Chapter 1 – Brandi
I can’t decide which is worse… killing my teacher or wanting to screw his brains out.
But since he’s a cop and I work with him, it’s probably the first option.
Which sucks, because he’s hot and I’d love to do him. He’s just got an attitude worse than anything I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
I stare out the window of the briefing room in the Serenity Harbor fire station as the bright sunny day turns gunmetal gray in less than ten minutes.
Rain starts tapping on the windows, then furiously pummels the metal roof, drowning out the man speaking in front of the room.
We’re used to unpredictable weather in Maine, but this type of storm is going to catch too many people off guard.
And here I am, stuck with thirty other dispatchers, firefighters, and police officers, just as bored of unneeded training as I am, when what promises to be a storm beyond the meteorologists’ predictions starts unleashing its fury outside.
I clear my throat. “Um, excuse me.”
Maybe a little too much glee rides the frustration in me as I raise my hand, speak, and cut off Travis Masterson’s lecture.
His blue eyes land on me and I somehow manage to keep my composure under the cold and arrogant expression from the man who may look like a blond god but has the manners of an angry lobster mixed with a pissy ass.
An unwanted shiver runs through me straight into my core at that low, rich voice. Unwanted because the man may be six foot three of pure, hot masculinity, but he hates my guts. Has from the moment I got hired in the sheriff’s department as a dispatcher.
I stand to my far-from-imposing, usually calm, not quite five feet and stare him down.
“You might not have noticed,” I say, “but there’s a storm. A big one. It’s knocking at the door here, man. I don’t think it’s here for a date.”
Travis’ eyes narrow into hard chips of blue ice and his mouth thins even more than it already was at the titter of laughter that ripples through the room at my joke.
I’m used to his anger, especially because it seems to be made just for me. For anyone else, he’d have a smile or a spark of warmth in his eyes.
Not for me.
So I plunge on, ready to go to war if it means I don’t get soaked to the bone on my way home.
“The storm’s bad, it’s early, and it’s starting to hit.”
“You want me to… what? Wave a magic wand? Make it go away so it doesn’t ruin your hair?”
God, he’s a total ass, pure and simple. No matter how much I might want to take him for a ride, there’s no ignoring his attitude.
“No. I want you to be smart and get us off the island before we get stuck here.”
No one in the room says a word. I don’t speak like this often. And I’m sure they’re not used to seeing a pint-sized pixie arguing with what amounts to a giant compared to me. But this is important and his attitude annoys the hell out of me.
Still… that’s his problem, not mine. I try to get along, most of the time. And this—it isn’t the time.
Yeah, he may be gorgeous, and if he’d been nice, then every cell of my body would be melting. Unfortunately, he’s Travis and he hates me for reasons I can’t even begin to question or understand.
“Smart.” I raise my voice above the lashing storm and rolling crash of thunder. And no matter how much I want to, I refuse to look away. “We need to cut this off early, like now, and let people who can, go home, and the rest can make themselves useful during this shit show.”
Because I know from what I’d glimpsed out the window, there will be calls.
Travis stares at me and I resist squirming and bury down that little flare of awareness that flickers to life inside me. And his cheeks and neck take on a ruddy hue before he looks away.
The thunder crashes as the day lights up, flashing bright, then everything goes dark.
“Someone call the chief,” Travis says. “Johnson and Peters, get the generator on.”
I whip out my phone and called dispatch. “Hey, Poppy, do you know what’s going on?”
“Tell the guys to be prepared to stay for a while. There’s a jam on the bridge. Looks like power lines came down on a big rig. 9-1-1 is ringing nonstop.”
“Shit. I’ll let them know,” I say as she hangs up.
I look around at the chaos in the room. I don’t like being the center of attention, but I did it once already so I can do it again. With a deep breath, I stick my thumb and middle finger in my mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle.
Everyone stops and turns toward the noise. I blush under their scrutiny.
“There’s been an accident on the bridge. So it looks like we’re going to be stuck here on the island for a while. Just get settled in for now, and we’ll get more information for you as soon as we can.”
The moment I finish, everyone has their phones out and the cacophony rises again with people calling their agencies or loved ones.
I already did the first and don’t have the second waiting for me at home. Not that I’ll be getting there anytime soon. Still, I need something to do. I always have in unstable times.
Shit, I have to do it.
I turn on my phone’s flashlight, and after holding it above my head and moving it over the crowd, I find the man I need to talk to. I make my way to Travis’ side, steeling myself with every step.
“Okay, what do you want me to do?” I should defer to his experience as an officer in this situation, I know that, but he really rubs me the wrong way. Well, he doesn’t rub me any way, which is kind of my problem.
His gaze flickers to me, like he just noticed me, but he hadn’t. With every step taken closer to him, I saw the stiffening of his limbs, the gathering of muscles, like he expected something dangerous to attack.
But Travis doesn’t move. “We need to find out what’s going on, then wait and see what they need us to do. We’re not supposed to be on duty now, but if this gets bad like you say, they’re gonna need all hands on deck.”
His gaze shifts back to me, and in the shadowy room that shrouds like a cloak, he takes me in, a slow perusal that feels like hands on naked flesh, and I can’t quite breathe.
Idiot, I think as my fingers itch to touch him, just brush against him and see what he’ll do.
He’d probably slap me away like a fly.
To someone as big as him, I know I seem exactly like a little bug. I suck in a breath and resist the urge to step back.
He raises a brow that is more sardonic than it has a right to be. “Well? I thought you said this was an emergency.”
The word ass really wants freedom, but I am not that kind of person. I nod.
“Okay, I’ll see what I can find out.” And on trembling legs, I turn and walk away.
Outside in the corridor, I lean against the wall and close my eyes.
The underlying sting from Travis’ tone gets to me when it shouldn’t. I don’t know him. And I don’t need to. He doesn’t like me, so what? It’s no skin off any part of my anatomy, I tell myself as the lights flick back on.
A cheer rises behind me but it doesn’t echo inside. Sometimes the darkness suits me. Monsters hide there, sure, but it also means I can, too.
With a deep breath, I push the thought away as I step away from the wall and go in search of the right people and make call after call.
Half an hour later, I stop before I reenter the room to face the man who single-handedly makes me feel insecure about myself. I lean my forehead against the cool, smooth plaster of the wall and close my eyes for a moment.
It isn’t going to be easy, but I’ve faced worse.
Without another thought, I slip on my professional demeanor, the one I wear at work when I’m dealing with men who act like children, and go in search of Travis.
He isn’t hard to find. Tall, buff gods with the temperament of a crotchety Chihuahua aren’t difficult to pick out in a crowd.
His blond head is bent low as he stands with a pretty cop who smiles up at him as though he’s made up of sunshine and warm sand. He probably is—to everyone else. I swallow down the bitterness in my mouth and ignore the sharp twinge in my chest as he sees me and returns to the police officer as if I don’t exist, until finally he squeezes the woman’s arm lightly and crosses to me.
“What’s the report?”
He’s smooth and cool and distant with that same undercurrent of distaste that cuts into me.
My eyes burn but I square my shoulders and go over everything I’ve learned, trying for the same smooth coolness as Travis.
“What I thought,” he says. “I’m gonna be busy helping the fire department clear the roads, so I need you to head over to the school with the rest of the dispatchers and set up a temporary shelter for those who have nowhere else to go.” His gaze slides over me and I barely withhold a shiver. “That all?”
I suck in a breath and step back. “No. Yes. I mean, that’s all. Just… be safe out there tonight. That’s it.”
He’s already half-turned away from me, like he can’t wait to be rid of me. And he probably can’t. Travis no doubt has a million things to coordinate and important people to talk to and… Oh, shit, I have to ask.
“Do you know when they’re going to open up the island for traffic?”
He stops and slowly faces me again with a shrug. “Sheriff says it’s probably not going to be until morning at the earliest.”
“Oh. Okay.” I swallow hard. I can do this. It’s fine. There are others in actual emergency situations from this storm, unlike me. So what if I can’t get home? It’s just a night.
No different to countless others I’d spent as a child, before my grandparents tracked me down and by then I’d been a teen, and—
It’s just a night in the school gym. That’s all. Not a night on the streets.
Without another word, I walk away, knowing he’s already forgotten me. And I throw myself into my work.
As the other dispatchers and I make our way to the school, the rain drives into me, the wind pushing me. By the time I reach the gym, I remove my soaked hoodie and help set up tables, bottles of water, and everything the county’s Emergency Management Agency had stocked for the people who will need shelter.
I make a mental note to tell Margot, the EMA director for the county, that she’s a badass.
Most residents are used to Maine’s storms and can shelter in place at home. But there are tourists and out-of-towners trapped by the storm who need shelter for the night. It’s a solid few hours before I can catch my breath, and when I do, and those who aren’t working leave, I mill about, having nothing to do.
I sigh softly and settle on a bench away from others as I pull my phone from my pocket.
Who do I have to call? No one’s looking for me or worried about me. Worse, my phone sits silent in my hand, not a single missed call or text. And I can’t stop it as my thoughts drift back to Travis.
He dismissed me like I was nothing, and as much as I hate to admit it, that hurt. It’s stupid, but I want Travis to like me. We work together, so liking your colleagues makes things easier, better, even if it’s only on the surface. But he can’t even be nice when we’re stuck in a shitty situation.
I didn’t even do anything wrong.
The day we met, he didn’t even look at me. He just walked away as soon as my friend and ex-roommate, Maya, and I met up with him and Brian, another deputy, at the sheriff’s barbeque, and things had gone downhill after that.
When I started working for the county sheriff’s department in dispatch, Travis made it his personal mission to make sure I was miserable every day he was there by ignoring me, being dismissive, and plain old walking away when I started talking.
Jesus, he wouldn’t even answer me on the radio until his supervisor stepped in and told him that he had to pull his head out of his ass or get suspended. Life in the last year was already complicated as it was, and his actions only made it harder.
After Maya went through hell and almost died, I was the one to clean up the blood. Literally. I replaced the bed, scrubbed the carpets, and even painted the walls three times to make sure everything was taken care of. But there was nothing we could do to erase the memory of everything that happened. It lived and breathed under the paint and new bed.
I closed the door to the room after Maya moved out and never opened it again.
I should move, but the house is the only thing I was left with after my grandparents died. They meant so much to me in such a short space of time. So I keep the house. I keep the only home I’ve ever known.
Even with everything that happened within those walls.
And Maya… I wasn’t there when Maya was hurt, and I could have saved my friend the terror and pain if I’d been home. Of course no one can ever know that. It’s my secret, my burden to carry. But it keeps me up at night, gives me nightmares.
Worse, small sounds become a dark monster in the shadows. The flash of a headlight becomes a glint of a knife in the darkness. But it’s all in my head. All from the guilt and the knowledge of my failures, all fed by the nightmares.
Knowing doesn’t make anything easier for me.
Knowing doesn’t make anything go away.
And now, because of the storm, I’ll have to sleep in a gym with a bunch of other people who will hear any noise that I make.
Shit. I can’t dwell. It will only make things worse. Instead, I stare down at my silent phone.
There still aren’t any missed calls or texts or even email or social media notifications. Being alone normally isn’t bad, mostly, but at times like this… Someone waiting at home for me, worrying about me, needing me. Even a dog or a cat would be preferable to the silence that I know is going to greet me when I finally make it home.
It might chase the demons away, rid me of that haunted feeling of being watched at odd moments. The feeling that comes from guilt and loneliness and who knows what.
And being here in the gym brings that all slamming down onto my shoulders again.
I need a change. Maybe after we finish picking up the pieces from this storm, I can go to the animal shelter and adopt a dog or a cat. Not a dog. Dogs need time and exercise. Cats are easier to take care of. My eyes burn, and a pressure pushes against them, the tears I hate to admit I’m on the verge of, threaten to fall. I blink hard. If only I could be hard and cold like Travis, then maybe I’d never cry again.
But right now, I can’t stop it, can’t stop the spill of the tears, and with a gulp of air, I swipe them away. They refuse to stop.
Turning away from everyone else, I pretend to be engrossed with my phone while I struggle to get myself back under control.
It gets so bad that I have to press a hand against my mouth to keep from gasping.
The tears finally begin to stop just as a familiar low, rich voice says, “There you are. I need you.”