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Jax’s Little Girl by Pepper North – Sample

Chapter One

The skin on the back of his neck began to crawl, setting off every internal alarm Jax had honed during his Special Forces career. The mosquito landing on his sweaty skin didn’t gain his attention. The experienced sniper had a world of experience ignoring pests while perched in a tree or lying in the mud waiting to take a shot. This was important. On alert, he scanned the surrounding area, assessing any possible threats.

Only a mother with a double stroller and a young woman leaning over to smell the blooming flowers just off the path were in sight. He tore his eyes away from the rounded bottom so enticingly displayed as his phone rang. Stepping off the path, Jax automatically backed against a large elm tree. “Hey, Texas!” he answered.

“Rosie and I are having everyone over for barbecue and brew tonight. Can I count on you to bring your famous wings? Rosie says you can’t come if you don’t bring them.”

In the background, Jax could hear Tex’s little girl protesting that she’d never said that with great affront. He felt his lips curl immediately into an automatic grin. Those two are perfect together.

“Tell Rosie that I know you’re the wing fanatic and you can count on me. I’ll drop by the grocery store on my way home from the park.”

“You’re running for fun on our day off? You need to find your Little, Jax. Someone needs to save you from the poor choices you’re making.” Tex’s drawl came strongly through the phone as he lectured his teammate.

A sudden motion captured his attention, and Jax watched the young woman scurry back from the flowers and immediately crouch on the ground. Even from this distance, he could see her struggling to breathe as she made herself as small as possible. Immediately, he ran toward her.

“Problem. No danger,” he relayed as he ended the call. The second message would assure Tex that Jax didn’t need assistance. If his guess was correct, the last thing this woman needed was the large soldier arriving as backup.

When he was about ten feet away from the woman, he spoke to her calmly. “Hi, I’m Jax. Can I help you?”

Shaking her head desperately, she pressed one hand to her chest. “No… thanks,” she gasped, breathing heavily through her mouth.

Jax sat down. “I promise I’m not going to hurt you. I’ll just keep you company. Look at the green grass between us and try to slow your breathing,” he suggested gently.

Immediately, she grasped at his instructions. When her gaze focused on the manicured greenway and several moments passed, he suggested, “Brush your fingers across the tops of the blades. Does it tickle?”

Hesitantly, she reached out to touch the grass, running a hand over the tips. After long seconds ticked by, she glanced up to meet his gaze for the first time. Some of the wrinkles across her brow had eased a bit. She nodded hard to answer his question.

“I bet you can still smell the flowers from here,” Jax suggested next. Without looking away, he waved to the woman with the stroller who had stopped on the concrete path to make sure everything was okay. One baby cried, and she resumed walking immediately to calm the child.

The red-haired woman closed her eyes to concentrate as she inhaled. Two minutes passed. Her shoulders settled down into place. Jax noted with satisfaction that she could breathe through her nose now. The gasping breaths had disappeared.

“Don’t breathe too deeply. I smell rough,” he warned.

To his delight, her nose wrinkled. “Eww! I’m glad you’re over there.” She settled onto her bottom to sit cross-legged.

“Thank goodness the breeze is blowing away,” Jax pointed out, giving her one more bit of sensory distraction. Her face turned to feel the breeze flow over her cheeks. Again, he patiently waited, giving her time.

“Who are you?” she asked, finally able to focus on him.

Jax watched her eyes run over his military powerful physique. He was used to women throwing themselves at him. Her interest felt different somehow. “I’m Jax. I think you’re feeling better now?”

“Hi, Jax. I think it’s over now. Sorry. I’m really not crazy.”

“I know you’re not crazy. Tell me your name,” he asked, allowing a bit of command to color his request.

“Ember,” she supplied, pointing to her shiny red hair. She’d styled it in two thick braids.

“Your parents were either psychic or you were born with a mass of hair,” Jax guessed. He stood and walked closer, sitting a foot away so they could talk privately.

“By their eighth kid, they’d run out of names,” she answered easily with a shrug. Obviously, she had used this line before.

“How long have you had panic attacks?” he probed.

“You recognized that?”

“My grandmother suffered with them all her life. She raised me when my parents were killed in a sailing accident. I talked her through a lot.”

“I’m lucky you were here.” Ember shook her head as if imagining what could have happened. “Were you exercising?”

“Yeah, I run on this path when my team is on base,” Jax confirmed.

“You’re in the military?”

“Yes. This is close to home. The path smells a lot better than when I’m training with the other guys in my unit.”

“Do they smell as bad as you?” she whispered.

That crinkling nose got him. She was adorable. Laughing, Jax confessed, “Worse. Thanks to Tex calling, I stopped over there and realized something was wrong. Now, I owe the big guy for helping me be here to help. I’m glad we’ve met, Ember.” Jax stood and offered her a hand to stand up. Pulling her easily to her feet, he held on to that hand a bit longer than necessary. “I’d like to take you to a barbecue tonight, Ember. Will you come meet my team and their wives and girlfriends?”

Inwardly, he berated himself. Having a stranger around might make the little girls uncomfortable. But he just had a hunch she’d fit right in with Cricket, River, Rosie, and Hope.

“Oh, you don’t have to be ask me out just because I freaked,” Ember rushed to reassure him.

“First, you didn’t freak, you had a panic attack. Second, you intrigue me, Ember. I want to get to know you better. Will you come if I promise to shower?” he asked before laughing.

“You like the people who you work with?” she asked. Her words revealed a lot.

“I’d protect all of them with my life,” he answered solemnly. “And they’ve kept me alive.” To soften his words, Jax waggled his phone at her. “May I have your phone, Ember?” When she handed it over, Jax quickly entered his phone number and pressed it to ring through to his phone. Immediately, he added her name and number to his contacts.

With that finished, he looked up to ask, “Now, tell me where I can pick you up? The party starts at six.” Jax didn’t know why he was pushing so hard. There was something about this woman that called to him. He always listened to his intuition. That little voice in the back of his mind had saved him many times.

When she hesitated, Jax pulled up the base website. Turning it so she could see it, Jax scrolled through the menus to find his captain’s name listed. Pushing the button, he put the phone on speaker.

“What do you want, Jax? I’m on base pushing to raise our budget,” Mark growled into the phone.

“Sorry, sir. I’ve got you on speaker,” he warned. “I’m here with Ember. I’d like to bring her to the barbecue. Could you confirm that I’m not a mass murderer?”

“I didn’t think that,” Ember rushed to correct Jax.

“He’s the best damn sniper I know. You’re safe with him, little girl.”

“Thanks, Mark. Good luck.” Jax ended the call.

“I can’t go to the party with you, Jax. Not now.” Ember looked at him with wide eyes still holding a bit of the tension that had beset her before.

Her vulnerability made him back down. “I need to get to know you, Ember. If you promise not to ghost me, I won’t insist that you come with me tonight. Will you go out with me tomorrow after work?” Jax persisted. “Just you and me.”

“If you still want to see me tomorrow, I’ll be glad to meet you somewhere,” she agreed.

“There isn’t a rat’s chance that I’m going to change my mind.”

“Okay. I guess I’ll go,” she dared. “I work in a mail room in that office building.” Ember pointed to a nearby building and caught sight of her watch. “Oh, no! I have to get back. I’m late from lunch.”

Jax placed a hand on her low back and walked with Ember to the edge of the park. When she nervously almost stepped out in traffic, he pulled her back by her jeans pocket. “Whoa! Look both ways, little girl.” When the coast was clear, he sent her across.

Jax watched until she disappeared into the high-rise. The company’s name was familiar. A retired military officer he’d worked with now headed that company. I wonder if the general knows Ember? Then dismissing that thought when he noted the time, Jax turned back to the park to run down the shortcut to the grocery store. Maybe the next time, he’d get to make Ember his special wings. He had a feeling that she’d like them as much as Tex did.

As she ran down the stairs to the bowels of the building, Ember tried to figure out what had just happened. She always escaped to the park when the weather was great. Her sorting job in the basement was dirty and dusty. Breathing clean air always made her feel better.

“You’re late!” a gruff woman yelled from a desk facing into the room.

“Sorry, Traci. I lost track of time. I’ll skip my afternoon break to make up the time.”

“Next time, Stevens, I’m writing you up. You’re going to lose this easy job if you aren’t careful. The boss always listens to my evaluations,” Traci reminded her.

“Okay if I start with this stack of boxes?” Ember tried to change the subject from the threat she heard several times a day. Every day.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” she allowed, but mumbled under her breath, “She always starts with the simple stuff.”

Ember didn’t acknowledge that she had heard the comment. That would only supercharge the negative atmosphere. Working as quickly as possible, she divided the boxes into the correct departments, loading them on carts for each floor.

She’d already pointed out that the workers on the dock could have accomplished this quickly instead of carting everything down here and taking it back upstairs to the correct department. But Traci didn’t believe in changing the procedures that had been in force since she’d started working there after high school graduation. Ember wiped the sweat from her brow on her sleeve. This would go so much faster if Traci helped.

“Got those carts ready to go?” Traci asked when Ember was visibly only halfway through the stack.

“Sorry. Not yet.”

“Slow as old people screw,” Traci muttered under her breath as she began checking over a piece of paper. They had already counted everything as it came off the trucks on the dock, but Traci took it upon herself to double-check each list. While she had never found a mistake, Ember’s supervisor had convinced someone over her it was a good idea… and she got to sit on her cushy chair.

A half hour later, she placed the last box on the correct cart. “Traci, want me to call the floors for you?”

“Finally done, huh? No, I’ll call,” the older woman rushed to cut off Ember’s attempt to talk directly to the floors.

Ember dashed to the restroom before starting her next task. Coming back, she rounded the corner to see Traci swap a package from one cart to another. Ember hesitated in the doorway. Now she understood why the floors always reported that they had received incorrect boxes. Traci had documented each as Ember’s incompetence. What should she do?

Traci glanced up and froze. “I thought I should check since the boxes keep getting mixed up. I’ve found several. You need to be more accurate.” Her critical tone had worked in the past to cow Ember.

“It looked like you were moving them to the wrong cart,” Ember pointed out carefully.

“You need glasses.” Traci turned and muttered, “Ignorant bitch,” under her breath.

Ember had taken enough from her. “Don’t call me names or I’ll file a harassment charge.” Once the words were out of her mouth, Ember regretted them.

Putting her back to the offensive supervisor, Ember restored the packages to their correct place before carrying a package of letters that needed to be sorted over into the center of the loaded carts. She worked making piles on the carpet until each floor’s representative had picked up their cart to prevent any other mayhem from occurring.

Traci was curiously quiet at her computer. When she stood and moved boxes at the side of the room, Ember wondered what she was doing. That was outgoing mail and didn’t need sorting.

“What are you doing?” a strong, masculine voice rebuked her from the doorway. “There are tables where all sorting is supposed to be done. You are not following the required procedure.”

Looking up, Ember saw the boss over the entire branch of the company standing in the doorway. “I’ll move in there right now, sir. I needed to make sure all the carts were picked up correctly,” she tried to explain.

“It doesn’t take two people to do one job. I’ve wondered why the mailroom is so inefficient. I think I’ve discovered the reason. Please collect your things. I’ll escort you to the entrance. This will be your last day here.”

“What? Wait. I was only here because she was switching packages after I’d sorted them…” Ember tried to explain.

The man simply held up his hand to stop the flow of words. “I know all I need to know. Will you gather your things, or shall I call security?”

Trying to hold back her tears, Ember forced herself to take deep breaths as she walked over to the corner where she always placed her purse. Traci hadn’t allowed her to stow it in the desk where the employee manual designated they should store all personal items. She could see on his face he’d added another negative mark to his assessment.

“Good luck in your next job,” Traci encouraged pleasantly with an underlying tone of celebration that Ember recognized clearly.

“Thank you for emailing an alert, Traci. I’m sorry you had to put up with so much,” the unyielding man said before stepping out of the doorway to gesture that Ember needed to precede him.

The elevator ride was deafeningly quiet. Ember kept her eyes on the tiled floor. He wouldn’t listen to anything she said. Forced to walk before him to the front doors, Ember knew all the employees who’d gathered instantly recognized that he’d fired her.

“When do I come in for my final check?” she asked bravely at the door.

“If anything is owed to you, it will be mailed to your address on file,” the suited man responded curtly.

Daringly, she forced herself to say one last thing. “There are cameras in the mailroom.” Seeing his answering sneering expression, she turned and walked out the door.

Chapter Two

Knowing that she needed to save all her pennies until she found a new job, Ember began walking. Her thoughts churned in her mind. What would she do?

When her phone rang several miles later, she answered automatically without looking. “Hi, I can’t talk right now,” She moved to end the call but froze at hearing the male voice that had become etched in her mind. Just the memory of his kindness made tears course down her cheeks.

“Hey, Ember! I’ve made my special wings. I hope you’re having second thoughts and would like to go to the barbecue?” His tone was light and cheerful.

She tried not to sob. “Sorry. I can’t go. I can’t talk now. Something came up at work.” Ember was so ashamed of being fired. She didn’t want anyone to know.

“What’s up? You’re having to work overtime?”

“Yes. That’s it. I’m afraid I’m here until late,” she answered, trying to keep her tone light. A blaring car horn sounded next to her, making her jump in reaction.

“You aren’t inside, Ember. What’s going on?” His stern tone was the last straw. She’d let him down, too.

Sobbing, she confessed everything. “I got fired. I’m walking home. I’m sorry, Jax. I really appreciated your help in the park. It’s happening again. I can’t control it.” She needed to get off the phone. Her breath quickened and she could hear her heartbeat pounding heavily in her ears. Immediately, she backed against the nearest building and made herself as small as possible.

“Breathe, Ember. Look down and concentrate. What do you smell?” His voice softened.

She barely held herself together. It was easier to follow his directions than not. Taking a deep breath, she reported, “I smell fried fish and… flowers?”

“Good girl. Open your eyes for me. What color is the building you’re standing by?” When she didn’t answer, he tried again, “Ember, shut out the noise around you and listen to my voice. Focus on your senses. It will help ground you. Are your fingers against the building?”

“Yes!” she wailed.

“Good girl. What do you feel?”

“It’s rough. Brick with crumbly mortar.” She heard a strident honk and the squeal of brakes come through the phone. And then his reassuring voice replaced the harsh sound. She listened intently to the tone of his voice, unable to focus on the words as the sound of her heart thudded loudly in her ears. She was going to die. She knew it.

“Oh, little girl. This one’s bad, isn’t it? I’m on my way. You’re going to be okay.”

Ember could hear the sound of the traffic whizzing by and knew time was moving around her. The buzz of voices registered but her terror-stricken mind couldn’t focus to listen. All she could do was squeeze herself against the safety of the brick and hope for Jax to arrive soon. His voice through the phone reassured her but she needed him close. Jax would help.

A lifetime seemed to have passed when finally, that calming voice sounded so close. Ember gripped the phone hard as she pressed it tightly to her ear.

“You’ll feel my hands on your shoulders.”

Ember lashed out as she felt someone touch her. Her eyes flashed open to see who was attacking her. She stared into green eyes. “Jax?” she whispered, unable to believe her eyes.

“Yes, baby. I’m here.”

Launching herself forward, Ember wrapped her arms around his muscular torso. Her fingers dug into his flesh as she clung to his body. “Jax!”

“Shhh! It’s okay, Ember. I’m here. Slow down your breathing.” Jax stood, easily lifting her as he rose. Looping one arm under her curvy bottom, he ran the other hand up and down her spine. As he supported her, Jax breathed audibly for Ember in deep, even breaths. When her panicked gasps subsided, he asked, “Can I carry you to my truck, baby?”

Peeking behind her, she saw an oversized blue pickup pulled haphazardly onto the sidewalk between a mailbox and a light pole. The sight of his determination to get to her helped dispel her panic even further. She nodded against his hard shoulder. Wiggling to put her feet on the ground, Ember froze at the feel of his hand swatting her bottom sharply.

“Daddy’s in charge. Just hold on,” he admonished her. As he carried her to the passenger side, an elderly woman hurried forward to open the door.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Jax said, nodding his appreciation.

“I’m so glad you came. I was worried. I tried talking to her, but she couldn’t answer me.” The woman’s tone shook with audible concern. She leaned in to confide, “I’ve had those. You know… panic attacks.”

“I’ll take care of her, ma’am. I promise.” He was civil but curt, trying not to encourage the older woman. All he wanted was to get Ember to a protected area. The truck would serve for now. He pulled the seatbelt and attached it.

“I’m so glad she has a daddy.”

Jax turned to look at the woman in surprise. Scanning her face, he relaxed slightly. “Thank you for taking care of her. You hurry home to your daddy now.”

Tears filled her eyes. “Daddy died two years ago. Someday, I’ll see him again. He told me not to rush. He’d wait for me.”

“He’ll wait and watch over you,” Jax reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Removing a card, he handed it to the woman. “If you need help, call. I work out of town sometimes, but I’ll be there as fast as I can. What’s your name?”

She accepted the card and pressed it to her heart. “April. I promise I won’t pester you. But thank you. I’m not quite as alone, am I?”

“No, you aren’t, April.” When a chilly hand wrapped around his neck, Jax turned and smiled at the young woman in his passenger seat. “And Ember’s not alone anymore either.”

“I’m not?” she whispered.

“No, baby. You’re not alone,” he reassured her. When Ember looked past his shoulders, Jax turned around to check on the older woman. The space was empty. Looking down the street, he saw her walking slowly.

“I’m sorry I didn’t hear her,” Ember said with tears in her eyes.

“It’s okay, baby. Now, let’s get you out of here.” When she nodded, Jax rounded the vehicle and jumped into the driver’s seat. He’d just reversed off the sidewalk and blended with traffic when Ember reached a tentative hand over the console to touch his arm.

“Thank you.”

Jax joined his fingers with hers and rested their hands on her thigh. “You are so welcome. You scared me a little.”

“I scared me, too. How did you find me?”

“I used the clues you told me and calculated paths from your office building. This was the path that led to old brick buildings where there’s a flower shop a block from a seafood joint.” He squeezed her hand softly.

Maneuvering out of the traffic, Jax pulled into a parking lot where there would be enough people to reassure Ember while not making her feel endangered. Pushing the seat back, Jax said, “Crawl over here, baby. I need to hold you again.”

Ember looked around to make sure no one was watching. “Are you sure?” At his nod, Ember carefully negotiated over the divider and allowed his hands to settle her on his lap.

“I’m not skinny,” she apologized, trying to support some of her weight. While she’d been a little heavier in college, Ember was just all around average with a bit bigger butt than she wanted.

“I’ll let you know if I can’t breathe,” he reassured her. His eyes danced with mirth, signaling her that he was teasing.

“Sorry,” she apologized again.

“I’ll spank you for real this time if you act like any of that was your fault.” His tone was firm, warning her that he was very serious.

What? That one swat stung for a while. She didn’t want to have several of those. “You can’t spank me. I’m not a child,” she blustered.

“You can’t lie to me, baby. Now, tell me what happened after we met.” Jax stroked up and down her spine.

Before she knew what was happening, Ember exploded into the story, recounting how awful Traci was and how the man hadn’t even given her a chance to explain. Alone in town, Ember hadn’t wanted to worry her folks about her troubles in working with that horrid woman.

“Why didn’t you want to tell your folks?” he probed.

“My panic attacks started when I was a teenager. But they almost disappeared by the time I graduated from high school. Still, Mom and Dad didn’t want me to leave town and come work here. I didn’t want to stay on the family farm. I have a degree in agriculture, but with three older brothers, they were never going to listen to me. I didn’t know the only opportunity I was going to find was in the mailroom with her,” Ember spit out that last word.

“So that’s done. You’ll start looking for a job tomorrow. We just need to be creative in how to use your agriculture degree in the city,” Jax asked. His warm hand continued to stroke her reassuringly.

Ember sagged against him. “I don’t do well with purely academic studies. The combination of planning and implementation is my groove. I love to get my hands dirty. That’s why I always go to the park at lunch. I need the balance that plants and air give me.”

“Someday, I’ll pursue a job in security or risk analysis, but for now, an office building is the last place I want to be,” Jax shared.

She loved that he was really listening. No, not just listening. He was paying attention. Ember thought he really was interested in her. She knew that she felt closer to him already than the few guys she’d dated before.

“Before I found my program of studies in the next town over from where I grew up, I actually thought about going into the military or becoming a nurse for about ten minutes. Then my dad reminded me I couldn’t shoot a squirrel or clean fish.” Ember laughed before yawning widely.

Jax laughed and seemed delighted when she giggled along with him. “Those are probably good indications that those careers are out. Okay. Enough thinking about bad stuff.”

She tilted her head to look at him. Why not take advantage of his desire to change the topic? “Why did you call yourself Daddy?” Holding her breath, Ember was sure that Jax couldn’t be referring to daddies like in those books hidden on her e-reader.

“Ember, I’m wired differently than other men. I have been looking for my little girl for many years.”

“Little girl?” she echoed, trying to act clueless. “Like kids?”

“No, baby. Little girl as in an ageplay relationship. I’m looking for my special Little who will allow me to care for her in all ways.” Jax’s green eyes had focused on her face, watching her reaction to his words. Something must have given her away. “I think you know what ageplay is, don’t you, baby?

She couldn’t lie to him. Sitting on his lap in the big truck, Ember felt wrapped in a protective bubble where she could be honest. “Yes. I’ve read some books, but I’ve never had a daddy or even met one. I didn’t know that they existed outside of books.” Blinking quickly, she tried to wake herself up. She did not want to miss this conversation.

“They exist and you’ve met one now,” Jax confirmed, brushing the wisps of hair from her face before tugging at one of her braids.

“We need to talk about this more, little one, but you are falling asleep. Home and bed for you. Tomorrow, you can ask all the questions you wish,” he promised.

“Sorry. I am exhausted. Could I bother you to take me to a bus stop?” she asked, leaning back against him. Ember didn’t understand why she trusted him so much. Maybe coming to her rescue twice like her own knight in shining armor moved Jax into a special category of honorable men.

Jax’s hand rubbed up and down her arm, comforting her. “As much as I was hoping to convince you to come to the barbecue, I know you’re exhausted. I’m not taking you to a bus stop. I’ll take you home. Climb back over to sit down so I can pull your seatbelt around you.”

“I can do it.”

“Nope. That’s my job.” Within seconds, Jax helped her settle in the passenger seat and had wrapped the protective strapping across her body. He restarted the truck and shifted into gear. When he placed his right hand on the console and stretched his fingers, Ember meshed her fingers with his.

She felt better than she had for a very long time. Unemployment sucked, but anything was better than going back to that job. She hated it for so many reasons. Looking out the windows of the big pickup, Ember realized it had been a long time since she’d relaxed enough to watch the clouds or enjoyed the trees and flowers.

She looked sideways at Jax’s profile. He was chiseled. The feel of his body holding her had been hard as forged steel. She remembered his squad leader saying that Jax was the best sniper ever. Ember didn’t doubt it. There was a quiet confidence about him. She knew that Jax must be extremely good at what he did.

“Tell me your address, baby.”

“Oh, you can just drop me at a bus stop. I’m good at figuring routes,” she rushed to reassure him.

“Do I look like the type of man who would dump you at a bus stop? If you’re not comfortable with me knowing where you live, I’ll pull over and call a cab or a ride share—whichever you prefer.” When she opened her mouth to protest, he added, “Which I will pay for, little girl.”

Quiet filled the cab. Finally, Ember said, “411 W. Broadway.”

“That’s not a very good part of town, baby. Is your apartment safe?”

“I’ve been fine.”

“But things have happened to your neighbors?” he probed, giving her a piercing look.

“Sometimes. Maybe they’re not as careful as I am,” she rushed to suggest.

“Does your family know where you’re living?”

“Oh, no! Dad doesn’t like to drive in city traffic. They visited my first apartment when I moved up here. He swore he’d never come back unless there was an emergency. I ride the bus home once a year to see them if I have vacation time. They haven’t been here since I had to move to a less expensive apartment.”

Jax drove slowly down the dimly lit Broadway Street. Most of the streetlamps were dark. The wires sticking out of several attesting to why the city had stopped repairing them. Someone was stripping out the copper wiring to sell. Number four eleven was an old brick apartment building that must have been spectacular years ago. Unfortunately, time and lack of attention had taken their toll.

“Don’t come in,” she rushed to tell him as he parked. “I don’t want anyone to steal your truck.”

“I don’t like this at all, baby.”

“It’s okay. Really,” she tried to convince him. “I’m sure my next job will pay better. I’ll start looking tomorrow.” Dashing out the door before he could stop her, Ember called, “Thank you for saving me over and over! I’ll flash my lights at you, so you’ll know I’m safe.”

Honks sounded behind him, but Jax didn’t move until he saw the lights blink on the third floor. Slowly, he pulled away, watching in his review mirror for any reason that he could go and demand she leave with him. He wouldn’t sleep well tonight.

That was okay. He had some research to do. The name of the company she had worked for seemed very familiar. Just as he was kicking himself for having forgotten to ask the other guys about it, Jax remembered the name of the general who had retired soon after Jax had joined the group. The retiring officer had been so impressed with the young sniper’s skills that he’d given Jax a card to come discuss a security job when he left the military. Jax was almost sure that the name matched the one on Ember’s building.

Twenty minutes later, he pulled into his house on the military grounds. His arms felt empty as he sat in the driver’s seat, remembering the feel of Ember curled against him. Jax had seen his grandmother’s exhaustion after a panic attack firsthand. Jax had watched Ember to see if they affected her the same way. When Ember had yawned, he’d known she needed to be in bed. He hadn’t wanted to let her go, but knew it was best for her to rest.

Forcing himself out of the vehicle, Jax entered the quiet house. It felt emptier than ever before. He’d wanted to bring Ember here. With a rueful shake of his head, Jax headed for his room. As he walked down the hallway, Jax slowed at the closed pink door. He pressed his fingers against it. When his lips tilted up in a smile, he patted the door, promising it, Soon.

Sobering, he turned and headed for his room. Something was bothering Jax. He hadn’t gotten much out of her about being fired, but something didn’t add up. He was willing to burn a potential job opportunity to help her. Jax thanked his years in the barracks for teaching him to be organized as he pulled the card out of the tin in his desk. It held all those things important to him. The blue logo on top matched the symbol on the building. He’d been right.

After checking to make sure it wasn’t too late, he called the handwritten number on the back. “Hello, sir.”

“Jax Wescott. I didn’t think I’d hear from you for at least five more years,” the military crisp voice answered.

“I hope I’m not calling too late, General Berkley.”

“Not at all. What can I do for you? Are you separating from the military now?”

“No, sir. My team would roast me alive if I tried to leave. I’m calling for a friend—a young woman who works at your company,” Jax clarified the reason he’d phoned.

“Ah! I can’t discuss employee affairs openly but tell me what’s motivated you to call. I don’t know you well, but I know you wouldn’t call me unless it was important.”

“I’d like to ask that you would review the file of Ember Stevens. She was fired today from working in the mailroom. I’d like to ask you to review the video footage of her working conditions as a favor. My impression is that all is not as it appears,” Jax suggested, trying to be diplomatic and realizing that the mailroom was way below the general’s attention.

“You like this young woman?” probed the older man.

“I do,” Jax admitted.

“I won’t make any promises. It’s possible that you don’t know the entire story, son.”

“I understand, General Berkley. And thank you, sir.”

“Thank you for your service. I’ll look forward to talking to you again in several more years.”

“Yes, sir. I will call.”

Jax hung up the phone. He understood from the general’s words that he was not to call about this matter again and that he had imposed on their relationship. Jax didn’t care. His future was not at stake now—Ember’s was.

His phone rang two hours later. Too late for a social chat, it could only be his superior officer. Immediately snapping into action, he answered the call, “Mark, when do we leave?”

“A driver is outside. Grab your duffle and move. This one is urgent.”

All the members of the team were at battle ready always. Jax dressed and walked out the door in four minutes. The instant his butt hit the seat, he pulled up Ember’s number to send a text.

Hi, baby. I’m going to have to ask for a rain check for tomorrow. The team’s been activated. I’ll be away for a while. Take care of yourself. If you need anything, get ahold of Cricket. She’s my commander’s little girl. Here’s her number.

With that taken care of, Jax forced his mind into mission mode. They’d all learned early on that everyone’s safety relied on their ability to focus and block out everyday worries. It was the middle of the month, Ember’s rent should be paid and her last checks were being processed. She ought to be okay until he got back.

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