Authors: Amy Leigh Simpson
Then again, Charlie was murdered. Perhaps nowhere was particularly safe.
Who lurks around on a dark walkway? None of the profiles she conjured up seemed promising. Should she turn and face the person head-on or run as fast as the stupid heels would carry her?
Her skin prickled as the presence closed in, her search in the cluttered purse proving useless. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
She acted as quickly as her panicked mind would allow.
In one swift movement, she shuffled backward, sending a karate-style kick as hard as she could into the dark.
From the sound that escaped the man, she’d kicked him in the stomach—knocking the wind out of him—before he fell back onto the ground. Hard.
Hyped up on adrenaline, and more than likely delusional, she spun around with her fists raised, ready to take on her assailant.
“All right you sick creep. If you get your jollies off by preying on vulnerable women in the dark you picked the wrong one. Better scram before I show you just how good my aim can be.”
fter spending the majority of the day helping out with Sal’s case, Archer decided to stop over at Charlie’s to gather the last of the journals before heading home. In his haste to leave yesterday after Sadie’s date showed up, he’d forgotten to grab the remaining boxes to take to the team at the office. He’d been off his game ever since.
Hauling the boxes to his car took several trips and it was really getting dark. Thank God he only had one more load because he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face anymore. He stopped in his tracks.
Sorry God, didn’t mean to bother you.
Out of nowhere something barreled into his stomach and sent him flying backwards onto the rocky concrete. Archer reached for his gun as his eyes adjusted enough to discern the shadowy figure of a woman.
“Sadie?” He croaked out, struggling to draw in a lungful of air.
“Agent Hayes? Are you kidding me?” The sound of her breathless pant mingled with the distant chorus of cicadas.
“Sweet Lord, what did you hit me with?” Archer winced as he grabbed his stomach.
“My foot.” Her voice wobbled, her fear as palpable as the pain throbbing in his gut. “You know, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people in the dark. You about scared me to death.” Her voice grew closer. “Here, night stalker, this time take my hand.”
He groped the darkness for her hand, her grip strong for the fragile bones engulfed in his palm. The warmth of her touch winged up his arm with an odd little tingle. When her fingers slipped away the sensation subsided. Fluke.
“Owww …” He grunted. “I didn’t even know I was sneaking because I didn’t see or hear you. What are you, some kind of ninja?” He couldn’t see her face but he heard her soft chuckle, oddly mesmerized by the sweet sound. “I’ll have you know, no one’s gotten the drop on me in five years. Let alone threatened to kick me in the, um …” He couldn’t quite think of a tactful way to phrase it.
“Where the sun don’t shine?” She laughed outright this time. “I’m so sorry. Come in for a minute, I’ll see if I can fix you up.”
By the light of her phone, Archer followed her inside, thinking back to the last time he was here. “I’m sensing a rather disturbing pattern here.”
“What do you mean?” She turned to face him and propped her hands on her hips.
He strode into her airspace, felt that stupid grin hold his mouth hostage. “Well, the first time you invited me in you had just verbally assaulted me. Now, you’ve physically assaulted me. See what I mean?”
Sadie’s lip twitched just before she bit the smooth fullness between her teeth. The urge was almost suffocating, but he managed to not pull her closer and take a bite himself.
“I’m pleading the fifth.” She turned away and headed down a short hallway, a tantalizing swing in her curvy little hips hugged to perfection in snug jeans. “Let me just grab my first aid kit, and we’ll fix up those scrapes.”
Archer closed his eyes and shook his head, something had corrupted his brain. Or more accurately, someone. Bending his arms to inspect his palms and elbows was a good excuse to reboot. Huh. Look at that. He was bleeding. A sizeable gash on each forearm near his elbows and several scrapes on each hand from attempting to break his fall on the loose rocks lining the walkway.
Sadie materialized with supplies. “Lemme see.” She reached out, speaking softly as if asking a child to see a boo-boo.
When he raised his arms she examined the cuts with clinical efficiency, unfazed by the bloody mess.
Not a normal reaction. Another seed of suspicion planted in his gut.
She’s a nurse, smart guy. Accustomed to dealing with blood.
… And needles.
“You have some gravel stuck in there. Come over to the sink, and we’ll clean you up first.”
He rinsed the cuts in the cool water and for the first time felt the sting of the deep gash in his left arm. Ushering him over to the kitchen table, she propped up his arms and got to work. Her small, soft hands were warm and gentle on his arm while she plucked out the small rocks with tweezers.
She had a glow about her tonight. It was more than just her appearance. He suspected any man with a pulse would find her attractive. This was different. It was like she was totally in her element.
“Does it hurt?” She avoided his stare and moved on to the other arm.
“I think my pride is hurt more than anything. Where did you learn that?”
“Two older brothers and Tae Kwon Do in the fourth grade.” When she glanced up, their eyes tangled. She licked her lips. He’d noticed she did that when she was nervous, but the unconscious gesture was not good for his sanity. Frankly, it was a relief when she looked away because he suddenly felt like a man on the edge. Of what he wasn’t sure, but he was sure he didn’t need to find out.
Grabbing some Betadine, ointment, and bandages she got to work dressing the wound. His skin sizzled as her fingers grazed his wrist, her hand cupping his palm. When she reached for another bandage he put his arms down. “I think that’ll be fine. I’m gonna have to hide this one as it is. If anyone ever got wind of this, my reputation would be ruined.” Archer tilted his head and slipped her a sly grin, striving to tear through the tension strung between them. “You pack quite a mean kick for such a little thing.”
She smiled this time. “I can’t believe I actually stayed to fight you. I mean, who would have thought given fight-or-flight that I would choose fight? I’m a runner. What was I thinking?” A small self-deprecating laugh stumbled from her lips. “I’m sorry I kicked you, but I’m glad it was you and not someone who might have retaliated. I don’t know what I would have done.” The memory drained the sparkle from her eyes.
It was an uncharacteristic display of vulnerability from the little firecracker. Providing comfort was a part of his job he didn’t much care for. A touch on the arm or the shoulder could help put a witness or a loved one at ease, spur them to divulge more information. There were all kinds of small manipulations that could aid in drawing out the desired response. But in this moment, Archer found himself wanting to comfort her for very different reasons.
He’d always been known for his ability to compartmentalize, for a case, in combat, but with Sadie he was at a loss. Somehow a woman he barely knew had this profound power over his mind, his emotions. He’d have to guard himself because if that power crossed over to his actions, he’d be in big trouble.
Realizing he’d let the silence stretch on too long, he was about to thank her and generate an excuse to leave when she asked, “So, anything new surface about Charlie?” She focused her attention on cleaning up.
He was preparing to answer when his sights snagged on a pizza box on the counter behind her.
Her date last night. Motorcycle boy.
Unjustified frustration snaked through him. Who was he? How late had he stayed?
all night? The questions seemed endless, and his mind conjured up all sorts of unpleasant scenarios.
When he still didn’t respond she shot a glance over her shoulder. “Have you ever had JJ Twig’s double decker pizza?” She made another quick exchange between him and the pizza box. “I have some leftover in the fridge … if you’re hungry.”
“Sorry.” He shook his head. “I think I must have spaced out for a minute.”
Faint lines pinched her forehead in an adorable frown. And then she stood and leaned around him. “I didn’t even check. Did you hit your head when you fell?”
Oranges and lemongrass danced between them as she skimmed her hand down his hair. Archer closed his eyes and breathed her in—the shiver of her touch awakening every dormant nerve ending in his body.
. He needed this case to be over. But more urgently, he needed to get out of here. Now.
Inspecting her hand for blood, she seemed unaware of his turmoil. Why would she think anything of it, it was perfectly innocent. He’d had more intense contact petting a golden retriever, so why would such a simple, whispered touch affect him at all?
When she sat back down and looked in his eyes her face flamed, her pulse throbbing against the slender column of her throat.
Not so unaware after all.
He found his voice, a coarse and husky sound he barely recognized. “It’s late, I should go.”
The magnetic pull of her eyes never left him as she bobbed her head in agreement. “That’s probably best.”
Standing abruptly, he beelined for the door. The sooner he left the better. But then he turned and saw she’d followed to show him out. “Well, first you inflict the pain and then you fix me up, so I’m not sure whether I should thank you or—”
“Goodnight will work just fine, Agent Hayes.” Her face softened but her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Archer pressed his lips together and nodded. “Goodnight, Sadie.”
If he had his way, it would be the last thing he ever said to her.
“Hey Sarge, where’re we headed?” Private James Gallagher, Archer’s favorite “newbie” with the Rangers was always anxious for the next mission.
“Still waiting for the ‘go ahead’ to move, Jimmy.”
After waiting several hours for orders Jimmy was getting antsy. The kid had a thing for pacing, and it made even the calmest person start to tweak.
Archer shook his head and huffed out a chuckle. “Jimmy, if you don’t settle down, I will restrain you, if necessary. You’re driving me crazy. How on earth does that young wife of yours put up with your ADD? And who would think someone as stir-crazy as you would have the makings for such a talented sniper? I’m surprised you can keep your hands still long enough on your rifle to locate the target, let alone pull the trigger.”
“The good Lord blessed me with uncanny skills, I’ll admit it.” Quickly changing the subject—not unusual for Jimmy—he said, “Hey, I don’t mean to pry, but I saw a Bible with your stuff.” A question hung in his statement. Faith dried up and blew away on the desert wind in times of war. Archer had seen it happen time and again. His faith was no exception.
Archer schooled his reaction behind a stoic mask—one he was utilizing far too often as of late. “My mom gave me that Bible before I left for basic, years ago. Said it’d keep me close to God and He’d keep me safe.”
“Amen, Sarge, I didn’t realize. Haven’t met anyone else who so much as believes God exists out here.”
Jimmy’s smile was so enthusiastic Archer hated to let him down, but his faith had withered away bit by bit with every friend he lost in this violent war that he’d purposefully stopped making any. He’d even tried to keep Jimmy at arm’s length, but the kid was just so eager and friendly, Archer’d had a hard time continuing to shut him out, and gradually their friendship grew.
He wasn’t surprised to learn this about Jimmy, now that he thought about it. The kid was downright joyful—the kind of joy Archer used to feel before the cold reality robbed him of his innocence. It had been years since he’d felt that way and even now, as hard as he tried to fight it, he still felt a small measure of faith hidden deep down. Perhaps only a single drop and yet it nourished his parched soul here in this hopelessly barren desert.
“Actually Jimmy, God and I don’t really talk much anymore. But I suppose when we get back to camp we could talk, er—ah, pray or something.” At first getting the words out was like packing an open wound with sand, but as soon as they emerged into the torrid air, he felt ... lighter.
“That would be great, Sarge.” Jimmy smiled, and the arid places of Archer’s hard heart refreshed, hopeful for a drink of grace to quench his broken life.
Archer was still crouched down behind a small embankment. “All right Preach, sit your ass down here. You’re practically out in the—”
A blinding flash of fire exploded sending Jimmy hurtling over Archer’s head. Archer’s instincts yanked him down behind the embankment. Just as instantly, he was grappling to get to Jimmy as another explosion and crash of fire and searing heat, imprisoned Archer behind the protective wall.
“Jimmy!” The ragged desperation of Archer’s screams continued until his voice gave out. Debris and fire fell like rain, pelting him as he attempted to claw his way out of the deepening hole. “Jimmy!” Tears coursed down Archer’s scorched and blistered face. Finding solid ground, he dug out and crawled to Jimmy.
“GOD!” he raged as he held what was left of Jimmy’s lifeless body, ripping away his last shred of hope to be discarded among the dead.
A blinding pain pierced Archer’s skull. Trembling hands touched a small shard of shrapnel jutting from his left brow bone. With untamed fury Archer yanked it from his face. Thick, crimson blood poured into his eye. A river of blood and tears pooling beneath him like a baptism of death.
“Never again.” Archer vowed to himself between sobs. “Never again.”
At the sound of his phone ringing Archer bolted upright in bed, breathing heavy, bathed in sweat. It had been years since he’d dreamt about Jimmy, though he was never far from Archer’s mind. Orienting himself, the explosive haze faded away and he was alone in his bed, sunlight peeking through the shades and exposing the bare bones of his sparse existence. Snatching his phone from the nightstand he answered, trying to downplay his breathlessness. “Hayes.”