Glancing over my shoulder, I crossed the parking lot. I didn’t see them but that didn’t mean they weren’t close. They were always close, but I’d found a place where they wouldn’t follow me. One hour a week—when you had nothing, it was something.
I breezed into the last pew and kneeled just long enough to cross myself. I wished the gesture still held some significance but I’d stopped believing three years ago. The thought of three years ago made the familiar panic surface. Sweaty palms, shortness of breath, heart clamoring to get out from under my ribs. They were all a precursor to the terror. I dug my nails into my palms, desperate to take my mind away from the past.
Maybe tonight had been a bad idea. I should’ve stayed hidden in my apartment. Then I wouldn’t be here, studying the side exit, counting the steps, wondering if I slipped out the back how long it would take before they found me. Because they always found me. I wasn’t stupid enough to go far. I glanced at the exit again. No, tonight, I was going to be just stupid enough to give them something to do. I grabbed my purse and stood.
He stopped in the aisle and fear more familiar than my own name prickled across my skin. His deep, quiet voice hit me a fraction of a second before his scent.
“This seat taken?” Soap and musk mingled with old church, and blue eyes the color of winter ice stared down at me.
My stomach in my throat, I shook my head, and he stepped into the pew. When he focused his attention forward, the air whooshed out of my lungs. He wasn’t one of them. They never got this close, not in public, but the fear was ingrained—three years ingrained.
My exit strategy shot, I set my purse down and snuck a glance at the wall of muscle next to me. Legs slightly apart, hands clasped in front, he stood perfectly motionless. Square jaw, chiseled cheekbones, his features were too harsh to be beautiful and too beautiful to be harsh. His close-cropped haircut screamed military, but the bottom of a tattoo peeking out from his shirt sleeve was the giveaway. USMC.
For one impossible moment, I closed my eyes. He smelled amazing, like freedom and strength and security—everything I’d never have again. Resigned, to my one hour, to my life, I glanced at the stupid exit and swore under my breath. “Damn it.”
Quick, precise, the marine turned and locked his gaze on me. Heat hit my cheeks, my mouth went dry and the sweater over my shoulders fell to the seat. Shit. Shit. I quickly looked away but the damage was done. I’d drawn attention to myself.
For the next forty-five minutes I tried to go through the motions of the service, but the closeness of the marine was making me want to crawl out of my skin. Vibrating with raw power, he was so distracting I wanted to shove him into the aisle…or cower under his huge biceps and hide. And that would be disastrous. Fuck-my-whole-life-up-disastrous. I came here for an hour of peace, not soapy musk and unleashed strength. I didn’t have time for bullshit fantasies. I glanced at my watch. I didn’t have time at all. My hour was almost up.
I reached for my purse. Black boots, worn but polished to a high shine, had caged it in. And because I’d done nothing right since I’d walked through the church doors, I let my traitorous eyes sweep up. Hard muscles strained against black cargo pants. A fitted T-shirt skimmed a flat stomach and stretched across impossibly wide shoulders. A cut jaw ticked and cold knowing eyes waited.
He raised an eyebrow.
My leg began to bounce.
“Everything okay?” he whispered.
Okay? No, everything was not okay. I was sitting next to a marine who made me wish I was anyone else besides who I was—utterly alone yet followed everywhere. Nothing about that was okay. But before I could do something really stupid, like acknowledge him, the haunting sounds of the organ filled the church and mass ended. I grabbed my purse and shot to my feet.
But the marine didn’t step out of the pew. He rose to his towering height, blocked my escape and waited for every single person to file out of the church. Then he stepped out and back a foot.
I told myself not to. I really did, but it was as if this complete stranger had destroyed all of my self-control. So, I glanced up.
And the marine glared at me.
Struck dumb, I stared for two heartbeats before self-preservation kicked in. Then I scrambled forward and tripped. Viselike heat gripped my upper arm and I was immediately righted.
Stunned by the strength in his hand, I jerked away and rushed out of the church.
The priest’s crinkly face smiled in my direction then looked past me with concern. “Sergeant Johnson, good to see you. How is your mother?”
“Not well, sir.”
I flew down the steps. The last words I heard were his.
“Who is that, Father?”
Copyright © 2015 by Sybil Bartel
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.