Nasty Fall

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Is it possible for a smile to die twice? Once when she realized who was standing in front of her, and again after he spoke?

Do not punch this man in the face.

Do not elbow him in the throat.

No, don’t even kick him in the shins.

Though she saw how tall he is from a distance, now he’s so close that it’s overwhelming. Is it because he clearly has no sense of personal space? Or, is it because of the chilly sense of déjà vu whistling through her bones?

Refusing to be the one to step back, she has to crane her neck to stare down her nose at the giant in front of her. His huge arms, which look built by physical labour and absolutely not the gym, cross over his jolly round belly. Pale, striking eyes twinkle at her from an inquisitive face. They’re the clearest grey, practically sparkling silver. Like crystal mirrors, they capture and reflect the late afternoon sun at her back. The stark contrast is provocative against the light toffee of his skin, wavy onyx hair, and shadowy beard ornamenting his jaw. His breath smells like sweet cinnamon.

 “Chief, this is Dr. Ben Goldberg,” Mickey introduces grandly, pushing him forward so that he’s even closer. Mickey bubbles over with excitement, bouncing on her toes and clutching his burly bicep.

Lanie digs her toes in, straightening her spine, reaching for every inch of her five-ten frame. Five-eleven-and-a-half with her combat boots, and an extra inch from the curly bun coiled on her head. But still, it isn’t enough. She wants to shove him back, or sweep his knees to knock him down a peg or two. His eyes flicker at her defensive hostility, uncertainty and caution tainting his previously casual confidence. Arrogance. Lanie stares at him harder, and is relieved when he shrinks back, ever so slightly.

“Ben, this is Lanie de la Torre. The Chief. She’s been the director of the Towers Foundation for almost five years! She’s also an unofficial paramedic and a firefighter and helps in the fields and basically whatever heavy lifting we need. Oh, and aren’t you like a ninja something? Anyway, she handles a lot of our security and surveillance, too, oh, and –”

“Do I know you from somewhere?” Lanie blurts, his impolite closeness and Mickey’s ceaseless prattling finally pricking her self-control. Then, worried that the shameless man might take it as a come-on, she reaches out a hand. “I mean, nice to meet you. Thanks for coming all this way to help us.”

She congratulates herself sarcastically for regaining control of the situation, but instead of the perfunctory shake she expects as a matter of course, both of his warm, calloused hands engulf hers. Those shining eyes assess her as though she’s a project he’s about to start.

“I don’t think we’ve met.” His voice is no longer brazen and smarmy, and his ponderous squint produces tiny, delicate crow’s feet. “I didn’t see you on any of the Foundation websites. How can a director get away with that?”

“I fly under the radar, since I ruffle some very nasty feathers in the course of my work. But I’m not a ninja.” She rolls her eyes at Mickey, who shoots back a wide-eyed gaze of innocence. As much as Lanie appreciates the other woman’s admiration, her lack of discretion isn’t always funny.

He seems even more intrigued, though. “So, you’re like a spy?”

“Let’s just say I’m not someone you want to mess with.”

She tries for aloof distance, but her hold wavers. He’s staring at her tattoos now, almost as though he can see what they conceal. Which isn’t possible. She gets them touched up against sun-fading whenever she can, and obsessively checks that the scars are flawlessly incorporated into the design of tulips, lilacs, and roses. Even she can barely tell where the razor-thin fissures end and the ink begins. But something about his scrutiny makes her want to pull down a nonexistent sleeve.

“So, is everyone who meets you sworn to secrecy?” Two dimples emerge in his cheeks as the speculative expression clears into impish teasing.

She takes another step toward him, uncertain about how he will respond, but he thankfully takes a step back.  “No need. I never stay in the same place for long, and I spend ninety percent of my time in secluded, semi-militarized compounds.”

He’s still holding her hand. Her face heating, she slides it from his grasp, shaking her fingers out to rid them of the warm, tingly sensation his skin leaves on hers. This is her imagination, she decides. It’s his eyes. They are so bright and piercing they gave the illusion of insight. The sense of recognition is all in her head, too. How can anyone forget eyes like those? Let alone someone like her, who has to make split-second life-or-death decisions based on details so small that she sometimes doesn’t even consciously remember them.

He still doesn’t seem to understand that he’s playing with fire, though, and the mischievous glint remains in his eyes. “Have you ever killed anyone?” he asks conspiratorially.

The offensive question proves that he has way too much confidence in himself. That could be dangerous. She crosses her arms and continues to stare him down. “Hundreds.”

“This year?”

Her lip curls. “At least a few dozen.” This isn’t strictly true. But that’s the number of people she’s strongly fantasized about killing, in at least a hundred different ways.

But he smiles like he thinks she’s joking. “Sounds like you’re someone I’m going to enjoy getting to know,” he chuckles, his voice deep and full. Everything about him is just…full. There’s too much of him in one person. A muddling tide of tingling and heat rises steadily up her body, and she can’t even manage to take a full breath to dissipate it.

“See, I knew you’d like each other,” Mickey crows in triumph, making Lanie’s toes tighten. She momentarily forgot that Mickey is even here. “Hey, I know we were on our way to the hospital, but why don’t we start with the school while we’re here?”

“Actually –”

But the other two have already started for the bullet-hole-ridden building, and Lanie is left feeling like a ghost they simply walked right through. After a slight hesitation, she sighs and joins them.

“They did quite a number on the poor thing,” Goldberg comments to Mickey. He steps over a section of crumbling bricks in the missing wall, and Mickey follows.

“We’ll have to knock most of it down, and redo the floor,” he continues, “but a lot of the material can be recycled. And the bunker is still secure. If my preliminary calculations are correct, we’ll be done in two weekends if everyone works shifts from sunup to sundown and follows my plan to a T. That will include the solar panels, plumbing, and water reclamation system.”

He reaches to pick up a brick that rests in a patch of sunlight streaming from the gaps in the hazardous ceiling. Automatically, Lanie grabs his burly, warm arm, making him turn to her in surprise. “I wouldn’t. This whole thing could fall in.” She steps over the trapdoor to the underground shelter, which came in handy during the raid.

He tosses a teasing look at Mickey. “I mean, I come here all the time to prep. Plus, it can be a quiet place to come and…think.”

Mickey giggles, her hand over her mouth.

Smirking, he pats the wall before continuing. “Don’t worry. The walls will stand as long as we don’t try to climb on them. Anyway, the new school is going to be so cool! Once we finish clearing out the debris, we can get started. I’ve worked out that the new cement and paint I recommended will reduce the heat in here by thirty-four percent. With the awning on the south side, the north-side windows will allow a cross-breeze without direct sunlight. I’ve already measured for the new solar-panels, and I’ll fit and wire the array to the control unit as soon as we’re done with the frame. Then we’re going to build a playset on the grass back there, and –”

Lanie sees it coming, but she’s too late to tell him to watch out. Her body simply becomes motion.

On the hard-packed ground where the floor used to be, Goldberg’s foot catches on something, and he crashes down with a yell. Mickey shrieks and jumps forward, but Lanie is already standing over him, holding up the wall he knocked into. Her legs, back, and arms provide just enough counterforce.

For a moment, they are all frozen.

“Whoa,” Goldberg gasps, gazing up at her in shock. His pupils have constricted to pinpricks, even in the dimness. He looks at his hand, which drips red.

She grunts, trying not to tremble and jolt the wall. This section likely weighs about two-fifty, and it presses painfully against her face. And he’s just sitting there. “Move, pinhead,” she grinds out.

With Mickey’s help, he scrambles from between Lanie’s legs, stands, and stumbles back outside. As slowly and carefully as she can, she works her way out and lets the wall drop. It breaks apart with a racket and an updraft of grainy dust that glitters in the sun. Heaving a breath, she stares at it. He probably wouldn’t have died, but he wouldn’t have been much help on the project. It certainly would have shut his smart mouth, though. Maybe she should have just…

No. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him. He’s an innocent, and his life is as valuable as any other staff member’s.

Turning, she spots what he tripped over. A pair of pink underwear. Well, maybe he isn’t innocent in every sense. Shaking her head, she, kicks it under a piece of wood so she can come back for it later, or get Mickey to do it. No way will Lanie be caught walking around with them.

Back in the sun, Mickey stares at the man’s hand in sympathy. Blood still drips from his fingers, and he looks away with a sickened grimace. Lanie groans and takes a deep breath through her nose, but all it does is bring in the scent of his blood on the slight breeze. Alright, well, one accident in five years is still pretty good. He sees her striding toward him. The green look on his face fades a little with his attempt at brashness, but it’s still noticeable. “That was so hot. Will you marry me?”

Thanks for Stopping by!

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~ Romans 15:13


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