Authors: Alexis Morgan
“Look, I’m off this weekend. Want to have dinner Saturday night?”
Jana had been about to take a drink of her beer. Instead, she carefully set the bottle back down on the table. “I’m sorry, Emmett, but I can’t. I already have plans.”
Fine, he’d tried. He should have known there would be someone in her life. A woman like her wouldn’t be short on male admirers. He stood up, ready to retreat to the safety of the bar. She caught his arm before he could get away. “I would love to have dinner with you, but I promised my parents I’d come to my niece’s birthday party. You could always come with me, but I’m guessing you wouldn’t be up for that, especially considering all five of my siblings and their broods will be there. I love them all, but they’re definitely an acquired taste.”
She was right about that. He hadn’t really expected her to accept. “Maybe some other time then.”
Jana bit her lower lip briefly and then said, “How about Sunday? I’m free then even if I can’t stay out too late. I have early clinic hours on Monday.”
Wow, she actually said yes. Emmett dropped back down into his chair. Now what? It’s not like he had any kind of plan in mind. He hadn’t been out on a date in nearly sixteen years, and he doubted she’d like a monster truck rally even if there was one around. “Sunday would be great, Jana. Any preference on where we go?”
He lowered his voice. “Considering where I was living until recently, I’m not up on the local restaurants.”
Would the reminder that he was an ex-con, exonerated or not, make her change her mind? Evidently not because she was definitely giving the matter some thought.
“I do paperwork at the clinic on Sunday afternoons. Why don’t you meet me there at six o’clock? My favorite Italian restaurant is close enough that we can walk if the weather is nice.”
Did she think he couldn’t pick her up? Or more likely, maybe she wasn’t sure if she wanted him to know where she lives. Rather than get all paranoid over nothing, he said, “Sounds like a plan, and I can drive if it does rain.”
Her smile was all he could have hoped for. “Perfect. I’m looking forward to it. Make sure to bring a healthy appetite. The food is great and plentiful.”
It was time to get back to work. “See you on Sunday.”
“You mean you won’t see me tomorrow when I walk back to my car? I won’t know what to do without those gorgeous eyes of yours following my every step.”
Considering that was exactly what he was planning on doing, his cheeks burned hot. “Okay, yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow and then on Sunday.”
“Have a good night, big guy!”
She winked at him and headed out the door while Emmett went back to working behind the bar. And if Dan wondered what had Emmett grinning every so often, he didn’t ask.
t was hard to know if the big crowd gathered in the bar was due to the rainy weather outside or if Fridays were always this busy. Either way, Emmett hadn’t had a minute to call his own since he’d started work. It didn’t help that he’d been on edge all day and didn’t know why. Despite having worked late last night, he’d awakened long before sunrise and spent the entire day pacing the streets, circling the same blocks over and over again. He’d lost count of how many times he’d ended up standing outside the secret entrance to the Paladins’ headquarters with a weird compulsion to pound on the door.
The strange feeling lasted long past the time he had to be at work. In between orders, he’d caught himself clenching his fists and looking over his shoulder as if someone were stalking him. He hadn’t felt this hunted . . . no, this haunted since right after he’d been sent to prison. Back then it had taken a few bloody fights to convince the predators in his cell block that they’d live longer if they sought out easier prey. Those memories had never really faded, and he still woke up some mornings surprised that he was in his apartment and not his old cell. However, this compulsion was over-the-top, like a nightmare being lived out in real time.
Finally, there was a lull in new orders and the crowd thinned out. Not sure how long the respite would last, Emmett leaned against the back counter to catch his breath. It wasn’t until then that he realized the weird tension that had been dogging his footsteps all day was gone. He rolled his shoulders and twisted his neck from side to side, glad to find his muscles had finally loosened up.
A few seconds later a fresh blast of cool air poured into the room as a group of men filed in through the door. They headed toward one of the long tables along the back wall and leading the parade were Devlin Bane and his buddy Trahern. Both men made a point of making eye contact with him before sitting down. From where Emmett stood, they all looked like hell, as if they’d put in some long, hard hours. Even if they were crazy, he still remembered what they’d told him about developing a connection to the barrier the longer they lived in close proximity to it. They would probably claim that was what he’d been feeling all day.
Only one way to find out. Emmett signaled the waitress who covered that corner that he was going to take care of them. He moved down the bar to where the second bartender stood. “I’m going to take my dinner break. Let me know if it gets too busy for you to handle alone. I’ll be at that back table with some guys I know.”
Emmett set seven beers and glasses on a tray and put in an order for the same number of burgers with fries. After tossing enough money in the till to cover the bill, he carried the tray back to the table. Trahern immediately scooted over and made room for Emmett to pull up a chair next to him.
He eyed the beers on the tray. “I don’t remember ordering.”
Emmett sat down. “Yeah, well, this round is on me. So are the burgers that should be up in a few minutes.”
“Thanks, Emmett.” Devlin leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “One of Dan’s burgers will taste good right about now. It’s been one bitch of a day. I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but I barely had enough energy left to make it this far.”
All right, so there was Emmett’s opening. “Could your bitch of a day have anything to do with why I’ve been on edge and wanting to punch something since I got up this morning?”
Trahern was already nodding. “No doubt. The barrier was up and down like a fucking yo-yo today. As soon as we’d shove the Others back across and restore the barrier, it would fail again. I’d guess that’s what you’ve been feeling. It happens all the time to some degree, but some days are definitely worse than others. The good news is that it’s back up and stable enough to stay that way for a while.”
Emmett didn’t want to hear any more and for sure didn’t want to believe it. Rather than say anything, he went back to the bar to pick up the food. He passed the baskets around the table and sat back down. From the way his companions dug into their food, one round of burgers wasn’t going to be enough. He caught Dan’s eye and pointed to his beer and empty basket before circling his finger in the air to indicate another round was needed.
“I just ordered more of everything. If you want something besides the burgers, let me know.”
The Paladin on the other side of Trahern looked over at him and smiled. Emmett was pretty sure they’d been introduced, but he couldn’t put a name to the face. The other man must have picked up on his thoughts because he pointed at himself and then each man in turn as he called out their names. “I’m Lonzo, that’s D.J., and Cullen is on the far corner. You already know Devlin and Trahern. The scrawny brat on the end is Chase.”
The kid looked up and shot Lonzo a dirty look. “You were mighty glad I happened to be in town, Lonzo. Next time I’ll just sit back and watch you show me how it’s done. Of course, that would be like watching a slow-motion replay that goes on forever and ever, but that’s to be expected from an old man like you.”
Lonzo tossed a fry at Chase. “Hey, watch it, kid. You’ll want to be careful about who you insult around here. Don’t forget Trahern is older than I am. Maybe you’d like to face him in practice tomorrow. Or better yet, Devlin. He’s older than dirt.”
That last crack brought Bane to full attention. “God, can’t you idiots go thirty seconds without starting something? I believe I asked you to be on your best behavior in front of Emmett here.”
D.J. joined the conversation with a big grin on his face. “Heck, this is our best behavior, Dev. At least we all showered and changed out of our bloody shoes and clothes before we came. That should count for something.”
“And we left our weapons out in the cars.” Cullen took a long drink of his beer. “Besides, I’m thinking Emmett isn’t that easy to scare off.”
Surprisingly, he was right about that. Even if these guys were off their rockers, there was something about them that he liked. Maybe it was because they were all big men like him and a little rough around the edges. He also believed them when they said they had a lot of other characteristics in common, especially the ones that had always set him apart from everyone else.
Dan showed up with the new order of drinks and food. Devlin nodded, “Hi, Dan. How’s it going?”
“Things are good. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you guys in here.” He glanced in Emmett’s direction. “I see you’ve met Emmett. Tell me you’re not trying to convince him to come work with you.”
Trahern glanced in Emmett’s direction before answering. “That remains to be seen.”
So Trahern hadn’t given up on him yet. Emmett wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Flattered maybe, but that didn’t mean he was ready to jump into their end of the crazy pool anytime soon.
“He’s one of the best bartenders I’ve had in a long time. I won’t be happy if you lure him away. For now, enjoy your burgers.” Dan clapped Emmett on the shoulder. “Take your time eating. You worked through your break, so I owe you extra time.”
Emmett watched him walk away, deciding he would finish his second burger and then get back to work. The only reason Dan knew he’d missed his break was that he’d been standing right next to Emmett keeping pace with him as they filled order after order. No way he’d take advantage of his boss’s good nature. As he ate, he was all too aware of Devlin watching him. Finally, he wiped his hands on a napkin and pushed his burger basket away.
“Spit it out, Bane. I’ve got to get back behind the bar in a couple of minutes.”
Devlin leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. Trahern did the same thing, putting both of them closer than Emmett liked. They knew they were crowding him and didn’t care. Finally, Devlin said, “I’m not here to hassle you over joining us, but I wasn’t bullshitting about your inborn connection to the barrier. This feeling you’ve had all day is only going to get worse for you the longer you stay in the area.”
Trahern joined in. “Our local geologist could give you the long explanation about all the tectonic plates that come together in the area and why all the volcanoes are part of the system. The bottom line is that every time the plates slip or the volcanoes start rumbling, the barrier goes down. All of that scientific mumbo jumbo doesn’t mean squat other than to tell you what sets off that urge to get near the barrier and defend it with everything you’ve got. It won’t tell you why, only that it does. I’m not sure anyone knows much other than it’s hardwired into our genes.”
The second beer didn’t do a damn thing to wash away the bitter taste of what they were telling him. Emmett wanted to tell them to just shut the fuck up, but his gut said he needed to hear them out. Devlin picked up where Trahern left off.
“The only way to avoid it is to move somewhere away from the barrier. We can give you a list of areas that are relatively safe for our kind.”
Great. If he wanted to stay sane, he’d have to move away from the only home he’d ever known. That would mean giving up a job he liked, the apartment he’d just signed a year’s lease on, and Jana. That last one was the deal breaker. There was no way he was going to walk away from her one minute before absolutely necessary.
He set the glass back down on the table a little harder than he meant to, but these guys already knew he had a temper. “Thanks for the advice. Let me know if you need anything else.”
When they left a short time later, Trahern hung back. “If you haven’t found a gym where you can work out, you should. Physical exercise can help take the edge off. You’d be welcome to use our facilities, but I’m guessing you’re not ready for that.”
“You’d be right about that.” Emmett tossed his towel down on the counter and leaned closer to make sure they weren’t overheard. “I don’t mean to be an ingrate or anything, but you’ve got to know how crazy all of that stuff sounds. I mean, who’s ever heard of killing aliens with swords and axes?”
Trahern let out a big sigh. “I know how you feel. I was living on the streets and running wild when one of the Regents found me and gave me a home. When I graduated from high school, he introduced me to my first Paladin, who taught me everything I know. He’s now in charge of the Missouri contingent of the Paladins.”
All right, so Emmett wasn’t the only one who came to the party late. “How long did it take you to get your head around the idea?”
Trahern laughed and headed for the door. “When I do, I’ll let you know.”
“Watch your back,” Emmett said as the Paladin disappeared out into the night.
And as he started filling the next order of drinks, he had the strangest feeling that he should have gone with Trahern and the others.
Dan joined him. “I didn’t realize you knew Devlin and his friends.”
He was pretty sure Bane wouldn’t much appreciate Emmett telling anyone about their meeting at the prison and Emmett’s visit to their headquarters. “I met him and Trahern right around the time I got out of prison. They thought I might want to work out with them sometime.”
Which was close enough to the truth.
Dan gave him a long look as if he suspected there had been more to the story than Emmett was sharing. “I meant what I said earlier. You’re doing a good job here. I’d hate to see you leave.”
What could Emmett say to that? He’d never had anyone who gave a damn whether he left or stayed, and now he had two different men interested in keeping him around. He kept his response simple. “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Luckily someone called Dan’s name, and he headed over to talk to a couple of regulars. The conversations with Dan and Trahern left Emmett feeling restless. To keep busy, he checked the stock. Making note of what they were low on, he cut through the kitchen to the storeroom to pick up another couple of cases of beer. By the time he had everything replenished, it was closing time.
He waved at Dan on the way out, but it was a relief to be outside and on his own. Maybe he’d go for a drive along the waterfront before heading back to his apartment. As he drove, he shoved all thoughts of Paladins and the world they lived in aside. Instead, he counted the hours until he was supposed to meet up with Jana for dinner.
A woman like her deserved a better man than Emmett, but he sure as heck wasn’t going to be the one to point that out to her. Yep, he planned on hanging out with her for as long as she’d let him. Jana was a smart woman. It wouldn’t take her long to realize Emmett wasn’t a forever kind of guy, especially for a woman like her. It might not be today or even next week, but eventually she’d figure it out. For now, it was time to head home and go to bed—alone and lonely.
• • •
Jana closed the last file and set it aside. All of this record keeping would be easier if the clinic could afford to upgrade their computer system and install one of those new software programs that allowed everything to be done electronically. Unfortunately, the budget was already stretched to the breaking point. They needed every penny they had just to provide the basics to their patients.
There were nights she couldn’t sleep for worrying about it, but all she could do was move forward one day at a time. For as long as she could keep the doors of the clinic open, her patients were going to receive the very best care she could give them.
She gathered up the files and set them on her assistant’s desk to be filed back in the morning. Right now Jana had some last-minute primping to do. It wasn’t as if Emmett hadn’t seen her at the tail end of her workday all rumpled and with her makeup faded away. Besides, the restaurant she’d chosen was definitely on the informal side, something she thought Emmett would appreciate. She’d kept her choice of outfits casual—jeans and a cream-colored fisherman’s knit sweater. The fun part was that she could wear her boots with the four-inch heels because he was so tall. With most men, she had to settle for wearing low heels or even flats.
Truth be told, she was a little nervous about the evening ahead. Maybe it was simply a case of first-date jitters or, more likely because she was out of practice. She didn’t date all that much since she didn’t meet all that many suitable men through her job, which took up most of her time. In fact, that was the real reason she hadn’t wanted to take Emmett to the family gathering. Her mother and sisters were always on her back for working too many hours to the detriment of her social life. If she’d shown up at the family gathering with an escort, they would have read too much significance into it. She wouldn’t do that to Emmett, especially on their first date.