“Quinn? There’s a headache waiting for you on line two.”

Ignoring the phone, Quinn O’Halloran shot a wry look at his secretary and reached for the cup of coffee he’d poured over an hour ago instead.

“Mel Burdock,” he guessed.

Faye McAllister shook her head. The movement sent the slender gold chains on her bifocals dancing. “No, Burdock’s more like the tension headache that climbs up the back of your neck and camps out in your temples. This guy—instant migraine.”

“Feel free to correct me on this, but I thought I hired you to intercept the migraines.”

“You did. But this is the third time today I’ve intercepted this particular one.” Faye aimed a scowl at the phone. “When I told Mr. High and Mighty that your policy is to return phone calls between four and five o’clock, he didn’t seem to think it applied to him. He insists on talking directly to you but won’t say what he wants. And—” another scowl “—he refused to tell me his name. Must be from out of town.”

Quinn suppressed a smile. Faye took pride in her ability to deal with anyone who walked through the door of O’Halloran Security. It was one of the reasons he’d hired her. Quinn preferred to work behind the scenes and let Faye handle the customers. Those she didn’t manage to scare away usually ended up signing a contract.

Glancing at the clock, he mentally scrolled through the rest of his afternoon schedule. If he ate lunch in his truck on the way to Mel’s, it would give him an extra five minutes to deal with the anonymous headache on the line.

“I’ll take it in my office.”

“I’m sorry.” Faye huffed the words. “If I let a salesman get through, I’ll bring in doughnuts tomorrow morning.”

Quinn grinned. “Are you kidding? If you let a salesman through, you’ll bring in doughnuts for the next month.”

After topping off his cup, Quinn followed the worn path down the center of the carpet to the oversize closet in the back of the building that doubled as his office. The red light on his desk phone continued to blink out a warning. A testimony to the caller’s patience. Or stubbornness.

With a shake of his head, he picked it up. “O’Halloran.”

“It’s about time,” a voice snapped.

Faye was right. Instant migraine.

“Good morning, Mr.—”

“Alex Porter.” There was a significant pause, as if he expected Quinn to recognize the name. “Porter Hotels.”

Now Quinn recognized the name.

The deluxe hotels had their roots in Chicago, where Quinn had lived for eight years before returning to Mirror Lake, Wisconsin. Under Alex Porter’s management, offshoots now sprouted in other major Midwestern cities. Not only did they successfully compete against the larger, well-known chains, but the fact that Porter Hotels remained a family-run enterprise made it even more unique.

“What can I do for—”

“I want to hire you.”

Quinn let out a slow breath. No wonder the guy had raised Faye’s hackles. Everything Alex Porter said came out sounding like a command instead of a request. As if he expected his name would open doors that were closed to mere mortals.

The trouble was, Quinn thought with a trace of bitterness, it probably did. He’d dealt with people like Alex Porter before and had no desire to repeat the experience. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a position to turn down business. Any business.

Pride or a paycheck?

Over the past year, while trying to resurrect the business his father had spent the last years of his life determined to bury, Quinn had discovered the cause and effect relationship between the two. Sometimes the first one depended upon the second.

“Are you buying a condo? Building a hotel in the area?” Quinn searched his desk drawer—the Bermuda Triangle of office supplies—for a pen that actually worked. “O’Halloran Security custom designs security systems to fit the needs of each client. We can set up an appointment to discuss the details—”

“I don’t need a new security system.”

Quinn frowned. “I thought you said you wanted to hire me.”

“I do. You recognized my name, and I recognized yours when I was researching businesses in the Mirror Lake area. I don’t need an alarm system. This is…personal.”

Personal.

Quinn’s fingers tightened around the phone. “Sorry. You’ve got the wrong person.”

“I don’t think so.”

“O’Halloran Security is strictly buildings. I don’t provide personal security.” Not anymore. “I’m sorry you wasted your time. But I have an appointment now, so you’ll have to excuse me. There are other reputable agencies in the Chicago area. I’m sure you’ll find someone.”

To walk you to your limo, Quinn added silently.

“It isn’t for me. It’s for my younger sister.”

Something in Porter’s voice stopped Quinn from hanging up the phone. A hint of emotion that cracked the surface of the cool, CEO voice. “Just hear me out.”

Don’t ask.

“Please.”

Coming from Porter, the word sounded as if he’d started speaking a foreign language. So, against his better judgment, Quinn asked.

“What’s going on?”

“Abby turned in her letter of resignation at the hotel a month ago and bought a run-down lodge a few miles outside of Mirror Lake. She plans to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast.” The disapproval leaking into Alex’s voice told Quinn how he felt about his sister’s decision. “You must have heard about it.”

“Maybe.” Quinn deliberately kept his voice noncommittal as a conversation he’d overheard stirred in his memory.

Although he tried to keep to himself, he had heard a rumor about the sale of the former Bible camp while waiting for his breakfast one morning at the Grapevine Café, where local gossip brewed as fast as Kate Nichols’s industrial-strength coffee.

“So far, Abby refuses to listen to reason and come back to Chicago where she belongs. It looks like I’m going to have to play this her way for a while.”

“So why did you call me?” Quinn’s lips twisted. “You need a bodyguard to keep the local riffraff away from her?”

That was ironic. At one time, his family portrait would have appeared beside the word riffraff in Webster’s Dictionary.

Alex chose to ignore the sarcasm. “A few weeks ago, someone started harassing me. Vandalized my car. Painted some, shall we say, rather unflattering graffiti on the window of my office. There haven’t been any overt threats made, but I want someone to keep an eye on Abby until my private investigator finds out who I angered.”

“That could take a while,” Quinn said under his breath.

To his amazement, Alex laughed. “It might,” he admitted. “I’m not concerned about myself as much as I am about Abby. She is…fragile. I can’t believe she’s serious about opening a bed-and-breakfast, but it doesn’t change the fact that right now she’s miles away from civilization, living in a house with hook-and-eye locks on the doors and windows that won’t close all the way. I want to be sure she’s safe.”

Some memories were so bitter he could taste them. “Then you should have done your homework. Because if that’s the case, I guarantee you called the wrong person.”

A tense silence stretched between them, and Quinn guessed it was because not many people had the guts to point out that Alex Porter made mistakes. Maybe he’d save Quinn the trouble and hang up first.

He didn’t.

“You spent four years in the Marine Corps. Seven years with Hamlin Security,” Alex recited evenly. “You moved back to your hometown a year ago to take over your father’s locksmith business after he died. Since then, you expanded to specialized security systems designed for summer homes and luxury condos.”

Apparently Porter had done his homework.

All those things were true. But Porter had left out a six-month gap in Quinn’s employment history. “You forgot something.”

“That you got a raw deal while you worked for Hamlin? Doesn’t matter.”

Didn’t matter?

Under different circumstances, Quinn might have been flattered. Except that he couldn’t believe someone could neatly condense the last thirteen years of his life and then dismiss the single event that had ripped it apart. Especially when it had cost him his career—and his reputation.

“I have a business. And it isn’t babysitting the rich and famous.” Been there, done that. Still pulling out shrapnel.

“I need the best. That’s you.”

“What you need to do is buy your sister a rottweiler and remind her to lock the doors at night,” Quinn shot back. “It sounds to me like you’re overreacting to a threat that doesn’t exist. And even if one does, it’s in Illinois, not Wisconsin. She’s probably safer here than anywhere.”

“I’m not taking any chances when it comes to Abby’s safety.” A hint of steel sharpened the words. “I want someone with her who’s experienced in sensing potential threats.”

That was funny. Because Quinn was sensing one right now. A threat to the life he’d started to rebuild.

It was proving to be challenging enough to erase the stain of having the last name O’Halloran without people getting wind of the reason he’d returned to Mirror Lake. Quinn figured if they knew the truth, he’d have to start at square one again. If he was allowed to start at all.

From the sound of it, the only thing Abby Porter was in danger of was being smothered by an overprotective brother. Getting involved with the Porters would be a bad idea, for more reasons than Quinn could count.

“I can’t help you.”

“You mean you won’t help me.”

It boiled down to the same thing. “I can give you some names,” Quinn offered reluctantly. “Talk to some people I used to know.”

Not that he could guarantee those people would talk to him.

“You’ve heard of the White Wolf Run condominiums, right?” Alex asked. “Jeff Gaines happens to be a close friend of mine.”

“Really?” Quinn’s voice was stripped of emotion.

Apparently, Porter had not only done his homework, he’d done the extra credit. O’Halloran Security had put in a bid on that job.

A wave of frustration battered Quinn’s resolve. This was the difference between the haves and the have-nots. When you belonged to the first group, all you had to do was open your wallet to get your way.

“I can put in a good word for you,” Alex said.

The underlying message was clear. If Quinn agreed to work for him.

The confidence in Porter’s voice rankled. And brought back that pride versus the paycheck issue again. Designing a security system for the White Wolf Run condos would boost Quinn’s income enough to wipe out some of his start-up debt, install an air conditioner in the sweltering office and allow him to replace outdated equipment. It would also go a long way in securing his business’s reputation in the area.

And your own.

Quinn ignored the mocking voice that infiltrated his thoughts.

“How does your sister feel about someone invading her personal space?” He wasn’t agreeing to anything yet. Just…inquiring.

“It doesn’t matter because Abby isn’t going to know why you’re there. Or that I hired you.”

Quinn’s internal alarm system went off. “What do you mean she isn’t going to know why I’m there?”

“She can’t find out that I’m involved in this. We had a bit of a disagreement when she turned in her resignation. Abby refuses to accept any help from me. She can be a little…stubborn.”

Apparently a Porter family trait.

“What a shock,” Quinn muttered, silently adding that bit of information to what he’d learned about Alex Porter’s younger sister so far.

Impulsive. Temperamental. Stubborn—Quinn translated that as spoiled. Oh, and what was the other word Alex had used to describe her?

Fragile.

All of them added up to one thing.

Trouble.

“Abby is focused on getting the place ready for her grand opening in August,” Alex continued. “Her carpenter, Daniel Redstone, just won an all-expense-paid, two-week vacation with a professional fishing guide. You’re going to take his place.”

“How lucky for Daniel,” Quinn said dryly.

“A person makes their own luck.” Alex dismissed his comment. “You’ve helped Redstone out in the past when you were short on cash. That makes you an obvious replacement for him. No one will think twice about it. Neither will Abby. You’ll be able to keep an eye on her and in between pounding nails and painting the outhouse, you can install a security system.”

“You are…” Quinn paused. With so many issues to choose from, it was difficult to pick a winner.

“Thorough.” Alex filled in the blank.

Quinn had been leaning more toward arrogant. Or smug. But he guessed that description fit as good as any.

“Two weeks. Until Daniel comes back.” It was all Quinn was willing to spare. Other than Faye, he only employed two part-time employees. Both men were responsible and would appreciate the extra work, but Quinn didn’t want to look as if he were shirking his responsibility. People already told him that he resembled his father. The last thing Quinn wanted to do was act like him.

“Two weeks,” Alex agreed. “24/7.”

“You have got to be kidding.” There was overprotective and then there was downright paranoid.

“That’s my offer.”

“The person harassing you hasn’t bothered your sister.” Quinn raked a hand through his hair. “Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”

“I told you.” Alex’s voice was as cold as spring water now. “I’m not taking any chances when it comes to Abby’s safety.”

“You want me on-site. Round the clock. For two weeks.”

“That’s right.” And before Quinn had a chance to turn him down flat, Alex proceeded to tell him what he would pay for the inconvenience. “Do we have a deal?”

Everything inside Quinn warned him to walk away. But he couldn’t. Not if it helped O’Halloran Security succeed.

“We have a deal.”

Quinn reminded himself that he’d walked through the fire before. Only this time he had an advantage. He knew how to avoid getting burned.