Authors: Alison Stone
To my husband, Scott, who never lost faith in me. Love you forever and always.
The Protector yanked open the back door of the girl’s beat-up car. The door groaned in protest, the loud sound splintering the stagnant night air. He pulled at his collar, cursing the heat. October nights usually meant fleece jackets and first frosts, not suffocating mugginess. He swiped the back of his hand across his forehead but didn’t stop. He had to work fast.
The dome light stood out like a beacon, making his pulse spike. He reached in and punched the plastic cover, casting them once again in darkness. A twig snapped behind him. He jerked to a stop and listened. Hard. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck prickled to life and a bead of sweat rolled down his back. As if in slow motion, he turned on his heel, the loose gravel shifting under his weight. Complete darkness. A chorus of crickets and night critters, but nothing else.
He drew in a deep breath and forced his attention back to the vehicle. The girl lay unconscious. Her head lolled at an awkward angle over the edge of the narrow back seat. A trickle of blood snaked out from one of her nostrils, her delicate lips swollen. His stomach clenched and he cursed under his breath. Tamping down the swirl of emotions, he crouched down into the vehicle and jammed his hands under her armpits. And pulled.
She was heavy, man, she was heavy, but it was dead weight. Or almost-dead weight. He brushed the sweat from his forehead on the top of his sleeve again. As her body cleared the vehicle, her bare feet thudded onto the gravel.
Frowning, he laid her body on the cool earth. With one knee on the back seat, he angled his body to search the vehicle, straining to see despite the inky darkness he had created. He patted the floor under the driver’s seat, then under the others. No shoes. Where were her shoes?
Sheer fright swept over him. Even the night creatures seemed to whisper their disapproval. How could he have been so stupid? No one would believe she had gone out in the middle of the night without shoes.
He spun around and crouched back down by the girl. The fear in his gut morphed into anger. Fury. Why did it have to end this way? Resting an elbow on his knee, he trailed a finger along her nose, feeling the ridge of broken bone beneath his touch. Ah, such a pretty one. But not worth the aggravation. They never were.
Leaning closer, he held a hand under her nose. A whisper of air danced across his fingers. Sitting back on his heels, he pressed his lips together and shook his head. Man, she was a fighter. He had to admire that. But alive, she was a liability.
The moon poked out between drifting clouds. The girl’s pale skin took on an ethereal glow. Her peaceful expression contradicted the abnormal angle of her broken nose and the bruises blooming underneath her dark lashes. A cold puff of apprehension dotted his damp flesh with goose bumps. Could he do it? Could he finish the job?
You are a man.
A stern voice barked in his brain.
You do what is necessary.
The gravel bit into his knee through the fabric of his pants as he got into position to lift her body, one arm under her armpits, the other under her knees. With a groan, he rose to his feet and cradled her body close to his. Too close. The clean scent of her damp hair tickled his nostrils. He didn’t want to make this personal. A certain distance made his task easier to carry out.
Eager to be done with her, he kicked the back door shut with his boot. The rusty hinges and sound of metal meeting metal made him curse.
He was off his game tonight. It had been a long time. He bobbled her body, freeing his hand to grab the handle of the driver’s door. It opened with a groan. He loosened his jaw and let out a quiet breath. A dog barked in the not-too-far distance. An incessant bark, as if the animal sensed the girl’s plight.
His stomach tightened. His actions took on a renewed urgency. Swallowing hard, he maneuvered the girl’s body behind the wheel—no small feat, despite her small frame. Her lifeless body had a will of its own. Her head dipped toward the passenger’s side, physics demanding her body follow suit. His jaw clamped in frustration. He grabbed her shirt sleeve and yanked her back into position. With a flat palm, he pushed the door closed, careful not to make a sound this time. He reached through the open window to adjust her body one last time. Fastening her seatbelt would be counterproductive. He shook his head. Silly girl had only herself to blame. Ducking his head, he reached into the vehicle and stretched across the steering wheel to put the car in neutral.
With his plan coming together, he relaxed his shoulders and strolled to the rear of the vehicle. Some things were meant to be savored. He lifted a dusty boot to the plastic bumper.
The tires gained traction. The vehicle rolled forward. Arms crossed, he watched the vehicle pick up speed as it raced down the steep hill, heading toward the crop of trees at the bend in the road.
Just as he had planned.
Danielle Carson drew her knuckles tenderly across her sister’s bruised cheek. Jenny didn’t open her eyes. Didn’t flinch. The constant, subtle
beep, beep, beep
of a monitor hammered away at her nerves, already jacked up on too much caffeine, no sleep and a red-eye flight from Atlanta to Buffalo, the first available after she had learned of her sister’s car accident.
Icy dread coursed through Danielle’s veins as she took in her sister’s frail body under the white hospital linens. Her bandaged nose, darkened eyes and swollen lips made her almost unrecognizable. A fist of fear tightened around her heart as her gaze fell on the dried blood by her baby sister’s hairline.
She let out a shaky breath.
Critical, but stable.
That’s what the nurse had told her when she’d arrived at the hospital. Not at all what
had told her during that dreadful early-morning phone call.
She leaned over and pressed a kiss to Jenny’s temple. The familiar scent of shampoo—the same cheap strawberry kind they had used as kids—tickled her nose. Tears blurred her vision as memories of her little sister crowded in on her.
“Oh, Jenny,” she whispered, a question in her lament. “What happened?” Danielle wished her sister’s bright, blue eyes would snap open and she’d reply with some witty comeback like, “I played chicken with a tree, and the tree won.”
A creak sounded behind Danielle so she swiped a hand across her wet cheek. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling, even though she knew the nurse would understand. Drawing in a breath, she turned on her heel and her heart stopped. Instead of finding a nurse in scrubs, she found Officer Patrick Kingsley standing in the doorway, dressed in a white uniform shirt and black pants, hat in hand, a solemn expression on his face.
“Glad you made it.” He tossed his hat on the seat near the end of the bed and took a step toward her. Her body stiffened at his proximity.
“She’s my sister.” Her traitorous heart fluttered. She hadn’t seen Patrick in fifteen years. Hadn’t heard his voice until a few hours ago when he had called with news of the accident. In her hazy state of mind, it had taken her a few moments to understand why the person who had crushed her teenage heart all those years ago was calling in the middle of the night. What she had thought was a warped dream had quickly become a real-life nightmare.
“Any change?” Patrick seemed to be studying her face. She was sure her neck and cheeks were beet red by now. Was he, like her, amazed how time had a way of transforming a person’s features? He appeared the same, yet different somehow. As if not only time but life’s journey had subtly changed nuances of his features. The room suddenly felt smaller. A warmth flowed through her body. Maybe he wouldn’t notice the pulse leaping in her neck.
“No. No change in Jenny’s condition.” Danielle’s words came out strained. Being in his presence reminded her of the insecure teen she had once been. The one who had been abandoned by her mother, yet still had clung to the magical idea of happily-ever-after. Patrick had made her believe. Until he’d left her too.
The sting of that summer had the potential to slice her heart, even now. Unable to raise her eyes to meet his, Danielle shifted her attention back to Jenny. She was deeply angry with herself for even thinking about Patrick while her sister lay broken and battered.
“She’s a mess. Why didn’t you tell me on the phone? You made it seem like she was okay.” Danielle despised the tremble in her voice.
When the silence stretched for too long, she persisted, “Why weren’t you upfront with me? You should have told me—” she lowered her voice out of respect for Jenny, “—the truth about her condition.” She stroked her thumb across her sister’s hand, careful to avoid the bandage covering the tubes inserted into her veins. Her stomach did a little flip. There was a reason she had studied law instead of medicine, despite her grandmother’s wishes.
“You had to fly from Atlanta alone,” Patrick said— a statement, not a question.
She bristled. Why had Patrick Kingsley assumed she had to travel alone? Her grandmother had probably filled him in. Had told him how she spent all her time working and didn’t have time for anything or anyone else. She berated herself for feeling even the slightest bit embarrassed. Hadn’t she created the life she wanted? Being alone wasn’t a sin. Relieved she didn’t have to meet his gaze, she covered her sister’s hand with her own. Why did she care what he thought?
“Would you have changed your plans if you knew the seriousness of her condition?” His voice grew closer. Still refusing to turn around, she sensed him standing a foot or two off her right shoulder. He was much broader than she remembered. Of course he was. The person she knew had been a boy. Standing here was a man. A man who had gotten married, been deployed to Iraq and experienced the tragedy of losing his wife. A tragedy beyond anything she had ever known.
“Tell me what you know about my sister’s accident,” Danielle said. She braced for the answer, needing to ground herself in the moment. In the details. Like how her sister’s jagged nails stood in contrast to her own manicured pink tips. Gently, she turned over her sister’s hand. Calluses toughened Jenny’s fingertips, no doubt from hours working in the flower shop.
Endless questions swirled in her brain. How had her sister ended up in a one-vehicle accident down some lonely road? Had she been on her way to visit someone? Had she been drinking? She mentally shook her head. No way. She refused to believe that. Not after everything their alcoholic mother had put them through as kids.
The sharp edge of fear poked at her.
How would you know? You haven’t been home in over a year. Closer to two.
She pushed the thought aside and searched for more logical reasons. Texting maybe? An animal darting into the road? Millions of valid reasons didn’t include alcohol.
But she needed to know. Uncertainty and unanswered questions made her skin crawl. Maybe if she controlled a little bit of what was going on, the knot in her stomach would ease.
Patrick hesitated. She sensed he was holding back, measuring his words. She refused to be spoon-fed. “Tell me, Patrick. I’m a big girl. I can handle whatever it is you have to say. Was she drinking?” She folded the edge of the sheet and smoothed it between her fingers, her pulse roaring in her ears.
“I don’t have much to tell.” Tendrils of unease wound their way up her spine as he spoke. “We’re waiting on the toxicology reports, but at this time we don’t believe she was drinking.” He touched her shoulder, his solid hand warm and comforting.
All part of his job, she quickly reminded herself.
“A passerby noticed her car off the road on Route 78 about one in the morning,” he added.
“Where was she going?” She glanced over her shoulder and his fingers brushed her cheek.
“We’re still investigating.”
Danielle shook her head and backed away from his touch. She needed to think. She dug her fingers under her hair at the back of her neck. A tension headache spread up the base of her brain. “Please, tell me whatever it is you know.” The Patrick she had known always had such an open, honest face, but now his expression seemed shuttered. Her stomach clenched. Was he hiding something from her? Or had age taught him how to hide his feelings?
Running a hand across his chin, Patrick’s gaze shifted to Jenny. Reluctance was evident in his eyes. “We found Jenny’s vehicle off the road. Wedged between two trees. She was unconscious.” Fully meeting her gaze, his eyes darkened. His broad chest expanded with a deep breath before he let it out slowly. “No skid marks. No witnesses. No other victims.”