Set in Savannah, Georgia — An ex-military hottie goes to work for his best friend’s father’s security firm where the office manager just happens to be his best friend’s little sister. She was too hot to handle back then, and nothing has changed apparently!
The room was still dark when I woke up in a cold sweat. That damn dream again.
Several nights a week, the nightmare came, dragging me back to that day in the desert. To the same dusty, sun-bleached street, the call to prayer echoing off the buildings, creating a corridor of distorted sound.
It was hot, almost unbearably so, but after years of baking in the sand, I’d almost gotten used to it. Almost. What I couldn’t get used to, though, was the looks on their faces. The people of the town went about their business, just like every other day. Some wore smiles, some scowls, but each had a look in their eyes, an air of expectation.
When would the next horror appear? The next indignity in a string of indignities, the next futile attack in a war that had gone on so long that the locals had stopped expressing hope for an ending? Every face bore the identical expression—hopeless anticipation.
Every face but hers. The woman in black. She’d even risked a smile in my direction today, one that I’d returned with a friendly nod.
I’d seen her most days, had slowly built up an acquaintance over the months my unit had been stationed in her town. Not enough of an acquaintance to talk to her that would have been inappropriate. But enough to recognize her, to build up a familiarity that had led to exchanged glances, acknowledging nods, and even a smile on occasion.
But that day, things would change.
That day, her smile would vanish, replaced by rubble and an overpowering smell that overwhelmed me in the dream. The same smell, over and over, night after night.
The lingering memory of the dream covered me like a sweat-soaked shroud. Not the most pleasant way to greet the day. I wiped the perspiration off my forehead and climbed out of bed. Not bothering to shower, I threw on my sweats and headed out the door of my new condo. Five miles of mindless muscle memory was there to shake me out of my mood, to wake me up and remind me of the present. I tried not to think, tried not to remember.
Savannah was much like I remembered. Summers could be sultry but December was a month of falling temperatures and increasing cloud cover. My new place was near the historic district so that was where I ran, past moss-covered oaks and antebellum mansions. An oasis from out of time, the district was home to fountains and magnolias, to carefully manicured parks and statues of heroes from days past. Nothing like the place I’d spent the last few years.
The change in scenery helped to clear the lingering cobwebs of the dream from my mind. So did the increase of my heart rate. If I maintained a focus on my body, my mind fell in line, counting steps, concentrating on my breathing. Not thinking about the woman in black and the end of her smile.
Then it was back to the condo and right into the strength training routine. A hundred pushups started things off, followed by pull ups until my arms ached. Next came the squats with the bar weighted down. Then it was free weights, arms, and core. Every workout finished with
crunches, until my abs were warm enough to start a fire.
I clung to my routine, to the safety of doing the same thing over and over, ad infinitum. My routine was soothing, the activity enough to help center me for the day ahead. A big day.
By the time I hit the shower, it was seven am. The hot water helped with the muscle aches, washing away the exhaustion and refreshing my enthusiasm for what lie ahead.
I dressed carefully that day, hoping to impress. The suit felt awkward, nothing at all like the uniform I’d worn for a decade. I reminded myself that I’d get used to it. It was just one more little change in a line of changes that had become my life.
I boiled some eggs and toasted a couple pieces of sourdough. At the small table in the breakfast nook, I ate slowly, going over the day’s events in the local paper. Another instance of the routine that kept me sane, kept the horrors at bay. It was only at night, when my brain was freed from the routine that my demons could find me.
Today, however, was a new start. I considered it a test, of sorts. Could I adapt to civilian life? I thought a job at Shadow Security might be a means of easing me back into life stateside, not too different from the life I’d known in the military. Or at least that was my hope.
After the…incident, staying in Special Forces wasn’t really an option. I’d hung on for a few months, but it became apparent that I was no longer suited for Delta Force operations. My superior officer had suggested a leave of absence, but when Matt said he was finishing his tour and heading home to work for his dad, the thought of coming back without my closest friend made sticking around even less desirable.
Matt put in a word for me with his father, Douglas Smith, a former military man himself, and before I could blink, I had a job offer with Shadow Security. The firm handled private security concerns in Savannah, my hometown and Matt’s too. We’d finished high school together, joined the military together, made Delta Force together, and now we were going to work together. It seemed a fitting end to my military career.
Besides, the goofball needed someone to watch his back, and that duty had always fallen to me. No point in changing that now.
The solution was an elegant one. I’d ease into a new job that would make use of the skills I’d honed for years in Special Forces, although I doubted I’d be facing any threats remotely like those I’d squared off against in the desert. The job would provide stability, security. I strived under structure, and Douglas seemed like the type to run a tight ship. I respected discipline and was happy to be working under a man who’d held the rank of Captain before he’d retired.
As I drove towards my new job, I worked carefully to keep my mind clear. Always in the back of my mind was a creeping anxiety that had held on since my time overseas when every car, every backpack could hold an improvised explosive device. I rejected medication, not liking the way it had muted the world, but this meant that I had to be extra vigilant and not let my thoughts take a dark turn.
The office park was full of identical streets lined by identical buildings. The GPS brought me to what I hoped was the appropriate location. I parked, took one last deep breath to center myself, and then stepped out of the car.
Making my way through the parking lot, I moved towards an office building that looked like all the others in the office park. Heading through the glass doors, I entered an office that looked like any other office. Non-descript. Non-threatening. Completely unexceptional.
Or so I thought, until I saw her.
Golden eyes in a tanned face met mine. Long, chocolate brown hair fell in waves past her shoulders. She was tall for a female, but still several inches shorter than I, and her body was toned, with gentle curves that made my mouth dry up.
And then I recognized her.
It had been ten years since I’d seen that face. So much had changed in that time, and not just with me. She’d filled out, shot up, and turned into the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in the flesh.
How was it possible that annoying Emma, who’d had coltish legs and braces when I’d shipped out, had transformed into this paragon of perfection standing before me? Matt’s little sister, who had never failed to irritate us, tagging along and sticking her nose in our business, now made my pants feel uncomfortably tight.
Emma worked here too?
She smiled, and my stomach dropped with sickening speed, like that moment of free-fall in a dream right before you jolt awake. God, she was beautiful.
“Welcome to Shadow Security,” she said, her voice melodic and pleasing, just like the rest of her. “How can I be of service today?”
A thousand responses shot through my mind, none of them appropriate. I was suddenly fixated on her lips. They were plump, the color of ripening strawberries, the corners upturned. Looking at those lips made me want to do terrible, unspeakable things.
She spoke again, jolting me out of my reverie. I opened my mouth to reply but nothing came out. Her golden eyes narrowed, and for a moment she looked concerned. Then recognition flitted across her face, softening it.
She knew me.
I could suddenly speak again.