Authors: Christi Snow
Mission Ends Book #4
Published by Christi Snow
Edited by Mia Downing and Sarah
Cover Design by AM Design Studios
E-book Formatting by AM Design Studios
Copyright © 2013 Christina Snow
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, events, or incidences come from the author’s imagination and are not meant to portray real persons or events.
Texas Tech University and Lubbock, TX are real places, but again they are used only as settings in this very fictional world. Any similarities are purely coincidental.
Muhl, one of my beta readers and Brian’s biggest fan. From the moment she read Operation: Endgame she asked me when I planned to write Brian’s story. Without your encouragement, Kim, this poor overworked detective would have never had a Happily Ever After. Thanks for showing me the possibility.
There’s a whole team who helps me do what I do.
I absolutely could not do what I do without every single one of them. Not a one of you can ever leave me!
Editors: Mia Downing & Sarah
Cover Designer: Mande Matthews (AMDesignStudios)
Beta Readers: Amy Castellano, Anso Sjostrom, Kim Muhl, Marion Archer, Tessa Stirewalt
E-book Formatting: Ann Mauren (AMDesignStudios)
Proofreading: Sabrina Roberts
General Support & Encouragement: Ben, Jacob, and Kat
Thank you to every single one of you on my team!
And to all my readers who post on my Facebook, website, GoodReads, Twitter…I love you all and that you “get” my books and characters.
I hope you love Toni & Brian just as much.
From the When the Mission Ends Series:
Operation: Endgame (Book #1)
Operation: Endeavor (Book #2)
Before the Mission Begins (Novella)
Operation: Endurance (Book #3)
When Love Intrudes (Book #4)
From the Mudflap Series
(co-authored with MF Smith):
The Shadow of Mudflap
Through the Veil
(Book #1- Veil Series)
(Book #1- Snowcroft Series)
Right By Your Side
(Book #1- Martin Ranch Series)
(Book #2- Mudflap Series)
“Detective, are you okay?”
The soft, but urgent voice caressed Brian Barnes as it echoed through his brain. It called to him, soothing his soul like wisps of cool touches across his fevered skin. He needed to see who it belonged to. He had to open his eyes.
His muscles tensed and fire tore through his side, burning and stealing his breath, as Brian pushed back to consciousness. Automatically he wanted to reach toward the pain, but he couldn’t move his arm. His groan rumbled as the agony in his gut radiated out over his entire body.
“Oh, come on, don’t do that.” The voice again, but this time it wobbled like she was about to cry. “When you try to move, you bleed more. Come on, Brian, listen to my voice. Hold still. I don’t want you to bleed to death, just open your eyes so I know you aren’t going to die and I’m not alone here.”
He had to follow the compulsion of her voice. Disappointing her wasn’t an option, not with that voice pulling at him. Slowly his eyes fluttered open.
A vision of the beautiful Toni swam in front of him. Why was she crying? What happened? A blistering pain shuddered across his torso and reality came flooding back. He’d come over to Pete’s house because he thought something was wrong. His instincts had been right, but the reality of the situation was so much worse than he’d ever imagined. He refocused on Toni and the bruises marring her face and arms.
She was dating Pete and right now she looked so freaking scared. But who could blame her since her boyfriend, his friend, had gone bat-shit insane. How had he missed all the signs that the cop and the man who’d been his friend had lost all touch with sanity? He hadn’t seen it until today. So now he sat here on the floor with a gunshot to his gut and two women in terrible danger. If Toni was here, somewhere Julie, her friend, and the focus of Pete’s obsession, had to be here too. Somehow, he had to get them both out before Pete hurt them.
“Toni…are you okay?” Goddamn, even breathing hurt. Black spots danced before his eyes as another wave of pain crashed over him. He moaned.
Shh, I’m fine. He didn’t want to hurt me.” She strained to look down at him from her position on the bed and her face paled even more. “Oh God, you’re bleeding so much. We’ve got to get you out of here.”
He didn’t even have to look down to know how bad it truly was. He couldn’t feel anything below the radiating pain in his gut anymore. Blood soaked everything. The cold seeping over him was definitely not a good sign, but he wasn’t going to freak her out even more by telling her that. She needed to get to safety.
He took a shallow breath and focused to take stock of the room.
Pete shot him and then dragged him to this bedroom and cuffed him to the leg of a heavy armoire. The gunshot to his gut was why everything hurt so fucking bad.
It was hard to tell from where he was at on the floor, but it looked like Toni was handcuffed to the bedframe. As he watched her, she wiggled.
“What,” he gasped, “are you doing?”
Her torso twisted. “I’m trying to get my charm bracelet off.”
Okay, Brian knew his brain wasn’t functioning at full capacity, but why was she worried about her jewelry right now?
His question must have showed on his face because she gave him a wink. “I have a handcuff key on it. Think about what that means for a moment instead of what’s happening here.”
Her mischievous look and the reality of their situation were at complete odds, but the reason why she had a key like that hit him and he couldn’t help but find the humor. He gave a bark of laughter which morphed into a moan when his gut clenched. It took a moment to get his breath back. “You wear a…” he breathed through the black spots and nausea, “handcuff key on your bracelet?”
Her chagrined smile took his breath away and this time it had nothing to do with the gunshot wound in his gut. She was so beautiful, even roughed up and messy like she was now. Her auburn curly hair fell over her eyes. She kept blowing it to move it out of her face. The urge to touch it, to run his fingers across those curls, pulled at him. He instantly regretted that this would be the last time he’d see her.
The numbness spread along with the pool of blood below him. He had a feeling that he wouldn’t wake up again when the unconsciousness, creeping at the edge of his brain, overtook him this time.
“Got it!” Toni raised her freed hand in victory and rushed over to his side clutching the key. At the same time a muffled scream echoed throughout the house.
Her frantic eyes met his as she fumbled with his cuffs. “That’s Julie,” she whispered.
He wasn’t going to be any help to her now. He was too far-gone. At this point, he’d just endanger and slow her down. She had to get out of the house.
“Toni, you can’t help me.”
She stilled for a moment, squeezing her eyes shut. When she re-opened them, resolve shone through their turquoise depths. He had to use that to get her to safety.
“Get out. Go get help.”
“I can’t leave you here.”
Another scream sounded out.
“Do you know how to shoot?” He winced as another arc of pain shot through him.
She gave a frantic nod.
“There’s a gun inside my right pant leg. Get it out and help her. Do whatever you have do, Toni, to get both of you out of here safely.”
She fumbled for a moment with his pant leg and rose up on her knees with the gun firmly in her grasp.
“That a girl.”
Their eyes met for a moment before she leaned down, gently brushed the hair off his forehead, and gave him a soft, light kiss on the cheek. “I’ll be right back. Don’t die.” The fierceness in her voice was a powerful thing, but he had a feeling he didn’t have much say about it anymore.
As she crept out of the room, the cold of his body swamped him.
A gunshot rang out over the house and then eerie silence ensued.
Black dots encroached over his vision.
His job was to protect.
Five months later
It came down to a choice. Either she gave up men or chocolate, because as Toni Vincent sucked in another pained breath, it occurred to her that she really despised exercise. Her thighs burned, sweat rolled down her spine, and she knew she looked frightening. She had that pale complexion that always turned bright red when she exercised. But she did love chocolate…and men, even though there hadn’t been one of those in her life for five long months. Not that the one five months ago could really count, either.
No, she wasn’t going to think about that. Not now. Not ever. Not anymore.
Better to concentrate on not passing out before making it back to her apartment. Whose bright idea had it been to go running today anyway? Yes, she’d indulged in three too many of the chocolate chip cookies that Chris, one of her bosses and her friend Julie’s husband, had brought into the office at Mad Rob. So what? She’d rather give up men than put up with this torture again. That was her only recourse.
Chocolate meant flabby thighs. Men weren’t worth the exercise needed to keep the flabby thighs away. Besides, her life proved she was better off without men in it anyway. So she would have chocolate and flabby thighs…no men. Decided, she was almost rejuvenated to finish this torturous run. Almost. Instead, she took the short cut through the small wooded area toward her apartment.
Finally, she had the driveway into her apartment complex in sight. She grinned through her tortured breathing. It should be about time for Nathan, her teenage next door neighbor to get home from his job at the Grind, the local coffee shop near their apartments. On Friday nights he tended to bring her gifts in her favorite form…decadent mocha Frappuccino. She frowned down at her thighs. Oh well, maybe she’d exercise again tomorrow. Not.
The torture was almost over. But at this point, she was afraid to slow her run to a walk for cool down. Without the forward momentum, her legs were going to turn to jelly, and then would cease to support her. How embarrassing would it be to fall into a puddle right at the edge of the apartment complex? And on a Friday night when everyone else with a real life would be heading out for a night out on the town.
Instead, as she entered the complex, she slowed to a walk and as soon as she neared the manager’s office, she collapsed against the exterior wall. Trying to look nonchalant while dragging in harsh breaths of air, she worked desperately to get her lungs functioning correctly again.
Almost to the point where she was no longer at risk of going into cardiac arrest, she heard voices. Male voices, several of them, echoed around the corner. Standing outside the office wheezing, she forced her jelly-filled legs to lock so she could stand and hoped to look natural. She stood in front of the bulletin board with the advertisements from the occupants for pet-sitting and furniture for sale and tried to look fascinated while she perused it.
Four guys came barreling around the building. It quickly became apparent they had already been partying pretty hard this evening, although it was barely 7:00. They stumbled and guffawed as they shoved each other around with lots back-slapping.
“We showed him. Did you hear the whimper that came out of him when you kicked him in the balls?”
“Yeah, the fag won’t try to stick it up someone’s ass for a good long while.”
“The cock-sucker won’t look at someone else like that again.”
The homophobic slurs and back-slapping continued as the four stumbled across the courtyard. Toni knew better than to draw attention to herself, but she watched them, surreptitiously scanning them for any distinguishing features.
All four appeared to be college age. The tall blond had the look of a beach bum or surfer about him. He wore shorts although the autumnal air was cool. Two of the guys had muscles everywhere and easily stood over six feet tall. They had to be brothers because they looked so much alike. Both had dark hair, one was clean cut while the other wore his hair longer. The final guy was shorter and stockier than the other three, but was definitely the most vicious in his slurs and demeanor. Even his eyes looked dead and cold regardless of the way he acted. That was not a nice guy. A chill rolled through her.
Whatever they’d been up to, it wasn’t good. The small guy and one of the brothers had what looked to be blood droplets on their shirts and more smeared across the backs of their hands and knuckles.
Her thoughts immediately flew to her young next-door neighbor, Nathan, the only gay guy she knew in the complex. He worked really hard to stay under the radar since he was young and slightly built. He was on his own, but from what she’d gathered of his story, he was better off this way. But when it came to things like this, she worried about him. Alarm skittered down her spine. He better be okay.
There were bound to be others that were gay in the complex. It’s not like she knew everyone or their sexual proclivities. No need to panic yet, but a stab of guilt flashed through her as she realized she was wishing harm on someone else by hoping they’d been after someone besides Nathan.
But before she worried about anyone else, she had to get back to her apartment without these testosterone-laden baboons spotting her.
They were almost past her when the smaller guy suddenly stopped. Her stomach dropped. “Well, what do we have here?” he said as he stepped toward her.
Her breath froze in her chest. Damn, why hadn’t she taken the extra time to find her misplaced pepper spray? She was smarter than this.
He stepped right up behind her into her personal space. His rank breath blew across the back of her neck as he pressed up against her, murmuring softly with a low, menacing tone, “I don’t think our fun for the evening is over yet.”
A shudder slid down her spine. “Looks like you guys are having way too much fun for me. I’m not much of a partier,” she mumbled, regretting again that she hadn’t been able to find her pepper spray before her run. Her heartbeat raced and this time it wasn’t from the exercise.
“James, come on,” the blond guy standing to the side of them said as he glanced around nervously. “We don’t have time for this. We need to get out of here.”
“Aw, come on, Brady. No one’s gonna know. Look at this pretty little thing.” He pressed into her ass and her throat convulsed at the intimate feel of him against her. As he slid the back of his bloody knuckles down the side of her cheek, she worked to control her rising nausea.
“Looks like y’all have already been having a pretty good time tonight.” She tried to strengthen the sound of her voice. These guys would just get off on her fear. “No offense, but
I’m not interested. I have other plans with my boyfriend and he wouldn’t appreciate you all making me late.”
She’d taken self-defense classes last year, and she probably had a decent chance of getting this one guy off her, but there was no way she’d be able to fight off four of them. She hoped his friends could talk him out of whatever he had planned for her.
“Come on, sweet thing,” he whispered in her ear, “you know we could have so mu—”
The sound of a siren on a nearby road broke into whatever he was saying and one of the other guys pulled him away. “Come on. We have to get out of here. Now.”
As they ran off around the corner, she slumped into the bulletin board, her heart racing. That had been way too close for comfort, proving once again that nothing good came from jogging.
A few seconds later the sound of tires squealing had her swinging around. A sixties model, souped-up, black Camaro peeled out of the parking lot, fishtailing as it went. Those guys had way too much to drink to be driving. They were going to kill someone.
With adrenaline surging through her system, she took off for her apartment, pulling her key out of the hidden pocket in her running tights as she sprinted. The sight of Nathan’s motorcycle parked in front of his apartment stopped her. Oh God, she hoped he was okay. She passed her apartment to knock on his door, but there was no answer. Twisting the doorknob, she found it locked.
Okay, he was probably out with friends, because there’s no way those guys would beat him up and then lock up after themselves, right?
With shaking hands, she finally got her own door unlocked. As soon as she entered, she turned and dead bolted it behind her. Sam, her chocolate Labrador retriever, met her at the door, his tail wagging. She wished she’d taken him with her on her run. Then those jerks would have thought twice about bothering her, but he’d had surgery on his hip three weeks before and she didn’t want to tax it yet. Reaching down, she settled her shaking hands into the thick coat at his neck, letting his presence settle her.
“It’s okay, isn’t it, boy?” she murmured into his ear.
He whined low, sensing her distress.
She took another deep breath and steeled her spine.
Pull it together, Toni. You can handle this.
First thing, she needed to find her cell phone and make sure Nathan was okay. Where the hell did she leave it? She glanced frantically around her messy apartment. See, this is why she should put things away, so she could find them in an emergency. Scattering the piles of papers and books, she finally spotted it buried under the pile of mail on the counter. And dammit, there was her pepper spray, too. She had to get more organized.
Her fingers shook as she found her contacts and scrolled through, locating Nathan’s number. Wrapping an arm around her stomach, she paced and listened to it ring. Sam followed right on her heels, obviously feeling protective.
As she listened to the ring through her cell, she heard a ring on the other side of the wall, the wall she shared with Nathan. His phone was in his apartment. Damn, where could he be?
Lost about what else to do, she called the police. She told them about the drunk and disorderly guys, the state of their clothes and hands, and that they drove off, obviously drunk. The dispatcher thanked her for her call, but said unless they were caught probably nothing would come of it. She also promised to have a police cruiser drive through the apartment complex to check things out.
Toni hung up her cell phone and sank onto the couch, overwhelmed and shaky after the adrenaline overload. Where was Nathan? She looked down at her cell phone screen for a moment before dialing him again. When his voice mail picked up, she left him a message. “Nathan, it’s Toni. There were some rough looking guys at the apartments tonight and I just want to make sure you’re okay. Please call me when you get this. I know I’m probably over-reacting and you just forgot your phone when you went out, but call me, okay? I don’t care what time it is.”
She sat there for a moment with her breath shuddering through her. Everything was fine now. There was absolutely no reason to freak out over this. Not all violence ended in death.
But even as she told herself that, past visions of blood, gore, and violence swam through her brain, sharpening her panic.
She thought about calling
, knowing he’d come to her rescue. The urge to hear his calm powerful voice was strong, but he’d made it clear she had no place in his life. He wasn’t an option. No, not going there again, not even in her mind.
Jumping up from the couch, she frantically searched around her apartment for something to distract her. She couldn’t stay here immobilized by fear. Doing something productive would help.
Finally her glance caught on a shirt hanging askew off the corner of her bed through her bedroom door. Laundry. She could do laundry. With a relieved sigh, she scooped up the dirty clothes into her basket, grabbing her pepper spray, phone, quarters, and detergent as she stepped out of her apartment.
“I’ll be right back, Sam.” She awkwardly patted his head with the stuff tottering in her grasp.
For a moment in the doorway, she hesitated, questioning whether she should leave the safety of her apartment, but she knew those bastards were gone. She’d watched them leave. She was strong again. She wasn’t going to let fear rule her life. Hopefully by now, the police had picked them up off the highway so they weren’t a menace to sober drivers.
Determined, Toni squared her shoulders and pulled the door closed and locked behind her as she cocked her laundry basket on her hip. The bottle of pepper spray sat along the top edge, close to her hand-hold if she needed it quickly.
The laundry room sat in a building by itself in the middle of the apartment complex. The nice thing about having no social life was it almost guaranteed Toni would have the entire place and could use as many washing machines as she wanted.
As she entered the room, it was deserted just as she’d expected. It was also extremely dark which was odd. The lights in here were always on. As she fumbled along the wall for a light switch, her foot kicked something on the floor, something that moved and groaned. She dropped her laundry basket and screamed, clutching her pepper spray in front of her.
Once the initial seconds of panic receded, she realized there was a person on the floor, one that sounded like he was in pain. Fumbling along the wall again, she frantically searched and found the light switch and flipped it on. Her heart sunk at the sight before her. That lock of brown hair, even matted with blood was familiar. Nathan, beaten and bloody, curled into a ball, his clothes ripped and torn. He didn’t even react to the light although he’d moaned when she kicked him so she knew he was at least alive. She dropped down to the floor beside him. His groan must have been a natural reaction because as she bent down to check on him, he was unconscious.