WOUNDED HEARTS

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Copyright © 2015 Jayne Rylon

Lucas kicked back in his leather recliner. It had been his favorite chair until his prosthesis had torn the footrest. Every time he looked at the ragged slash in the damn thing now, it only reminded him of the endless ways in which his life had been altered. He massaged his stump, especially the knee, which ached after the long run he’d pushed himself through earlier.

It’d been nearly seven months since his amputation. He’d never worked harder in his life to get back to “normal”, whatever the hell that was these days. Though he’d trained like a madman when his life had depended on his physical and mental abilities, he was more cut than ever. Endless gym time had guaranteed it. His gaze wandered down his ripped, freshly tattooed chest and the muscles of his abdomen, which were pretty damn defined, even while he slouched, completely relaxed.

Or as close to it as he ever got.

He picked up a controller and turned on his gaming console, ready to slay some aliens and save the human race again. Like he did most nights, until he nodded off in this piece of shit chair, which now sported a dent the size and shape of his ass. He couldn’t believe how much he sat. Before, he’d been active, only getting horizontal to hook up with a fine woman or grab a few hours’ rest before heading to the next assignment. Now he spent most of his time outside of his rehab efforts here, hoping to settle his mind enough to doze off. Sometimes, it was the only way he could sleep at all.

Lucas figured he’d give his other leg to be back out there, making a difference in the world. Except he knew if he tried, he’d only put others at risk. Endangering his team was something he would never do. Despite all his effort and therapy, he’d never be as agile, as stealthy or—probably most important—as mentally unhindered as he’d been before his injury. Blending in and hiding his identity on covert ops would be impossible with such an easy tell for his enemies to discover. The military probably assumed they’d done him a favor by medically discharging him with full salary and benefits for the rest of his life.

He scrubbed his hand over his face.

Then again, he wouldn’t take his leg back if it meant the evil he’d witnessed the day it had been crushed went unchecked. Often, he dreamt of that closing gate and his last ditch effort to keep it from trapping victims—Ellie included—inside a ghastly prison by using his body as a doorstop. They’d gotten her out of The Scientist’s clutches. Not in time to avoid being wounded, at least as badly as he had been, but in time to keep her—and dozens of other innocents like her—alive.

Both of them had survived, if in one hell of a state. His partner, Steve, hadn’t been as lucky.

Breath wheezed out of Lucas as he remembered the look on Ellie’s drugged face when their friend Lily had hauled her from the cloud of Sex Offender that had turned her fellow prisoners into monsters that had attacked her. During the tenure of his career, it was the single most disgusting thing he’d ever witnessed. Insane with chemically induced lust of her own, she had somehow struggled against the potent concoction.

The pure fight she’d shown in escaping the hellhole they’d yanked her out of had made it impossible for him to quit, even as his leg had screamed in agony. She’d clearly been assaulted. Repeatedly. Her moans and cries had been like an audible interpretation of his own debilitating pain as Jeremy had helped him hobble on his destroyed leg to relative safety. The sound of her terror was burned into his memory.

His fingers clamped on the arm of the chair, threatening to make more holes in the upholstery.

Recollections like that made him feel sick for wanting her. How could she ever welcome the kind of primal advances that had taken center stage in the thoughts he’d had of her since then? Why would she, or any sane woman, want a man like him now?

“Fuck.” He pounded his fist on his thigh, welcoming the thud that distracted him from his downward-spiraling thoughts.

Staring at the ceiling, he drew in a ragged breath and groaned.

After a solid five minutes spent wrestling the urge to blank out his overactive mind on the pain pills prescribed to him, his phone buzzed on the side table nearby.

Please don’t be Ellie.

Tonight he might not have the strength to ignore it, letting her go to voicemail then listening to her messages at night when he was wide awake. His fingers curled inward. Frequent calls from her were hard to resist. Even tougher than the siren song of his narcotics, which he’d been trying to wean himself off entirely. Late-night rings like these meant she probably slept as shittily as he did. Her attempts to contact him had slowed recently, coming fewer and farther between. While he’d tried to be happy about that, the fact was he missed seeing her light up his screen. That barest of contact had the power to make him smile. At least for a moment, until he remembered the shit ton of reasons they couldn’t be together.

The good thing about having a detachable foot was that he could actually shove it up his own ass if he kept acting like an idiot.

Lucas couldn’t help himself—he snatched the vibrating phone, hoping for a glimpse of her name or the profile picture he’d set for her contact. It was a formal shot of them, all dressed up, that had been taken at Lily and JRad’s wedding. She’d looked more gorgeous than usual that day. Hell, they’d even danced together once as he deluded himself into believing his leg might still get better despite the advice of his doctors, who’d encouraged him to amputate immediately.

Turned out wearing a prosthesis was actually better than hanging on to a mangled meat foot when it came to living an active lifestyle. He’d been screwed even then, but at least his denial had been strong enough that he’d enjoyed one last happy occasion with his friends. And Ellie.

It always came back to her.

“Son of a bitch!” he roared at himself. Especially since it wasn’t even her calling.
Instead, the face that flashed onscreen belonged to Jeremy Radisson, though the label said “JRad”, since his friends on the force used that nickname for the geeky cyber detective with an impressive Dominant streak.

A wave of mingled relief and disappointment washed through Lucas. Anxiety too. It was always kind of awkward talking to one of the guys who could understand exactly what he had lost—camaraderie, purpose, honor—along with his leg. Still, part of him was glad to have someone to talk to in the darkness.

Speaking of, why the hell was the dude calling so close to midnight? It must be important. Lucas swiped his thumb across the phone to answer.

Before he even had a chance to say hello, Jeremy was talking in a hurried, hushed rumble.

“Hey Lucas,” JRad greeted him with a cautious edge to his tone. This couldn’t be good.

“What’s up?” The guy never buzzed him this late. None of their mutual friends did anymore either, though they all worked fucked up shifts. Ah, the life of a peacekeeper.

It was like they didn’t want to interrupt his beauty sleep in case that would make his fucking leg grow back. In the military, especially his covert branch, he hadn’t been used to people tiptoeing around him.

He found he didn’t like it much now that he was disabled either.

“Wish I could say this was a social call. Sorry.” It felt oddly good that the first ten minutes of their discussion wasn’t something along the lines of, How are you feeling today, buddy?

Oh fine, just missing a foot, an ankle, and most of my shin, that’s all. Could be worse, could’ve had my dick chopped off. Ha ha…

In other words, the same old bullshit he’d been reciting for months now.

They dove into the important stuff without fucking around with feelings and shit. Finally, something like his regular modus operandi. Years of late-night summons, life-or-death emergencies and running on adrenaline had made his recent couch potato act all the more unnerving.

“The rest of the Men in Blue and I are on a case. Getting close to cracking it.” JRad’s urgency penetrated Lucas’s gloomy thoughts.

“You need help with something?” Sometimes they made use of his government connections or picked his brain, which was essentially a database on immoral dealings and the inner workings of criminal organizations after nearly two decades combating them.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not. How can I help?” Lucas sat straighter, leaning forward in his ruined seat.

“It’s the girls—”

“Ah, shit. Some pussy assignment? I thought you actually needed me for important shit.” He deflated, sinking into the cushions again.

“They’re the most valuable things in our lives,” JRad was quick to correct him. “You know we wouldn’t trust their safety to just anyone.”

“Be honest, you’re trying to make me feel useful here.” He stopped short of rolling his eyes. Badass soldiers, even retired ones, did not roll their eyes. “What’s next? A crossing-guard vest? Jesus, JRad. Fuck off.”

“Hey wait. Don’t hang up. Shit. We need you.” A ragged breath from JRad convinced Lucas not to punch the end button just yet. “We’re stuck on this case. There’s no way we can bail now. Not even one of us could sneak out without blowing our cover. Sending in anyone else from the station would risk spooking Ellie.”

“Ellie?” Lucas could have decked himself for repeating her name. Letting the other guy know he was as obsessed as ever with the beautiful young woman wouldn’t be in his best interest. Not tonight or any time in the future when the guys and their ladies decided for the millionth time to try and play matchmaker with a hopeless pairing.

“Yeah.”

“What’s she got to do with this?” Fuck it, why hide it when it was obvious to everyone anyway exactly how much he wanted her? Felt responsible for her somehow. It was pretty common in their line of work, actually, to get attached to certain people they had a hand in helping.

Wasn’t smart, though.

“I guess Lily, Jambrea, Izzy, Lacey and Shari convinced her to go out to that new casino north of the city with them tonight.”

“Now I know you’re screwing with me.” Lucas took the phone from his ear for a second to glare at JRad’s picture. What kind of game was he playing? Ellie could hardly stand a stroll in a garden, never mind the chaos of a casino. She spooked as easily as a soft, pretty bunny. Not that he blamed her in the least.

Besides, most people wouldn’t notice because of the tough mask she wore. But he was a trained observer. So were the rest of the Men in Blue. The tick of her sculpted jaw or the rapid blink of her mesmerizing blue eyes, which caused thick lashes to flutter onto the pale, creamy skin of her cheeks—all of it screamed how scared shitless she was of the world around her.

Lucas figured she was the bravest woman he’d ever met for not falling apart with that bucket-load of terror coursing through her veins constantly. The adrenaline aftereffects alone had to be exhausting to her system.

“I’m not shitting you.” JRad huffed at that. “I didn’t think they’d con her into doing it either, but they did. She’s getting better lately, Lucas. Healing. Not so raw as she used to be. Which you’d know if you hadn’t cut her out of your life, dickhead.”

“Stick to the facts.” He’d had enough lectures from her five female cohorts. Additional shit from JRad was entirely unnecessary.

“Look, they went out tonight. Sexy as hell. The six of them dressed up, sending us enough naughty selfies to torture us while we’re stuck in this damn apartment spying on druggies.” His clear sexual frustration had Lucas grinning. Too bad, so sad. The man would eventually go home to his feisty sometimes-submissive-but-only-for-him Mistress Lily soon enough.

“At least Matt and Clint can suck each other off in the bathroom. Mason and Tyler, too. It’s just you and Razor that are screwed, huh?” Lucas shrugged, though no one could see him and despite the fact that he knew they wouldn’t. Not on the clock. They took their jobs as seriously as he had once.

“Anyway, the girls headed over there after dinner at some fancy place downtown. Ten minutes ago our phones started lighting up at once. Scared the shit out of us,” JRad confessed. Each of their ladies had fought through some hard times and survived their own personal threats. It had their guys on edge still.

“They’re okay?” Hopefully they hadn’t been in a car wreck or something like that. Lucas swallowed hard, preparing himself for bad news.

“Actually, yes.”

“Then what the hell?” He scratched his head.

“Turns out Ellie must have taken her lucky rabbit’s foot along.” JRad paused, as if he’d realized the absurdity of that mental image for Lucas.

Instead of getting pissed or being offended, he laughed. “Huh. Wonder if some bunny’s got my damn foot in its pocket.”

“Er—”

“Anyway, she’s up for the night? Beating the house? Are they partying to celebrate? Need a designated driver or something?” He steered them back to their discussion. Good for Ellie. He knew money was tight. Had contributed as much as he could manage as an anonymous donor to the fund he’d set up for her recovery before handing it off to the Men in Blue to administer so she wouldn’t get suspicious.

“We’re not talking about a couple hundred bucks here, Lucas.” JRad sighed. “She won almost fifty-grand on the fucking penny slots. Cash. They’re driving home with it right now.”

“Are you shitting me?” Call him cynical, but that seemed nearly impossible. In his world, that usually meant something was up. “That place isn’t going to be in business long if they’re handing out sacks of money like that. Why wouldn’t they have written her a check?”

“Lily says the claim form wasn’t clear and they didn’t feel like wading through the paperwork again to switch the payment type. Six smoking-hot women and a huge chunk of cash. You know every man in that place noticed them and they’re going to talk. Shit, it’s probably plastered all over social media by now. TV will be next. That’s a fuck ton of temptation. Maybe you could stay with Ellie tonight and escort her to make a deposit once the bank opens in the morning?” JRad cursed under his breath. “I know that’s not ideal for either of you considering the circumstances…”

“Don’t worry about my end of things. It’s fine. She shouldn’t be alone with that much money on hand. People have done stupid things for less. Sleeping in my car, or her backyard, isn’t a problem either. I’ll just go over and let her know I’m out there, keeping an eye on her place.” Lucas might have been avoiding her, but only for their own good. He cared for her. A lot. If she was in danger, he would be there, regardless of their twisted personal relationship.