, but it’s brought him to the perfect job—working for the elite Body Armor security agency. And what his newest assignment lacks in size, she makes up for in fire and backbone. But being drawn to Catalina Nicholson is a dangerous complication, especially since it could be the very man who hired Leese who’s threatening her.
What Catalina knows could get her killed. But who’d believe the sordid truth about her powerful stepfather? Beyond Leese’s ripped body and brooding gaze is a man of impeccable honor. He’s the last person she expects to trust—and the first who’s ever made her feel safe. And he’s the only one who can help her expose a deadly secret, if they can just stay alive long enough…
Reviews of Under Pressure
is Book 1 in the Body Armor Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
Read An Excerpt
Leese Phelps stood in the cold early evening air, his breath frosting in front of him. Lights at the nearby bus station blinked in an annoying mismatched pattern. A cascade of foil Valentine’s Day hearts hung loose, almost touching the ground. Not exactly romantic, but then, he wasn’t in a romantic mood.
Behind him, completely hidden in the shadows, his friend Justice complained, “My balls are freezing.”
Still watching the surrounding area, Leese said, “You should try wearing underwear.”
“The ladies would complain. They like me commando.”
Leese started to smile, until a shadow shifted from the right side of an alley that bisected the station from a cheap hotel. He said, “Shh.”
“This is it?” Justice whispered. “You see her?”
“Quiet.” Leese pressed farther back into the darkness, his gaze alert, his senses zinging.
A woman, small in stature, emerged dragging an enormous suitcase with a broken wheel. As it tried to pull her sideways, she relentlessly forced it through slush and blackened snow. Her narrowed gaze scanned the area with nervous awareness.
Leese didn’t move, but still her attention shot back in his direction. She stared, watchful and wary, until he stepped out.
Trying not to look threatening, Leese propped a shoulder on the brick facade of the vacated building. He glanced at her, then away, as if dismissing her.
She continued to stare.
Now what to do?
“What’s happening?” Justice whispered.
“Nothing. Be quiet.”
The girl wore jeans with snow boots, a puffy coat that covered her to her knees and a black stocking cap pulled down to her eyebrows. Straight brown hair stuck out from the bottom.
When she finally looked away, it was to drop the suitcase and whip around, facing the way she’d come.
Two men stepped out, followed by a third.
The third smiled at her. “Going somewhere, Cat? Without saying goodbye?”
Suspicions confirmed, Leese watched Catalina Nicholson take a defiant stance. That didn’t surprise him. As soon as he’d been given this assignment, he’d learned what he could of her.
She came from a wealthy family of lawyers and CEOs, people with far-reaching political and business connections. They were the movers and shakers of the world, influencing other powerful people effortlessly.
But Catalina had bucked convention by becoming an elementary school art teacher, something her family hadn’t liked. She clearly enjoyed her luxuries, but wanted to earn them herself. Some inheritances helped to pave the way on that, but from all reports, she’d proven herself to be headstrong and independent. Small in size but not in attitude.
Here, in the slums of Danbrook, Ohio, she was far away from her usual routine of dealing with middle-class families and their grade-school children.
“That’s right, Wayne,” she said, her voice strong. “I’m leaving.”
“I don’t think so,” the man called Wayne said, and his two cronies moved to surround her. “Not just yet. Not until you pay up on all those promises you made.”
Strangely enough, Catalina looked back at Leese again, her expression a touch desperate.
Even from a distance, he felt her silent request for help.
“Stay put unless you see that I need you,” Leese told Justice. He was pretty sure he could handle things without drawing his gun, but there was always a chance he’d cause a ruckus and then, to protect her, they’d need to make a run for it. “Be ready with the car.”
Justice grumbled, “I miss all the fun.”
His boots crunching in the frozen snow, Leese headed toward her in a casual stride.
Relief took the starch out of her shoulders. If he could defuse things without violence, that’d be for the best. Right now, the bus station was all but empty. But if a brawl broke out, for sure it’d draw attention from somewhere.
As he approached, the men all went still, watchful, before deciding he didn’t matter.
Leese stepped up in front of her, blocking the pushiest guy, forcing him back a step.
“Excuse me.” Insinuating himself between her and the big goon, Leese insulated her from trouble, then turned to face her. Catalina was probably a foot shorter than him, and even in the thick coat she seemed slim all over. She tipped back her head and stared up at him with big blue eyes that were both wary and defiant.
By silent agreement, she trusted him, when that was the very last thing she should have done. No wonder he’d been sent to her.
Leese hefted her bag, which weighed a ton, and maintaining the casual vibe said, “This way,” indicating where he’d been standing watch.
Without bothering to look at the other men, she drew a careful breath, braced herself and nodded in agreement.
Insane. The woman had no self-protection mechanism. She didn’t know him from Adam, but was willing to blindly saunter off with him.
When he’d been assigned this case, not once had he expected it to be this easy. On the contrary. Everything he’d been told had led him to believe it would be a total pain in the ass to keep her safe.
She took two steps.
The closest goon said, “This is bullshit.”
Pausing, Leese huffed out a breath. “Let it go.”
“The hell I will.”
Hearing the elevated voice, he turned just in time to dodge a thick fist. Still holding her bag, Leese landed a knee to the man’s midsection, then flattened him with an elbow to the chin.
The guy’s eyes rolled back and he collapsed like a rag doll, one leg bent awkwardly beneath him, his jaw slack.
Eyeing the remaining two, Leese popped his neck and waited. “Anyone else?”
Being wiser than they looked, they declined further violence.
As the downed man came around with a groan, Leese backed up with Catalina. “Get your friend out of the slush, before hypothermia sets in.” It was so bitter cold, it wouldn’t take long for the elements to affect a body, especially when drenched in wet snow.
While Wayne remained hostile, the other man rushed forward to help his friend back to his feet. Tottering, he made his way to a curb where he slumped, still unsteady.
There were no more smiles when Wayne said, “She owes me.”
“How much?” Paying off the guy would be easier than debating it on such a bitter night, and more expedient than refusing them with his fists.
Wayne’s eyes narrowed. “Not money.”
“Ah, well, I can’t even up with you, then. Guess you’re out of luck.”
Jaw grinding, Wayne glared at him. “I gave her a place to stay. I fed her. Bought her those boots and coat—”
“And you figured on getting paid how?”
Throughout it all, Catalina stayed behind him.
Wayne growled, “She knows what I expected.”
Leaning around, tone apologetic, Catalina whispered, “Yeah, about that… I never planned to sleep with you, Wayne. I’m sorry. I promise I will repay you, I just can’t right now. But I do have your address, so—”
“Fuck you,” Wayne snarled.
Growing impatient, Leese said, “Apparently that’s not happening.” He set down the suitcase and pushed aside his open coat, showing the Glock in a belt holster at his side.
The men stared uneasily. Catalina sucked in a startled breath.
Ignoring those reactions, Leese looked at her boots, then lifted the collar of the coat, examining it. While they were decent protection against the elements, they weren’t high-end items. Probably bought at a discount department store.
Definitely not worth Catalina prostituting herself.
He withdrew his wallet and pulled out a few hundreds. “This will have to suffice.” He folded the money, walked up to Wayne and held it out.
After a ripe hesitation, Wayne took the cash.
With a dose of menace, Leese warned, “Don’t come after her again.”
Wayne nodded, said something low to the uninjured man and the three of them retreated behind the tall buildings.
Leese felt Catalina retreating as well.
Out of patience and feeling stern, he faced her. “Don’t run.”
Eyes huge, her face pale except for the pink of her cold nose, she swallowed hard. “You were sent to bring me home, weren’t you?”
Body Armor, the agency where he worked, had sent him…but his job was to keep her safe, period. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
With a shake of her head, she stepped back.
Leese saw it in her eyes; she would run. “Don’t.”
She whirled to flee and plowed headlong into Justice. The impact was solid enough that she bounced back, her feet slid out from under her on the icy surface and she landed flat in the frozen snow. Given the way she wheezed, she’d knocked the wind out of herself.
She didn’t sink in the snow as the other guy had. Nope. She might as well have hit solid ground. At least he didn’t have to worry about her getting hypothermia.
Leese knelt beside her. “Shh.” He cupped the back of her head. “Hold still.” To Justice, he said, “You were supposed to wait at the car.”
“I saw it was clear and wanted to hurry you along.”
Justice was still learning patience. He was here today with Leese to get a handle on the job. So far, he failed with flying colors. “Carry her bag to the car. We’ll be right there. And, Justice, stay sharp, and stay with the car.”
On his way past, Justice told her, “Sorry about that, honey. Didn’t mean to startle you.” He carried the bag as if it weighed nothing, but then, Justice was a six-foot-five former heavyweight MMA fighter made of solid muscle.
Drawing her into a sitting position and raising her arms over her head, Leese said, “Take it easy. You’re all right.”
She sucked in a strained breath, coughed and wheezed again.
“Running into Justice is like hitting the side of a mountain. Did you hurt anything?”
She got her breath back with a vengeance. “Who are you people?”
Her hat had come loose and silky brown hair tangled around her face. With very cold hands, Leese brushed it back. Gloves would have been nice.
But gloves skewed his accuracy whenever he needed to draw his weapon.
He never discounted that possibility, so no gloves.
“I’m a bodyguard with the Body Armor agency. I was hired to keep you safe.”