“So, what’s on the agenda for tonight?” Aimee O’Brien asked Terra Fitzgerald as they sat at Sweet’s Diner in Killeen, Texas.
“Nothing special.” Terra smiled. “A good book. That’s enough for me.”
Terra took the last bite of her salad and looked outside at the leaves blowing across the ground. Fall had finally come to Texas after record high temperatures into November. Thanksgiving approached fast, but she didn’t feel the holiday spirit. People shopping at the strip mall already toted shopping bags with Christmas-themed logos. Nope. She wasn’t ready for that holiday either. The diner had, thankfully, not decorated for Christmas yet. They’d maintained a theme of fallen leaves decorations which she appreciated. She’d come to enjoy savoring each holiday for its own merits before another one could intrude.
Suddenly Jace Everett’s Bad Things started playing on the speakers, and Terra couldn’t help but snort.
“What?” Aimee asked.
“That song. Country music. All these love songs. I don’t know if I believe in it anymore.”
Aimee regarded her water glass and took a sip. “I didn’t think you were that cynical. You know true love is real. I know it is. You just haven’t found the right man.” She stabbed some lettuce with her fork. “Yet.”
Terra had tried not to be cynical, had struggled with it for some time. She hadn’t always felt this way, but now the cynicism had rooted so deeply inside her she didn’t think she knew how to change it.
“Maybe never. I’m not dating for a long time. If ever again,” Terra said.
Aimee’s expression held curiosity. “Because of the stalker?”
“Yes. I’m just not ready to step my toes into the dating world. When I’m ready…if ever…I’ll know it.”
“If ever seems too permanent. You’re young.”
“Like I said, young.”
Terra returned her friend’s smile. “Yeah, I get it. I guess it’s a mindset. It’s probably like someone who has gone through a bereavement or a divorce. It takes some readjustment and time.”
“And it doesn’t help if everyone is telling you to get over it, right?”
“Something like that.”
Terra took a sip of her hot tea, but it did nothing to remove the shiver that went through her at the thought of Allan Rivers and what he’d done to her life. She hated the dent he’d put there, the way she reacted to things now.
Aimee seemed to consider Terra’s words, her cheerful face turning serious. “You know, things happen when you don’t expect them. I knew Tony at work, and then when the crap hit the fan we realized how important we’d already become to each other. We didn’t plan it…it just fell into place that way.”
“You’re one lucky woman.”
“In more ways than one. That hostage situation…well, it taught me to take life in both hands and hold onto the good stuff with everything I’ve got. Never waste an opportunity to seize something special.” Aimee grabbed her purse. “Be right back. I need to use the ladies room.”
While Aimee was gone, Terra considered her friend’s wisdom. She’d gotten to know Aimee and her boyfriend Tony through working at Gerry Linkous Elementary School. As an administrative assistant in the counselor’s office, Terra talked with a lot of people each day and often ate lunch in the teacher’s lounge. When she met physical education teacher Aimee, she instantly warmed to her genuine kindness. Terra really liked Aimee’s husband Tony, who also taught at the school. She trusted them both implicitly. Still, that trust didn’t extend to a lot of other people. Most weekends she not only didn’t want to date, she didn’t want to socialize at all. The realization she’d become so isolated wasn’t lost on her. She just didn’t know how to work around it yet and break out of the protective shell she’d built.
Terra shoved her empty plate aside and stared outside at the shoppers and relentless traffic. That’s when her heart almost stopped. A car cruised by the parking lot. An old off white Toyota Forerunner circa the 1980’s. The car alone wouldn’t have disturbed her, but the man inside it did. A guy with short red hair. Terra leaned toward the window, trying to see. No. It couldn’t be. Was it?
A crash made Terra jump, a small cry lodged in her throat as she whirled toward the threat. All she saw, though, was a waitress attempting to clean up a glass of water she’d just knocked off a table. Terra sighed in relief. Nothing to be afraid of in here. She was safe with the lunch crowd around her in this cozy restaurant. The past was the past. She had to stop allowing it to haunt her.
Aimee slid into her spot across the booth. “Hey, you okay?”
Sighing, Terra found a smile. “Sure. I just thought I saw…”
Aimee lifted one eyebrow. “Saw what?”
What could she say? Terra hesitated. “It’s nothing.”
Aimee’s face faded to a frown. “It can’t be nothing. Come on, you can’t fool me.”
Terra took a sip of water as she stalled. “I saw a Toyota Forerunner and a man with red hair. I thought for a moment it was Allan Rivers.”
Aimee frowned. “What?”
“It’s not him.”
“No, I’m not one hundred percent sure. But it’s unlikely.”
“Why? You said all you have against him is an order of protection. That doesn’t stop anyone from showing up at your doorstep if they want to badly enough.”
Aimee’s brow creased again. “This isn’t good. We need to contact someone.”
“Police? No, they won’t do a thing. They can’t.”
Terra’s brain blanked. “Who then?”
Aimee chewed her lower lip, eyes thoughtful. “Tony knows people from his former military days. Wait…what about Cormac Fletcher?”
Terra rebelled right away. “No.”
“Because Fletch and Emily have already done so much for me already. I’m not dragging them into this. Especially when I don’t have any evidence there’s a reason to be worried. Since I moved here, I’ve thought I saw Allan a half dozen times. A guy with short red hair sets it off.” She shrugged. “It’s just a little PTSD.”
“Fletch would want to know.” Aimee fiddled with her water glass. “I don’t feel comfortable about this.”
“Listen, you’ve been an excellent friend to me. I appreciate it more than you know. But I need to get over this crazy idea that I’m seeing the bogeyman around every corner. I can’t jump at shadows anymore.”
After staring at Terra for a disconcerting amount of time, Aimee nodded. “Okay. I get it. But if anything more suspicious happens call 911, or call us. Tony will check things out for you.”
Terra wouldn’t say it out loud, but she’d call 911 over Tony any day. Not that she didn’t trust Tony. As a former Delta Force operator, the man knew how to kick ass and take names. But it wasn’t his job to watch out for her, and Terra refused to do anything that might drag innocent people into a dangerous situation.
“Enough of that.” Aimee’s smile returned. “Emily mentioned that you also said no to coming over to her house for Thanksgiving.”
“I’m planning on a turkey roll, some stuffing and apple pie. At home. Cozy and quiet. Maybe watch a parade on television.”
Aimee wagged her index finger. “Sounds awfully lonely.”
Terra didn’t even try to defend it. She shrugged. “I like my alone time.”
“I get it. You’re an introvert, right?”
Aimee didn’t say it like it was a dirty word, even though sometimes extroverts saw introversion as a bad thing.
“Yes, I’m an introvert. But not extreme,” Terra said.
“Well, I predict that Emily will ask you again at least one more time.”
“Wait a minute. Are any of Fletch or Tony’s military friends going to be there?” Terra asked.
“Probably. I mean, Tony and I will be there, but I’m sure Fletch has invited other guys he used to work with or still does. Why?”
“Because if anyone tries to fix me up with some big galoot military guy again I’m going to scream.”
“What have you got against them? I mean, we’re so close to Fort Hood. The place is crawling with good looking men.”
Terra shook her head. “Like I said, I’m not up to dating right now.”
Aimee rolled her eyes. “Got it. Come on, let’s escape. I have to get home.”
Terra and Aimee entered the parking lot and parted company with a hug. Terra strode toward her own car, which she’d parked quite a distance from the building. When she’d arrived at the restaurant, all the close parking was taken. Once in her car, Terra locked the doors and looked around. No sign of a white Forerunner or a red haired man. She breathed a sigh of relief and headed for the grocery store. She needed to fill the pantry and the fridge and pick up her Thanksgiving dinner items. Her PTSD made her adverse to venturing outside sometimes. That pissed her off. She didn’t want to be so out of control and unable to function. Earlier today she’d felt strong. Capable. When she was at work she felt good. She hadn’t suffered anything close to a panic attack or anxiety being at the school. Now she couldn’t make herself shop. She’d have to do it tomorrow.
* * *
At her apartment that evening, her land line phone rang. Terra answered on the second ring. Heavy breathing filled the line. What the hell? Annoyance filled Terra. She almost said something blistering, but instead hung up. She drew in a deep breath and recalled a mindfulness technique she’d learned to cool anxiety. She looked around her apartment and purposefully took stock of things and really looked at them. Anchoring herself in the present and becoming more aware of her surroundings went a long way towards calming her.
Though her living space was much smaller than her previous place, she’d managed to furnish it with many pieces from her last apartment in Denver. The dark leather couch and chair, the burgundy throw rugs, her crystal vases on the large dark-wood coffee table. Her small matching dining table. She stared down at the rug and rubbed the back of her neck as her breathing slowed down. The more she kept in the moment, the better she felt.
She flopped on the couch and returned to the big sci-fi adventure she’d been reading. After ten minutes, the phone rang again. She ignored it. If someone wanted her badly enough they’d either leave a message or call her cell phone. The phone stopped ringing, but no one left a message.
Her cell phone rang.
She snatched her cell phone off the coffee table. Emily Fletcher’s name flashed on the screen.
Terra smiled and answered. “Hey, Emily.”
“Hi.” Emily’s cheerful voice came over the line. “How are you doing?”
“I’m good. How are you guys?”
“Busy as ever. We’re looking forward to a little holiday down time, though. Have you reconsidered my offer about Thanksgiving this year?”
“Aimee is trying to twist my arm,” Terra said.
“You don’t need to hang out alone that day. You’re welcome to spend the day with us or just an hour. Whatever you’re comfortable doing. We’d love to see you.”
Terra realized when she was beat. She could socialize for awhile and if anyone tried to fix her up with someone it wasn’t as if she couldn’t say no. “Okay, you’ve convinced me. What should I bring?”
“How about some wine?”
“Will do.” Terra took a deep breath. An edge of panic threatened her at the idea of a big social event, and she hated that vulnerability with a passion. No, she wasn’t giving into it. “Thank you, Emily. You’re the best.”
“There’s something else. Aimee told me you saw the Forerunner with the red-headed guy in it. You think it’s that creep who stalked you?”
Terra groaned. “I’m gonna give Aimee a piece of my mind when I see her.”
“Don’t blame her. Well, okay, you can blame her.” Emily laughed. “She’s just worried about you.”
“You guys are a bunch of worry worts.”
“We’ve had plenty of experience with this sort of thing. You can never be too cautious.”
“That’s where I have to disagree. I want this paranoia to be done once and for all. I’m tired of it. I can’t live like this…worrying about someone lurking around the corner.”
“I understand,” Emily said. “So if you want to banish it, it makes sense to get out in the world and socialize, right? Show yourself that everything is okay and normal.”
Terra couldn’t argue. Well, she could, but it would contradict everything she’d told Aimee. She couldn’t socialize and also hide out like a scared rabbit. Time to put up or shut up.
Before she could respond, Emily said, “We’ll see you Thanksgiving Day. The festivities start at nine in the morning.”
They chatted a few minutes longer. Finished with the call, Emily sighed and leaned her head back on the couch. Maybe Emily and Aimee were right. Participating in more social events might be the key to solving her skittishness. She’d attend Emily and Cormac Fletcher’s Thanksgiving celebration and enjoy it. A wild thought came to mind. Being surrounded by burley men wouldn’t necessarily make her feel safer. Not when burly men could be the perpetrators of trouble.
Not all men are the same.
She understood that intellectually. Always had. Allan Rivers, though, had screwed up something in her head. Common sense and intellectual knowledge sometimes became buried under irrational and hard-wired fear. Fear was only good if it was fueled by genuine instinct. She needed to retrain her brain to know the difference between following intuitive tips and outright panic generated by what if scenarios.
Her cell phone rang again, but this time it came up as an unknown number. After four rings the phone went to voicemail.
When she played back the voicemail, there was no message. She opened her laptop and did a reverse lookup on the phone number. It came up as unknown. Maybe a spam or sales call. After she blocked the number, she wasn’t bothered the rest of the night.
* * *
“War is something I always think about when I wake up in the morning. If I let it, it could take over my whole world. Hell, on certain days it does. But I drag my ass out of bed every morning and give myself an excuse to keep moving. It ain’t easy. But I have to do it. For my friends I left in the desert. For the times when I should have done something, but didn’t. For the times I should have said something, but didn’t. A lot of us feel guilty about what we did or didn’t do in war. Over what we tried and failed to complete, over who we couldn’t save, over those we saved but then lost. Emotions can run high in Pararescue. There are days full of highs, but those highs can be destroyed just as quickly when something doesn’t go right. But when things don’t go right in war, it doesn’t always mean you dropped coffee onto the expensive equipment. It doesn’t mean you got a paper cut. It can mean life or death. The difference between a soldier returning home to their family healthy (if not happy), or going home in a box.”
—Journal of Dylan Westcott.
Dylan “Big Saw” Westcott jolted awake when his cell phone rang that evening. He groaned and looked at the time. Only seven. Cormac Fletcher was calling. Dylan sat up on the couch and groaned.
He grabbed the cell. “Hey Fletch, what’s up?”
“Yeah. Fell asleep on the damned couch again.”
“You’re a night owl. How did that happen?”
“Beats the hell outta me. Must be the holiday season.”
“Look, you’re still planning to come to our house on Thanksgiving, right?”
A ripple of caution wended it’s way up Dylan’s back. “Yeah. Why?”
“We may have a situation.”
“As in we really need you to be there, so don’t try to get out of it this time.”
Dylan winced. He hadn’t exactly been the reliable sort lately. “Look, I’m sorry but—”
“Don’t apologize. I get it. I really do. But this time it’s different.”
Dylan sat up straight, worry spiking. “What’s wrong?”
“Emily and Aimee have a friend who might need help. Her name is Terra Fitzgerald. She works in the counseling office at Aimee’s elementary school.”
Dylan leaned forward. “And?”
“Terra might be in trouble.”
“What’s going on?”
“It’s a long story. The major thing to know is that Terra had a stalker back in Denver. There’s a chance he could’ve followed her here.”
Wariness hit Dylan, but so did a sense of urgency. “Okay, even with that…what does it have to do with me?”
“There’s the possibility Delta could be called out any time for an ongoing situation. If Terra is in danger, we can’t watch her back. At least not if we’re called up. We need you to keep Terra safe.”
Ah, hell. “Look, you know I’d like to help but—”
“Yeah, I understand.”
Dylan tensed as panic mixed with a hint of anger. “I’m not a trained bodyguard.”
Fletch made a sound of disgust. “Dude, don’t give me that shit. You were Delta. You were Pararescue. I know what you went through to get there.”
Were. Were Delta.
The fact stung, even if it shouldn’t.
When Dylan didn’t reply, Fletch said, “You know I don’t take excuses off of anyone, right?”
Dylan snorted. “Damned straight.”
“Then you know I’m not trying to blow smoke up your ass. If I didn’t think you could keep Terra safe I’d never ask. I wouldn’t put a woman in danger like that. Ever.”
Dylan did know…at least that Fletch would never put a woman in danger. That didn’t mean Fletch could save every woman in danger. Or every man for that matter. Getting cocky got people killed. Death could rise up and hit someone in the face no matter what precautions they’d taken. Dylan knew this with absolute fact.
“I’m not reliable for this sort of thing. You know that,” Dylan said.
Fletch’s sigh came over the line. “That’s an old record. Don’t play it.”
Dylan’s jaw clenched. “Well, I’m stuck in that groove. For the long term.”
“You need to get back on the horse. You said so yourself not that long ago. You’re not going to leave a woman unprotected.”
Dylan winced. “I already have. I can’t do it.”
Fletch’s long-suffering sigh came over the phone. “So that’s it? You’re just going to turn your back on a friend of Emily’s? I never would’ve expected that of you.”
Dylan closed his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m no hero.”
“The only one shoveling that crap is you. We trust you. Emily trusts you.”
“She understands the kind of man you are. I asked her if she would trust you with her life. She said yes. That says a lot.”
“She shouldn’t. You shouldn’t.” Quiet over the line made Dylan uncomfortable, and he stood. He paced the apartment. “I’m not the man for this job.”
“All right. Maybe you aren’t.”
Ouch. Just because Dylan believed it didn’t mean it didn’t hurt to hear the truth. Dylan drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Good. Glad that’s settled.”
“It’s settled. For now.” Fletch grunted. “I should come over and kick your ass.”
The touch of humor in Fletch’s voice made Dylan smile. “You couldn’t do it, old man.”
“Old man? I’m three years older than you.”
“So what? You still couldn’t kick my ass.”
Fletch laughed. “Maybe. Even if you’re being a peckerhead, you’re still invited to Thanksgiving dinner.”
“I dunno. I’ll—”
“You’ve gotta eat. Just come over for a couple of hours and if you want to leave after that, everyone will understand.”
Everyone will understand that you’re a washed up military vet. Everyone will get that you don’t have what it takes.
Fletch’s determination to make him engage with the world had been driving Dylan crazy the last nine months. Fletch and Emily had treated him like gold, and he didn’t understand why.
“Yeah. All right. I’ll be there,” Dylan said.
Fletch hung up, and Dylan sank back onto the couch. He placed his phone on the coffee table and looked around in disgust at his apartment. A newspaper lay sprawled on one side of the table, an empty plate with a bit of bread crust from his lunch today. An empty soda can. His floor needed vacuuming, and he knew the bathroom needed cleaning. His kitchen counter hadn’t seen a wipe down for two days. The apartment didn’t have much personality, but then he’d never injected his personality into living quarters before. When he’d been in the military he hadn’t seen the point. Nine months of living here hadn’t changed his attitude when he didn’t feel as if he’d settled anywhere. Not really.
Still, he’d never been one of those guys who left his underwear on the floor and dishes lying around. As the holidays approached, he found his desire to do a damned thing sailing right out of the harbor. His innate tendency toward neatness had never turned into an obsession, but neither was he a slob.
As he started to gather up the items on the coffee table, he pondered the conversation with Fletch. Cormac Fletcher and the rest of his Delta team had always treated him like a brother. Not that he hadn’t seen the uncertainty in a couple of team members eyes. He felt the doubt in his bones and understood why they might feel that way. He didn’t blame them.
He tossed the bread crust in the trash, placed the plate in the dishwasher and the newspaper in the recycle bin.
Why had Fletch asked him to protect this woman? Didn’t he understand that he couldn’t do it? That he didn’t have the stomach or the strength to protect anyone or anything? Just the thought of it made his blood rush faster, and his heart spun out of control. He sank down on the couch again and buried his face in his hands for a moment. Breathing deeply, he sucked in one breath after another until the weird panic subsided.
Damn. That hadn’t happened in a long time. Breathe. Breathe damn it. He recalled his therapist’s words. The training he’d taken for calming his mind whenever one of these panics started worked every time. Thank God. He refused to take drugs for it, and the panic had never been so bad he’d resorted to a therapy dog. Still, this illustrated one of the many reasons he couldn’t help anyone. Freezing up during an emergency could get someone killed.
He wouldn’t feel a sense of helplessness, which threatened to attack him on a regular basis if he allowed it. He refused.
Because he didn’t really feel these days, did he? Other than panic, that is. That came and went until he thought maybe it was the only emotional reaction he’d have for the rest of his life.
A woman couldn’t rely on his protection with panic his only friend.
Terra Fitzgerald. He rolled the name around in his head. Friend of Emily’s or not, Terra needed a man who could keep her safe, not a guy with PTSD and a propensity to hibernate.
Nope. No matter how much Fletch pushed or tried to make him feel guilty, he wouldn’t take the challenge. Terra would be safer with another man guarding her six.
Yeah, that was it.
He knew another thing he needed to do to help his screwed up frame of mind. He pulled out his leather bound, acid-free paper journal. Time to write.