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Trouble was brewing. Haley Barnes could feel it. She'd spent enough years living on the streets to know.
She stood on the steps of her shelter for pregnant teenagers, her gaze on the dusky street. No traffic rumbled by. No D.C. commuters hurried past, despite the evening hour. Even the homeless man who'd taken up residence in the empty row house several doors down had gone to ground, drowning who-knew-what demons in a bottle, no doubt. And her teenagers were safe inside the shelter, warming themselves before the fire.
Except for one. The one who worried her the most.
Ignoring the premonition of danger stirring inside her, Haley hurried down the steps to the sidewalk, then started up the empty street, heading toward the metro station where the runaways sometimes hung out. She should have watched Lindsey more closely. The teen had exhibited the classic signs of depressionrefusing to eat, unable to sleep, rebuffing Haley's attempts to talk. Instead, she'd withdrawn into a sad kind of silence, slipping outside when no one was looking, and nine hours later, she hadn't come back.
Not that Haley blamed her for feeling depressed. Lindsey was fourteen and pregnant. Her boyfriend had dumped her, her family disowned herand Haley knew exactly how that felt. She understood the despair that threatened to engulf her, the terror of her unknown future, the knowledge that her childhood had abruptly ended in the most fundamental of ways.
Haley had tried to offer her comfort, to give her a shoulder to lean on and pull her back from the brink. But the girl had rejected every overture of help. She'd retreated into moroseness, into the overwhelming dejection of someone who'd given up hope. Haley just prayed she hadn't done anything drasticto herself or that unborn child.
Her sense of urgency mounting, Haley hurried down the cracked sidewalk, the low drumming of subwoofers a block away quickening her pulse. Trouble was right. The Ridgewood gang was on the prowl. No wonder everyone had fled the street. No one with any sense would risk confronting that violent group.
But she refused to give up. She'd made it her life's mission to help these troubled girls, to give them the acceptance and safe haven she'd lacked. She knew the desperation that drove them, the terrible dangers that awaited them on D.C.'s brutal streets.
And she didn't intend to lose one now.
The wind gusted hard, pushing loose strands of hair into her eyes, and she paused to shove them back. She scanned the row houses bordering the street, the latemodel cars lined up along the curb, and searched for the missing girl. Her gaze landed on the dilapidated row house where the homeless man holed up. Another wounded soul. Another loner adrift in an uncaring world. Another stray she wanted to save.
One stray at a time. She had Lindsey to worry about first.
She just prayed she could find her in time.
Staff Sergeant Sullivan Turner slumped against the wall in his best friend's row house, the whisper of oncoming danger prickling his nerves. Not his problem, he reminded himself firmly. Fighting the bad guys hadn't been his problem in monthsnine long months, to be exact. Not since he'd returned to civilian life.
He knocked back a swallow of vodka, then rubbed his aching leg. Dusk crept through the empty room, shrouding the corners in darkness, but it did nothing to subdue his nerves. He dreaded the night, dreaded battling the memories that inevitably flashed back, reminders of the ambush that had claimed his buddies' lives. And he especially dreaded confronting the failures he couldn't erase, no matter how much alcohol he drank.
He closed his eyes, inhaling around the desolation gripping his chest, and willed the images aside. He couldn't afford to go there. He couldn't afford to picture their grinning faces and remember the deaths he'd caused. And he definitely couldn't afford to envision his best friend Jason's cocky grin, that instant when he'd turned around, preparing to launch another laughing insult at Sully just as his world had come to an end.
By some miracle, Sully had survived. But his survival hadn't been a blessing; it was a curse. A curse that would plague him until the day he died.
Determined to hold off the flashbacks, he drained the bottle of vodka and hefted himself to his feet. It was going to be one hell of a night, his wounded leg already aching with a vengeance, unwanted memories bombarding him like those RPGs that destroyed his squad. He tossed the empty bottle onto the counter and twisted the cap on another, but a faint mewling sound made him pause. Frowning, he limped across the kitchen to the glass door leading to the patio, his steps thudding on the wooden floor.
A furry animal huddled on the step outside. Great. Just what he didn't needa cat. If he could call him that. He was the most pathetic creature Sully had ever seen, with one missing eye, flea-bitten ears encrusted with filth and a scraggly, crooked tail. His fur was mangy and gray. A shock of white stuck up on his ruff, matching his face and legs. He had a lame front paw, a limp that matched Sully's own. His chest swelled with unbidden sympathya feeling he couldn't afford.
"Go away," he told the cat through the glass door. "I'm not taking care of you."
The cat meowed and gave him a beseeching look with his good eye. Then the wind bore down again, ruffling what remained of his matted fur. He hunched his back, his thin body so undernourished, Sully was surprised he didn't blow away. More kitten than cat, he decided. Lost and alone. Another misfit wandering the streets.
"All right," he grumbled. "But just this once."
Swearing, he shuffled back into the kitchen, his own stomach growling as he opened his last can of tunathe sum total of his remaining food. But what the hell. The cat needed it more than he did. He cracked open the sliding glass door, nudging the cat back to keep him from slipping inside, and set the can on the ground.
"Don't think I'm doing this all the time," he warned him. "Don't start hanging around, expecting handouts. I don't need a damned pet."
He shut the door. He didn't need anyone to take care ofor another failure to add to the list. He'd already let everyone down enough.
Pushing aside thoughts of the needy cat, he crossed the empty room to the front window, his steps echoing in the gloom. The house had no electricity, no heat, no hot water. No furniture, except for the mattress Sully had hauled inside. Jason had cleared out before his last deployment, as if he'd known he wouldn't be back. And for some unfathomable reason, he'd willed the place to Sully, his best friend since childhood.
The best friend who 'd caused his death.
Sully braced his forearm on the glass and worked his jaw, trying to control the flood of regrets. Shadows bled across the pockmarked yard. Bare tree branches scratched at the gloomy sky. His sense of foreboding grew stronger, and he frowned at the empty street. He'd once trusted his instincts for danger. But then, he'd once felt invincible. He'd once believed in good versus evil, the glory and necessity of war.
The rhythmic thud of subwoofers made the floor pulse, rumbling through the lug soles of Sully's boots. Tensing even more now, he skimmed the houses up the street, eyeing their peeling paint, their house numbers hanging askew, the weedy yards littered with trash. There was no sign of the approaching car, no sign of the gang that had been making inroads into the neighborhood. But he wasn't fooled. The bad guys were out there. And evil always won.
He shoved away from the window, but a motion on the sidewalk caught his eye. A woman hurried into view, her long woolen coat flapping in the wind, her thick chestnut hair whipping around her face. The woman who ran the teen shelter. He'd seen her from a distance a couple of times. But this close he caught the elegance in her slender frame, the graceful way she moved. She had clear, creamy skin, an open, appealing face. She was in her early thirties, he guessed, and wholesome in a girl-next-door sort of way.
Wholesome. Right. Just what the world didn't needanother misguided do-gooder, idealistic and naive. A crusader out to save humanity.
He 'd once been the same.
Well, he definitely knew better now.
A movement in the opposite direction grabbed his attention, and he turned his head. A teenager waddled into view across the street, heading the woman's way. One of the pregnant teenagers who stayed in the shelter. Her swollen belly gave her away.
The vibrations deepened and rattled the window. Rap music now boomed out, the spew of angry lyrics throbbing through Sully's skull. He shifted his weight from his aching leg, his nerves coiling tighter as he watched the street. A vehicle crawled into view, a black SUV with dark tinted windows, pimped out with flashy chrome. Gangbangers. He'd seen them cruising the neighborhood in the past few days, staking their claim to the territory, challenging anyone who stood in their way.
But this situation felt different. They were driving too slowly, inching down the street with lethal intent. Was a drug deal going downor something worse?
What did it matter? This wasn't his problem. He had no reason to get involved.
And yet.. He stood motionless at the window, his attention riveted on the unfolding scene. The young kid crossing the street. The SUV steadily approaching. The woman from the shelter scurrying along the sidewalk as she rushed toward the pregnant teen.
He didn't like this. His instincts were clamoring hard. He needed to get those women off the street pronto before someone ended up dead.
Kicking into gear now, he reached into his waistband and tugged out his Glocka holdover from his army days. Then, keeping his gaze glued on the oncoming vehicle, he limped to the front door. He pulled it open and stepped outside onto the sagging porch.
The cold air brushed his skin. The heavy bass from the SUV thundered through his chest. The pregnant girl was halfway across the street now, her face registering fear as she caught sight of the gang.
The tinted windows on the SUV rolled down. The barrel of a rifle appeared, the shock of it halting his steps. An E-13. He couldn't mistake the experimental weapon with its distinctive bullpup configuration, even from this far away.
And they were going to use it to shoot that kid.
Without warning, the shelter woman darted into the street, straight into the line of fire, and his heart careened to a stop. She didn't have a chance. The gang would mow her down before she made it three more feet.
He leaped off the porch and charged.
She wasn't going to make it. She'd never get Lindsey to safety before the gang began to shoot. She'd just run out of time.
A shot barked out from the vehicle. The girl let out a panicked scream. Desperation erupting inside her, Haley lunged to Lindsey's side, staying between her and the SUV in an attempt to shield her and that precious babe.
But then a man barreled into the street out of nowhere. Startled, she whipped around. She caught sight of shaggy blond hair and furious eyes as he rushed toward her, a pistol in his left hand.
"Go!" he shouted. "Take cover behind the car!"
Haley didn't hesitate. Dragging Lindsey with her, she sprinted toward the curb while the man opened fire on the SUV, the sharp reports thundering through the air. She dove to the ground, pushing Lindsey behind the engine block, deliriously grateful for the mystery man's help. But who was he? Where had he come from? And where had he gotten that gun?
The gang returned fire, the staccato of semiautomatic gunfire making her flinch. Fearing bullets would penetrate the vehicle, she flattened herself over the teenager, determined to protect her at any cost. Their avenger ducked behind a nearby tree, but a new horror fisted in Haley's throat. He'd helped rescue the teenagerbut now the gang was shooting at him. How could he possibly survive?
The shots went on forever, the rapid-fire stream of bullets shattering the windows on the house nearby. More shots slammed into the car, the force of the deadly blasts making it rock. Hardly able to think straight, Haley covered the girl's head, total pandemonium breaking loose inside. They'd never make it out alive.
The shooting paused. Rap music drummed through the silence, the menacing sound stoking her nerves. Their rescuer sprang out from behind the tree, firing several rounds at the SUV as he raced over and dove behind the parked car. He landed close beside her, breathing hard.
She spared a glance his way, gathering a quick impression of dark, slashing brows, a steel jaw lined with heavy stubble, shoulders so broad they blocked the light. He ejected a spent magazine, then slammed another into his gun without looking at her. Whoever he was, whatever guardian angel had sent this commando to save them, they owed him their lives.
Assuming any of them survived.
"Stay right there," he shouted as more gunfire tatted out, and she covered her ringing ears. But the firefight raged, the noise horrific. Bullets sprayed the parked cars. Haley tried her best to shield the teenager, but the futility of their predicament hit her hard. How could they escape this? The three of them were doomed.
The din grew even louder, the cacophony so overwhelming she thought her head would splinter apart. Then the shooting abruptly stopped. Tires squealed and the SUV zoomed off. The thumping music grew fainter as the vehicle drove farther away.
For a minute, she didn't move. She gasped for breath, her pulse still chaotic at the close call. Her ears throbbed in the painful silence, the girl's frantic whimpers finally penetrating her daze.
"Are you all right?" the man asked.
His low, gravelly voice drew her attention, and she turned her head. She met his grim, whiskey-hued eyes, and her belly made a little clutch, the reaction catching her unprepared. Startled, she took in his dark, furrowed brows, the stark angles of his craggy face. He had straight, collar-length hair dampened with sweat, a slightly off-center nose that hinted at less than a choirboy past. A few days' worth of razor stubbleseveral shades darker than his blond haircovered his throat and jaw.
Her heart took another swerve. He wasn't exactly handsome. But man, oh man, was he attractive. Arresting. Thoroughly masculine in a decidedly carnal way. He looked like an old-fashioned gunslinger, like the loner who rode into town, risking his life to battle the bad guys and save the day. A solitary man in need of comfort who left behind a trail of broken hearts as he rode away.
This was the homeless man, she realized with a start. But he was nothing like she'd expected. He was youngerin his midthirties at mostand far more virile. He wore work boots and tattered jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt he'd pushed up to his elbows, exposing the tendons roping his arms. His hands were big and lean. He cradled the gun with lethal ease.
He was the sexiest man she'd ever seen.
Her throat suddenly dry, she managed a nod. "I'm fine." Thanks to you.
"Well, you're damned lucky. What the hell were you thinking, running out into the street like that? You could have been killed."
His sudden anger took her aback. "I had to protect Lindsey. I couldn't let them " Suddenly remembering the pregnant teenager, she rolled aside. "Oh, God. Lind-sey. Are you hurt?"
The girl lifted her head, her eyes huge in her too-pale face. "I'm okay. But what happened? Who was that? Why were they shooting at us?"
Haley's mouth went flat, her own anger stirring now. "The Ridgewood gang." Based primarily in Baltimore, the gang had recently begun making inroads into nearby Washington, D.C., in an effort to control the heroin trade. And she'd be damned if they'd chase her out.