Her Holiday Protector

By: Lenora Worth

ONE

The sickle moon dipped down in the dark sky, reaching toward the gray surface of Millbrook Lake like a slinky hand trying to touch the water. The nip of winter covered the dusk in a crisp, fresh-smelling blanket of evening dew.

Blain Kent inhaled a deep, cleansing breath and hit his stride on the path around the big oval lake, the cadence of his nightly run echoing behind him. All around him, the quaint turn-of-the-century houses shone with pretty white lights and fresh evergreen wreaths tied up with bright red bows.

Christmas had come to Northwest Florida. But tonight, Blain had to work off that big Thanksgiving meal he’d enjoyed at his parents’ house two days ago. He also needed to work off his retired law enforcement father’s always critical comments. Blain might have followed in his father’s footsteps by returning from combat to take a job with the Millbrook Police Department, but that was where the similarities ended.

Serving for over twenty-five years in the sheriff’s department and finally becoming the county sheriff, Sam Kent had tried to keep the peace by pandering to the local elite and turning a blind eye on the powerful Alvanetti crime family that tried to run the entire state of Florida. Alleged crime family since no one could ever pin anything illegal on Franco Alvanetti.

While Blain tried to do an honest day’s work and solve crimes by the book, it irritated him to no end that he couldn’t find a single piece of incriminating evidence on the Alvanetti clan. So Blain and his still-influential father had a difference of opinion on which way worked best. Blain didn’t pander to anyone.

Blain rounded a corner, his thoughts centered on the harsh words he and his father had slung at each other while Mom was in the kitchen dishing up pumpkin pie.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself or anyone else around here,” Dad had said in his deep, disapproving voice. “You have to make it work, son. Don’t make waves. Just keep the peace.”

“I want it to work, Dad. For everyone, not just the rich people who live around the lake and out on the canal.”

Blain approached that canal now, out of habit his cop’s gaze taking in his surroundings. He wouldn’t let that conversation with his father ruin his good mood. Not tonight, with that moon hanging over the lake and the whole world alive with the promise of something true and honest around the bend. Christmas was coming. All would be right with the world.

And then he heard a gunshot followed a few seconds later by a woman’s scream.

Blain’s radar went into overdrive. He glanced up and down the narrow part of the lake that met up with the Millbrook River. On both sides of the canal, town houses and apartment buildings lined the way. Blain stopped, listening, his gaze sweeping the left side of the river, where the footpath turned into a boardwalk along the row of houses. Footbridges connected both sides, most high enough for large boats to pass underneath.

Where had the gunshot and scream come from?

Maybe a car had backfired but he knew a gunshot when he heard one and the scream had definitely been real. He heard footfalls coming toward him. Blain wasn’t carrying his weapon, but he waited, anyway. He knew how to defend himself.

A small figure came running up the boardwalk. As the silhouette came nearer, he grew even more concerned.

A woman. She sprinted toward him, her long dark hair flying out behind her like a lacy shawl. She kept glancing back as if she were running away from someone.

“Ma’am, are you hurt?”

She came to a surprised stop and drew to a halt a few feet away from him, fear radiating off her body.

“I...I need help,” she said on a shaky voice, her breathing shallow. “Someone was inside my house when I got home and...I think they shot my friend.”

“I’m a police officer,” he said to calm her. “Stay there. I’ll walk toward you.”

She searched behind her and then turned back, her expression full of fear and doubt. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

Blain tugged his badge out of the inside pocket of his hoodie and held it up so she could see it in the street light’s glow. “See? Millbrook Police Department.”

When the woman frowned and backed away, he said, “Just relax. I won’t hurt you. Have you called 911?”

“No. I just got out of there,” she said again, glancing back behind her. “I need...your help. Someone was in my house. I heard them, saw them in my backyard.”

“Okay, I’m here.” He walked closer, his badge in one hand and the other hand out so she could see it. “What happened to you?”

“It’s not me,” she said, her dark eyes flashing. “It’s my friend Tessa.” She pointed, flinging her arm back behind her. “I...I think she’s dead. I mean, I know she’s dead. I found her there after I heard a gunshot outside my back door. I...I ran out and saw a man running away.”

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