Flashing red and blue lights and a booming voice issuing from a cop car were not the way Sandy wanted to be welcomed back into town. Her heart suddenly pounding, she sized up her options. She could always run. She was on foot and the cop was still in his car. That meant she had an advantage if she wanted to duck down an alleyway or something.
“I said, hands on your head. Now!”
Swearing under her breath, Sandy found herself momentarily paralyzed, her hands halfway up into the air when the driver side door of the cop car opened and a friendly face emerged.
He came around the car, arms outstretched, and grabbed her up in a big hug.
“You scared me, you big jerk,” she complained as she was half-crushed against Kurt’s oversized chest.
“Sorry ‘bout that. I didn’t think I’d see you again,” he said, his voice muffled. “Ever since you ran away. We thought you were gone forever, off in some big city.”
“Nope,” Sandy said, brushing blond strands of hair out of her eyes as he released her. “I’ve just been up in the hills. Laying low.”
Kurt’s smiling face turned serious. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re going to have to keep laying low, kid.”
“You’re wanted, Sandy.”
Sandy looked into the kind eyes of her childhood friend and swore. “What? Seriously? Why?”
“For stealing from that foster home they put you in. I should be arresting you right now,” he said. “But you know I don’t want to do that.” He reached into his pocket, peeled a few bills off a stack, and handed them to her. “Keep an eye out for cops, Sandy, your picture’s up in the station house. If any of the others see you, they’ll bring you in for sure.”
“That’s not fair. Those people were awful. I needed money.”
“It’s not fair,” Kurt agreed. “But it’s not our job to decide what’s fair or not. It’s our job to execute warrants, and there’s one out for you. You know, if you need a place to stay, I can probably find you somewhere…”
“No, I don’t want to get you into trouble,” Sandy said quickly. “You’ve already helped me out just by letting me know—and giving me the cash.” She flashed him a broad smile, hiding her sadness. She’d really hoped the past would be in the past by now.
“You let me know where you end up,” Kurt said. “I’ll see what I can do to help you out. Don’t go running back into the woods again, alright? We can’t fix anything if you run away.”
“I’m not going back into the woods if I can help it,” Sandy said. “I want electricity and running water and flushable toilets. I want a life.”
“I’m really glad you came back, Sandy,” Kurt said, slapping her on the back. “You look good.”
Sandy caught her reflection in the tinted cruiser window. A couple of months living rough had left her kind of scrawny, aside from a butt that seemed immune to low rations and hard living. She was wearing an old knit sweater, leather jacket, and jeans she’d scrounged from a charity drop point. She looked rough, long straw-blond hair ghosting in messy strands almost obscuring her eyes. She’d been pretty once, back when she’d had the luxury of hot showers and beauty products. Now she looked half-feral, no mascara, no lipstick, just pale and freckled skin and big brown eyes set in a face she always thought was too round to be truly attractive.
“I’m a mess, Kurt,” she laughed.
“You make a mess look good,” he assured her. He wasn’t hitting on her, just being nice. The gold band on his left ring-finger told her all she needed to know; he was still married to his high school sweetheart. She and Kurt had grown up on the same street, back when her parents were still alive. He was six or so years older, but he’d always been patient with her. He was an all-around good guy, and she was lucky she’d run into him and not one of Lamford’s other officers.
He scribbled a number down on a card and handed it to her. “If you get into trouble, you can always call me. Let me know where you end up in town, okay?”
She nodded. “Thanks, Kurt. That’s really nice of you.”
“Go on,” he said. “Get out of here. If you don’t have somewhere to stay by tonight, get in touch; my mother’s got a spare room at her place. She’d be more than happy to have you.”
“I’ll be alright, Kurt,” she said. “I’ll see you around, thanks for the tip, and the cash, and everything.”
It wasn’t quite the welcome she’d wanted to Lamford, but seeing Kurt had given Sandy a sense of hope. She made her way to the part of town where accommodations were cheap and easily obtained without a credit card. The motel room she ended up in probably would have depressed the hell out of anyone else, but as far as Sandy was concerned it was a palace. There was a real bed, electric lights, and a hot shower, which she availed herself of for a good half hour.
Once she was fresh and clean she became aware of just how hungry she was. It was dark out, too late to get anything decent from any of the diners, but she reckoned the gas station would have a hot dog or something in the warmer. It was worth a shot.
Stomach growling, Sandy stepped out into the dark of night, cash in her pocket and a smile on her face. It was nice to be back in civilization; even the noise from Wolfie’s, the nearby bar seemed kind of nice. She wandered maybe a little too close to it, just to see people having a good time. Those months in the forest had removed her fear of the dark and made her yearn for a place where she wasn’t the only person for a hundred miles in any direction.
Someone shouted the words in her general direction. Sandy turned around and saw a group of what looked to be drunk men loitering in the shadows around the bar. She ignored the yelling and kept walking—until a rough hand grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back.
“Too good to talk to us, blondie?” The man stank of beer and sweat, a nasty leer on his face as he stared down at her. He and all his friends had followed her across the parking lot and were now surrounding her in a way that made her heart race with fear.
“Let me go, please,” Sandy said, trying politeness. She was only 5′4 and hardly built to fight oversized drunk men in matching leather jackets. They looked like they were part of a gang of some kind, and behaved like they didn’t have any respect for women—or the law.
“Naw,” the guy still holding her laughed. “We’re going to have a nice little talk.”
“I have to be somewhere,” Sandy said. “Let me go.”
“You’re not going anywhere, bitch.”
Sandy did not like that word, and she really didn’t like the way his rough hand descended on her left breast. Being groped and cursed at made her see red and drive her knee into the groper’s crotch hard enough to make him retch and crumple to the ground.
Thinking that would be enough to convince the others to leave her alone, Sandy turned and made a run for it.
Unfortunately, the men who were harassing her weren’t considerate enough to think that maybe it was a bad idea to keep on after her. Seeing their mate go down just made them angry.
“Little slut,” someone swore. “Let’s teach her a lesson.”
And then the hands were everywhere, grasping her limbs, tearing her clothes. Sandy kicked and bit and fought, but she was helpless against several men who each outweighed her by a hundred pounds at least. In seconds, her shirt was in tatters, her body bruised and grazed, and even though she occasionally landed a kick or a slap, it wasn’t enough to stop them. They were working at her jeans, trying to strip her completely. Sandy screamed and swore about as much as they did, but she was fighting a losing battle—until someone else joined the fray.
She didn’t see her rescuer coming to her aid, but she heard the snapping of bone and the screams of men as the new man made his presence known. He didn’t utter a word, not in warning or anger. Instead he flowed with brutality, fists, elbows, knees, feet all deployed with devastating precision. Her attackers dropped like broken flies, rendered injured and then entirely unconscious.
Sandy covered her body with her hands, trying to recover some kind of modesty. Her bra was in tatters; the old fabric had torn under the assault, exposing her breast. Her pants had ripped too; they’d managed to tear the seams of denim, which Sandy didn’t think was even possible. Looking down she realized that they had been cut. One of them must have had a knife.
The man draped a long coat over her, preserving what was left of her modesty. “Come and sit over here,” he said, ushering her away from the scene where her attackers now lay in various states of consciousness or lack thereof.
Under a street light, she got a good look at her rescuer. To her surprise, he looked almost unassuming. He had dark blond hair cut short, a lean body, and a dependable sort of face, handsome but not model handsome, useful handsome. He looked like the sort of man who could probably build something—or destroy several men in under a minute.
Sandy found herself staring at his face, memorizing every part of it. He had a strong jaw, high cheekbones, and slightly narrowed eyes that glinted gray and green under an intelligent forehead. There were a few crinkle lines around his eyes from when he smiled. He wasn’t smiling now. He was looking at her with concerned intensity.
“Is anything broken?”
Sandy shook her head. “I don’t think so. You just… did you kill those men?”
He snorted and shook his head. “No. But I’ll call an ambulance so that doesn’t change, and the police.”
“Not the police,” she said quickly. “We don’t need the police.”
The man cast a knowing look at her. “It’s like that, is it?”
“I haven’t done anything that bad,” she said, explanations tumbling out of her mouth. “It’s just… my grandparents raised me, but they died and when they died they put me in this horrible foster home. I left, and I took a little money when I did, just enough to get me some supplies so I could make it back out to the woods. And now I’m wanted. Like a criminal. Can you believe that?”
He made a grunting noise, apparently immune to her sad story. “How old are you?” he demanded.
“I turned eighteen not too long ago. That’s why I came back to town. I’m too old now for them to send me back to that foster home. What’s your name? Mine’s Sandy.”
“Travis,” he said, thumbing his phone and putting it to his ear. “Yeah, police and ambulance. Back of Wolfie’s. There’s been a fight. Several broken ribs, potential collapsed lungs, possible internal ruptures, and certain concussions.”
At the mention of the word ‘police,’ Sandy tried to run but he hooked a hand in the back of her collar and held her in place.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he said as he hung up. “You’re injured.”
“I’m not going to let them put me in jail!” She twisted at the end of his arm in a completely futile attempt to get away.
“A foster kid who steals a few bucks from her parents and ends up being attacked in a parking lot outside a seedy bar is not going to jail,” Travis pointed out. “You’ll get a slap on the wrist at most. You deserve a damn good thrashing, but you’ll get off lightly.”
“What? A thrashing? Why do I deserve anything like that?”
“A girl like you in a place like this,” he said. “It’s asking for trouble. Anyone would think you were looking for something.”
“What do you mean, something?”
“Needed to make some quick cash, maybe?”
The penny dropped. And pissed her off. “I am not a prostitute!” Sandy cut her eyes at Travis. “You’re disgusting.”
“There are girls who hang around here,” he said. “I’m just saying, you could be mistaken for one. Young, pretty, in a dark alley outside a seedy bar…”
Sandy begrudgingly admitted to herself that he did have a point. “I’m staying across the street,” she said. “It was the only place I could afford. I’m not… I’m not that kind of girl.”
“Easy,” Travis said. “I believe you.”
“Better believe me,” Sandy scowled. She owed her life to the man, but it still hurt that he’d mistaken her for a hooker. “What do you do, anyway?”
“I’m a military man. Army ranger.”
“Army ranger,” she nodded. Travis looked like the sort of man who could survive for a year on sheer willpower alone. He wasn’t just brutal; there was intellect in his gaze. She could sense his inner strength—and there was ample evidence of his physical prowess littered all around them. “Not a medic, I bet.”
“No,” he said with a hint of a smile. “Not a medic.”
“There’s a base here?” Sandy frowned. “There’s no bases here.”
“There are all sorts of things all around the place,” he said cryptically just as the ambulance arrived.
Things got busy then. Lots of nice people came and checked her over. They took her into the back of the ambulance and asked her a lot of questions and gave her some pain reliever for the bruising, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Travis slipped away.