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Lazarus Security was exactly the type of well-oiled engine he could see himself willing to get his hands dirty with.
Mace Harrison squinted into the watery early November sunlight where he stood near the back of the training center strategically located behind the building. Everything at the company was top of the line, including personnel. Situated on several acres just outside Colorado Springs, Lazarus was an extraordinary operation that in a short time was already gaining notable momentum within the private security industry. It was one of the reasons why he was there.
The other was Lazarus partner Darius Folsom.
He nodded at his old friend now.
How far did they go back? Fifteen years, at least. To the first time Mace's parents had shipped him and his older brother Marcus off to live with his paternal grandfather for the summer? Their military family had moved to yet another house in yet another city and he'd been young enough to need supervision, and old enough to cause trouble because he'd hated moving. And then there was his need to escape the shadow his brother cast that threatened to suffocate him. Dari and his family had lived around the block from his grandfather and he and Mace had become fast friends.
They'd enlisted in the Marines at around the same timeby that point Mace choosing to live at his grandfather's house, which offered him greater independencebut they hadn't been stationed together until the past year.
Darius Folsom had recently completed his second tour, but Mace still had a six-month stretch ahead of him. He was back home for a brief week break, investigating job opportunities, Lazarus at the top of the list.
Of course, it was also possible he'd take on that counter-terrorism desk job he'd been offered in Washington, D.C.
And he was purposely ignoring the fact that he was also there to accept an award he didn't deserve and didn't want.
The Navy Cross
A small bit of metal that might as well be the size of a Humvee as far as he was concerned.
Of course, some brave men and women went their entire lives without receiving such an honor.
He supposed he should feel guilty for not wanting it. But considering everything well, many had made the ultimate sacrifice and received nothing more than a military burial.
How would his brother feel about the medal? He imagined Marcus would give him one of his trademark smirks and slap him hard on the back. "Still running after me, little bro? Think you'll catch up? You might want to pick up the pace."
Of course, Mace could only guess at what he'd say. Because Marcus wasn't there. Not anymore.
But Mace still felt shadow hands choking him from behind, a sensation that was even stronger when he was within a hundred miles of his parents.
A time like now.
"So what do you think?" Dari said hesitantly, after having given him the nickel tour of Lazarus Security, apparently having noticed the darkening of his expression.
"Impressive," Mace said, shaking off his thoughts although he knew better than to try to rid himself of the shadow; that would be there forever. "Very impressive."
Darius's grin was his response.
"Good job, old pal." Mace squeezed his shoulder. "This is really something. You can tell you've put a lot of work into it."
"Thanks." it still amazed him that Dari drew such words close to heart. Oh, not from anyone. The big, tough Marine wasn't easily flattered. But when it came to his friends Amazing. "Don't let the success go to your head," he teased now.
Dari laughed. "Don't worry. This is a joint endeavor and i had very little to do with the start-up. I was too busy overseas getting my ass shot and saved by someone we both know."
Mace grimaced as he glanced at his friend's leg. "You'd have made it out on your own."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
What went unsaid was that several of their team hadn't made it out.
And it was that incident that not only still gave Maceand very likely Darinightmares, it was what had ultimately earned him that damn medal he'd be accepting at some sort of bigwig event that Saturday.
He wondered if it wasn't too late to hop onto the first transport out. He'd take full-on assault from enemy forces over what he was facing in days.
"That's how you earned it," Dari said.
"i was just doing my job."
"No, Mace, you always do more than your job."
"You'd have done the same."
"Would I have? I'd like to think I would. But I don't know. While I would have ultimately done what was needed, I would have likely hesitated that split second to assess the situation before diving in. You.. " Dari fell silent, undoubtedly reflecting on that late afternoon in the mountains of Waziristan when they'd been lied to by villagers and surrounded by enemy forces the instant they were outside town. "You charged straight in, to hell with the consequences."
"Some would say that's stupid."
Dari squinted at him. "If you had hesitated, a leg wound would have been the least of my worries. And you'd have returned home to attend a very different event."
Mace didn't even want to consider that possibility. Not then, not now.
"What's done is done," he said. "I'd prefer it if everyone looked forward rather than back."
Dari half-smiled. "Yeah." He nodded. "Yeah."
Mace shifted his weight from one foot to the other, wishing the subject done.
"Come on," Dari said, seeming to pick up on his mindset. "Let's go into town and grab some grub. I've got a favor to ask. Oh, and I hope you don't mind, I told Megan we'd meet up with her at The Barracks afterward for a drink."
Mace nearly sighed audibly in relief. "Fine with me." He'd known Dari's wife since she was little more than the reason his friend bought acne cream when the occasional zit popped up on his face. He'd only been in town for a few days and he'd enjoy the chance to catch up with her, find out what both of them had been up to outside their working at Lazarus together.
"She'll be alone, right?" he asked, a thought occurring to him.
His friend had never been any good at lying. "Hell, Dari, I'm not in town for that long. I'd like to spend some time with my friends before heading back."
"Surely there's a little room for some friendly company."
"No. There isn't."
"Aw. She's a real sweetheart. I promise you'll like her."
That was the problem, he thought.
He didn't want to like anyone. Not right now. Not without knowing where he was going to land in six months, if, in fact, he landed at all.
Not after what had happened the last time he'd tried to make a long-distance relationship work.
"Sorry," Dari said. "I know you asked me not to do it. And I really haven't. It's Megan's idea. I know how you feel about people knowing your business, so while I made your feelings on the matter known to Meg, I didn't tell her why you felt that way. Without that."
Without that, she couldn't understand why he was adamant about not dating while on this leave.
"You'll understand if I pass on that drink then," he said.
Dari looked disappointed, but finally he nodded.
They walked back to the main structure, passing armed recruits making their way out to the state-of-the-art shooting range along the way. He shared his friend's disappointment. He truly would have enjoyed having a beer with him and Megan tonight. But to be placed next to a woman hoping to be swept off her feet, one who looked at him with big doe eyes, who promised forever and then moved on to someone else while he was overseas.
And that meant a long night stretched out in front of him with nothing to do but stare at his motel room walls.
He could go over to see his grandfather again, but he'd gotten into hot water with the nursing home attendants for having stayed past regular visiting hours once already. He didn't want to risk having his visitation privileges revoked.
Mace grinned even as he shook his head. The old man had one foot in the grave and still somehow managed to chase around anything female like a spry twenty-year-old.
Well, okay, maybe a spry twenty-year-old with a walker.
He remembered their last conversation. "Give me something, kid," Dwayne Harrison had requested that morning. "Good-looking stud like you? Them skirts gotta be falling all over you. Surely you could send some sweet stuff my way."
Mace had merely smiled.
Oh, he planned to date again. Hopefully soon. Once he was able to get rid of the bad taste Janine had left in his mouth.
Of course, he could always go over and visit his parents. They'd settled back in his father's hometown five years or so ago when his dad finally retired.
Still, somehow, he didn't look at their house as home.
And the shadow hands tightened at the thought.
Dari cleared his throat. "I don't think I've had a chance to say it yet, but well, I was sorry to hear about Janine. You deserve better than what she did to you."
Mace turned his head so quickly to stare at Dari, his neck cracked. It wasn't like his friend to mention something so personal in such a casual setting. At least, not without downing a few beers first.
"What?" Dari asked.
Of course, his friend couldn't know that Mace had no sooner switched his cell phone on after his flight than he'd received a voice mail from the woman in question. He'd stopped dead in the middle of the airport terminal, staring at the notification. He hadn't heard from her in nearly eight months. What could she possibly want now?
He'd found out soon enough. Her words still reverberated through his mind.
"Welcome home, Mace. I know I'm probably the last person you expected to hear from, but Well, I just wanted to say I'm sorry again. And to tell you I'd love to see you while you're in town. Call me please."
Curiously, hearing her voice hadn't moved him in the least. But her apology and her request to see him again had elicited a very specific response: Hell no.
He opened the door and stepped aside so his friend could precede him inside. "Something tells me you're getting a bit soft around the middle."
Dari rubbed a rock-hard six-pack.
"Not that middle."
They chuckled and walked back to Dari's office in the front of the building.
While Mace could make light of his relationship woes when the situation called for it, there was nothing but heaviness in his heart at the memory of Janine's betrayal.
"So, rocky's Diner after I close up shop here."
He nodded. "Rocky's Diner. Meet you there in an hour."
They shook hands and gave each other a bro hug. Then Mace headed out to the parking lot where his rental car waited, trying not to think about Janine or the phone call he'd gotten from her that morning.
Geneva Davis took three meat loaves out of the industrial oven, swiping the back of one of the oven mitts across her brow after placing the last on the stainless-steel counter. Two of the kitchen staff had called in sick this afternoon, leaving her and one of the other waitresses to pick up the slack at Rocky's Diner. Monday's Meat Loaf Mania was one of their busiest nights when all staff was present. Handling it with two people short was going to make the evening hell on earth.
Trudy Grant, the mercurial owner who was a combination of Betty White witty cuteness and Bea Arthur brashness, hung up the phone on the wall near the door. "Cindy just called in." She shook her head. "This damn flu is going to put me out of business."
Make that three people short.
Of course, Trudy's proclamation was an exaggeration; something or other was going to put her out of business at least three times a day. Still, somehow she'd managed to keep the diner's heart beating for the past twenty years when she'd bought the previous owner out.
Tiffany, the other waitress, breezed by with warm pies to stock the counter displays in the other room. "Cindy ain't sick. Cindy has a blind date tonight."
Geneva shared a smile with Mel, the main cook, but didn't say anything as she slid off the mitts and gave the large pot of homemade mashed potatoes a stir. As expected, Trudy went off like a bomb, filling the kitchen with inventive curse words. Everyone moved around her, giving her the wide berth she required. They all knew the steam would dissipate and Trudy would be operating on full throttle again soon without risk of being scalded.
Geneva moved around Mel, where he tossed burgers, to turn off the alarm for the French fries. She took the basket out of the oil and hung it on the rungs above to drain.
"Oh, and Gen?" Tiffany poked her head back inside the kitchen. "Your Baby Daddy Dustin just took up residence in his usual place at the counter,"
Geneva stood perfectly still for a moment, staring un-seeingly at the golden potatoes, battling back a sudden surge of nausea.
She glanced at where Mel had leaned in to quietly ask the question.
"Yeah. Fine." She smiled. "Thanks."
She removed her hand from where it lay against her stomach, a spot she often found it resting lately, and then tipped the fries out onto two plates and salted them.
Lately, it was getting harder and harder to face Dustin. She didn't know how to explain in a way that would register with him that just because she was pregnant, it didn't mean they were a couple. And that she didn't expect anything more from him but to be a good dad. But he seemed determined to make something out of nothing. And his unwanted attention was eroding what had once been a great friendship.
A friendship that had accidentally become more for five whole minutes a little over two months ago.
It wasn't that the sex had been bad
Okay, maybe it had been.
But that wasn't the reason she didn't want to be anything more than a joint parent with him. They were friendsperiod.
And the one-nighter had happened on the day she'd buried her mother in the ground and her sadness in a bottle of tequila.
"I remember my wife couldn't even keep crackers down during her first try," Mel said, putting two cheeseburgers onto buns and then handing the plates to her.
"Thankfully I haven't been sick once." She smiled as she dressed both burgers and then balanced all four plates on her arms. "I only feel like I'm going to be."
All the time.
Trudy gathered her wits. "With my luck, your first time will be all over one of the tables. A full one."
"Knock wood," Geneva said, edging through the swinging doors to deliver the burgers to Table 6, passing Tiffany as she went.
"Trade you Table 7 for 3," the too-pretty nineteen-year-old said.