Authors: Alexis Morgan
Her gasp cut straight through him. She jerked her hand away, her dark eyes brimming with tears. “Why? Because I saw you punch that guy? You can’t be serious.”
“Serious as death, Jana. Now, let me see you to your car.”
She gave him a pitying look that curdled his blood. “That’s just priceless, Emmett. You’ll walk me across the street to make sure no one else hurts me, yet you’ll stand there and tear my heart out without hesitation.”
If that was true, it seemed only fair because his own heart was feeling pretty damn battered and bruised right now. He fought hard to keep up the pretense. “Don’t you think that’s a little over-the-top, Jana?”
“No, I don’t.”
He watched as she drew herself up, shoulders back and head held high. Damn, she was magnificent. Jana studied him from head to toe, clearly not impressed with what she saw. “I can walk myself to my car. I don’t need you watching over me, Emmett Sloan.”
She jerked the door open and stalked out. He let her go, knowing he could see her from the front window. Before she reached the middle of the street, she did an about-face and came marching right back into the bar.
“One more thing, just to make sure you know
what you’re throwing away. I love you—even if you
a big idiot. What we have together is worth fighting for, but obviously you’re too gutless to even try.” Then she grabbed the collar of his shirt and jerked his face down to give him a rough kiss. “Think about that when you walk these streets alone.”
That brief connection set his body on fire, making him want to strip her naked and take her right there on the bar. But she was gone again, leaving him staring after her, hurting, horny, and wondering if anything would ever feel right again.
ana was back. Emmett deliberately turned his back to the door, refusing to acknowledge her presence. It had been three weeks since he’d told her that it was over between them. Evidently he was the only one who believed that was true. As he watched Jana’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar, his boss sidled over closer to where Emmett stood. He took note of the fact that Dan still kept a healthy distance between them. Smart man.
“So, tell me, Emmett. Are you going to keep ignoring her, or wise up and take what Jana is offering?”
Emmett fought down a hot surge of frustration. He put his hands flat on the counter and counted to ten before trusting himself to speak. “Man, I know you’re my boss and everything, but shut the hell up.”
Dan moved off long enough to ring up a customer, but he came right back. “One more thing, and then I promise I’ll shut up. I don’t know what happened between the two of you, and I don’t really care. That’s none of my damn business. All I want to say that if a classy woman like Jana looked at me like she looks at you, I’d crawl back to her over broken glass and grovel with everything I had if that’s what it took to get her to forgive me.”
Emmett had to talk to somebody or explode. He grabbed Dan’s arm and dragged his interfering ass into the storeroom and slammed the door shut. At least his boss went along willingly and didn’t immediately start swinging or yelling for help.
“It isn’t like that. She’s not mad at me.” Emmett closed his eyes and leaned against a stack of boxes. “No, that’s not true. Jana is mad, but not because I did something wrong.”
And that wasn’t right, either. “Okay, I did something, but I don’t think it was wrong. She does.”
Instead of offering sage advice or even sympathy, his rat bastard boss laughed. Seriously, Emmett’s life was screwed up all the way to hell and back, and Dan thought it was funny. Luckily this wasn’t one of the days where Emmett had a jones on for punching somebody.
“It’s not funny, Dan. She’s hurting because I told her it couldn’t work between us. I’ve known all along that she deserves better than an ex-con with few prospects, but that’s not the problem.” He realized he was rubbing his chest again and forced himself to stop. “There’s something wound up tight inside of me, something I can’t seem to control, and I don’t want Jana to be in the way if it ever breaks loose.”
“Well, shit.” His friend’s face turned sober. “I apologize for laughing, and she’s not the only one hurting here, Emmett. It’s just that you sound just like me about ten years ago. I let a good woman walk away from me because I didn’t think she could handle living with a screwed-up ex-soldier.”
“What happened?” Because if things had worked out for Dan, maybe there was hope for Emmett, too.
“She found somebody else before I smartened up and got the help I needed. Last I heard, they had three kids and were doing well. She’s happy, and that’s all that matters now.” He stared past Emmett, clearly seeing something other than the scarred concrete wall. When he finally dragged himself out of the past to look at Emmett directly, he let out a deep breath. “I’m hoping you’re smarter than I was. My advice? Fix whatever is broken while you can. Women like Jana don’t come around all that often.”
“And if I can’t fix it?”
“Then you did the right thing by walking away.” He clapped Emmett on the arm before opening the door. “But there are a lot of support groups out there for people dealing with all kinds of issues, including temper management. Do yourself a favor and find someone who understands exactly what you’re going through.”
Emmett stayed behind in the storeroom to give himself time to consider Dan’s advice. What he’d said made sense, even if Emmett didn’t need the kind of support group Dan had been talking about. However, there was one man who might have answers for him. He owed it not only to Jana but to himself to find out once and for all if Trahern and his buddy Devlin Bane had been bullshitting him about the whole Paladins thing.
Before he could chicken out, Emmett pulled Trahern’s card out of his wallet, then sent a brief text.
Can we meet tomorrow? I have questions.
He hit send and shoved the phone back in his pocket on his way back out to man the bar. He was just starting to fill an order when he felt the phone vibrate.
The message on the screen was short and to the point:
8 p.m. I’ve got answers.
• • •
Jana watched Emmett and Dan disappear into the storeroom. She had a feeling that she was going to be the topic of conversation once they shut the door. It would be better if Emmett would talk to her directly, but maybe Dan could get through to him. She hoped so, because she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep coming in here if Emmett continued to ignore her.
It hurt too much.
She’d really thought that if she kept stopping by he’d eventually admit that he’d been wrong to give up on them so soon. Even given her firm belief in giving people a second chance or even a third or fourth, it had been three weeks. Somewhere along the line she had to accept that she wasn’t being patient but ridiculous. A woman should have some sense of pride.
As she tried to come to terms with that, the door to the storeroom opened. Dan came out by himself, but he looked straight at her and winked. What did that mean? Had he gone to bat for her? Had he somehow convinced Emmett that he deserved more than the lonely solitude he seemed determined to accept as his due in life?
Should she go ask him? No, too late for that. Emmett was back, too, and evidently still determined to act as if she were invisible. It was past time to go. She signaled the waitress and paid her bill. For once, Emmett didn’t immediately skedaddle for the other end of the bar to avoid her as she headed for the door. How pathetic was it that she took that as a good sign?
“Good night, Dan. As always the burger was perfect.”
The bar owner waved as he disappeared into his office. “Glad you liked it, Jana. See you soon.”
When he was out of sight, she turned her attention to the man who was polishing the already shiny bar hard enough to wear off the finish, another sign that he was painfully aware of her.
“Good night, Emmett.”
She paused in front of him long enough to point out a small puddle of water right in front of him. “Missed a spot, big guy. See you soon. For some reason, I just can’t get enough of Dan’s fine cuisine.”
She couldn’t quite make out what Emmett mumbled as she walked away, but it didn’t matter. At least he’d started talking to her again.
y the next night, the ache in Emmett’s chest was back and worse than ever. He’d been fine earlier in the day, but the problem had come on suddenly and continued to worsen as the day wore on. For the past half hour, he’d taken to pacing the length of the bar unable to shake the feeling that there was something important he should be doing. Good thing he had the early shift and would be off soon. The pressure of a busy Friday night could test his already shaky control. Most of Dan’s regulars were great, but there was always the chance that some asshole would decide tonight was the night he’d want to take on the world. Emmett flexed his fists, wishing the idea of pounding on somebody didn’t hold such appeal.
He’d ducked outside for a while on his break to watch for Jana. She must have gotten some late patients, because the lights had still been on in the clinic. If things didn’t slow up enough for him to check on her again, he’d ask Dan to do it.
Another five minutes went by and then another. With each passing second, the buzz dancing along his nerves got stronger. This was insane, but something was wrong out there on the street. Finally, he tossed down his towel and headed into the office, where Dan sat frowning at some numbers on his computer screen. He looked up as soon as Emmett walked in.
Unable to stand still for even a few seconds, Emmett shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back. “Sorry to interrupt, boss, but I really need to check on Jana. I won’t be gone long.”
The other man leaned back in his chair and gave Emmett a hard look. “Is something wrong or is this your usual just making sure she gets to her car okay?”
Dan was the one person he could be honest with. “That’s part of it, but that problem we talked about last night is acting up big-time. And before you say anything, I’ve got a guy coming in after I get off tonight to talk about it.” He held out his hand to show Dan how it was trembling. “Maybe it’s nothing, but my gut is telling me otherwise.”
Dan hesitated only long enough to save the file on his screen. “Go check on Jana and don’t rush getting back. You’re almost off duty anyway.”
Emmett ran out of the bar onto the sidewalk outside. Looking up the street, he could see the windows in the clinic were now dark. Damn, Jana had already left work. Worse yet, she was nowhere in sight, and her car was still in the parking lot with the driver’s door standing open and the dome light on. He cursed as he started forward to look for her. Before he’d crossed the street, his cell phone rang.
It was tempting to ignore the call and let it go to voice mail. He kept moving as he checked the name on the screen: Trahern. That’s all it took to ramp up his fear for Jana.
He answered the call. “What’s going on, Trahern?”
There was a lot of background noise, shouting and the clash of metal, making it damn hard to hear what Trahern was trying to say. “Damn it, speak up! I can’t hear you.”
The background noise faded a bit, enough so that Trahern’s voice came through more clearly. “I said can’t make it tonight. The barrier’s been down most of the afternoon. It’s back up, but now we’ve got to play clean up. Some of the crazies got past us.”
Son of a bitch! The puzzle pieces started tumbling into place, and Emmett didn’t like the picture that was starting to form. Before he could ask Trahern to explain, a woman’s angry voice rang out from somewhere across the street. Emmett would have recognized that sound anywhere. An ice storm of fear washed through his veins when he heard Jana calling out a second time, this time followed by the rough sound of male laughter. Emmett froze at the edge of the street to track the sound. It had to be coming from an alley behind the building down the street.
As he took off at a lope, he shouted into the phone, “Trahern, I’m headed for the alley down the street from the bar. Tell me those crazy bastards couldn’t have made it this far.”
This time Trahern’s voice came through the phone cold and clear. His answer was terrifying in its simplicity. “We’re on the way.”
• • •
Emmett shoved the phone in his pocket and ran. Right now he’d give anything for a gun or even a two-by-four. Hell, any kind of weapon would do. He’d kill with his bare hands if that’s what it took to save Jana.
Charging in without a plan could get them both killed, but every instinct he had wanted him to do exactly that. It took every bit of resolve he could muster to pause at the corner of the brick building to peek around the corner. Three men dressed all in black had Jana cornered against the wall. Shit, he recognized them from the descriptions Bane and Trahern had used when they talked about the aliens they called Others. At least their swords were still in their scabbards. For the moment, they seemed content to taunt Jana like predators toying with their intended prey. Emmett couldn’t understand what they were saying from this distance, but he didn’t need to know specifics. Their intent was clear.
Emmett spotted a piece of rusty rebar lying in the dirt and picked it up along with a fist-sized piece of broken concrete. Primitive but better than nothing. The three Others hadn’t yet realized they were no longer alone in the alley. Emmett moved slowly to avoid startling the enemy into rash action. When Jana spotted him coming, her eyes widened, but she didn’t call out. God, he loved the way the woman kept her head in a crisis. In fact, loved her, period, even if now wasn’t the time to get all tangled up in the gentler emotions. Better to embrace the cold, murderous fury boiling up inside him.
Emmett eased forward another step and then another. As the distance between him and the enemy closed, he finally understood the strange sensation he’d been experiencing for weeks. Like Trahern and Bane, nature had hardwired him for this one moment when these Others dared to threaten the centerpiece of his world.
The only question was why they continued to hover at the same distance from her. He got his answer when one of them charged at her, and Jana squirted him in the eyes with pepper spray. The Other snarled as he swiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his strange-looking shirt. One of the remaining two must have been feeling lucky, because he made a grab for her arm. With her back to the wall, she had little room to maneuver, but still she managed to slide just out of his reach. He and his friends followed her step for step.
Time was running out. Emmett gave up on stealth and threw the fragment of concrete at the back of the closest Other’s head hard enough to knock the bastard to the ground. Score one for Emmett’s best fastball. Holding the rebar like a club, he pounded down the alley, ignoring the smells and the trash, focusing only on the battle ahead. “Get the hell away from her!”
He shoved his way between the remaining two men, to plant himself between them and Jana. They immediately drew their swords, their pale eyes alight with murderous intentions. As soon as he had their attention, Emmett yelled, “Run, Jana! Don’t stop.”
He knew his woman’s heart. She wouldn’t want to abandon him, but he prayed she would. Death was coming to this alley, most likely his own, and he didn’t want her to be part of it. He risked a quick glance back at her, to make sure she was capable of moving. Their gazes met for the briefest of heartbeats, the connection real and tangible. Then she did as he asked and took off running. He prayed like hell that she would make it to safety. That was all that mattered.
• • •
By the time Jana made it to the end of the alley, she was out of breath and choking on her fear. How could she have abandoned Emmett to face those three . . . those bastards alone? Logic said that if she’d stayed, it would have only made it harder for Emmett to defend himself. She needed to get help, but from where? There were no cops in sight, and she’d lost her cell phone when they cornered her by the car and then dragged her into the alley.
All the local businesses were closed for the day except for Dan’s place. She was about to take off running for the bar when a black SUV came roaring up the street. She waved her arms over her head, hoping the driver would stop long enough for her to borrow a phone. The driver swerved in her direction and slammed on the brakes. Instead of asking her what was wrong, five men, all as big as Emmett, came pouring out of the vehicle with their hands filled with swords and guns.
Had the whole world gone insane? She started backing away, as terrified of these guys as she had been of the ones in the alley.
A hard-eyed blond laid both of his weapons on the ground and then held up his hands. “You’re Jana York, right? Where’s Emmett?”
She had to trust somebody. “Down the alley. He’s fighting three men with swords. All he has is a club.”
The other four men took off running while the blond stayed with her. Her companion paid them no heed and made no move to go after them. “I doubt that Emmett has mentioned me, but my name is Blake Trahern. He and I were supposed to meet up tonight, but things got”—he paused to nod in the direction of the alley—“complicated.”
The clash of steel against steel echoed down the alley. She would have expected more noise, men hollering, at least something. For some reason the relative silence was more terrifying. And what kind of law enforcement or even military came armed with swords?
She ignored the adrenaline-induced shivers and locked her knees to keep her legs from collapsing on her. Wrapping her arms around her waist, she asked, “What’s going on here? And don’t bother candy-coating it. I want the truth.”
To her surprise, Trahern’s grim expression melted into a small grin. “You sound like my wife. She doesn’t much like bullshit, either. All I can tell you right now is that we’re the good guys, and Emmett was meant to be one of us. Once we get things under control, we’ll all go somewhere we can explain things.”
A movement near the entrance of the alley caught her attention. It was one of the men who’d arrived with Trahern. He waved his hand over his head and then disappeared back the way he’d come.
She ran after him before Trahern could stop her. He caught up with her a few steps later. “Let me go first, Jana. You may not want to see what’s waiting down that alley.”
He sounded soul-tired, as if bloody battles were something he lived with every day. “I’m a nurse. I can help.”
Trahern pointed out the obvious. “Emmett won’t like it.”
“Would your wife wait here or head back down the alley no matter what?”
When he didn’t respond, she said, “That’s what I thought. Emmett needs me even if he’d be the last person on earth to admit it.”
She held her breath as they entered the alley. The men who’d come with Trahern stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their backs to them, blocking any clear view of what lay beyond. She could see one of her attackers on the ground and not moving, most likely the one Emmett took out with a rock.
Trahern deliberately stepped in front of her as his men moved to let him through their line. The other two of her attackers sat slumped against the building, both of them with blood dripping from wounds. She didn’t care. It was the man sprawled on the ground who held her entire attention. Someone had thrown a jacket over Emmett, making it impossible to see his face. Regardless, he wasn’t moving, and the rough pavement around him was slick with a pool of blood.
Jana called out Emmett’s name but got no response. She shoved past the line of men and knelt by the body. With trembling hands, she gently lifted the jacket just enough to confirm what she already knew. His eyes stared off into the distance, unblinking, unseeing, dead.
When her heart shattered, its jagged shards ripped through her, and the pain was crippling in its intensity. Jana was only dimly aware of Trahern and the others shuffling around behind her. None of them approached her, leaving Jana alone with her grief. Emmett had died for her. How was she supposed to live with that?
Finally, a pair of vehicles pulled up behind them in the alley. Someone must have called the police, but it seemed odd that there were no sirens. Maybe Trahern had told them that they had the culprits immobilized and their victim was beyond help.
When someone appeared at the edge of her vision, Jana looked up. No doubt she’d have to give a statement and everything before they’d let her go home, where she could grieve in private. Instead of a police officer, a woman wearing a lab coat stood looking down at her. The sympathy in the woman’s dark eyes was almost Jana’s undoing.
“You must be Jana York. I’m Dr. Laurel Young-Bane.” She held out her hand, leaving Jana no choice but to rise to her feet to shake hands. “I know a lot has happened, Ms. York, and you’ve been through a lot. It would be best if you came with us.”
There was something the woman wasn’t telling her. Jana forced herself to focus on what was going on around her. If the vehicles in the alley belonged to the police, they were all unmarked, which seemed unlikely. The men who’d arrived with Trahern were busy loading the men who had attacked her into the back of the closest vehicle. Two others were gently wrapping Emmett’s body in a tarp.
Alarms were going off inside Jana’s head. “You’re not the police. Who are you? And what are you doing with Emmett’s—” Jana nearly choked, unable to complete that phrase. She tried again. “Where are you taking Emmett?”
Trahern joined them. “Ms. York, I promise we’ll explain everything. Two of my men will drive your car back to your house for you while you come with us. Right now it’s really important that we get both you and Emmett somewhere safe.”
It wasn’t as if Emmett could be hurt anymore. She knew she should protest. The correct thing would be to call the police and insist that everyone stay right where they were until the proper authorities arrived and took over processing the crime scene. Right now, though, Jana was too numb to argue. She let Laurel lead her to the other car, not caring where they took her or what they had to say when they got there. After all, in a world without Emmett, nothing else mattered.