Defiance

Chapter One

“You know what an Irish wake is, Grayson?”

Sitting in his office, Zachary Grayson pulled in a deep, pained breath, not able to process the question. Because his old friend had cancer. Cancer.

And Mako was dying.

“Grayson?”

Grief thickened Zachary’s voice. “Yes, Mako, I know what a wake is.”

“Well, boy, my sons will handle the funeral, but would you do me a solid and set up a happy send-off for after? I don’t want all the sitting with the body shit. Find a place with decent booze where whoever shows up can raise a glass and tell a few stories. Share the stupid shit I did when I was younger. So the boys can remember me alive and not in a box in the ground.”

“I can do that.” Zachary rubbed the sting from his eyes. Dammit. Hold it back. “I’ll even tell one or two myself, First Sergeant. Maybe about how a bunch of streetwise foster children ended up in the wilds of Alaska.”

As the raspy laugh rang through the phone, Zachary knew that cancer might steal the sergeant’s life, but death didn’t frighten Mako. It never had.

“Good enough. My lawyer has your name and number. He’ll contact you when the time comes.” Mako’s harsh voice went a degree softer. “It’s been an honor to know you, Zachary. Thanks for looking out for the boys.”

The silence said Mako had disconnected.

Dammit, Mako. Would Zachary ever hear his voice again?

Setting the phone down, he rested his eyes on a tranquil scene of white-capped Alaska mountains and forest, a painting he’d purchased when visiting his friend.

He had a feeling he’d be hearing from Mako’s lawyer soon. Aching inside, he murmured the old Irish blessing. “Until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”

Pushing away from the desk, he glanced at the time. Almost five. He kept Mondays light, so there were no more counseling appointments today, and he had a need to hold his wife and daughter.

Out in the waiting room he shared with two other psychologists, Mrs. Ward smiled at him. Tactful, yet firm, she reminded him of his favorite grandmother. “Done for the day, Dr. Grayson?”

“Yes. I’ll finish my paperwork at home so Sophia can keep me company.” Not that he got much accomplished when she did.

Having met his eighteen-month-old despot, Mrs. Ward laughed.

“Is there anything urgent in the mail I should deal with tonight?”

“Here you go. I already removed the junk mail.” Mrs. Ward handed him a stack.

Zachary glanced through the letters and tossed most into his in-basket for tomorrow. Since former patients often sent news of their progress, he opened the letter with a hand-printed address.

And froze.

“Dr. Grayson? Zachary? Is something wrong?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Silently, he read the letter again.

You arrogant asshole, you’ll pay for what you did.

One bullet should do it.

“I seem to have received my first death threat.”

“That’s…” Mrs. Ward realized he wasn’t joking, and her face went pale. “The police. You have to notify the police.”

“I’ll stop by there now.” The local station wasn’t far, and clients here might react badly to an influx of police. It would be best to visit them.

Careful not to add new fingerprints, he tucked everything into a manila envelope.

A minute later, he stepped out of the air-conditioned building into the hot humid air of early October in Tampa. A thunderstorm was just breaking over the city. As thunder echoed off the buildings, fat raindrops splattered on the cars in the parking lot.

Terrified at the cracks of thunder, a little five-year-old boy, a patient of Zachary’s associate, huddled next to the building, ignoring the rain.

“Calm down. It’s just thunder, Cody.” His mother’s attempts to get him moving sent him further into a ball.

“He’s not having a good day, is he?” Zachary stopped next to her.

“Dr. Grayson. Hello.”

“He’ll do better inside and out of the noise. May I pick him up?”

She let out an exasperated breath. “Please.”

Putting his own worries to one side, he touched the boy on the shoulder, projecting calm. “I’m going to pick you up, and we’ll go inside where it’s quieter.”

When the boy didn’t react, Zachary simply scooped him up, waited for the mother to open the door, and walked back inside. The lobby, decorated in calming blues and greens, had comfortable chairs lining the tall windows.

“Take a seat, please,” he told the mother, and when she complied, he set Cody in her lap.

“There. This isn’t as noisy, is it?” Dropping down on one knee to be level with the child, he smiled at the mother. “At his age, it’s normal to be frightened of our loud Tampa storms. There are techniques that will help. Ask your counselor, or even look online.”

“I shouldn’t have been so impatient.” She hugged her son. “We just moved here from Seattle, and we’re used to nice quiet drizzles. These thunderstorms scare me, too.”

“There will come a time you’ll both enjoy the noise and light shows.” Zachary patted her hand before searching through his pants pockets. He usually had something tucked away, depending on which little patients he’d seen during the day.

Ah, yes. He and one little girl had been blowing bubbles this morning. He pulled out the bottle. “Cody.”

The boy’s head rose just enough to reveal big brown eyes. Excellent. The fear had receded enough to allow the child’s natural curiosity to awaken.

“I have a job for you.” Pulling out the plastic ring, he blew a big bubble.

When it landed on Cody’s knee and burst, the boy’s eyes widened. And his lips curved up.

Almost there.

Zachary held up the ring again. “Every time a bubble comes close, I need you to take a big breath and blow it away.”

As Cody wiggled to sit up, Zachary dropped his voice in a pseudo-warning. “If it lands on you, you lose a point. Are you up to the job?”

“I can do it!”

Zachary blew a bubble toward him, and the boy puffed hard to chase the bubble away.

“Wonderful work. Do it again.” Another bubble. Another success.

And the thunderstorm was forgotten.

Looking up, Zachary met the mother’s gaze. “Moving somewhere quieter and providing a diversion will usually work. Bubbles have the added benefit of requiring deep breathing, which is calming in itself.”

Her face thoughtful, she nodded slowly. “He has a right to be scared, and I over-reacted. I’ll do better next time.”

“That’s the spirit.” Zachary blew another bubble and laughed when Cody puffed it up and into the air. “Good job.”

After handing the bottle to the mother, he said, “The storm should move on within a few minutes. Have fun.”

“Thank you.” Her eyes glimmered briefly with tears as she hugged her son. “You turned a fight into fun. Thank you so much.”

“You’re quite welcome.”

At the door, Zachary stopped. A death threat. Someone wanted to kill him. Although most threats tended to be someone letting off steam, this sender had sounded serious.

A signature would certainly have been useful. He couldn’t think of anyone who held that much anger toward him.

As Zachary stepped outside, he glanced around. No one was pointing a rifle at him. Other people who worked in the building were leaving, hurrying to escape the downpour. Two cars rolled past. Lightning flashed, and a second later, thunder rumbled across the heavens.

Pulling up his collar against the rain, he strode quickly down the slope to his car, conveniently close. The parking space was one of the perks of owning the building.

As he crossed in front of his car, the hair on the back of his neck rose. He spun in a quick circle.

There. The man stood, half-hidden, in the tall firebush hedge at the building’s side. The posture was unmistakable. He held a pistol pointed at Zachary.

Zachary lunged to the left.

The handgun barked, almost drowned out by a sizzling crack of lightning.

A streak of pain ripped across Zachary’s upper arm as he dove between the two parked cars.

Another shot sounded, this one louder.

Heart hammering, he pulled out his phone and looked around the front of the car.

The shadow by the building had disappeared.

Shaken, Zachary closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. That had been far too close. He took two more breaths before doing a quick self-assessment. He had a rip in his shirtsleeve and a bleeding gouge high on his deltoid that stung like hell.

A chill ran cold fingers up his spine. If he hadn’t moved, the bullet would have gone through his chest.

Rising, he spotted a hole in his front windshield where the second bullet had passed. Good, he’d have some evidence for the police.

More than just a bloody arm. Frowning at the blood, he opened the back door and picked up the paper towels beside Sophia’s car seat.

And he froze in horror.

After passing through the windshield, the bullet had gone through the front seat and splintered the top edge of the car seat. If his daughter had been with him…

Like Mako, he was no stranger to death. But this…no man was prepared for this.

Fear for his family rose up within him like a tsunami.

*  *  *  *  *

That evening, Jessica Grayson carried her sleeping daughter into the nursery and laid her down in the crib. Smiling, she smoothed fluffy blonde hair off Sophia’s rounded cheek. “Look how big you are now,” she whispered.

A year and a half. Walking and running. So busy and happy.

Now everything was about to change again.

Would Z be happy?

She bent to kiss Sophia’s tiny fingers, breathing in the fragrance of baby soap.

He’d said he would like more children, and her husband never lied. Wasn’t it odd how reassuring that was? She grinned, thinking of all the jokes about “Tell me the truth. Does this dress make my hips look big?”

If Z was asked if a dress made a woman look fat, he’d tell her…politely…that another dress looked better on her. If he didn’t like a food, he’d tell Jessica it wasn’t his favorite, rather than them getting stuck eating it because he’d lied and told her it was great.

She’d never realized how much tension it created not being sure if a person was being “polite” or not. But Z knew. And she could trust him to tell her the truth, no matter how hard.

God, she loved him. As her husband, her lover, her Dom.

Hearing the beep-beep-beep of the security system as he let himself into the kitchen, she smiled. Finally. Earlier, he’d called to say both he and the car had bad days. He’d run into something sharp and ripped up his arm enough for stitches. And the car windshield had gotten cracked, so it was in the shop, and he had to get a rental.

Poor Z.

As was his way, he came straight to her. He never returned home without giving her a hug and kiss.

In the dim nursery, he was a dark shape, then a warm length pressed against her back. His arms came around her, and he rubbed his cheek on the top of her hair before turning her and kissing her. Long and sweet. “It’s good to be home,” he murmured.

She put her arms around his neck and got another kiss. “Your commute is getting longer each year. When we look for a new house, we should find one closer to your office.”

“That might be wise.” After bending to kiss Sophia’s forehead, he put an arm around Jessica’s waist and drew her out to the living room.

In the brighter light of the room, she could see that his face was drawn tight, the lines beside his mouth and between his brows deep.

She ran her hand over his cheek. “Are you all right?”

“Rough day.” His smile seemed forced. “Being home helps.”

That had been her goal—to make his home a sanctuary. Because he deserved it.

Admittedly, they both worked hard at their jobs, but he counseled traumatized children as well as combat vets with PTSD. In comparison, her job was relatively stress-free. Well, except for around tax season.

“Did something happen?”

He paused, frowned, and took her hand and kissed her fingers. “An old friend called. He’s got cancer, and it doesn’t look good.”

“Oh, oh Z.” She could see the pain in his gray eyes and the frustration. She’d learned that nothing frustrated a Dominant more than being unable to fix. To help. To keep everyone safe and happy.

Especially friends and family.

“I’m sorry. What can I do?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid. He lives in Alaska.” Z’s lips quirked. “He told me to keep my ass home. He didn’t need help and would shoot the first person to show up at his door.”

She blinked. “Well, that’s definite.”

“He’s a bit paranoid. Well, more than a bit. But right now, he’s up and moving. Says he’s not in pain. Later…later might be different.”

“All right then.” She took his hand. “We’ll go up later.”

He gave hers a squeeze. “Yes. I’d appreciate that.”

Needing to get the haunted look out of his eyes, she turned the subject to Sophia. How their daughter had danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and ended up looking like a squirmy worm. While trying to clap.

Her after-bath, toweled-off dash through the house. Naked.

That description got a grin…because Z had bathed his girl the night before with the same results.

She told him about reading a book. When Jessica had imitated ducks with “Quack, quack, quack,” Sophia had bellowed out, “Whack, whack, whack!”

The sound of Z’s laughter still had the power to send a thrill through Jessica.

Maybe she should wait to tell him the news? Maybe she should give him a drink first. “I need some water. Let me get you a Glenlivet, while I’m there.”

Relaxing back on the long couch, Zachary smiled as Jessica handed him a glass of scotch and settled beside him. “Thank you, kitten.”

Her hair held the light scent of flowers, and when he kissed her neck, he could smell her fragrance, which was mingled with baby soap. She’d cuddled with Sophia before putting the imp to bed.

Jessica loved to touch. She was like the kitten he called her, sensuous and responsive, a toucher and a snuggler. And full of attitude.

To avoid upsetting her, he’d changed into one of the spare shirts he kept in the car. Seeing the bloody one wouldn’t have gone over well with her.

How was she going to take hearing that someone wanted to kill her husband?

He might have a doctorate in psychology, but there was no therapeutic way to dispense that kind of news.

I got a death threat today? No, that’d be a poor way to start.

I enjoyed a police station and ER visit today because someone shot me? Not a chance.

I bought a new car seat on the way home and this is why? Never.

He might be her Dominant in a sexual context, but they had equal footing during daylight hours. Mostly. Which meant he needed to suppress his instinct to protect her. She’d want to know he was in danger and that he’d been hurt. Shot. It was her right.

After setting his drink down, he took her hands in his. “Jessica. I think there’s something we need to talk about.”

She stared at him and scowled. “You know, don’t you? All those wicked psychological powers you have, and you looked at me and could just tell.”

His thoughts weren’t merely derailed, but sent right off a cliff. “I could tell what—”

“It was my breasts that gave it away, right? How big they’re getting again? Or…you told me you didn’t keep track of my periods, but you did, didn’t you?”

Bigger breasts. Periods. A joyous warmth spread through him. “Pregnant? Are we having a baby?”

Her smile could brighten an entire room. A universe.

His universe.

“Yes. A baby. A brother or sister for Sophia.” She threw herself into his arms. “Are you happy?”

A baby. “It’s the finest present you could ever give me.” He pulled her against him, wrapping his arms around his love. And someone new.

There was a spark of life growing inside her.

Awe enfolded him. Along with a heart-shuddering wave of protectiveness. His Jessica was one of the strongest women he knew, but…she was pregnant.

There was no way he could tell her now that someone was trying to kill him, let alone that the man had nearly succeeded.