Guarding Sierra Chapter 2

Two weeks until the release of Guarding Sierra!

Soldiering On 2(4)

Catch up on Chapter 1 here

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?”

“Exactly.”

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.

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Guarding Sierra Free Excerpt

Soldiering On 2(4)

It’s only one month to the release of Guarding Sierra! I am so excited to share it with everyone.

Because patience isn’t my strong suit, here is an excerpt. Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1

The roses were the colour of blood.

That was Sierra’s first thought when she saw the bouquet sitting innocuously in the hallway in front of her apartment door. The splash of scarlet was particularly vibrant against the two-toned grey of the walls.

She wondered if he had intended that.

Blood roared in her ears as she took a hesitant step forward. She didn’t want to get close. The rich array of flowers might have been a hissing snake for all she cared. She didn’t want to touch them.

As she got closer, her heart pounding relentlessly in her chest, she noticed the dark curl at the edge of the petals. The roses had obviously been sitting out there for a few hours. She hoped that meant he wasn’t nearby.

Maybe they weren’t even from him.

Sierra considered this thought. She pulled out her phone, still eyeing the bouquet nervously, and texted Gary. The two had gone out on a few dates recently before deciding to end it amicably. They both knew there was no chemistry there.

Did you send me flowers? She asked him. Nausea swamped her. She wanted to flee, but knew that was ridiculous. If she couldn’t face a bunch of flowers, then what good was she? Her nerves had been too highly strung for the last year; ratcheted up as she vacillated between being sure she was being stalked, to being certain that it was all in her head. Her paranoia pushed her closer to the edge.

Gary texted back almost immediately. No. Should I have?

Tension tightened in her gut, tighter now. Sweat broke out on her neck.

No. Thanks. It was all she could manage.

She had to know.

In a sudden rush, Sierra stepped forward and crouched down near the flowers. Her breathing was too shallow. Dizziness teased the edges of her consciousness. She deliberately took a deep breath, and reached out to touch a petal.

The world didn’t end; the building didn’t come crashing down. She was still alive. They were just flowers, and she felt increasingly stupid about her fear.

No turning back now.

The dam had broken once she’d touched the rose, so Sierra searched the bouquet for any note or card that might have been left. Nothing.

A sharp prick lanced through her finger and she reared back. Blood welled from a small cut on the pad of her index finger, sliding over the paleness of her skin. She glanced at the bouquet, looking closer without touching.

All the roses still had their thorns.

She fell back, landing with a thump on her butt and scooting away to the opposite side of the wide hallway. Not far enough. If she stretched her stockinged legs out in front of her, her feet would knock the bouquet over.

Those roses hadn’t come from a commercial florist. If they had, they would have trimmed the thorns off. Either the florist who sent them was sloppy at their job, or her stalker had gone to a lot of trouble to acquire roses with the thorns still attached.

Horror slammed into her. This was the most forward her stalker had been. Until now, for an entire year, she’d been unsure that he existed. But now, surely, this was proof. She wasn’t going insane. He was real, and he was a threat. An escalating threat.

Behind the horror welled a deep pit of fury. How dare he? How dare he terrorise her like this, make her question her sanity.

In a fit of bravery, Sierra scooped up the bouquet and strode to the window at the end of the hall. She’d lost her heels somewhere in her shock, so she padded softly in her stockings, sinking into the thick, expensive carpet.

She reached the window and looked for a way to open it. Nothing. It was just a pane of glass in the wall, not an operational window. Damn it. She was sure it was supposed to be a security measure, but it was inconvenient in her current rage.

Coasting on her fury, Sierra jogged to the elevator. A few petals slipped from the buds, drifting to the floor to make a trail behind her. She ignored them. Someone would clean them up, but for now she just needed to get this evil symbol out of her domain.

By the time the elevator had reached the ground floor, Sierra was trembling. Not entirely from anger, either. Fear had crept back in. A lump had settled in her throat.

She carried the bouquet towards the spinning doors at the front of the lobby. A thought occurred to her, and she stopped in front of the security desk.

“Sid?” she greeted the middle-aged security guard. He glanced up, a frown marring his brow as he looked at her. She must look a fright compared to her usual impeccable appearance. She tried to smile reassuringly. “Were you on duty when these flowers were delivered?”

Sid shook his head slowly, not taking his eyes off her.

She tried again. “When did your shift start?”

“I started at midday. My shift’s nearly over now.” She glanced up at the clock ticking above his head, the sound loud in the quiet lobby. It was nearly nine p.m.

“You must have left this desk at some point during the day?”

He frowned at her. “Sure, but I’m allowed toilet breaks. It’s in my contract.” He sounded defensive, and Sierra felt immediately guilty. She hadn’t wanted to accuse him of anything.

“It’s okay. I just wanted to know who might have dropped these off. There’s no card.” She tried to look harmless. Instead, she felt like she was tipping over the edge into insanity.

“Oh.” He eyed her again. “Maybe they slipped in when I was in the john,” he conceded.

“Maybe,” she agreed, then turned away. She didn’t want to press the issue further.

She continued outside the building and strode over to the public bin on the sidewalk in front of the building next door. Her stockings were ruined, and her feet no doubt filthy, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

The thud of the pot hitting the bottom of the bin was the most satisfying sound she’d heard all day. The tension in her chest loosened just enough for her to breathe.

But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

She made her way back up to her apartment, shivering as she caught sight of the rose petals still littering the corridor.

She poured herself a large glass of white wine and drank it far faster than she normally would have. Particularly on an empty stomach. But she’d needed something to steady her nerves.

She needed help. She could admit that now. If he was escalating, then she could no longer pretend that he wasn’t real. Her instincts had been right all along.

Thankfully, she knew just the person to call.

 

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Station Alpha – Chapter 1

So, I might have mentioned I have a book coming out soon? This one?

Station Alpha Aislinn Kearns

Station Alpha

Well, as a special treat, I thought I would release a little sneak peak to you all! I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 1

A harsh rattle shattered the peace of the night.

Christine shoved the enticing tendrils of dreamless sleep aside. Her phone had awoken her, buzzing on the wooden nightstand; the sound only loud because everything else was silent. She squinted against the unwelcome glare as the flashing screen lit up the room.

Christine hesitated for just a moment, then reached to pick it up with a resigned sigh. She caught sight of the time as she swiped the screen. 2:02am.

This had better be good.

When Jimmy had interviewed Christine for her new job as personal assistant to his ageing father, he’d warned her that it might mean some all hours phone calls. But she’d thought it had been a polite ‘maybe once every few months you’ll get a call at 10pm’ warning, not a ‘in your second week you’ll be woken in the early hours of the morning’ warning.

“Christine speaking,” she answered, trying to sound less groggy than she felt.

“There is a team of men converging on your house right now,” came the unexpected reply from a low male voice. Unfamiliar, urgent. “You need to run.”

“What?” she asked, blinking in an effort to focus. A prank call? She checked the number and realised she didn’t recognise it.

There was a grunt on the other end of the line, sounding a lot like frustration. “There are about…fifteen guys or so in black combat gear outside your house, ready to storm it. You need to get out while you still can.”

“Listen here, buddy,” Christine began, anger stirring within her. What kind of creep was this guy? She sat up in the bed. It was hard to deliver a set down with righteous fury when you were prone in a warm bed.

The cold air in the room chilled her arms and shoulders, bared by her tank top. A shiver played across her skin as she drew a deep breath to begin her tirade. The new angle gave her a perfect view out of the bedroom window. Christine froze with the breath still in her lungs.

There was a flash of movement outside.

She couldn’t tell what it was, other than it was big. Human-sized. She lived on a large lot on the outskirts of the city. No person should be anywhere near her house. Not at this time of night.

And anyone that was there wouldn’t be paying a neighbourly call.

“Please tell me right now if you are messing with me,” she told the man on the line. Her throat was tight with dread; she could barely squeeze the words out.

“No,” he said, and Christine realised that he sounded deadly sincere.

“What do I do?” she asked as she threw back the covers. She didn’t waste time on fear, though her heart was hammering in her chest. She stuck to the practicalities—get safe.

Some instinctive part of her mind told her to stay low, keeping out of sight from whoever was outside. She crawled across the floor one-handed, gripping her phone to her ear like a lifeline. The worn carpet scraped against the exposed skin of her knees.

“They’re at the front and back door now,” the man on the phone told her. She stuck her feet into the running shoes she’d abandoned by the bedroom door the night before, not bothering to tie them. “They aren’t covering the storm door to the basement. You’ll have to get out that way.”

She nodded, forgetting he couldn’t see her.

The good news was that the storm door was right near where she’d parked her car. The bad news was that it was also near her front door—just metres away from where he’d said there were bad guys. At least, she had to assume they were bad guys. She couldn’t imagine why the good guys would attack her house in the middle of the night.

“But they’ll see me,” she told him, whispering.

“Yes, but you’ll have the element of surprise. You can probably get to your car before they start shooting.” His voice was matter of fact.

“Probably?” she asked, the phone still to her ear as she snatched her keys off of the hallway’s sideboard, grabbing her bag while she was at it. “Wait, shooting?” she continued as her brain caught up with her mouth.

His reply was sardonic. “They have guns. I have to assume they will use them.”

Christine reached the basement door. Of course they had guns. A thought occurred to her. How did her mysterious saviour know that they had guns, or where they were standing?

“How do you know where they are and what they have?” she asked, wrenching open the rarely-used basement door. It creaked, loud in the silent house. Christine froze for just a moment, listening hard. She’d half-expected a door to burst open, spilling evil men into her home. But nothing moved.

She trod down into the darkness. After a few steps, the weak light from the house could no longer penetrate the gloom. She slowed, even though the adrenaline gushing through her body urged her to run, to move. She wouldn’t do herself any favours by falling down the ancient stairs. The flaking wooden banister beneath her hand did little to steady her. A few pricks made Christine think it was giving her splinters, but she paid no attention. She had bigger things to worry about.

It would have helped if she could see, but she wasn’t stupid enough to turn on the light.

She reached the bottom of the staircase, and her eyes began adjusting to the gloom. Weak moonlight streamed through the small, grimy window. Lumps were haphazardly arranged around the space. If memory served, it was all long-forgotten detritus from her childhood.

“Well?” she demanded, not forgetting her earlier question as she picked her way forward. If he could see the people outside, could he see her, too? Perhaps her entire house was rigged with cameras. She swallowed past a nervous lump.

“Later. Let’s get you to safety first.”

“How can I trust that you aren’t leading me into danger?” she countered. The storm door was almost in reach. “You could be out there with these bad guys right now. Maybe you are leading me outside to my doom to save you the trouble of breaching my house. I could run straight into their arms.”

“Fine. I’m watching via a live satellite uplink. Happy now?” he growled.

“It’ll do,” she told him. “For now.” Christine had to believe he was on her side.

“Good. Be ready to make a run for it when I say go.”

Christine took a deep breath, creeping up the steps to the door. “Wait a moment, I need to unlock it.”

He made a sound of frustration—something that seemed to be a habit with him—but said nothing. Christine felt around in the dark until the rusty metal of the bolt grazed her palm. To her relief, it wasn’t padlocked. She had no idea where she would have kept the key if she’d needed one. It wasn’t good for her safety, but excellent news at this moment. She’d rectify that bad habit later.

She worked the bolt open, trying not to make too much noise. She was conscious of the men hovering on the other side, only a few steps away. After a steadying breath, she whispered the words, “All right.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone. Christine focused on keeping the air coming in and out of her lungs steady. She was tense, ready, her ears straining for any sound in the quiet night. She couldn’t hear the men out there, but it didn’t mean they weren’t waiting for her.

“Now!” the man yelled, and Christine threw open the doors and started running. She didn’t look around, even as she reached her car and tugged open the driver’s side door. Thank god for automatic keyless entry. The lights flashed, then flashed again. Her mind caught up as she slid into the driver’s seat. The violent report of sound penetrated the roaring in her ears. She realised those second flashes were gunfire.

She ducked as she started the car with a press of a button and slammed it into gear. Bullets pinged off the body of the car, but none shattered the windows. Not taking the time to wonder why, Christine rammed her foot hard on the accelerator and sped off. She spun the wheel, angling the car down her long driveway. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears, drowning out all other sounds as she raced down her driveway.

She flicked on her headlights to see the turn, and they bounced off dark cars lining the road. Big SUVs, every one of them. There had to be at least ten, maybe more. She spared a glance at the rearview mirror. The armed men, weighed down by an obscene amount of weapons, raced down the drive toward those cars.

She turned onto the road that ran outside her house and lost sight of them for a moment. She focused her eyes on the road ahead, determination filling her.

“Are you all right?” The gruff question sounded through the car’s speaker system and Christine jumped. She realised that her phone had automatically connected via Bluetooth. It had slipped out of her hand in the chaos, and she suspected it was somewhere in the foot well. “Were you hit?” he asked with more urgency when she didn’t immediately reply.

“No. No, I’m okay.” She thought she heard a sound of relief. “Are they following me?”

“Yes,” he said shortly.

Christine swallowed and pressed even harder on the accelerator.

“Just follow my directions, and you’ll be all right,” said her saviour. She frowned. She couldn’t keep calling him that.

“What’s your name?” she asked. The words came out thin and muted. Terror had stolen her voice.

He cleared his throat. “Paul,” he muttered. “Now turn right.”

She slid the car around the corner and immediately checked the rearview mirror for any pursuit. It took them just fifteen seconds to turn onto the same road. Not good.

“Where am I going?”

“Somewhere safe.” It was obvious he didn’t intend to tell her any more, at least for now. Still, she’d already put her life in his hands for the night. She’d trust him a little longer. “Turn left.”

She did, the steering wheel wobbling in her hands as she fought to gain control.

“Can you give a little more warning on these turns?” she asked, gritting her teeth.

“No. I don’t want you to telegraph the turns to your pursuers. Right.”

She spun the wheel, and found herself on a suburban street, more populated than her own. Her pursuers were still not far behind, and closer every second. The engine whined as she flattened the accelerator, but it made almost no difference to her speed. Her car was built to be environmentally friendly, not to win in a high-speed chase. She assumed that men who stormed houses must have cars built for speed.

“They’re gaining,” she ground out.

“Shit,” said Paul. Christine couldn’t agree more.

“What do I do?”

“Left!” he barked. She turned again, tires squealing. Her heart plummeted for a moment as she fishtailed along the road. The vehicle was out of her control for just a few seconds before she ruthlessly tamed it.

The brief error had cost her. A dark car, leading two others, was inches away from her bumper. Christine tried to pull away, but it was no use. The lead car gunned its engine and drew even with her for a split second. The tinted windows of the car prevented her from seeing inside. But the creeping sensation ghosting over her skin told her the driver was watching her. A shiver trickled down her spine.

The car jumped forward, overtaking her. It positioned itself just ahead of her, blocking her path.

She looked left. Another of the cars was parallel with hers, risking any oncoming traffic by driving in the wrong lane. A glance in the rearview mirror confirmed that the third car was behind her.

“There’s a right turn coming up,” said Paul’s soothing voice through the speaker.

Christine took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. Her hands tightened on the wheel.

“Turn!” She did, bumping over the kerb before pressing the accelerator to the floor.

The car that had been behind her managed to follow at the last minute, tires squealing. Within seconds, it closed in on her. She felt a slight tap against her bumper as it nudged her. The car rocked. Her heart leapt into her throat.

He had her. Whoever was driving that car could cause an accident without any danger to themselves. Christine was powerless against it.

But then, the car braked, backing off. It settled a car length behind her, seemingly content to follow her. The other two cars had caught up, but none made a move towards her.

“Left,” Paul said again. Christine followed his direction without comment, her back tires screeching.

“Why aren’t they gaining again?” she asked.

Paul grunted. “Looks like they’ve got new orders. They’ve probably been reminded their instructions are to capture—not kill—you. Which explains why they only fired at the body of the car.”

If it was at all possible, Christine’s heartbeat sped up even more. “Why?”

“Don’t know. We’ll discuss it later. You still need to lose them.” A brief pause. “Right.”

She spun the wheel, and wrenched her focus back to her driving. The defensive driving classes she’d taken a few years ago had not prepared her for this. It required her full attention. She couldn’t afford to have her mind wandering into speculations.

Five minutes later, Christine was in the centre of the city, dodging the few cars that found themselves on the road at this time of night. She glanced at the clock on her dashboard. 2:24am Christ. Not even half an hour had passed since her life had completely upended itself.

Her pursuers were falling behind a little now that there were more streets for her to wind through. Paul directed her with absolute precision. He gave her only as much time as she needed to make the turn, and no more.

“Left.”

The car skidded a little on a wet patch as she turned. She wasn’t sure what had caused it, as there hadn’t been any rain lately. She hit the kerb with her rear tire, bouncing before righting herself. The engine throbbed with strain.

“Shit,” she muttered, then felt an immediate hit of lapsed-Catholic guilt.

“You’re doing real well,” Paul said in an encouraging voice. Christine was oddly soothed.

The orange glow of the streetlights bathed her path. The whoosh of her tires on the road was the only sound she could hear.

She made a few more turns as Paul instructed, running a few red lights in the process. Christine was grateful that the late hour meant that she didn’t endanger anyone else.

“I think we’ve lost them,” Paul’s voice murmured. Christine glanced in the rear view mirror to see he was right. The black SUVs that had been glued to her trail had disappeared.

“Thank God,” she breathed, easing her foot off the accelerator.

“Don’t slow down too much,” Paul told her, still tense. “Keep to the speed limit. Don’t relax until you’re safe.”

Her racing heartbeat returned full force. Just for a moment, she’d felt the relief of safety. But he was right; it was an illusion.

She cruised the streets. Crossing the river, the bare neighbourhoods she’d left morphed into lush green suburbs. He was taking her east, skirting the edges of the Portsboro central business district, with its skyscrapers and high-rises. While during the day the city centre teemed with besuited workers, at this time of night it would only be populated by a few drunk stragglers.

As she drove, Christine checked every few seconds to make sure the cars weren’t following her. Paul still directed her, just with less urgency, giving her plenty of time to turn.

“I have so many questions,” she said into the darkness.

“Like I said. Later.”

“Are you directing me to where you are?”

He hesitated. “No.”

“Then where am I going?” Panic itched at her, leaking into her voice. Paul had saved her life. She felt attached to him. But going to an unknown location, alone? The thought made it difficult to breathe.

“A safe house that the company I work for owns.”

“What do you do for a living?” she asked, partially to sate her curiosity, and partially to distract herself.

“This and that. The company does all kinds of jobs. I do most of the surveillance.”

“Is that why you were watching me?”

He was silent for a moment, and Christine wished she could see his face. She sensed that he was debating how much to tell her. Or maybe deciding if he should lie to her.

“Sort of,” he replied.

“Well?” she demanded.

He directed her to pull up around the back of an apartment building up ahead. Christine complied, pulling into an empty space near the back of the lot, but didn’t make a move to exit the car. Trees hung over the surrounding fences, blocking out much of the moonlight. The car was dark, shadowed.

“Go inside,” he ordered.

“Not until you answer me,” she said, feeling bolder now that the immediate danger had passed.

He made one of those frustrated sounds again, almost a growl.

“I’ll tell you when you get inside.”

She shook her head, then wondered if he could see her. “No. I don’t know what I’m walking into. You need to give me something.”

He was silent for a long moment. She could hear his short breaths coming through the speakers.

“Fine,” he ground out. His displeasure was evident in the way the word sounded like it’d come through a clenched jaw. “Someone hired us to watch you, but not as protection. We were meant to ascertain whether you knew certain information. They thought you might be a corporate spy.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Your employer.”

“Mr. Disik?”

“His company.”

“I wasn’t aware he had one,” she whispered. She felt small compared to the vast swathe of information she didn’t know. “Why do they think I’m a spy? I never did anything. I’ve only worked there for two weeks.”

“He’s retired, though still listed on the board of directors. We were hired to watch you, see if you met with anyone suspicious.”

“And?”

“Nothing. If we hadn’t found anything after three weeks, the job would have been over. You would never have known we were there.”

“But then tonight happened.”

“Yeah. And I broke just about all the rules we have in getting you out of there.”

“Saving my life was against the rules?” Her heart hammered.

He cleared his throat. “No revealing ourselves to the suspect. No direct contact with the suspect. No interference in any operation, meet, or other unusual activity. No revealing that we have access to our own personal spy satellite…” He sounded like he was ticking each item off on his fingers.

“Right,” she murmured. She squeezed her eyes shut as tears sprang in them. “Well, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. You’re not inside and safe.”

She smiled at his grumble. “One last question, and then I promise I’ll go in.” Her heartbeat was slowing to a more normal rate.

He grunted, and Christine took it as a yes. “Why did you break the rules for me?” The words came out in a whisper.

He was silent for a long time. Christine once again got the feeling that he was considering whether he should lie.

She didn’t know this stranger. But he’d helped her through the most dramatic event of her life. Now, it was just the two of them in the enclosed cabin of her car, his voice surrounding her in the early morning quiet. Like a confessional. It all combined to weave an unexpected spell of trust and intimacy between them. His answer mattered to her.

He sighed, and it sounded pained. “From what I could tell from my—our—research and surveillance, you didn’t deserve whatever they had planned for you. Or, at least, I hoped you didn’t.”

“Will you get in trouble for disobeying?”

“That’s another question.”

She grinned, and the expression felt strange on her face after the events of the last hour or so. “Humour me,” she told him.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Could go either way. Now will you come inside? It’s on the fourteenth floor. Apartment two.”

She almost laughed at the playful petulance in his voice. “Yeah,” she said, to put him out of his misery. She gathered her things and got out of the car. It wasn’t until the frigid air hit her that she realised she was wearing her pyjamas. She tugged at the hem of the shorts, fruitlessly attempting to cover more of her legs. It had been a while since she’d showed that much skin in public. At least she’d had the foresight to put shoes on.

All the energy drained out of her at once. Christine felt bereft, shivering alone in a strange, unfamiliar parking lot. She trudged inside, almost uncaring about what might await her.

 

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