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     I jolted out of the nightmare when my bunkmate’s pillow bounced off my head.

     “You know they got docs on staff for that shit,” Aaron grumbled, tossing in the bunk overhead and I knew immediately I’d been screaming in my sleep again. I’d been doing it for the three weeks Aaron and I had been at the German base, receiving medical treatment before being shipped back home. In his case it was more of a stopover on his way home at the end of a tour, but in my case I was being shipped back due to injury. 

     Honorable discharge. 

     It had been hinted I would be commended for bravery, but if anyone could have seen what happened inside my head at night there was no way they’d have thought me brave.

     I’d been on a number of spook-appointed rescue missions in my Army days, and with forty firmly in the rearview mirror, for the first time ever I was going to have to get serious about doing something else with my life.

     Truth of it was, I should have taken the desk job offered me several years earlier when my C.O., Scott Katsaros, was promoted to Captain and decided soon thereafter to hang up his uniform. But he’d brought me up under him; put me in command of smaller missions and drills, and when he’d decided to rejoin civilian life, I’d been appointed C.O. 

     I’d been stubborn, clinging to the hard life as an infantry commander, and as I better understood at this age that the actual combat part of the Army was a young man’s game. 

     I wasn’t that guy anymore.

     Granted, at this point I could still have taken a desk job, but with my significant injuries and the mental strain I’d been under during the last couple missions, I knew what burnout looked like.

     Stick a fork in me, I’m done.

     How bad did it have to be for me to fail a mental eval? I’d never failed one before, and now I was being kicked to the curb because I couldn’t do my job–PTSD, they said–and I didn’t have the safety of a desk position. 

     No one would say it out loud, but being decorated was obviously my consolation prize.

     I rolled carefully. At some point during the too-short night I’d rolled to face the wall and I was tucked so tightly against it, being unable to breathe was probably what triggered the nightmare. It was always the same one: trapped in a foxhole filling up with smoke.

     The bunk vibrated and I heard Aaron’s feet hit the floor as he started getting ready for the day. He was a good guy, quite a bit younger than me, happy to be done with his tour since he hadn’t been married all that long, and he was looking forward to a little time at home with his wife, Gillian. (The guy wouldn’t shut up about her, which would have been cute if it wasn’t so damn annoying. No one could be half as amazing as he professed this woman.)

     Oh, to be young and in love…or maybe just in love. That way there would be something worth coming back to, which was not the case for me. It had never been the case for me, and for the first time in a long time, I wondered if I’d wasted all my good years in a sandbox.

     “Better get a move on it, man,” Aaron encouraged as he laced up his boots on the single chair in our room. His wounds were healing nicely and he would be sent home in a couple days, whereas mine were slower to heal–I’d been the one nearest the blast–and they were only a small indication of the internal damage. By that I mean my organs had taken quite a beating, but the bigger problem was a lingering concussion and the infernal nightmares. Those were something the doctors hadn’t been able to fix.

     He was right, I needed to snap out of it. I scooted slowly and swung my feet over the edge of the bed. I sat up even more slowly, hoping the world didn’t rock the way it had when I popped out of bed yesterday morning.

     My first appointment of the day was to have all my wounds checked, to make sure stitches were healing nicely and bandages were changed, then a doctor would shine a light in my eyes and decide whether or not I needed another brain scan. At that point I could either head out for breakfast or pop in on my recently-appointed therapist and get a head start on things for the day. Ha, ha. Yeah, I mean literally.

     There was hardly time for a shower, but I managed, and I shrugged into a clean combat uniform before heading down the hall and out of the dorms, into the main facility to start my day. 

     I couldn’t wait for this shit to be over. I had no idea where I was going to land, or how, but I was ready for the next step, whatever it was.

     Aaron and I had been brought in on the same med transport after our unit was ambushed on a mountainside in Kandahar, only the day before a few of us were scheduled to be sent home. (How was that for shit timing?)

     So now our reentry was delayed by recovery time, and in my case that period was going to take quite a while. I was mobile, but barely, and I’d probably have healed faster if I didn’t push so hard, but I didn’t know any other way. I’d been up a couple days after surgery which, in hindsight, had definitely delayed my recovery.

     Aaron was cleared that afternoon and his transport flight confirmed, and the guy was almost incandescent with excitement. The delay clearly hadn’t been a part of his plans and the normally quiet, reserved guy was like a sugared-up toddler.

     My clearance took another four and-a-half weeks and I was given orders to follow up with a doctor and a therapist stateside, once I’d gone through the reintegration process at Fort Drum.

     I made one phone call upon landing on home soil, and it was to Katsaros, my old commander. He’d retired from the military almost five years earlier, after one of our rescue missions had gone to shit and he and some of the guys from our unit were captured and held hostage. Unthinkable things were done to them over the months they were held, and one of the guys didn’t make it out alive.

     I’d been the one to lead that particular rescue mission, and I saw to it that each and every piece of shit who’d tortured my brothers went to meet their maker, whatever they called Him. Then I freed my friend from his literal prison and carried him to the helicopter since, after months of starvation, there was no way he could get there on his own.

     It didn’t take a genius to know that Scott had never really been the same, and domestic life hadn’t exactly welcomed him back with open arms. 

     Not that we shared details all that often, but I knew he was involved in a custody battle with his wife and had worked harder than most to establish something of a post-Army life for himself.

     “Good to have you back.” Scott’s voice had been raspy for years, since the day he’d taken shrapnel to the voicebox.

     “Good to be back,” I said, but even I thought it sounded more like a question than it should have, so I tried to cover up my uncertainty by clapping him on the back in our standard bro-hug: heavy on the clapping, quick on the squeezing, and then out.

     After years spent overseas, there wasn’t much left for me stateside. I was an only child and my mom had passed on some years before. I never met my dad and to hear her tell it that was a blessing, so I left that alone.

    Scott was the closest thing I had to family these days, and the plan was to stay with him for a couple months while I tried to get my feet under me.

     Apply for some jobs.

     Try to get my affairs in order.

     Help him work on the rundown little house he’d purchased a while before.

     Try to pull my weight while I learned how to be a normal guy–as normal as I was ever going to be, I suppose.

     Staying at Scott’s place was weird at first. I was used to a barracks, which were pretty much all I’d known since I’d enlisted at eighteen. Having a room to myself, with a bed that wasn’t a bunk, felt like a real luxury.

     Scott was a good cook and a quiet, patient guy. He made sure I got three good squares, kept myself busy, got to all my doctor appointments, and he never complained about the nights I woke myself up screaming. Probably because he had his own nightmares to deal with.

     “Got a buddy working with the FBI out of the field office in the city,” Scott mentioned casually one morning when I dragged into the kitchen to help myself to a cup of coffee. It was early yet–before dawn, actually–both of us were still early risers, thanks to years of pre-dawn marches and bunk checks. Once something like that’s drilled into you, especially at a young age, it kind of sets your internal clock for the rest of your life.

     “Yeah?” I cradled the warm mug to my chest while I leaned back against the counter and watched him stir at a pan. Whatever it was, it smelled a hell of a lot better than the things I’d eaten in the mess hall, and I said a prayer of gratitude to his Greek mother. 

     “Said he’d like to talk to you,” he said casually. “Might have something opening up, if you’re interested.”

     “Huh,” I said. “Yeah, ok. The hell I have to lose?” I already had the security clearance.

     Scott looked at me over his shoulder, offering one half of a rare smile. “Yeah, that’s what I said, too.”

     “Why didn’t you end up there?” I asked casually, watching his shoulders tighten just a little. We’d all been trained, and trained well, to observe even the smallest things, and his body language told me the subject was, for some reason, off-limits.

     “Not for me,” he said shortly. “Rather do my own thing. Do enough for them, the spooks and the State Department as it is, anyway.”

     Scott had started his own security company a couple years earlier and the last thing I’d do was ask him for a job. I knew when the time was right for both of us, we’d probably end up working together again. But for now he had only two guys on staff and he was working hard to build things up. Writing paychecks for other people–guaranteeing the work was there to keep their lives stable–had to be a lot of stress.

     “Thanks, man.” I turned to grab the coffee pot again and splashed more into my mug. “Appreciate it, and yeah, I’m interested. Have to start somewhere and I know I’m a great roommate, but eventually you’ll have to be released back out into the wild. I gotta go be a G-man.”

     He blew out a puff of air. “Not playing that game again. Bad luck both times–think I might be cursed.”

     “Nah.” I couldn’t very well tell him that I liked to believe love always won in the end. Probably all those stupid romance novels my mom was always reading while I was growing up. “Just have to meet the right woman.”

     Scott flicked off the burner and reached toward a cabinet. “Sure, sure. Easier said than done, apparently. How’s that going for you?”

     I made a similar sound, because the last thing I was looking to do was complicate my life with a woman. They had their uses, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to think they were good for more than just a good time, and right now I couldn’t even offer that much. 

     Besides, until I got the nightmares under control, there was no way I could risk subjecting a woman to one of my nighttime freak-outs.

     Scott was gone the next couple weeks, on some top-secret contract, to a country he couldn’t even mention, and while he was away I met with his contact, submitted my information for a background check, and while I waited for word, I cleared the furniture out of his living room. He’d been talking about putting down hardwood for a while, so I ripped up the nasty old carpeting and got to work laying the flooring I knew he’d been storing in his garage.

     For three summers before I joined the Army, I’d spent long days helping out a jack-of-all-trades uncle. Wayne was probably the closest thing to a dad I ever had, and he taught me some basics of carpentry, how to tile, how to lay flooring and to drywall. 

     I guess I’d retained some of what he taught me, because after a couple online tutorials I crossed myself and got to it, hoping Scott wouldn’t kill me when he got home. (To be safe, I tracked down a flooring supply place and made sure they had some in stock in case I muffed it up. I figured chances were pretty good, since I was more than a little rusty.)

     By the time he got home, I had a job offer and the floor was finished–looked pretty damn good too, if I said so myself. (And I did.) 

     But dude had the emotional responsiveness of a rock. He just walked in, dumped a bag on the floor, paused for a second and raised an eyebrow. “Looks like you managed to keep busy.”

     “Had to earn my keep somehow,” I responded, since I’d been trying to give the guy something in the way of rent since the day he picked me up from Fort Drum.

     “Guess it’ll do,” he said, turning his back while he pretended to hang up his jacket, and I knew it was because the dick was hiding a smile.

     “I can pull it all up if you hate it,” I shot back, and he turned slowly.

     “No sense in that.” He was working hard not to burst out laughing. “What’s done is done.” He was just waiting for me to explode over his non-reaction, but apparently he’d forgotten I wasn’t a chick.

     “Glad it meets with your approval,” I said, leaving him to survey it while I grabbed two beers from the fridge and handed him one. “Welcome home, man. Glad you’re back in one piece.”

     He knocked the neck of his bottle against mine and gave me a short nod before we both tipped them back. 

     He was a man of fewer words these days, changed from who I’d known before I pulled him out of that dusty compound.

     “Took a job,” I said, and his eyes slowly traveled back to mine. “Looking for a place in the city; got a decent housing allowance attached.”

     He nodded thoughtfully.

     “Start training at Quantico next week,” I said, and something kicked in my chest. I realized it meant I was actually going to miss the guy and there was no way to say it that wouldn’t be a little weird.

     “Haven’t minded having you around all that much,” he responded, and I returned his short nod. That was about as effusive as us girls were gonna get, apparently.

     “Got any more of that?” he asked, nodding toward my hand, and I knew he wanted another beer so we didn’t have to talk. 

     “Have a friend in the city who works in real estate,” he called to me casually while I popped the cap off another.

     “Yeah?” I called back, putting the empty bottles in the recycling bin hidden under the counter.

     “Yup. Worked with her on a couple projects in the past. Consulting, you might say.”

     One of my eyebrows raised without me meaning for it to happen, and I realized too late that he could see me through the doorway.

     “Not that kind, dickhead. What kind of man you take me for, anyway?” He was smirking at me, and he tapped his wedding ring against the glass bottle. The one he wore for a wife long since dead. The other one lived across town with a new husband. “Bet I could call in a favor: hook you up with a decent place through her.”

     “These consulting projects…” I moved toward him with the bottle in my outstretched hand.

     “Fast-tracked relocations of political expediency. State Department, and others,” he answered easily, and my eyebrows must have shot into my hairline, because he followed up with, “Have a feeling you’ll be privy to the inner workings of a few such relocations in coming months. No doubt we’ll be working together in some official capacity, since the boys had a bead on you long time before you came home.” He paused. “Doesn’t hurt you’ve already got necessary clearance.” 

     I knew he was one hundred percent to thank for planting the seed, him and his G-man contact. 

     In the future, when I looked back on those few quiet months spent in his home, examining the uncertain future before me and trying to establish things to cling to, I recognized the quiet before the coming storm. The storm named Giulia.



     The balls on this guy…

     “You are doing it again!” he hissed, and if there had been more than a handful of hair on his bald little old man head, it would have been standing up straight like the fur on a cat’s back.

     He’d been standing outside my door when I opened it that morning, his fist raised in preparation to hammer on it.

     “Mr. Coronado.” I dug deep for the Italian purr that was my birthright. “What can I do for you this morning?”

     “Again, I have no hot water for my shower!” he spat angrily, and I felt my lips begin to tuck between my teeth as I prepared to bite down. 

     “Again, you are using all of the hot water and there is none left for my household!”

     To think I’d ever helped this guy…

     Manuel had been after me for the last four days, claiming that I had been taking extra-long showers, doing an exorbitant number of dishes on the “sanitize” setting, and clearly I had been washing laundry well into the night. Because as it stood, there was no hot water left for him.

     I was done humoring the little man.

     “Señor,” I chuckled, stepping a little closer to him, and the man shrank back. I was tall to begin with, but in my signature patent Louboutins I was Amazonian, clearing an easy 6’4”. 

     Why yes, I liked the air up here just fine, thank you. 

     “Can you explain to me this problem you are having with the hot water and we can come to an understanding?”

     “You will come with me,” he sputtered up at me, and I followed him into the generous space that mirrored my own co-op just one floor above his.

     I didn’t bother to remove my heels as I stepped into the space, neatly kept except for the astounding stack of newspapers actively eating his island. All of them appeared to be mailed from Colombia, and I raised an eyebrow as my rudimentary Spanish skills came into play.

     At first glance, there did not seem to be evidence of a Mrs. Coronado, though a lipsticked champagne glass told me he was indeed keeping female company of one variety or another.

     “You see this?” he shrieked, flicking the faucet on the kitchen sink and holding an index finger beneath the stream. “This is not even warm! You are using all of the hot water!”

     The eye roll that wanted to happen…I bit my lip so hard, I could taste blood. 

     This little man had been making my life a living hell for the four months he’d been living beneath my unit.

     “Where is your hot water heater?” I asked, trying to keep a pleasant tone of voice and, as I expected, the look he gave me was blank.

     “What is this hot water heater?” he asked angrily, and I couldn’t stop the sigh that made my shoulders slump. 

     Did I have to do everything around here?

     “Not to worry,” I soothed, remembering myself after the brief flare of irritation. “Your unit’s layout is similar to my own…may I?” I gestured toward the hallway we’d taken into the kitchen and when his eyes swiveled quickly to the left, I understood that we were not alone in the space. There was something he wanted to hide, which led me to believe his righteous indignation was not at all for his own sake.

     “You wouldn’t happen to have a lighter?” I asked, and he patted at the pockets of his bathrobe, withdrawing an ornate, expensive piece I knew wouldn’t serve the purpose I had in mind. 

     He followed me across the short distance, into the space that functioned as a laundry room and general utility closet. It was where the washer and dryer sat in most units, along with the electrical panel and the hot water heater.

     Cursing myself for wearing a dress yet again–professional hazard–I knelt carefully and put a cheek to the floor to examine the “under workings” of his water heater.

     “Ah,” I announced, handing his lighter back to him and fishing through my bag. I always carried a lighter with a long neck–another professional hazard. “Just as I suspected.” 

     I pushed the nozzle into the small space and clicked, and the corresponding sound of gas bursting into a small flame was music to my ears. 

     “Your pilot light was out.”

     The confusion on his face was priceless. 

     Yet another misguided soul being led to Jesus by a woman, heaven forbid. 

     I gestured that he should kneel beside me and I pointed through the small space so that he would look toward the flame. “That…you see the blue flame? That’s your pilot light. If it goes out, there is nothing to heat your water, or your showers; your dishwasher; your kitchen sink–everything will have cold water.”

     He pushed up from the floor and looked at me suspiciously. “What have you done?” 

     Nothing you couldn’t have done, you ornery little asshole, came to mind, but wisely, as was not always the case, I kept my mouth shut.

     “My unit has one as well.” My huge smile was so fake, I was fairly sure he could see my tonsils. “Sometimes it goes out and I have to relight it.”

     “But you have used all the hot water,” he persisted.

     How he didn’t hear my teeth grating together, I’ll never know. 

     “No, Señor, I assure you that if you allow this to work for the next half hour, you will have hot water.”

     He eyed me suspiciously, and I handed him my lighter and pointed to the tank. “If you have cold water again, now you know what to do.” 

     Then I pushed up off the floor, rubbed my knees and dusted myself off.

     I knew the gift of the lighter was pointless, because obviously I would be back in a matter of weeks, if not days. The man was useless, and from the corrosion I could see on the unit, his hot water heater was somewhere near the end. Telling him that, though, would probably invite the Apocalypse.

     “Que tengas un día encantador, Señor,” I cooed as I sashayed down the hallway and let myself out the front door. 

     I’d expected zero hospitality and I’d received decidedly less, but I’d met far ruder people in the fifteen years I’d been in this business. 

     Acting as an attaché to the State Department required a very good cover, and my cover was that of a high-end realtor, who just happened to run a damn good “side” business in just that. 

     Ah, but Señor Coronado…not even remotely his real name. He had no idea that it was I who coordinated with a figure who had shadowy connections to the Diplomatic Partnerships Division to manage a large portion of his relocation seamlessly. I didn’t ask, and my contact didn’t tell, but it was something I would forever regret, placing him in the unit below my own simply because it was something quickly available at the time. 

     I had since regrettably learned that the little man was third in command for a very well-known Colombian drug cartel, and that he had traded certain information with the U.S. government in exchange for personal safety and a comfortable living situation. In my opinion he belonged in prison, and I was regretting placing myself so close to danger.

     So he was an asset to someone, but just an ass to me. What a difference those two missing letters made…

     Punching the lift button, I took the car to the basement level parking garage as I weighed my options. The little man had been such an enormous pain in my ass, I’d been over him since the day he moved in.

     In all truth, I’d been meaning to transfer him to a new location for some time, but it turned out that having me on-site to babysit him made things considerably easier for my boss, who was in far less hurry than I was to relocate the tiny ignoramus. I’d had the paperwork sitting on his desk for months.

     The lights on my pretty little Audi flashed when I clicked the fob, and I tried to remind myself that I did what I did because it provided for a comfortable lifestyle and kept me from living over my parents’ garage–which Babbo would have loved, undoubtedly, and would have never ceased to hold over my head. After all, I’d always been his greatest disappointment. His piccola principessa, his pride and joy: spoiled and ruined and irredeemable. He’d stopped trying to marry me into a respectable family after Lucca was born, and I had exactly zero husbands to show for the ordeal. That was fine by me, but not by him, and not a single chance to remind me of my failure went unobserved.

     Not that he hadn’t tried to strong arm Daniel’s family into making him marry me, but at that point in our relationship I couldn’t imagine being tied to that asshole for life and I refused to even consider it. Instead, I decamped to the family compound in Italy, where I gave birth to Lucca.

     There are some things in life that will change you, and leaving my infant son behind to be raised by several of my aunts was the turning point for me. To that point I’d been gregarious and outgoing and carefree. But upon my return to New Jersey, with a new hole in my heart, my cousin Mia told me in worried tones that I’d become bitter and cynical, withdrawn and possibly an alcoholic, since for a time it was unusual to find me without a drink in my hand. It didn’t matter that I was underage; in a big family like ours it was easy to get your hands on whatever you wanted. Especially when certain family members dealt in “imports.”

     The car roared to life when I pressed the button and I smiled to myself, settling my travel cup in the holder before punching a button. “Call Lucca,” I commanded and my son’s name flashed up on the display screen as the sound of a phone ringing filled the car.

     “Ma.” You’d never know these days that my son had grown up in Italy. His accent still came out sometimes, but moments like this were when I heard the Jersey shore, not Sicily.

     We were close now, still getting to know one another after two decades of interference on the part of my family. 

     “Are you in the city today, or can Andrea and I convince you to come for dinner?”

     At forty-five, I was already a grandmother, and had been for several years, as apparently my son took after me when it came to reproductive tendencies. In fact, Andrea was already pregnant with their second, and given they were still so young and wanted a big family, it looked like they were going to make me a grandmother many times over. 

     My daughter-in-law was still getting used to me. She was third-generation Italian, her grandparents having emigrated during the second World War. 

     My family had stayed, struggled, suffered under Facism, then the despotic rule of the Mafia in Italy’s deep southern towns before my parents were more or less sent to New Jersey when I was yet a child, in search of a better life.

     Unlike Andrea, who was petite and quiet, gentle and soothing, I was loud and outspoken–some said crass–unafraid to voice my opinion or go after what I wanted. I’d been described by more than one person as a force of nature and I intended to capitalize upon that, given any and every opportunity. 

     In short, I was what nicer folks described as “A bit much.” Not everyone’s cup of tea and if they had a problem with me, well, it wasn’t my problem.

     “I could manage to swing out that way,” I said, fishing a Gauloise out of the handbag on the seat beside me. Lucca heard the telltale click of the lighter.

     “Ma, you promised you’d quit.”

     “And I will,” I answered smoothly, rolling down my window just enough to blow out a stream of smoke. I only smoked when I was really stressed, and Sr. Coronado had already pushed my buttons this morning.

     “I have a Syrian client coming in this morning,” I told him–more than he should know already–and I heard him draw a deep breath. “This has been a complicated relocation and the asset is…difficult. That’s all I can tell you, and it’s already too much.”

     “Well,” he forced a laugh. “If anyone knows about ‘difficult,’ it’s you.” And since he was right, I didn’t argue.

     “Andi will have dinner on by six, if that works for you. I’m leaving by four, so I should already be home by the time you get there.”

     Lucca worked long hours in the city, and that he’d be home by six was more than simply unusual. He was barely out of school and working for the SEC, putting in his time with an eye toward becoming a chief compliance officer for a large company one day. He was dedicated and driven, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before he met his goals.

     “Big news?” I asked casually, blowing out another plume of smoke before flicking the rest of the butt out the window.

     “You know me,” he chuckled. “I wouldn’t dream of one-upping you.”

     Cheeky little shit. I snorted. “See you at six then, Luc. Love you.”

     “Love you more, Ma.”

     I couldn’t help the smile that stretched across my face as I sat at a stoplight in Midtown traffic. That I had any sort of relationship with my son was a miracle, and that it was a relationship that grew stronger by the day was a blessing I knew I didn’t deserve.

     Pulling my car into yet another underground parking garage on Park Avenue, I checked my reflection in the rearview mirror. I reapplied lipstick and gave my hair a spritz of perfume to hide any lingering smell from the French cigarettes. 

     Where this morning’s appointment came from, women did not smoke, and that I was wearing red lipstick and a dress that showed my knees would undoubtedly throw him for a loop already. I expected his assimilation to be…difficult.

     The sign on my office was for a large, well-respected international real estate company, and that I’d rolled it into jobs was no one’s business but my own. It kept me busy and out of trouble and though I had little free time, I was very well compensated for my troubles.

     This life wouldn’t hold me forever, I thought. I’d been working with the government the past six or seven years, though I’d been in real estate much longer. Eventually I would quit one–or both–jobs and do something with my life that gave me the time to enjoy watching my grandchildren grow up. 

     That’s going to be difficult to arrange, considering my family obligations. Like hell I’ll retire. 

     Maybe with just one major responsibility I’d have the time to consider dating again, because there were times I did miss having a man in my bed.

     It had been long enough, by now, that I really didn’t want to do the math and come away all depressed. According to my cousin Mia, I was wasting my high-libido years on nothing and no one, which she deemed a travesty. (Not that she was any younger; bitch was throwing rocks at a glass house–and I say that with love.)

     No one would have believed me if I tried to complain. It wasn’t like I was short on attention, I just didn’t have the time. And if I was being completely honest with myself, most of the time I simply wasn’t interested. These days I wanted more, though I hadn’t allowed myself to consider what that might mean.

     “Good Morning, Jen.” I sailed through the heavy plate glass door with my cup in my hand, the handbag slung over my other arm.

     “Mornin’, Giulia.” She looked up from her desk, earpiece already firmly in place. “Your nine is here. I put him in your office.”

     I shot her a look of irritation that she very well understood. It wasn’t yet 8:30, and this guy was on my clock.

     “Scott!” I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice when I rounded the corner to my office and saw the big man folded into a too-small chair, waiting with practiced patience. Even with that placid look on his face, I knew his mind was whirling a million miles a minute. The man was like a duck, all calm on the surface while it was a very different story underwater.

     “About time you showed up for work,” he teased, rising easily and straightening what was probably a kink in his lower back. He made no pretenses, just stepped forward and wrapped me into a tight hug. Because we were like that. We’d been friends for a couple years now, since we met at a “conference” overseas, and he claimed I’d saved his life more than once. We didn’t discuss those details–ever–because that was a road neither of us were willing to consider anymore. Our friendship was close, very close, but purely platonic, and for each of us that was a little unusual.

     “You are entirely too handsome to be my nine o’ clock,” I teased, and he gave me an uncharacteristic grin, flashing beautifully white teeth.

     “I’m not on your schedule at all,” he said smoothly. “Don’t tell your girl at the front desk. I’m here for personal reasons.”

     “Must be important if you came all the way into the city for it,” I commented, dropping my bag beside my heavy acrylic desk and sinking down into the chair. The leather sighed audibly as I did so, and I tipped back in order to cross my legs. Scott was the only man whose eyes had never followed the movement, an old habit of mine that threw most men off course and gave me an immediate upper hand. In this city, in my lines of work, doing what I did and knowing what I knew, even small advantages were necessary.

     “That still works?”

     Oh, so he’d noticed.

     “Hasn’t failed me yet.” I grinned back at him. “Stop changing the subject.”

     “Not exactly a special trip,” he admitted in his raspy voice, folding himself back into the small chair. “I have other meetings, later this morning–a little further downtown.”

     There was a sound at the door and Jen bustled in with a cup of coffee balanced on a saucer, putting it on the small side table next to Scott’s chair. The way she was looking at him, I knew the girl was smitten and I had to bite down on the smile that wanted to spread across my face.

     “Apparently that still works too,” I teased as Jen let herself out of the office with lingering glances over her shoulder.

     “No time for that,” he snorted, smoothing a hand up his scarred neck. “Had enough trouble to last me several lifetimes over.” I was pretty sure we were still talking about troubles with the opposite sex, and not the troubles he’d seen in Afghanistan.

     “Pity,” I said, a nebulous idea having just begun to take shape in my mind. It had just struck me that I had the perfect person to introduce to him. “Let me know if you change your mind, because I know the perfect girl.”

     He snorted again and I could see the disgust written all over his face. I hurried to correct myself: “Woman. All woman.” 

     He shook his head at me slowly. “Not many of those around these days.”

     “Yeah, well…this one will rock your world.”

     “Not looking to entertain, Giulia.”

     My lips spread into an evil grin as I thought of my cousin, Mia. She’d been around the block a few times and was in the middle of an ugly divorce from the second husband she never should have married. She’d seen some things, and in my mind’s eye I could see her giving the big man a real run for his money.

     I leaned over and casually pulled my phone from my bag, flicking through the photos until I found one of Mia, her head thrown back in laughter, dark hair cascading down her back. She looked so alive. I handed the phone to him and watched his eyes widen. 

     “You let me know when you’re available.” 

     Handing the phone back to me, he looked distinctly uncomfortable, and I placed it facedown on my desk before leaning forward and clasping my hands. “Now…what can I do for you?”

     “Got a buddy hired on with the FBI. Coming off back-to-back tours. Hasn’t been home any appreciable amount of time in twenty years now and he needs to find a place soon; his time at Quantico’s almost up. Has a decent housing allowance and salary’s solid, but I’m sure he’ll have hurdles. Was wondering if you could do me a favor and hook him up with something decent.”

     “Define decent.” I leaned back in my chair again, wondering just what this guy meant to Scott if the man was willing to pull in personal favors.

     “He saved my ass,” Scott said quietly. “Pulled me out of a compound where my team would have died if he hadn’t led the rescue mission. Carried me to the helicopter when I couldn’t walk there myself.”

     Ah, that was why. Solid reason.

     “I’d like him to be comfortable: good space, good neighborhood, no roommates. If I need to throw in some money every month to make that happen, consider it done.”

     My eyebrows raised in spite of my attempts to control my expression. “Well, then…” I let the sentence trail off. “How soon are we talking?”

     “Short notice, I know.” He hung his head for a second. “He’s back in three weeks. I meant to come see you much sooner.”

     I nodded slowly. “I’ve worked with less, I’m sure. So now I know my timeline. What’s my budget?”

     “Got an allowance of eighteen hundred a month. He’s probably personally good for another two G’s.”

     My mind went quickly to Sr. Coronado’s unit, already subsidized by federal money, enough so that the board looked the other way, and I wondered how quickly I could get the little man out of it. It was more than a steal, it was positively criminal at $2,700 a month, and I could stand the change of scenery. Having an Army-boy-turned-Fed around could be useful, and I tapped my lips in thought.

     “I might have something,” I said slowly. “But I’ll have to work a few miracles in order to make it happen.” Why I was so willing, I wasn’t exactly sure. I just knew that whatever I could do to move someone else into that unit, anyone was better than the miserable little druglord. 

     Scott rose quickly, checking his watch before tucking his jacket sleeve back down over the face. “Thank you, Giulia. I’ll owe you big.”

     “You owe me nothing.” I’d already rounded the desk to slap his arm and he pulled me into another tight hug. He took a sniff. “I thought you quit?”

     “If you were to meet my nine o’ clock, you’d know why that’s not possible.”

     He grinned at me and shook his head. “I hope the guy knows what he’s in for.” He gave me a half-salute and hurried through the door, and I sank back down into my chair and swiveled to look out over the city. 

I had more than a few miracles to work today.



Copyright 2022, Erin FitzGerald

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