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He was behind her, gaining speed.
The raspy pull of air in and out of his lungs grew louder, signaling his approach.
At any moment, she expected his work-worn hand to grab her shoulder and send her crashing onto the asphalt roadway.
How had he found her?
For the last eight years, she'd been stationed overseas. Three deployments to the Middle East, a twenty-four-month tour in Korea and a three-year assignment in Germany, all far from Harmony, Alabama, and her past.
She smelled his stench, an evil mix of hay and sweat.
"Becca," he whispered in her ear.
She gasped for air, woke from her nightmare, clawed at the sheets and blinked her eyes open, searching the darkness of her bachelor officer's quarters.
Sitting up in bed, she threw the covers aside and stepped onto the floor, the tiles cool to her bare feet. She shook her head in an attempt to scatter the dream that came too often.
She was at Fort Rickman, Georgia, not the Amish community where she had grown up.
Reality check. She had run away from Jacob Yoder eight years earlier. Supposedly he had died later that night after killing her father and sister.
Unnerved by the nightmare, Becca grabbed her holstered, service weapon off the nightstand and stumbled into the hallway on her way to the kitchen. She needed to hydrate her body and clear her mind. If only she could wash the memories away.
She placed the gun, which had been her almost constant companion for the last eight years, next to her purse on the kitchen table and opened the cabinet over the sink in search of a glass. A sickening smell, like rotten eggs, hit her full force.
Pinpricks of fear needled the nape of her neck.
She glanced at the gas cooking range. The burners were off. The flame on the pilot lights glowed crimson in the dark.
The smell was intense, overpowering, deadly.
She reached for her Glock and slipped her handbag over her shoulder as she raced through the living area to the back door. Fingers trembling, she fumbled at the lock, dead bolt and chain, her progress slowed by the protective safeguards she had put in place. For too long, she had tried to distance herself from Jacob, fearing he was still alive.
Her pulse pounded in her ear, like a ticking time bomb ready to explode. She had to escape before-
The door opened. She ran into the night, inhaling the pure, sweet air that filled her lungs.
In the distance beyond the common green space stood the older BOQ apartments. Even at this late hour a few lights glowed in the windows.
She glanced back at the newly built quad she'd moved into ten days earlier. The only occupant thus far.
Digging into her purse, she traded her gun for her cell and speed dialed the Criminal Investigation Division on post, where she worked. The noncommissioned officer on duty answered on the second ring.
"This is Special Agent Rebecca Miller. Notify the fire department and military police of a gas leak in the new BOQ quad on Eisenhower Drive. Tell them the only occupant has cleared the premises."
Before she could disconnect, the sound of unleashed fury rocked her world. The explosion lit the sky and mushroomed into a giant ball of fire.
The force of the blast pushed against her. She took a step back to keep her balance.
Her ears rang. Her eyes blurred.
She blinked against the brightness.
A surge of heat warmed her for an instant as it blew past, replaced with frigid winter air that penetrated her bones.
Jet-black smoke billowed from the windows of the bedroom where she had been asleep just moments earlier. The terrifying dream had saved her life.
Flames licked at the building's wood facade and devoured the decorative trim. "No," she gasped as the growing inferno turned night into day.
Sirens sounded in the distance. A trail of flashing lights signaled their approach. Fire trucks, followed by military police cars, raced into the parking area and screeched to a stop. Men in turnout gear spilled from the trucks. With swift, sure motions, they connected hoses to nearby hydrants and trained the heavy streams of water on the blaze while maintenance personnel hastened to cut off the gas supply that fueled the fire.
Footfalls pounded on the ground behind her. Becca turned at the sound, ready to defend herself again.
"Are you okay?" Colby Voss.
"How-how did you get here?" Instantly, she regretted the foolish question. No doubt, her fellow CID agent lived in the older BOQs on Sheridan Road, just across the open field.
"Are you hurt?" His eyes roamed her body as if searching for an injury or burn.
With her throat unexpectedly dry, she shook her head and raised her hand to reassure him. Her inability to find her voice caused an additional tangle of concern to wrap around her.
A pressure filled her chest. She clamped down on her jaw to ward off the wave of nausea that swirled around her. She didn't want to appear weak.
Especially not to a guy with inquiring eyes.
For the past eight years, no one had climbed her wall of defense. No one until Special Agent Colby Voss had sauntered into her cubicle ten days earlier to welcome her to Fort Rickman.
So much for maintaining her cool. Although right now she felt completely drained and unable to maintain anything, let alone her composure.
"What happened?" he asked, his eyes flicking between her and the firemen battling the blaze.
She wiped her hand across her forehead and pulled in another breath of cold night air. "I-I smelled gas. My stove was off. There must have been a leak someplace in the system."
"You were awake?"
A good question, but one she didn't want to answer. She had never told anyone about the reoccurring dreams.
"Just barely. I went into the kitchen for a glass of water and realized there was a leak."
"Good job getting outside."
She didn't need his praise or affirmation. Not tonight. Not when he was standing way too close and adding more anxiety to her already questionable stability.
Turning to stare at the raging inferno, she sucked in another mouthful of air and tried to calm her out-of-control pulse.
"It happened in the empty apartment next door," she said, convinced the gas had seeped into her kitchen from the neighboring unit. "Probably an accidental leak."
Had it been accidental?
Or was something else or someone else involved?
Her stomach tightened.
Surely not someone from her past.
* * *
Colby wanted to put his arm around Becca and quiet the fear that flashed from her eyes. He would have done exactly that, if not for the keep-out sign she wore around her heart, which he'd noticed the moment she reported for duty at CID Headquarters.
He had refused to be put off when they'd first met, especially since he had been the new CID agent two months earlier when he transferred from Fort Hood, Texas. He could read her body language and kept his welcome to a firm handshake and nod of his head, knowing all too well about self-sufficient women who didn't want or need a man in their lives.
Becca appeared to be a by-the-book type of agent who kept to herself. Not that he had been staring at her pretty face or green eyes with their flecks of gold. Eyes that she averted whenever he glanced her way.
That elusive shift of attention made him wonder if there wasn't something she wanted to hide. Perhaps he was reading more into what was only her nervous attempt to remain aloof, yet his gut feelings were usually right, and he kept thinking she had something buried beneath her neat and trim facade.
Two military police officers hustled toward them. Colby recognized the taller of the two as Gary Flanders, a put-together sergeant with an interest in joining the CID.
"Hey, sir, you know anything about what happened?"
Before Colby could answer, Becca drew in a deep breath and steeled her jaw with determination. "It was an explosion, Sergeant, in my BOQ."
Flanders pulled a notepad and mechanical pencil from his pocket while his partner stood to the side. "Can I get your name, ma'am?"
"Special Agent Becca Miller. I'm with the CID."
"You were the only resident in the new building?"
"That's correct. I arrived on post ten days ago and signed for the bottom apartment on the left. The one on the bottom right, as well as the two second-story apartments, were unoccupied."
"What happened?" the MP asked.
"I-I went into the kitchen for a glass of water and noticed a strong gas smell. Realizing the danger, I exited the building."
"Did you see anyone outside?"
She shook her head. "No one."
Wind blew across the clearing and ruffled the pages of the sergeant's notebook. He hunched his shoulders against the cold and glanced at her lightweight flannel pants and T-shirt. "The temperature's dropping, ma'am. Would you like to take shelter in one of the squad cars?"
"I'm fine, Sergeant."
Colby knew better.
Dressed as she was coupled with the plummeting temperature and the shock of seeing her BOQ in flames had to have an adverse effect on her. Even in the half-light, her face was noticeably pale and drawn.
He glanced down at her bare feet.
Time to make a command decision. "My BOQ is just across the clearing. We can continue to talk there."
He shrugged out of the thick fleece he'd grabbed on his way outside and slipped it over her shoulders.
She shook her head. "That's not necessary."
"Maybe not, but humor me."
Their eyes locked for a long moment.
Colby wanted to shake his head at her obstinacy. Someone needed to inform Ms. Miller that taking healthy measures to protect herself wasn't a sign of weakness.
What did she have to prove?
He took her arm.
She glanced down at his hand and then raised her gaze. "Really, I'm okay."
"Maybe, but the temperature is in the forties. You're not dressed for the cold. Neither am I."
He turned to the MP. "Sergeant, I'm in apartment 103, the first door on the left, should anyone need to question either Special Agent Miller or me."
Colby motioned Becca forward and was somewhat surprised when she followed his lead. As tough as she had tried to be over the past few days, he had expected opposition. Not that he wasn't relieved.
Shock was a nasty complication that often went unnoticed. From the knit of her brow and the ever-so -slight slump to her usually ramrod-straight spine, Becca had been affected by the middle-of-the-night attack.
Who wouldn't be? To go from a near sleep to a race for your life could try the best of men-or women.
Glancing over his shoulder, he took in the seeming chaos as the on-post fire company worked to control the inferno that resisted their attempts at containment. The military police, post engineer, fire marshal and fire chief would survey the damage and photograph anything suspect. As much as Colby would have liked to check the property himself, someone needed to get Becca inside and out of the cold.
Tomorrow, the fire marshal and his entourage would sift through the rubble in hopes of uncovering the cause. More than likely, an accidental malfunction from a leak in a gas line or a faulty pilot light coupled with some type of spark.
At the far side of the grassy knoll Becca stopped and glanced over her shoulder at the blaze.
Colby heard the sharp intake of air as she shook her head.
"Was it Jacob?" she whispered.
He leaned closer, not sure if he had heard correctly.
"What did you say, Becca?"
Her eyes widened as if she had forgotten he was there.
So much for making a positive, first impression. Something his sisters would have teased him about mercilessly, if they found out.
Which they wouldn't.
"Did you say 'Jacob'?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I didn't say anything."
But she had. A man's name. Did she associate Jacob- whoever he was-with the explosion?
If so, Colby would keep watch in hopes she would eventually reveal more information. Maybe then he'd know what secrets she kept hidden behind her hauntingly hooded eyes and tantalizing reticence.
Becca hesitated for a moment before she stepped into Colby's BOQ and flicked her gaze over the leather couch and matching chair bathed in soft light from a floor lamp. A newspaper and stack of fitness magazines were arranged on the coffee table next to a collection of framed photos. She moved closer, her eyes drawn to a picture of a group of girls standing around a much younger Colby in uniform. The family resemblance couldn't be ignored.
"These must be your sisters?" she said.
"All five of them." She could hear the smile in his voice as he headed for the kitchen. "They insisted on a picture before I deployed to Afghanistan the first time."
A bittersweet moment for sure. Pride for their brother was tempered by the reality that he might not come home from war. Photos were something tangible to hold on to when all else was gone.
Graven images, the Amish called them. Her father had railed when she and Katie had come home with a snapshot a friend from town had taken of both of them. Her father had torn the picture into tiny pieces that Becca had tried to glue together later that night after he had gone to bed. If only she had that picture now. Instead, she had to rely on memories that faded with time.
"How do you take your coffee?" Colby called from the other room.
"With a little milk, if you've got it."
A biography of General George S. Patton sat on a side table along with a number of training manuals. Military plaques and memorabilia hung on the wall next to citations for an army commendation medal, a meritorious service metal and two bronze stars. Impressive to say the least.
Not only was Colby good-looking but also competent, although she'd realized that the day they'd met. He'd been focused on business and not with making idle chitchat, for which she'd been grateful. Coming into a new unit was stressful. Having to keep up a flow of chatter made it even more so.
Turning, she noticed an open laptop on a desk in the corner. A plasma screen TV and two bookcases, stacked with three-ringed binders, filled the corner of the room and balanced the rather stark but comfortable furnishings. She approved of his uncluttered decorating style. Her own preference leaned to basic needs with few extras, which probably stemmed from her upbringing.
She accepted the coffee Colby offered and wrapped her hands around the mug, thankful for the warmth of the thick stoneware. After taking a sip, she gazed through the window at her own quarters visible in the distance. The once-sizable structure was now only a shell of steel support beams and charred debris.
Her hold baggage, containing the majority of her household items, wasn't due to arrive from Germany for another two weeks. The fire had destroyed only what she had brought in her luggage. All of which could be replaced.
"These might help." She turned to find Colby holding out a pair of heavy socks.
"Thank you." Accepting the offering, she quickly settled into a nearby chair and slipped the thick woolen coverings over her bare feet. "I didn't realize I was so cold."
"You were bordering on shock, which worried me."
"I appreciate your concern and the coffee." She smiled. Yet her attempt to remain upbeat was only halfhearted. The reality of what had happened tonight clamped down on her shoulders and wouldn't let go.
"Give me a minute to thaw out, then I'll head back to my BOQ," she told him.
"You won't be able to salvage anything tonight, Becca."