To Protect & Serve
~ The Courage Series ~
“I promise concern for others, and a willingness to help those in need,” Jeff Taylor said as he stood, hands clasped behind his back, shoulder-to-shoulder with 28 of Houston’s finest. His chest swelled with the words he had committed to memory in anticipation of this very moment more than ten years before. “I promise strength… strength of heart to bear whatever burdens might be placed upon me…”
He closed his eyes and breathed the words into his soul. This pledge would change his life in ways he could hardly even imagine at the moment. Where would it lead? Up flights of steps as others fled the other direction? Into the mouth of hell to pluck a single life back? Those images from the future coupled with the words making it difficult to so much as breathe them, and yet somehow his voice managed far more than that.
Strong, with a strength he had gained and a strength he would have to find in himself to do this job, his voice came. A solemn vow to all those his life would touch. “…I promise to protect and serve to the best of my ability. I promise the wisdom to lead, the compassion to comfort, and the love to serve unselfishly whenever I am called.”
A moment of silence for them all to breathe, one more moment affording a final opportunity to turn back. But like the image of those steps, he knew he never would. If someone needed him, Jeff Taylor, now standing at the door to his destiny, was ready and willing to help.
“I said I needed those reports by two! What? Were you hoping my desk would blow up and I wouldn’t notice they weren’t here?” Lisa Matheson asked in fury as the phone shook in her hand. “I don’t need excuses. I’m tired of excuses. I want them here in five minutes—or you can pack your things and I’ll find someone who can actually do this job.”
Without bothering to say good-bye, she slammed the phone down, and her gaze swept the desk stacked a foot high. How was it possible that every single incompetent moron found their way into her office? They were everywhere—and each one had more excuses than the last one did. One carefully manicured set of nails sifted through the files on her desk, but without the latest sales reports, this information was useless.
She hit the intercom button. “Sherie, did Kamden call yet?”
“About ten minutes ago. He’s on his way.”
“Terrific,” Lisa breathed as she let go of the intercom button. More bad news. Kamden was sure to jump ship the second he figured out her little agency couldn’t even get a simple set of sales figures together. She had given her blood, sweat, and tears for the better part of a year to land the Kamden Foods account. Now, she had it, and it was going to be gone before she so much as had a shot at really promoting it. It never ceased to amaze her how long it took to build something and how very quickly it simply crashed down around her. One finger hit the intercom button. “When Joel gets here with those reports, send him in.”
If she could just get organized before the next disaster hit, it would be nice. It would also be nice if she could sweep one hand across her desk and dump all of the problems there into the garbage. With a frustrated sigh, she reached for the folder she had been compiling since that morning just as Joel not so much walked but fell into her office.
“Nice of you to make it,” she said icily. She held out a hand for the information in his. “It’s all there?”
“The last three months,” he said, nodding.
However, when she opened the folder, her gaze fell across the tallies. “No, this is last quarter. I’ve already got this. I need the newest quarter.”
“Yeah, well, the newest quarter isn’t over yet, so…”
“No.” Lisa lowered her tone as her gaze skewered through him. “I need the figures for the newest quarter. Now!”
“Well, you said the quarter. I thought you meant…”
Her head was really starting to hurt. “Do you have the figures for this quarter or not?”
“For last month,” Joel hedged as he pushed his black glasses up on his nose. “This month isn’t…”
“Then get me the figures for last month.”
“But that’s not…”
“O… okay,” Joel said, and although he looked like he wanted to add another excuse, one more look at her told him a quick exit would be best. “I’ll be back.”
In frustration Lisa twirled the single strand of auburn-brunette hair that framed her face in a perfect arch. “Okay, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got the newest mock-ups. I’ll just show him those. I could probably wing the sales figures too if I had to…”
The intercom beeped. “Haley’s on line two.”
“No, no, no,” Lisa moaned as she reached for the phone. “I don’t have time for this!” The phone was at her ear in one motion, and she breathed one quick breath to squelch all of her frustration. “Hey, Haley-girl, what’s up?”
“I just wanted to make sure my maid of honor hasn’t forgotten about our little shindig tonight,” the sweet voice of Lisa’s younger sister said, sounding even sweeter couched in the middle of the most magical month of her life.
“No, I didn’t forget, but I am a little busy trying to get away in time.”
“I can come by and get you if you want,” Haley said. “Bryn and Chandra are going to meet us there.”
“I’ve got my car.”
“I know, but I also know you’re liable to get buried six feet deep in that paperwork of yours and forget.”
“Be careful where you go with that statement. This is the same sister who sat at the airport for six hours waiting for you when you decided to drive from Dallas that time.”
“Okay, okay. Come get me, but I wouldn’t have forgotten this.”
Joel slipped into the room, and Lisa looked up at him, dreading the bad news he was obviously bringing.
“Listen, Hal, I’ve got to go.”
“Yeah, six,” Lisa replied, feeling the full weight of the duty fall on her shoulders. If she made it that long, life could only go up from there. With that promise, she hung up.
Carefully Joel handed her the folder. “Here they are, and I’ve got the ones for this month in there too.”
With her brain going in seven directions at once, Lisa opened the folder and tried to focus on what she was looking at just as the intercom buzzed.
“Mr. Kamden is in the conference room,” Sherie said.
Surrounded by the men who had become his best friends over the last nine months, Jeff stood, drinking punch and laughing about the exploits they had traversed together—like the time Dustin had fallen backward the first time they put the full gear on him, or when Craig got stuck in the door as he went through the obstacle course, and the time Ramsey slid down the pole holding his boots in one hand and his pants in the other.
Ramsey, who was one of the six black men in their class, had never been the most organized among them, but down deep, he had a heart as big as the Astrodome. In fact, as Jeff looked around at them, it struck him how very different each was from the others—but how well they had fit together despite their differences or maybe because of them. One strength made up for another’s weakness. He only hoped that his new post would work out as well.
“Well, gentlemen.” Captain Drake clapped Jeff on the back as he stepped up to the group. “It was touch and go there for awhile, but you made it.”
“Yes, sir,” they all chorused like a well-rehearsed kindergarten class.
“So, what’s up next?”
“I’m going down to South Houston,” Dustin said, speaking up first as he always did. Dustin. Cool, smooth, confident Dustin. The leader and the one Jeff would miss the most.
“I’m headed out to College Station,” Ramsey said with a nod.
“God help them,” Captain Drake said, and they laughed. He looked over to Craig.
“I’ve got two apps in. Depends who takes me,” Craig said with his slow Texas grin. Meticulous Craig—the guy who always the right gear at the right time. Jeff would’ve followed Craig into a burning building that was destined to fall at any moment. It wouldn’t matter, Craig would be there with the right stuff to keep the whole thing upright until they had accomplished every last component of their mission.
“And how about you, Taylor? What’re your big plans?”
The attention from the group descended on him in a flash, and Jeff ducked fully comprehending that he was now center stage.
“Oh, you know, Taylor,” Dustin said after a beat. “He’s just looking for the station with the best stud calendar.” As though the statement needed emphasis, Dustin struck a heroic pose.
Instantly Jeff shook his head even as he buried it into his chest.
“Well, that’s the only way he’s ever going to get any action,” Ramsey said with a laugh.
“Yeah, Lord knows, he’s never going to actually ask anybody out,” Craig said, joining in on the ribbing session that had been going on for more than six months.
Somehow, Jeff knew he never should’ve admitted he wasn’t exactly an expert in the area of women. The other three, two married and one constantly on the prowl, made women seem like a subject with the difficulty of third-grade reading. However, when they taught the lessons the other guys had obviously learned, he must have been absent because as far as Jeff could tell, he was clueless on the subject.
It wasn’t totally his fault. It was something about how he was wired. Around the guys it was hard enough to get a few words in, but bring a woman around, and the already errant signals from his brain to his mouth became downright unintelligible.
Captain Drake laughed with the others and patted Jeff on the back. “Well, if you need a good reference…”
“He needs more than that,” Ramsey said, and they all burst out laughing again.
“Thanks, Captain.” Jeff extended his hand trying to be oblivious to the joke. “It’s been an honor, Sir.”
“Good luck, Taylor,” the captain said, and his smile spoke in terms of I hope to see you again someday and take care of yourself out there. Then the captain moved on to the next cluster of graduates.
“Hey, you know, this punch is nice and all,” Ramsey said, spinning his little cup, “but I’m thinking we really deserve a better send off than this.”
“What do you have in mind?” Dustin asked as he took a drink of the punch.
“The Bar Houston?” Ramsey said quizzically. He jerked his head over to the table where the wives sat. “You can even bring them along if you want.”
Craig laughed. “How generous of you.”
“I try.” Ramsey shrugged and downed the last of his punch. “Even though I seriously hate the thought of diluting the opportunity pool. Know what I’m saying?”
“So, you going to let my man Jeff come along too?” Dustin asked, draping an arm over Jeff’s shoulders.
“Why not?” Ramsey said with a knowing smirk. “You’ve got to actually talk for the prospects to notice you’re in the hunt.”
“I don’t know.” Jeff shrunk away from the thought. “I’m kind of busy.”
“What? Polishing your boots?” Ramsey taunted.
It was too close to the truth to deny too vehemently, and Jeff scratched the back of his ear wishing he could just disappear and be done with it. “It’s been a long day.”
“And what better way to relieve a long day than a little one-on-one time with some very lovely ladies?” Dustin asked. Then he looked at Jeff. “Oh, yeah. I forgot who I’m talking to.”
They laughed as annoyance landed squarely on Jeff’s chest. “Fine. Let’s go.”
“I knew it.”
Lisa jumped at the sound of her sister’s voice suddenly in the middle of her office; however, she kept her gaze solely on the campaign spread across her desk. “Knew what?”
“You aren’t ready yet.” Haley crossed her arms in irritation.
“I am.” Head down, Lisa wrote out the rest of her idea. “I was just waiting on you.”
“Uh-huh, and I didn’t see you downstairs.”
“I figured you’d come up and get me.”
“Okay, so I’m here.”
Lisa’s gaze never lifted from the drawings. “You know, Hal, the whole bar thing really isn’t my scene.”
“Yeah,” Haley said as she walked around the desk where she laced her arm through her sister’s and tugged on her, “and if I’d let you, you’d hole up here forever and never go anywhere.”
Quickly Lisa made one more mark before she allowed herself to be pulled up. “And that would be a bad thing?”
“Come on, Bryn and Chandra are waiting.”
“Now this is a party!” Dustin said as he draped one arm over the shoulders of his wife, Eve, a lovely brunette who huddled in closer to him.
“I just hope the babysitter doesn’t charge overtime,” Craig’s wife, Bridget, said looking at her watch.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Ramsey said with a definite scowl. “Now, you ladies know I love you, but come on. Babysitters? You’re cramping my style.”
“And what style would that be, R.J.?” Eve asked teasingly.
“You know.” Ramsey slid out of the booth and did a smooth slide past the table. “My style.”
Eve ran her hand down Dustin’s chest. “I’m just glad he didn’t rub off on you while you were cooped up in that training thing with him.” Lovingly Dustin turned to her and rubbed the tip of her nose with his.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. While the two of you are getting all lovey-dovey on us, I’m going to go find myself a little action,” Ramsey said.
“There’s plenty of action right here for me,” Dustin said, and as Jeff watched them from across the table, his hand on his cold Bud Lite, he couldn’t help but think that in the whole general scheme of things he’d rather be where Dustin and Eve now sat than where Ramsey stood.
“I’m telling you, you’re missing out,” Ramsey said, shaking his head.
“You know for someone who wants action so bad, you sure don’t move very fast,” Craig said from his position next to Bridget.
“You just take notes, Hyatt.” Pointing both forefingers at the group as he slid backward, Ramsey arched an eyebrow and disappeared into the crowd.
“I’m sure glad I don’t have to do that anymore.” Eve slid so close to Dustin that Jeff wondered how she didn’t just disappear. “This is so much better.”
“Enjoy it,” Bridget, who wasn’t huddled nearly so close to her husband, said. “You get a couple of kids, and you’ll never get to be that close again.”
Craig laughed. “Yeah, it’s family night every night of the week.”
Coiling her neck, Eve looked up at Dustin. “Let’s not ever have kids.”
“Ah,” he said, smiling down at her, “I think making them sounds like fun.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said as a fire lit in her eyes. “Now that does sound like fun.”
“Hey, hey! Hello! What are we going to have to do, hose you two down?” Craig asked.
“Well, considering you’ve got a hot babe sitting right next to you, I don’t think I’d be so concerned with us,” Dustin said, smirking.
“You know,” Craig said as he turned to Bridget. “The man has a point. Do you remember how to dance, Mrs. Hyatt?”
Instantly she smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.” Together they slid from the booth.
“That doesn’t sound like a half-bad idea,” Eve said, tracing a finger around and around on Dustin’s chest.
“Well, then what are we waiting for?” Dustin asked, and they slid out the other way. Just before they stepped from the table, Dustin turned back to the lone table occupant. “Hold our seats.”
Off-handedly Jeff saluted with two fingers. Somehow he wished he had just stayed home to polish his boots.
“Good grief, Lisa-girl, you’ve really got to get out of that office more.” Bryn, one of the other bridesmaids tipped up the beer in her hand.
“What makes you say that?” Lisa asked, trying not to squirm defensively. Her own bottle of beer sat on the table without so much as a sip taken out of it.
“Look at you.” Chandra frowned. “You look like you just stepped off the cover of Working Women Today.”
“You really should learn to let your hair down a little,” Bryn confirmed.
Lisa’s hand went to the back of the upsweep of hair. “I didn’t have time to change before Haley dragged me out here.”
“Okay, I heard my name,” Haley said, slipping up to the booth. “So, what? Are we going to sit here all night and drink, or did we come to enjoy ourselves a little?” Haley was moving to the beat of the pounding music like she was born in a dance club.
“Well, let’s go dance already!” Bryn said, pushing Haley out in front of her.
Chandra slid out the other way and then stopped. “Lis, aren’t you coming?”
“No, I think I’ll just hold the table,” Lisa said, waving them away.
With a shrug, Chandra followed the other two out into the crowd, swaying with every step she took. As soon as they were gone, Lisa relaxed into the soft plastic of the booth as her finger played with the ice on her beer. Haley. She was here because of Haley. Just remember that. Put a smile on your face, and get through this.
“Hi,” a tall guy in a T-shirt and a baseball cap suddenly said, standing in front of her table. “I saw you sitting over here by yourself. I was wondering if you’d like to dance?”
The relaxation snapped right out of her spine as she sat straight up. “Oh, no. Umm, no thanks. I’m not really into dancing.”
“You sure?” He flashed that false smile she’d seen so many times it sickened her now. “I’d hate for you to just be left over here all by yourself.”
“No,” she said, trying to smile but the effort hurt her face, “maybe later.”
He held out his palms in surrender. “Your loss.” And he moved on through the crowd.
Wishing she could just disappear, Lisa laid her elbow on the seat back behind her and put her fingertips to her forehead. This was pointless. Utterly pointless. The whole idea of bars was to go and meet people and have fun, but she didn’t want to meet anyone and the last thing she had time for was fun.
In frustration, she let her arm fall forward where it immediately met up with a brick mildly resembling an arm. “Oh!” Instantly she sat up as she looked across the booth back at the target she had surprise attacked. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes widened as the guy sitting there yanked his arm away.
“Oh, no. It wasn’t you,” he said with a visible swallow. “It was me. I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said as her senses took in the strong yet quiet features, the black hair clipped neatly over his ears and the gentleness of his blue eyes. She was sure she must be dreaming, and then he smiled, and she knew that in fact she was.
In utter self-defense, she turned back to her table, holding the part of her arm that was now burning from that one single solitary brush with his. She could feel his gaze still on her, and quickly if for no other reason than to quench the fire in her chest, she took a long drink of the ice-cold beer. When she set the bottle down, she wasn’t sure if the headache she suddenly had was from the music or the beer or the fact that her eyes were trying desperately to move to the side of her head to get another look at him.
“Come on, Lisa. Get a hold of yourself,” she breathed. “He’s just like all the rest of them. Snap out of it.”
The girls picked that moment to conga line up to her table with what looked like half the bar following them.
“Come on, Lis!” Haley yelled, dancing and laughing, and pulling her sister out of the booth. “Have some fun!”
“Look at you, sitting here all alone,” Bridget said as she and Craig followed the conga line back to the table and sat down. The pity in her eyes made Jeff’s head fall of its own accord. Softly Bridget laid a hand on his arm. “We’ve really got to find you someone, Jeffrey. You’re making my heart hurt.”
Sheepishly he scratched the back of his neck. “It’s not so bad.” He laid his arm over the booth back behind her, and his gaze followed it to the now empty table beyond. But he shook the sight of the angel-ghost away from his consciousness. “I’m just glad you guys are having fun.”
“But you’re not having any,” Bridget said, frowning. Then she brightened. “How about you dance with me?”
“D-dance?” Every awkward part of his body stood to attention. “Oh, I don’t think…”
However, she already had his other hand in hers. “That wasn’t a question. You don’t mind, do you, Craig?”
Craig smiled at them as Bridget pulled Jeff out of the booth. “Just bring her back. Okay?”
Every step was torture for Jeff, all the way to the dance floor. There were things in life that he did well—dancing was not one of them. On the floor he tried to find the beat, but it kept moving on him. Side-to-side not really dancing so much as just moving, he swayed. How did all the other guys make this look normal? It felt utterly foreign to every inch of his body.
At that moment he caught sight of Dustin and Eve slow dancing although the beat was more of a jungle rhythm. He couldn’t even dance the way you were supposed to with music like this, and he sure couldn’t pull something like that off. No, for all intents and purposes, he was doomed to forever be the awkward one, to forever be the one that the world overlooked.
But that was okay. He didn’t need the spotlight. One, true love—if he could just find that, the rest of life would be perfect. As he glanced again at Dustin and Eve, that was his one and only wish.
Lisa’s head was swimming by the time they made it back to the table, and in seconds a waitress appeared with a round of shots.
“Oh, no.” Lisa waved her hands in front of her. “None for me. Thanks.”
“Come on, Lis,” Haley said, laughing and begging at the same time, “just one.”
It wasn’t a good idea. She knew it. “Okay. One.”
The glasses were filled, and Chandra raised hers. “To Cory who dang sure better know how lucky he is to be getting Haley!”
In one motion the other three downed their drinks as Lisa looked at hers knowing how awful this was going to be. She squinted into the on-coming drink, counted to three, and nearly choked when the sharp, stinging liquid assaulted her throat.
“More dancing!” Haley announced, jumping to her feet. The other two followed without question, but Lisa slunk back behind the table so they wouldn’t notice her absence. When they were gone, she sat up and coughed again. Peeling her eyes from the back of her eyelids, she shook her head. Work was not going to be fun tomorrow.
“No, no, no,” the arm guy from earlier said, sliding into the other booth as he pushed the other two occupants back out to the floor. “That’s enough for me. You two go. Dance. Have fun.”
Laughing at him, the guy put his arm on the lady’s waist, and they disappeared into the crowd. For one moment Lisa folded the edge of her napkin up and then down, fighting not to look over at him. It was crazy. He was just a guy at a bar. One of thousands, and yet… Without her permission, her gaze chanced across the divide between them, and the jolt from the pools of blue looking back at her sent her diving back to her side.
He was looking at her. That wasn’t good. No, no. That was not good. Her face went hot. Now he was going to think she was looking at him. Well, she was, but not because she wanted to. She really couldn’t help herself. After all, where else are you supposed to look—at the table all night? But still she shouldn’t have been looking. That might be an invitation, and she didn’t want to be sending out any invitations. Not tonight. Not ever.
Slowly, carefully she wound the strand of hair sliding down her face over her ear. One more furtive glance over the divide between them. This time she was thankful to find only his silhouette. Good. At least he wasn’t going to think she was trying to make eye contact or something. Casually she sat up, nodding to herself as she closed her eyes. Her brain coached itself on what to do and what not to do. However, when she opened her eyes, the fact that his arm was again only a foot from her jumped into her consciousness.
Nervously half of her gaze followed the sculptured forearm up past the black sleeve that covered everything from his elbow up to his shoulder. She shut her eyes, trying to block him out, but the second she opened them he was back. However, this time the blue pools were back too. Her gaze locked with his, and she knew he knew she was looking. Quickly she smiled as she wound the errant hair around her ear.
“Nice music,” she said.
“Yeah.” His smile was better than she had remembered.
She wanted to say something else, but her brain was scrambled by the proximity of his arm and the disarming way his gaze fell to the table as if her eyes were too intense to hold on. “You come here a lot?” she asked, wholly reprimanding herself for pursuing when she should be thankful he wasn’t.
“No, not really.” He shook his head and shifted a little, and this time his smile was less sure. “We’re celebrating.”
“Oh, really? Us too.” With her tone she tried to coax his full gaze back to her although she was only mildly successful. “My little sister’s getting married next weekend.”
“Oh.” This smile was stronger. “Lucky her.”
“Yeah, lucky me too.” Lisa shook her head and wrinkled her nose. “Bachelorette party. Woohoo.”
This time he laughed outright. “Sounds terrible.”
“Well, as long as they don’t drag me out there, it’s not so bad.”
He nodded. “I hear you there.”
For a moment she sat, gathering her scattering sanity and trying to get her gaze not to notice the gold cross shining atop the solid black shirt at his neck. “So, what’re you celebrating?”
However, at that moment her attention snapped to the other edge of his table where two of his friends slid into the booth with him without pretense.
“Man, it’s hot out there!” the girl with the nearly-black, wavy hair said, fanning herself with her hand as Lisa self-consciously slunk back into her own world.
“Yeah. I’m sure it’s the dance floor,” elbow guy said with a laugh as he retreated back to his own table.
“Hey, how would you know?” the guy in the skin-hugging, brown-gold pullover shirt asked. “It’s not like you can tell from way over here.” He took a drink. “Man, have you seen Ramsey? That guy’s insane. He’s got like a whole bachelorette party dancing with him.”
Lisa’s ears tried to peel themselves from the conversation as she slid farther down into the booth.
“Yeah, well, dancing isn’t everything,” elbow guy said as he laid his forearm on the booth back, causing the remaining sanity in Lisa’s head to disperse.
Lunacy. It was the far side of it; however, the alcohol or something had a hold of her because Lisa’s brain took a nice little journey to the middle of that hot dance floor with her in his arms, swaying in time with only one another. A low growl of disgust with herself crawled into her gut. Where was her willpower? He was a guy after all. A guy. And that meant only one thing—trouble.
“Lisa-girl! What are you doing sitting over here all by yourself?” Haley asked as she, Bryn, Chandra, and a tall, well-built black man danced up to the table. He had his arms around each of the two girls.
“We found ourselves a fireman!” Bryn said loud enough for the whole bar to hear.
“Hey,” the man said with a glance to the table next to them, “well, look what we have here!”
Not one part of Lisa liked the sound of that statement.
“Man, you ladies must have some seriously good compass directions going for you. These are the friends I was telling you about!”
Occupants from both tables looked across in surprise.
“Ramsey, what did you do?” pullover guy asked as though he was reprimanding a two-year-old.
“Two,” Ramsey mouthed over the top of the girls’ heads as he nodded and smiled.
The darkness under the table was looking very inviting to Lisa at that moment.
Pullover guy waved them over. “Well, what are you standing over there for? Come, join us.”
“What do you say, ladies? Join us?” Ramsey’s clothesline of a grip around Bryn and Chandra made arguing pointless as he led them over to the other table.
Instantly Haley stood to follow them. “Come on, Lis.”
Lisa closed her eyes and exhaled. There was no way this was going to turn out well.