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. My shift ended at 2 a.m., but I’d had to get through my closing checklist before I could even think about leaving. It was almost three now, my chores were done, and I had just finished showing Nina three different ways to break someone’s hold when they grabbed your wrist.
I glanced out the front window. There was no sight of Jakob’s matte black bike in the parking lot. My co-workers were slipping out the back door one by one. 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 having to put it to use against a drunk biker who outweighed me by a hundred pounds and 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 interior of the bar out into the sultry heat of the night. It might be early May, but here 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 cicadas 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 10-5. 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 shuteye. At least I never had trouble falling asleep. Combat vets are known for our ability to pass out anywhere, and I was no exception.
I was at a stoplight two blocks from the bar when an engine thundered to life nearby and roared into the night like a lion claiming its kill. A heartbeat 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 Victory splashed across the side of the engine. Its driver wore a skull cap 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 changed green. No one else was on the road, so I threw my blinker on and turned, trailing the bike as it 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 nine-millimeter that’d I’d bought 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 and 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 slipped his goggles and helmet off, then swung one long leg over the back of the bike and came over to me.
I left the car running and the doors locked as I cracked my window. “Well this isn’t weird or anything.”
He leaned down 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 artic sky in his gaze. “Didn’t want to be overheard at the bar. Wanna cut the engine and follow me up? Better if anyone watching thinks we’re fucking instead of trading secrets.”
And there went my mind, straight into the gutter again.
He took my momentary breathlessness as hesitation. “I’m not a threat to you. That’d be like hurting a family member.”
I frowned at him. “What?”
In answer, he pulled up his right sleeve just enough to reveal several inches 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 looked up from it and met his gaze. “You were a Night Stalker?”
He 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 1% 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 belly full of iron onto his head.
Sensing my shift, he backed away from the window. I rolled it up, turned off my car, grabbed my purse, and got out.
He crowded in close as I shut the door. His hands hit the roof of my car on either side of me, caging me in, and I barely had enough room to turn and face him.
I stared up at him from inches away. “What are you doing?”
A nearby streetlight cast its anemic glow over us, but the dim illumination did nothing to make him look less dangerous. His brow shaded his eyes, turning them into twin pools of cerulean. His cheekbones looked sharp enough to cut. 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 stylized runes across his skin, and he would be ready to terrorize a sixth century English village.
“We need to sell the lie,” he said, leaning closer.
Right. The lie that we were fucking. Oh boy.
“Sure,” I said, settling back against my door.
A flash of approval lit across his face, like he was impressed that instead of fighting him, I’d chosen 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 wondering, 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’d seen of 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 as he closed the distance between us. At 5’10, I was on the taller side, but I still had to look up at him. His beard tickled my cheek as he leaned in. I shivered when his lips ghosted over 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.
Screw it. When was I going to 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 lust-filled thoughts. “You ever heard of small talk, Jakob?”
His breath warmed my neck. “Never saw the point. 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 one hand on my hip and leaned in instead. “What happened?”
For some reason, our forced-intimacy made talking about it easier than usual. Maybe that was thanks to the fact that 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.
I nodded again. “The landing gear was damaged, and the pilot was forced to execute a controlled crash on a dirt road. Engine number four hit the ground. Its casing cracked. The fuel lines broke, spewing fuel everywhere, and the right wing caught fire. Our equipment broke loose during the crash. My leg got crushed as I was trying to jump clear of it. 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. The nose caved shortly 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, sometimes that’s all it was. Sometimes I didn’t see the ground rushing up at us through the open doorways. I didn’t feel Livvie squeezing my hand. I forgot how terrified 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 heat of the flames. My fear of being left behind and burned alive.
“I remember hearing about that crash,” Jakob said. “I was maybe fifty miles away.”
My surprise put a swift end to the tears that threatened. He’d been there? And close 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. 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 he’d been or what he’d been doing there. No doubt it was still classified. 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 and stepped back. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
My head swam. Maybe he wasn’t an alphadouche 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 was still a pain in the ass, and especially right now, when I was already tired and my entire leg throbbed with sharp flashes of pain.
Jakob stayed behind me, letting me set the 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 gritted my jaw and kept going, hand on the rail to help me push off.
Finally, we made it to the second story landing. I paused outside his 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 pressure 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 grabbed mine out of my purse and let the leather handbag hit the floor beside me. We held our weapons in identical fashion: muzzle turned toward the floor, right hand around the gripstock, 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 hand gestures at me.
“I don’t speak Army,” I hissed.
He sent me an unreadable look and squatted down, ready to take point. Most people holding a gun aimed 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 an idle threat.
I signaled for him to wait a second, pulled my phone from my purse, hit the flashlight button, grit my teeth against the pain of crouching down, and then whipped the phone across his hardwood floor. It spun, 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.
“Clear,” he said, getting to his feet.
I stepped inside.
“Hi, Daniel,” Jakob said.
I peered into the darkness. My eyes adjusted, and Daniel King materialized. The meanest sonofabitch 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 break the door open.
What the hell had I just walked into?
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.