Two weeks until the release of Guarding Sierra!
Blake strode into the Soldiering On offices at nine o’clock on Monday morning. Well, strode was a bit of a stretch, given the awkward pinch in his shoulder every time he moved. But it was a brisk walk, at the least, even with the awkward angle with which he held his arm.
Technically, he wasn’t due back to work for another three weeks, but he could have happily returned the day after a bullet ripped a hole in his shoulder. He’d been patient long enough and if Duncan, his boss, didn’t like it, then Blake would just camp out at his desk until he was given an assignment. Duncan was known for his stubbornness, but Blake was pretty sure he could win that one.
His shoulder did ache a little. But if he told Duncan that, he’d be sent home to while away the hours staring at the ceiling of his lounge room. He’d go insane if he had to endure another day of that.
He debated just sitting at his desk—well, the desk he usually sat at in the brief periods between assignments—and staking his claim, but realised it would go better in the long run if he confronted Duncan head on.
He pushed open the door to his boss’ office. One of his two bosses, really. But he didn’t deal with Mandy much.
Duncan was already at his desk, bent over a sprawl of papers that he was squinting down at. The window at his back lit him almost as a silhouette, casting a shadow across the papers.
He was a big man, though his current slouch disguised just how big. Tall, broad, and with dark skin that he’d inherited from his African-American father, Duncan looked like a stereotypical military leader. Those that had served under him had said that his command style had been as solid and dependable as his looks. Blake had so far found no reason to disagree with this after working under the man for nearly a year.
Blake tapped on the door. Duncan slowly pulled himself out of whatever he was concentrating on and slid his gaze up. His eyes narrowed when he saw who it was.
“What the hell are you doing here? Get back to bed.”
“Is that an invitation?” Blake teased.
Duncan narrowed his eyes even further. “You’ve still got two weeks left before I want you anywhere near this place. And even then you’ll be assigned desk work, so don’t try it.” He pointed a warning finger at Blake, who summarily ignored the half-assed threat.
Blake stepped into the office and shut the door behind himself. The office was deeply functional, with dark wood and not a personal item to be seen. Thankfully, the effect was somewhat mitigated by the large window spanning an entire wall, high ceilings, and pale walls.
Blake slid himself into the chair opposite Duncan, careful not to just plonk himself down as the now ever-present tiredness crept upon him once again.
“Duncan, please,” he said, leaning forward. He wouldn’t beg, but he wouldn’t leave without an assignment, either. “I can’t go back to that apartment. The two weeks I’ve been trapped there since getting out of the hospital is more time than I’ve collectively spent in that place since I got it. I need something to do.”
Duncan’s eyes softened with pity. He knew more than anyone how much Blake hated to stay still. The ever-present restlessness that plagued him. His need to be outdoors and working his muscles into exhaustion.
“I can’t put you back out in the field. You’d be a danger to yourself and others. And if anything went wrong, it would reflect on Soldiering On. I hate to say it, but we are a fledgeling company. We can’t afford that.”
Blake sighed. He knew he was right, but he also needed something to do. “I don’t care if it’s some fluff work. Something that’s not worth giving to the other guys.” Besides, if he was given a job he suspected he couldn’t handle, then he would back out. He wasn’t going to put anyone else’s life in danger just because he didn’t know how to take a holiday.
“You’d take desk work?” Duncan asked disbelievingly.
Blake held up his hand to ward off his boss. “Let’s not go that far,” he muttered.
Duncan considered him, frowning. “Can’t you just take up a hobby?”
“I have a hobby. Rock climbing. I’ve just been… advised not to do that for a while.”
A knowing look settled on Duncan’s face. “And in that you listen to doctor’s orders?”
“Look, rock climbing is hard enough one-handed.” He held up his prosthetic to punctuate his point. “I don’t want to tempt fate by trying to go back to it when I’m not at full strength. But the work here isn’t quite that level of strenuous. So cut me some slack.”
“I’ve cut you plenty of slack.”
“Not on this.”
“This is your health we’re talking about.”
Blake ground his jaw. “There has to be something. You don’t have that many employees yet. Trained ones, anyway. And I know business has been picking up a little after we were on the news because of Christine’s thing.” He was referring to the events three weeks ago that had led to him being shot. But they had also led to his friend Paul finding a woman he really cared about, so Blake thought it all evened out. He was happy to get shot for a good cause.
Duncan considered him carefully. “You aren’t going to give up, are you?”
Blake forced a cheerful smile. “Nope. So you may as well concede now.”
“Get in front-leaning rest.”
Blake frowned. “What?”
“You heard me.”
Ah, a test. All right, Blake could deal with that.
He stood and shuffled into the middle of the empty floor space. Then, he lowered himself into the start position for push-ups; one-handed of course. Not to show off, but the prosthetic he was wearing wasn’t really built for comfortable push ups. And, more importantly, because his left shoulder hurt like a motherfucker with the strain already on it.
But he wasn’t going to let Duncan know that.
“Go on, then.”
Blake dropped once. Twice. “How many should I do?” He tried desperately not to pant. He wasn’t as fit as he should be.
“Twenty,” Duncan replied. He stood to watch the proceedings.
All right, then. Blake kept a steady pace. Not as fast as he normally would have done them, but he was sure that if Duncan noticed, he could forgive that slight lack.
By the time he got to fifteen, his arm was shaking. Still, he forced himself on. He’d go hard at the gym tonight to start getting his strength back. Bed rest hadn’t done him any favours.
He made it to twenty, then did five more just to prove he could.
“All right, that’s enough,” Duncan said. Thank God.
Blake slowly got to his feet, still careful with his shoulder. The two men looked at each other as Blake forced himself to breathe in a regular pattern.
Duncan sighed. Blake knew he’d won.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Mandy mention a friend called Sierra?”
The two men settled in their chairs once again.
“Yeah,” Blake replied. He’d always wondered about Sierra, and whether she was as pretty as her friend. Not that he’d ever say that to Mandy, or she’d bust his balls.
“Well, she received some roses last night.”
Blake blinked. “Roses?”
“Yes. This was apparently enough for her to want to hire a bodyguard.”
“She gave no other details?” When Blake had said that he would take any job—even the stupid ones—he’d meant that he’d be willing to take any of the jobs that Soldiering On typically took on. Not vanity projects for rich heiresses. Yeah, he knew that about Sierra, too.
Now he knew for sure that Duncan was giving him a soft job. He hadn’t proven himself to Duncan at all. If Sierra wanted a bodyguard to follow her around as a status symbol, she could get one from anywhere. Why them? They were a serious firm, not catering to celebrities and gossip column fodder.
“She said that she’s had a feeling that she’s being watched. Stalked, even.” Duncan clearly didn’t believe this at all.
Blake, however, wasn’t so sure. He’d had his intuition save him enough times in Iraq that he wasn’t willing to discount anyone else’s.
“How long for?”
“She says about a year.”
Blake scoffed. “And she’s only now hiring protection?”
Blake tried not to roll his eyes and failed.
“Look, this is the only job we have on the books. I wasn’t going to take it, but if you want it, it’s yours. It shouldn’t prove too dangerous, provided the threat is as real as I suspect. Which is, not at all.”
Blake looked into Duncan’s hard eyes and knew that this was his one shot at getting back out into the field anytime soon. He thought back to his empty, silent apartment.
There really wasn’t much of a choice.
“I’ll do it,” he muttered. But he didn’t have to be happy about it.
“Good. Don’t screw this up. You’re still recovering, and you like getting yourself into trouble at every opportunity, so be careful. Sierra is paying well for our services. She refused to take a friend’s discount from Mandy. If nothing else, it will be good publicity for us. So dress smart in case there are any photographers around, and throw our name around when you can. Maybe something good can come of this shit show.”
Blake sighed. Grabbing the folder that Duncan handed him from the top of the stack on the desk, Blake flicked it open. A picture of a joyous woman looked out at him, her arm around Mandy. Both women looked to be in the middle of a fit of laughter when they snapped the selfie together, heads pressed closed and noses scrunched up in amusement.
Mandy had obviously chosen the photo for the file. He liked that better than downloading it from social media as they often did. It was far more personal.
Sierra was a redhead. That, he hadn’t been expecting. In the photograph, her hair had been loose and flowing past her shoulders. He realised that Mandy, too, had her hair down, and wondered if he had even seen her like that before. He didn’t think so.
“She’s cute,” he murmured. Duncan gave him a severe look. “I know!” Blake replied, without having to be told. Hands off. He always was. He knew that the consequence would be an immediate firing if he wasn’t. Didn’t mean he couldn’t look, though.
“You can start as soon as you leave this office. Mandy said that she took the morning off work, which concerned her. Apparently Sierra is a bit of a workaholic. So you can meet her at her apartment. The address is in the file.”
Blake glanced at the address and whistled. Classy neighbourhood.
“Thanks, Duncan.” He stood, already mentally planning ahead now that he had a new mission.
He was halfway to the door when Duncan’s voice stopped him.
“And Blake?” He spun around, eyes settling on his boss’ stern features. “Like I said, don’t screw this up.”
He swallowed around the lump in his throat. His shoulder ached with the reminder that he wasn’t even close to his best, but Blake nodded with all the confidence he could muster.
He needed this. He wouldn’t screw it up. Couldn’t.
In a small way, his life—and his sanity—depended on it.