Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire by Cari Z
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-481-7
eBook release: 
Oct 17, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-482-4
Print release: 
Oct 17, 2016
Word count: 
82,800
Page count: 
299
Type: 
Cover by: 
Audio release: 
Aug 10, 2017
Ebook $6.99
Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $24.98   $17.49 (30% off!)

Elliot McKenzie is the king of reinvention. Five years after losing his job and his lover and almost going to prison, his self-help program, Charmed Life, is more successful than he’d ever dreamed. He thinks he’s put his sordid past firmly behind him, until he starts receiving cryptic threats . . . and realizes it might not be as over as he’d hoped. 

Security expert Lennox West has been lost since a deadly skirmish in Afghanistan led to his forced retirement from the Army. His PTSD makes helping his ex raise their daughter a challenge. When his ex’s sister asks him to set her boss up with a security system, Lennox isn’t expecting anyone like Elliot McKenzie—a man who captures his attention and makes him feel relaxed for the first time since leaving the service.

But Elliot is dangerously stubborn. Even as the threats against him escalate, he refuses to involve the police, and Lennox fears that stubbornness could kill him. A battle of wills ensues that brings them closer to each other than either man expected. But if the threats turn real, they might not live long enough to get their future together. 

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

animal cruelty

Chapter One

Excerpt from Shockwave reporter Clarissa Hanes’s article on Elliot McKenzie, founder of Charmed Life:

Conman.

Businessman.

Player.

Penitent.

Elliot McKenzie could, and sometimes does, lay claim to all of these labels, the contrasting pieces of his complicated public persona. He’s one of the up-and-comers in the psychospeak community, a self-made self-help guru of the modern kind. His company, Charmed Life, has been called “Facebook for felons,” and it’s managed to turn a person’s criminal history into an exclusive entrance pass to the hottest social media site in years. Applicants are admitted on a case-by-case basis, and while you won’t necessarily be denied if you don’t have a record, it does make it a lot harder to get access.

McKenzie runs his self-help business out of a communal office space in a converted firehouse in downtown Denver. The unalloyed brick interior gives the place a rustic feel overall, but there’s nothing rustic about McKenzie’s eclectic office. There are hints of the Victorian in the antique wooden desk that sits apart from the center of the room, kowtows to the East in the Hokusai prints on the walls, and elements of a frat house playboy in the beanbag chairs that sit next to demure black leather couches on the blue-tiled floor.

The air smells like expensive coffee and cologne, and along the far wall, on top of a cocktail table, is his fabled shrine to a silver-screen star from Hollywood’s golden age, Wilhelmina VanAllen. I go to get a closer look, but before I can take two steps, he’s here.

* * * * * * *

“Where the hell have you been?” Serena hissed at Elliot the moment he walked in the door, jumping to her feet and coming around her desk to yell at him with her hips. He didn’t know how she did it, but his personal assistant’s hips could speak more clearly than most people’s mouths. Right now, with that slight cock to the left and her fingers tapping along the seams of her skirt, they were calling him a fuckup. Not that he didn’t agree with them at the moment. He ran a hand over his navy silk tie, checking its line as he set his briefcase down on Serena’s desk.

“My lunch meeting ran late! I texted you from the car.”

“I got that, and don’t text and drive. You don’t need to be in an accident,” she scolded him. “But you should have let me know sooner, so I could have had a plan in place for when Stuart showed up!”

Elliot groaned, internally at first and then externally when that just didn’t cut it. “Stuart Reynolds?”

She rolled her eyes. “How many other Stuarts do you know? Yes, Mr. Reynolds. He brought you a cupcake.” Sure enough, there was a red velvet cupcake in a silver foil wrapper, topped with a perfect swirl of cream cheese frosting, sitting on the edge of Serena’s desk. Elliot frowned.

“I told him to stop doing that.” Stuart Reynolds had a greater capacity to cling than dog hair on a wool suit. “How did you get rid of him?”

“I told him you were out for the rest of the day and that I’d let you know he stopped by. He and Ms. Hanes missed each other by a few seconds, thank God. I got her into your office the moment I saw him coming.”

Elliot’s greatest and most inconvenient admirer and a hard-nosed, unsympathetic reporter in the same room together? It would have ended in bloodshed. “You are the light of my life,” he told Serena with complete seriousness as he buttoned his suit jacket. “Now tell me truly: am I hopelessly rumpled?”

“Hopelessly,” she said with a little smirk, “but it’s Zegna, so you get a pass.” She adjusted the angle of his fedora, then nodded. “Go, impress, be charming like you always are.”

“I’ll do my best.” He shut his eyes for a moment to get his mind back to where it needed to be, then picked up his briefcase and walked into his office. “Ms. Hanes!” He smiled brightly as she turned to him, ready to set her at ease.

It wasn’t necessary. Clarissa Hanes was a dark-haired viper in crimson silk, snapping her fangs before Elliot could so much as apologize for being late. Her whiskey-colored eyes narrowed as she looked him over. “Mr. McKenzie. You move very fast for a man who’s been shot twice.”

Ah, so it was going to be one of those interviews. Elliot bought himself some time by unlocking his desk drawer to put his briefcase away. Interviews generally tended to come in three flavors, starting with vanilla, which were safe and dull and easy on everyone. Vanilla interviews were decent press but boring to do, and he preferred to avoid them unless he owed someone a favor.

Chocolate interviews were fun, full of oddball, zany questions that ran the gamut from fluffy (mostly about his dog) to semiserious (the transition from lawyer to self-help magnate) to truly bizarre (his favorite Disney princess, what he liked best in a cheese). Those ones could get him trending if he answered just right. BuzzFeed’s piece on him three months ago had done more for his business than a dozen vanilla interviews could.

Then there were the chili interviews. They were the ones that made Elliot sweat, the ones that cheerfully raked him over the coals of his history, holding his feet to the flames of every poor decision he’d ever made and asking him, yet again, to justify himself. As far as he was concerned, doing these interviews was a form of penance. If there was a god, Elliot hoped he took note.

“I made a full recovery,” Elliot said as he finally locked his desk up again, keeping his smile on but toning it back a bit. Charm wasn’t going to help him here. “And neither of the bullets hit me in the legs. Would you care for something to drink? Serena can bring water, tea, coffee . . .”

Ms. Hanes hmmed thoughtfully. “A martini, perhaps?”

He shook his head. “No drinking alcohol of any kind at work. It’s a firm policy of mine.”

“Because of your issues with addiction, Mr. McKenzie?”

Shots fired, shots fired. He changed tack. “Please have a seat.” He pointed to the leather lounge chair. “And do call me Elliot, Ms. Hanes.”

“Clarissa is fine.” She sat down and crossed her legs with a raised eyebrow. “You’re not going to offer me a beanbag chair?”

“I wouldn’t want to insult your dress. It would clash so terribly with the paisley pattern.” Elliot sat across from her. “Now. What would you like to talk about first, my being shot or my addictions?”

Clarissa tilted her head slightly, examining him. He bore the scrutiny without blushing. His life was an open book: all his triumphs, all his many, many mistakes out there for any interested party to know. Relentless personal honesty was his platform; it was what he’d built his new reputation on. He wasn’t going to be intimidated by the past.

“Actually, I was wondering about the Gauloises.” She nodded toward the little table in the back, one eyebrow arched as she took in the crumpled packet of cigarettes.

Elliot’s smile fell away for a moment. “Those aren’t my bad habit. I keep them around to remember another time.”

“And another person?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.” Clarissa took a recorder out of her purse, turned it on, and set it on the table between them. “Tell me about meeting Wilhelmina VanAllen in rehab.”

Elliot had a spiel he liked to give whenever he talked about Willie, but Clarissa had already brought up the addictions angle. She wanted to play? They’d play. “She was a chain-smoker when I met her. Smoking was no match for the morphine addiction but by that point she was convinced she was dying anyway, so why should she give up one of her last pleasures in life? She used to smoke Picayunes, the brand that Audrey Hepburn’s character smoked in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Once she couldn’t get those anymore, she switched to Gauloises, which use the same sort of tobacco.”

“You call her your inspiration for Charmed Life,” Clarissa noted. “How is a former movie star turned chain-smoking morphine addict who, if I remember correctly, committed suicide not long after you met her, a logical choice as a muse for second chances?”

Ooh, the redirection game. Yes, let’s. “Willie died at the age of eighty-eight, in the time and place of her choosing. Given some of the demons she fought against her whole life, that should be considered a triumph, not a tragedy.” He could handle people coming at him for his mistakes―he did every day―but Willie’s circumstances had been different. “She was born during an era when struggling with depression could get you institutionalized. It did get her institutionalized, several times, when she was a young woman. Her family actually tried to have her lobotomized at one point. The fastest way out of that bad situation was marriage. Her first of five, in fact.”

“A serial bride,” Clarissa noted. “Even after she found success in films with the help of her second husband, who was a director, if I remember correctly.”

“Willie was someone who wasn’t afraid to strive for what she really wanted out of life,” he said. “Someone who wasn’t afraid to fight for a second chance. And her success was entirely down to her own skills as an actress, not nepotism from her husband,” he added. “They were divorced before she ever got a starring role in a film.”

Clarissa glanced back at the table again, and Elliot followed her gaze. It had the cigarettes, a copy of her favorite poem, and a picture of Willie lying back against a couch wearing enormous white sunglasses on her gaunt face with her dog in her lap. “And did she achieve the life she wanted in the end?”

He shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I can’t speak for anyone but myself.”

“And what would you say about yourself?”

Ah, back into familiar territory. “That’s what starting up this company has been all about: living a better life than I had before, and helping other people to do the same. It’s about being more genuine in everything you do, and letting your present actions speak louder than your past mistakes.”

“Hmm.” Clarissa wrote something down on her phone. “Do you think you’re a more honest person now?”

“I think that honesty, especially with yourself, is a vital part of living a more genuine life. Honesty toward everyone else can be a little harder to follow through on, but if you want to make connections that will help you move forward in life, then you need to come to terms with being open about your life. At least professionally,” he amended, because while his skeletons were all very much out of the closet, not all of his clients’ were. And considering who some of his clients happened to be, ruthless honesty wouldn’t always be in their best interests.

Clarissa smiled slightly. “What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told about yourself, Elliot?”

He smiled right back at her. “That I thought I could ever truly be anything other than an opportunist.”

She arched her eyebrows. “You admit that you’re exploiting people, then?”

“No more than they’re exploiting me,” he said. “Charmed Life is a company made to facilitate networking between like-minded individuals with similar, challenging histories. We don’t only specialize in romance, work, or everyday life, though―we specialize in betterment, in helping our members climb up from the very bottom rung of the ladder. Charmed Life is about how to commit yourself to the path you’ve chosen, how to persevere where others would get knocked back. How to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and emerge stronger and more focused than ever. My company is about providing second chances, and our members share their success with the next generation of seekers.”

“It sounds lofty and high-minded when you put it like that,” Clarissa said. “But you rather pointedly market to celebrities, don’t you? I don’t see Charmed Life reaching out to halfway houses or prisons and working with the people there.”

“Believe it or not, I have great compassion for that segment of the population. I almost ended up there myself, after all,” he said candidly. “But you can’t force someone to make a positive change in their life; they have to decide that for themselves. I’d like to offer classes and maybe mentorship in prisons, particularly for juvenile offenders, but currently I’m focusing on growing other parts of the business.”

“The lucrative parts, you mean.”

“The self-directed parts.” Clarissa could dig at his business model all she wanted; Elliot could doublespeak with the best of them. Not that that was the purpose of his work, but it was definitely the way to survive a chili interview without getting bad publicity.

“I see.” With a tiny toss of her hair, Clarissa changed the subject once again. “Let’s talk about your sister.”

Oh boy. He hardened his smile and straightened his spine. “What would you like to know?”

* * * * * * *

Seeing the red soles of Clarissa’s Louboutin pumps vanishing two hours later gave Elliot a far greater sense of relief than her exodus really merited, but damn, that had been rough. He was an old hand at interviews at this point, but none of his experience had prepared him for anything quite as thorough, or as diverse, as Clarissa Hanes had managed. It would either be the greatest article he could ever ask for, or public perception of his company would tank the day after it was published next month.

It was after hours, but Serena was still there, parsing through the usual pile of snail mail that seemed to accumulate more quickly the closer they got to the Meetup. Elliot had embraced a paperless format for communicating with his clients, but some of them wouldn’t be dragged into the future even if he tied their feet to the back of the Mars rover. He sat down on the edge of Serena’s desk and sighed heavily. “Why did I ever let you convince me to do an interview with Shockwave?”

“I didn’t convince you of anything―it was your idea,” Serena said, wielding her letter opener like she was cutting throats. “I said to avoid Clarissa Hanes at all costs: look what she’d written about Zuckerberg, remember what she had to say about the guy who wants to make those mobile apartments. But you told me—”

“Hey, in her defense, mobile apartments really are a terrible idea,” he said. “Why bother moving your tiny box of a home from New York to LA when you could put a down payment on a new tiny little box for less than the price of shipping? It doesn’t make sense.”

“See? You have being very opinionated in common, so the results might be better than you think. I can’t believe that she convinced you to give her an invite to the Meetup. The way she snatched it out of your hands, I thought you might lose a few fingers.”

“She said she’d persuade her editor to make it a feature.”

“Maybe she will,” Serena allowed. “But you’re rolling the dice on whether it would be complimentary or not. You haven’t even read what she’s going to be writing about you, but you’re willing to subject the company to that kind of exposure?”

Honestly, he had started having second thoughts about inviting Clarissa to the Meetup almost as soon as he’d invited her, but if there was one thing she was good for, it was press. She’d been an award-winning investigative journalist for twenty years before abruptly pivoting to specialize in writing about startups and tech companies a year ago, and she had a wide audience for her work.

He shrugged. “Too late to back out now. Is there anything interesting in the mail?”

“Let’s find out.” Serena sliced open a large black envelope and poured the contents onto her desk. “Ah, it’s the vendor confirmations from the Studio Loft, excellent.”

Charmed Life was about to have its first annual Executive Meetup for Elliot’s top tier of clientele. He’d chosen a venue inside the Denver Performing Arts Complex, since there was nothing like combining dinner with a show, and the theater was less pretentious than shoving all his guests into a gallery and expecting them to make intelligent conversation about modern art. He repressed a shudder just thinking about the latter.

“Check and make sure their numbers are right,” he said. “If I’m paying a premium for these services, then I want to make sure we don’t leave people underfed and parched.”

“With the amount of alcohol you’re providing, no one is going to be left parched, but I’ll check,” Serena assured him as she moved on to the unmarked package on her desk. She cut through the plain brown butcher paper and pulled it back to reveal an equally nondescript cardboard box.

“If this is a covert attempt by Stuart to sneak you more baked goods, I’m going to laugh,” she warned as she took the top off the box.

Inside weren’t cupcakes. It was a pair of shoes cradled in tissue paper instead. Serena frowned as she lifted one out, examining the tag. “Did you order these? Why did you have them sent here?”

Elliot stared at the gray and black Nikes and a familiar, slithering unease wrapped around his lungs and started to squeeze. Another one, and this time at the office. Fuck. He’d been okay as long as it had just been at home, when he’d been the only one to know . . . having something like this show up at his office felt like a far worse violation.

“Elliot?” Serena’s fingers on his hand snapped him out of his unpleasant reverie. “What’s wrong?”

He must be off his game. That was the only reason he answered honestly: “I don’t know who those are from.” But he knew why they were here. “I went jogging in City Park yesterday evening, and my right shoe’s sole came off. I had to walk over a mile back to my car, half barefoot.” He smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I was a bit of a spectacle, I suppose. The plan was to buy another pair after work today, but it seems like someone beat me to it.”

Serena looked unimpressed with his candor. Worse, she looked concerned. “Someone? Someone who’s willing to spend around two hundred dollars on a pair of sneakers?” She pulled the other shoe out and compared their tags, and her concern darkened to actual worry. “Someone who knows your right foot is a size smaller than your left? How the hell did this mysterious someone figure that out?”

“I threw the shoes into a garbage can in the parking lot,” Elliot said easily, forcing himself to stay relaxed. “They must have retrieved them.”

Serena shook her head incredulously. “Are you honestly telling me that someone went searching through the innumerable bags of dog shit filling those cans to fish out your busted sneakers, just so they could anonymously send you a new pair today? Is that what you’re telling me?”

He shrugged. “What can I say? I seem to have attracted a secret admirer.”

“No, no, no.” And now Serena was standing and oh, there went her hips, shimmying into disapproving overdrive. “A secret admirer is someone who leaves you cute notes on Valentine’s Day or the occasional sinful, delicious cupcake.”

“Which I notice is gone, by the way.”

Serena humphed. “Not the point. And please, Stuart couldn’t be more blatant if he stuck heart-shaped Post-it notes to his eyes―he’s not keeping anything a secret. And besides, you hate red velvet, so I feel no guilt. No trying to distract me.” She came around her desk and stood in front of him, shoes in hand. “Expensive gifts in unmarked packages indicating that someone is watching you without your knowledge? That’s creepy. Not romantic, not admiring, nothing other than unsettlingly creepy.”

“I never said it wasn’t also creepy,” he said defensively.

“I think there might be a lot you didn’t say.” She glared at him over the tops of the shoes. Elliot hadn’t quailed this hard since the last time he’d seen his sister. “Is this the first present you’ve received?”

“I get a lot of fan mail.”

“And you have it sent here because you’re not stupid enough to give out your home address. Stop avoiding the point, Elliot. Just talk to me. Please.”

Serena’s please was a mortal blow, and she knew it. If there was one person in his life he had to come clean to—personally as well as professionally—Serena was it. “There have been a few other things.”

“What kind of things?”

“Only pictures, before this.”

“Pictures.” Her voice was completely flat. “Pictures of you?”

He nodded. “And my house. My car. My dog.”

“And how were you given these pictures?”

“My mailbox, mostly,” he said. Serena shifted, her posture shouting obscenities at him as she waited. Elliot sighed. “And a few stuffed through the letter slot in my front door.”

Serena’s dark eyes went wide. “Elliot, this is stalking! You need to take it to the cops.”

He was shaking his head before she’d finished her sentence. “Absolutely not. A few pictures and a pair of shoes don’t constitute a threat to my safety.”

“You have no idea what kind of person this is. And they know where you live; they followed you on your evening run—”

“It’s not like I live in a gated community,” Elliot reminded her. “Anyone can drive down the street there, even if we are a ways outside of town.” Golden was growing in size fast, but Elliot’s little subdivision still consisted of older houses with nice, private plots. “And City Park is open to the public. Whoever this is, they haven’t trespassed.”

“But the police—”

“I can’t.” Elliot shook his head. “You know I can’t. Not right now.” Not with the election for district attorney coming up. He wasn’t going to sabotage things for his sister again.

Serena tossed the shoes onto her desk with a weary sigh. “You don’t think she’d rather have you alive and well than win a damn election?”

“I don’t like to postulate about what Vanessa wants for me,” he said. “But I do know I’m not going to rock the boat unless absolutely necessary. I’m fine. I doubt I’m in any danger.”

Serena opened her mouth, but Elliot was done arguing. “So! I’ll take those―” he swiped the shoes from where she’d left them “―and go home.”

“Tell me you’re not going to wear them jogging.”

“They’re nice shoes,” Elliot pointed out. “And just my size. Of course I’m going to wear them.”

Serena scowled. “At least check the soles for razor blades, all right?” Idiot, her tone added, but Elliot was an expert at ignoring negative subtext.

“Should I check for bombs too?” he asked, then winced as Serena smacked his arm with her surprisingly hard hand. “I mean, yes, I’ll check them. Promise.”

“I guess that’s the best I’m going to get.”

“It’s not your job to worry about me,” he reminded her as he gathered the shoes under his arm and grabbed his briefcase with the other.

“No, it’s my hobby.” She crossed her arms. He could tell she was desperate to reach out, to grab hold and gather him in like she did with everyone in her life, it seemed. Serena excelled at making connections, like Elliot, but where his were all professional these days, most of hers were deeply personal, even if they didn’t start off that way. She could coax a turtle out of its shell or a reluctant investor into exchanging life stories in under an hour, and Elliot appreciated that about her.

He appreciated her efforts to appropriate him into her family far less. Families were messy, and he’d already done enough damage to the one he’d been born into. He didn’t need to tempt fate by getting entangled in someone else’s.

“I’m fine. I’m going straight home,” he assured her.

“Text me when you get there.”

“Serena . . .”

“Please?”

Fucking pleases. “Fine. But just this once.”

She looked relieved, which made giving up a little of his evening autonomy worth it. “Thank you.”

“You only thank me when you get your way,” he complained, and mentally punched the air in victory when he saw her smile. “Don’t stay here working, all right? I’m tired of paying your overtime.”

“You need to hire me an assistant,” she said immediately. “Or at least an intern. Someone I can shove the paperwork onto while I manage your elaborate schmoozing schedule. And don’t worry about your precious budget; there’ll be no more overtime tonight. My sister’s having a barbecue and I’m bringing the chips.”

“The chips?”

Serena sighed. “She said to bring a side and I don’t cook, you know that. This is why I have all my parties catered.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured her with a wink. “I don’t judge.”

Elliot walked out of the office, calling a goodnight to the janitor who was already at work in the other half of the building. He headed down the street to the parking garage where his car, a sleek, modern Porsche Panamera, sat waiting for him.

Elliot stood at the driver’s side door with his keys in his hand, wondering for a moment whether or not he really should check the car, at least, for bombs. After a second he shook his head at himself. He wouldn’t even know what to search for, and they probably wouldn’t try to kill him. Not like this.

“You’re fine,” he said quietly as he opened the door and got inside. “It’s fine.” He set his things in the passenger seat, resolutely not looking at the shoes that he was going to throw in the next dumpster he saw, then buckled up, and slowly put his key into the ignition and turned it.

The car started with a purr, and absolutely no explosions beyond its regular internal combustion. Elliot let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and pressed his forehead against the smooth leather of the steering wheel for a moment. His car acting normally felt like a stupid thing to be grateful for, but the rock lodged in his throat suddenly melted away.

Before he could second-guess himself, he pulled out his phone and brought up Vanessa’s info. He dug his fingers into his palm as he resisted the urge to outright call her, just to hear her voice message―she wouldn’t reply. She never did, but she’d never told him not to text her either, so he’d made it a ritual for whenever he was feeling overwhelmed. Elliot tapped out a message, Thinking of you, and hit Send fast.

Maybe his note would make her smile. Maybe it would inspire her to reach out to him once the election was over―it was so close now. And if she won, if he didn’t ruin things for her again, if everything went perfectly, then maybe he could have the most important part of his old life again: his family.

Maybe. Elliot turned his phone off, set it aside, and backed out of his parking space. Until Vanessa made her move, he’d be fine. He was fine. He refused to let himself be any other way.

 

Chapter Two

Partial transcription of most recent appointment with West, Lennox, Staff Sergeant US Army Rangers (R), January 28 3:03 p.m.:

JS: How did you sleep this past week, Lennox?

LW: Why, do I look tired?

JS: That’s not what I was implying.

LW: Why else would you be asking?

JS: It’s a starting point when it comes to talking about your overall health. We have to start somewhere, after all.

LW: Right. Listen, I’d rather you be upfront about what you’re prying into instead of trying to coax it out of me. You want to ask about the nightmares, just ask.

JS: I do want to know about your nightmares if they’re something that’s bothering you. But they’re not all I care about.

LW: Well, the answer is I slept like shit, and yes, the nightmares are happening on a regular basis, and no, I don’t want a prescription for sleeping pills or Valium or anything else you’re gonna offer me. Not interested, full stop.

JS: There’s no shame in treating your health issues. It would be worse to leave them untreated and ignored.

LW: I’m not ignoring them. I’m here, talking to you about them now. But I don’t want any drugs.

JS: If this is about the possible side effects, I can assure you―

LW: Change the subject, Doc, or we’re done for the day.

* * * * * * *

There was a very particular sound a perfect hook to the heavy bag made. It was a sweet, cracking smack that reverberated through the room but not the hand, a smooth motion that made his body sing with how good it felt to sink power into the bag. Lennox worked the hooks into his combos, slinging them onto the end of simple one-twos and throwing them repeatedly in the middle of a flurry, imagining the bag was a body under his hands, not leather but flesh.

Smack—smack—smack-smack—

“Move your feet,” Carl called out. Lennox wanted to snap at the guy for interrupting his flow, but since Carl was the resident coach, as well as the owner, it was easier just to do it. Lennox started working slips back into his rhythm, weaving down and across and throwing a tight left-hand hook while he was at it, searching for that sweet sound.

Smack. The scent of leather filled his nose—leather worn by years of use and hundreds of gloves, thousands of hits. Leather and his own sweat, and not the sharp, awful tang of blood and that was good. Maybe if he breathed it in deeper and sank it into his bones, he’d be able to carry the scent with him into sleep and stop dreaming of the other.

“You have to dance better than that if you wanna go into the ring with Marty.”

Everybody wanted to go into the ring with Marty, a retired pro―even Lennox, whose only claim to fame here was maybe angriest newbie. He wasn’t there yet, but if he had his way, he would be soon. Lennox came to the gym every evening he could, working the bag or pads or sparring in the ring, trying to exhaust himself so his night would go a little easier. Boxing wasn’t the best solution for killing his nightmares, but it was the healthiest one available to him.

Smack—smack—smack. His last hit actually made his back twinge, and Lennox knew he’d had enough. He couldn’t afford to go until it hurt tonight―he had a barbecue to get to.

A barbecue. In January.

In his ex’s defense, it was an unusually warm sixty degrees out, but Lennox hadn’t quite made the switch from a Washington winter to a Colorado winter. The first meant freezing temperatures and little to no snow; the second meant plenty of snow, but it was all gone in a day. Lennox was grateful that getting around on his Harley Deuce was easier, but still. It just didn’t seem right.

He stepped away from the bag and pulled on the knot at the top of his right glove with his teeth.

“Oh, come here,” Carl muttered, waving Lennox over to his bench next to the ring. Two of his other students were going at it inside, and Carl never let his eyes leave them while he got to work. “That’s just unsanitary,” he continued, taking Lennox’s glove in hand and starting on the laces. “Don’t be like those fucking kids from the university, treating your equipment like shit because your daddy can afford to buy you a new set of gloves every week.”

Lennox suppressed a smile. “I’ll try not to act like a trust-fund baby.”

“Not that I can really knock ’em,” Carl said, finishing with Lennox’s left hand and picking up his right. “Those kids are what keep me in business. Fifty new clients each semester that sign up for cardio-boxing bullshit, and ten or so keepers twelve weeks later. Eh. It’s a living.”

“So it is,” Lennox agreed, pulling his left hand free of the glove. He flexed his fingers in their tape. No spots of pain, nothing hot or sore—he’d pushed it to the edge, but not over.

“You’re done early tonight.”

“I’ve got a thing with the ex and her family.”

Carl shook his head. “What part of ex don’t you understand? You don’t stay friends with ’em, Lennox; that’s how you go crazy. You give ’em alimony and child support and take the kids over the summer. That’s how you handle an ex.”

Lennox shrugged. “I’m just lucky, I guess.” And he was, he knew that, even if he really wasn’t in the mood to spend time with Gaby and her extended family tonight. He’d be lucky if his daughter said two words together to him. Everyone told him it was because she was thirteen, but Lennox knew better. He’d fucked up royally with Lia, time and again, and if going to a January barbecue and listening to Gaby and her sisters bitch at each other was what he had to do to make amends, then he was doing it.

Besides, he’d already cooked.

“Lucky my ass,” Carl grunted. “Go on, then, get out of here. Marshall! Did you hear a fuckin’ bell, or is it your ears that are ringing? Ten more seconds, you lazy jackass!”

Lennox took a moment to rinse off in the locker room before packing his bag, grabbing his offering for the barbecue from Carl’s fridge, and heading to his bike. The sky was starting to get dark, but it was still plenty warm out. He stuffed the gym equipment into the leather bag on the back, put his helmet on, and started the engine up. The bike growled to life underneath him, and Lennox’s spine relaxed. Right now, post-workout and pre-family, was probably the most peaceful he was going to feel all day. He might as well enjoy it.

After the too-fast twenty-minute ride, Lennox pulled his Harley into the driveway and killed the engine. The neighbor watering a bunch of unseasonal potted mums across the street glared at him as he took his helmet off. Lennox waved, grabbed his obligatory side dish out of the saddlebag, and stowed his helmet back in its place, then headed for the front door, which had been propped open with a brick―an actual brick―that read WELCOME in black letters on top. Lennox briefly contemplated having a life that involved extraneous decorative bricks, shook his head, then walked inside.

He sidled into the kitchen quietly, hoping to put his mac and cheese on the counter and get out before Gaby or Serena noticed him. His odds were pretty good: at the moment they were arguing about . . . chips?

“I said bring a side dish, not grab the nearest bag of fat and carbohydrates on your way out of the 7-Eleven,” Gaby snapped from where she was chopping tomatoes to put into a salad. She was using one of the knives Lennox had given her and Marcus last Christmas, handling it like a pro. He smiled a little even as he winced in anticipation of Serena’s comeback. The older Rodriguez sisters were incapable of being in each other’s company for more than a minute without an argument developing.

“Are you kidding me?” Serena grabbed a bag and shook it. “These are imported, organic potato chips made with cask-aged Italian vinegar and pink Himalayan rock salt! These came from Boulder; there’s nothing healthier than a Boulder potato chip!”

“If I wanted you to bring potato chips, I would have asked for them! Just because they’re organic doesn’t mean they’re healthy, and I’m trying to keep three kids junk food–free as long as they’re eating at home.”

“Lee is thirteen and the boys are seven. Do you really think they’re going to be interested in salt and vinegar potato chips? It’s a very adult flavor.”

Gaby slammed her knife down and tossed the tomatoes in the salad bowl. “They might be!”

“You’re crazy if you think this is the worst thing they’ll be eating tonight. Like, here―Lennox!” Serena turned toward him like a human heat-seeking missile. “What did you bring for dinner?”

Lennox resisted the urge to back away. “Mac and cheese.”

“Ha!” Serena glared at Gaby. “He brings noodles mixed with butter and cheese and gets nothing from you, and I bring one little bag of chips and get interrogated like it’s the Inquisition!”

“Lennox knows the rules.” Gaby pointed a finger at the covered casserole dish. “Are there any vegetables in there?”

He nodded. “Broccoli.”

“There, you see? He brought broccoli.”

“He wrapped it in cheese!”

Lennox made good on his chance for escape this time, almost jogging down the hall and out to the backyard where Marcus was at the grill. His twin boys were playing some combination game of tag and bouncing on a trampoline, Gaby’s younger sister, Rommie, was stretched out on a lounge chair in front of the pool, and Lennox’s daughter was nowhere to be seen. He sighed and headed for Marcus, who glanced up from turning the corn and bratwurst and gave him a welcoming smile. He was a big guy, taller than Lennox by a few inches, and wore an apron over his button-down and suit trousers that read WOMEN WANT ME, COWS FEAR ME.

“Hey, man, glad you could make it.” He reached into the cooler next to him and passed Lennox a beer. It was cold, dark, and just what he needed at the moment.

“You’re a saint,” Lennox said, popping the cap off and taking a long drink.

“Is it still a free-for-all in there?”

“Eh.” Lennox wobbled his free hand back and forth. “It could be worse. I think it’s more habit for them than anything else these days.”

“Maybe,” Marcus said judiciously, a pensive frown on his broad face. “Serena looked ready to spit nails when she got here though. I think something bad went down at work, but you know how Gaby feels about her job.”

“Like she drank the Kool-Aid.” Yeah, Lennox had been in earshot of several arguments over Serena working for a famously bad man with equally famous powers of resurrection. Gaby thought Elliot McKenzie wasn’t trustworthy; Serena told her sister she shouldn’t condemn someone based on their past behaviors.

Personally, Lennox was inclined to trust Serena’s judgment. When he’d first met her fifteen years ago, Serena had been falling from one bad relationship into another. She’d done three years in a state prison on drug charges when Lia was a baby, and from how Gaby had talked back then, her life might as well have been over. But Serena had turned things around, and since being hired by Elliot McKenzie, she was doing better than ever.

Not that that was enough to keep her sister off her back. A particularly pointed exclamation from Gaby drifted out into the yard, and Marcus winced. “Today’s a little worse than usual.”

“They’ll get over it.” They always did. “Where’s Lia?”

Marcus smiled. “Up in her room with her headphones on listening to Fall Out Boy, probably.”

“Not a fan of the samba music?”

“She’s not a fan of anything much lately.” Marcus shrugged the shrug of a parent, sort of a not gonna get worked up if it’s just a phase shrug. “She’ll be down for dinner. Which should be in a few more minutes, the way these things are coming along. You bring your mac and cheese?”

Lennox nodded. “With broccoli in it.”

“Way to game the system.” Marcus clinked Lennox’s bottle with his own and went back to minding the grill. They watched the boys continue their game of full-contact trampoline bouncing and drank in companionable quiet for a while until the meat was done. Then Marcus passed Lennox a plate of hamburgers to take inside as Gaby called out that it was time to eat.

“Go and get Lee, will you?” she asked as he set the food down, then washed his hands in the kitchen sink.

“You think she’ll open the door for me?”

Gaby looked unamused. “She’s thirteen, not thirty. She’d better open the door when one of her parents tells her to.” Even if that parent is you went unsaid, but Lennox heard it regardless. He didn’t say anything, just dried his hands on an old dishtowel and went to retrieve his daughter.

Her door was liberally crisscrossed with yellow and black DO NOT ENTER tape. That was new since he’d last been here. Lennox took it at face value and knocked loudly on the door. “Hey, Lia? Dinner.” There was a long silence, so he rapped again. “Lia!”

The door jerked out from under his knuckles. “I heard you the first time,” his daughter informed him haughtily. “And it’s Lee, Dad, not Lia.”

Christ, two years ago this hadn’t been so hard. Two years ago, right before Lennox’s last deployment, he’d still known how to relate to his daughter. She’d gone by Lia then, sweet Lia who’d loved horses and Saturday morning cartoons and who’d decorated her room in purple and pink, not black and blue. He’d had her for almost a month that summer before shipping out, and she’d been his little girl.

After eleven months in Afghanistan, though, followed by another seven months working with Oliver as Lennox tried not to lose his mind, before finally giving in to Gaby’s pleas and joining her family here in Colorado, well . . . Lennox didn’t know how he and Lee fit now. He didn’t know how to talk to her anymore, and the one time he’d tried to have her over at his new apartment, the night had gone, in a word, abysmally.

“Dad!”

“Sorry, sweetheart.” Lennox shook his head and refocused on Lee, who had her arms folded in front of her chest, like she was trying to hug herself. She looked a weird combination of annoyed and worried, but there was something else about her that was niggling at his brain. It took him a moment but―

“You cut your hair.” He blinked. “And dyed it purple.” Actually she’d cut one side very close to her skin. The other side still touched her shoulder. Plus it was purple. Lennox opened his mouth, then took a deep breath and shut it again. If his goddamn therapy sessions had been useful for one thing, it was reminding him to stop and take a moment when he was surprised or upset before he let himself react to whatever was causing it.

“Nice color, Lee,” he said at last, which seemed to shock her out of her funk. She smiled at him, and uncrossed her arms.

“Thanks. Aunt Rommie took me to get it done. Mom wasn’t happy with us.”

“Maybe it’ll grow on her,” Lennox offered as he moved back from the door. “You hungry, sweetheart?”

Lee shrugged. “Kind of.”

“I brought mac and cheese.”

“With cauliflower?”

“Broccoli.”

“Ugh.” She made a face. “Well, I guess I can pick it out.”

“Cauliflower next time,” he promised her. She shut her door, and they headed down the stairs together. “What made you decide to cut your hair?”

“I wanted a change.” That seemed to be her final word on the subject, as Lee darted into the dining room faster than Lennox could follow.

Dinner for eight was a noisy affair in the Smith-Rodriguez household, with Gaby alternating between chatting with her sisters and keeping her stepsons still for long enough to eat. Lennox was seated between Lee and Serena, who did seem unusually subdued. When he had a moment as the conversations around them picked up, he murmured, “You need me to beat someone up or something? Because you look like somebody kicked your cat.”

“No,” she sighed. “It’s just Elliot being stupid. He’s gotten into a situation—not an illegal one,” she added with a mild glare at Gaby, who glared right back, “and I’m worried about it, but he refuses to get help. I understand his reasons, but I don’t agree with them.”

“What kind of situation?”

“The kind that― Well, it’s really not my place to talk about it.” Lennox’s eyebrows rose at that admission, but Serena ignored his surprise. “I feel like he should take some measures to be safer. And he doesn’t feel the same.”

“Safer.” Lennox’s brain went into professional mode. “Safer as in a personal carry, or safer as in a home security system?” The company he worked for, Castillion, had started as one man’s knife-making endeavor and grown into a multimillion dollar personal-protection business. Rodney Castillion still made custom knives, but he sold far more weapons than just his Wharncliffe blades now. His company did security system installs, monitored hundreds of clients’ homes and vehicles, and had a few specialists on site who consulted with insurance companies on high-tech crimes.

Castillion was a rapidly growing organization, and one that preferred to hire veterans. Gaby had gotten Lennox the job, and despite being forced to deal face-to-face with customers, he liked the work. It was by far the simplest thing in his new life, and the easiest to learn.

Serena laughed brightly. “Oh my God, I can’t imagine Elliot carrying a gun! He’d say it ruined the line of his suit or something, and him with a weapon? He won’t even use a pair of scissors if he can help it. No, no guns for him, although . . .” Her expression became thoughtful. “A home security system might be just the thing. The office building has a security system, but as far as I know his home has nothing like it. That’s actually a fantastic idea. Oh, Lennox!” She twisted to put a hand on his arm. “You have to come and meet with him tomorrow! Talk him into this―it’s exactly what he needs.”

Talk him into it? Lennox was more the “I’ll install it for you after you buy it, preferably when you’re not around to bother me” type. “I’m not very good at being persuasive.”

“He’s much better at giving orders,” Gaby added. Lee snorted quietly.

“Ganged up on by the women tonight, I see how it is,” Lennox teased, and was gratified to see Lee smile at him. “Serena, really, he’d do better to talk to Kevin at the office―”

“But he won’t!” Serena insisted, her voice tight with frustration. “He persists in thinking nothing is wrong and if someone isn’t there to ride him on this, he’ll just ignore the problem until something bad happens!”

Well, that sounded ominous. “Maybe you two should be going to the police with this.”

“You’d think that,” Serena said, her voice so saccharine sweet Lennox could almost taste it in the air. “But no, apparently not. Lennox, please, will you come by the office tomorrow?” She whipped out her phone and pulled up a calendar. “Around . . . four? He’s got a break at four, and I can make it last as long as you need.” There was genuine eagerness in her voice, backed by clear worry.

Fuck it. “Yeah, I can do that.”

“Amazing! You are amazing.” Serena reached around his shoulder for a one-armed hug. “You might be a literal lifesaver, Lennox. Has anyone ever told you that?”

The faint satisfaction of a job well done evaporated in an instant, leaving Lennox cold and breathless. His heartbeat sounded louder in his ears already, and he knew he had to get space, fast. He gently detached Serena’s arm and pushed away from the table. “No. They haven’t. I need some air, excuse me.”

He walked out to the back deck and shut the kitchen door behind him, then sat down on the edge of the steps and put his head in his hands. He breathed, in and out, slowly and steadily. He could handle this. He could. It was only because it was a therapy day; those sessions brought all this shit to the foreground, all the things he worked so hard to forget in his day-to-day life.

Lennox wasn’t a lifesaver. He was a murderer, even if it hadn’t been his hand on the trigger, even if he’d technically been exonerated. Heat of battle, malfunctioning equipment, bad weather—none of it mattered to the two men who hadn’t come away from the fight.

Lennox wasn’t sure how much time he spent there, breathing and trying not to think, before a soft, familiar voice said, “Hey there. You doing okay?”

Gaby. He rolled his shoulders and opened his eyes, surprised to see that it had gone dark outside. “Yeah, I’m fine.” For a given value of fine. “How long have I been out here?”

“Fifteen minutes, maybe. Lee and Serena were worried, but I told them to give you some space.”

He smiled crookedly at his ex-wife as she sat next to him. When they’d been together they’d been terrible to each other, their marriage a mistake from the very beginning, born of nervousness and homesickness when both their units had been posted overseas. But after an amicable divorce and doing their best to raise Lee together despite numerous deployments, they’d become better friends post-breakup than they’d ever been while married. “Thanks for that.”

from Publishers Weekly

Snappy dialogue, a host of endearing secondary characters . . . and a surprising twist make the tale appealing.