Talon – Sybil Bartel

I SWIRLED THE ICE IN my glass. The moonlight glimmered on the bride’s dark hair and the past two years disappeared. I was no longer watching my best friend dance with his new wife. I was remembering the feeling of my wife’s hair as it slipped through my fingers and drowning in her deep brown gaze as she said two simple words. “Another?” I blinked and the image of my dead wife was gone. I looked up at the waitress. “Sorry, darlin’. Come again?” Blonde, cute, she glanced at the bride and groom then looked back at me and smiled. “They make a beautiful couple.” “No denyin’ that.” I tossed back the last of my whiskey. “Would you like another drink?” she asked sweetly. I dragged my eyes the length of her and smiled a smile that usually got me what I wanted. “That depends.” Heat flushed her cheeks but she didn’t drop my gaze.

“On what?” I stared at her tits then her lips. “You.” A small giggle escaped and she fluttered her eyelashes like she thought it’d make a difference. “You’re forward.” “I’m single,” I stated, already irritated with the conversation. “What time you get off?” “Half hour,” she said coyly. I stood and placed my glass on her tray, then I leaned down to her ear. “Grab me another whiskey while I wait for you, darlin’.” This shit was getting too easy. She shivered but she didn’t move.

“Now,” I commanded. “Yes, sir.” She giggled, hightailing it back to the bar. I watched her ass as André walked up beside me. Glancing over his shoulder at her, he chuckled. “Fifty bucks says you don’t know her name.” I didn’t need to. I nicknamed them all anyway. “Hundred bucks says she’ll know mine in an hour.” “I’m not stupid enough to take that bet.

” He inclined his head toward Blaze and Layna on the dance floor. “Blaze asked me for a security detail while they’re on their honeymoon. Know what that’s about?” I scanned the perimeter out of habit. “I thought we took care of it.” Blaze and I had neutralized the killer who’d been stalking Layna months ago. “Me too.” André casually glanced across the lanai then looked up and down the beach. I knew what he was thinking. Beyond the small lights strung up around the tables, it was dark as shit. Lots of places someone could hide.

“What’d Blaze say?” “He didn’t. Just that he wanted two of my men and he doesn’t want Layna to know about it.” A memory of my wife on our honeymoon played in my mind like a cruel joke. No amount of security could’ve saved her life in the end. But if I’d paid better attention… I shook the thought away. “Can’t blame a man for bein’ cautious.” The waitress came back. “Here you go.” Her smile was no longer shy. I took the glass, my fingers purposely grazing hers.

“Thanks, butterfly.” André grinned. “Yes, thank you, butterfly.” She looked between us with a confused expression. “Ignore him, darlin’. Hurry and finish up. Won’t take me a half hour to drink this.” I winked. André laughed after she walked off. “Easiest fifty bucks I ever earned.

” “Fuck you.” I took a sip of the drink, feeling the burn. He sobered. “Won’t help, you know.” “What the hell are you talkin’ ’bout?” He shrugged casually. “Tonight couldn’t have been easy, seeing them get married.” The muscles in my shoulders went rigid and I swallowed a mouthful of whiskey. “You got somethin’ to say, say it.” “Drinking, screwing random waitresses, it won’t make you forget her. Leigh didn’t want this for you.

She wanted you to move on.” My hand tightened around the glass. He kept talking like I wanted to hear the shit that was coming out of his mouth. “I trust you with my life, brother, but this isn’t you. Respect her memory.” “What the fuck do you know ’bout respect?” He’d never been married. He’d never scattered his wife’s ashes. I didn’t want to respect her memory. I wanted five goddamn minutes when I didn’t feel crushing grief. André looked at me with pity and I wanted to slam his face into the tiled patio.

He shook his head. “I know you got no respect for the life you’ve been living.” The waitress reappeared at my side and smiled. “I got off a little early.” Her hand feathered across my arm and settled in the crook of my elbow. Fuming, my chest tight, I looked down and her features blurred into the sea of nameless women I’d fucked over the past two years. I shook her arm off. “Somethin’ came up.” Her face twisted in confusion. “But I—” “But nothin’.

” Fuck her, fuck André, fuck the whole wedding party. I shoved my hand in my pocket and grabbed my keys as I strode toward the parking lot. “Wait,” she called. Already halfway to my car, I ignored her. I got in my Challenger and drove the seven-hour drive home. TIRED AS FUCK, I STARED out the front window of my surf shop at the blonde across the street. Kendall smirked. “She’s been out there since yesterday. You going to talk to her?” I turned and took in my employee’s tight leather lace-up top. If I didn’t think she’d gut me in my sleep, I would’ve nailed her long ago.

“Who you talkin’ ’bout?” I played dumb. “Don’t pull that shit with me.” Kendall put her red-painted fingernail on the front window and tapped the glass. “She’s been parked in the same spot since yesterday afternoon and that…is not a purse.” She pointed at the small duffel next to Nicole’s feet. “That’s an I-left-my-man bag.” Fuck. She was probably right. Nicole’s boyfriend was an asshole. He worked at the shop where I took my bike.

He was a decent mechanic but I’d seen him out at enough bars to know Randy was a fucking tool when he drank. If he wasn’t starting a fight, he was mouthing off to someone. I’d never figured how he’d scored someone as sweet as Nicole. “Maybe she’s just gettin’ a little sun. Nothin’ wrong with a beach day.” “First of all, I know you’re not that stupid. And second, a beach day would entail a towel and a bikini and your feet actually hitting the sand, not parking your ass on the beach wall.” Kendall threw her hands up. “But if you want to be a dick and not help her…” She trailed off and sauntered back toward the register. Goddamn it.

I didn’t want to deal with this shit. I’d driven all night to get home and minus a quick stop at my house for a shower, I’d come straight to work. All I wanted to do was finish the surfboard I was working on, catch some waves, and get a decent night’s sleep. I needed to forget about women, all women, including the one with her back to me, sitting on the beach wall looking lost as hell. As if she’d heard me, Nicole wrapped her arms around her stomach and shivered. “Shit. It’s eighty-five degrees out,” I muttered. Kendall looked up from taking inventory. “It’s Florida. Your point?” “Nothin’,” I snapped, walking back to my office.

I grabbed my keys and my 9mm, tucking it into my back waistband and pulling my T-shirt over it. For once I was glad I was in jeans instead of board shorts. “Expecting trouble?” Kendall smirked. It was a stupid question. She knew Nicole’s boyfriend. If Randy was around, there was trouble. “Nothin’ I can’t handle.” She crossed her arms. “That’s what everyone says—right before they take a bullet between the eyes.” Anyone else saying those words, it would’ve been a warning.

But Kendall followed it with a smile that was one hundred percent meant to rile. I pushed past her. “Watch the shop.” Her voice went sugary sweet. “Gee, Kendall, can you please look after my store while I run out and play hero? I know you’re here more than me but I really appreciate it. You’re such a good friend and employee to have.” Then she dropped the pretense and yelled, “You don’t pay me enough!” She was probably right. “Buy yourself lunch. Take it out of the register.” Sunglasses on, I stepped out into the humid morning.

I crossed the street and five paces away, I knew something was wrong. Nicole wasn’t hugging herself, she was cradling her arm. Her hair disheveled, her T-shirt stained and ripped, there was mottling all over the back of her neck. Goddamn it. If that fucker had hit her, I was gonna hit him back. My fists clenched and I slowed my pace. Making a wide arc, I approached from the side of her good arm and stopped three feet away. “Hey, Nic.” Her back straightened but she kept her face hidden behind her hair and a huge pair of sunglasses. She didn’t say shit.

I looked out at the ocean. “Nice day for the beach.” No response. “You’re not workin’ today?” I couldn’t remember what she did but Randy, the prick, complained about her working all the time. When she didn’t answer, I hopped up on the wall next to her and she flinched. “Hey hey hey, darlin’. Nothin’ doin’, just sittin’ a spell. That all right?” I tried to look at her face but she ducked her head and shrugged one shoulder. I glanced at her arm. There was no blood or bone jutting out, but the way she was holding it, something was wrong.

She looked skittish as hell so I didn’t push. “Good day to catch some sun.” I scanned the beach for any sign of Randy. She didn’t answer and I didn’t see him, so I started counting sets. The waves were shit and whatever the hell was wrong with her, I didn’t want to deal. I’d bet my bank account it was tied up around Randy. Veteran or not, he was an asshole. I was starting to lose patience with the waiting game when she shifted slightly and I felt her eyes dart toward me. “I think he’s dead,” she barely whispered. I pushed my sunglasses up and turned.

Motherfucker. “Take your sunglasses off,” I demanded. She gingerly pulled them down her face. Anger surged. “What the hell did he do to you?” The whole left side of her face was a mess—eye swollen, lip split, cheek bruised and purpling. She quickly hung her head but I caught her chin. “Oh, no you don’t.” I held her face in place, surveying the damage. “What the fuck did he use? A goddamn two-by-four?” No fist caused this. I was going to kill him if he wasn’t dead already.

“I fell,” she said nervously. “Bullshit.” She pulled her chin free. “It’s true. I fell into the doorframe.” “Fell or was pushed? And what do you mean, dead?” She looked away. “I didn’t know where else to go.” I rubbed my hand over my face. “Cops after you?” “No…I don’t think so.” I pushed off the wall then reached for her.

“C’mon. First things first, let’s get you cleaned up.” She leaned back, clutching her arm tight. The look of fear in her eyes went straight to my gut. “I’m not gonna hurt you, darlin’, I promise.” I put my hands on her small waist. “C’mon, let me help you down.” She didn’t fight me but when her feet hit the ground, her leg gave out and she fell into my chest. She let out a small cry of pain and my arms were around her in a nanosecond. The scent of jasmine broadsided me.

“Shh, shh, I gotcha.” Jesus, she smelled incredible. Sunshine and innocence and sweet jasmine mingled around in my head and threatened to take hold. “Sorry,” she breathed out, her voice laced with pain. Something stirred in my chest but I shut it down and my former military training kicked in. I went into medic mode. “Can you walk?” “Mm-hm.” Her face strained, she cautiously put her foot down and her hand landed on my stomach for support. The second she touched me, I forgot all my training. I stared at her small, beaten body and anger ripped through my veins at the thought of someone doing this to her.

“You lyin’?” She panted through a few short breaths then shook her head. “Nic?” I growled, two seconds away from picking her up. Her hand slid to my side and trembling fingers dug into my waist. “Yeah?” I vowed then and there that Randy fucking Carter was going to pay for this. Forcing my voice to a calm I didn’t feel, I gently wrapped my hand around her good arm. “Take a deep breath, sweetheart. If you don’t think anythin’ is broken, find your balance.” “Nothing’s broken.” Determination in her voice, she inhaled and tested her weight on her leg. “I can walk.

” “Good girl.” Without thinking, I stroked her hair. Startled, she looked up and big blue eyes full of mistrust met my gaze. Everything went still. The bullshit chaos in my head, grief, anger, it all went quiet like the flip of a switch—a fucking jasmine switch. Forcing myself to move back, I grabbed her duffel. “C’mon.” She took an unsteady step. “Nic?” It was everything I could do not to pick her up. “I’m okay.

” Jesus. “No, you’re not. But I’m gonna see what I can do ’bout that.” I wrapped an arm around her for support and she instantly leaned into me. I walked her across the street to the surf shop I owned and led her into my office in back. For once, Kendall kept her head down and her mouth shut. When I set Nic in a chair, she winced and the leg she’d been favoring stayed straight out in front of her. “Thank you.” Enough with this bullshit. “Where else are you hurt?” I demanded.

“My wrist.” I stared at her. Blonde hair tossed by the wind, her clothes a mess, her face beaten to hell, she was still beautiful. I caved. “All right. I’ll play this your way.” I squatted next to her and my training took over. I inspected the swelling on her cheek and gently pushed at the surrounding bone. She didn’t flinch but that didn’t mean it wasn’t fractured. I pulled her wrist toward me and turned her hand over in mine and she sucked in a stilted breath.

“Tell me what happened.” She gave me the one-shoulder shrug again. I felt my way up the rest of her arm. “Where’s Randy?” “At the apartment. I think.” Nothing else seemed injured. “Was he breathing when you left?” I gently placed her wrist back in her lap. It was broken. She slowly exhaled. “I don’t know.

” I stood and crossed my arms, leaning on my desk. “But you think he’s dead?” “He didn’t really look like he was breathing.” Her voice was soft and breathy but the words were emotionally detached. “Did you kill him?” Her eyes met mine but her expression gave nothing away. “No.” “What’s your end game?” If I was going to do anything beyond dumping her at the ER, I needed to know what I was getting myself into. “What do you mean?” I lost my patience. “C’mon, darlin’. I don’t have time for this shit. You show up on my doorstep half beaten to death, sayin’ you didn’t know where else to go.

That tells me two things. One, you’re in deep shit and two, you think I can help. So, I ask again, what’s your plan? And don’t tell me it’s to go back when he calms the fuck down. Dead or alive, you’re done with that worthless prick. I ain’t a battered women’s shelter you can check in and out of.” “Randy told me you were a doctor in the Navy,” she said in that quiet voice that was beginning to make me wonder if she ever got pissed off. I sighed. “SARC, Marines.” “What?” “Not a doctor. Trauma medic.

Answer my question.” “I don’t want to go back there.” Nothing changed in her expression. I pushed off the desk, hoping like hell she was telling the truth. “Okay. Let’s go.” Her shoulder stiffened. “Where?” “ER. X-rays. Your wrist’s broken and I want your cheek looked at.

Not to mention the leg you’re favorin’ that you won’t tell me about.” “It doesn’t hurt as much as my wrist.” “Thank God for small favors. Up.” I held my hand out, gentleman that I am. She stared at my hand a moment. Then she reached for me and her entire story fell to shit.

.

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