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Andrea Donovan stood at the glass-fronted entrance of her counseling center and watched the last patient of the day trek across the broiling parking lot to his car. The heat of the July Georgia sun blunted the edges of the world, giving the appearance that everything outside lay underwater. Her client eased onto Victory Drive, leaving her car alone in the parking lot save for a pickup truck idling near the gas station that neighbored her building.
Andrea looked out for a moment longer before she headed back to her office to shut down her computer and collect her files. She still had notes to make for her last patient, but all of her energy seemed to have drained into a pool at her feet. So many hurting people walked through her doors. It drained her, but in a way that made the end of the day seem more satisfying than brutal.
After gathering a stack of old documents for the shredder, Andrea stepped out to the empty reception desk in the lobby.
An unfamiliar man blocked her path. Adrenaline rocketed from Andrea's core and tingled in her fingertips.
Broad-shouldered, dark-haired and square-jawed, in jeans and a navy button-down shirt, he effectively blocked the small space between the desk and the door. His bulk and the determined expression chiseled on his face radiated menacing vibes that plucked at Andrea's flight response.
She took a step back, but the only place to run was to her windowless office. No outlet there. Swallowing hard, she drew herself up to her full five feet and six inches. It had better look more imposing than it felt. "Can I help you?"
The man's dark eyes raked over her, sizing her up and dismissing her as less threatening than a June bug. "You're Donovan? The counselor lady?" His posture said he wasn't here to ask for help.
"I am. Is there something I can do for you?" She gripped the papers tighter, wishing for the first time for the rifle she'd carried in combat on active duty six years ago. Not that she'd use it, but the knowledge that it was available would go miles toward making her feel safer in this guy's presence.
"I need to talk to you about Wade Cameron. You're his head doc, right?" His eyes took in the papers in Andrea's arms, then drifted over her head, scanning her office. "Where's he at?"
"He's certainly not here." Her mind flipped through her calendar. Army Specialist Wade Cameron hadn't been to see her in weeks. He'd graduated from weekly counseling sessions to AA meetings and conversations with his sponsor.
"Sure he's not." A cold half smile quirked the man's mouth in a way that was anything but comforting. "You won't mind if I take a look around then? Maybe get a peek at your file on him? Seems he might have left a message in there for me."
Andrea arched an eyebrow as her fear dissolved into fierce she-wolf protection. Specialist Cameron was one of her success stories, fighting his way out of a vicious cycle of PTSD-fueled alcohol addiction. The way he laughed so easily and carried himself with such dignity reminded her too much of Brendan, making her realize how much she had to make up for. No way was this street thug going to bully her into giving up confidential information on that kid.
She spaced her feet wider and squared her shoulders. If she got the man talking, maybe it would buy time to work her way around him to the door. "And you are?" From this angle, there was no view of the parking lot, but she desperately hoped someone driving by on Victory Drive would get a clue as to what was happening.
"You got a nice place here. Still smells a little like fresh paint sometimes, huh? You've been open here, what? Six months?" He stepped closer. "Shame if something should happen to this building if you don't stop what you're doing."
Andrea's knees weakened. She gripped the edge of the desk. "What's that supposed to mean? Who are you?" Only God could have gotten those words out of her mouth without them trembling.
"Just admiring your pretty building. And its interesting location. Now.. " He took one more step toward Andrea as she held her ground. "I am here to find my friend and to get a look at his file." The man's voice dropped as his jaw hardened. "If that's not asking too much of you. If it is, you can step out of the way and let me find it myself. Or I can move you. You can choose."
Without taking the time for her mind to process the action, Andrea reached behind her, jammed the lock, and yanked the office door shut as the man lunged. In less than a blink, his body thudded into the heavy wooden door as she sidestepped around him, adrenaline charging through her on electric rails.
She lunged for the front door and the relative safety of the parking lot. Just as her fingertips made contact with the glass, a corded arm snapped around her waist and jerked her back, lifting her feet from the floor.
"Very, very bad idea, Doc." The voice rumbled against her ear and washed cold fear down her spine. "I want the kid. And if you can't give me the kid, I want his file, because I need what's in it. And if you can't give me that, then you can come with me and tell me everything you know. As far as I'm concerned, that's the easiest way to solve two very big problems." He yanked her tighter against his chest. "Sound like a good plan to you?"
No. She struggled against the weight that held her back, clawed at the sleeves of his shirt, kicked at the air. Her mind searched her old army training for a way out. He held her too tight for an elbow to the ribs, too high for a heel to the instep. In a feat of sheer muscle memory, she jerked her head back as hard as she could and connected with the soft tissue of his nose.
Her attacker roared, and his grip loosened enough for her to break free and drop to the floor. Her knees and hands struggled for grip on the ancient tile.
His hands clamped around her ankle as her fingertips brushed the door and jerked her away from the only chance she had at freedom. Andrea scratched at the gray tile, clawing for traction, her fingernails catching a rough edge and ripping off. This would not be her end, on the floor of her own lobby. With a silent prayer and the last of her energy, she threw herself onto her back, her ankle twisting in her attacker's grip, and kicked her free foot straight up.
The sound of teeth crunching together echoed through the room as her heel connected with the stranger's chin and drove his head back.
He staggered back, hands covering his face, teetering as though he might fall.
Andrea skittered across the floor and half rose in a backward drive for freedom.
With a howl that should have shaken the windows, the man ripped his hands from his face, blood slinging across the floor, and roared toward her again, his eyes glinting black murder.
As his fingers grasped her forearm and jerked her forward in a grip that felt like iron, the door opened and Andrea struggled for footing. As she did, a solid object crashed into the back of her shoulders, doubling her over as a second attacker rammed into her, knocking her onto her face.
There was a crash, a grunt and the sounds of fists on flesh. A swift kick jolted her thigh, as someone vaulted over her and out the door, then there was only silence, save the heavy breathing of the one man left in the lobby.
Andrea pushed to her hands and knees as fast as her shaking limbs would allow. Dragging in what might be her last breath, she steeled herself and prepared to go down fighting.
First Sergeant Josh Walker scrambled up, his first instinct to aid the woman on the floor, but he had to catch the man who had done this to her. He charged out the door in time to watch a burgundy sedan rocket out of the parking lot in a spray of dust and tire smoke. A groan roiled in the back of his throat as he balled his fists in frustration. The car was definitely a Chevy, but it was too far away to get the license plate. There was no way the police would arrive on the scene before that clown blended in with the end-of-duty-day traffic on Victory Drive.
The soft scrape of the door opening behind him pulled him to more immediate concerns. The woman. In the lobby. Nausea coiled in his stomach and looped through the familiar burn of condemnation. He'd chased off her attacker but had failed to catch him. He never seemed to quite follow through.
Josh pivoted and drew back as the woman's fist rocketed toward his head. He ducked to one side, but his awkward stance kept him from moving fast enough. The solid blow caught him square on his cheekbone, shooting stars through his field of vision. A series of rapid blinks cleared his eyesight in time to watch her rear back for round two.
Steadying himself on the door frame, he caught her fist with his free hand, squeezing a little tighter than he would have if she hadn't just coldcocked him. "Hey, hey. I'm the good guy. I promise." Leftover adrenaline edged his words and clouded his vision.
She jerked her arm to free herself from his grip, and he eased up a little, recognizing the fringes of hysteria in her green eyes. "Look at me." He dropped his voice to what he hoped was a soothing whisper, the one that used to work on his black lab during rocking thunderstorms. "Look at me. You're safe."
Her attention finally focused on him and, as the energy dissipated, he relaxed his hold on her hand only to tighten it again in a jolt of recognition. Andrea Donovan? The world couldn't possibly be that small.
The way her jaw slackened spoke more than words. It was her. And what was more amazing she recognized him, too.
"Josh Walker?" His name rode an exhale barely above a whisper, one that held as much incredulity as he felt.
Josh nodded once, his voice free-falling to the pit of his stomach. It was ridiculous he hadn't recognized her sooner. It couldn't be possible that the last time he'd laid eyes on Andrea had been right out of high school. Too many years ago. He should do now what he'd been so tempted to do then, pull her close and shield her from the pain that tried to beat its way into her life.
With a deep sigh and a shake of her head, Andrea extricated herself from his grip and stepped back. She winced and stumbled as her weight shifted to her right foot.
Josh reached out and grasped the arms of the woman he had tried so often to forget, keeping her from slumping to the floor. Shoving his shock aside, he focused on the task at hand. Blending the past with the present was more than his brain could handle at this point. "Take it easy. You took a pretty vicious twist when you whipped around on him. Nice blow to the jaw, by the way." His lip curved into a wry smile. "His, not mine." When she didn't respond, his practiced eyes took in her pale face and tight lips. "You okay?"
Nodding, she let him open the door and lead her into the lobby where she sank down onto one of the brown pleather chairs in the small waiting room. "I'm fine."
Her shaking hands said differently, but Josh kept his mouth shut. He had no right to ask more of her. And given her current agitation, she might decide to swing again.
"Where did you come from?" she asked him.
Josh knelt in front of her but kept his distance. "The parking lot."
The look she fired his way let him know he'd completely misunderstood the question. "I meant how did you wind up here in my office?"
Yeah, it sent him reeling, too, seeing her out of context like this. He tapped his chest where his rank anchored to the front of his uniform. "First sergeant in Third Infantry. I joined the army during college." He swallowed hard against rising memories about why he signed up, and switched gears on the conversation. "Any idea who that guy was?"
Still clearly on high alert, Andrea shook her head and stared at the door. Was it the attack or him that caused her muscles to tense?
His eyes followed hers, but there was no movement outside in the summer heat. After a quick scan to make sure no one lurked behind the lone car still out there, Josh pushed himself to his feet and glanced at the desk behind him. More than anything, he needed distance. "I'm going to call the police so they can be on the lookout. I can identify the car. Can you give them a description of the guy?"
The tremors moved from her hands, up her arms and through her body. She wrapped her arms around her stomach and looked up at him. "Definitely. And after you call the police you can call a locksmith. I locked my car keys in my office and the only other set is at my apartment." Her lips twisted into a rueful, if shaky, smile. "And my apartment keys are on the same key ring. That just caps my day, doesn't it? First I get jumped, and now I can't go home."
Her green eyes latched on to his, as if she was looking for confirmation that it was okay to relax. They were the color of those old-fashioned Coke bottles, clearer and purer than he remembered. For a second, Josh couldn't break away, but he shook it off and forced himself to go make the call. She'd probably give him a black eye if she could read his thoughts. He'd seen her in action.
"So, Andrea." It had been so many years since he'd spoken her name that it felt foreign on his tongue. "This is your office? You started this place?" The chaplain had passed on the information about the counseling center to his chain of command, but he'd never heard her name associated with it.
"Yeah." She shuddered and flexed the fingers of the hand that had recently met his cheek. "I'm sorry I tried to deck you."
"No worries. Given the circumstances, it's understandable." Josh bit back a smile as he picked up the phone and took note of the stack of business cards on the counter. Andrea Donovan. So she wasn't married, unless she was one of those women who refused to take her husband's name. Not that he should be noticing.
The name still fit her as it always had, soft and girlish at first glance, but tough on the next look. The admiration building in him quenched itself under a heavy dose of guilt. She wouldn't have had to be tough if he'd have come to the rescue earlier. Then again, it looked as if she'd done a pretty good job of rescuing herself. Ten seconds more and she probably wouldn't have needed him at all.
Or she'd have been dead. He shook off the thought. There was no sense living in what might have been, especially when God had definitely kept the worst from happening. And there was no other explanation for this bizarre twist to his day, no other reason for him to be here other than to watch over her, to somehow fix what he'd broken years ago.
After a brief conversation with the police, Josh sank into a chair near Andrea. "You doing okay?"
She looked up from flexing her ankle. "I'm still here, thanks to you, and my ankle hurts less every second. All in all, it ended better than it should have." Before Josh could dig deeper, she rested her foot on the floor and gripped her knees. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
Josh sprang to his feet, his pulse quickening and driving hammers into the impact point on his cheek. He never should have forgotten why he was here in the first place. "Specialist Cameron. Where is he?"
The question barely ended before Andrea reacted. Eyes narrowed, nostrils flared, she stood gingerly and faced off, fists clenched. "What's going on, Josh?"