When the car circled the second time, he knew.
It was her uncle’s insignia; the one Austin had worn on his clothes for two years. Working as part of William Cathaway’s security detail had once been a gift, a way to keep him busy while he picked up the pieces of his life and decided what to do next. Now he was sure it was a curse.
He swore and stepped away from the door, tucking a pistol into the back of his jeans. The men were still staking out the neighborhood but there wasn’t much time.
Austin walked quickly into the living room, his steps faltering when he saw Eden asleep on the couch. She had been awake only moments earlier, but Austin wasn’t surprised that she couldn’t stay awake. They had driven through the night to get to the safe house, not even stopping to eat or use the bathroom. Dark circles shadowed the skin under her lashes, her forehead scrunched even in sleep. Her blonde hair fell like a sheet over the arm of the couch, wavy and mussed from the car ride. His gut twisted.
She didn’t deserve this.
Austin moved into the room and knelt in front of her. She was so still that he almost brought a hand to her mouth to make sure she was still breathing, but then she stirred, sensing his presence.
Eden blinked a few times, her eyes adjusting to the faint sunlight coming through the grimy windows. She smiled lazily when she saw him and his chest swelled at the gesture. When had he started to crave seeing her smile?
Without thinking he reached out and swept a stray hair from her face. Eden stiffened slightly, but didn’t move away. His finger lingered over her temple until she cleared her throat and sat up.
“How long have I been out?”
“Just a few minutes.”
She studied him for a second, a frown forming as she read his mood. “What’s wrong?”
“We have to go.”
“But, we just got here.”
“We were followed.”
The past few weeks with Eden had taught him it was best to be straightforward. He knew only too well what happened when she decided to play detective to get to the truth.
Her mouth dropped open. “That’s impossible. Nobody knows the location of this place. Nobody except…”
He waited while she put it together. She looked down at him, her expression turning hopeful. “Maybe he just wants to make sure I’m ok.”
Austin stared at the ground as he stood. “He hasn’t called and two of his goons are circling the block like vultures.”
“You shouldn’t refer to yourself that way,” she said, with a touch of amusement.
She was trying to make light of the fact that, up until recently, he had been one of the men working for a killer. Austin had been stupid. He saw a way out and he took the job, never anticipating that Cathaway would have an agenda that involved offing his niece. Sure, he had led Austin on some questionable missions, but Austin wasn’t paid to think. He was paid to react, to protect. Except this time, the person he was paid to protect wasn’t just any target.
Austin grabbed Eden by the elbow, ignoring the way his palm burned at the contact. “Come on,” he said, pulling her into the hallway. “Take the backpack. There’s a back door through the kitchen.”
Eden struggled out of his grip. “No.”
“We don’t have time for this,” he said, turning back to the front door.
He looked through the side window, checking for the car he’d seen earlier. It was parked now, a few streets down. The doors opened, and two men emerged and looked around, probably for potential witnesses. Austin didn’t recognize either one, but that didn’t mean anything. Cathaway hired men on a dime.
Instead of panicking, calm flooded his system and he took a breath. His training had taught him the value of staying calm in situations like these. Panic was dangerous. Panic got people killed.
He turned back to Eden. “You need to leave. Now.” His voice was low, threatening, and Eden took a step back toward the living room.
“This is ridiculous,” she said, with a huff. She crossed her arms over her chest, tilting her chin in a way that made his blood heat at the same time it left him exasperated.
Not the time.
“We don’t even know what they’re doing here. They could be bringing supplies or reinforcements.”
“It’s a stocked house,” he said, his patience growing thin.
“Maybe Uncle Bill ordered backup.”
He took a step closer. “I didn’t call for any and he didn’t tell me he was sending someone.”
Austin had seen people hurt. He’d seen more fear and pain than anyone should ever have to see in a lifetime, but nothing affected him like seeing Eden shrink at his words. Her vulnerability hit him hard and he found he was helpless in the face of it.
Her head suddenly snapped back, her eyes locking with his. “What about you?”
“I’ll be right behind you.” She crinkled her nose, a sign he had come to know meant she wasn’t convinced. “Run to the woods. A quarter mile in, you’ll see a stream. Follow the path but don’t walk on it. At the end, there’s a hill with a shed at the bottom. I’ll meet you there. It’s partially covered.” He reached for the bag on the floor and put it on her back. “Look for it or you’ll miss it, understand?”
“Won’t they know it’s there too?”
He shook his head. “Nobody does. I built it.”
It was Cathaway’s safe house but Austin was hired to plan for all contingencies. He was just glad he hadn’t gotten around to telling his boss what he’d done.
He steered her to the kitchen but she stopped again, turning to face him. “I don’t want to go without you.”
Austin grabbed her shoulders and shook her slightly, just enough to get her attention. “Eden, your uncle will kill you if he finds you. I will not let that happen,” he said, through gritted teeth. “Do you hear me?”
She nodded hypnotically, the truth of his words sinking in. When she looked at him again, he saw the fear in her eyes and he tried to swallow his anger.
“They’ll kill you too.”
He gave her a half-smile. “I’m not dead yet.”
“You don’t have to do this. We can leave together, just slip out the back. I have money, we can disappear.”
“They’ll find us.”
“How do you know?”
He waited, conscious of the precious moments slipping away, time she could spend safe from harm. Finally, realization dawned, crossing her face like a cloud crosses the sun.
“Of course, you know because you’ve done it. You’ve helped him find people who didn’t want to be found.”
Austin wished he could lie. He wanted to tell her he hadn’t done what he had done in the name of William Cathaway but he couldn’t. Austin wouldn’t lie to another person he loved.
The word swept over him like a tidal wave, slamming into his lungs with a force that left him gasping for breath. He loved her, and had probably loved her since the beginning, when she’d dodged the first bullet and fell into his arms. The when didn’t matter though, because Eden was his to protect. And he would protect her, even if it killed him.
The sound of creaking wood on the front porch brought him back to the present and he drew his gun automatically, ushering Eden with more urgency to the back door. He opened it and glanced out at the backyard. All clear.
“Remember what I said?”
Eden glanced around wildly. “I–”
Austin grunted and pulled her into him, bruising her lips with his own. It wasn’t how he wanted their first kiss to be, but he didn’t have a choice. He needed her to focus and this was the best way he knew how to do it. When he felt the tension ease from her body he stepped back. Breathing hard he stared at her, relieved to find her eyes wide and clear, her cheeks flushed.
His blood pulsed in his ears. “Go.”
It was the first of his commands that she’d followed. Without another word, Eden turned and ran. She was halfway across the lawn when the front door was kicked open. Austin dove behind the kitchen island as bullets pierced the air around him, splintering the wood of the cabinets. He crouched low and moved to the wall separating the kitchen from the entryway and leaned against it, his gun out and ready.
He waited for a break in the shots, when he was sure his assailant would need to change his clip. Then he stepped sideways into the open. He pulled the trigger and watched as the bullet struck the intruder in the shoulder. The man raised his bad arm to take aim but before he could get in another shot, Austin was on him, knocking him to the ground. The guy got in at least one punch, slamming his fist against Austin’s jaw before Austin hit him once with the heel of his weapon.
Austin stood and kicked the man in the ribs, keeping him down. He put his finger on the trigger again and shot him once in the knee cap. The man howled, but Austin moved away. He didn’t need to kill him, he only wanted to send a message to Cathaway. Eden was his now. If Cathaway wanted her, he was going to have to go through him first.
Austin inched his way to the front door, wary of the second man. He was almost to the porch when instinct took over.
He bolted to the back door, his insides burning. He made it to the deck just as he heard the shot.