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Jason Mauer staggered through the fifty-mile-an-hour winds and into the house with three things on his mindfood, sleep and sex.
Thanks to Uncle Sam and the National Guard, he hadn't been home for any real length of time in years, home being the small California beach town of Santa Rey. When he was in town, he shared a house with his brother, Dustin, and hoped to find the fridge stocked with at least sandwich makings and, please God, a beer or two.
As for the sleep well, he had a bedroom. The question was could he shut down enough, push away the haunting memories long enough to actually get some shut-eye.
The jury was still out on that one.
Which left sex.
He needed a woman for that, at least the way he liked it, and seeing as he'd been working his ass off on his last military stint, spending some special quality time at every national disaster that had hit the news, plus a bunch that hadn't, he was fairly certain he was lucky just to be alive, much less naked with a woman.
With a bone-weary sigh, he dropped his gear and headed directly toward the refrigerator. He should call his brother, his sister and his mom, and let them know he was back a few days early but they'd be all over him, wondering if he was really okay, if he'd recovered from his loss.
So he didn't call, not yet. Instead, he looked out the windows into the growing dark, even though it was barely five o'clock in the afternoon in June. From the kitchen window, he watched the ocean pound the shore, the waves pushing fifteen feet minimum. The winds had stirred up some seriously ominous clouds, and he was surprised to see trees doubled over from the gusts.
He'd seen bad weather in his timehello, hurricanes Rita and Katrinabut nothing here on the supposedly mild Central California coast.
His stomach growled, reminding him that it'd taken him all day and three flights to get here, bad storm or not, and he couldn't remember the last thing he'd eaten. Peanuts, given to him by a cute flight attendant? No, a candy bar grabbed at the airport.
And the damn fridge was empty.
Yeah. Pretty much how his life felt at the moment. Empty as hell. Matt would laugh at that and tell him to get over himself.
But Matt was dead, six weeks now.
Still shell-shocked, Jason's gut clenched hard at the thought of his best friend lying six feet under, and suddenly he was no longer hungry. Fuck it, he thought. Fuck thinking, he was going directly to bed, no passing Go. He kicked off his shoes, and so damn tired he practically staggered like a drunk, moved down the hallway. He was "in the tween" as his sister, Shelly, would say. In between military life, which was all he'd known since high school, and his old life, which no longer even seemed real.
Which world did he want?
The government wanted him back, of course. He was highly trained and valuable. That wasn't ego, but fact. He was a rescue expert who worked with nerves of steel. Or he had
His family was hoping he'd stick here. His mother, living twenty miles north of Santa Rey in San Luis Obispo, wanted him to be safe and sound. His sister, who lived with her while going to Cal Poly, wanted him to date her friends. Dustinhere in Santa Reywas his partner in their on-the-side renovation business, and wanted him home to be a more active presence.
As for what Jason wanted? No clue. None. Zero.
But he had a few weeks to figure it out. With a sigh, he looked around the empty house. Dustin lived with his fiancé, Cristina, most of the time these days, which left the place looking a bit neglected. It'd been just waiting for him to come back to help Dustin finish the upgrades, so they could sell it and move on to the next project. Dustin had redone the kitchen and both bathrooms. He'd pulled the carpet and refin-ished the original hardwood floors. And he'd done a good job, too. All that was left was a couple coats of paint and some tile in the entry, and this house could be flipped, something Dustin was eager to do.
As for himself, he was having a hard time caring. About anythingexcept his three simple needs.
Since there was no food and no willing woman, he'd get right to the sleeping portion of the evening. The room was furnishedas opposed to the last time he'd seen it, when it'd just had a mattress on the unfinished floor. Now there was oversize knotty pine furniture, complete with a king-size bed. It seemed hugely luxurious compared to what he was used to, and it hit him.
He really was back in the real world.
Physically, anyway. Mentally? Not yet. Not even close. He didn't even know if he could come back to his world and not be ready to protect and serve twenty-four/seven. Not be hard and cold and willing to do whatever it took
With the wind continuing to batter the house, he stripped off his shirt and flicked on the small TV over the dresser.
He pulled out his cell phone and searched for the weather, and discovered the reason. Apparently he'd walked into an unprecedented storm, with even heavier rain and wind expected. For an extra bonus, flash-floods warnings were in effect.
Wasn't that special. He hadn't dealt with a flood since six weeks ago, in the Midwest, where his unit had been called in to assist with SAR.
He and Matt had both gone in, but only Jason had come out.
Yeah. This was going to be a kick.
He headed straight for the bed and felt some of the tension leave him in anticipation of sleep. With a long sigh, he stripped out of his pants, then stretched out on the mattress with only his boxer briefs and dark thoughts.
Tired and edgy, and feeling old for his twenty-nine years, he let himself relax, hoping like hell he was too far gone into exhaustion to dream. As he drifted off to the wild winds pummeling the house, his stomach growled, and he promised it that even if a naked woman appeared at his side right then and there, foodnot sexwas next on the list.
Jasonawoke with a jerk and leaped to his feet to run for his gear. When he realized he wasn't on the line but back at home, he lay down again and swiped a hand over his face as the rain and wind continued to batter the house around him.
He didn't like to admit that he wasn't decompressing fast enough, or that his hand was trembling, but he'd deal with both. Because that's what he diddeal with things. That was his claim to fame, his skill, his MO.
Letting out another long, careful breath, he took in his surroundings and realized it was nearly dawn.
Which meant he'd slept straight through the night.
And then he realized something else. He'd been awoken by an assortment of brain-racking noises. The crazy wind. The steady drum of rain pounding on the roof and the windows.
Adding to the racket was the ringing of a phone, and then the click of a message machine.
"You know what to do at the beep," came Dustin's recorded voice from somewhere nearby.
And then a soft, female voice, crackling through static and hard to hear. "Dustin? Dustin, are you there?"
The male in Jason, the one who hadn't been with a woman in so long, took in the pretty voice and thought, Go, Dustin, but even through the incredibly bad connection, he recognized that she wasn't trying to be seductive and fun. No, she was filled with nerves. Something within Jason automatically reacted to that, the same something that had put him in the military in the first place, the thing that made it impossible for him to walk away from a fight or someone in trouble, and he lifted his head, searching the still dark room for the phone.
There wasn't one, not in here.
"I think I need help," she went on as Jason ran out of the bedroom to find the phone, wondering if she was Cristina, Dustin's fiancé. With the horrible connection, there was no way to tell for sure, but he doubted it. The Cristina he knew didn't ask for help.
He finally narrowed in on a blinking red light on the nightstand in Dustin's bedroom, and knew he'd found the machine. He reached for the phone connected to it, but the receiver wasn't in its cradle. "Shit."
"Dustin?" she said again, her voice breaking up with static.
Jason could hear the storm ravaging in the background, both through the phone and the windows, coming in with unexpected surround sound.
"I know you're not scheduled to work this weekend," she went on, "so I'm really hoping you're there."
"Hang on," Jason told the machine and slapped on the light, squinting into the sudden brightness as he searched for the on-the-loose phone. Gotcha, he thought triumphantly, eyeing the cordless handset lying on a dresser. He hit the talk button with his thumb and nothing.
The battery was dead.
"Don't hang up," he yelled at the machine as if she could hear him, and once again went running, slamming his shoulder into the doorway. "Goddammit." In the living room, he looked around in the wan light for another phone.
There. On the small table beside the couch. Lunging for it, he barked "Hello!" into the receiver, just in time to hear the click.
He'd lost her.
He was getting good at that, losing peopleand yeah, there it was, right on cue, the helplessness surging up into his chest, making it impossible to breathe without pain.
He rounded back toward the bedroom, holding his aching shoulder, going for his cell phone. Seemed he was on a mission after allto first find Dustin and then, through him, hopefully the woman with the worry in her voice, the woman who needed help.
As Lizzy Mann tossed aside her cell phone and drove through winds that were jarring her little Honda around like it was nothing more than a Matchbox car, she wished her sister would call again. Not that wishing had ever gotten her anywhere with Cece.
"Evacuations are beginning," the deejay announced through her radio, and Lizzy tensed.
"The Santa Rey bowl is filling up, starting at Main," he said. "All the way to the high school."
"Don't say Eastside," she murmured, glancing at the radio as if she could actually affect the report. "Please. Please, don't say"
"And all of Eastside, starting at Second."
Naturally, and for Lizzy, the storm took a right turn from nasty into Hell-ville. Because Eastside was where she had to go. Of course it was where she had to go. Because this wouldn't be a Cece situation if it didn't put Lizzy in danger or jeopardy.
Not fair, Lizzy reminded herself. Her sister had changed. She really had. Yes, growing up after losing their parents meant that Lizzy had always been the mom, the one in charge, but now they were both adults. And what might have started out as a New Year's resolution, a slightly drunken one, had become a new life's resolve for Cece. Her baby sister was getting her stuff together, turning things around. No more drinking, drugs, lying and, especially, no more wild men. No more men period.
Actually, they'd both made that vow.
Since then, for the past six months, Lizzy had watched Cece bloom into a determined, independent twenty-four-year-old, which had been amazing to witness.
But that was about to be tested, because her sister was alone in this storm, and given her lifelong fear of them, she was also most likely terrified. And an alone, terrified Cece was never a good thing.
Sure, they'd talked earlier, at Lizzy's midnight break at the hospital, where she worked as an E.R. nurse. Cece had sworn she was fine. But now she wasn't answering her phone.
Lizzy was well aware that this was all her hangup, that Cece was smart enough to evacuate, but Lizzy had been the mom for so long she couldn't rest until she knew for certain.
Especially now that Cece was pregnant
Unfortunately Lizzy's car wasn't equipped for driving in these conditions. Her tires were shot, and with the roads under a few inches of water, there was no way she could get to Third Avenue, where Cece had moved shortly after her transformation six months ago.
She'd called her neighbor, an ex-cop named Mike, but he hadn't picked up. She'd left him a message to keep an eye on her place, and let her know if anyone showed up there. Her next call had been to Dustin. They were friends from the hospital where Dustin, an EMT, often delivered patients. She had a whole group of friends from the hospital who would have helped, but for proximity reasons, she'd tagged Dustin as her best bet. He could get to Third in the storm with his SUV. All she had to do was find him. She knew he wasn't scheduled to work at the firehouse today, and he wasn't at Cristina's placeshe'd checked.
Which meant he had to be home. Hopefully.
"Going to get more than twenty-four inches of rain," the deejay said. "Crazy."
Two feet of rain, Lizzy thought, her fingers tightening on the steering wheel. Two feet in California. It boggled her mind.