J.D. Singer winced as a high pitched scream echoed through the set. It was quickly followed by scrambling, the catered table becoming the center of attention as the star of Counting on Candice proceeded to hurl everything from sandwiches to bottled water at the young makeup artist who was making a quick retreat.
“I can’t take this anymore, J.D.!” the make-up artist, Sonia, shouted at the producer. “If you don’t do something about that… that girl, you won’t have anyone from the union that will work for you. I quit!”
Slamming the door on her way out of Studio Nine, J.D. sighed, running his fingers though his thinning brown hair. That was the fourth makeup assistant that Dakota had scared away in the last three weeks. He had high hopes for Sonia, but even she hadn’t lasted more than four days. Watching as security and Pam Frost, Dakota’s on-screen mother, tried to calm the irate teen star, he was seriously having second thoughts about proceeding with the shoot. Maybe he could get away with killing off Dakota’s character or sending her to college or something.
“J.D.! J.D.! Gets these goons off of me!” Dakota was shouting.
With another sigh, he waived off the security and then called an end to the day. Turning to face Dakota, he took a deep breath. “Calm down, Dakota. What’s the problem now?”
“That, that woman… she can’t do anything right. She burned me with her iron! I’m going to have a scar!” Dakota whined, lifting her blonde bangs and showing a tiny red spot to her producer. “She’s an incompetent moron! I want her fired.”
J.D. grumbled and looked down at Dakota. She was in costume and although legally an adult, she was looking and acting very much like the 14-year-old she played.
“Too late for that. She quit,” J.D. answered evenly.
“Good,” Dakota shot back. “I need some ice.” Pausing for a moment as no one moved, Dakota tried again, “I need some ice! Damn it! And a drink! How about a beer over here?”
“You’re too young to drink, Dakota,” J.D. reminded her.
“I’m almost nineteen. If you would move the shoot to Canada like I wanted…”
“Enough. We need to talk,” J.D. finally snapped, causing Dakota’s eyes to go wide and then narrow.
“How dare you talk to me like that? Need I remind you that I’m the star here? Without me you are nothing! Nothing!”
And that was how the conversation had ended a week ago. J.D. had told Dakota that she needed some time off and promptly closed down the set. Since then, he’d been weighing his options. Unfortunately for him, though, they were limited. She was too popular, and he had to admit that she was right—without her, they had no show.
He’d worked with Dakota for the last four years, and it hadn’t always been this bad. It wasn’t until her older brother had been killed in a car accident a little more than a year ago that Dakota had slowly started losing control. Dakota was now eighteen, so as a legal adult, her parents had little or no control over her. Her father lived on the other side of the country, too busy with his law firm to pay much attention to her, and her mother had withdrawn after Brandon’s death. Last J.D. heard, Dakota’s mother was in a care home on the outskirts of the city. For all intents and purposes, Dakota had been abandoned and now used that as an excuse to make the set a living hell for anyone that had ever stepped foot on it.
Despite the pain and hardships, he still had a soft spot for his young star. She had promise. He still remembered the bright-eyed girl he’d hired. Practically unknown at that time, he’d found just how big a heart she had. She was talented, could sing like angel, and was always upbeat. It was just a shame that bright spirit was now clouded in grief and heartache. What Dakota needed was someone to look after her. She needed someone who could act something like a parent, but as a friend too. She used to have that with her brother. He’d been her biggest supporter and best friend. She needed someone like him—they all did.
“Mr. Singer, Pam Frost is here. She’s requesting to see you,” the intercom on his phone buzzed.
“Go head and send her in, Audrey,” J.D. informed his secretary. He wasn’t expecting anyone from the set to show up today and had little faith that Pam had good news for him.
“Pam, what brings you down?” he smiled, standing as Dakota’s TV-mother entered the room. She was tall and had blonde hair and pretty hazel eyes. That was one reason she got the job. She looked so much like Dakota, she could have actually been her mother. She also occasionally played the part and was probably closer to Dakota in real life than any of her other co-stars.
“J.D.,” Pam smiled, taking a seat as he indicated. “I’m worried about Dakota. Did you see the news this morning?”
“Yes, and aren’t we all?” J.D. sighed. “I just don’t know what to do about the girl anymore. She’s going to get herself killed if she keeps on like this. Those pictures! She was partially attached to that other girl, and I’m betting she was drunk. I’m just surprised she wasn’t arrested.”
“You know how it is,” Pam frowned. “But I agree. Something has to be done, and well, you see, I have an idea,” she said as she leaned forward slightly in her chair. “But I don’t know if Dakota will go for it.”
“We’re at the point where we are desperate. Let’s hear it,” J.D. relented.
“I have a niece. Her name is Morgan Fox, and she’s recently been discharged from the Army.” Pam paused as J.D. raised an interested eyebrow. “She was injured last year—lost her leg. Went through some pretty grueling therapy, and now, well, she’s going through a hard time.”
“I remember you saying something about her, and I’m glad she’s doing better, but how does that help Dakota?” J.D. prompted.
“Morgan needs someone, so does Dakota… and well, they both share similar preferences.”
“You’re trying to fix Dakota up with your gay niece?” J.D. asked, somewhat surprised at her gall.
“Not in so many words,” Pam smiled. “I was thinking, with Morgan’s background… and the fact that she needs a job. What if you were to hire her as a sort of bodyguard or handler to help Dakota keep, ah, focused.”
“What exactly are you proposing?” J.D. leaned closer to Pam, resting his elbows on his desk.
“Dakota needs someone who she isn’t going to scare off easily. She needs someone who won’t put up with any bull and isn’t afraid to put her in her place. My niece is disciplined, even has a little bit of an edge to her. She can be quite intimidating when she needs to be. But she’s struggling too. Her life was the Army. Without that…well, I’m worried about her. I believe if we angled it as a security position, she’d find some purpose in that. You and I both know that Dakota needs someone with her all the time, not just while on set, and I know that Morgan would be quite capable of keeping Dakota out of trouble.”
“So this would be private security for Dakota. Why should the studio pay for that?” J.D. challenged.
“Dakota is the show. Without her, we’d all be out of a job. I think that the studio would be happy to protect their investment, especially if it means we can start shooting again,” Pam explained. “Plus, if she’s working for the studio, Dakota can’t fire her without your approval.”
“Well, you’re right about one thing, I don’t think Dakota will go for it, but I think it’s still worth a shot. You sure your niece knows what she’s getting into?” Pausing and getting a definite nod from Pam, he continued, “Fine, let’s get everyone together. How soon can your niece be here?”
“Morgan,” Pam smiled. “She’s in your outer office.”
“Well then, bring her in. You’re a sneaky one, Pam.”
* * *
J.D. watched as Dakota and Morgan stared each other down. He, Pam, Dakota, and Morgan had all sat down in his conference room for a meeting of the minds. The idea had just been pitched to Dakota, and they were all waiting to see her reaction to it.
As Dakota stewed, J.D. turned his attention to Morgan. She was tall, and like her aunt, very attractive, but that is where the similarities ended. She had shoulder length, dark brown hair, which on both occasions that he’d seen her had been pulled back in a simple ponytail. Her jaw was squared off, but still very feminine, giving her an allusion of authority. He could see how she would have made a good solider. Her most striking feature, however, was her eyes—deep blue, like the sky at dawn, or the bottom of a crystal-clear lake. Those eyes alone made her stand out, and if she wasn’t twenty years his junior, he would have mourned the fact that he knew he didn’t have a chance with her.
“No,” Dakota shook her head. “I have my own security people. I don’t need anymore.”
“You have Phillip. He’s your driver, not security. Whenever you need true security, we need to hire someone, because you can’t keep any on staff,” he scolded and gave her a hard look.
“And, I don’t think you understand,” J.D. further argued. “This is beyond basic security. Morgan will not be guarding you from the pubic as much as from yourself. Not two days ago you made headlines again. Really, Dakota, you’ve already had your license suspended. You know you’re too young to be out drinking and partying. I’m quite serious about this. If this behavior doesn’t stop, we won’t be able to continue Counting on Candice. The studio will cancel the show.”
Dakota snorted. “We have huge ratings.”
“Which have dropped over the last few months. People don’t want an out of control teen as a role model for their children,” J.D. continued to argue. “Morgan Fox will be your new bodyguard. You will listen to her, and you will allow her to accompany you everywhere you go. And I don’t mean just here at the studio.”
Dakota huffed. “She’s not moving in with me.”
“You have more than enough room in that house of yours, Dakota,” Pam coaxed. “It might be nice not to be so lonely.”
“I’m not lonely. I just like my space,” Dakota returned. “I’m saying no.”
“Then let me put this to you another way. Until you accept these terms, we will not resume shooting,” J.D. pressed.
Dakota’s face hardened as she looked at the woman sitting across the conference table from her. Morgan hadn’t said much, letting J.D. or Pam do most of the talking, and J.D. was surprised she hadn’t been more vocal about it. Perhaps there was something to this idea or perhaps to Morgan that gave Dakota room to pause. Morgan was certainly attractive; surely if nothing else, Dakota would appreciate that.
“Fine,” Dakota finally folded, bringing J.D. from his thoughts. “Since you’re not giving me a choice. When do we start shooting again?”
* * *
Morgan watched Dakota shift in the backseat of her car. The teen star was making a show out of looking out her window and pointedly ignoring any attempt at contact. Dakota’s driver was currently taking them back to Dakota’s house in the Hollywood Hills, and Morgan was wondering if she’d made the right decision.
When her aunt had pitched the idea, she had honestly thought she’d lost her mind. She was a one-legged Army vet—what good could she do working a security detail? Of course, few people actually knew that little fact about her. She still walked with a tiny limp, but the artificial leg made her at least appear normal. It had taken months of physical therapy, but eventually she’d learned how to re-walk and balance. She didn’t even need the cane anymore.
Dakota, though, that was another matter altogether. Aunt Pam had warned her about the tantrums and the outbursts, and quite frankly, the assignment sounded more like glorified babysitting then actual security work. Still, Dakota was a celebrity of some note. Even young fans could be dangerous, and there was always that sicko out there she’d need to keep an eye out for.
Dakota was cute. She was small, barely topping five feet and probably only weighed a hundred pounds when she was soaking wet. The daintiness lent nicely to playing a young teenager on television, but it could also make things harder. Morgan could easily see the petite teen getting caught up in a mob and could imagine a sicko becoming obsessed with her girlish looks.
In many ways, Dakota looked years younger than she was. She had an adorable little button nose that wrinkled when she was thinking and hazel eyes that seem to spark with just a hint of mischief. Those eyes, alone, spoke of trouble. Between her looks, the descriptions of what her aunt had told her, and what she’d read on the internet, Morgan was prepared for all hell to break loose at any moment. She was just a little perplexed about Dakota’s silence. But then, maybe Dakota was just waiting for them to get to her house before showing her true colors.
Despite her worries about Dakota and her behavior, Morgan felt better then she had in a long time. It had all started a year ago, last January, when she’d been assisting in an investigation after a truck bomb had destroyed a large home in Afghanistan. What they hadn’t realized was that the bomb had been a rouse for a larger attack. She’d gotten hit in the shin with a sniper bullet, and although the wound itself wasn’t devastating, the subsequent infection had been. She’d lost her left leg from just below the knee a week later. After that happened, she’d also lost her purpose. Without her leg, she could no longer serve. At least this job was giving her back that—or a small part of that. If nothing else, it was something to do other than sit on her parents’ sofa and feel sorry for herself.
Brushing aside the thoughts of her past, Morgan again turned her attention back to her charge. There had been two talks about Dakota; one with her present and one without. Dakota had been told that Morgan would be accompanying her everywhere and at all times. Morgan would have the final say in the appropriateness (i.e. bars or over 21 clubs) of the places that Dakota wanted to go and if it was physically safe for her to visit them. It was also explained that Morgan’s duties included watching Dakota’s behavior in public (on and off the set). If a tantrum were coming on, it was part of Morgan’s job to remove Dakota from the situation, physically if needed.
The conversation without Dakota had taken a more serious note. Morgan’s aunt and her producer were both very concerned about Dakota and her mental wellbeing. They wanted Morgan to be more than a bodyguard and also try to befriend her. Dakota had a way of pushing people away, and Morgan was warned she would be difficult. The attitude, however, didn’t bother Morgan. She could go toe-to-toe with the most stubborn of them. The harder part was the friendship. That was the part that Morgan feared the most. She didn’t make friends easily, especially with people she had nothing in common with.
“God, finally,” Dakota mumbled as her driver pulled up to a rather large gated house, and Morgan’s eyes widened in surprise when she saw the sheer size of it. It had two stories and a massive grand entrance at the end of the circle drive. Greek columns outlined both sides of the entrance, giving it the look of an old plantation, or something akin to the White House. It was immaculate on the outside, and Morgan wondered if the inside matched.
Getting out of the car, Morgan retrieved her duffle from the trunk before following Dakota indoors. She wasn’t disappointed. Even though Dakota continued to ignore her, the inside of the house was rather lovely. It was obviously professionally decorated, mostly in soft, neutral colors, but at the same time still held a homey comfort to it. There was a formal sitting room that looked like it had never been touched, but as Morgan followed Dakota, she found a much more inviting living room that was plush and comfortable. She could easily see Dakota plopped down on the microsuede sofa in front of the large, flat screen TV, enjoying a bowl of cereal or popcorn.
“I hope that’s root beer,” Morgan challenged as Dakota opened the fridge in the adjoining kitchen and pulled out a brown bottle.
Dakota merely rolled her eyes. “You want one?”
“No. You’re not having one either. You’re not old enough to drink,” Morgan challenged, watching and then surprised as Dakota frowned but returned the bottle to the fridge. “Now, I’d appreciate it if you’d show me to my room.”
Dakota rolled her eyes again and proceeded down a side hallway that Morgan hadn’t noticed before. There was a den-like office on one side and a small bedroom on the other.
“You can stay in here,” Dakota shrugged.
“Where is your room?”
“Hey, this is my house…”
“Show me,” Morgan pressed, narrowing her eyes for effect.
“Geezzze,” Dakota groaned. “Would it hurt you to say please just once in your life? Hey! Where are you going?” she then called after a quickly retreating Morgan. Morgan didn’t pay her any attention, only pausing to take the stairs a little more slowly. “You can’t just barge in here like this,” Dakota further scolded as she caught up to her. “And my room’s over here.”
Morgan nodded and followed, pausing at the threshold, but then making herself at home by crossing it. She did a quick inspection of the room, not missing the pile of stuffed animals on the large four-poster bed or the bubblegum-pink paint on the walls. It felt more like a ten-year-old’s bedroom then that of a young adult. The room was tidy, but then Dakota probably had a housekeeper. Giving another nod to Dakota, Morgan explored the rest of the second story. There was a game room on the far end with another sofa, TV, pool table, and various video game systems. There were also four other bedrooms.
Realizing that none of them had permanent occupants, she picked the one between Dakota’s room and the stairs and claimed it as her own by tossing her duffle on the bed. It was a good size, decorated tastefully in soft blues and tans, and was the only one besides Dakota’s that had its own bathroom. It would do, for now.
“I don’t want you up here, you can have the room downstairs,” Dakota protested when she realized what Morgan was doing.
“I don’t think so. If I’m going to keep an eye on you, I’m not going to be on the other side of the house,” Morgan explained. Getting a small pout from Dakota, she held in her chuckle. “Now, how about we dump out that beer? You don’t have any drugs stashed anywhere do you?”
“What? Of course not!” Dakota protested.
“Good, because if you do, this is your only chance to fess up. I don’t like liars.”
Dakota shook her head before storming out of Morgan’s room and into her own, letting a healthy slam of her door announce her displeasure.
Morgan let a smile slip before shaking her head. The kid had spunk; that was for sure. She just hoped Dakota was telling the truth about the drugs. A beer here and there was one thing; if she’d gotten into harder stuff though, that could change this whole arrangement.
* * *
It was just over two hours later when Morgan again saw Dakota. Morgan had done a little more exploring before returning to the kitchen and dumping the beer down the drain. There had only been three bottles, and that made Morgan feel a little better. She hadn’t found anything else worth questioning. Like most teens, most of the food Morgan had found has been snack-like, or boxed, or premade. Not that Morgan was big on cooking, but she had to wonder what Dakota’s day-to-day diet was like.
“What are you doing?” Dakota asked in an accusatory tone.
“Cooking,” Morgan replied. “I assume you like pot pies, since there are like ten of them in the freezer. I put a turkey and a beef one in the oven. Should be done in about ten minutes. I was just looking for some fruit or something for a side dish.”
Dakota wrinkled her nose. “I think I have some jello with fruit in it in the fridge.”
“That’s not fruit,” Morgan returned. “And it expired three months ago. I threw it away. You’re not big on eating at home are you?”
Dakota shrugged. “Silly to cook for one person.”
“Well, now there are two of us,” Morgan supplied. “Why don’t we have a seat. I think we need to go over some ground rules.”
“What do you mean? We already did that at J.D.’s office.”
“Yeah, but I meant between you and me,” Morgan explained, indicting the kitchen table with a wave of her hand. Waiting until Dakota took a seat, she sat down before continuing. “I don’t want this to be odd or uncomfortable. I know it’s bizarre to have a stranger in your house, but I’m also hoping that we can be friends. I’m here to help you, Dakota. You understand that, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Dakota responded, shifting a little out of what seemed like nervousness. “I’m just used to my privacy.”
“I understand that, and I don’t want to intrude. I just want you to be safe,” Morgan reassured her. “Still, I need you to know that I’m going to enforce what we talked about at the office. I take my job very seriously, and I won’t let you hurt yourself or someone else because you choose to make a bad decision.
“So that being said, the rules are simple, Dakota. First, at least until you’re 21, no alcohol. Secondly, if you leave this house, I go with you, no exceptions. Third, you’re not the only one that appreciates privacy. I expect that you knock and wait for permission before you enter my room. And fourth, and finally, I won’t tolerate any type of drugs.”
“Is that all?” Dakota, asked, the challenge clear in her tone.
“For now,” Morgan returned evenly, refusing to rise to the bait. “We may alter those later, but for now, I think that’ll do.” Hearing the oven timer ding, Morgan stood and returned to the kitchen, pulling the pot pies from the oven. “You want the turkey or beef?” she prompted.
“I’m not hungry,” Dakota answered. “I was planning on grabbing something when I was out tonight.”
“I wasn’t aware of any plans to go out. Where are you going?”
“Just out,” Dakota said.
“With who, and how are you planning on getting there? You told your driver you were home for the night.”
“So I changed my mind.” Dakota shrugged.
“How are you planning on going out with no driver?” Morgan pressed.
“It’s not like I don’t have a car. I have three of them, in fact. Plus, I have friends, and they have cars,” Dakota snapped.
Morgan studied Dakota for a long moment. “Unless you have specific plans and can tell me ahead of time where we’ll be going, when, and what the purpose is, you’re not going out.”
“You’re not my mother, you know. You can’t keep me hostage here.”
“My purpose is not to mother you, Dakota, but if you insist on acting like a child, I’m afraid I’ll have to insist on treating you like one. So, if you give me specifics, I’ll be glad to accompany you out tonight. If not, I’d be glad for the company with dinner,” Morgan explained, putting one of the pot pies on a plate and setting it in front of Dakota.
Dakota looked down at her plate before pushing it away. Pushing herself away from the table as well, she left. Morgan’s only clue to where she’d gone was the healthy slamming of her bedroom door. Shaking her head and realizing this is what her aunt was referring to with the tantrums, Morgan wondered how long it would be before she saw the real Dakota make an appearance.
* * *
It was a little after ten, and Morgan was in her room, lying on the bed, but had left her door open. To the casual observer she would have appeared to be asleep, but Morgan never was a heavy sleeper. She was instead again contemplating her current situation when she felt someone watching her.
Turning slightly and realizing that the observer was Dakota, Morgan also realized that Dakota was acting a little too suspiciously. She gave the girl a moment, but when she moved toward the stairs and not back toward her bedroom, Morgan was curious.
Slipping out of bed, she quickly reattached her false leg before using her years of training to follow as silently as a shadow. She was hoping that Dakota was only going for a snack, but seeing the girl fully dressed made her heart sink. Seeing Dakota rummage through the counter drawer near the garage only made it worse.
She waited until Dakota actually had a set of keys in her hand before stepping out of the shadow. “Going somewhere?”
Dakota physically jumped before putting a hand over her heart. “Morgan! You scared me. I thought you were asleep.”
“Obviously. Where’re you going?”
“Um, nowhere. I was just going to get something out of my car.”
“Oh, what?” Morgan pressed, casually leaning against the counter.
“My jacket. I think I left it in my BMW.”
“Then why do you have keys for a Ford in your hand?”
Dakota looked down at her hand and blushed. “Oops, I must have picked up the wrong ones.”
“Didn’t I tell you earlier that I don’t like liars?”
Dakota’s blush only deepened. “I um—”
“Yeah,” Morgan interrupted, holding out her hand for the keys. Taking them, she set them down on the counter before giving Dakota a good glare. “I’m disappointed, Dakota. We haven’t even spent one day together and you’re already trying to pull a fast one on me. I want you to go back to your room and get ready for bed. I’ll be up in a few minutes to make sure the lights get out alright.”
“You can’t send me to bed,” Dakota protested.
“I believe I just did,” Morgan challenged, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m not tired,” Dakota pressed, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Don’t care. You’re still going to bed. March.”
Maybe it was the tone, or maybe it was the word ‘no’. Either way, Morgan had enough. Not really thinking or caring about the potential fallout, she grabbed Dakota’s arm and twisted her around. Not giving either of them a chance to react, Morgan then proceeded to swat Dakota exactly three times.
Gaping and pulling away from Morgan, Dakota threw both of her hands to her backside. “I can’t believe you just spanked me.”
“That wasn’t a spanking—that was a warning. Unless you want a real spanking, I want you in pajamas and in bed in ten minutes.”
“But—” Dakota protested, gulping as Morgan took a meaningful step toward her. “Goodnight,” she quipped, quickly slipping past Morgan and making a break for her bedroom.
Morgan watched her go and then remembered to tell herself to breathe. Listening carefully and surprised not to hear Dakota’s door slam, she let out another long breath. Never had she met anyone quite as frustrating as Dakota. There was something about her though—that open defiance, that childlike innocence, that spirit—that was fascinating. Blinking in surprise, Morgan realized the thought made this assignment somehow feel exciting. She wanted to see more of that feisty spirit. She wanted to get to know the real Dakota, and for some strange reason, that idea suddenly became very important to her.
The very thought was baffling. Why would someone that she’d only known for less than a day make her feel that way? She was confused and surprisingly also incredibly turned on. She wasn’t sure what it was about Dakota, but as soon as she made sure the girl was in bed, she was going to have to take a long, cold shower.
* * *
Meanwhile Dakota had safely made it to her bedroom. Once behind her closed door, her hand again went to her backside. It was still tingling, and for some reason, that sensation was both fascinating and confusing at the same time.
She was ticked. She was upset that Morgan had stopped her from leaving, but seeing this side of Morgan made her wonder. Would the stranger actually spank her? Or was this just one of those things? Ever since she was a child, she’d been fascinated about being spanked, but her parents didn’t believe in it, and she’d always been too shy or intoxicated to bring it up with the occasional bedmate. They never really lasted more than a night, so it was pointless to get more involved anyway.
She had to admit though, she was attracted to Morgan. Who wouldn’t be? She was gorgeous. Those eyes alone—she could melt into them if Morgan let her. With a sigh, she finally pushed away from the door and started to get ready for bed. Dakota half-considered not following directions and challenging Morgan for a second time, but then she thought better of it. She needed to know more about Morgan before she pushed her too far, and besides, once safely under the covers, she could explore her fantasy a little deeper. After all, Morgan only told her to go to bed. She didn’t dictate what she could do when she got there.