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Tough as Nails

By Velvet Vaughn

Copyright

Copyright © 2017 VELVET VAUGHN LLC

ISBN: 978-0-9861652-8-3


This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Visit Velvet's website at: www.velvetvaughn.com and her Facebook Fanpage HERE.

Dedication

This book is dedicated to all the men and women who serve our country, both home and abroad. Thank you for your service.

Acknowledgements

I would like to sincerely thank the members of my Velvet Vaughn Street Team who help spread the word: Cindi R., Debbie M., Gary A., Karen D., Karen J., Lisa B., Tammy T. and Lisa B. I’m so thankful for all of you and truly appreciate your support!

And as always, a huge thank you to my mom. I couldn’t do this without you!

Table of Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Notes

Epilogue

About the Author

Prologue

Several Months Ago


Hillary Billings inhaled deeply, savoring the enticing aromas drifting from the nearby eateries. She was in Greece, absorbing the culture and experiencing the rich history of the birthplace of modern civilization. Athens, the largest city and capital, was a bustling metropolis on the mainland, surrounded by ancient ruins dating back over seven-thousand years. She could spend days here—weeks—and still not see everything the beautiful country had to offer.

Daphne Demarchis skipped over and locked her arm through Hillary’s, guiding her down the sidewalk to drool over a display of decadent chocolates in a bakery window. Daphne was the younger sister of Hillary’s COBRA Securities coworker, Dorian. Her impromptu trip overseas came about when the case Dorian was working turned personal. A man was killed in the building his mother owned, in the apartment above his family. Daphne found the victim and almost walked in on the perpetrator in the act. When the case hit too close to home, Dorian worried for the safety of his mother and sister, so he sent them to his mother’s homeland. Her sister lived on the island of Mykonos and she served as their tour guide. Hillary had always wanted to visit Greece and she couldn’t believe how lucky she was that she was available to take the case at the last minute. Having a native serve as escort was an unexpected bonus.

"Mama, you and Aunt Helen come stand next to Hillary." Daphne waved the two sisters over. "I want to get a snap of the three of you with the classic architecture of this building as the backdrop."

Though only a teenager, Daphne was an amazing photographer with an artistic eye, capturing subjects with creativity and depth. She arranged the three of them, tweaking positioning and placement until she was satisfied, and then stepped back, lifting her lens to frame the shot. Two men ambled down the street, casually approaching in dark clothing and sunglasses. Though they were glancing around the area, not seeming to pay them any attention, awareness crept down Hillary's spine and she automatically fingered her weapon.

Daphne lowered her camera. "Hillary, quit moving or you'll ruin the picture."

Everything happened in slow motion.

Sensing impending danger, Hillary’s instincts kicked in and she urged Mama Demarchis and Helen inside the chocolate shop, while yelling for Daphne to run. One of the men lifted a gun before she could draw and fired. The bullet impacted the Kevlar vest her bosses insisted all agents wear on assignments and knocked her backwards. She slammed into the building with the classic architecture, struggling for breath. The next shot pierced her non-shooting arm. The pain was excruciating but she blocked it out and fired at the shooter, relieved to see him fall. But the other man had grabbed Daphne and thrust her in front of him as a shield.

Daphne put up a good fight, throwing a sharp elbow into his stomach. He doubled over but didn't lose his grip. Then she stomped on his foot, but he was wearing combat boots while she donned a cute pair of gladiator sandals purchased on Ermou Street. Hillary wore a matching pair. Daphne tried smashing the palm of her hand in the kidnapper’s nose and he grunted, then she swung her arm down to punch him in the groin. The man "oofed" but kept his hold. Mama Demarchis and her sister were screaming. People had stopped to gawk, but no one wanted to interfere in a fight, much less one with guns. Tires squealed as a car screeched to a stop and the passenger door swung open. Another man jumped out. Hillary fired before he could and he tumbled to the ground. The kidnapper shoved Daphne inside and dove in after her.

“No!”

Hillary lunged but this time, the bullets that slammed into her stole both her breath and her consciousness.

Chapter One

Rocky Dixon pounded the receiver, ignoring the harsh glare from the guard who had just escorted him out the penitentiary doors. He’d been planning this day for over five years. When they finally unlocked the steel bars, signed over his meager possessions and led him to freedom, he’d strolled straight for the phone attached to a metal pole outside the facility. Frankly, he’d been surprised the thing still worked. With everyone and their dog having a cell, pay phones had become dinosaurs. Using the bottom of his shirt, he’d lifted the finger-print smeared receiver and fist-pumped when a dial tone sounded in his ear. The first call he’d made was to his old buddy Calvin Grimes. Calvin had only visited once, in the beginning days of his stint in the joint. He hadn’t heard from his so-called friend in years. When he couldn’t get in touch with Calvin, he’d tried Calvin’s old man. Martin Grimes was a mean son-of-a-bitch, but Rocky was willing to deal with the devil himself to find Calvin. He owed him. He owed him big. And Rocky was coming to collect. Except, he couldn’t get in touch with the old man, either. His phone had been disconnected.

Rocky turned away from the booth and glanced around the area. Nothing but dry brown grass, bare trees and flat land for miles. He checked his pockets. His only source of cash was what he’d had on him when he went inside. It wasn’t enough to purchase a bus ticket to his grandmother’s house across the state. God knows she’d never send him the money. He’d have to hitchhike. He didn’t even have a jacket to stave off the chilly spring air.

With a frustrated exhale, he headed down the dusty road leading to the highway. He was in great shape, thanks to hours of lifting weights in the yard. There wasn’t much else to do. However, he concentrated on building muscle so his cardio was severely lacking. He was breathing heavy and sweating profusely by the time he reached the interstate. From what he remembered, there was a rest stop close where he could hitch a ride or pass out, whichever came first.

Vehicles sped by him as he plodded along the side of the road. Exhaust choked him and he ignored the taunts from a school bus full of annoying brats. When one thrust his chubby little hand out the window and flipped him off, Rocky returned the gesture. He almost wept in relief when he spotted the blue sign announcing the rest stop a mile away.

He trudged to a picnic table in front of the information building and dropped down. His feet were killing him. Unlike the famous song, his boots weren’t made for walking. He glanced around, looking for an opportunity to bum a ride. The area was shockingly deserted. He plopped his arms on the table and lowered his head. Nothing was working out for him. What was he supposed to do now?

Air brakes whizzed, screeched and popped, drawing his attention to a huge rig as it slowed and angled into a long, narrow parking space. A burly dude with a black buzz cut and tat sleeves that rivaled his own jumped down with an agility that was impressive for the man’s girth. The guy was maybe five-three or five-four, and looked as wide as he was tall. He followed the man’s trek to the john, his eyes bulging when the guy ambled straight into the women’s restroom. Dude was a dudette. Huh. He hadn’t seen that one coming.

Glancing around for an alternative option, he couldn’t find another car, truck or, hell, human for miles. Sighing, he resigned himself to the task. She certainly wasn’t his first choice, but hell, he hadn’t had sex—with a chick—in over five years. Calling the husky trucker a female was pushing it, but desperate times and all that. Plus, he needed to get to his granny’s house where he’d have access to cash and a set of wheels.

He positioned himself directly in her path so she’d have to walk right past him to get to her rig. With jerky movements, he rolled the sleeves of his t-shirt and flexed his impressive-if-he-did-say-so-himself biceps, shaped and honed from all those bored hours pumping iron. She emerged from the restroom, wiping her hands with a brown paper towel. She noticed him for the first time, her eyes widening before darkening with interest. She kept her gaze trained on him as she deposited the towel in the waste receptacle and headed his way.

“Hey, sugar,” he drawled, treating her to a full body scan. “Don’t suppose you could help a guy out?”

The woman stopped inches away and eyed his tattoos. They were abundant. “Nice ink.”

He winced. Her voice sounded like James Earl Jones. “Yours, too.” He indicated the colorful sleeves that ran the length of both her meaty arms.

“What do you need, sugar?”

You to quit talking. “A ride to my granny’s house across state. She’s very sick and I want to see her one last time before she passes.”

“Aw, that’s too bad,” James Earl…er…the woman commiserated. She eyed him up and down. “I got room.”

“My wallet was stolen, so I can’t pay you.”

“We can work something out.”

During the next few hours, he discovered her name was Leslie and she had a predilection for whips and chains, which she kept stowed inside the sleeping compartment of her rig. His ass was still stinging as he navigated the steps to his grandmother’s house. He’d talked Leslie into stopping by a thrift shop so he could pick up a suit to wear—on her dime. Hey, he figured he’d more than earned it. Hazard pay. Then they’d hit a truck stop for a quick shower. He’d even shaved.

His druggie parents had dropped him off at his pop’s mother’s house when he was five and hadn’t looked back. They’d died soon after from overdoses. The old bat who raised him had washed her hands of him when he got locked up. Fine. He didn’t need her or her Bible-thumping ways. He was so tired of her accusing him of being a minion of Satan. Hell, maybe he was because all he wanted to do was take that holy book out of her hands and bash her over the head with it. Repeatedly. Still, he adjusted the lapels of the suit jacket and slicked back his hair. His tats were covered for the most part. Not much he could do about the ones climbing the sides of his neck. Granny decried tattoos as Satan’s handiwork. Leslie had loved them.

Gripping a bouquet of fresh flowers he picked out of some yard down the street, he rang her doorbell.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s your grandson.”

“Who?”

“Your grandson. Ricky.” He hated that stupid name, which was why he’d changed it to Rocky. It sounded tough, like him. He’d given himself the moniker after watching his hero Stallone beat the ever-loving daylights out of Apollo Creed, never mind that Creed won the fight in a split decision. Stupid movie writers. Stallone should’ve won.

The door creaked open and a frizzy cloud of white hair appeared. Granny had been ancient when he’d been locked up, but now she looked positively decrepit. Her nose wrinkled as if she smelled something foul. He opened his arms wide. “Granny!”

“Go away.”

He barely managed to wedge his foot in the door before she slammed it shut. “But Granny, I’ve missed you. It’s been over five years.”

“And whose fault is that? Satan has a hold on you, boy. You ain’t nothing but the devil in disguise, just like your good-for-nothing daddy.”

Rocky gritted his teeth and spouted the one lie that was sure to win her over. “But Granny, I found Jesus.”

Granny pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, judging his sincerity. He pasted on his most innocent smile. Granny was big on people finding Jesus. She considered it her mission in life to spread His word with her holier-than-thou attitude. He knew the key to getting her to let him in and he wasn’t ashamed to use it.

She finally relented and pushed the screen door open. The smells of his childhood hit him in the gut, making him swiftly nauseous. Lemon furniture polish. Granny considered cleanliness next to Godliness. Burnt microwave popcorn. Granny’s favorite snack. Why she couldn’t figure out that if she removed the damn bag ten seconds earlier, it wouldn’t burn, was beyond Rocky. Cat shit. Granny might like to clean, but the dozen or so varmints wandering around made her house reek like a giant litter box.

“Have you been saved?”

Rocky gaped at one limber orange cat licking himself and turned away in disgust. “Huh?”

“I asked if you’ve been saved, boy.”

“Yes, of course. I just told you that.” Was the old bat’s mind going?

She crossed the toothpicks she called arms and glared at him. “No, you told me you found Jesus. To be saved, you have to be baptized and pledge your life to Jesus.”

Well, hell. Not a thing wrong with her mind. It was a steel trap. “Uh...” Suddenly a plan struck. “Well, not officially. Yet,” he tacked on when she narrowed her bird-like gaze at him. “I met a priest who offered to baptize me, but he lives in North Carolina. I have to go to him and then I’ll be saved.” He smiled victoriously.

Granny pursed her lips. “Priest? You becoming Catholic, boy? Our family has been staunch Baptists for generations. You going against the family?”

“Slip of the tongue, Granny. I said priest, but I meant uh, minister?” When she nodded, he knew he used the correct term. “I need to get down there so I can fully immerse myself in the Baptist religion.” He’d be lucky if he didn’t gag on his words…or if God didn’t strike him down for the lies.

“That’s more like it.”

“There’s just one teensy problem.” He held his thumb and index finger an inch apart.

Granny’s frown was back in full force and her fists perched on her rail-thin hips. “What’s that, boy? You having second thoughts about accepting our Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he quickly assured her, using his hands to emphasize the point. “I’ve accepted Jesus. That’s a done deal. But I was just released today and I had to see you. I’ve missed you so.” Gag. “You’re my first stop. I haven’t been able to look for a job and I’m a little short on cash.”

“You asking for a handout, boy?”

“Of course not,” you old biddy, he almost voiced aloud. She was trying his patience something fierce. If that huge Bible was within grabbing distance, Rocky would be tempted to launch it at her and wipe that disapproving glower off her prune-like face. “If you could spot me the money, you can consider it a donation to the church. I’m even thinking of becoming a minister when I return.” He shot a glance out the window, hoping there were no storm clouds brewing. God would surely strike him dead for that whopper. When Granny remained silent, he chanced a look at her. He feared he’d gone too far when her thin lips puckered. He forced a smile and finally she nodded. “Don’t you need to check in with a parole officer or something?”

“No, I was released for good behavior.” He even managed to keep a straight face while delivering that lie. He’d caused so much trouble in the joint, he was denied parole at every turn. He’d served his entire sentence, plus a few extra months tacked on for various indiscretions. Hey, in his own defense, it was dog-eat-dog in there.

“Fine. I’ll lend you some money.”

He gave an exaggerated sigh and slapped a hand over his chest. “Thank you so much. But, uh, Granny, there’s one more thing. To get to North Carolina so I can be saved, I’ll need to borrow Gramps old truck.”

“You are pushing it, boy. Fine. I’ll give you one week. If you’re not back in seven days, I’ll report the truck as stolen by my felon grandson.”

You miserable old bitch. Rocky ground his teeth. “I’ll be back.”

“And call me every day to check in. If you miss a day, I’ll call the police.”

God, what was he, twelve? Hell, she hadn’t cared that much about his whereabouts when he had been twelve. “Of course,” he gritted out.

Granny reached for her purse. It was boxy and white and looked like it was made of wicker or something. She handed him two fifty dollar bills. Rocky looked from the bills to her face. A hundred bucks? Was she punking him?

“It’ll take that much in gas. Gramps truck sucks…er…guzzles it.”

She sighed like it was the biggest imposition and added a twenty to the pile. “That’s all I can afford. I’m on a fixed income, you know.” She waved her skeletal hand at him in a shooing motion. “Now be going so you can accept Jesus.”

So, she was eager to get rid of the criminal grandson, was she? Well, too damn bad. He glanced around the room. Cats everywhere. He didn’t know if he’d be able to stand even one night with the furry beasts. “It’s getting late and I’m hungry. I would love one of your home cooked meals. I’ve missed them so.” Not. “And I could use a good night’s sleep so I’ll be at my best when I meet Jesus.”

“What are you, slow? You ain’t meeting Him, boy. You are accepting Him into your life. You’ll be lucky to meet him when the time comes.”

“Right. Right. That’s what I meant.” God, she was draining. He’d almost rather be back in the joint than standing here with her. “How about it, Granny? I’ll be out of here first thing in the morning.”

“Fine. I’ll cook us a pot pie. I know they’re your favorite.”

Rocky’s gag reflex kicked in. He hated pot pies…always had. Granny forced them down his throat when he was growing up. He had to sit at the table and finish it before he could get up. They were always undercooked and over-salted. He sighed. He’d eaten worse in the big house. Most of that slop wasn’t fit for an animal, let alone a human being. He’d choke it down and do whatever he needed to stay the night. Little did she know, he remembered all her secret hiding places. One hundred and twenty bucks wasn’t nearly enough. Stingy old broad had thousands tucked away in hidey-holes all over the house.

After praising Granny for her disgusting dinner, Rocky retreated to his old room…which wasn’t so much a room as it was a closet. He’d had more space in his jail cell. All his belongings had been removed. He wondered what the old bat did with them. Oh well, not like it mattered. She hadn’t let him have anything like normal kids his age…no gaming systems or comic books or sports posters. He plopped down on the mattress and winced as a spring poked him in the back. He adjusted and shoved his hands behind his head. As soon as the television clicked off, he’d scour the house for her hidden loot. Granny liked her game shows and not only did she jack the sound to ear-bleeding levels, but she shouted out the answers. He grabbed a pillow and stuffed it over his head, ignoring the musty smell and the cat hair tickling his nose.

Rocky woke with a start, knocking the pillow from his head. He shot to his feet and took a defensive position, one he’d perfected in prison. No one would get the better of him or sneak up behind him again. He was no one’s bitch. When no threat presented itself, he glanced around. Where was he? Oh yeah, Granny’s house.

He craned his neck listening for the television but it was blessedly silent. Show time. He tiptoed from the room checking the hall to make sure it was clear. He had to pause until his eyes adjusted to the dark. Granny didn’t have so much as a nightlight. When he saw no signs of movement, either from the two-legged or four-legged variety, he tiptoed to the kitchen. A sudden noise had him swinging around and lashing out. The damn coffee pot kicking on. He’d almost knocked the carafe to the floor. His mouth dropped open at the digital readout. It was almost six in the morning. He’d slept through the night. Granny would be up any minute. She-it. He planned on hitting every one of her hiding places. Now he’d be lucky if he raided one.

#

Hillary Billings bolted upright with a gasp, knocking the blanket from her shoulders. Sweat coated her skin, plastering her t-shirt to her body. Goosebumps erupted along her arms. Kota, her Belgian Malinois, scrambled from his padded bed on the floor and leapt onto the mattress. He whined and licked her face, providing comfort. She rubbed him absently, still shaken from the gruesome dream. Her other hand strayed to the raised flesh on her chest, a remnant of the emergency surgery that saved her life.

The nightmares had lessened over time, but when they did creep into her REM sleep, they were vivid and frightening. After months of intense physical therapy and dogged determination, her physical injuries had healed. She’d passed all of Dante Costa’s grueling tests. The former Navy SEAL oversaw training and conditioning for all COBRA Security agents. He didn’t go easy on anyone, regardless of age or sex, and more than one recruit had labeled him an evil drill sergeant. He demanded the best out of everyone and he got it or you didn’t become an agent.

Her shooting skills were back on par, maybe even better than before. It was her mental injuries that caused her grief. She’d failed on her last job. Her charge had been kidnapped at gunpoint and she hadn’t stopped it from happening. The girl had eventually escaped unharmed, with no thanks to Hillary. She’d been lying in a hospital bed in Greece, fighting for her life at the time.

Her mind flashed back to that horrific day that had started out innocently enough, with blue skies and sunshine. Beneath the designer tunic she’d picked up for a steal while shopping on Ermou Street, she’d been wearing a bullet-proof vest. When the shots started flying, it’d done its job, catching three slugs, but one pierced her non-shooting arm, while another entered under her arm when she’d been returning fire. It’d bounced around inside her chest cavity and done extensive damage, but thankfully missed her heart.

She didn’t remember anything about the ride to the hospital or the surgeries that saved her life. Her only living relative was her older brother, Quinn. He’d been serving overseas in the military at the time and she’d signed power of attorney to her bosses, Luke Colton and Logan Bradley. Luke had flown to Greece to consent on the operations and to bring her home when she could travel. Quinn had secured leave so he could visit her while she recovered. He’d been due to renew his military contract, but seeing her so injured altered his career plans and he chose to step away instead so he could be closer to her.

Hillary didn’t remember much about her mother. She vaguely recalled a sweet singing voice, the scent of vanilla and lots of comforting hugs. She’d passed away when Hillary was an infant. She’d been raised by her father, a career military officer, and her older brother. They moved around constantly during her childhood when her father was transferred to a new base, sometimes in the country, sometimes overseas. Never staying in one place for long made it difficult to make friends other than Quinn. It was during her Sophomore year that her father died in a training accident. Quinn had been a Senior, and he’d handled everything from the funeral to the collection of insurance policies to the sale of the house, putting most of the money into trusts for their futures. Instead of accepting the basketball scholarship he’d been offered from a Big Ten school several states away, he’d stayed and played for the state university, helping them to their first NCAA appearances and earning All-American honors. With the money from their parent’s estate, he rented an apartment off-campus so she could live with him. She also declined basketball scholarships from across the country to play for the same state school. Knowing a career in the NBA was risky and competitive, Quinn followed their father’s career path and signed up for the Army after graduation. She joined him two years later. Though Quinn chose to re-sign, she’d declined when her tour was up, instead hiring on at COBRA Securities.

Hillary glanced at the clock, knowing she wouldn’t be getting any more sleep. “Come on, Kota, let’s go for a run.” Kota “woofed” and hopped off the bed, racing for his leash. She smiled, loving his playful side. He was a trained service canine, usually in protection mode. She’d argued with her brother when he tried to give Kota to her. Quinn worked with dogs in the military and he was in the process of starting his own business after mustering out a few weeks ago. He would be training dogs that would be sent all over the country to various organizations that requested them. Her bosses at COBRA Securities were negotiating with him to provide highly-skilled dogs for the agency. When she spoke to Quinn a few days ago, they were close to signing a contract and her bosses had even thrown in acreage at the complex to construct a world-class training facility. Quinn worked mainly with German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois like Kota. A breed similar but smaller than German Shepherds, Malinois’ were compact and fast with a sense of smell forty times greater than that of a human. A Malinois named Cairo even accompanied the Navy SEALS on their successful raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in 2011.

She was so proud of her big brother and knew his business would be a huge success. Having him close was icing on the cake. She’d idolized him her entire life, always wanting to do whatever he did. She’d been the first girl to play Little League with the boys in the town they were living in at the time. She played the same sports he did in high school, albeit for the girls’ teams this time.

She didn’t want Quinn to think her weak, so she’d tried to reject the dog. But one look into Kota’s big brown eyes and she fell irrevocably in love. With his short mahogany coat, black mask and ears, he was adorable. He’d been her constant companion ever since. They’d gone through an intense bonding program where they learned to rely on each other, and she’d memorized the commands that sent him into action. They were so close now, she couldn’t imagine her life without him.

She was strong enough to admit to herself that she was still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the shooting. Kota helped calm her, ground her. He was attuned to her moods and if she felt a panic attack coming on, he was immediately by her side. She never dreamed she’d be washed up at twenty-nine, but that’s how she felt.

She slid on her Nikes and attached her belt bag. She didn’t go anywhere without her cell and a weapon. And doggie-doo baggies. This pack had space for a bottle of water and she always carried a collapsible bowl for Kota. He waited patiently for her to make her way down the hall, his leash dangling from his mouth. She scrubbed his head and removed the lead, clipping it to his collar. When she opened the sliding glass door, the sounds and smells of the ocean washed over her and her eyes closed on a happy sigh.

This time at the beach was to rejuvenate her soul before she took on new assignments. No one knew the extent of her struggles, of her self-doubt. She made sure of it. Kayla Hepburn, her best friend and roommate, had guessed. But Hillary brushed off her concern. She’d learned in the military to never show weakness and she still lived by that mantra. She trusted her coworkers one-hundred percent, but she didn’t want pity. If Quinn knew about the nightmares, he’d drive her to a shrink so fast, her head would literally spin. He took overprotectiveness to a new level. All she needed was some time to gather herself and what better place to do that than in a seaside cottage on the Outer Banks. Sawyer Oldham, one of her coworkers, was good friends with the owners and he’d hooked her up with the accommodations. It was fully furnished and they even welcomed Kota without complaint.

Kota matched her pace as they descended the wooden steps and crossed the short boardwalk over sea grass that led to the sand. After warm-up stretches, she took off at a fast clip. Kota ran beside her, always alert, always cataloguing their surroundings, as did she. It was early and they had the beach to themselves. If she’d waited a few weeks, the shores would’ve been packed with the summer crowds. At the four mile mark, she turned and headed back. The sun was just starting to rise over the Atlantic. After another two miles, she stopped to watch the giant red orb slowly paint the sky in vivid shades of red and orange and pink. She whipped out her phone and snapped pictures, sending them to Kayla with no message. Her phone chimed a text. She smiled at the emoji sticking out its tongue. Kayla was jealous of her trip, but as much as she loved her roommate, being alone was what she needed right now. She had to get her head on straight. Her job was on the line.

She slid the phone back in her bag and glanced around. It was chilly in the mornings but she’d worked up a sweat. The beach was gradually starting to buzz with activity. An older couple walked slowly along the sand, searching for seashells. A man and young boy had set up poles in the surf to catch fish. Two shirtless men ran past her and one of them winked. He looked like he was in high school. All the while, Kota sat patiently at her side.

She scratched his head and started back to the cottage. The other houses along this stretch were well-maintained except for the one next to hers. One strong wind and it could very well become one with the ocean. She couldn’t imagine anyone owning a home with this incredible view and letting it fall into disrepair. She’d just moved into her cottage yesterday, but she hadn’t seen anyone around the house. Maybe they were seasonal and didn’t visit often. That would explain the lack of concern for the exterior.

She removed Kota’s lead as they jogged up the steps to the deck. He was so well trained, he didn’t need one, but she followed the leash laws for dogs on the beach. She glanced at the house next door and thought she saw a face in the window. She squinted for a better look but it was gone. A chill swept down her spine. It hadn’t looked like an ordinary face…it had looked evil.

Chapter Two

Rocky Dixon couldn’t believe his damn bad luck. First, he’d only managed to raid one of Granny’s hidey holes before she woke up, only to find out it was severely depleted. A measly three hundred bucks in twenties was stuffed behind the loose brick in the upper right corner of the fireplace. Maybe Granny was falling on tough times. Or maybe if she didn’t sign over all her Social Security checks to Jesus, she’d have more cash. Stupid old bat.

Gramps ancient Ford truck was a piece of shit and clearly Granny hadn’t taken a bit of care with it. The tires were bald, a fact he learned firsthand when one blew out on the freeway. He barely managed to wrangle the truck to the side of the road and skid to a stop with cars whizzing by at break-neck speeds. Thankfully there had been a spare so he muscled it on and continued on his merry way.

He stopped at a Wal-Mart for a change of clothes and basic toiletry items. He also purchased a disposable cell phone. When he slid back in the truck after paying for his purchases, he made a call and arranged to meet up with a fellow inmate now living in Georgia who’d been paroled last year. Rocky couldn’t remember exactly what the man had been incarcerated for…something white collar like embezzling or money laundering. All he knew is that he could produce a fake identity, something Rocky would need so Granny couldn’t track him down and have his ass thrown back in the pen. He didn’t even know the guy’s real name. They’d called him Einstein because he was so smart. And he owed Rocky. A few hours later, he headed to North Carolina as Daryl Pitts.

He was tired and cranky when he finally pulled up to Calvin’s house, but one gawking look out the windshield and he was wide awake. What the hell? It looked like it was about to collapse. It’d been a nice place the last time he’d been here. Granted, that had been years ago. He got out and glanced at the crooked mailbox with a missing door and the name Grimes in peeling black letters. All was quiet but the sound of the surf. He navigated the steps to the front door, almost falling through a soft spot on the porch. He pounded on the door and waited. Nothing. He banged again. When his knock went unanswered, he placed his hands against the glass and peered inside. It looked like a hurricane had hit the interior, but there was no movement.

He made his way down the dangerous steps and walked around the side of the house to the back. The deck appeared to be in worse shape than the porch. He took his life into his hands when he bypassed rotting boards and peered through the sliding glass doors. There was no one home. Looked like there hadn’t been in months.

Hands on hips, he gazed out at the water, not even appreciating its splendor. What to do now? With a frustrated exhale, he stomped to the truck and slid inside. After three tries, the engine cranked and he motored down the road until he came upon a cheap motel. The sign listed vacancies, along with free cable and Wi-Fi. He pulled in and parked next to the lobby. The clerk was a middle-aged man with a ring of white hair surrounding a bald spot and a bushy mustache. The nametag on his flannel shirt read ‘Bob’. After he checked into a room, scribbling his name so it was illegible, he asked Bob if he knew the Grimes’ family.

“Martin Grimes? Lived down the road?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. I’m friends with his son…wait, did you say lived? As in past tense?”

“Died a couple of years ago.”

Rocky’s brows lifted. Hell got a little fuller when that mean codger croaked. “What happened?”

“Had a massive stroke right after his wife died. Couldn’t talk or walk. Hung on a while but he finally passed about a year and a half ago.”

The wife died, too? More information he didn’t know. “What about his son, Calvin? He still around?”

The innkeeper shook his head. “Died, too.”

Rocky gripped the counter, his heart pounding in his ears. “Wh…” he had to clear his throat. “When did that happen?”

Bob scratched his bald spot. “Don’t remember for sure. About six months ago, seven maybe?”

Rocky staggered until his back met the wall. Calvin was dead. That rat bastard couldn’t die. He owed Rocky. He owed him big. Rocky had kept his silence and now it was time to collect.

He thanked the man and made his way to his room in a daze. He grabbed his luggage from the truck, which consisted of a plastic bag full of discount store crap, and carried it to his room. The motel was old but it looked clean. A blue comforter covered the bed and the television was a flat screen. He tossed the shopping bag on the dresser and dropped to the mattress. Calvin was dead. What to do now? The only thing that kept him going day after day, night after night behind bars was thinking of what waited for him when he got out. But now Calvin had selfishly died before Rocky could collect his dues. Then it hit him. He jumped to his feet. The house. He needed to search the house.

After pocketing the key card, he left the motel and crossed the road, using the public access to the beach. A few people were wandering about so he just lowered his head and kept walking. He slowed when he neared Calvin’s house. It didn’t look any better from this angle. He traversed a small boardwalk over swaying beach grass two houses down. Lights glowed from inside so he quickly ducked past the windows to the next house. It was dark. Hopefully the homeowners weren’t around. He paused before he reached Calvin’s and drew a ski mask from his pocket. He’d walked right past the store display before he stopped and went back for one. At the time, he thought he might need it if Granny sent the police after him. Now it would work if someone saw him break in. If he remembered correctly, there was a side door that led to a mud room. He’d been a pretty good lock-picker in his youth, though his skills were now rusty. Not much chance to practice in the slammer. When he reached the door, he checked inside one more time. Still no movement. He slid on a pair of gloves—he’d learned something from Gibbs watching all those reruns of NCIS—and wiggled the handle, surprised when it turned in his hand.

He eased inside and closed the door behind him. The house smelled musty with an overlying odor of sour milk. It reeked, but not as bad as Granny’s cat-infested bungalow. Hands on hips, he surveyed the room. He had no idea where to start his search. Calvin’s room had been on this level, so he’d start there.

A noise had him spinning around. It sounded like gravel crunching. A vehicle. Someone was coming. He hurried back to the mud room and ducked down behind a wall. He knocked over a shovel and winced at the clatter. Hopefully whoever was coming hadn’t heard the racket.

#

Hillary slept through the night with no nightmares. She’d taken Kota out for another run at dusk and the exercise had worked its magic. She decided to make them a nightly ritual. She enjoyed watching the sun rise in the morning, so she would run twice a day. The extra cardio would be good for her and Kota loved the outdoors.

She’d spent the day visiting shops in the small towns up and down the coast, picking up kitschy gifts for her coworkers. She found a charming mermaid lamp for Daphne Demarchis. Daphne had become like a little sister to her and they texted regularly. Daphne felt responsible for Hillary’s injuries, no matter what Hillary said. Daph had spent many hours at the hospital with her and she appointed herself Hillary’s caregiver until she could do the tasks for herself. She adored the young woman.

Hillary had also snapped hundreds of pictures with her DSLR camera, which stood for digital single-lens reflex camera, a term she knew thanks to Daphne. Under the younger girl’s tutelage, she discovered she loved photography. Daph sometimes used film and developed the pictures in her darkroom, but Hillary was perfectly fine with digital. It was more forgiving to novices like herself. She could take as many shots as she wanted and just delete the ones that didn’t turn out. No need to spend money on film or developing. Daph had an amazing artistic eye and Hillary had no doubt she would succeed as a photographer if she chose that route after college.

Grabbing the keys off the counter, she slid them into her waist pack and checked to make sure her gun was in place. She carried a smaller SIG Sauer than her regular service weapon. Though it was compact, it was just as deadly. A cold bottle of water from the fridge and she was good to go.

Kota presented her his leash without her asking. She smiled and praised him as she clipped it to his collar. The sun was setting, the intense orange and red giving way to dark purple and deep blue. She took off along the sand, packed solid from the receding tide. After they’d gone a few miles, she gave Kota the signal that he was off duty. With an excited yip, he danced in place, his barks joining with the cries of circling sea gulls. She loved when his playful side came out. She hated that her weakness affected him, but it did. He could sense her moods and was quick to offer comfort when she started to spiral. In the short time she’d known him, he’d helped her heal.

“You thirsty?” she asked her companion. He dropped to his belly, ready for a post-run drink. Removing the collapsible bowl from her bag, she filled it with water. Kota lapped it up greedily. She finished off the bottle, screwed the cap back on and replaced it in her pack so she could recycle it when she returned home. When Kota was finished, she tossed out the remaining liquid, shook the bowl to remove any drops and folded it back into her pack.

A soft wind blew off the ocean, cooling her skin heated from the run. There was something so rejuvenating about being by the water. Therapeutic. Bad memories faded, time marched on and the tides ebbed and flowed every day. If only her worries and fears could dissipate so easily. But they were lessening, getting weaker every day. They didn’t hold the same power they once had over her. Dan Bradley kept telling her she just needed to “get back on the horse”, so to speak, and he would know. Her coworker had been injured on one of his first cases, and the girl he was protecting had been kidnapped, much like her situation. His turned out okay, too. Though his injuries hadn’t been as serious as hers, it took his mental ones longer to mend, he told her. He’d doubted himself and his abilities. But they did heal and the best thing to do was get back in the game.

She knew Dan was right. She was well-trained and capable. She’d fought for Daphne, almost to death. It wasn’t her lack of ability that got her shot. She was outnumbered and outgunned. She’d managed to kill two of the kidnappers and wound a third.

Her eyes closed on an inhale, letting the tang of the ocean air seep into her soul. Kayla had been teaching her yoga and she couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to practice. She’d have to pull out her mat and run through some poses when they returned home.

She glanced at the houses that faced the water as she neared her cottage. Excluding hers, most were at least two-stories. Another level would be nice to overlook the water. For the most part, they were all well-kept and alluring, except for the house next to hers. It had been grand at one time, but now the shingles were warped and rotting from the constant lash of salt air. The roof looked like it leaked in several places and the boards around the deck were in disrepair.

Movement caught her eye and she squinted into the darkness. A large shape moved out onto the deck. She couldn’t see the face but awareness shot through her—not the creepy vibe she felt yesterday when she thought someone was watching her from the window. This was a more visceral hit to her senses. Judging by the size, it was definitely a man, and he looked to be tall, well-muscled and fit. Though she couldn’t begin to see his eyes, she felt them on her. His gaze was like a physical touch.

As she neared, she debated on what to do. The neighborly thing would be to go up and introduce herself. Kayla wouldn’t hesitate. Nothing intimidated that woman. Hillary was more reserved. She was jerked from her internal debate when a shape unexpectedly appeared behind the first one. Girlfriend? Wife? Her eyes widened in horror. The newcomer lifted a shovel.

She tossed Kota’s leash and waved her hands to get his attention. “Behind you,” she screamed, pointing. The man spun around just as the attacker swung the shovel at his head and he dropped like a felled tree.

Chapter Three

Reed Steele pulled up to the ramshackle beach house he would be restoring for the next few weeks, cut the engine and peered through the windshield. Even in darkness, he could see the shabbiness of the exterior. Once-grand shake shingles were rotted, quite a few missing all together. He’d replace them with a fiber cement siding that was durable for the beach and wouldn’t have to be painted or maintained. The roof was decaying, shingles missing from there as well. The front porch sagged and he knew from pictures, the back deck was a hazard. And that was just the outside. This would be quite the job.

As soon as he stepped out of the truck, he was hit with the smell of the ocean: clean air with a hint of fishy. He could hear waves crashing against the sand just steps away. While the house might not be in the best shape, the location more than made up for it.

Pocketing his keys, he jogged up the steps to the front door. One of the risers gave with his weight and he prayed the porch would hold up. The project wasn’t scheduled to start until next week, but Reed had some time and what better way to spend it than at the beach, even if it was too chilly to surf the East Coast waves.

Connie Ellis, his producer, had booked a house nearby for him to stay in during renovations, along with his project manager and foreman, Neil Farmington. Connie would be staying there as well with her two assistants. She’d booked rooms in a hotel down the road for the remaining crew. Some were driving RV’s or campers and bringing their families. Reed would’ve liked to check into the house early, but Connie beat him to the punch, bringing her family for a vacation before filming started. While he adored her three-year old twins, they had drunk-on-Red-Bull levels of energy and he’d never get any rest. Besides, this house was sitting empty with the utilities hooked up. No way would he siesta on someone else’s mattress, but he had a sleeping bag in the back of the Ford Super Duty he’d rented, so he’d just camp out here. If the house wasn’t wired for Wi-Fi, he hoped to piggy back off a neighbor’s feed. Not like he’d be looking at porn or anything nefarious. And he could enjoy the beach.

He’d grown up in Nebraska, about as far away from the ocean as you could get. He’d been drafted into the major leagues his junior year of college, but chose to finish his degree before heading to spring training. He’d spent his entire career—short-lived as it was—in Los Angeles, with a condo overlooking the Pacific. There was something so calming about the crash and retreat of the waves and the cries of seagulls.

He was glad he’d decided to finish his degree when his career abruptly ended thanks to an illegal rolling slide by Chris Morgan that shattered his knee. His dream had always been to play major league baseball, so he didn’t even consider anything else. He figured when he retired years down the road with several World Series titles under his belt, maybe he’d coach. But he’d worked in his father’s construction company from the time he could hold a hammer and with his degree in architecture, his agent had negotiated a television deal for him while he’d been lying in a hospital bed, feeling damn sorry for himself.

At the time, he’d told Will Fontaine, his high school buddy-turned shark of an agent, to shove the offer. He didn’t want a television show rehabbing houses. He wanted to play ball again. But faced with a knee that was more robot than human, he finally roused himself out of his depression to look over the details. He’d be the host of a show that renovated houses with a crew to do the work. They’d use his designs. He’d call the shots. It’d been an offer he couldn’t refuse. The network wanted to capitalize on his baseball fame, so they called the show Home Run Homes and offered him a contract that rivaled his baseball one. It seemed that after the door slammed on his pro ball career the window had opened for him to crawl through to a new life.

Usually the shows featured a redo of three rooms, most often the kitchen, living space and a master bedroom/en suite combo. The network billed this job as a kick-off-to-summer special. He’d be revamping the entire beach house, stem to stern. The owner was none other than his former teammate, Josh Hannigan. Josh had just purchased the house for a steal a few months ago, based on the location. It needed major work, but once they finished, it would be a showstopper. This was, by far, the biggest project he’d tackled to date. He’d seen pictures of the house, and drawn up plans accordingly, but this would be the first time he’d be physically walking through.

He slid his fingers along the top of a porch light and found the key his foreman left for him. Neil had flown out to tour the house a few weeks back. He’d taken pictures and measurements and logged tasks that were the most urgently in need of repair. A lock seemed like overkill when the door looked like it would blow open with a strong wind. Proving his theory correct, a breeze ruffled his hair and inched the door wide with an ominous creak. He chuckled as he stepped across the threshold. The house smelled like it’d been closed up for months with an overlying musty scent and the aroma of something soured. If pictures were any indication, the roof leaked and they could be looking at water damage and possibly mold.

He flipped a switch and light flooded the room. What a disaster. But, nice bones. The entry led to the living space and a wall of windows, but the entire area was in disrepair. Paint peeled off walls, boards were warped and rotted on the floor. The furniture was ancient and musty. He peeked in the kitchen. Avocado green appliances. Cabinet doors hung by one hinge. It was closed off from the rest of the house. He planned on taking out the wall separating the kitchen from the great room to open the space. He knew from studying the plans that off to the left was a small bedroom, the only bathroom in the house and a mud room that led to a side exit. His redesign called for an overhaul to include a laundry room and an updated bathroom. He’d also install an outdoor shower to rinse off sand from the beach. The bedroom would be left as is, with new floors, windows and walls.

Upstairs was one big space. The front facing the ocean was used as a master bedroom and the back for storage. He planned on adding a master bath and splitting the storage area into two bedrooms with a Jack and Jill bathroom between. The two-bedroom one-bath house would become four bedrooms and three baths when they finished.

As if called by Mother Nature herself, he padded to the sliding glass door leading to the deck. After killing the overhead lights, he eased the door open, inhaling the fresh air. He knew from pictures that the deck also needed replacing, but he stepped out anyway, the waves calling to him like a Siren’s song. He’d learned to surf on the West Coast and he itched to grab a board and ride the whitecaps. It was dark out, but the light from a waning moon cast a golden glow over the water.

That’s when he saw her.

She was too far away and it was too dark for him to glimpse her face, but she was tall and fit, moonlight reflecting off a light-colored ponytail swishing back and forth. A dog kept pace at her side, his posture watchful and alert. He detected the exact moment she realized he was watching her. He couldn’t explain the instantaneous attraction that zapped him like a jolt of electricity to his system. It was unlike anything he’d ever felt before, and he’d accidently been tazed once by a former girlfriend showing off her new toy.

Time slowed as her steps brought her closer and closer. He didn’t know anything about her. She could be heading back to her bank executive husband and three kids. His heart didn’t care as it banged against his rib cage, trying to burst free.

He straightened, shocked that she was waving at him…no, not waving, more like trying to get his attention.

“Behind you!” was all he could make out.

He spun around in time to see the business end of a shovel swinging towards him. He barely managed to get an arm up before it made contact. Pain radiated through his arm and inside his head as the metal grazed his scalp. He heard barking and yelling and then he heard nothing at all.

Chapter Four

“Behind you!”

The man spun around just as his attacker swung the shovel. Hillary winced at the crack she could hear from here and took off at a dead run, one hand reaching for her gun. She gave Kota a command and he barked, hopefully scaring the attacker away.

Any thoughts of inadequacy or inability to do her job fled as she gripped her weapon, dashed up the stairs and across the short boardwalk that led to the man’s house. Though she knew he wanted to run ahead, Kota kept pace with her, his barks sounding vicious and deadly.

“Freeze!”

The shovel-wielding figure spotted her and dropped the weapon, turning to disappear inside the house. From this close, she could see that he wore a black mask and a dark hood pulled over his head. She bounded up the deck stairs and slid to a stop beside the man sprawled lifelessly on the wooden planks. A door slammed, most likely the assailant getting away. She was torn from going after him or seeing to the injured man, who still hadn’t moved. He won. “Kota, guard.” Kota sat instantly, his ears alert, listening for any sound.

Blood seeped from a wound near the man’s scalp. She ripped off her tank top, leaving her in just a sports bra. It covered more than a bikini, so she didn’t think twice. Head wounds were notorious bleeders, so she applied pressure, hoping to staunch the flow. His arm was already swelling from where he deflected the blow. Probably broken. She checked for a pulse, relieved to find a strong one beating away. Keeping pressure on his wound, she placed her gun on the ground within easy reach and pulled out her cell to call for an ambulance. She wasn’t sure of the address of this house, so she gave hers and told the dispatcher that it was the house next door to the north.

Hillary gasped as a strong hand wrapped around her wrist, causing her to drop her phone. Sparks shot up her arm. She peered into a pair of aqua colored eyes glossed with pain, but burning with rage. Kota growled menacingly.

“Kota, learn.” She needed her dog to know she was okay so he wouldn’t attack the injured man. Kota sniffed his hand, committing his scent to memory. She turned to soothe him. “It’s okay. The attacker’s gone. I’m here to help you.”


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