Tactical Force

Some wounds never heal.

As a former Navy SEAL, Walker Montgomery faces danger without flinching. But not even a combat zone halfway around the world was far enough to escape the trauma of his teen years. His younger sister was murdered and the killer never caught. Since returning home, he’s been quietly working the case, unable to move on with his life until justice is served.

She’s a survivor.

Hayley Barlow has her own tragic childhood. Abducted and held captive, she barely escaped the clutches of the same killer that murdered Walker’s sister. The invisible scars on her heart and the brand on her shoulder are souvenirs she can’t get rid of. When Hayley receives a taunting phone call from her attacker, she turns to Walker for protection.

A race to stop a killer.

Walker is committed to safeguarding Hayley, but their closeness fractures the walls surrounding his heart. As the killer draws them into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, nothing is as it seems. Walker is used to taking the fight to the enemy, but this time, with Hayley’s life on the line, it may cost him more than he’s willing to lose.


Chapter One

The door was open.

Hayley Barlow paused on the rickety front porch of her mother’s house. The sun had set hours ago, dropping a shroud of darkness over the property. A faint glow came from the lone bulb overhead, illuminating the faint crack between the front door and the frame. She’d locked up before leaving. She was sure of it.

Her heart skittered. Hayley’s hand automatically drifted to the handgun concealed under her jacket only for her fingers to brush against fabric. Belatedly, she realized her weapon was inside the house, secure in a drawer in the entryway. It was rare she was without it. Being attacked and held prisoner for days by a sadistic killer, along with a career as a military police officer, had embedded the need for protection into her psyche. But wearing the handgun, even in a concealed manner during her mother’s funeral, had seemed disrespectful.

Janet Barlow hated guns.

A strange quirk considering her mom had no qualms about breaking the law. Stealing, child endangerment, and drug dealing were just a few of the arrests on her rap sheet. Liquor and pain pills hadn’t helped matters. Janet’s addiction had ebbed and flowed for decades, finally culminating in her death three days ago. Her funeral and burial had been this afternoon. Hayley was emotionally drained, and now someone had broken into her family’s home.

Frigid wind rippled the strands of Hayley’s dark hair. The front door creaked on the hinges, opening wider, revealing a dark interior. Was she mistaken about the intruder? Had the wind simply pushed the door open? She frowned, trying to remember. She’d closed the door firmly, but hadn’t double-checked it. Maybe the latch hadn’t clicked into place.The ancient farmhouse had been built by her grandfather. It’d been beautiful once, with flower beds lining the walkway and rocking chairs on the wooden porch. Time and vicious thunderstorms had beaten the building into submission. Shingles were missing from the roof and paint peeled from the wood siding. Weeds tangled together, climbing the posts of the porch in an attempt to swallow the house. Hayley almost wished they would. After clearing the farmhouse of her mother’s meager belongings, Hayley would put the property up for sale. She never wanted to come back to Knoxville, Texas again.

Too many horrific memories.

An owl hooted. Moonlight slid along the woods surrounding the house and another icy wind snaked into Hayley’s jacket. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. A sense of being watched crept over her. Hayley cast a glance over her shoulder but couldn’t distinguish anything unusual in the yard. She slid along the wooden porch to the front door. Gingerly, she pushed open the door with her foot.

Darkness yawned. Boxes were piled neatly in the corner. An old couch sagged against the living room wall across from a fireplace. Somewhere deeper inside the house came a whisper, followed by the scrape of a boot against the floor.

Someone was definitely inside.

Hayley quietly located the key to the console in the entryway and unlocked the first drawer. Wood scraped against wood as she pulled it open, and she winced at the loud noise. Relief flooded her veins when her hand closed over the grip of her handgun. Automatically, she checked to make sure the weapon was loaded. It was.

“This is…” Hayley caught herself before she said military police. She wasn’t in the Army anymore. Her career ended six months ago after a bullet ricocheted off concrete and fragments hit her right hand. The injury hadn’t been life-threatening, but the bullet had damaged a tendon, which affected her shooting accuracy. Hayley could still handle a weapon, but not with the same precision as before.

Another scrape came from inside the house. Was he in the back bedroom?

“Whoever you are, this is private property.” Hayley’s voice carried through the home. “You’re trespassing and I’m armed. Come out with your hands up.”

No response. Chances were, it was some lowlife her mother had hung out with. Hayley debated calling law enforcement, but it would take time for deputies to reach the house. She was out in the boonies. Besides, she couldn’t be sure the person didn’t have a right to be in the house. Her mother could’ve given someone a key. A boyfriend, maybe? No one had come to the funeral, but that didn’t exclude the possibility.

“Show yourself.” Hayley silently moved over the worn wooden floors toward the hallway leading to the back bedrooms. No one responded to her order. She rounded the corner, gun leading the way, and paused. Light flickered from the main bedroom in a warm glow, as if someone had lit a candle. Rose petals were scattered on the threadbare carpet.

Weird. Did the boyfriend not know her mother was dead?

Hayley continued down the hall, carefully clearing the other rooms as she passed. The guest bedroom was empty, as was the small bathroom. She slid up to the doorjamb of the primary bedroom at the end of the hall, her heart beating a rapid tune against her ribs. “I know you’re in there. Announce yourself.”

No reply. Hayley peeked around the corner.

Rose petals were scattered around the room. Candles lined the dresser. The bed was covered by a handmade quilt, sewn by Hayley’s grandmother before she passed. A large heart made out of rosebuds rested on it. The room was set for a romantic interlude.

No boyfriend.

Hayley eased into the bedroom, the heavy scent of the roses mingling with winter air. The curtains fluttered. The window was open. Had the person escaped into the backyard? Possible. But Hayley still had the adjacent bathroom to clear. She wouldn’t let down her guard until it was certain the house was empty. She pivoted into the bathroom, pushing aside the shower curtain on the bathtub.

Empty. No one was here.

Hayley released the breath she was holding and lowered her weapon. The cell phone tucked inside her jacket pocket vibrated. She pulled it out. The number flashing across her screen was unfamiliar, but local. She answered the call. “Hello.”

“My sweetheart…”His voice was barely above a whisper, nothing more than a faint echo on the wind, but Hayley stiffened immediately. The roses… the candles… Fear doused her like an ice-water bath. She raised her weapon, pointing it at the bathroom door, which led into the bedroom. Had he snuck in behind her? Hayley’s breath hitched. “Who is this?”

“You know exactly who I am.”

Casanova? No, it couldn’t be the criminal who’d kidnapped and held her for days. Hayley’s mind rejected it, even as memories assaulted her senses. The feel of the gun barrel pressed up against her spine when the killer carjacked Hayley and her boyfriend’s sister, Lauren. Driving to the woods under the cover of night. Frigid air and the crunch of leaves on the pathway as they were forced to walk after their hands were bound.

The sound of the gunshot that stole Lauren’s life. Blood. So much blood.

“It’s been a long time.” He hummed, the sound coming over the line. “I’ve missed you.”

The voice was the same. Smooth and haunting, with just the barest hint of a Texas accent. The brand on her shoulder burned, the pain as vibrant as it’d been on the day he’d pressed a hot iron to her skin. You belong to me. The wound was heart shaped, a constant reminder of the man who’d nearly taken her life. He’d worn an ancient Venetian mask made out of hard plastic with a pointed nose and chin. No mouth. His eyes had been malevolent, cavernous holes. He’d called himself Casanova. She’d never known his true identity.

Law enforcement believed he was dead. There hadn’t been any sign of him for ten years.

Until now.

Hayley’s hand clutched the cell phone as terror turned to rage. If this was Casanova, he’d made a calculated error. She wasn’t the same helpless seventeen-year-old girl he’d carjacked. Now Hayley was a trained military police officer with years of experience under her belt. She eased back into the bedroom. The scent of the roses turned her stomach. “Hiding, Casanova? That’s not very manly.”

He chuckled. “You can’t bait me, sweetheart, but nice try. Do you like the gifts I’ve left you?”

Hayley slid to the open window. Goose bumps broke out across her skin as frosty air skated over her bare neck. She peered into the woods bordering the property. The trees and brush cast deep shadows. If Casanova was hiding out there, she couldn’t tell. “What do you want?”


A shudder rippled down her spine. Hayley’s insides quaked, but she didn’t allow an ounce of fear to bleed into her voice. “Then come and get me.”

“Soon, sweetheart. Very soon. But I have a game for us to play first. Look at the roses on the bed. I’ve left instructions.”

He hung up. Hayley’s breath was uneven, and she didn’t move from the window. Her gaze swept the yard and trees once more, but again, nothing stirred. Using the edge of her jacket sleeve to cover her hand, and touching the window as little as possible to preserve potential fingerprints, she shut it. The act didn’t make her feel one bit safer.

Heart pounding, she edged closer to the bed. An envelope was tucked between the rosebuds on the quilt. Her name was typed on the front. Hayley didn’t immediately touch it. Instead, she went back into the bathroom and fished out a pair of latex gloves from under the sink. She yanked them on before crossing back to the bed. The envelope was plain, sold from hundreds of stationery stores across the country. It was unsealed.

Hayley lifted the flap.

A woman’s bracelet fell into her hand.

@Creative Thoughts 2021

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