The rest of my shift passed in a blur. I served beers, poured mixed drinks, shot down the people who hit on me, and struggled to stay focused, my thoughts circling like water rushing down a drain. What was up with Jakob’s cryptic question about when I got off work? Was it his subtle way of telling me he didn’t want to answer me in a packed bar? Was I supposed to wait for him?
I checked my watch. We’d closed at two a.m., but I had to get through my nightly checklist before I could even think about leaving. It was almost three now. My chores were done, and I just finished showing Nina four different ways to break someone’s hold when they grabbed your wrist.
I glanced out the front window. There was no sign of Jakob’s bike in the parking lot. My coworkers were slipping out the back door one by one, and I wasn’t about to stick around and wait for him by myself. This bar wasn’t in the best part of town, and even with my years of hand-to-hand combat training, I didn’t relish the idea of putting my skills to use against a drunken biker who probably had a knife or a gun on them.
“You coming, Krista?” Tiny asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
A few minutes later, I stepped from the air-conditioned bar out into the sultry heat of night. It might have only been early May, but in southern Texas, summer started in April and lasted right through November. Deep heat had descended on the small town of Kearny a few weeks ago, smothering us in its warm embrace. The hum of insects from the nearby trees was deafening. Humidity hung heavy in the air, making my movements feel slow and lethargic. What didn’t help was my exhaustion. I hadn’t escaped unscathed from my time in the military, and my scarred body felt battered and bruised from being on my feet for so long.
I said goodbye to my coworkers and moved toward my car with halting, pre-arthritic gracelessness. One of the reasons Gran and I chose to settle in this town, aside from the allegedly stellar nursing home, was because of the nearby military hospital. I had an appointment with my physical therapist there in a few days, and it couldn’t come soon enough.
I slipped inside my car, locked the doors, and headed home. Visiting hours at the nursing home were from ten to five. After what Jakob said, I wanted to get there when the doors opened, which meant I’d be lucky if I got five hours of shut-eye. At least I never had trouble falling asleep. Combat vets are known for their ability to pass out anywhere, and I was no exception.
I eased to a stop at a red light two blocks from the bar. An engine thundered to life nearby and roared into the night like a lion claiming its kill. A few seconds later, a motorcycle pulled up next to me. It was loud enough to be a Harley, but when I glanced over at it, I saw the word Victorysplashed across the side of the gas tank. Its driver wore a skullcap helmet and goggles, but I knew from the beard alone that it was Jakob. He turned toward me and then jerked his head to the left in a distinct command to follow him.
The light flashed green. No one else was on the road, so I threw my blinker on and turned, trailing the bike as Jakob wound up a side street.
I wasn’t an idiot. Yes, I lusted after Jakob’s body and magnetic sexual energy, but the truth was I knew nothing about the guy. He could be a complete psychopath.
I kept one hand on the wheel and popped open my center console with the other. Inside was a 9mm I’d purchased when I was still in the service. As an aerial gunner, I didn’t go for the bells and whistles of flashier handguns; I went for sturdy design and a robust reputation. This brand wasn’t super popular, but the reviews for it were stellar. The people over at Guns & Ammo had buried one in the mud for a day, froze another in a solid block of ice, then defrosted it beneath the blazing sun and tossed another from a ten-story building. All three guns fired over a thousand rounds without failing afterward. No, it wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. I stashed it in my purse as I pulled into a small residential parking lot behind Jakob.
He cut his engine and slipped his goggles and helmet off. One long leg swung over the back of the bike, and then he was moving toward me with quick, sure strides.
I left my car running and kept the doors locked as I rolled my window down. “Well, this isn’t weird or anything.”
Jakob leaned forward and rested his elbows on my window frame. The smell of him hit my nose: leather and motor oil and a hint of dark cologne. This close, his eyes were startlingly blue, like he’d captured an arctic sky in his gaze.
“I didn’t want anyone overhearing at the bar,” he said. “Wanna cut the engine and follow me up? Better if anyone watching us thinks we’re fucking instead of trading secrets.”
And there went my thoughts, straight into the gutter.
He took my momentary breathlessness as hesitation. “I’m not a threat to you,” he said. “That’d be like hurting a family member.”
I shook my head to clear the fog of lust from my mind. Did he just say something about us being related? “What?”
He pulled up his right jacket sleeve just enough to reveal a length of corded forearm. The whorls of ink I’d spotted earlier were the tattered edges of a stylized specter’s cloak. Over the grim creature, the words Death Waits in the Dark were written in stark black font.
I lifted my eyes to his. “You were a Night Stalker?”
He held my gaze and nodded.
Well, I’ll be damned. Jakob was airborne, like me, only from a special operations Army helicopter regiment that flew into enemy territory at night, low and fast. I was stationed with a unit of Night Stalkers in Syria. They were some of the craziest motherfuckers in spec-ops. And that was saying something.
It didn’t make me instantly trust him, but I no longer worried I’d have to shoot him. Only one percent of Americans serve their country. It does make you family, in a way, part of a small percentage of the population that’s been joined together with others from all walks of life, ready to fight and die to keep everyone else free. The fact that we were both airborne combat meant we belonged to an even smaller group of individuals. It was a tight-knit community, and word got around in it. If he hurt me, he’d be excised from it like a cancerous growth at best. At worst, someone might really do a flyover and drop a bellyful of iron onto his head.
Something in my face must have given my thoughts away because he straightened and took a step back, hands loose at his sides, waiting. I rolled the window up, turned my car off, grabbed my purse, and got out. His hands landed on the roof on either side of me, caging me in, and I barely had enough room to turn and face him after shutting my door.
I stared up at him from inches away. A nearby streetlight cast its anemic glow over us, and the dim illumination did nothing to make him look less dangerous. His brows shaded his eyes, turning them into twin pools of cerulean. Suddenly the nickname the Viking made a whole lot of sense. Shave the sides of his head to the scalp, add a few bloodstains and smear some stylized runes across his skin, and he’d be all set to go terrorize a sixth-century English village.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“We need to sell the lie,” he said, leaning closer.
Right. The lie that we were fucking.
“Sure,” I said, settling back against my door.
Approval lit his eyes, like he was impressed that instead of arguing with him, I chose to go along with this weirdness. Little did he know that I was all for anything that brought his big body closer to mine.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, why all the deception? And why did he think he was being watched in the first place? Was he some sort of undercover agent who had infiltrated the club? I looked him over, taking my time. He didn’t seem like a narc. In fact, from everything I knew about him, he was all too happy in his role as an enforcer for the Kings. Was it something else? A rival gang or a rift inside the club?
My questions cut off when he closed the distance between us. At five ten I was pretty tall, but I still had to look up at him. His beard tickled my cheek as he leaned in. I shivered when his lips brushed the shell of my ear. I’d wanted to be close to him all night. Hell, if I was honest, I’d been dreaming about this since the first time I laid eyes on him, and who knew when I might get another shot?
I turned my head and nuzzled his neck. The smell of his cologne was stronger here, dark, heady, spice and musk and the slight tang of citrus. It paired well with leather.
“Why do you walk with a limp?” he asked.
I blinked, surprised out of my dirty thoughts for the second time in less than five minutes. “You ever heard of small talk, Jakob?”
His breath warmed my neck when he answered. “Never saw the point of small talk. It’s just useless words people throw around while they wait for someone to say something meaningful.”
Well, shit, when he put it like that…
“My right leg is basically bionic,” I said. “Hip replacement, pins holding my knee together, steel grafted to my shin and femur, you get the drift. I was medically discharged because of it.”
“Combat wound?” he asked.
I nodded, knowing he would feel my answer because of our proximity.
This was the part where he would pull back and look at me with pity. I’d had other soldiers do it, and I knew they weren’t really seeing me anymore but thinking of people they’d served with, feeling that terrible tug of survivor’s guilt for making it out of some hellhole unscathed when so many others hadn’t.
Jakob didn’t pull away, and he didn’t look at me with pity. He put a hand on my injured hip, gently, and leaned in instead. “What happened?”
For some reason our forced intimacy made talking about it easier than usual. Maybe that was because with his nose buried in my hair, I didn’t have to look at him as I spoke or because he hadn’t reacted the way I anticipated, or maybe it was because as a Night Stalker, I knew he’d seen worse shit than I had and could understand what I was about to say.
“We took heavy fire during the siege of Kolomyya,” I told him.
“Ukraine?” he asked, his voice low enough that it had a little bit of growl to it.
I nodded again, thinking back to the brief but bloody shadow war the US had fought with Russia after they’d claimed the Crimean Peninsula and then tried to drag the rest of Ukraine back into the fold of the new USSR.
“The landing gear was damaged during the battle,” I said. “Our pilot was forced to execute a controlled crash on a dirt road outside the city. Engine number four hit the ground. Its casing cracked, and the oil lines broke, spewing jet fuel everywhere. Something must have sparked because the right wing caught fire.”
“That doesn’t explain your leg,” he all but purred into my ear.
I took a deep breath. “Our equipment broke loose during the crash. My leg got pinned as I was trying to jump clear. It took four of my crewmates to free me. They almost burned to death in the process.”
“The pilot?” he asked.
“It wasn’t a flat road,” I said. “The nose caved after we hit. He was crushed.”
Those were the facts. Straightforward, no-nonsense, clinical. It was the standard story I told. If I didn’t let myself think about it, sometimes that’s all it was. Sometimes I didn’t see the ground rushing up at us through the open bay doors. I didn’t feel our youngest crewmate squeezing my hand for dear life. I forgot how scared I was when she and I were ripped apart during that first jarring impact. I didn’t hear the metal screaming over dirt and rocks or the wrenching groan of steel as it buckled under an immense pressure it was never designed to take. I didn’t feel my body broken under an impossible weight. Hear my crewmates screaming over me as I dipped in and out of consciousness. Feel the unbearable heat of the nearby flames or my terror of being left behind and burned alive.
“I remember that crash,” Jakob said. “I was maybe fifty miles away.”
A swell of surprise put a swift end to the tears that threatened. He’d been there? And near enough that he might have seen our plane if he’d looked up at the right time?
It was bizarre to think that he was in the same place as me on the worst day of my life, and yet it made me feel even closer to him somehow, our intimacy losing its forced edge and turning into something far more dangerous.
I didn’t ask him where exactly he’d been or what he’d been doing on the outskirts of Kolomyya. The answers might be classified, which meant we’d both go to jail if he told me, and I didn’t relish the idea of spending the rest of my days in Leavenworth.
He squeezed my hip again, oh so gently, and stepped back. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
My head swam. Maybe he wasn’t an alpha douche after all. Maybe I was the asshole for judging him too soon.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Ready to go up?”
I nodded, still trying to get my shit together.
He led me to the back door of a small brownstone. We were in an older section of downtown where the buildings ran into each other like row houses and gentrification had yet to move in.
“How many flights of stairs?” I asked.
He held the door open for me, letting me go first. “Two.”
I looked up at the first set and sighed. I could go down stairs just fine, but going up could be a struggle sometimes, like right now when I was already tired and my entire leg throbbed with sharp flashes of pain.
Jakob stayed behind me, letting me take the lead and set our pace. I put my left foot on the bottom step, took a deep breath, and started the climb. My hip joint protested. My lower leg ached like one giant shin splint. The bones of my knee felt like they were grinding to dust against the metal that held them in place. I grit my jaw and kept going, hand on the rail to help me push off.
After what felt like a small eternity, we made it to the final landing. I paused outside Jakob’s door and caught my breath. There better be one hell of a comfortable couch on the other side of this.
“Please tell me you have aspirin,” I said.
Jakob slipped past me and slid his key into the lock. Or he tried to. At the slight press of his hand, the door opened with a whoosh. I looked down and saw the now obvious signs of forced entry.
So did Jakob. He spun away from the doorway, pulling a gun from inside his jacket. I yanked mine free at the same time, dropping my handbag to the floor beside me. Thanks to our military training, we held our weapons in identical fashion: muzzle turned toward the floor, right hand around the grip stock, left hand cupped underneath, pointer finger along the barrel.
Our eyes met across the divide. He let go with his left hand and made some weird gestures at me.
“I don’t speak Army,” I whispered.
He sent me an unreadable look and squatted down, ready to take point. Most people holding a gun aim at chest height by default. If Jakob went in lower, he had a better chance of catching whoever was inside off guard. The problem was, there weren’t any lights on. Darkness radiated out of the maw of the apartment like a beast waiting to bite.
I signaled for Jakob to wait a second and then pulled my phone from my purse. Fingers shaking, I hit the flashlight button, ground my teeth against the pain of crouching down, and whipped the phone across his floor. It spun over the hardwood, lighting up the room like a disco ball. Jakob waited half a second and ducked around the corner, gun aimed. When he didn’t immediately fire or jump back into the hallway, I assumed no one was inside.
He rose from his crouch. “Clear.”
I let out a shaky breath and lowered my gun.
“Hi, Daniel,” Jakob said.
I peered around the doorframe. My eyes adjusted to the weak light of my phone, and Daniel King materialized in front of me. The meanest son of a bitch in Kearny sat in the middle of the apartment on the couch I had so recently lusted after. No one else was in sight, so he must have been the one to bust the door open.
What the hell was going on here?
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.