ALWAYS A WARRIOR
A Brief Synopsis
As the story opens, Laurie Crawford is awakened in the middle of the night by terrorists intent upon taking Laurie and her daughter, Stacy, hostage. Laurie interrupts their attempts to make the abduction look like an interrupted burglary. As hostages, Laurie and Stacy will keep her father (whom she believed dead) cooperative with the terrorist group. These plans are foiled when; acting on military intelligence information, Damien McAllister and his team of Navy SEALs arrives on the scene. In the midst of confined gunfire, the rescue is successful and Damien takes Laurie and Stacy to the safety of his mountain cabin. Once there, Damien teaches Laurie to shoot a variety of weapons and to defend herself in unarmed combat.
But the danger does not end there. The government’s plan to capture the traitor calls for Damien to use Laurie as bait to expedite his infiltration of the enemy group. However, a week’s isolation had created and accelerated their physical attraction to one another. Damien abhors the plan even more after they make love during their last night in his cabin.
Ignorant of these plans, Laurie sees only another traitor when she wakes to find Damien among the terrorists. Damien admits to using her to gain acceptance into the group. Though shocked, betrayed, and angry, Laurie reluctantly trusts him and his formidable skills with her life. During the escape, she shoots terrorists sneaking up on them. Her love and instinctive fear for his safety causes them to miss the extraction helicopter and they steal a jeep to escape. Nathaniel Crawford, Laurie’s father, is captured and returned to the United States to face charges of smuggling and treason. While spending the night in a room over a tavern, they make love again. Laurie rationalizes that it is only because she is glad to be alive and that the danger has passed. She blames adrenaline for her continuing fierce attraction to Damien. However, after she returns home she must face the fact that she still loves him in spite of everything. But he is leaving to return to his base. There is no future for them. She ahs committed the unpardonable sin of falling for the wrong man.
Six months later, after a mission in Afghanistan, Damien still cannot get Laurie out of his mind, or his heart. With his second year enlistment ending, he hesitates to re-enlist. A long forgotten, long buried, part of him wants a home and family. He spends thirty days leave with Laurie and Stacy, and then accepts an honorable discharge since he believes Navy SEALs cannot have families if they are to be effective warriors. He had lost a wife and two children to his career years earlier. No woman will tolerate the needs of his job. He wants Laurie and Stacy, loves them to distraction. So, he gets a civilian computer job and marries Laurie, giving himself an instant family.
After a short period of wedded bliss, the deeper problem of posttraumatic stress disorder gradually makes an appearance. Nightmares, depression, and moodiness become routine, interspersed with sporadic violence. During this time, Laurie discovers she is pregnant and decides to write a book with characterization taken from Damien. With probing, often painful questions, she uncovers the one mission that haunts Damien the most. Ten years earlier, he was forced into killing his teammate, who was caught in a deadly trap called a ‘gateway to heaven’. With no chance of rescuing him, Damien acceded to the young man’s urgent pleas to end the pain and suffering.
To escape the torment of these terrible memories, Damien turns to alcohol in a misguided attempt to forget. To make matters worse, the terrorists emerge with demands that Crawford be released and to exact revenge. Juggling past and present, Damien plunges into a dark tunnel. The vicious cycle erupts in a violent flashback. With a loaded rifle, he subjects Laurie to a prisoner of war interrogation but retains the shred of sanity that prompts a call to Justin Carpenter, his best friend and a combat veteran. Damien decides Laurie and Stacy would be safer, and better off, without him. He packs some of his belongings and stays with Justin for a while.
The only thing that brings him back is Laurie’s car accident, resulting in a miscarriage. Damien ahs the car thoroughly examined. It was no accident. The car was expertly tampered with so she crashed during a thunderstorm. With Justin’s help, and a few harsh truths, Damien has quit drinking but is in no position to hold off the terrorists. Without the resources available to the Navy SEALs, he is alone.
In a bold as brass move, the terrorist leader known only as the General takes Laurie and Stacy hostage to draw Damien into the open for his revenge plot. With no other choice available to him, Damien returns to the SEALs and, as he believes, gives up the family he loves. He rescues his daughter and his drugged, wounded wife, and then leaves her in the hospital.
Laurie flashes rapidly from fury at his dismissal of their love and his highhanded treatment of her heart, to resignation that she cannot keep him, to determination not to allow one pig-headed, mule-stubborn warrior to destroy their family. She tracks Damien to his base and, in a conspiracy with Damien’s commanding officer, has him transferred from bachelor quarters to family quarters. Unlike Damien’s first wife, Laurie is more than willing to let Damien be what he is, a Navy SEAL—the man she fell in love with. She does not want to change him into anything else. During a heart-wrenching dialogue she convinces him that it doesn’t matter where they live, only that they love.
Her eyes snapped open. Laurie Crawford peered intently into the shadows. Nothing jumped at her but every fiber of her being tensed into painful knots. Every instinct she possessed screamed danger. Tossing off the bedclothes, she scrambled out of bed. She tiptoed to the open door of her daughter’s bedroom and peeked inside. Nothing stirred in the soft moonlight. Stacy slept peacefully, a stuffed brown dog in her loose embrace.
A door creaked down stairs. Laurie froze, every muscle rigid. Heavy thudding footfalls galvanized her. Breath held, she quietly closed the door to Stacy’s room and peeked over the railing of the upper landing. No one moved on or near the stairs but the light spilling from the kitchen grabbed her attention. Heart pounding painfully in her chest, she inched back into her bedroom. She picked up the bedside phone but heard only an ominous silence.
Her glance fell on the window, lingered until she shook her head and turned back to deal with the intruders herself. The second floor windows were too high for a safe escape. At the bedroom doorway, she stared at the empty staircase.
One set of footsteps became three. Low, muttering voices drifted up the stairs. The rough sounds and syllables made no sense. She held her breath, straining to hear over her bounding heartbeat. Metal clattered. Glass shattered. Doors and drawers opened and closed. Panic gurgled in her throat, tasting like bile, but she forced down an instinctive urge to scream. Laurie clenched her fists, gritted her teeth, and stepped slowly down the stairs.
In the way of eerie slow motion, seconds stretched like hours but eventually she stopped at the bottom of the stairs. The voices were closer, louder, but still incomprehensible. She swallowed hard and slipped along the wall to the kitchen entrance. She peeked into the room. Three black-clad figures in ski masks rummaged through drawers and cabinets, flinging the contents around the room.
The man at the back door turned his head and spotted her. Surprise widened his eyes as their gazes locked for a brief moment before he shouted. The one nearest her strode forward, yanking her glance to him. Menace glittered in his dark eyes.
Drawing a harsh breath, Laurie ducked back from the door, turned on her heel, and ran. Her trembling hand grasped the doorknob. A five-fingered vise clamped onto her wrist and yanked her around. She staggered, stumbled back into the wall, but stayed on her feet. His eyes gleamed as he drove his fist toward her face. His hand was huge, magnified in her mind’s terrified eye. She jerked her arm up, instinctively blocking the blow. Pain exploded up her arm.
“Mommy! Where are you?” Stacy yelled, terrified, from the top of the stairs.
“Hide, Stacy!” Laurie screamed at the ceiling. Small feet pounded down the hall overhead. A door slammed shut. Then silence reigned.
The intruder brought his arm down, backhanded her across the mouth. The sharp burst of pain stunned her. The metallic taste of warm blood spurted into her mouth, over her tongue.
“Please,” she begged through the agony of split lips. “Take anything you want but don’t hurt my baby.”
He yelled over his shoulder. One of his cohorts ran up the stairs. Doors opened and closed amid muffled curses. A single thud was followed by silence.
Head still turned away from her; the attacker shouted another incomprehensible stream of words. With an abrupt explosion of adrenaline, Laurie drove her fist into his gut. As he doubled over, she jerked her knee up and smashed his nose. He fell over, sprawled on his back. Blood gushed from his nose and stained the plush, light blue carpet. In her frantic haste to get to Stacy, she leapt over the writhing body.
The front door exploded inward, ripped off its hinges. The crash reverberated through the house and her skull, shaking pictures off the walls and knick-knacks off the shelves. The clatter rang in her ears. She faltered.
Men in black military style uniforms stormed through the front door. More men crashed through the back door. The third intruder flew out of the kitchen, down the hall, followed closely by more men, obviously soldiers. Several people ran around upstairs; their rapid footsteps pounded over her head. Gunfire exploded around her. Laurie cringed, her ears ringing again. The acrid smell of gunpowder filled the air and her nostrils. Smoke obscured her vision, brought tears to her eyes.
No!” Laurie shrieked over the din.
Confused by the large number of people scattered through her house and the unconscionable noise, Laurie covered her ears and charged toward the stairs, focused only on Stacy. Yet another soldier ran through the door and crashed into her. She fell under his heavy impact and hit the floor hard. The breath exploded from her lungs. Bullets flew all around her but none hit her.
She forced the confusion from her mind and concentrated on her struggle with the soldier trying to hold her down. He slid back to grab her leg. She raised her other leg to deliver a crushing blow to his face. He blocked her foot with his other arm and grabbed her ankle.
On his knees, he dragged her to the door. She grabbed the doorjamb, splinters gauging her palms, but he pulled relentlessly. Her hands lost their grip and she was outside, shoved between the rose bushes and the wall. Fury choked her. Stacy was still trapped! She glared at the soldier, now crouched by the door. He peered around the door frame and pointed his gun inside. Laurie squatted behind him and would have gladly traded her next royalty check for a baseball bat.
“Stacy!” she screeched like a banshee.
He clamped a hand over his ear, turned, and glared at her. His dark brown eyes glittered with a strange fire of grim excitement.
“Stacy’s fine,” he whispered. “Shut up and be still.”
Laurie shook her head in frank disbelief. She leaned on the wall, studying the small tunnel formed by the bushes and the wall. She had to get to Stacy. Staring at her rescuers back, she edged backward. Thorns and branches scraped her skin but she ignored the tiny pains. Tiny rocks and fallen bush debris dug into her knees. Her hands clenched into fists in the dirt but she did not stop.
He looked back, scowled, and grabbed her wrist.
“Let go of me!” She tried in vain to pull away.
“If you want to stay alive, shut up and stay still,” he hissed and jerked her toward him.
Thunder shook the world. The window blew outward. Glass shards and jagged pieces showered the bushes. Laurie cringed, positive she was now deaf. The soldier threw himself on top of her. The back of her head smacked the ground. Tiny rocks dug into her back. Squirming beneath him, she struggled to catch her breath with her face buried in his chest. She opened her mouth to drag in air but tasted only the cloth of his uniform. She squirmed again until she dragged in air that carried a faint, masculine scent.
He rose up on one elbow, relieving her of some of his weight, and studied her intently. She sucked in more air. Her gaze clashed with his and she could not look away. Wriggling, she slapped her hands on his chest and shoved. He didn’t budge. His every taut straining muscle in contact with her body sent unwanted electric tingles through her nerves as she stared up at him. The depths of his dark brown eyes reflected concern and something she dared not examine too closely.
“Are you okay?” His surprisingly soft baritone caressed her ears.
Laurie nodded, as breathless from his disquieting nearness as from the sudden eruption of violence in her home.
“All secure!” was heard from inside the house but the soldier made no effort to move. He merely stared down at her. Laurie squirmed beneath his considerable weight, her eyes riveted to his unfathomable gaze.
“Stacy!” She shoved hard and pushed him off her. She crawled from under the bushes, glancing wildly around the yard.
“I’m coming, baby!”
Stacy, long dark hair flying behind her, ran from the direction of the driveway. Relieved, grateful, and trembling with the force of it, Laurie pulled Stacy into her arms and sank to the ground with her.
A spotlight from the truck at the curb lit the yard. Damien McAllister watched the reunion with his usual nonchalance. But despite his best efforts, his gaze was frequently drawn to Laurie Crawford as a woman, not as an assignment. He crossed his arms over his chest. He was here to facilitate the capture of a terrorists not ogle the terrorist’s daughter. He did not deny the physical attraction that had assaulted him in the bushes. He simply ignored it. He forced himself to view her as any one of a dozen pretty girls.
Still he could not stop staring at her. Dark brown hair tumbled in disarray around her head and shoulders, hiding her face from view. That short skimpy T-shirt she wore was even sexier than if she had offered herself to him stark naked. Her height, not quite five foot ten inches, carried her frame well. Gently rounded buttocks in skimpy white panties and full firm breasts gave her a sensual femininity that hid a wealth of strength and determination.
She had not killed the terrorist they found near the front door but she certainly hurt him. The other two were dead, killed in the gunfire. But the one she rendered almost unconscious might provide some useful information. Good old-fashioned lust tinged with reluctant admiration tightened his loins. Irritated, he squelched his urges. He was on a mission not in a bar.
As he watched, she glanced warily around the yard then focused on him. He sighed. She wanted answers now. She stood, held her daughter’s hand, and walked toward him. Grace and purpose in each long stride drew his attention to her long legs. He did not move, forcing her to come to him. Quite staring, he berated himself. You’ve just been without a woman too long.
He shifted his gaze to the little girl. Stacy was a perfect copy of her mother. She had the same long dark hair and graceful walk. At the moment she clung to her mother and stared at the ground, obviously scared. Damien thought of his own two children then banished the accompanying ache in his heart. He glanced at the house then back at Laurie Crawford standing in front of him, shaking her head. She shivered in the cool autumn air and her face turned red. His gaze dropped involuntarily to her hardened nipples, prominent beneath the flimsy T-shirt. He blinked and lifted his gaze to hers.
“Neal! Get a blanket!” he called to his second in command without looking away from her.
“Let’s have it.” She lifted her chin and faced him squarely, her hand fisted on her hip. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Not now,” he muttered and deliberately focused on the house. Six of his men carried three bodies, all in black, out the door. One squirmed slightly and moaned. The other two remained still. The ski masks had been removed. Out the corner of his eye, Damien noted that she stared at them without even a flicker of recognition.
“A-are those two men d-dead?”
“Yes,” Damien replied coldly, meeting her curious stare without hesitation.
“What are you going to do with us?” she demanded and her eyes went wide with fright as she pulled Stacy closer.
“Nothing,” he shot back, startled. Why would she think he intended her harm? Was the woman stupid? Or was she just shaken up? He shook his head in disgust.
Abruptly pulling the blanket closer around her, she turned to lead Stacy back into the house. Damien halted her with a firm grasp of her upper arm. He deliberately ignored the soft warmth under his fingers but it took some effort. She merely looked at the ground.
“You can’t go inside yet,” he told her, his voice low but firm. “My men are still searching.”
She shot him a puzzled glance of protest. “But they carried everyone out.”
“Bombs,” he answered calmly. “Or anything else they might have left behind.”
He fixed his steady stare on her. Her expression went from shocked confusion to fury in the blink of an eye. Her emerald eyes flashed fire.
“Bombs!” The word exploded from her, followed by rapid questions. “What is going on here? Why would there be a bomb in my house? Who were those men? Why are you here?”
Ignoring her furious battery of questions, Damien only looked around the area. Neighbors and a few media representatives formed a half-circle in the street. The low buzz of scattered voices hummed in the night air. Damien shifted his gaze back to Laurie. She appeared unaware of the speculative glances and outright stares, the people around her, as two of his men kept the crowd under control. She only stared at her house.
Two men fastened a huge sheet of sturdy rigid plastic over the window and another replaced the door on its hinges. Only minutes passed before two men exited the house and declared it clean. Damien nodded acknowledgement but heard Laurie’s sigh of relief as she led her daughter inside.
Damien followed her, listening. The neighbors gossiped in loud whispers as they wandered back to their homes. The truck roared off into the night. Finally all was silent. She stumbled into the house and Damien shook his head. Now came the hard part—telling her what was going on without telling her what he was really doing.
Laurie stopped abruptly in the living room, gripping Stacy’s hand, and stared dejectedly at the destruction. The explosion had ripped through the room. Bullets punctured walls. Everything had to be replaced, though most were priceless—the value sentimental rather than financial. This is unreal, she thought desperately. It can’t be happening.
“I’m securing this door.” The soldier’s voice startled her and she spun around, gaping at him.
He locked the door, checked the hinges, and stood and faced her, his expression unreadable. “Put the child to bed. This will take a while to explain.”
Rather than waste time defying his order, Laurie did as she was told. Once Stacy was safely tucked into bed, clutching her stuffed dog for comfort, Laurie detoured to her bedroom. Anxious for answers, she pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt then dragged a brush through her hair before twisting it into a ponytail. A glance at the clock drew a groan from her. It was three thirty in the morning. She wanted coffee.
The huge mess in the kitchen almost put her on her knees. While the coffee brewed, she cleaned. Her frenzied efforts soon had the kitchen presentable if not perfect. Rinsing the rag, she glanced up from the sink. The soldier watched her from the doorway. She busied herself putting cream and sugar on the table.
“You rescued us,” she declared, awestruck. Sanity returned with a jolt. “From who? How did you know? I don’t even know your name.”
Her hands shook as she poured coffee into two mugs. She placed one on the table in front of her rescuer as he sat down. She leaned against the counter, sipping from her mug. Absently, she fished a pack of cigarettes out of the drawer by the sink. Fumbling, she got one out and lit it.
“Who are you?” She took a long drag off the cigarette. It steadied her nerves and gave her something to do with her hands.
“Lieutenant Damien McAllister,” he supplied as he picked up the mug and drank slowly. His steady stare never left her.
Laurie smoked her cigarette and sipped her coffee, eyeing him intently. In the bright light of her kitchen, his rugged good looks commanded attention. Even sitting at the table, he looked tall, muscular, and trim. Strength and determination emanated from him but he appeared unaware of his own attractiveness. He had a job to do and radiated his confidence in his ability to do that job. Those compelling dark brown eyes speared her where she stood. Caught and held in his relentless stare, she almost felt helpless. This was not a sensation she wanted or liked.
Adrenaline, she mused, waiting for the letdown. She gripped the mug tighter in an effort to stop the shaking. Her heart beat erratically, painfully. She had studied the effects of adrenaline rushes, written them into her books, but rarely experienced the phenomenon herself. Forcing herself to draw a deep breath, she dragged her gaze from the soldier. A bullet lodged in the doorframe grabbed her attention. Her heart lurched at the thought of everything she had nearly lost.
She blinked but could not look away from that bullet. She took a slow step back, slowly crushed out her cigarette in the ashtray on the counter. Her hand trembled and she curled her fingers around the edge of the counter. She struggled for calm logic but her efforts were no match for terror sparked adrenaline.
Damien watched her carefully controlled movements. Long familiar with the effects of adrenaline, he knew what she faced. The mug slipped from her fingers and smashed on the floor. She flinched at the sharp sound. Coffee splattered on the floor. Her green eyes blazed with rage and fear. Her whole body trembled. Damien approved. His mission was far from over. Tense, he waited for the storm to break. He was not prepared for tears as delayed reaction set in.
She clenched her fists until her knuckles whitened. Her fingernails cut into her skin. Blood seeped from the half-moon cuts. Tears glittered in her eyes, fell in streams as she fought and lost the battle for control. With a wild shake of her head, she squeezed her eyes shut.
Damien watched her closely as she staggered then caught herself on the counter. He raked his gaze over her, lingering on her split, swollen lips. He’d have to treat that when she calmed down. When she opened her eyes again, that helpless confused look shot right through him. Her tears touched a chord deep within him. His combat hardened heart cracked a little but none of his carefully honed instincts told him what to do. He did the only thing that came to mind. He went to her and pulled her roughly into his arms.
Laurie felt his arms slide around her and sagged against him. She gasped for breath, sniffling between sobs, and leaned on his broad chest. Listening to his heartbeat, she allowed the strong rhythm to steady her until her knees stopped wobbling. She lingered for a moment, wrapped in his strong arms, and drew a deep slow breath. The aroma of strong black coffee mingled with the sheer masculine scent that proclaimed him man. Something indefinable shimmered inside her; something that resembled desire.
With a deliberate shake of her head, denying the brief sensation, she backed out of his embrace and stared up at him. The glimmer of concern in his eyes disconcerted her. He awkwardly brushed away the last trace of her tears with his finger. Such tenderness seemed out of place for him. His flustered, uncertain expression touched her and she almost smiled.
His finger lingered, gently tracing her lips. Sharp pain shot through the soft tissue; made her rudely aware of the damage and the fierce throb under the swelling. She winced and took another step back from him. He dropped his hand, lifted his gaze to hers.
“Some ice might help,” he murmured.
She shrugged. “Later.”
She bent over to pick up the remains of her mug and wipe up spilled coffee. It was time to put things back in perspective.
“All right,” she said as she dropped the rag into the sink. “Tell me what is going on here, Lt. McAllister. Who were those men and why were they in my house?”
She poured herself another cup of coffee with still trembling hands and sat at the table. Watching him intently, she waited until he was seated again. Her stomach churned, anticipating only bad news.
“What do you know about your father?” he countered curtly.
She shot him a sharp glare and shook her head, refusing to tell him anything about her family.
He sighed, sipped his coffee, and peered into her eyes. “You’re not going to like it.”
She let out a frustrated breath. “I already don’t like it. Spill it.”
“All right.” The dangerous gleam in his eyes unnerved her despite the matter of fact tone of his voice. “Your father is working with terrorists. He’s smuggling weapons and technology out of the country. We don’t know if he joined them willingly or if he is being forced. If that is the case, you and your daughter could be part of a plan to keep him in line.”
Laurie shook her head in automatic denial. “Not my father. He died before I was born.”
“Are you sure?” he persisted. “Maybe he simply left and your mother lied to you.”
“No!” she argued, rattled by his persistence. “He’s dead. If he had simply left, Mother would have found him and forced him to pay child support and alimony. She always hated that he died and left her nothing but me.”
Laurie looked away from him, stared at her own hand clenched around the cup. In the last twenty-nine years, Marjorie Crawford had never failed top remind her daughter of how she had done everything for Laurie with no help from anyone, especially her husband.
“Are you close to your mother?”
Laurie stiffened at his insensitive question but lowered her head. Marjorie wanted very little to do with the daughter she heartily disapproved of so Laurie stopped trying to bridge the distance.
“She says I’m too much like my father,” she finally said, her voice full of regrets she could not banish.
“Whether or not this man is your father, your life and your daughter’s are in danger. Someone believes you are related to Nathaniel Crawford.”
Her head snapped up again and she stared at him. “That doesn’t make sense,” she stated skeptically and rubbed her hand wearily across the back of her neck. “Why? I don’t have anything that would interest terrorists.” She blinked and rubbed her neck again. “I’m too tired to think straight.”
“It’s crystal clear.” Conviction rang in his voice. “The terrorists believe you to be related. If Crawford is giving them a hard time, then by threatening to harm or even kill you, they can force him back in line. They would have had you tonight if we had not stopped them.”
Laurie cocked her head, puzzled. “How did you know?” She fiddled with the cup in her hand but did not want any more coffee. Her nerves were already jangled and wired for sound.
“Intelligence,” was the terse response. “The government has been looking for this group for years. They’ve been elusive until now. When we had a name, we looked for possible connections and strike points. You were at the top of the list.”
Exhausted, Laurie smothered a yawn. “What happens next? I assume there’ll be more trouble.” She propped her chin on her hand and struggled to keep her eyes open and her mind focused. “They won’t just give up.”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I’m staying to protect both of you.”
She snapped to abrupt attention at that declaration. “Just how do you intend to do that? I don’t want the Army camped on my doorstep.”
He snorted with derision. “Not Army. I’m a Navy SEAL.”
“A psycho,” she muttered under her breath. “That’s all I need.” Of course she had heard of the Navy SEALs—the Navy’s fiercest, best trained soldiers. They were an elite group, the best commandos in the world. They thrived on danger and risk.
If McAllister heard her muttering, he gave no indication. She sighed in resignation. She could not ask for a better bodyguard but she did not have to like it.
“You’d better get some sleep,” he suggested, staring into his coffee cup. “We’re leaving in the morning.”
Just a few hours later, morning dawned bright and clear but the morning air carried a distinct October chill. Laurie stretched wearily under the thick blue comforter and shut off the annoying buzz of her alarm clock. Resisting the urge to roll over and go back to sleep, she slid out of bed to stand barefoot on the plush gray carpet. Bleary-eyed, she wondered why she felt as though she had not slept long enough. She had gone to bed at her usual time. She frowned, brief images of gun fights, terrorists, and soldiers flitting through her mind.
“What a weird dream.” She yawned and stretched away the lingering effects of sleep but could not chase the weariness. After Stacy left for school, she would catch a nap.
She dressed quickly in a gray sweatshirt and faded jeans as she shrugged off the vague memories of the odd dream. But she could not forget those compelling dark brown eyes. Just the memory of him looking at her, of that gentle finger on her face, his strong arms around her, sent pleasant tingles along her spine.
“Too bad he was just a dream,” she murmured as she tugged on socks and shoes. “A product of your vivid imagination.”
She dragged a brush through her hair, twisted the length into a ponytail, and dashed down the stairs. Stacy would be up soon wanting breakfast. Her foot hit the bottom step. Her casual glance swept the living room, and then jerked back and she stumbled to a halt.
The room was a disaster, the picture window and furnishings destroyed. Various holes yawned in the walls. Laurie clutched the corner of the wall and gaped at the destruction. Every vivid detail of the night before rushed back into her head. Her heart pounded in her throat and she swallowed hard.
“Shit,” she groaned, devastated, and looked around the room.
Her glance landed on a framed eight-by-ten picture that had fallen off the wall. Dazed, she deftly picked her way through the rubble to retrieve to photograph of Laurie and Stacy on Stacy’s fifth birthday. Holding it in trembling hands, she gently blew off dust and glass fragments. Why? Who?
She knew. McAllister had told her. She did not want to believe it. Ordinary people in ordinary places did not have to deal with terrorists. The situation had all the earmarks of a movie-of-the-week. But it was real, and it was happening to her. Laurie frowned and, illogically, hung the picture on the wall and turned away. Damien McAllister stood in the living room entrance.
“It wasn’t just a dream,” she murmured, breathless, referring to the soldier as well as the destruction.
He said nothing, his gaze locked with hers. His eyes were as dark, as compelling, as she remembered. Her nerve s tingled, sizzled. He made her very aware of being a woman as she took a step toward him. Glass crunched under her foot, snapped her back to reality. She stepped over what used to be a glass-topped coffee table and all but ran past him to the kitchen.
“Want some coffee?” she offered, keeping her voice carefully neutral as she passed him. “I need some.”
McAllister stepped aside, not touching her. But her stomach fluttered in sensual awareness. His piercing stare seemed to bore into her skull as he followed her. He seated himself in the same chair he used a few hours earlier, facing the kitchen and back doors. Of course, she realized. He wanted advance warning of intruders. A steaming cup of coffee sat in front of him.
Laurie poured herself a cup from the pot he had already made, lit a cigarette, and joined him at the table. Glancing at her ‘bodyguard’, she wondered idly if he had bothered to sleep at hall. He needed a shave and a shower though the dark stubble made him sexy rather than scruffy. Unruly black hair was tousled around his head in a mass of waves her fingers itched to slide through. He still wore the same rumpled uniform but her mouth watered at the sight of him. Dark circles under his eyes proclaimed fatigue but those dark eyes glittered with steely determination. His presence seemed to fill her kitchen, overwhelming her. She forced herself to look at the tabletop, lifted her cup to her lips.
“How soon can you be ready to leave?” he demanded suddenly.
Startled, she glanced at him in surprise. “Why do we have to leave?” She forced herself not to clatter the cup as she set it down.
“The terrorists know where you are,” he replied succinctly. “It makes sense not to be here when more of them arrive.”
She drummed her fingers on the table. “But with you here they can’t get in.”
He flashed a brief but weary grin. “I’m good at my job but I’m not superhuman or bulletproof. We can’t take such a dangerous chance.”
Hearing Stacy move around upstairs, Laurie peered at him. “Where would we go?”
“A place only I know about.”
“Stacy will be absolutely safe?” Laurie demanded anxiously. Her voice shook with love and fear. “I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to her.”
He nodded slowly, lifted his cup. His stare locked with hers over the rim of the cup, promising safety.
In a subdued tone, she told him, “Give me an hour. We’ll be ready.”
Damien loaded Laurie and Stacy’s two suitcases and his duffel bag into the back of a rented four-wheel-drive pickup truck then climbed in behind the steering wheel. Laurie buckled Stacy into the middle of the bench seat and fastened her own safety belt. Worried, she looked at Damien over her daughter’s head. She clamped her teeth on her lower lip. Damien glanced at her and reached under the seat. He pulled out a holstered handgun and peered at her.
“Do you know how to use a gun?” he demanded stonily as he removed the weapon from the holster and checked the load.
She shook her head, staring at him. She twisted her fingers together to stop the nervous tremors. She had no experience with guns. She did not want to touch it.
With a grim expression, he slid the gun back into the holster and handed it to her. She barely managed not to flinch at handling the deadly object.
“It’s ready to fire,” he advised curtly. “Just don’t point it at anyone unless you intend to use it.”
Uncertain, Laurie stared at the gun, tempted to hand it right back to him. Her glance moved to her daughter’s head and she let out a slow breath as she tightened her grip on the gun.
“Just point and pull the trigger?” She cursed the fear in her voice.
He nodded, held her gazes for a moment, then started the engine and backed out of the driveway. Laurie cast a last lingering glance at her home and wondered how soon she might return.
Soon to be published, under contract, not yet available