First three chapters of To Trick a Hacker

Copyright © 2017 by India Kells

All rights reserved.

 

 

Chapter 1

Dylan’s eyes were burning from staring at her computer screen for so long. She pressed the palm of her hands hard against her eyes, wishing the pain would vanish. There was too much to do. How could she have guessed that righting wrongs and helping so many people in the complete anonymity of the dark Web would be so much work? But it was good work, as she was bringing hope to those who needed her skills to survive and provided kick-ass justice to the worst of humankind. If she could no longer be part of the world, at least she could help from a distance.

A groan escaped her when she stretched the tension twisting her body and rose to peer out the window of her small apartment. The sun was slowly setting over the city, the light shifting, colors blazing in hues of oranges and reds. She never needed a watch, she always knew when night was falling. Even though she tried for so many years to whip her body into accepting the day, nighttime made her very soul sigh and stir. Dylan may have done everything in her power to hide and make herself disappear from the eyes of the world, but in the end, she was, and always would remain an outsider.

Still looking out, she pushed her arms above her head, stretching, before massaging the kinks in her neck. For so many years, she had moved from one place to another, from villages to towns, from towns to cities. Where was she? She had to observe the skyline to remember that she was in Boston. Locations blurred so easily in her mind and became unimportant now. Anywhere and nowhere could be her same destination. With each uprooting, in each place, she was hiding her true self until her instincts told her it was time to leave. Once again. So much of herself, of her past she had to sacrifice, to forget and to hide. She never thought her computer skills could come in handy in finding another career, another purpose. From early in her life, it was easy for her to make any machine sing at will. The same easy confidence as when I used to be a cop. That annoying, recurring thought made her frown.

Her hacker skills were a way of surviving, the only way she had found to stay sane all these years. She targeted crooks, the more dangerous, the better, and never lost a wink of sleep over it despite her shady methods. She grabbed what she needed, dispensed some justice, and vanished like smoke. And most of all, she had a purpose, a way to be of service to the world once more.

That was why she had created Dogberry. Her pseudonym on the Web, the way to contact her if someone requested her help. She offered her talents to those needing them the most—not only the underground community, but also rogues, rebels, and victims. Her only exception was Beatrice. Beatrice Dante, the founder and mastermind behind Purgatory, an organization grouping those same lost souls who fought crime under a single banner, trying to bring justice to this world. When the usual channels had their hands tied, when the usual solutions failed, they called Purgatory. Beatrice had used her last-resort talents to save her life, and now Dogberry had a special debt to repay—an endless one, in her opinion, as she wouldn’t be breathing without the help of her dear friend.

Dylan’s thoughts took a detour when her stomach growled loudly. She could push herself as much as she wanted, but without fuel, she wouldn’t go very far.

The lights were off in her small but comfy apartment, and the descending night shed a soft glow over her furniture. She went straight to her fridge, but she didn’t have high hopes there. Dylan knew how to cook, but always forgot to buy any sort of groceries. After a quick inventory, she realized she would have to go out … unless she wanted to eat mustard on toast.

Dee’s Café was only a corner away and Dylan always liked to walk the short distance at a leisurely pace, especially when the cool autumn air was nipping at her cheeks, the wind was playing with her long strands of dark hair, and the perfume of crushed leaves overpowered the other surrounding smells. She was living in a quieter part of the city. One the urban jungle hadn’t taken over yet. The buildings were old, most of them pre-war, and there were a multitude of trees and a greater sense of community. Subconsciously, she was drawn to it when arriving in a new city and searched for that feeling when she moved to another location, even though she didn’t connect with her fellow neighbors.

Shop lights were bright, and people were walking briskly around her, pressed to arrive at their destination. Dylan was tempted to take a longer detour, enjoying the fall temperature, but her hungry stomach and the weight of her laptop in her bag on her shoulder made her decide against it. Her cell phone started to buzz in her pocket. One quick look at the number made her frown.

“Hello Beatrice. How are you?”

Her friend sighed. “What’s the point of me using a burner phone if I can’t hide my identity?”

Dylan smiled. “You know I’m that good, but to be honest, you’re basically the only one calling me. So, it was an easy guess. And yes, you’re covered, the burner cell didn’t scream your name and location for everyone to hear.”

“Thank God!” Her friend's voice was laced with a healthy dose of sarcasm, her favorite poison.

“Bea, I thought you were on vacation? Or retired? I always forget which one it is.”

Beatrice scoffed on the other end of the line, her British accent even sharper than usual. “I don’t have the temperament for retirement, so you can forget the image of me lying on some beach somewhere.”

“Nah, I thought more about you playing bridge at an old folks’ home near a big fireplace. Must be your British ass inspiring that particular image in my head.”

Her friend laughed at the other end of the line. “I think your indomitable sense of humor is the main reason I’m glad I saved your ass, Dylan.”

“Well, I’m glad you saved the rest of me as well. Although I must admit, my ass is one of my best assets. Not that I don’t want to discuss all the other parts of my anatomy, but if you called for something more specific it may be preferable to start with that.”

And as she suspected, Dylan felt Beatrice’s mood change on the other end of the line. Never a good sign in her humble opinion.

“Beatrice?” Dylan waited before sitting on a bench where she had a good view of the people on the sidewalk with her back to a concrete structure.

“Someone tried to force their way into the secured server system you installed for Purgatory.”

Holy shit. “Tell me more, Bea.” Already, possible scenarios started to pile up in her mind.

“The attacker or attackers didn’t succeed. My team here detected something wrong with the algorithm you had put in place the last time you came on site. And your alarms went off. The bad news is that my men couldn’t track back to where the attack came from.”

“Yeah, that would be the downfall of my security system, it protects us well, but it makes it difficult to retrace the steps of any assailant.”

Beatrice sighed. “But after analysis, we discovered the hacker was targeting specific information, phone numbers, and IP addresses.”

“In other words, he was trying to locate Purgatory members or information. Listen, I’ll be on the next plane to you—”

“No, we’ve solidified the infrastructure here, there is nothing more you can do.”

Dylan smirked. “Humor me! If I can work directly on the server—”

“I don’t want you here, Dylan,” Beatrice stated, cutting Dylan off.

Beatrice’s voice sounded like a whip to her ear. And then it dawned on her, making puzzle pieces click together. “That hacker wasn’t targeting agents. He was trying to locate me.”

The silence at the other end of the line was telling. “Have you seen anything strange wherever you are, Dylan? Nothing popped on your screen?”

Dylan closed her eyes for a moment, her hand rubbing her forehead. “No, it has been quiet for a while, apart from your requests on Mac’s case a few months back, and no new jobs have come up. Not that I’m complaining.”

“I’m sending you protection.”

Dylan rolled her eyes. It had been a constant fight between the two friends. “Bea. I don’t need a bodyguard. I’d been a cop for years before I quit. I can handle pretty much anything thrown my way.”

“I know, but I still remember the one time that you were blindsided. It almost cost you your life.”

Dylan forced her rising emotions back down. She knew nothing good would come of her wallowing in the darkest parts of her life. “I know, Bea. But being alone, I can move faster, and I draw less attention. If you sic a bodyguard on me …”

“I want you safe.”

Dylan’s brow furrowed in aggravation. “I’m safe. As safe as I can be.”

“Not enough.”

“Let it go, Bea.”

Beatrice groaned on the other end of the line, her voice now a low murmur. “You know I can’t.”

What could she say? Some traumas could never be erased and for some people, reactions were a pure knee-jerk. It was her lot now. When she answered, Dylan forced her voice to remain calm, her tone understanding.

“I know, Bea, I can’t either. But I’m still breathing. I don’t want a nightmare to define the rest of my life.”

“Now you’re humoring me. You know very well that this particular nightmare still does.”

Dylan swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, shivering under her thick canvas coat, the image of her body coming to mind before pushing it back down again, in the dark recesses of her memory. “There are things I will never be able to change. Others, I’ve already done. I know you won’t believe me when I will say it, but I’m content. Even happy with my life. You’ve given me that, too.”

“Dylan, damn it.”

Despite the contained rage and helplessness, she heard in her friend’s voice, she pursued. “There is nothing else to be done about my past, or what happened to me. Let’s leave it be and focus on what needs to be done with the wacko stupid enough to try trapping me. Send me all the logs you guys have. I’ll analyze them. Nobody is really able to remain invisible from me, you know that.”

The long silence from Beatrice was telling, but Dylan knew that they understood each other, whatever their opinions and differences. “Be careful, okay? Until we know what kind of wacko we’re dealing with. And speaking of wack jobs, my dear husband has met with Director Morton from the National Counterterrorism Team. Again. He’s still trying to find you, to find Dogberry to be more precise, and even though the director doesn’t know your real identity, he greatly suspects Purgatory to be your biggest client. Too bad he’s right on that. Just be careful and keep that in mind when you’re inclined to take risks. That Morton moron is like a rabid dog, he won’t let that particular bone go easily.”

“No fun keeping that kind of weasel in mind, but I’ll do it for you.” Glad that Beatrice had finally given up on pushing protection on her, Dylan inquired about the team she was part of as a ghost, before promising to give a quick update as soon as she was able to review the data, and to be careful. Again.

Dylan hung up and took a deep breath. The city was moving around her, as she stayed still, pensive. She wasn’t worried. Having been on the move for so many years, her instincts told her when she was in imminent danger. None of her usual alarms had been triggered so far. It was impossible for any human being on Earth to be on constant alert. She had experienced that first hand. So, she decided that continuing her routine was the most logical and sensible solution for her. At least for now anyway.

Chapter 2

As she pushed open the door of Dee’s Café, Dylan was glad to see only a few patrons around, familiar faces that made her relax. Being surrounded by too many people was a trigger she tried to avoid at all costs, thus her nightly routine.

Looking around, she saw her usual bench free. Dylan always liked this café. Situated on a street corner, the owner had kept the brick wall and the old copper ceiling offering a cozy glow over the dark leather benches and wood tables. The lighting was low, but not too much so to strain the eye. With a contented sigh, she put her bag on the bench and shrugged out of her coat.

As if her thoughts had manifested themselves, she saw Dee walking briskly from the kitchen to behind the counter, refilling the pastry display. The lovely brunette laughed at what one of the men sitting at the counter said, her bob of slick, shiny chocolate hair swinging as she answered back.

From the moment she had set foot inside the café, the first night she had settled in the neighborhood, Dee had come to her, determined to be her friend, even if Dylan had done everything in her power to keep her at arm’s length. When the energetic woman set her mind on something, Dylan realized it was impossible to make her change course. She could have found another place, another café, but Dylan didn’t. She found a sort of solace in their instant friendship. However, she only kept it inside the café, never accepting Dee’s invitation to go out. One way of protecting her, if something might happen. By keeping it seemingly casual, Dee would be able to claim her innocence.

As she unzipped her backpack, Dylan heard Dee’s squeal of delight. “Dylan! I didn’t see you come in.” Dylan smiled as the lovely café owner waved at her. She was very grateful that Dee kept a certain distance between them. The young woman may have been demonstrative, but she respected the wishes of her friend and refrained from touching her. At least when she remembered.

While Dylan booted up her computer, Dee came with her usual order—a double latte—and set it before her. “Do you plan to eat? Today’s special is a broccoli cream soup with a coronation chicken sandwich.”

“Sounds great! And prepare my usual to go.”

Smiling, Dee sat in an instant before her. “You’re a saint, you know that? That awful man isn’t worth all the money you’re spending on him.”

Dylan shook her head at Dee’s rant. It was a habit that dated back to when she was a cop. A homeless man or woman stumbled onto her path, and she couldn’t help but buy a double lunch and give it to the poor soul. When she arrived in this neighborhood, she met someone she nicknamed Bear, as the old man with the scraggly gray beard and piercing pale eyes never wanted to reveal his real name. Surly Bear never accepted anything from her until she had brought him one of Dee’s famous beef sandwiches. From that moment on, each time she came to Dee’s, she made a detour to Bear’s dark alley with a sandwich and coffee as a peace offering before returning home.

“I don’t know why you whine, Dee. I buy your most expensive sandwich and I’m the one making the delivery.”

Dee pursed her lips, her pale doll face frowning. “I tried to help him, too, and he yelled at me as if I was about to kill him. I don’t know why you keep trying to feed him.”

“He’s a homeless man, Dee. Probably with a tear-jerk story behind his thick beard and gloomy eyes. If I can give him a warm meal and a hot coffee, it’s worth the effort and insults.”

“As I said, you’re a saint. But you won’t find your soulmate in a dark alley, darling.”

Dylan rolled her eyes at Dee’s mission for her. When she had let it slip that she had been alone for a long time, and worse, that her fiancé had left her, Dee had been determined to find another man for her. If her poor friend knew the truth, she might have been less enthusiastic about finding her someone.

Leaning forward, Dee lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “And tonight, my dear Dylan, you’re in luck. You know the man I told you about last week, the one who came and left just before you arrived? He’s here tonight, sitting at the counter.”

Dylan had seen three men at the counter. Two were construction workers she had recognized, two old friends sitting side by side, and one was alone, slightly hunched over his coffee. How had she not noticed him? What she saw was a large frame clad in a dark-brown leather coat, and a wealth of dark blond hair in dire need of a cut. He looked fit, the leather stretching over his shoulders and back, hinting of muscle. The hair at the back of her neck rose a little, and she fought to bring her heartbeat down. She was probably overreacting, but after Beatrice’s phone call, her brain was still in overdrive.

“I don’t need a man, and even less a matchmaker, Adelia Jenkins! And I’m starving here so I’ll take your special.”

Her brown-haired friend shook her head. “One day, Dylan, you will wake up old and alone. And I dread to see that day.”

Dylan was happy Dee headed back to the counter, that way, she wouldn’t see the regret in her eyes. Life had decided otherwise for her. Choices and tragedy had opened a single path. Only one. And she was resigned to being content with it. She could admire a man, even desire one, but she could never have one, ever again. Her past made that no man would ever desire her again.

Her gaze traveled to the man alone at the counter, wondering what he looked like. Involuntarily, Dee had made her curious. Shaking her head, Dylan took another sip of latte and forced her mind back on her screen.

As usual, her mind focused solely on the task at hand. She was still waiting for Beatrice’s logs, so she sorted her different email accounts, checking requests, upgrading her own systems. Vaguely, she sensed Dee coming and putting food beside her, but she waited to finish a few tasks before finally listening to her grumbling stomach. Pushing her laptop aside, she took a spoonful of the broccoli cream soup. She was grateful for Dee’s delicious cooking. About to take a bite of her sandwich, she noticed movement from the corner of her eye. Instinctively, her hand went to hip, where her sidearm used to be. She tensed and forced herself to conceal her reaction by coughing as someone came closer. Her hip shifted slightly, and she felt her tactical baton, readily on hand, if she ever needed it.

“I’ve never seen someone so focused on a computer screen. Your soup must be cold by now.”

Dylan looked up, readying herself for an attack, when she recognized the leather coat. The man towering over her would definitely be considered a threat, if not for his relaxed posture. He was tall, and the muscled body she had guessed at, was now confirmed, but what made her heart skip a beat was the smile behind the thick golden beard and twinkling blue eyes. The golden strands were long enough for her to wonder how they would feel under her fingers. Handsome didn’t correctly describe him. He also had an aura of danger she recognized from years of walking the beat. But he hid it so well, like a seasoned operative. Remaining on her guard, she didn’t feel he was about to attack, and decided to wait and see what he would do.

She smiled at the man, knowing that appearing sweet might help her gain more information. “It’s still warm, but I’m not fussy, and Dee’s food would be delicious cold or hot. She’s that good of a cook.”

The man smiled even more, hinting at white teeth, and extended his hand. “I’m Owen, or as Adelia, here, has told me, your future husband. And you’re Dylan, my future wife.”

Dylan couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, she just told me you existed, too. But don’t worry, I won’t expect you to fall to your knees and propose.”

As she hadn’t accepted his hand, he put it back in his pocket. “Good for me as I forgot the ring in my other coat. Would you care for some company?”

Dylan was about to refuse when she noticed Dee making frantic signs, clearly wanting her to accept his request. Knowing she would hear about it for weeks, she forced herself to smile at the man and invited him to sit down.

The blond man folded himself before her, and it took only a minute for Dee to appear with another coffee of cup for him, discreetly winking at her. “Do you want more coffee, Dylan?”

Dylan smiled sweetly but swore to set her friend straight as soon as they were alone. “No thanks, I think I’ve already had enough.”

“No problem. Do you want something else to eat, Owen?”

The man turned to her and shook his head. “No thanks, Adelia.”

“Call if you need anything.” Dee sauntered away, leaving them alone.

“I’m sorry about that, Owen. Dee can be hard-headed, and she’s determined to play matchmaker. Unfortunately, you caught her eye.”

Owen took the cup, and Dylan noticed the small scars on the back of his hands and fingers. Callouses too. “She’s a sweet girl, and she means no harm.”

“You come here often?” Stupid question, but one that opened a conversation.

He nodded. “I arrived here a week ago, working a contract. I was lucky to find this place, the only one open this late.”

Dylan observed his face even more, noting the lightly tanned skin and smile lines around his eyes. His blue irises bore into her in return, probably noting every detail about her face. She never considered herself vain, but even without the damage hidden beneath her clothes, what was visible of her skin wasn’t particularly outstanding. Her dark muddy-brown hair twisted into long tendrils, making her look like Medusa if she didn’t harness them into a ponytail. Her only beautiful asset, in her opinion, were her eyes—chocolate brown, dotted with flickers of gold. Mentally shaking herself, she focused on Owen.

“You’re in Boston for work? What kind of work do you do?”

If he was annoyed by her question, he didn’t let it show, except for a slight tightening of his fingers around his mug.

“I work for a security firm that Specializes in protecting people.”

“A bodyguard?”

“More or less. I started as a bodyguard at first and worked my way up. Now, I do planning, and preparation. And you? Let me guess, you’re a blogger or Web designer?”

Wise of him if he wanted her to stay at ease. Keeping it light, non-inquisitive.

“I see you have a keen power of observation. One girl, one computer, and you come to that conclusion. I’m impressed.”

His laughter boomed, and she took a bite of her sandwich to prevent herself from following him.

“Sorry about that, my brain never stops making connections. I constantly analyze my surroundings and the people in it. Call that my professional kink. Sorry, Dylan.”

She shook her head. “Don’t worry, I suppose it’s something that comes from your bodyguard days. So, you’re not protecting people anymore, but you’re preparing your team for it. That’s interesting. Who’s your client? A famous rock star or a boring politician?”

Leaning forward, he winked at her. “I can’t tell you, all I know is that he has a strange name.”

“Ooohh … interesting. So, that man must be famous. Gimme more, please.”

Again, Owen gave her a devastating smile. The man was a beautiful danger, reminding her of what she craved, of how they could be together.

“All I can say is that my client asked me to find someone, because even he doesn’t know where this person is.” Again, he leaned forward, a conspiratorial expression on his face. “I can give you a code name. His name is Dogberry.”

Dylan forced herself to breathe normally. In and out, in and out, and keep her smiling and flirting face firmly in place.

“Quite an unusual name indeed.”

Owen leaned back again, thinking. “Doesn’t it? Sounds like some sort of fruit. Anyway, I’ve been asked to stay in the area. Oh, and maybe that’s the reason why I looked at you. He’s supposed to be some sort of computer wiz.”

“Well, you have a very interesting job ahead of you. But as I’m not male, you can certainly scratch me off your list.”

His blue eyes turned heated. “I thank the heavens that you’re not male, Dylan, or my client. But I’m far from scratching you off my list.”

Was he testing her? Was this a trick, a setup? Could he be ignorant of her true identity? Was he being careless with providing her with information so freely, or did he expect her to come forward or give a hint that she was the person he was looking for? And among all those questions, was the most important of all: was he the enemy who attacked Purgatory’s security system looking for her, or had Beatrice ignored her request to be left alone and sent him for her protection? She needed to find out more about him. As she was debating her next move, she started to feel a familiar tingle in her fingers and legs and took a deep breath to get her mounting stress under control. Being distracted by uncontrolled anxiety was the last thing she needed. at that moment.

Dylan saw Dee coming to remove her plates and offer more coffee, but she declined with a smile. “Dee, can you get my order ready, I’ll be leaving soon.”

If the little brunette was unhappy with her cutting her set-up date short, it didn’t show, although Dylan was certain she would get an earful the next time she sat her ass on this bench.

“I hope you aren’t leaving because of me.”

Owen gulped the last of his coffee, and just before shutting down her computer, she swiftly took a picture of him. There were a couple of face recognition software programs she wanted his handsome features to go through. The beard may pose a problem, but she could work around that.

Packing up her laptop, she smiled at him. “Absolutely not, but work calls. And I have a delivery to make before going home.”

“Delivery?”

As if on cue, Dee came back with a bag and a cup of black coffee. “Oh, Owen, if you’re free, you could accompany Dylan on her delivery. It’s not far away, but it’s dark now, and it’s not in a safe place.”

Dylan grounded her teeth at the café owner’s scheming. “Dee, it’s not unsafe, you’re being dramatic.” She should have known she wouldn’t get off the hook that easily. It was payback time.

“But you would be alone! I know you won’t take any risks, but I would rather you be safe. I have a bad vibe about it. Please.”

Owen turned to Dylan. “I have a little time before that meeting with my client, it would be my pleasure to accompany you.”

Inwardly cringing, Dylan smiled. She was trapped, but maybe being alone with the man would confirm her suspicions. And if they were, the alley where she was going might be dark enough to escape. If luck was on her side.

Chapter 3

Dylan was still debating whether she should or shouldn’t ditch the man beside her as she walked down the street. As soon as the name Dogberry had crossed his lips, it had taken all her experience and training not to react. What Beatrice had told her about the attack on Purgatory could be related to this, to him. Curiosity and fierce protectiveness toward Purgatory made her decide to keep him close.

Owen stayed silent by her side, his hands in his pockets, and the black cap low on his head, making his blond hair curl softly around his face. He looked gruff and antisocial, as if he was sporting a sign telling everyone within walking distance to back off. What a difference to the smile he had offered her earlier. It completely changed the way he appeared, the energy he gave off. Another tiny detail that made her brain tick. Something about Owen didn’t compute. She didn’t trust him, and definitely got a vibe of danger from him. She was grateful that it wasn’t directed at her, because she would have had to be a complete rookie to believe this man wasn’t a weapon. The more he moved, the more she knew he was much more than a simple security guy, and if he was, that wasn’t the job he had started with.

“So, that man to whom you’re bringing lunch, who is he?”

She turned her face to him. “His name is Bear. He’s a homeless man living in an alley close by.”

Owen waited for her to continue and she shrugged.

“Well, I saw him one night, when going to the grocery store. He was dozing and looking worn out, maybe hungry. When I came back, I offered a sandwich that I had bought for him. He wasn’t grateful and told me to get lost in very colorful language. I don’t know how he did it, but he got to me. So, each night I went out, I grabbed something different. Each time, he rejected my offer.”

Dylan smiled at the thought, lifting the collar of her jacket against the nipping cold of the evening.

“Then, one night, I told Dee and she told me that she would make a sandwich even Bear wouldn’t be able to turn down. I’m not sure what’s in it, but it’s loaded with beef and costs me a fortune. But Dee was right. Since that night, he hasn’t told me to get lost. He’s not friendly yet, but he tolerates my presence, for a few minutes at least.”

Owen smiled. “You have accomplished a miracle.”

“Miracle or not, at least the man has a decent meal in him occasionally.”

Dylan had a soft spot for outcasts, and part of her couldn’t let another human suffer, even by choice.

They both turned into the alley Bear called his own. The smell hit her first, pungent and rotting, but she pushed the assault on her senses aside and concentrated on finding the man among piles of cardboard and in-between dumpsters. A low light came from the alley, but the quantity of trash made it difficult nonetheless to locate any human being. Instinctively, Dylan seemed to always find the man and jumped over a small box before crouching down. Owen stayed close, scanning the area. She thought for a moment that he would back off, but he remained there. Her focus back on Bear, she tried to jostle the irritating old man awake, but she only had a low moan as an answer. A moan bordering on pain. She must have made a sound because Owen turned sharply in her direction, nearly bumping into her.

“What? What’s going on?” She ignored him, examining Bear, sitting against the wall, pale and grumbling.

Dylan started to get through the multiple layers of dirty clothes covering Bear. It was only when she reached the last cotton T-shirt that she saw blood. Owen must have seen it, too, because he tried to pull her back, but she shrugged him off. Bear stirred and opened one droopy eye.

“Get off me!” The command was wobbly and faint.

“It’s me, Dylan. Tell me what happened.”

“They tried to get my wool blanket. Bastards.”

“I’m sure it’s not very far. Owen, can you check around?”

Owen straightened up and nodded. He didn’t go far, but it allowed Bear to relax an inch.

Who would attack a helpless old man? And for what? A blanket? Or maybe Bear hid something much more valuable on him. The best she could, she helped Bear sit straighter, now awake and muttering non-stop.

“I didn’t see the second imbecile that attacked me. I was pushing the first one when the second punched me in the gut. I think I hit the back of my head as I fell.”

As she examined him, she saw that his frail skin had broken in some places. Nothing bad or deep, and for most, they had stopped bleeding. Even the one she could feel on the back of his head. She was glad as she knew very well that Bear would never have agreed to go to the hospital.

“Damn, I need that bloody blanket. It’s the only good one I have.”

Dylan put a hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, Bear. I’m sure those teenagers were not here to steal your blanket but only to taunt you. I wouldn’t be surprised if they threw it away when they fled.”

Bear harrumphed, and Dylan looked around. Then, bending behind a dumpster, she retrieved the worn gray blanket.

Owen stood in the opening, examining the alley, but she was quite certain none of Bear’s attackers had remained in the vicinity.

Dylan gave the old man his sandwich and coffee and tucked the blanket more tightly around his body. “Are you sure you wouldn’t be better in a shelter tonight? What if those idiots come around again?”

His mouth full, Bear shook his head. “No shelter. And if those twits are up for another round, I’m game.”

Bear was getting stronger by the minute, and feisty, too. It was now Dylan’s turn to shake her head.

“Don’t do anything you will regret. Eat your sandwich and rest.”

Bear grumbled something unintelligible at her and focused back on his food. There was nothing more she could say or do to make the man budge, so she decided to leave him alone for now.

Owen followed her as they exited the alley into the crisp fresh air of the street. The area was nearly empty. Only late-nighters were hurriedly going back home, ignoring anybody else in their path. She took a deep lungful of air, trying to get rid of the anger simmering inside of her, about stupid teenagers attacking a helpless man. She had to remind herself that she wasn’t a cop anymore and it was impossible to protect everybody, but responsibility weighed heavily on her shoulders … even if that responsibility wasn’t her own to carry. And now the only thing she wanted was to get rid of Owen.

“So? Now that you have dutifully accompanied me and protected me on the dangerous mission of delivering sandwiches and coffee, are you going back to your security duties?”

Owen gave her a sideways glance. “Let me remind you that I’m independently employed.”

“So am I, and I’m returning to work.”

Owen nodded. “Very well. Let me—”

Dylan turned to him, cutting him off mid-sentence. “Thank you, but no thanks. I don’t need a bodyguard, I never did. And right now, I want to return home. Alone.”

Owen’s face was perfectly blank before he nodded. “Then, it’s a good night, Dylan.”

Dylan winced. “Sorry about me being a bitch right now. I’m tired. Sincerely, thank you for helping with Bear, and accompanying me.”

She smiled and stepped closer to him to give him a quick hug. The first thing that surprised her was the missing discomfort that normally came when she was in contact with human beings, and everything she had guessed at was confirmed when she wrapped her arms around his middle; there was nothing soft about him. She released him before he could return the hug. As she stepped back, she waved and kept walking. “Good-bye, Owen. See you around.”

He stood there, stunned and confused, his arms in midair, as if about to hug her back when she was already gone. Dylan smiled to herself and continued walking as she pocketed his wallet, disappearing around the next corner.

It was easy to take a few detours to make sure she wasn’t followed. Once back in her apartment, she put the wallet on her work table. Quickly opening a few pages on her computer, she entered the name found on his driver’s license, and let an automated program of hers do the research.

After a quick shower, Dylan secured her apartment, clicking on her white noise machine, and slid between the cool sheets of her bed. Her eyes closed, her body relaxed, but her mind whirled, continually going back to Owen. Dee was right, there was something about him, drawing her to him. And it was difficult to forget the heat through his clothing, the hard muscles she had felt against her body. How long since she ached for human contact? Preferable not to remember. The control she had rebuilt, one painful brick at the time, didn’t include such emotions. But beyond the control, lust couldn’t be denied. It insinuated itself in her belly, heating her flesh. Her hands rubbed her thighs and decided there wasn’t anything wrong with fantasizing about a handsome, mysterious man, with the bluest eyes she had ever seen. The honed body she had felt underneath his clothes when she had hugged him fanned that flame, and she decided there would be no shut-eye for her until she took care of the need that Owen had stirred in her.

She cupped her breasts, playing with her nipples as she imagined the tall, muscled man towering over her, his unique lopsided smile discernible underneath his golden beard. How would his bearded cheeks feel against her skin, her neck, her breasts? How would he look, naked, his body covering hers, his mouth gliding a wet trail from her ear to the crook of her neck, in between her breasts? Mimicking the images in her head, her hands lingered on her most sensitive spots.

Avoiding her scars, forcing herself to imagine her body as it was a long time ago, she evaded the puckered patterns letting her hand drift between her legs. Pushing her thighs apart, enough so that Owen’s wide shoulders could fit between her legs, Dylan traced her sex with a finger. Would the golden god do the same? Touch her as she dreamed. Or tease her mercilessly as she secretly longed?

Her breath accelerated, as she teased herself, too—denying her pleasure, advancing and retreating, her body tensing.

Dylan imagined Owen, his mouth glistening with her arousal, leaving her frustrated and wanting as he looked up at her, a wolfish gleam in his eyes. In her mind, she could see him clearly, his golden skin within her reach under the pale moonlight filtering through the window. He was kneeling between her legs now, a tight grasp on his impressive erection. At the thought, Dylan smiled behind her closed lids. After all, she could imagine his anatomy as she wished, as big and as large as she wanted him to be. As she ached for him to be.

As he stroked himself, it was to his face that Dylan’s mind wandered. In her fantasy, his entire face would be consumed by lust for her. Only for her. He wouldn’t be able to help himself.

Undone, he would push himself inside of her, slowly, the friction untenable between them. As she imagined him filling her, Dylan let her slick fingers slide against her clit, softly at first, as her hips started to move to the rhythm of her secret fantasy. But she quickly intensified the touch; it had been too long since she had such an intense lust flooding her veins. Now frantic, her only goal was orgasm, as quickly and as skillfully as possible. Sweat misted her skin, and she imagined Owen, as breathless as she was, his hardened body glowing with the effort, in his own pursuit of ecstasy.

When pleasure exploded inside of her, making her cry out, the only voice she heard was the groans and shouts of Owen in her make-believe world, as he lost himself inside of her.

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