Emily felt the flush on her cheeks deepen. “Mark Sanders! Are you flirting with me?”
“I plead the fifth. But just to cover my back, is there a husband I should be concerned about?” His gaze flicked to her ringless left hand.
Her smile faded, and with it the lighthearted mood. “Not anymore. I lost him five years ago, less than six months after we were married. Grant was a fire fighter.
He died in the line of duty.”
He let out a slow breath. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I. He was a good man.” She swallowed and summoned up her smile again. “How about you, Mark? Do you have a wife back in Quantico?”
“No. My career hasn’t been conducive to long-term relationships.”
“Just short-term ones, hmm?” She switched back to banter mode, hoping that would help ease the ache in her heart that memories of Grant always stirred up.
“I think I’m going to employ those verbal judo techniques you mentioned. How about we settle on a time for that cold drink?”
“Deflecting my question, huh?”
With a chuckle, he lifted his arm to check his watch. “No comment.”
As he angled away from her to shade the face from the sun, a persistent yellow jacket buzzed her. Sidestepping it, she flapped her hand to shoo it away.
“The bees are bad this sum---”
The distinctive crack of a rifle shot shattered the early morning stillness, cutting her off in mid-sentence.
The next thing she knew, Mark lunged at her, taking her to the ground with a powerful thrust.
As her body slammed against the unforgiving pavement, the bizarre reality slammed into her with equal force.
Someone was shooting at them.
His adrenaline surging, Mark shielded Emily with his body as he scanned the area. They needed cover.
A stone bench stood a few yards away. In the other direction, a grouping of boulders behind a flower garden offered more protection. Neither option was optimal. But they were the only barriers available to put between them and the shooter. Without loosening his grip on Emily, Mark half rolled, half dragged them behind the bench as another shot rang out. He felt the vapor bulge of the bullet --- a lethal whisper against his cheek that was far too close for comfort --- before it chipped the concrete corner of the seat, shattering it into rough shards. Hoping the backless bench wasn’t anchored to the ground, he wrapped his fingers around the top edge and pushed.
Exerting as much force as possible, he tried again, his muscles straining. To his relief, the bench tipped. He kept a tight grip as it fell to ensure it didn’t turn upside down and leave them exposed. A metallic reflection in the wooded area at the perimeter of the park caught his attention an instant before the bench blocked his view.
“Curl up and stay down, Emily.”
He barked out the order as he edged her in tight behind the concrete barricade and tucked himself beside her.
He took another look at the boulders, which would offer more substantial cover, calculating his chances of getting them both there alive.
Not good, he concluded.
The shooter’s aim was too accurate.
Unarmed, he had no defense except to lay low and hope help arrived before the sniper found a position that would give him a cleaner line of sight.
On the positive side, he had his phone. And the stand of trees on the far side of the adjacent baseball field, where he pegged the shooter to be hiding, gave way to more open ground on each side --- backyards of homes in the residential neighborhood bordering that side of the park. The man’s mobility was limited if he wanted to remain hidden.
It wasn’t much of an advantage, but he’d take it.
Pulling out his BlackBerry, he jabbed in 911. As soon as the dispatcher answered, he gave her a rapid-fire download.
“This is Special Agent Mark Sanders with the FBI. I’m in Hardin Park in Oakdale, and I have an active shooter on the east perimeter in the woods. I’m not armed. I’ve taken cover behind an overturned bench, but I need backup as fast as you can get it here.”
“Is the shooter still firing?”
“Nothing since the first two shots.”
In his automatic response to the gunshot, Mark had taken Emily down hard. On some instinctive level he’d tried to absorb the brunt of the fall, but he didn’t think he’d succeeded. Pressed close against her, he could feel her shuddering, and her breath was coming in shallow gasps. “My friend may need some assistance. Hang on.”
Taking one more sweeping survey of his surroundings, he shifted and spoke in her ear.
“Emily, are you okay?”
Scanning the deserted park and woods once more, Mark eased back as much as he dared. If the shooter was still out there, he would be waiting for an opportunity to take another shot. But in light of the approaching police sirens, Mark’s gut told him the man had already disappeared. And he was certain it was a man. Most shooters of this type were.
Emily was curled into a ball on the asphalt, facing him. Her hair had come out of its elastic band to spill across her face, and with gentle fingers he brushed it aside. Her dazed eyes were open, and there was an abrasion on her cheek --- a souvenir of her slide across the rough asphalt. But it was her pallor that alarmed him.
She blinked once, twice, and reached out a shaky hand toward his shirt.
“Blood.” The word came out in a weak whisper. He looked down. She was right. The large, red stain on his gray T-shirt was blood.
But it wasn’t his.
His alarm escalating, Mark eased back another couple of inches and gave her a swift, comprehensive scan. She had a skinned knee, but that wouldn’t account for the blood on his shirt.
Setting the BlackBerry on the ground, he rolled her toward him to check behind her --- and found the source of the blood.
As his breath hissed out between his teeth, he grabbed the phone.
“We do have a casualty. The woman I’m with has been hit.”