Nic DíOnofrio is a hotshot pararescueman without a mission, on vacation, trying to understand the loss of his best friend in Afghanistan. His teammates say he has a Batman complex, even call him Batman when it suits them. All Nic wants is to ski hard, drink a lot and fall into bed at night, with or without a willing babe.
And then, there she is, stranded on the side of the road in Tahoe. Soft, sweet and so danged vulnerable. Julie. Thatís all she knows. Sheís wearing her pajamas. Batman does the only logical thing. He takes her home.
A Soft Place to Fall is the first in the Simpliciter Paratus series featuring Bravo Element,
a highly trained team of Air Force PJs.
"Another fine fix youíve gotten yourself into," Nic muttered as he stood at the window watching the snow come down yet again. Perfect conditions for the slopes, damn it. He glanced at his watch. Ten after three in the morning. Nic picked up the phone. Cruz would just have to get up a bit early.
Eric Cruzís sleepy, irritated voice answered after the first ring. "Cruz."
"Hollywood, Nic. Get your sorry butt out of bed, splash some cold water on your face. Iíll call you back in five. Iím in deep kimshi."
"Did you get yourself arrested or something?"
"No, asshole, I didnít. Iíll call you back in five."
The second conversation went a little better than the first. Aside from the biting remarks, made when Nic told him that Julie was asleep in his bed, Cruz said just what Nic expected him to say. Thank God. First thing in the morning, take this Julie person to the nearest police station and let the authorities handle it.
Joey had always been the level headed member of the three amigos, but Cruz had his moments. Let the experts handle it, then Nic could get back to skiing and carousing, which he was good at.
With a sigh of relief, Nic hung up the phone. Cruz was absolutely right. Nic wasnít a cop, even though he came from a family of cops. And, for that matter, he was on leave. The skiing would be perfect tomorrow. She could give him that pitiful, panicked look all she wanted to. He was doing the right thing.
Pulling the phone book from the desk drawer, Nic looked up the address of the police department. On the hotel scratch pad, he scribbled P.D. along with the street address. With the plan formulated in his brain, Nic curled up again on the couch, turned off the TV and slept.
"No, no police." She responded without hesitation. "Just get me to the car and Iíll figure out something."
"Címon, Julie. That doesnít make sense. You donít have your ID, or money or anything."
Julie pulled herself up straight. "Iím fully aware of that."
Frustration rose up in Nicís throat. "Well, thatís about all youíre aware of."
"Thanks for reminding me. I donít need this from you, Nic from Boston. Iím a big girl, I can take care of myself." Julie stomped to the window, stood by the desk, and fingered the phone cord. She stared at the phone as if trying to think of someone to call..
"Yeah, right. Youíre so independent that you came and slept on the floor beside me last night. Be sensible."
A small squeak came from her before she turned to face him. Julie glared at Nic for an instant. Dang, he shouldn't have said that. But then, almost as quickly as it materialized, the glare melted into indifference.
"Whatever you say."
Was that a concession? That was what he wanted, wasnít it? "You go shower first. Iíll order us some breakfast."
"Fine." Julie pushed past Nic, walked into the bathroom and shut the door.
As the shower ran, Nic ordered food. The phone rang just after he hung it up. Who would be calling him here? Maybe Cruz was checking to make sure heíd followed through. Nic grabbed the phone on the second ring, looking toward the bathroom to make sure Julie was still in the shower.
"Uncle Mickey, what are you doing calling me?" Nic knew the answer even before he asked the question. The last time Nick and Joeyíd gone home, theyíd dragged Cruz along. Heíd been an instant hit with the DíOnofrio family. "Cruz called you?"
"Heís convinced that youíre in danger, Boyo."
"Sorry he bothered you. Did he fill you in?"
"He did, and I thought you might want me to run down those plates for you."
"Well," he snorted "you surely arenít going to do what he suggested are you?"
"Yeah, I was. Why?"
"Because itís crap, Nicky."
"What does your gut tell you is going on with this girl, Nic? Youíve always had good instincts, even if you didnít become a cop."
Mickey had never gotten over the fact that Nic had preferred battling fires to fighting bad guys. Then, when he and Joey had made the jump to pararescue, Mickey had again pled his case for them to come back to Boston and join the force. Nic had never doubted that heíd made the right decision. Well, not until Joey died. He forced himself back to the present.
"I think sheís telling the truth. I think she really does have amnesia, if thatís what youíre asking."
"Partly. But what Iím really asking is this: what does your gut tell you to do?"
Nic was silent.
"Donít think, boyo, just answer."
"Sheís in trouble and she needs my help."
"And I donít want that responsibility."
"Look, Nic. You and I both know that long-term isnít in your vocabulary. A few hours, maybe twenty-four hours on the side of the mountain, okay. But youíre the master of momentary."
"Grow up, Nic. Help this poor girl out or youíll regret it for the rest of your life. Now, give me the damned license plate number and a description and Iíll see what I can find out."
Nic gave him the plate number and slammed down the receiver. Damn it all. Mickey had acted like Nic had already agreed to this crazy scheme of his, like he already knew what Nic would decide.
The shower shut off. Nic paced the length of the small living room, about twelve feet, turning his options over in his mind. A knock on the door, announcing the arrival of their breakfast made the decision for him. He decided to decide later. Citizen Nic was fully in control again - for the moment.
By the time Julie came out of the bathroom, wearing the only thing she had, her pajamas, Nic had the table filled with food. "Get some food, Iím going to shower." He hadnít intended to sound so testy but, what the hell, he was testy.
Julie sat down at the table, defeat showing in every move she made. She picked up a muffin and took an obedient bite.
Nic shrugged and headed for the bathroom.
The warm water felt good pounding on his chest. He was too tall to let it pound on his head. The problem with hotel showers. At least there was decent pressure. As he shampooed his hair the delayed conversation in his head started again.
Citizen Nic gave him all the common-sense answers. Take Julie to the people who solved these kinds of things for a living. But the nagging little voice, the one heard beneath the rustle of the cape, was accusatory. Youíre just avoiding a commitment here. But what youíre really afraid of is getting your heart involved. You are at a cross-roads, my friend. Itís time, Nic, to let down your defenses and take on something that will take more than a few hours of your precious time.
The argument went on. Nic just stood and let the water beat on his back. Good thing he wasnít at home or the water would have been ice cold by now. Nic put his hands against the wall and lowered his head into the stream, shutting his eyes. At last he raised his head and stepped back, shutting off the water.
"All right, Batman, hereís the deal." Nic muttered, as he pulled on jeans and a sweat shirt. "One week. She has one week. Iím committed to one week, you bastard. Happy?" He grabbed socks and walked toward the living room.
"Damn it all!"
The room was empty. Julie was gone, plain and simple.