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A shot blasted through the quiet night.
Her dog erupted in barking. Sailor Conyers whirled around to face the French doors leading to the balcony of her art studio. Nothing but inky blackness outside.
She took several deep breaths and grabbed for Scruff's collar. That sounded close. Too close.
Her heartbeat thumped against her chest. Maybe it wasn't really a gunshot. It could even have been a car backfiring. Definitely, a car. Or maybe someone had fired at one of the snakes that sometimes strayed too close to a front porch. That made more sense than her overactive imagination. This neighborhood wasn't the same as the one she grew up in.
With shaking hands, she forced herself to pick up the shells and place them gently in the grout that edged the mirror. Midnight was so not the time to be artsy-craftsy. Exhaustion from working all day in the coffee shop kept her from being as precise as she wanted to be.
The sound she heard was probably nothing.
Scruffy paced in front of the wide balcony doors. The hackles on the back of his neck crept up to stand on end.
One long tooth showed out of the side of his mouth as he growled low in his throat. He obviously hadn't gotten the memo that it was just her imagination. "You're not helping, bud."
She shoved a piece of coral into the grout. Therapy. This was therapy. Eight years ago, her pastor had suggested that finding a hobby would help her relax and find the peace she needed to deal with the past. It worked. Most of the time.
But not tonight. She'd grown up in a poverty-ravaged area far from the tourist-driven economy on Sea Breeze Beach. She knew firsthand that the sound she'd heard wasn't an ancient car in need of servicing.But she could still rationalize it.
A second muffled shot popped. Her hand jerked, knocking seashells to the floor, shattering them at her feet. That was no snake shot.
Sailor called the dog, an increasing urgency to move away from the windows making her palms sweat. She shoved the jagged pieces out of her way with the side of her foot and hurtled for the stairs, skidding to a stop halfway down.
The dimly lit first floor of her cottage looked slightly sinister from up here. Scruff growled behind her.
"Way to inspire confidence, mutt." But she scratched behind his ears, glad that she happened to be keeping him this week for her brother and new sister-in-law while they were on their honeymoon.
At the bottom, she grabbed for the cordless phone. Through the front window, she could see the back side of the coffee shop here. Her carriage house had once been the garage for the old Victorian her partner had turned into a coffee house. A light had been left on upstairs. Her office? She'd locked that up hours ago. A shadow passed in front of the shade in her office, and the light went out. Goose bumps prickled her skin. What had she seen?
Four halting steps took her to the front door, where she checked the dead bolt, pushing the numbers nine-one-one on the handset as she slid the bolt home.
"What's your emergency?"
"I heard shots fired and I think someone might have broken in my business."
"Is your address 1312 Beach Drive?"
"Yes, I'm in the carriage house behind the main building. Across the street from the beach."
"Are you okay? Would you like me to stay on the line?"
"I'm fine, just hurry, please."
Sailor hung up the phone, keeping it clenched in her hand. She was afraid to look out the window. Her surroundings, usually so reassuring and cozily familiar, failed to comfort. With her heart in her throat, she took the sure path into her bedroom.
The lockbox stayed beside her bed disguised in a wooden chest. Her hands were steady now as she lifted the box. She didn't hesitate as she turned the dial to the correct combination to release the catch. She picked up her Beretta and checked the load and the safety.
Sailor knew what she was doing. She had trained every Friday for years. Fear, pain and loss were part of her past, not her present. It wasn't part of her agenda, not for today.
She was really sure she hadn't penciled in "terrorized by gunshots" in the midnight slot.
She couldn't quite bring herself to sit on the couch in the open, chose instead to sit at the bottom of the staircase by the front door, the gun on her lap. Scruff laid his big head on her knees.
She laced her fingers into his thick black fur and held him tight. "Hang in there, big boy. Help's on the way."
Gabe Sloan craved the rush of adrenaline. Highspeed kite-surfing, parachuting out of a plane so high he needed oxygen, sneaking into enemy territory. He'd done all of that and then some. But the call over the radio that sent him to the home of his high school sweetheart that was a call he never wanted to receive.
Of course he knew with both of them in tiny Sea Breeze, Florida, he was bound to run into herhe just hadn't expected to care. He flipped on the bar of red and blue lights. As beach patrol, he drove a truck, hauling a surfboard in the back for rescues. It was a long way from a Humvee at Baghdad International. Or an armored SUV in Kalabi, Africa. Gabe smiled and gunned the powerful engine.
Sailor Conyers. His best friend since she'd come crashing into his hiding place under the big oak tree with two cowering kittens she'd rescued from the neighborhood bullies. He and Sailor had pretty much been inseparable through middle school. High school, too. She'd been his first crush, his first clumsy kiss.
And she was the reason he left home.
He turned onto Beach Drive, nearly deserted this time of night, and narrowed his eyes at the darkness. The tall streetlights were out down the long street.
Weird in the well-cared for tourist area, even this time of year. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.
Not even questioning his professional sixth sense, he eased on the brakes, flipped the car lights off, and pulled to the side of the road a couple of doors down. He'd learned the hard way never, never to ignore the hair prickle. The first time he'd felt it, he'd been on an op. A gunshot wound, nineteen stitches, a round of antibiotics and a whopping tetanus shot later, Gabe decided he might listen to that hinky feeling next time.
He slid out of his car and into the dark. A wet breeze blew curls of white fog around the oak trees surrounding the boardwalk businesses. Low clouds covered what moon there might have been, leaving dark shadows among the eerie ghostlike tendrils creeping across the road from the Gulf of Mexico.
Gabe unsnapped his holster. Tires easing onto gravel at the edge of the street signaled his partner's arrival. Shots fired could be completely accidental or it could mean big trouble. No officer would walk into such a situation alone, not even Gabe. After four years in the Army and three working as a private military contractor, he understood the power of teamworkif the situation called for it.
Joe Sheehan fell into step beside Gabe, the ever-present mirrored sunglasses hanging on a strap around his neck. He spoke softly, his voice not carrying beyond Gabe's ears. "Any idea what's going on?"
"Nope." As Gabe walked, he kept to the grass at the side of the driveway, so his boots wouldn't crunch on the oyster shells. He wasn't mentioning his itchy feeling. Joe might understand it, but then again he might rag him about it for the next twenty years or so.
"Yeah, things are calm now." So why did the back of his neck still tingle?
Sheehan touched his shoulder. "I'll hang back, take a look around. You go to the door, check on Sailor."
"You know her?"
"Of course. She's the lieutenant's sister. And I have coffee here all the time. She's got the best blueberry scones in town." Sheehan's soft chuckle belied his alert stance. Seconds later, he had disappeared around the side of the tiny carriage house and Gabe Sloan stood at the door to his past.
He knocked. "SBPD."
The door flew open. "Thank goodness you're here Gabe?"
She moved toward him, almost as if she wanted to hug him, but she faltered back, and pink crept onto her cheeks.
"Hi, Sailor. Good to see you. Sorry it had to be these circumstances."
Good to see you? Was that even true? It seemed like the right thing to say. He hadn't seen her in nearly eight years. Since she'd cut him out of her life as completely as if he'd been surgically removed.
He'd lost her as a girlfriend, and that had hurt. But it was losing his best friend that had nearly killed him. He'd wanted to make up and tried to figure it out with everything his seventeen-year-old self had, but once she left home, he couldn't even find her to try.
When he'd left for basic training a month later, there hadn't been anything to keep him in the area, certainly not his family. And when he'd moved backwell, she hadn't been first on his list to see.
"Sailor?" She was still staring at him. A huge black dog growled at her side. He returned her gaze, struggling for a stranger's polite non-look. "You okay?"
"Yeah, it's just my brother Cruse told me you were back home working for the department, but seeing you is wow."
"I know." She hadn't changed much. Her hair was a little darker blond, her features a little more defined. Still, it was a kick in the gut to see her. One he hadn't expected. "Can I see your weapon, please?"
She looked at her hand as if she just realized she was holding a gun. Then she blinked twice, and handed him the weapon. "Scruff, release."
The dog gave him an irritated look and stalked to the rug in front of an empty fireplace.
"You called about an intruder?"
Sailor motioned to a dark brown leather chair and turned to face him.
He didn't sit. The space was clean, calming, and looked nothing like the Sailor he remembered. Her room, even in the dump she'd lived in, had always been a riot of color and hand-painted furniture. One summer afternoon, she'd even made him hold the ladder while she'd stenciled bright flowers and loopy green vines along the ceiling.
This woman looked the same, same blond hair and sweet face, but her ocean-colored eyes were wary. She cleared her throat, watched him walk around her room. "I'm sorry to call the emergency number."
"You did the right thing. What happened?"
"I was working upstairs in my studio when I heard a shot. At first I thought it could've been nothingor nothing worth reportingbut when I heard the second one, I made the call."
"Was there a break-in?"
She hesitated. "I saw a light on in the main building. Upstairs in my office."
Gabe paced to the window, looked up. "It's out now."
"Did you fire your gun?"
"No." She worried her bottom lip with her teeth before explaining. "It's for my protection. I train at the range. You're not going to keep it, are you?"
"I don't think so." He laid it carefully on the mantel above the spotless fireplace. She wasn't getting it back until he could figure out what was going on here. "Has anything happened recently that would make you think that you would need that kind of protection?"
"No." She didn't qualify the bald statement, but he could figure it out.
A knock at the door had her jolting.
"Easy." Gabe held a hand out to steady her, jerking his hand back as he touched her and memories rocketed through him. They'd climbed trees together. He'd steadied her on her feet hundreds of times. "It's Joe Sheehan. He's been checking around back."
Joe's light gray eyes lit with a smile when he saw Sailor. He held a fist out for Scruff to smell.
"Did you find anything?"
"Nothing that couldn't be explained by the daily traffic through here." He shot a serious glance at Gabe. "You ready to check out the main building?"
Sailor reached for the doorknob. "I'll go with you."
"No." Both men spoke simultaneously.
"I own the coffee shop. I'm going."
"It's safer to stay here, Sailor." Joe's expression would put a pious priest to shame. Hello, good cop.
"Please." She looked at Gabe.
He shrugged. "Stay out of the way."
When Joe shot him a look, he added, "It's her property. And if she's as stubborn as she used to be, she'll follow us anyway."
Gabe walked out the door without looking back.
Joe followed. "The lieutenant will have our badges if anything happens to his sister."
"I'll take responsibility." Squinting up at the old Victorian, Gabe saw nothing, no movement, not a single light.
"It's my call. I'll take responsibility." Sailor stalked beside him, the dog running ahead to the door.
Gabe suppressed a smile. Yeah, she still had a strong-willed streak.
The dog pawed at the door and it squeaked open. Gabe's muscles tensed, instantly alert.
"Uh-oh." Sailor's whisper was nearly soundless.
Beside him, Joe drew his gun.
"I don't suppose you left the door unlocked?" Gabe drew his own weapon and moved to the other side of the door.
"No." The low clouds shifted, leaving moonlight suddenly streaming around her. Her green eyes met his, worry and something morethe edge of angerin them.
For the first time, he felt a smile tug the corner of his mouth. "Don't worry. I'll protect you."
Sailor faltered as Gabe disappeared into the building, Joe right behind him. He'd said the exact same words the first time they'd met. She'd crashed his hiding place with two undernourished kittens, trying to escape the boys who'd been torturing them. Gabe had been ten years old and as lean and scrawny as those poor cats. He'd been afraid. Yet the first thing he'd done was puff up his chest and offer to protect her.
They'd been inseparable from that day until the day they broke up. She'd thought she was in love with the minister's son with the café-au-lait eyes and the bring-it-on attitude, but didn't all teenagers think their love was destined to last forever?
Ancient history now. She could handle seeing Gabe, would have to handle seeing him. He worked with her brother.
He'd changed so much. His hair still had a tendency to fall over his forehead, but its light brown had deepened to chestnut, with golden highlights glinting in the overhead light. His body was still lean, but he'd broadened in all the right places. The shoulders were wide and strong, his arms ropy with muscles, waist narrow.
In his tactical police uniform and body armor, he looked tough. Hard. She needed to remember that when her memory pegged him as the lanky kid whose parents were too busy to bother coming to his baseball games.
Obviously, given his words, Gabe's memory hadn't faded any more than hers had.
From inside the building she heard, "Clear."