Rescued By the Highlander – Rebecca Preston

Anna Clarke took a deep breath in through her nose, held it for a couple of counts, then let it out through her mouth, trying to visualize all the tension in her body evaporating with the water vapor on her breath. It didn’t help at all, but it did serve to delay her impulse to march out of the house with whatever pointy object first came to her hand, and that was all she could hope for from her meditative techniques, at least for now. She shifted her weight on her couch, gazing around her tiny apartment with distinct aggravation. What she should do, really, was put the phone down, go into the kitchen, and cook herself a delicious and nourishing dinner. Or put the phone down and go for a walk around her neighborhood, maybe reconnect with nature, visit with her neighbors, find a favor to do for someone. Help an old lady cross the street or something. That was something people did, right? Or perhaps she could just go to bed early. It was seven thirty on a Friday night, but she was tired enough from a full day of training and demonstrating that she’d probably drop off after a half-hour or so of light reading. It wasn’t sad. That wasn’t sad. What she did do, instead of any or even all of those extremely good ideas, was pick up her phone and send a message back to the unknown number that had been messaging her since she’d gotten home two hours ago. Unknown number. That was a joke, right? This had to be what, the tenth burner phone he’d picked up since they broke up two years ago? She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised. She’d eventually just quit social media altogether after too many follow and friend requests from account after account with suspiciously neutral names and photos pulled straight from a stock photography website. Even changing her name on Facebook had only given her a brief respite from his stalking efforts.

That’s what it was — stalking. Cyber-stalking, maybe — he wasn’t dumb enough to follow Anna around the neighborhood or anything — but stalking, nevertheless. And she hated it. What she especially hated were the texts. She had to have her phone on for work — there were certain calls and texts she just couldn’t afford to miss — and every time it vibrated, she ground her teeth a little more. The first few times he’d pretended to be someone else, drawn her into conversations about work that got weirder and weirder until she realized who it was and blocked the number. Lately, it was just outright abuse. Anything he could think of that might get a reaction from her. Anna Clarke wasn’t an easy woman to get a reaction from. A third-generation military brat, she’d had tough training in resilience and fortitude since she’d been old enough to walk and talk.

Her mother and father had met during basic training and continued a steady (if frequently long-distance) relationship for the duration of their service. When her father had been honorably discharged after an injury to his back that put him out of commission permanently, it made sense to start a family. So, Anna had been born. They’d agreed, her mother and father, that they wouldn’t pressure their children into following in their footsteps — but it had been impossible to stop little Anna. Every other path they suggested was dutifully inspected, then dismissed. Dance, painting, chemistry… she gave it all a go, but she came back again and again to stories about soldiers, about brave heroes fighting the bad guys. The closest thing to a non-military career Anna considered was a few weeks in fourth grade when she considered being a cop. But in the end, it was the allure of the armed forces that won her over. Her little brother was completely different, of course. Every family needed a black sheep.

But as black sheep went, he did okay. An actor and comedian, he’d moved out to Chicago a few years ago, just after his twenty-first birthday. He was living with roommates and doing pretty well, from what he said about his career. Maybe I should call him, Anna thought, her phone gripped slightly too tight in her hands as she glowered down at the recent messages from the scumbag whose name she refused to even think of. It had been a while since she and Daniel had chatted. He always cheered her up. It was no surprise to anyone in the family that he’d ended up pursuing comedy — his oddball sense of humor had always brought the house down at family gatherings. Hell, this whole saga with her ex-boyfriend might be good material for his act. After all, there was something pathetically funny about a man who couldn’t give up on a relationship, even after two goddamn years. What was also funny was that he thought his campaign of abuse and harassment was seriously going to get her to run back into his arms.

Instead of calling her brother to blow off steam, Anna spent twenty minutes crafting an expertly worded text, complete with a couple of carefully placed typos that would suggest that she’d hardly paid any attention at all to the message. Usually, she wouldn’t waste her time, but she was just so goddamn sick of this man. Billy (she shuddered a little at the name) must have figured out how to scramble the number of the phone he was messaging her from, because the messages just kept coming, no matter how many times she blocked the individual senders. She’d heard about that kind of technology. It seemed purpose-designed for bothering ex-girlfriends, and she deeply, deeply hated that it existed. The message she sent was in part designed to make her feel better — knowing she’d aggravated him wasn’t much consolation for the harassment she’d been subjected to for almost two years now, but it would make her feel a little better at least to know that he was fuming at least as much as she was. But the other thing she was hoping was that he’d get so angry that he’d screw up and send some kind of identifying information that she could add to her growing file of restraining order support materials. Sure enough, it was only about twenty seconds before her phone buzzed again, furiously. She opened it, a satisfied little smirk crossing her face. Sure enough, the responses were in all-caps, and her dark brown eyes widened a little at the level of vitriol in them.

Home run. A series of profanities that would have shocked her if she hadn’t been on a couple of tours of active military service with the most foul-mouthed men and women alive (all of them now closer to her than brothers and sisters) — and there, at the end of the stream of hatred, a couple of useful tidbits. 7:41: bitch u don’t know what you’re messing with 7:41: don’t wake the dragon if u don’t want to be on the receiving end of its claws 7:41: ive got some new toys to show u bitch That was a threat, right? Poorly worded, but definitely a threat. ‘Toys’ was a clear reference to some kind of weaponry. Billy had been obsessed with guns and weapons for as long as she’d known him. It was probably what drew him to her in the first place. She’d been sitting in a bar in town, minding her own business, when this blond guy had taken it upon himself to join her. Handsome enough, and well-built, so she’d entertained his pretty transparent pick-up attempts, even bringing herself to listen to his boring opinions on the military. She’d literally been in uniform, but for some reason it had taken him a few hours to accept that he was actually talking to a soldier. She’d even shown him her dog tags, annoyed by the way he’d laughed when she told him what company she belonged to.

He’d said she could’ve gotten the tags anywhere. And he hadn’t apologized, even when he’d realized he was wrong. Just tried to turn it into a compliment — “You’re too pretty to be a soldier.” That had been the first of a parade of red flags, and she fiercely regretted wasting any more of her time on him. But waste it she had. They’d dated for nearly two years, calamitous, horrible years. Her whole family had hated him. Her father, usually the kindest man she knew, had turned into a stone-faced soldier the minute she brought Billy home. She’d almost expected him to go upstairs and pull out the gun he kept locked in a cabinet in their bedroom. Her mother had been a little more polite, but not much more.

Both of them had given Anna horrified looks the minute Billy excused himself to go to the bathroom. But she’d been twenty-one-years-old, and she’d thought she was in love. But twenty-one-year-olds were idiots. She knew that now, at the grand old age of twentyfive. And yet Billy, a year her senior, had actually seemed to go backwards in intelligence since she’d had the good sense to break up with him. But he’d been particularly obsessed with guns. Anna wondered if she could use that obsession against him — take some evidence of his deep obsession with violent video games, his encyclopedic knowledge of all the various assault weapons that were and weren’t legal at a state or a federal level, his stupid collection of vintage weapons that he was too lazy to even keep properly maintained. These had seemed like things they had in common to her young, naïve self. After all, she loved vintage weaponry — though her interest was more in blades than in old guns. She knew her way around modern guns just fine, but her interest in them stopped at their practicality.

A gun was to keep you safe, that was all — anything beyond that was just a dick-measuring contest, and the best advantage her gender had ever given her was not giving a shit about dick-measuring. But swords… swords, they had style. She knew plenty about swords. Her phone kept buzzing, and she sighed. Was a client really likely to call her this late on a Friday evening? She could probably afford to give herself one night off at least. With a sense of great satisfaction, she flipped the phone to Do Not Disturb. It was satisfying to think of him, furiously typing his nasty little screeds about how she’d never find love with anyone but him and realizing that her read receipts weren’t popping up. That she wasn’t even listening, let alone reacting, to anything he had to say. Was she ever going to find love without him? Honestly, she didn’t care. A lot of people were terrified of dying alone, Anna knew that from pop culture… but after two active combat duties, Anna’s list of fears had been put into pretty sharp perspective.

If it wasn’t running at her with a gun or a bomb, she wasn’t really concerned about it. Billy had been her first major relationship — and honestly, outside of a few one-night stands that dragged into a couple of weeks of mediocre hookups, he’d been her only one. It was just difficult to meet people, she always explained to her mom, who asked after her romantic life constantly. “It’s not like you and Dad,” she’d said irritably. “You guys were meant to be. I think I’m meant to be alone. It’s fine,” she’d added at the look of horror in her mother’s face. “I know you can look after yourself, baby,” her mom had said — she’d grimaced a little. Nobody on the planet got away with using pet names the way her mom did. “But — it’s good to have someone to watch your six, you know?” “I’ll get cats,” she promised, drawing a reluctant laugh from her mother.

But she knew they’d have the same conversation again. And again, and again, and again, until she got fed up and married someone just to keep her mother quiet. The only thing that would stop the conversation was a joking threat to get back together with Billy. But both women knew that wasn’t going to happen. It didn’t help, of course, that so much of her life was spent in rather aggressive situations. After coming back home from her second tour of duty, she’d decided to take a break from the Army’s operational branch. She was feeling a little hemmed in, wanting to expand her skillset a little, see what else was out there. So, she’d gotten an apartment in town, twenty minutes from her parents’ place, and picked up a job in the institutional branch. Recruiting had bored her to death within two weeks and she’d hurried to quit, but after that fell through she managed to snag a part-time position helping with the training of new recruits. Something about that had suited her just fine — and to chase that feeling as well as supplement her income, she’d started teaching self-defense.

The military qualification made her a sought-after instructor, and she was doing pretty well. Well enough to move out of this tiny little apartment, honestly — but what was the point of getting a bigger place if it was just her? Besides, it was good to have a bit of disposable income to spend on her hobbies. She wondered if he was still sending messages and flicked the do not disturb button to off to check. God, her phone was really going off now — the screen lit up again and again with message after message, but she stopped herself from looking at any of them. A cup of tea and an early night, that was the ticket. She’d picked up a new book on medieval warfare a few weeks ago, but she’d been so flat-out with new self-defense clients that she’d hardly had a chance to read it. What better way to while away an evening than by learning about all the fascinating ways people had tried to kill each other before they’d had guns? Anna settled back onto the couch with her tea, burying herself with some relish in the huge tome. As it always did, time flew, the evening closing in around her as she read. Her tea went cold on the coffee table. By about ten, she was still so immersed in the book that she didn’t even hear the gentle, stealthy sounds of someone picking the lock on her apartment’s front door.

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