The furious scream shattered the rhythm of the night, a familiar cadence dictated by the gentle surf hitting the beach. Grant was out of bed and out the door, pistol in hand, without consciously registering any of it. He was halfway across the sand to his neighbor’s tiny, two-room shack when the second scream hit the air. This one was more angry than frightened. His heart pounding, sand grinding against his instep, he slowed as he approached the planks forming Kendall Rivic’s small deck. Her sliding door was open, but she normally left it that way, letting the sea breeze in through the screen. The screen was closed, latched, but it didn’t take much wiggling to free it and slide it open.
The interior of the shack was dark, but he’d been in here a couple of times and knew the layout. There was silence now, no hint of a fight or even movement. Grant couldn’t detect any presence in the tiny kitchen/living space. The only scent was a buttery lotion he recognized as the stuff Kendall slathered on several times a day. That eased the tightness in his gut, but he stayed alert as he stopped outside the curtain over her bedroom doorway.
The instant the third scream began he burst through, leading with the barrel of his gun, finger outside the trigger guard. The high-pitched sound cut off instantly. A faint hint of moonlight through the open window glinted off a similar pistol, aimed right at his head.
“Jesus, Neely,” Kendall breathed, lowering her gun to the bed. Grant heard the faint snick of the safety being engaged. He scanned the room, sensing nothing in its dark corners, but didn’t relax until she flipped back her covers and slid out of bed. “I take it I screamed in my sleep.”
“Yeah.” Since she sounded both matter-of-fact about it and resigned, he straightened and lowered his arms, engaging the safety on his gun, too. He had nowhere to put it, though, since he’d run over here in just his boxers. “And I take it no one is attacking you.”
“Not in this reality. Thanks for checking, though.” She walked past him, apparently not caring she was wearing only underwear and a midriff-baring tank top, and went into the bathroom.
Well, fuck. That was a two-second lesson in the difference between sun-kissed skin exposed by shorts and a bikini top and the same amount of skin exposed by what stores called “intimate wear.”
Slightly stunned, Grant retreated only as far as the kitchen and waited for her to come out. She did a couple of minutes later, this time with shorts and a short-sleeved button-down shirt open over her tank top. Her hair waved around her shoulders, another thing that threw him off, so different from her usual light-brown ponytail. She flicked on the light over the stove, got a pitcher from the refrigerator, and poured a glass of what looked like water, guzzling half of it before she looked at him.
“PTS.” It was an acknowledgment more than an admission, with no hint of shame or a sense that she saw it as weakness.
“I figured.” Kendall didn’t talk much about her past, but he knew she had a job similar to his—freelance, or what a lot of people called mercenary. Post-traumatic stress was part of the gig. “You want to talk about it? Or spar?” The offer came automatically, but his throat went as dry as the sand outside. It was as good as a mat, and they’d helped each other keep their skills up, but he wished he hadn’t suggested it. Not when he was nearly naked and the memory of her similar state hadn’t cleared his mind.
She shook her head, giving him a soft smile. “I’m okay. There’s nothing to talk about. I have nightmares sometimes. The intensity varies. This was bad, obviously, if you heard me all the way over there.”
He snorted. “It’s not that far. And I’m programmed to react to things like damsels in distress.”
Kendall snorted back at him. “So you probably get throat-punched a lot, right?” She turned to a cupboard behind her and grabbed something. By the time she faced him again, she was chewing. She held out the bag of M&Ms.
“No, thanks. Damsels don’t throat-punch,” he mansplained to her. “Then they wouldn’t be in distress.”
“Fuck off, Neely.” But she half-grinned, and he knew she was okay. If she hadn’t been, well, he didn’t know exactly how she’d have reacted, but it wouldn’t have been this normal.
“Talking the nightmare through usually helps me get back to sleep,” he offered, not knowing if it was true, since he usually didn’t have someone to talk them through with. But it sounded logical.
Kendall shrugged and sealed the bag of candy. “I can’t remember anything about it, or I would. They’re usually not specific. Just dark and frantic and…” She wrung one hand in front of her chest. “Despair.”
Grant nodded. He’d been there. Too many failed missions, people lost, goals not achieved. “Regrets.”
“No.” She frowned at the half-full water glass. “I don’t do regrets. If I’ve made the best decisions I could, put in my best effort, there’s nothing to regret.”
“I don’t believe you.” He shrugged when she shifted the scowl to him. “Even the best decision possible can go wrong, and it’s hard not to regret that you didn’t try a different way.”
“I get what you’re saying, but mistakes are inevitable and perfection is unachievable. That attitude—” She gave him a snarky half-squint and jabbed a finger his way. “That is what causes problems.”
He lifted his hands out to his sides. “Hey, I wasn’t the one screaming into the night.”
She mumbled something he couldn’t hear and flicked the light back off. “Night, Neely.”
“Night, Rivic.” He headed for the sliding door, but she stopped halfway to her room.
“How did you get through there?”
“It’s not exactly top security.” But he scratched the back of his neck, feeling a little guilty. “But yeah, you’ll have to fix it tomorrow.”
Even in the dim light, he could tell her eyebrows went up. “Okay,” he amended, “I’ll have to fix it tomorrow.”
She grunted and turned away.
“Hey, Rivic,” he called from halfway onto her deck. When she glanced back, he asked, “Think you can sleep now?”
“That’s cuz we talked it out.” He waved a hand back and forth between them. “You’re welcome.”
Her laughter followed him outside, making him feel better about this whole thing. She hadn’t needed saving, but nothing could have stopped him from reacting to her screams. He just hadn’t had time to consider the fallout. The intimacy of o-dark-thirty and bedrooms and personal vulnerability. The static in the air hadn’t smoothed out until their familiar banter ended in her chuckle.
He stopped when he got to his own deck and faced the water, letting the surge and release soothe away the edge of being shocked awake. The ocean always did that for him, ever since he’d found this spot on a small island in the Florida Keys. Every time he came back from a job, it healed him by being a relentless balm. Even when storms kicked up the surf or sent it into full turmoil, he knew it would eventually settle back into this rhythm. It reminded him that no matter how bad things got out there, his corner of the world was going to be good. And when things out there weren’t bad at all, when he and his team—when he had one—stopped someone bad or saved someone good, the ocean and sand and sun and home were here to help him celebrate.
Kendall showing up on the plot next to his six months ago had felt, at first, like an invasion. He’d been mostly alone out here at the less-populated end of the Key for nearly ten years, sailboarders and swimmers and beachcombers notwithstanding. Someone actually moving in felt more like disruption, even if Kendall kept to herself as much as he did and then turned out to be here for similar reasons. They shared a meal occasionally, tossed a football, jogged at the waterline, and worked out at the same gym in town, sometimes at the same time. Or they just hung out, enjoying a beer and watching the water, talking about mundane stuff. And he’d decided it was all right, sharing space. Sharing peace.
The fact that fucking Kellen Stone had been the reason she knew about this peaceful stretch of sand had come up eventually. She knew Stone through her sister, who was married to Stone’s best friend. But by then Grant already liked her, so he had to get over his automatic resentment. Stone wasn’t a bad guy. He’d just gotten the girl, that’s all. And Grant was a little bit of a sore loser.
He’d gotten over it, watching the gradual change in Kendall as their friendship developed. She left occasionally, like he did, and he could tell by the way she carried herself, her awareness of her surroundings, and a few things he’d overheard when she was on the phone that she was in a profession like his. Her sharp mind, sharp wit, and graceful athleticism had definitely spiked his attraction meter. A few things had made him suspect the needle on her own meter wasn’t stationary. But whenever there was a zing between them, she closed off, retreated. Grant valued the friendship they were growing and didn’t want to interfere with that, so he’d held back, too.
Now, with echoes of her screams still inside him and the afterimage of long legs topped by hi-cut underwear lingering in his mind, he wondered again who exactly Kendall Rivic was and what she’d endured that made her need this sanctuary the way she obviously did.
Forget it happened. The whole thing. She would want him to, he knew that without asking. But he wasn’t sure he could. And that meant things were about to change.