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Sandy Loyd - Romance Writer

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THE SIN FACTOR

In this intriguing mystery, Jeffrey Sinclair is forced to unravel the puzzle of who is stealing from his company and why. He gets caught up in a deadly game, one perpetrated by those who've vowed to serve and protect. He and his colleagues infiltrate the life of the one person they feel is the link to solving the mystery, Avery Montgomery, the widow of the last person known to have their devices in his possession before he died. 

Avery is a woman heroes marry and protect for life, and Sin’s never been the protecting, hero type, not like her dead husband was. When it becomes obvious that someone is threatening Avery, Sin believes it’s for the same reasons he and his partners are interested in her. He follows the twists and turns of the chase and does everything in his power to keep her safe while fighting to keep the attraction he feels in check. Despite his inability to trust her, their romance blossoms, and he strives for the impossible…to become her hero.

Chapter 1

Tree branches swayed, bending to the will of a brisk breeze. Dusk prevailed—that moment in time when it was neither dark nor light.

Avery Montgomery slowly turned to peer at the surrounding landscape, scrutinizing the trees and brush to her left and directly behind her where the gravesites ended. In front of her and still visible in the twilight row after row of pearly headstones fanned out in precise lines.

Shivering, she rubbed her arms.

She waited.

As if her thoughts had ordered the air to still, the leaves stopped their movement. For endless minutes all was calm, until a prickly sensation at the back of her neck indicated his presence, a feeling she’d had before.

Every nerve ending in her body stood at alert. Still waiting. For what, she had no idea.

She closed her eyes and chastised herself. After all, she stood in a cemetery—Arlington, at that. She took a deep breath. The smell of fresh-cut grass eased the eeriness of standing so close to the remains of dead soldiers.

Yet, the feeling of being watched didn’t dissipate. Did he realize she sensed him watching? Why assume it was a he? She pretended not to notice. If she pretended hard enough, then he wasn’t real. Pretending had become a huge part of her life in recent years. She had no reason to doubt her pretense wouldn’t work. It had all those other nights she’d stood staring at the graves of two men who’d died almost two months ago.

Avery’s focus returned to the headstones. She concentrated on the chiseled words.

Major Michael Andrew Montgomery.

Major Marshall Compton Crandall.

One had been her husband for most of her adult life and the other had been his best friend. Both died serving their country, a sacrifice honored with an Arlington burial.

She glanced toward the heavens. If only she could go back in time and undo her past. Unfortunately, it was written, never to be undone, and she would have to live with the consequences.

“You look so sad.”

She pivoted and leaned toward the voice. The soft sound penetrated her ears and reached into her soul, as if directed solely, intimately to her. Squinting, she could only see shadows of trees in the now moonlit darkness.

Ignore it. It isn’t real.

Avery shrugged it off and sighed. She was obviously hallucinating. She stood alone in the middle of a cemetery, and cemeteries were notorious for evoking weird feelings.

 “I guess I am sad,” she whispered, going against her mind’s reasoning because she felt compelled to answer. Oh dear God. She was going crazy. Why did she have this overwhelming need to hear his voice again? Avery’s narrowed gaze searched the darkened brush once more. She spent a moment listening. When no other noise sounded, she turned back to the two graves.

In seconds, tears emerged, and it dawned on her that she was sad…grief-stricken…for what would never be…for what her transgressions had manifested.

“I’m so sorry, Mike. I never meant to make such a mess of things.” More tears trickled. Her husband had gone to his grave with no other word than the confusing letter he’d sent right before he died. She’d never know if he’d forgiven her or not.

Stop it. It’s too late for forgiveness.

She wiped away her tears.

A ping sounded a few feet away. In the next instant, a force hit her from behind, throwing her off balance. Her legs buckled from the weight. Too stunned to do anything but put out her hands to soften the fall, she hit the ground with a hard thud.

Oomph,” she cried out none too gracefully as the air escaped her chest. She slowly gained her wits and tried to move, but couldn’t. Something…or someone…hampered her. A man. He rolled with her, using the headstones as a shield. A chunk of earth bounced off the ground only inches away and she identified the ping.

“My God! Those are bullets.” Arms flailing, she struggled to get up.

“Stay down,” he said, his voice low but urgent.

She couldn’t do much else with the man sprawled on top of her. She recognized her figment’s voice. A living, breathing human voice.

“This is Arlington,” she whispered, fighting to rein in her out-of-control imagining of a gun-toting terrorist hiding in the bushes taking potshots. “Why is someone shooting?”

~

Jeffrey Sinclair caught the panic in her voice. “I don’t know why, but I intend to find out.” He shifted and covered her more protectively. Through layers of clothes, he felt her heartbeat race. Or was it his?

He managed to yank his radio out of his pocket and hit the button just as another bullet ricocheted off a headstone to his left. “Three shots fired.” With his lips next to her ear, he kept his voice low. “As far as I can tell, from northwest of my position.”

“On it,” came the reply.

Silence prevailed. In those quiet seconds, the alert edge left his body in an exhale, but she remained as immobile as stone.

 “You’re safe,” he assured her in a soothing tone. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” Sin wasn’t the protecting type, but as the promise escaped his lips, he realized he meant every word.

She nodded and seemed to relax a bit. Her lemony scent blended with the dampened earth and invaded his nostrils. An inconvenient blast of awareness shot through him. As the danger diminished with each passing minute, leftover adrenaline had his heartbeat quickening, pumping more alertness through every vein and artery. He felt trapped in some kind of suspended time warp, intensifying the craziness of lying prone over some stranger. Well, not exactly a stranger. He knew enough, and though he couldn’t deny an attraction to her, he damn sure hadn’t expected Avery Montgomery to affect him like this.

Hold it together, Sin.

Remember why you’re on top of her in the first place. Someone shot at her. Unfortunately, his mental commands couldn’t extinguish her warmth radiating beneath him. The hard contours of his body dug into her softness, adding to his awareness…and his discomfort. He closed his eyes, willing Des to hurry, and forced himself to relax. To keep breathing.

Five…ten…twenty seconds ticked by and still nothing happened.

Finally, he lifted off her enough to let her roll onto her back but he wouldn’t relinquish his protective posture. Damn. Not his smartest move because now she lay underneath him face up. Darkness obscured her full features, but he didn’t need to see her to know she was gorgeous.

The rapid thumping of his heart continued to override the silence. With her head inches from his, the soft air of her even breathing caressed his neck. His blood pounded faster.

Don’t think about it. Think about the situation. Where in the hell is Des?

Finally, the radio came alive again. “All clear. Whoever was shooting is long gone. I’ll scout around a little more, see what I can find.”

“Thanks, but be careful. It ruins my night when someone uses me for target practice,” he answered.

Sin pushed up onto his forearms and looked down to see Avery suck in air and open her eyes. At the same time, the full moon came out of hiding and a bit of light reflected off her face, highlighting a frightened brown gaze. He began to pull away, but the glimpse of sadness he also saw stopped him cold. For long seconds their stares locked. Peering into such vivid, expressive eyes was the wrong thing to do, but he couldn’t look away.

Her turbulent gaze spoke volumes, created a bond of sorts. A mental connection, for lack of a better term, that was damned unwelcome and tossed his thoughts into chaos. Questions that had rested on the tip of his tongue scattered to the far reaches of his mind.

Whoever said the eyes were the windows to the soul had it right. He didn’t know her—they’d never met—but it was as if he’d known her forever. How stupid was that? Or maybe surreal. This entire scene had a dream-like quality to it.

Of its own accord, his gaze dropped inches lower, to her mouth. An incredibly beautiful mouth. He certainly wasn’t considering doing something so stupid like kissing that mouth, was he? Yeah, because even as his brain shouted no, his body had other ideas. At that point, stupid just didn’t seem to matter.

In slow motion, he lowered his head, giving her plenty of time to turn away.

Avery didn’t move, yet that expressive gaze seemed to beg him for something, which spurred him to continue. She still didn’t pull away even when his mouth hovered over hers before grazing back and forth. The not quite kisses sent searing flashes of heat straight through him. When her lips connected with his, he wrapped his arms around her in an effort to bring her closer. Never had a kiss seemed so elemental…like breathing. Like being in heaven.

“I don’t see any shell casings. I’m betting the bullets came from a high-powered rifle,” his radio squawked. “So, I’ll try to find the bullets.”

Instantly, he broke the kiss and felt a twinge of regret.

Whether it was for the interruption or his impulsive act, he wasn’t certain.

~

As the voice seeped into Avery’s thoughts, reality hit. Her entire body stiffened. Panic re-entered her consciousness, along with total embarrassment, as the reason she lay underneath a stranger in a cemetery in the first place returned. Someone had shot at her. She had to get out of here. Get home and make sure her son was okay.

“Sin?” the same voice asked. “You there?”

He lifted off her and said into his radio, “I’m here,” then rolled away to say more.

Sin? Was that his name? How fitting. He truly was some specter sent from hell to torment her. She wasn’t someone who rolled around in graveyards with strange men after being shot at. She was a grieving widow. A mother, for heaven’s sake. Didn’t she have enough to feel guilty over?

“Are you okay?”

She glanced up at the sound and caught him eyeing her with concern etched into his expression. Are you okay? Question of the year. No, she was not okay. She’d never be okay. To prove it, she’d just spent the last few minutes in mindless absurdity, wishing the kiss with a complete stranger could go on forever. She nodded and worked at pretending she wasn’t staring into the most incredible gaze, one that saw more than she cared to expose.

Avery rubbed her temples. Who the hell was he? Whoever he was, he’d probably saved her life. Risking another glance, she took a deep breath. Even in the shadows, she noted an arresting presence. His face wasn’t pretty. Too many angles and hard edges…adding to his undeniable maleness. And he had a power about him that held her in its force, which only increased her internal turbulence. No wonder she’d felt protected underneath him and totally safe, which made no sense at all.

In the blink of an eye, her fear returned full force. She was totally aware of her vulnerability. His size, dwarfing her five feet nine inches, suddenly made her feel defenseless.

“You sure?” He waited a moment, watching her closely. When she didn’t offer a reply, he stood, bent to help her, and flashed a quick, lopsided grin. “Sorry about that kiss. I got carried away.”

Avery took his offered hand and allowed him to pull her up. “I…um…no problem.” What else could she say? She’d gotten carried away too? He probably thought kissing men she’d never met in cemeteries after being shot at was her norm.

Someone shot at her.

“I need to go.” She yanked her hand out of his grasp. Home. Everything would be okay if she could just make it home and check on Andy. That thought became a driving force.

“Hold on.” He reached for his wallet, retrieved a business card, and held it out. “My name’s Jeffrey Sinclair.”

Avery stopped her retreat long enough to take the card.

So his name was Sinclair, not Sin. The fact didn’t ease her conscience any after what she’d just done. Sin or no Sin, she’d made a complete fool of herself. She had to get out of here.

Despite a million questions peppering her brain just then, she turned and darted out of instinct, disturbed by the kiss as much as what preceded it.

Never in a billion years would she consider herself someone who’d meet an unknown man’s mouth so crazily. Not when, according to Mike, she was frigid and never got emotional. But here she was an emotional mess and the thought only swamped her with more emotion.

She veered in the direction of her parked car as more humiliation rose up over her reaction to a complete stranger. His presence had made her feel cherished. That alone seemed totally illogical, but when he’d bent to kiss her, she hadn’t been able to turn away. In those few seconds she’d felt more alive than she had in fifteen years. Mike’s kisses had never generated such a response.

“Wait. I’d like to talk to you. Make sure you’re safe.”

That same gripping, almost disturbing voice carried on the wind. She fought to ignore the urgent tone, but somehow the quality reached past the physical, just as his concerned stare had done, touching something deep inside of her she didn’t want touched.

“No…” she said over her shoulder. “I’m fine. Really. I appreciate your help, but I’ve got to get home.” By the time she made it to her car she was running. She slowed her steps and looked back. He’d made no attempt to follow, thank God, just stood and watched her in the moonlit shadows. With her focus still on him, she hit the keyless entry. Lights flashed and the locks snapped up. She scrambled inside.

In seconds, Avery had her seat belt fastened and the car started. She worked to keep her foot steady as she put the car in gear and sped off.

Maybe running away denoted cowardice, but cowardice was the least of her troubles.

~

“What happened? Why is she leaving?”

Jeffrey Sinclair ignored the questions, still keeping a protective watch as her car’s taillights flashed brighter when she slowed to turn left onto the main road leading out of the cemetery.

“Sin?” Desmond Phillips strode up to him. “Why didn’t you stop her?”

He turned to his business partner and grunted. “She’s not going anywhere.”

“But it’s obvious at this point she’s part of it. She’s been here every night we’ve staked out the gravesite. This would’ve been the perfect opportunity to discover what she knows.”

“It can wait. What I want to know is…why would someone try and kill her?”

“Diversionary tactic,” Des spit out. “Had to be. A high-powered rifle with a silencer? He was probably using a scope. Had a clean shot and missed. On purpose. To draw us out. Which in my book indicates some kind of involvement.”

“Maybe.” Sin’s gaze moved to the now empty street. He clenched a fist, hating that he had no answers. Why had he spoken to her? Even more disturbing, why had he kissed her…her, of all women?

He snorted. Hell, he knew why. He hadn’t been able to stop, that’s why. Now, more than ever, she intrigued him. Each and every evening she’d made her nightly visits, he’d stationed himself just feet away. Watching…waiting…wanting.

“Shit,” he whispered, then shook his head. Why deny his attraction? She was one gorgeous woman with curves in all the right places. He’d dealt with attraction before and never lost his head. Not like tonight, when she’d seemed so forlorn, peering at him with those haunting eyes, begging him to give in to the need.

Sin’s fingernails dug deeper into his palms to the point of pain. He needed to find out if a connection existed between his company’s stolen technology and the two dead Army officers. He couldn’t let attractive females sidetrack him. As Des said, the lady now appeared to be involved. But to what extent?

“It’s a waste of time to keep watching tonight. Nothing’s going to happen now.”

Des’ voice yanked him back to the the reason they were lurking in a cemetery—the anonymous tip concerning the thefts from Sinclair Phillips & Coleman Electronics. “I agree.” He nodded. “Whoever we were waiting for most likely got scared off with all the commotion.”

“Had to be a setup.” Des flashed a light onto the grass surrounding the headstones. The light caught something shiny. He stopped, then crouched and dug at the ground with his pocketknife.

“But why?” Sin drew a hand through his hair before resting it on the back of his neck. He began rubbing, trying to massage the kinks out. “What the hell have we stumbled into? Nothing makes sense. It’s as if someone’s playing a sick game. With our company. With our livelihood.” The last phase of testing SPC’s prototypes had been right on schedule until they’d gone missing. Now they had to deal with two more thefts.

“According to Colonel Williams’ report, neither Major Crandall nor Major Montgomery fit the traitor profiles, and there’s nothing to show their involvement.” He watched Des extract a bullet from a nearby tree. Yet Montgomery had been in charge of testing the powerful light-driven tracking, listening, and recording devices. The dead major was the last known person to have them in his possession. In an attempt to learn all he could about him…and about her, Sin had memorized the pertinent details.

The stunning brunette’s life read like a storybook romance on paper until Montgomery’s death. Her deceased husband had been an all-American—athletic, good-looking, gifted—the poster boy for his college fraternity. The high school sweethearts had lived in the D.C. area, attending local Alexandria schools until college. He’d been two years ahead of her, graduating summa cum laude from Georgetown University before entering the Army.

“The colonel’s right. Major Montgomery served ten years with a spotless record and several medals.” Sin exhaled a resigned sigh. “He’s a fricking war hero, not your usual scumbag who’s sold his country’s latest technology to the highest bidder.”

Crandall’s file read similarly. Despite the glowing words, Sin wasn’t about to remove either officer from his short list of suspects. Military Intelligence had cleared them of all wrongdoing, but he and his partners couldn’t afford to overlook any possibility. Too much was at stake.

“Maybe Montgomery needed the money.”

“Money wasn’t an issue.” Sin met Des’ gaze. “He came from old money, had access to a hefty trust fund. In fact, according to the file, several generations of Montgomerys earned money through interest, not hard work, and they all had one thing in common. They believed in giving back to society through public service, which plays into the war hero scenario.”

He didn’t want to think he harbored a prejudice toward dead heroes, but if Sin were totally honest, he’d have to admit to one. He’d always held such men in contempt, those born with not only the silver spoon but also the whole meal.   

“Crandall didn’t have Montgomery’s megabucks, but their backgrounds are parallel.” Sin scrubbed a hand over his face. How could they be anything but heroes with that upbringing? Poster boys like Montgomery always had it easy, had their way paved, so much so they never had to truly fight for anything, always got their pick of everything just because of who they were…the best jobs with the best salaries attracting the best mates. The gutter Sin had climbed out of was totally at the other end of the spectrum. Unlike Montgomery or Crandall, he’d had to fight for everything.

Still, he dealt in logic and probabilities. Logically, the probabilities pointed to their innocence. As the colonel had stated during their last meeting, they had nil to go on as far as motive for tying either man to any treasonous treachery.

“The wife’s involved. I know it. She’s been here every night we have.” Des pocketed the bullets and was now shining the light in the distance. “That means something.”

“Coincidence. She is Montgomery’s widow, after all.”

“Too much coincidence for my liking. Who visits a gravesite so often these days?” Des’ voice held disbelief. “And for so long?”

“A grieving widow whose husband recently died?”

“Maybe.” Des nodded, still searching. “Or maybe she’s in on it and the husband wasn’t?”

Sin’s gaze followed the beam of light hitting row after row of white stones. “She’s definitely someone to question, but you can’t really think she’s involved in passing stolen technology?”

“I’m suspicious of everyone until I understand their motives,” Des said. “If she were the target tonight, she’d be dead. And since she was alive enough to run away, my gut tells me she’s part of the ploy to draw us out.”

“You’re too cynical. I’d think you’d be less biased, given your previous occupation,” Sin teased. Such scorn resulted from Des’ colossal mistake—marrying the wrong woman. Sin understood because he hadn’t made the best of choices in a wife and had his own form of cynicism in dealing with the opposite sex. Still, he tried to be objective about it.

“Cynical or not, she’s someone I want to interrogate.” Des flicked off the light, but not before Sin caught the annoyance on his face.

Yep, Des’ expression and tone indicated he’d already tried and convicted the lady. Sin wasn’t inclined to condemn her so hastily. She just didn’t seem like the traitor type. Having never finished her degree, she’d dropped out to marry Montgomery ten years ago and had a baby some seven months after the wedding.

Okay, so they had to get married, Sin thought. But that was kids being too hot and heavy and not using birth control. As far as he was concerned, being stupid and horny rarely led to selling out your country for monetary gain. He could even see how it might have happened, given Avery was a woman a man could lose his sanity over enough to forget the condom.

Lucky bastard…then again, maybe not so lucky as the guy’s ashes are buried only two feet away and she’s still vibrantly alive. If she were his, he wouldn’t want to be separated from her for an instant.

“There has to be something,” he whispered, not liking the ditch his thoughts had plowed into. “Some link with her dead husband to all of this.”

“The wife is the connection, I’m telling you.” Des pointed his flashlight at him as if making a point. “Wives, especially wives who’ve been married for so long, generally know not only where the bodies are buried, but how many and how deep.”

Sin didn’t reply. Right now the widow was the only solid lead they had.

“What about Williams? Maybe the military’s made progress.”

Sin frowned. “I doubt it.” Colonel Williams was the Army official in charge of procuring and, in his mind, the person who supposedly got things done. Yet their Army liaison seemed useless in this situation. “He’s not concerned with the theft, thanks to the fail-safe.” If the prototypes landed in the wrong hands, they’d shut down without the proper sequence of numbers, and then self-destruct in fifteen hundred hours. Roughly seven days from now unless reactivated.“I rushed through the process and finalized our contract with the Army without thoroughly weighing the consequences. I certainly didn’t think anyone would steal our product before it’d been fully tested.” Sin sighed. “I thought the military would provide an element of security.”

“It’s understandable.” Des clapped him on the back and grinned. “If you can’t trust your government, who can you trust?”

“That’s no excuse.” Sin clenched his jaw. “Not for us. Not for me. Fulfilling this contract is too essential to our success.” If the components weren’t found in time, Williams would declare the project a failure. SPC Electronics, would be out millions, a loss they couldn’t afford right now. Due to a provision in the contract stating SPC would be paid only upon confirmation of the technology working, there wasn’t a damned thing Sin could do to stop the verdict.

“It’s obvious the colonel has little interest in helping us.” Sin shook his head in frustration. “He doesn’t give a shit about whether or not we go under. His main concerns are saving face and not having to deal with military bureaucracy.” With only a week left, the clock was ticking.

“I’ve still got a few friends on the force who owe me some favors.” Des started walking toward the road. “I’ll see if they can analyze these bullets.” He patted his pocket. “Maybe we’ll learn something useful.”

Sin nodded and silently fell into step. At least Williams had provided him with a special sticker, the same one surviving spouses and family members received to enter the national cemetery after hours. “Maybe we should reconsider hiring a PI.”

“We don’t need outsiders.” Des exhaled heavily. “They hold too many risks.”

Sin nodded. Trust was the biggest issue, that and finding an investigator with the clearances necessary to deal with such sensitive information

“You’re right, of course,” Sin finally said, as they reached his car. When Des sent him a questioning look, he added, “We should talk to Mrs. Montgomery, and the sooner the better. Let’s go back to the office to see if Eric’s still there.” Eric Coleman was their third partner.

He hit the keyless entry. Both opened their doors and slid inside simultaneously.

Sin wasn’t looking forward to questioning the lady, given his earlier reaction. Maybe Des could do it without him. The minute the thought was out, he discarded it.

An ex-homicide detective, Des could spot inconsistencies and lies within seconds of talking to a person, a handy skill to possess due to the sensitive nature of their business. He was also a real pro at solving puzzles, but his friend wasn’t what Sin would call a people person. With his square, muscular physique, he’d make a perfect bouncer in one of D.C.’s hottest nightclubs. And despite his stern, military-like bearing and short, dirty-blond buzz cut, both throwbacks from an early Marine Corps experience, the ladies must like him as he never lacked female company.

Sin watched Des snap his seat belt into place. Smiling, he started the engine and pulled onto the road. As he drove, his grin spread. He stifled a chuckle. Since Sin had already irritated the female in question with his actions, he couldn’t risk poking the stick of Des’ contemptuous personality at her and inflaming her further. SPC’s chief of security might attract women like pollen-loaded daisies attracted bees, but his demeanor toward them was spiked with vinegar, not honey.

Questioning Mrs. Montgomery required teamwork, and they made a great team…sort of like good cop/bad cop when they interviewed prospective employees and clients.

Sin’s breath came out in a long sigh. Unfortunately, he’d have to play his good cop part if he wanted to gain any useful information.

The memory of having her soft body under his flashed and he shifted uncomfortably on the leather seat.

“Damn,” he said under his breath, punching the accelerator. No matter how hard he tried, the image wouldn’t shake free. He didn’t need any more complications.

And Avery Montgomery might prove to be a huge one.

~

Once Avery was miles down the road, well away from him, the incident replayed in her mind. Incident? She snorted, unable to describe what happened so simply.

An out-of-control kiss, maybe, but definitely not a mere incident. Guilt immersed her, filling her with more self-loathing. How could she have acted like a complete idiot…a lovesick fool without any restraint? She was a grieving widow, not some sex-starved hussy.

If that were true, then why did some part of her wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t been interrupted? No. She hadn’t liked kissing him. Fear, grief, and remorse had hit her all at once, creating her erratic behavior. Even so, she had to admit that Mike’s kisses had never affected her like that.

At a red light, she closed her eyes for a brief second. Without the man’s influence, she could finally think clearer. Someone had shot at her. Her earlier fear returned full force. Ice water ran through her veins replacing some of the other emotions. She stared in the rearview mirror searching for unseen threats and making note of those behind her.

When the light changed, her foot pushed the gas pedal. Hard. The car shot forward and sped up quickly. Her eyes kept checking the rearview mirror as she drove. One car in particular caught and held her attention. Her heartbeat increased.

Avery breathed out a relieved sigh the moment the car turned off, blocks from her house.

She pressed the garage door opener so that it was fully open when she pulled into her driveway at the rear of her Georgetown house. She didn’t wait to hit the button to lower the door. As it closed, she put the car in park, turned off the engine, and stared at the wall in front of her.

Maybe she should have gone to the police. No. Arlington was military jurisdiction and she’d rather avoid anything to do with the military, especially Colonel Williams. She didn’t fully trust him. Yet, what about the guy she’d kissed? Who was he?

Her hand went to her pocket, where she’d stashed his business card. She pulled it out and read: Jeffrey Sinclair—CEO of SPC Electronics. He said he wanted to talk to her. What was he doing at the gravesite, and not just tonight? She had no doubt he’d been there on those other nights she’d visited. And her biggest concern…who was shooting and why? Was she the target or was he?

Had to be him. And I got caught in some kind of crossfire.

Movement at the door separating the kitchen and the garage drew Avery’s attention and Terry poked her head out after opening it.

Her sister watched for several minutes before she stepped forward and smiled. “Everything okay?” she asked, opening the car door when Avery made no attempt to move.

Avery couldn’t help but notice how close the question was to what he had asked. As far as she was concerned, the answer hadn’t changed. She wondered if she’d ever be okay again. She sighed, tucked the card away, intending to research the company later, and climbed out of the car.

“Sure.” She returned the smile. Except it felt forced. Without meeting Terry’s curious gaze, she grabbed her purse and headed inside. She needed to think…analyze her behavior…before she told anyone about the events of the past hour, and that included her sister.

The minute Avery got through the door, her son rushed her, extracting a more natural grin. It was hard not to smile when Andy was around.

“Hey, kiddo!” She ruffled his hair before wrapping her arms around him as he hugged her waist. She walked further into the kitchen without breaking contact. “You have school in the morning. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I was too scared to go to bed alone. Aunt Terry said I could wait up for you.”

Avery hugged her son more fiercely. “Sorry I wasn’t here, honey.”

“That’s okay. But I’ll be able to sleep if you tuck me in.”

Andy didn’t wait for an answer, instead went skipping off toward his room with absolute conviction she would follow. Avery did, relieved he was so resilient, and wishing she could steal some of his resiliency. If only her mind worked like a child’s, then she could forget the past and bounce back, ready to tackle the next phase of her life. Like a mantle, the shadow of her deeds fell on her shoulders again, weighing her down like the heaviest stones.

When she entered her son’s room, Avery found him under the blanket, holding up a book and watching her with hopeful expectation. She grinned and strode toward him, unable to deny his unspoken request. Manipulated or not, she was a sucker for Andy’s sweet expression.

She slid in next to him, got comfortable, and pulled him closer. With him curled beside her, she opened the book and began reading. Ten minutes later, she unwound herself from his slumbering form, careful not to wake him.

Avery stood and stared at her son’s features, so much like Mike’s. Raw pain gripped her, held her in its clutches, and ripped her heart in two. Andy was the spitting image of her husband at the same age. She had the many pictures in albums to prove it. Was this her punishment…to be haunted by her actions every time she looked at her son…never to forget?

Why had she sent that letter? Why hadn’t she spoken up when she’d had the chance? Now it was too late. Would Andy forgive her if he knew? Avery sighed and tugged the blanket around him, more as a protective gesture than to keep him warm in the late May evening. She brushed a lock of dark hair off his forehead and smiled, still staring but no longer seeing her son’s face.

Of course he’d never learn of it. She’d gone to great lengths to make sure. That last letter to Mike was now safely locked away from prying eyes, as was his answer. For some perverse reason, she’d saved both and kept going back to them night after night, as if she needed the reminder to never make the same mistake again. Sometimes she wished the military hadn’t been so efficient in sending Mike’s belongings back to her.

Her hand went to the heart-shaped locket she wore around her neck. Fingering the sweet gift Mike had sent her, she realized the memento was another reminder. Would she ever be able to take it off and move forward?

A tear broke loose, then trekked down her face. Where had her marriage gone wrong? Why hadn’t she been able to love her husband enough for a lifetime? Now that her life was so jaggedly torn apart with his death, why did she wish she could undo what she’d done? Because your letter most likely caused his death.

Avery retreated from her son’s room.

In the kitchen, Terry stood at the stove and lifted the whistling teakettle. The piercing sound died instantly. No one spoke.

She approached the counter noting two inviting cups and tea bags. “Just what I need.”

“You looked a little frazzled.” Terry spent a moment pouring hot water over the bags. Once done, she set the teakettle down before handing her the cup. “Figured you could use my calming remedy before I take off.”

Avery’s lips curled at the edges, forming the genuine smile that wouldn’t come earlier. Terry’s answer to every problem lay in a cup of tea—that and the accompanying conversation.

“Thanks,” she murmured, lifting the cup to her lips. She leaned against the counter. Breathing in the aroma of the hot liquid, her smile increased. There might actually be some validity to the thinking, since she was feeling better.

“You shouldn’t be skulking in cemeteries so close to dark. They aren’t safe.”

Avery almost choked on her tea. “I was visiting my dead husband’s grave, not skulking. Besides, Arlington’s an exception.” No need to reveal how dangerous her visit had actually been.

The night’s events had proven Arlington National Cemetery wasn’t the safest place on earth, in fact had become a place to avoid, for now. Being shot at was enough to scare anyone senseless. She was safe and sound in her own kitchen. The danger had long passed. Now that the threat seemed far away, almost a distant memory, the idea somehow paled to the thought of being yanked to the ground by a stranger and then kissing him in a wild moment. A flush of heat streaked up her face. She quickly brought the tea closer to her mouth to camouflage her reaction. She and Terry shared secrets. Her sister even knew of Avery’s request for a divorce from her husband, something no one else knew except her lawyer. She couldn’t share this. Not yet.

If Terry caught wind of anything happening tonight, Avery would have to relay all the specifics…and quite frankly, she wasn’t exactly sure what those specifics entailed. She certainly wouldn’t be able to articulate so much as an inkling of what she’d been thinking. All she’d do is upset her sister. She had no idea why someone shot at her or even if she was the target.

Had to be him. As for the other? It was anyone’s guess why an unknown man had drawn such a strong response, especially when her husband, whom she’d idolized as a teen and felt the luckiest person in the world to marry, never had. It had to be some kind of awkward response to her situation. Guilt and grief mixed with fear, resulting in an emotional overload.

“You look like you’re feeling better. Your color’s back.” Terry shook her head and tsk-tsked like the older sister she was. “I just wish something more than a cemetery visit had caused it.”

Avery’s laugh, an indisputable burst of humor absent since before Mike’s deployment to Afghanistan four months ago, felt natural. She took another long sip of tea. Then she exhaled, holding on to her smile. Maybe she was analyzing this from the wrong angle. Maybe the emotional overload from her near-death experience had been a good thing because suddenly she felt less encumbered. Freer. Something had happened tonight outside of the craziness of stray bullets and kissing strangers. Something inside her had changed, making her think of life beyond guilt.

She sighed. If only that were possible. She had no idea what the future held. All she knew was at that moment she felt…alive.

~

He’d begun tailing Avery Montgomery’s car on her way out of the cemetery, following her until a few blocks from her house where he’d turned off and had circled back. He now sat half a block away, watching the house through binoculars.

All was calm. Upstairs, a few lights burned, revealing several open windows. He did a visual of the dark yard and noted a couple of tall trees. One might provide the means to get inside. Due to the earlier incident at the cemetery, tonight wasn’t the time to try. She’d be wary and on her guard. He was thankful she hadn’t called military police. That would have caused major headaches for all involved.

He rolled his eyes, wondering how this fucking operation had derailed so far off its original track. He didn’t like putting innocent civilians at risk but the risk was necessary in this instance, according to his superiors. He started the car and pulled away from the curb.

He’d return at dawn and wait for an opportunity to search her house.

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