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"When do you go wheels up?" Ashley Sawyer asked as she walked down the street toward the local grocery store several blocks away.
"I'm impressed," her brother teased, the warm amusement in his voice coming clearly through the phone line. "You've been paying attention to the lingo."
"And you're avoiding the question." Tristan had been deploying with his team of U.S. Navy SEALs since she was sixteen. She knew that when he didn't answer a question, it was usually because he couldn't. Stepping onto the curb, she asked, "Well, you and Matt just take care of each other, okay?"
Silence hung on the line for so long that she checked her phone to make sure she hadn't dropped the call. "Tristan?"
"Matt's not going this time."
Her heart squeezed just a bit. She'd counted on Matt Waterstone, her brother's best friend since their first day in SEAL training, to watch out for Tristan. Matt had a habit of being in the right place at the right time, protecting Tristan from at least one bullet during their deployments. And that was just what he would actually own up to.
She swallowed an unexpected lump in her throat at the thought of harm coming to the man she'd had a crush on once upon a time. "What happened?"
"Nothing major. He'll heal up just fine with a little time. Hey, maybe I'll send him your way for a visitkeep him from getting bored here on his own."
Ashley chuckled as she stepped down from the curb to cross the street. "Right, I'm sure he'd have more fun in tiny little Charity Way, California, than in San Diego. Besides, I wouldn't have much time to entertain him. We just got a new guest at Lil's Place who needs somewhere to stay out of town. My next few days will be pretty full setting that up." Lil's Place had been housing battered women and their children for nearly ten years, and Ashley had served there for the past three. Within the past year she'd taken over as director of operations for the shelter. The new girl was her responsibilityalong with all the other women and children at the shelter.
"Oh, Tristan, she's so youngmaybe not even quite eighteen, and so petite. This guy must have been a monster, because she's bruised from her wrists all the way up to her elbows."
Her stomach swooped at just the thought of Joy, the young girl who had been dropped off the night before. If she had to guess, she'd say the girl was probably Korean, but Joy hadn't spoken more than a few words since arriving at Lil's, barely offering her name.
That was certainly understandable. It was hard to talk with anyonelet alone a strangerafter suffering at an abuser's hands. After all, Ashley hadn't spoken to anyone about it for months after the first time Paul hit her. Just the memory made her cheek sting, and she rubbed it absently as she entered the grocery store.
"Where'd she come from?" Tristan was always so straightforward. His question brought a wry grin to her lips.
Looking over her shoulder and around the end of the aisle to make sure she wouldn't be overheard in the store, Ashley whispered, "My friend Miranda dropped her off last night. She just said the girl needs to get out of town and asked if I knew of a place where she'd be safe."
A full-body shiver made her wrap her arms around her middle. She didn't like moving abuse victims out of Charity Wayleaving an abuser was traumatic enough without having to adjust to a new townbut in certain high-risk situations, it was necessary. Some abusive men went after their victims. Hadn't Paul come after her every time she broke things off? Every time she changed her phone number?
And Joy deserved to have a safe place to recover until she was ready to face her attacker.
Tristan let out a slow breath. "She's lucky to have you looking out for her. But don't forget to look out for yourself. You know what my rule number two is, right?"
"Don't fall out of the boat?"
He snorted. "Know your enemy. You've got to know who's been hurting this girl if your friend thinks there's a chance he'll come after her."
"And is rule number one as useful in this situation?"
"Don't get shot."
"All right. I won't. You don't either."
Having paid for a box of bandages and a compression wrap, Ashley exited the shop and started heading back home. As she crossed Main Street, she happened to glance to the side, directly into the reflection of the sun off of the windshield of a white sedan.
Suddenly its tires squealed against the pavement as the car barreled toward her, gaining speed with every inch.
Her mind froze, and her instincts took over as she fell backward. Her hip slammed into the sidewalk just as the car flew by and disappeared down another side street.
All her breath gone, she sat on the ground, part of her hoping that someone else had seen the car and maybe gotten a license plate number, the other part of her hoping that no one had witnessed her graceless fall. Gulping in as much air as possible, she lifted a scraped palm and studied it with a strange detachment. It didn't hurt.
Her brother's voice rang out clearly, and Ashley snatched the phone that she'd dropped, the motion sending fire through her wrist. She brushed her jacket sleeves out of the way to get a better look at the scraped skin.
"Ash, answer me! Are you okay?" Tristan sounded worried, as if he'd called her name several times.
Ashley closed her eyes against the morning sun and the throbbing at her temples. "I think someone just tried to run me over." The absurdity of the thought brought a laugh bubbling from deep inside. That was ridiculous. The driver must not have noticed her. "What am I saying? Some driver just wasn't paying attention and nearly hit me."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes." She glanced around for the car as she pushed herself to her feet. It was long gone and the whole thing clearly a mistake. Right?
Another voice echoed behind Tristan's, and the phone crackled a few times as if he'd covered the receiver with his hand. "Listen, I have to go in a minute, but I love you. And I don't tell you this enough, but I'm really proud of you, kid. Be careful, okay?"
Ashley ended the call and slipped the phone into her pocket. With the bag in her hand swinging at her side, Ashley hurried back to Lil's Place, so intent on finalizing the arrangements to move Joy to a long-term house several counties away that she nearly forgot to check the mailbox as she strolled up the driveway.
Leaning back, she slipped her hand into the mailbox, pulling out only one envelope. After flipping it over, she frowned. Both sides were blank. But the generic card inside contained more than enough to send her stomach through the cement and make her wonder if the near hit-and-run earlier had been more than an accident.
Just because I missed you today, doesn't mean you can keep my property.
Matt Waterstone lowered himself from his truck, landing on his good leg and resting the injured one without a wince as he glanced up and down Main Street of Charity Way. As nice as the town looked, it wasn't where he wanted to be. The rest of his team had gone wheels up on an op that he hadn't even been briefed about. Tristan, Will and Zach had laughed about the fun they'd have without the senior chief, like he was a stick-in-the-mud.
Man, he wished he was going with them.
But at least he might be useful here, despite his doctor's orders to stay in San Diego, his leg propped up on a pillow. Tristan had a gut feeling that Ashley was in trouble, and after that gut feeling had saved them both from a sniper a year before, who was Matt to argue? After almost ten years with SEAL Team FIFTEEN, he'd learned to rely on his training and instinct. And he trusted Tristan's gut more than his own.
The details were still a bit slim at this pointa near hit-and-run and a note from some deranged creep. Apparently Tristan had been on the phone with Ashley during the hit-and-run, and Mrs. Sawyer had called Tristan after Ashley told her about the note. It was enough to get Matt headed north.
"Just make sure that she's okay." Tristan had said, "Ash gets all kinds of calls and letters and snide remarks thanks to her work at the shelter. But no one's ever tried to run her over before. Just watch her back until they find this creep. Will you?"
Of course the answer was yes. His best friend's family was the closest thing Matt had to a family of his own.
"Excuse me." He approached a white-haired man writing the specials on a sidewalk chalkboard. "Could you point me in the direction of Lil's Place?" The man eyed him, as though questioning what business he could have there. "I'm a friend of Ashley Sawyer's."
Suddenly a small black coupe zipped down Main Street, screeching to a halt twenty yards to his right. Two women burst from within as if fireworks had been set off inside the car. They left the doors open; the petite blonde behind the wheel flew around the front of the car and hugged the other, a taller woman with dark hair.
"You'll be great, Carmen!" the blonde said, clutching the other's shoulders. "Now, go knock it out of the park."
"Thank you. Thank you for everything." Long curly hair flew behind her as Carmen ran to the door of the closest shop, offering the briefest of waves before disappearing inside.
Matt's gaze jumped back to the blonde. He caught the end of her wide smile, which sent his pulse skittering as if he'd just run five miles in the sand. The wind picked up a strand of her hair and the hem of her green skirt, but she wrestled them both back into place, never taking her eyes off the closed door.
She blinked long lashes, her smile settling from pure joy into pride as he drew even with her and caught a glimpse of stunning blue eyes. Familiar blue eyes. It couldn't be. There was no way this woman was Tristan's little sister.
Her eyebrows rose suddenly. "Matt?"
He stopped in midstride, his smile growing slowly.
All of a sudden she threw her arms around his shoulders, hugging him as though she'd never quit. She must have been nearly on her toes to reach that high. He awkwardly patted her back. Ashley was the closest thing he'd ever had to a little sister, but he was out of practice. He hadn't seen her in more than four years. In fact, the last time he'd seen her, she was more teenager than woman. And SEAL training didn't include continuing courses in relating to your best friend's kid sister.
She rocked back on her heels, her eyes glowing. "I thought you were injured. Tristan called and said Are you all right?" Her nose wrinkled as she squinted her eyes to narrow their focus on his.
Could she see straight through him with that gaze? His stomach twisted, and he bit his tongue to keep from laughing at the way she looked at once very childlikefreckles still paraded over her noseand all grown-up. Finally he replied, "I'll live."
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Have it your way." She glanced down the sidewalk and then back to the door behind him. "I'm in town to run some errands. Can you join me?"
"Sure. I'd love to."
She nodded to the pharmacy behind her. "I have to pick up a prescription." As she led him down an aisle toward the back counter, she shot him a dazzling smile. "I'm so happy to see you, but what on earth are you doing here? Tristan made some joke about sending you here to recuperate, but I thought he was just kidding."
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and prayed she wouldn't be upset. He remembered a fight she'd had with Tristan during Matt's first visit to their home. Tristan had tried to get her to break up with her boyfriend. Sixteen-year-old Ashley hadn't appreciated Tristan sticking his nose in her business. But maybe that had changed in eight years.
"Your brother did send me but not to recuperate."
Her eyebrows pinched together as she turned to accept a bottle of pink syrup from the white-coated pharmacist. "Thank you." She tipped a smile to the man on the other side of the counter, but when she turned back to Matt, her face was filled with questions, although she asked only one. "Why did he send you, then?"
"He was worried. Said your mom called him, too."
She looked up into the fluorescent lights and crossed her arms before picking up a wire basket at the end of one of the aisles and tossing a bag of Christmas ribbons into it. "It's really not a big deal. I wish you'd just called instead of wasting a trip up here."
"What happened?" His knee buckled as he took a step to follow her, and he silently chastised it, hating every moment that his body didn't perform at its peak.
"You first." She picked up two tubes of antibacterial ointment but glanced pointedly at his leg.
He chuckled as she put her basket down on the counter and the cashier began ringing up her items. "Fine. I ran into a guy with a knife. Ended up with a few stitches."
The cashier shot him a curious stare, but Ashley only handed her the cash to pay for her purchases before leading him toward the door.
"You make it sound like nothing, but I know it's not."
She clearly had all sorts of questions, but he didn't have any answers for them. That mission was classified, and even if it wasn't, he wasn't going to tell her he'd saved her brother from a guy with an eight-inch blade. She had enough on her plate without adding on more fears for her brother. He'd protected his best friendthat was what mattered. And now he was going to protect his friend's sister.