Despite the light breeze, the midsummer heat was stifling. In south Texas, even after dark, the humidity and eighty degree temperatures were often oppressive. Usually she would have been sweltering, fanning herself vigorously, actively seeking a blast of cold artificial air in the first open tavern and ordering a salty rimmed frozen margarita. Not tonight. Instead, Mara O’Brien stood behind a wide tree, leaning against it for support, barely noticing the rough bark pressed into her skin from shoulder to hip as she stared in horror at the sixteen-story tower of fire up ahead.
It lit up the sky, casting a glow as bright as day over the chaotic scene of gawkers and emergency personnel below, the circle of light radiating nearly a block away to where the man responsible stood watching. Victor Mendoza. More like gloating was Mara’s guess seeing his head tipped back as he stared up at his handiwork. Hatred for him burned inside her, rivaling that of the raging inferno.
Needing no more incentive, Mara reached behind her and palmed the grip of the Sig Sauer 9 mm tucked inside her waistband. She eased it out and slowly took aim, squinting down the sights as her finger slid across the trigger. It had been a while, but she remembered Sean’s long ago lessons as if they were yesterday. “Widen your stance, align the sights, focus on the gun, breathe deep, concentrate, and this time, baby, don’t drop your hands.” So vivid were the memories, she could almost feel his arms around her, helping her with the two handed grasp as he murmured instructions into her ear.
Raw pain, unending in all this time, gripped her chest. She loved him so. But that was behind her now. Victor had seen to it.
Taking a deep breath, she focused on her target, but the orange glow of the fire in the background, the flashing emergency lights and the chaos surrounding the fully engulfed building were a distraction, to say the least. She couldn’t afford to waver. Her aim had to be true to do what needed to be done.
This was his doing, every bit of it. As well as all the pain and horror she’d experienced in her life. Okay, not her alcoholic mother or the series of deadbeat and often perverted surrogate fathers that were foisted upon her, but he capitalized on her misfortune because of them. So, even if indirectly, she could lay the entirety of her fucked up life squarely at Victor’s feet. Her insides churned at the thought of what he’d taken from her: youth, dignity, self-worth and through it all, he treated her like trash, forcing her to do unspeakable things.
She’d broken free, not once, but three times, after each escape trying to start over in a futile attempt to eke out a little bit of normalcy and happiness. Except, he found her?always?dragging her back to a life of despair while subject to his cruelty. Hell could not be worse than what he had created for her here on earth. Now, at the age of thirty, when she was finally getting back on her feet. He’d shown up again demanding more.
“T? eres m?a, mi precioso puta.” Victor had hissed in her ear as he’d dragged her kicking and screaming from her apartment days ago. “Fate keeps bringing us back together because you are mine. When will you realize I own you and that I am your only true master?”
“No!” she cried aloud, the memory of his cutting words slicing easily like a hot knife through butter and jerking her out of her painful reflections. Thankfully, the single word went nowhere in the dense night air.
Sean’s image flashed in front of her. In him, she had found safety, love and happiness, as well as a friend, lover, and yes, her master. But no more. Victor had ruined that too. Her voice shook with rage as she whispered to his back, as if he could hear. “You may have used me, you bastard, but only one man will I ever call Master.”
She had tried desperately to save what she had with Sean, but she couldn’t. Leaving him in the end and sacrificing what they had to keep her secrets safe had done nothing but cause them both pain because he found out anyway. Now he knew everything, every lurid, disgusting, filthy secret and saw her for what she was, a liar, a cheat, and so much worse.
Ironically, her exposure had come by her own admission. In telling the truth to protect him and his friends, she had neutralized the power Victor held over her, the perpetual blade at her jugular for years. He was no longer a threat, but the irreparable damage had been done.
Trying to clear her smoke-filled vision as best she could, Mara rubbed her burning eyes with the back of her hand, before lifting the gun again. Her hand trembled. Breathing in deeply, she blew it out in an attempt to settle her nerves. As she stared beyond the muzzle, to the man who stirred hatred in her gut, she hesitated. If she did this, there was no going back.
Closing her eyes, she searched for an answer within herself, right or wrong. Blocking out the chaos in front of her made the sounds and smells of the night more vivid. The wailing sirens, people shouting, the crumbling, burning building nearby, and the smoke, so thick in the humid air it nearly choked her.
The solution came to her, one she had considered repeatedly in the past, but discarded as insane. Humorless laughter bubbled up within her. Insanity, maybe it was true. If nothing else, it would be the perfect plea in her trial for cold-blooded murder.
She wasn’t crazy though, fully aware of where she was and why she was there. Maybe it was the stress of the past few months. An unamused laugh came again. Who was she fooling? The stress was more from a lifetime of pure and utter crap, except for the few years early on with her mother when it had been good and the short time she’d had with Sean. That accounted for six out of her thirty years at most.
On top of everything, Mara was exhausted, she hadn’t slept more than a few hours in the past few days and her injured leg?courtesy of a well-aimed bullet from Victor?hurt like a son of a bitch. Those were only excuses, though. She hadn’t done the deed yet and was already trying to explain it away.
A niggling voice in the back of her head urged her on. Just do it. Take him out.
Unable to argue with the message in her head, she waved off any sense of conscience. Victor had been allowed free rein for too long. There was no justice when good men perished and scum like him walked free. He deserved to die for his crimes more than anyone she’d ever met. Lofty praise coming from Mara considering the surplus of lowlifes, criminals and bottom feeders she’d encountered in her short life. Certainly a death sentence was better suited for his deeds, more so than the innocents in the burning building or any of the men at Rossi, all former soldiers who had sacrificed so much already. All good men, like Sean.
Although it was too late for her, and apparently, very tragically for them, she could stop Victor from perpetrating his evil on anyone else ever again.
Shifting her weight as she prepared to fire. A sudden movement behind Victor drew her eye. Another man, a bodyguard no doubt was aiming a gun off to the side. Mara turned her head, following his line of sight. Horrified, she watched as he took aim at a woman standing in the darkened lobby of a building across the way. Her light colored clothes were like a beacon directing attention to herself, as did the orange glow of the fire reflected in the window she peered out of.
Mara blinked in disbelief. She knew her. “Lexie!” Mara wanted to scream a warning, but her name came out in a strained whisper. What in God’s name was she doing there? But she didn’t have time to reason it out when the only thing between Lexie and the gunman’s bullet was a thin layer of glass. Without thought, Mara moved her gun a fraction, but enough to acquire a new target. Then, she fired. As the report ripped through the air, more shots fired, the pop and crack echoing loud in her ears. Time seemed to stand still until Mara heard the metallic click of the hollow chamber. Without conscious thought, she had emptied her clip and all four bullets were gone.
Four years earlier?
Pain like a jagged knife radiated through his thigh in waves. Sitting up in bed, he used both hands to shift his immobilized leg before lying back onto his uninjured side.
“Fuck,” he cursed as the pillows slid sideways. He shoved at them with his other foot until he had settled semi-comfortably except for the pulse pounding in his damaged muscle. As he fluffed his pillow under his head in hopes of getting a few minutes sleep, he marveled how rolling over in bed, something he had done without thought for over three decades, had become a daunting and excruciating task. Two weeks ago, he’d been in Kandahar fighting insurgents with his team, now he needed help to stand and take a piss.
Sean O’Brien was seriously considering getting out. A Special Forces operative for well over a decade, the long and seemingly futile war in the Middle East was getting to him. The hit from this IED wasn’t the first injury he’d had. He had scars from bullets in his shoulder and side (luckily that one was only a graze), broken two fingers and been concussed twice. Only the IED had taken him out of action. As he got older, although thirty-one was hardly ancient, each injury took more of a toll and he, like many on his team, was finished and ready for a normal life.
His captain, Tony Rossi, Cap as they call him, and his second in command, Chief Warrant Officer, Rick Spencer were both done, or nearly so. Sometime in the next year, they would be out, heading home to San Antonio to begin life after the Army. Cap planned to open a private security firm and offered a partnership to anyone on the team who wanted it. Rick leapt at the offer, eager to reunite with his wife, settle down and start the family they wanted. Dex Russell, his best friend and their NCOIC, non-commissioned officer in charge, was also heading that way soon. Dex was an expert strategist, intelligent, shrewd with an innate ability to get inside an enemy’s head and figure out their next move. His skill had saved all of their asses more than once in the field. Tony had requested he head up the bounty-hunting arm of his new enterprise, but that wasn’t all Dex had planned. He was currently on leave, spending time in the nation’s capital before he went back to Afghanistan for the final few months of his tour. He mentioned some bullshit business in D.C., but Sean suspected checking up on him was his real business. A tough as nails Dominant, Dex was also like a mother hen to his crew, if a mother hen wielded a bullwhip and wore Army boots that is. The four of them had enough years to be done, the remaining two, Jonas Mitchell and the youngster of the group, Antonio ‘Lil T’ Minelli had some time left on their commitment to the Army, but planned to join them when they were done.
To have the entire team in San Antonio, working security together would be incredible. Having lived and fought side by side, they were close, like brothers. They also shared common interests, like BDSM and the club scene. In fact, he and Dex had spoken often about opening one of their own, after discharge. The thought of playing in his own club had his thoughts turning more carnal. An image filled his head of a hot blonde dressed as a naughty nurse in white leather and sheer white stockings, hands bound behind her back. He’d tip her rounded, bare ass over his knee for a sound paddling, then when she was warmed up, wet and crying out for him to take her, he’d flip her on her back for a good hard fucking. Just as the fantasy was leading him into dreamland, his leg slid off the pillows and landed with a heavy thump on the mattress.
“Son of a bitch,” he hissed at the jarring pain.
“Let me help you with that,” a soft voice offered, as efficient hands adjusted his stacked pillows and eased his leg up on top once again. Gentle, confident fingers ran over his foot, pausing on top to check his pulse, then gliding around to the back of his ankle to check the other. Last, she pinched his toes, observing the nailbeds closely. He knew the drill of a circulation check.
Glancing up, he met the sparkling green-eyed gaze of Mara Westbrook, his evening shift nurse every day since arriving at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington D.C., a few days ago.
Her long black lashes fanned across her cheeks as she looked down, wrapping a blood pressure cuff around his arm. She put her stethoscope in her ears and pumped him up. While she worked, his eyes ran over her delicate features. Her perfectly arched brows, a shade or two darker than her platinum blonde hair were narrowed in concentration and her slightly upturned nose wrinkled as she listened. Her mouth, with her full pink lips parted as she let out the air in the cuff, as if exhaling along with it. Her long hair was pulled into a high ponytail at the back of her head, falling in a loose wave over one shoulder as she bent toward him. It gleamed under the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital ward and gave off a light scent, something floral with a touch of vanilla, as she moved. She always smelled great. It was no wonder his kinky fantasy starred an identical blonde, her spitting image. Mara had been the only bright spot in his long, pain-riddled past few days.
Unwrapping the cuff, she glanced up at him before making a note on the paper she pulled from her pocket. He grinned at her. Remaining all business, she ignored him, picking up his wrist to take his pulse. Sean didn’t think he mistook the slight twitch of her lips as if suppressing a smile while she stared at his chest, counting respirations. He couldn’t fault her professionalism, although he’d give anything for a flash of her perfect smile. She turned to pick up the portable electronic thermometer.
Sean knew this drill too. In fact, he was very familiar with most of this medical crap, except from the other end of the stethoscope. He was the medical Sergeant for their unit. Working in the field, he administered emergency aid and stabilized injured for transport. Ironically, the times he’d been injured occurred during triage and rescue of an injured teammate. He’d seen some shit in his day and tried his best not to think about the gore and guts that tended to keep a man up at night if he couldn’t lock it away.
“Under your tongue, Sergeant.” Obediently, he opened and after she inserted the probe clamped his lips around it. As Mara held the heavy end with the coiled cord, she gave him a sidelong peek. Despite his discomfort, he winked at her. As usual, she began to crack, her lips twitching more and curving up ever so slightly as she tried to stay focused. When the machine beeped, signaling it was complete, she glanced at the display before popping the probe cover into the bedside trash.
“100.8,” she murmured, studying him.
From his lying position, he returned her regard, eyeing her slightly above average height, five-feet-seven or eight, by his best guess. He didn’t have to speculate about how she’d fit against his much taller frame, he knew it would be perfect.
“You always spike a temp in the evening. I’ll get you some Tylenol. How’s your pain today, Sergeant?”
“Before you came in I’d say twelve and a half, since you’re here, smiling at me, I’m pain free.” His hand came up, a long finger extended as he trailed it lightly down her arm. “I believe I told you to call me Sean, darlin’.”
“Feverish, yet charming, with a side order of bossy, I see.”
His smile broadened as he shrugged, not denying.
“I’ll make you a deal. I’ll call you Sean, if you answer truthfully about your pain level.”
He grimaced. Preferring to talk about anything other than his throbbing leg, but wanting to be on friendly terms with his pretty nurse, he reluctantly admitted, “Seven.”
“Did you push your button?” she asked, peering up at the PCA pump. Without waiting for an answer, and obviously not expecting one, she began punching the buttons as the machine beeped. Her flawless face took on a stern demeanor, hands finding her hips as she frowned down at him in disapproval. “You haven’t taken a bolus in four hours, no wonder you’re hurting.”
He couldn’t keep from smiling. She was too cute to be effective at intimidation.
Apparently realizing her scold was getting her nowhere, Mara dropped into the molded plastic chair at his bedside, laying her hand on his forearm. “Don’t be a martyr, Sean. You’re a medic and know better than anyone that until the shrapnel comes out of your leg, which should have come out before you ever came stateside, it’s going to hurt. Be a tough guy after they get it out in surgery tomorrow or when you start your rehab.” She took the controller and pressed it into his palm, wrapping both of her smaller, much softer hands around his larger, rougher, scarred one.
“I hate the way the morphine makes me feel fuzzy headed and out of it.”
“One more night, Sean, then the metal that’s causing your pain will be gone and you can go back to being a badass Green Beret.” She leaned forward and added, “You need it to rest, honey.” Flexing her hands around his, she squeezed him tight. “Do it for me, please?”
Despite his pain, the way she gazed up at him with those big eyes, begging him in her sweet lilting voice, made him think of inappropriate things, like her in club gear, pink leather to be exact and prettily begging for his cock. As if on cue, his dick twitched. He was glad for the wad of sheet tangled around his hips. Not wanting her to think he was another lonely?and horny?G. I., he rolled forward, hiding his erection deeper in the linens just in case.
Clearing his throat, he posed a question he’d asked before. “If I cooperate, do I get the date I’ve been angling for?”
“That’s blackmail, Sergeant.”
“So is gazing at me all soft and sweet while batting those long lashes.”
She smiled with a little laugh, inclining her head as if to say, “Touch?.”
“So, about that date?”
“I don’t know. We’re not supposed to fraternize with patients. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“I won’t be a patient when we go out, Mara.”
When her eyes twinkled and she bit her bottom lip, he knew he had her.
“Okay, you push the little red button and I’ll go out with you, Sean.”
His thumb barely moved, though the beep that followed indicated a dose of morphine had been delivered.
She grinned as she ran her hand up his forearm to his shoulder and squeezed. “Sweet dreams, big guy. I’ll check back in a bit.”
“If I dream of you, nightingale, they will be very sweet.”
She shook her head as she moved away. While she did, his gaze dipped to the ass of her pale blue scrubs. The sight of the snug cotton hugging her round cheeks was better than any narcotic. He followed the sway of her hips as she walked to the door. No doubt she’d go through the same routine with her next patient. Lying back against his pillows, he wondered if the next poor slob got the extra touch, the caress or the squeeze he foolishly hoped was reserved solely for him. At the door, she glanced back and smiled, before moving on down the hall. Out of sight, though certainly not out of mind, he closed his eyes and had a wonderful sex and morphine-laced dream about his favorite nurse.
* * * * *
So happy she wanted to skip through the parking garage, she dialed it back to a brisk walk, trying to show some decorum as she entered the employee entrance and clocked in for her shift. Her thoughts weren’t focused on work, rather on the tall, muscular and devastatingly handsome Sergeant, who’d been in her care for the past week.
Arriving on her unit, she locked up her purse and jacket, and rather than going to say hi to Sean, as she wanted to, she went to the conference room to listen to the off going shift’s report. Most of the team was already assembled. In turn, they took notes on their assigned patients and left one by one. She had the 800 hall on 5E, the surgery ward, as always, so her patients came last. Beginning with Corporal Evans in 801, Mara scribbled pertinent information on the patient in each subsequent room. Waiting expectantly for 810, she stiffened when it was skipped. Stopping the recording, she hit rewind, thinking that maybe she’d missed it. Again 809 was followed by 812. Her nurse manager was posting notices on the bulletin board before going off shift.
“Nancy? Do you know what happened to Sergeant O’Brien? Rosemary skipped him.”
“No, she didn’t. He was discharged today.”
Like a pin in a balloon, she deflated. “I thought it wasn’t planned until tomorrow.”
“His team came to visit and he insisted. Dr. Bryson agreed, so they took him home. You should have seen them. Each one was like Sergeant O’Brien: drop dead gorgeous, six feet something and two hundred pounds plus of rippling, bulging Green Beret muscle. All the nurses were drooling, some of the male nurses too, and nothing got done on the unit until they were gone.”
Disappointed didn’t begin to describe how she felt. He didn’t have her phone number or address and hadn’t offered her his. Maybe it was merely flirtation with the nurse on duty and he hadn’t ever intended to take her out. Heaven knows it happened all the time. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d been proposed to in the six years she’d worked there. Dejected, she finished up and with a much heavier tread, walked out on the ward to start her shift.
It was after her supper break, during which she hadn’t eaten, having no appetite whatsoever, when she was called to the nurses’ station. As she walked up, the unit secretary grinned and pointed to a huge bouquet of flowers.
“What’s the occasion, lucky girl, and who’s the lucky guy?”
A few of the other nurses were hanging around waiting for her to open the card. She could only stare, never having received flowers before?ever. Mixed among the dozen classic long-stem red roses were five exquisite white calla lilies and some sort of greenery all in a crystal vase. With a trembling hand, she reached for the card.
My beautiful nightingale,
Thank you for the tender care. You brightened each day with your smile and eased my pain with your laughter, making it all more bearable.
My team came for me, so I took the out and ran. Okay, I hobbled out on my crutches, I’m only sorry I missed you, though I didn’t need to say goodbye because we have a date.
You’re off on Tuesday. Geri the day shift charge nurse confirmed it, so no excuses. Marcel’s in the west end. 7 o’clock.
Wear a pretty dress and I’ll consider myself a very lucky man.
A lucky man, she sighed. Rereading the card, she noticed he’d included his phone number. Relief, excitement, giddiness all ran through her at once, as well as underlying fear. It all seemed so normal, well, to other women her age surely. Could it be possible, just once, she could be like a normal twenty-six year old woman and have a normal relationship with a man? Filled with hope, she read the sweet note yet again.
“Well?” Wendy and Pen demanded simultaneously.
Beaming, Mara put her nose to one of the roses and inhaled. She folded the note and slipped it in her pocket, then mimicked zipping her lips and turning a key before she went down the hall to make her rounds.
“Hey, no fair!” Wendy called after her.
Pen added, “We’re old married ladies who have no life. If we can’t get romance vicariously through you single girls, what hope do we have?”
She smiled over her shoulder, staying quiet as a mouse, except for the silly tune she whistled as she turned down the 800 hall.