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This was just a regular patrol, Lanie thought, even though she wasn’t on shift tonight. She just liked to see for herself that everything was okay. It was part of her job. Her responsibility to make sure that everyone in the complex was safe. Not putting themselves in danger.
Her soft footsteps paced the length of the sleeping hall as she scanned the area, waiting. She could hear the sounds of insects, and birds of the night, and the barest guggle of the distant river. Usually she hated night watch, and how the smallest noise sent trickles of ice down her spine. She liked being able to see what was coming. But tonight, it was almost peaceful, as long as she didn’t look too closely at the dark. The moon didn’t really help either, just threw shadows over everything, making her see things that weren’t really there.
The moment she was about to give up and go back into her cabin, she saw what she had been waiting for: a hooded giant creeping through the night, with a backpack, black pants and a black sweater. That rat bastard. Why couldn’t he listen? Why couldn’t he show the barest hint of respect toward her, and believe that she knew what she was talking about?
The thought of calling out to him crossed her mind, but there was something intriguing about watching his furtive scamper through the moonlit dimness. The sight ignited a ravening instinct in her, and she let herself prowl after him, through the low grass between the brush and the road. Practicing scanning ahead for things that might crunch under her feet, she crept soundlessly and swiftly, daring herself to maintain as close a distance as possible without alerting him. Ben’s boots crunched steadily on the dirt road, and even if it hadn’t been nearly a full moon, it would have been easy to follow him. The enticing unawareness of her presence sated her wolfish palate. The thought that she could probably jump him, take him down if she chose. But she steeled herself against the temptation. If she did that, she wouldn’t get to witness what would happen when he reached the hospital.
When they were almost there, Lanie moved a little closer to watch the show. Ben skirted the main building, staying out of the floodlights, to try and get to the courtyard on the other side. Despite her anticipation, Lanie grunted very softly in disgust. Goddammit. Didn’t he know better?
And three, two, one…
“Freeze!” one of the guards yelled, rifle and flashlight drawn on the surreptitious figure.
With a bellow, Ben whirled around, hands flying over his head. Within seconds, he was surrounded by three other guards, and radio messages crackled through the air. One of them grabbed Ben and wrestled him to the ground, and then he had four lethal muzzles trained on his terrified form.
Lanie blinked as her heart seemed to completely stop for a moment. Shit. This wasn’t as fun as she had thought it would be. After only a moment’s thought, she sprang to his side. “Stand down,” she ordered, hands on her hips. “All clear.” She could hear the rapid rasp of precious air in Ben’s lungs from the ground beneath her. She could probably have heard his heart pounding, if she was a little closer.
Well, good. Maybe he would learn not to sneak around a guarded compound at night.
“Is he with you?” one of the guards asked. They were all dressed head to toe in gear, and Lanie couldn’t tell who they were in the dark.
“Yes. This is Dr. Goldberg, our architect and one of the teachers at the school. Lower your weapons.” She kept her voice calm, but steely. “Go back to your stations.”
They left without any further questions, though she knew they probably had plenty. Lanie sagged with relief now that the weapons were no longer aiming at that dumbass. Maybe she had been the stupid one. She should have just told him what would happen, instead of believing she would get some sort of pleasure out of his terror. Although she had been mostly sure they wouldn’t actually shoot a single intruder, it could have ended very badly.
Lanie was about to turn her wrath on the man, but he lumbered to his feet and strode off.
“Hey!” she snapped, going after him. When he kept going, she darted in front and put her hand on his chest, forcing him to a halt, even as he tried to manoeuvre around her, barely looking at her. But she stayed on him until he cast her a resigned, annoyed glare. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I have a project to finish,” he said in a low, determined voice that vibrated her hand, even through his sweatshirt. So unlike the goofy, laughing way he usually talked. “I can’t just leave the play structure like that. It’s dangerous.” He tried to step around her, but she moved with him.
The tight lid on her exasperation was nearly about to pop off. “Ben. I’ve told you. You need to rest. You had heat stroke today. You haven’t been eating, and barely been sleeping. Do you know you could have gotten yourself killed, just now? These guards are trained to shoot first, ask questions later.” Unable to help herself, she hit a fist into his chest. Not hard. But with emphasis. “You could be dead right now, you idiot!”
He crossed his arms, and scowled. The expression seemed wrong, like he was wearing a mask. Dark Ben was something to behold, however, and she felt the barest, tiniest burst of trepidation and awareness of his sheer size, six inches above her and twice as wide. Watching him to make sure he didn’t move, she broke contact with his body.
“Why do you keep treating me like I’m some sort of second-class citizen? I am not an idiot. I’m not a dumbass. I’m just trying to do something nice for those kids. For those parents, so that they have an easier time when they have to wait for hours in that emergency room. It’s something I can do, Lanie. I might not be some ex-secret service special forces ninja like you, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less capable of helping around here.”
“I’m just a medic and security consultant, Ben! I’m not nearly half as trained as the people patrolling around here who could have shot you!”
He wasn’t listening, and that stubborn set of his jaw made her want to scream. “What makes you think you have some sort of authority over me, then, huh? Why does everyone around here treat you like a queen bee? You walk around acting like you own the place, giving orders, laying down the law, and you just expect me to bow down to you and do what you say. Well, Queen Lanie, I don’t. I am going to finish that goddamn swing set, and the fucking playhouse, and continue doing everything else I promised! And you can pull some Krav Maga on me or whatever, but after you’re done beating me to a pulp, I’m going to keep right on working.”
Molten fury threatened to spill over and cut through the crust of her self-control. How could she want to kill a man so badly for putting his life in danger? To avoid the tipping point, she let him shove past her. Opening the gate to the courtyard, he traipsed through the grass to the half-finished play area. Deep breathing only helped cool her murderous rage to about half, so she marched over, then vaulted up onto the wall. Perching there, she watched him uncover his tools and supplies, put on a hard hat, goggles and gloves from his bag, and start working by the light of the moon.
“You’re going to get hurt, if you do this in the dark,” she called down to him. “You’re going to use up even more medical supplies that the children could be using.”
“Just let me bleed out next time, then,” he snapped, flicking a measuring tape. “I’m sure you’d love nothing more.”
“It seems like you’re the one with the death wish.”
She thought of how her heart had come out of her chest when the security team had encircled him. While she did want to kill him with her bare hands, it was mostly in a figurative sense. She didn’t want any of her volunteers getting hurt. This man was infuriating, but she knew he was probably coming from a good place.
He heaved a piece of lumber onto the sawhorse, and Lanie was impressed at how easy he made it look. She had helped haul those things before, and they weren’t light. No trouble for her, but she was always awed by how unexpectedly strong Ben was. Not agile or athletic, but a sort of strength that came from intense manual labour. He was like a draft horse.
Of course, this led to an intrusive thought about riding him…but she shoved it away.
He didn’t speak for a few moments as he rhythmically rasped the saw, his back bent over his work, and had the beam cleaved in only a few seconds. “I don’t have a death wish. But I’m not going to beg you to save me. If I’m going to die, I want to go out in a heroic blaze of glory, not begging for a band-aid.”
For some reason, that made her laugh out loud. He glanced up at her, and she thought she could see his lips twitch in the glow from the emergency room behind them. “An architect is very unlikely to go out that way. And let me tell you, there’s no glory when you’re standing in a blaze. It’s not something I would wish on anyone.”
He continued his work. “Ah, yes, Captain Lanie, the indestructible firefighter. Yet one more reason you’re better than me. I could never be in one of those sexy calendar shoots.”
She blinked, and realized she had been wondering what he would look like shirtless right now. Why was she thinking that? She didn’t need to see that. “You’re one to talk about thinking you’re better than everyone else. You think you don’t have to follow the rules. Exhibit A.”
“Well, what are you doing out here? You’re breaking the rules too.” He leered at her, then lifted the beam to his shoulder and carried it to the half-assembled play structure. It must have weighed at least ninety pounds.
“I’m security. I told you. I can go where I want. And apparently, I need to make sure you don’t go out in a blaze of glory. Especially since we wouldn’t have anyone to help us finish the school. Do you realize how selfish you’re being?”
“How is it selfish to try to do something nice for those kids?”
“You’re already doing something nice. You’re teaching them. You’re fixing their school. You’re apparently smuggling bread to patients, and you’re helping to keep the hospital in order. They don’t need this. They need practical stuff. They need extra supplies in case something else happens. For when something else happens.” She crossed her arms, swinging her foot along the side of the wall.
Breaking his pace for a moment, he shook his head irately. “They also need joy, Lanie. They need to just be kids. Not to worry about when they’re going to be attacked. I already told you, I’ll donate to the organization to make sure they can replenish the supplies.”
“It’s not just about having the supplies, Ben. Do you know how much effort it takes to actually get things over here? Unless we airdrop, it can take weeks, trying to make sure it doesn’t get raided, and half of it does get stolen anyway. It’s dangerous. And inconvenient.”
“Then I’ll pay for an airdrop.”
She snorted. “Oh, really. You’ve got fifty-thousand dollars laying around?”
He paused, and it was her turn to smirk. “Well. I guess I would have to dig into my retirement fund a bit, but yes. If that’s what it costs, I will pay. It’s worth it.”
She watched him, as he continued to labour and lug and saw and hammer. Every now and then he stopped to wipe his brow now that his aerobic system was kicking in. What was it about him? She puzzled it over. He was silly, but also obstinate, brawny but easily winded, flirtatious, but sometimes contemplative. And he had to be incredibly smart considering all of his academic success, but he apparently kept that in his head, because she had never once really seen him use his brain. But with all those degrees, he must have some intelligence. Or tenacity. Especially with all that math it took to be an engineer.
Was it because he was smarter than her, but he didn’t use it? Was that it? She wished she’d had the chance to go to college. She forgot what she had wanted to be, once. A doctor? The human body fascinated her. She snorted now. As if she could have gotten through ten years of school. She would much rather be travelling, and helping kids that she could actually save.
Or at least, that’s what she told herself.
When Ben had been at it for about forty minutes, she noticed that he was really starting to tire. He turned his back to her a few times, but she could still tell by his small, involuntary stretches that he was yawning. Then, he hoisted a beam to the platform of the slide, but he missed, and it came crashing back down.
“Watch out!” she yelled, leaping down and running to him. He jumped out of the way before it could land on his toe, and then almost without hesitation, immediately picked it back up again. Exasperated, she pulled herself up onto the deck of the play structure, then grabbed the beam when he tried to get it up again. No wonder he had dropped it, she thought as she pulled, and he pushed. This one weighed almost as much as her.
“What are you doing?” he asked with a sigh, looking up at her.
She hauled the massive piece of wood along the deck. “I don’t have a tranquilizer gun with me to keep you down, so I guess I’m just going to have to help you.”
He raised an eyebrow, and then a slow, sultry smile spread over his lips. “Well. This just got fun.”
She rolled her eyes, her lips clamped shut.
The moon drifted across the sky as they worked. Ben, his mood restored, started up a light cascade of chatter. She wasn’t even sure what he said, but it was like the sound of a babbling stream, and he didn’t seem to need her to answer. His voice was deep and melodic, and every now and then he made himself laugh, filling the night with the lusty, bounteous sound. It was soothing, in a way. He was just so full of life, and he apparently didn’t hold grudges, despite his tirade against her earlier. She felt like she was bathing in his radiance.
Lanie hadn’t built a play structure before, so Ben had to give her some instructions, but mostly it was the same as building anything else. Now that the work was going much faster, it seemed he could no longer stand the heat hot, and took off his sweatshirt, revealing the light-coloured tee-shirt underneath. His burly arms gave an intriguing display as they lifted, pounded, and rasped wood.
“We’re almost done,” Ben puffed, and then took off his tee-shirt, too.
She ordered herself to focus on her work, and not the way the moonlight sparkled on his skin, highlighting the contours of his upper body, the discreet pop and ripple of the muscles and bones in his chest and shoulders and back and forearms. The barely visible ropes of veins that coiled around his limbs like ivy. His shirtless form, with a hardhat and goggles, made her wonder what it would feel like for him to run those rough, thick gloves over her naked skin. Grabbing her around the waist with them, and placing her on the sawhorse, and…
“Are you done with that yet?” he asked, motioning one of those oversized gloved hands at the plank she had been hammering. He was waiting to hand her another one.
“Um, yep. Look at that, only one more to go before we can put the roof on.”
Quelling the pleasurable tingles, she tried desperately to refocus. She really needed to find a distraction. Not him, obviously. But someone.
Damn you, Javi. Of all the times for you to bail on me.
At last, the play structure was done. The rope swings were hung evenly. The ladder reaching up to the deck was sanded to avoid splinters, and the slide of tin sheets was in place. The whole thing was a sturdy, simple work of art.
“We’ll have to paint it white so it doesn’t get too hot,” Ben remarked, “But this looks pretty good.”
They sat on the deck, looking toward the camp, watching the sun start to come up. “Tomorrow’s going to suck,” Lanie muttered, leaning back on her hands. She could feel the heat radiating off of his naked upper body as he cooled beside her. “Not that this is my first all-nighter. But I definitely like knowing I’ve slept as much as I can.”
“Isn’t that pretty?” Ben didn’t acknowledge her gripe as he languorously admired the pinkening sky. “There’s nothing like a sunrise in the countryside. I love this place.”
“Just wait until we’re attacked. You might not be so enchanted.”
He flicked his eyes to her. “You sure do grumble a lot. Don’t you ever take a minute to just enjoy what’s around you?”
“Of course, I do. But I always have to be open to possibilities and stay alert. Especially when it comes to rogue, mutinous pastry chefs.”
He was perplexingly unoffended by the jab. Instead of returning a retort of his own, he brushed his hand down her arm, raising goosebumps, and she turned to him in surprise. “You really care about this place, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
“I can tell you’ve got a really big heart under that crusty old armour.”
A hard laugh forced out of her. “You think I’m crusty?”
“Well, I think you’re kind of like an éclair. Crusty on the outside, sweet and creamy on the inside.” His devilish grin made her curse him for making her think about him eating her. Did he know what he was doing to her? Did he get some sort of sick pleasure out of it, knowing that neither one of them would ever start something with the other? She decided to change the subject.
“So, how did you learn to do all of this stuff?” she asked, motioning to the play structure.
He settled on his hands, tilting his shiny black head back as though he were sunbathing. The curve of his throat was oddly graceful. She liked the way his collarbones flared out from the dip at the base of his throat. “I’ve always been interesting in building. Started with Lego, of course. Took shop class and mechanics as soon as I hit high school. I got my first residential construction job when I was fifteen. Not actually building things, but mostly running errands, picking up supplies and whatnot, but worked my way up as far as I could until I graduated. I also started doing handyman work around town, and that turned into little build projects with my friends, like decks and sheds, and play sets. I guess I kind of had my own business? Didn’t pay any taxes, though.” A silvery wink. “That’s when I got to play around with design and composition a little. I did trades programs at school when they were offered, and with my mathematical genius, as well as my art skills, they told me I should go into architecture. So I thought about it. What I wanted more than anything was to travel, so I took whatever programs I could around the world, and worked construction on evenings and weekends until I could get a desk job. But I still tried to volunteer for charity builds or short projects whenever I had time. Gotta keep my figure.” He patted his generous stomach unselfconsciously with another wicked grin. As tired as she was, she wanted to pillow her head on him and sleep. But she made herself stay awake.
“So, it sounds like you know what you’re doing.”
He pumped a fist triumphantly. “At last! She admits it!”
“Yeah, don’t get used to it. If you’re such an experienced contractor, you should know not to work alone at night.”
“I wasn’t alone.”
Don’t let him get to you, she counselled herself. He enjoys getting a rise out of people. And murder is wrong.
“What about you? How’d you learn…all of what you do?” He made a vague motion that encompassed her entire body.
Her shoulders rose and fell. “A little at a time, I guess. My life really took off when I was seventeen. I never did finish high school, but like I mentioned when we met, I started travelling the world when I became an adult. Just like you. I’ve never really been to formal school for anything. I basically just yell at people until they agree to teach me, or I took whatever short-term courses I could that didn’t require a diploma.” She sighed.
“So, you’re like a rogue first responder?”
“I kind of like the sound of that. But yeah, I guess so. I knew I wanted to learn how to protect myself, and save others. When I saw how so many children are suffering, starving, or being forced to do horrific things, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Disaster relief and humanitarian aid. So, I just started figuring out how I could do that.”
“Is that how you heard of this place?”
Oh, if only he knew. “Kind of.”
“I think I saw an ad for it when I searched up ‘worst country.’ Somalia came up on some website, and then it took me to a site for this mission.”
“Why were you searching for the worst country? Which Somalia isn’t, by the way. It’s pretty misunderstood.”
“I wanted to challenge myself. Really go somewhere nice and dangerous, and feel like I’m really doing something in the world.”
“I know the feeling.”
She felt a tightening in her midsection as he smiled at her. The way the pink and orange tint of the air changed his eyes and skin, and played on the dark shadows of his beard, was enthralling. “Thank you for helping me,” he said only half-sincerely. “And for not letting me get killed.”
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