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Excerpt - Keeping Guard by Christy Barritt

Keeping Guard
Christy Barritt

"You can't hide from me."

Her anonymous stalker's threats are getting scarier and scarier. Now Kylie Summers fears for her life. She flees her home for the protection of a former military man in a small Virginia town. But her brother's handsome best friend already has a long list of obligations. Kylie knows she's intruding on Nate Richardson's life. Even though he promises to keep her safe, Nate's keeping her at arm's length emotionally. Until her stalker emerges from the shadows, forcing Nate to choose between keeping guard over his wary heart—or Kylie.

Excerpt of chapter one:

The cold rain felt like daggers penetrating Kylie Summers's skin. She tried to escape its torrent, but the drops kept chasing her, even as she retreated under the awning of the brick-fronted restaurant.

She pounded on the glass door again, desperate to get out of the storm. "Hello?"

The red neon sign above read The Revolutionary Grill. Yes, this was the place where her brother had instructed her to come to hide out. So where was Nate Richardson, her brother's best friend and the restaurant's owner? She shielded her eyes from the overhead streetlight and peered through the door. Inside, the place looked dead. Lights out, chairs on tables, staff gone.

It was almost midnight. She sighed and kicked the door. What now? She knew no one else in the historic town. She'd dropped her cell phone in a puddle of water two rest stops ago and she had exactly twenty-six dollars in her wallet.

A chill that had nothing to do with the weather crawled up her arms, an all too familiar feeling. She swung around, her wet hair slapping her in the face. She backed up against the rough brick wall that flanked the door. Her gaze frantically searched the black nighttime landscape. Lightning streaked across the sky over the river beyond the parking lot. Thunder boomed. A lone pier stretched like a decrepit arm into the night. Lights from houses across the water stared at her.

Kylie pushed herself harder against the wall, wishing she could sink into it. Her gaze continued to dart across the landscape. What if the man who'd given her nightmares for the past six months was out there? The darkness and rain might cloak him, make him disappear. He could have followed her.

He always followed her.

Fear clenched her spine. Her breathing became rapid, uneven. She couldn't have another panic attack. Not now. Not here.

She had to find another entrance to this building. She had to figure out a way to find Nate. That, or she'd spend the night soaking wet in her car.

Nate had been expecting her to arrive three hours ago, a reasonable time for stores and businesses to still be open. But the treacherous weather had put her behind schedule, and he must have closed up shop and headed home for the night. She couldn't blame him.

March rain pelted her as she darted from the front of the building. Her foot sank into a deep puddle, splashing icy water up her pant leg. Her shivers intensified. An alleyway lurked between the restaurant and gift shop next door. If she could cut through, maybe she'd find a back entrance to the grill.

Her throat went dry at the thought. Still, she had no choice.

Besides, the man couldn't have followed her here. She would have noticed.


She stepped onto the cobblestone street, dodging past trash cans, old buckets and a ladder.

She looked behind her. No one. Her heart continued to race.

Maybe all of this had been a bad idea. She should have stayed in Kentucky.

But she'd been hunted there and felt like a deer in the middle of an open field. No, her old life had to be put on hold. She couldn't continue living as she'd been for the past few months. Yet even here in Virginia she couldn't shake the feeling of unseen eyes watching her every move.

Pictures of the man flashed through her head in sync with the lightning around her. Pictures of his shadowed face, his hooded profile.

Her heart rate quickened. She tried to push the thoughts aside.

The end of the alleyway neared. She picked up her pace. Sheets of rain plastered her hair to her face.

She rounded the corner and spotted a black door with an alcove. She ducked into the space and pounded her fist against the door. Please be there, Nate! The thought of going through that alley again caused fear to slither up her spine.

She waited. The only sound she heard was that of the rain hitting the ground like bullets. Occasionally, thunder shook the air.


She knocked again. Why wasn't he answering? She needed a Plan B. Only she didn't have one. She barely had a Plan A.

She clenched her eyes closed. How could one person control her life like this? Why did she let him have this power?

She waited in silence, hoping—praying—Nate would hear her.

He didn't. No one did. Not even God lately, it seemed.

She'd have to run back to her car, her only shelter. She could do that. She had to. Once protected behind locked doors, she'd figure out a plan. She took a tentative step into the rain.

A figure appeared around the corner from the alley. A hood concealed his face. A hood. It couldn't be…

He had found her.

The man who'd haunted her nightmares for months had finally caught her. Alone.

Nate Richardson spotted the woman at his back door. His relief instantly turned to a mix of worry and irritation. He'd been expecting her three hours ago and she hadn't bothered to call or answer her cell phone. About thirty minutes ago, he'd called her brother, and now Bruce sounded ready to drive out to Virginia himself.

"Kylie." Nate stepped forward, keeping his hood over his forehead so his face would at least stay semidry.

The woman's eyes widened and she shrank back. "Stay away from me."

The rain poured onto his face, washing into his eyes. Nate stepped forward, trying to get out of the downpour. He needed to get her inside, to call her brother.

"I mean it! Stay back!" Her hands shot out in front of her.

"What are you—"

Before he could finish his sentence, Kylie darted across the parking lot.

Bruce had said his sister needed help. He didn't tell him that the woman was a mental case. What exactly had he gotten himself into by promising Bruce this woman could stay here and help him at his restaurant?

Nate watched her retreat for a moment while contemplating his next move. Chasing her might further freak her out. But allowing her to run across the pothole-filled parking lot in this weather could cause her to twist an ankle or worse.

What would Bruce want him to do?

He sighed and began a steady jog to catch her. Rain sloshed in his face. He let his sweatshirt hood drop behind him. Rain soaked his clothing now, so the covering did him no good.

Nate saw Kylie glance back at him and then speed up. Her long hair appeared plastered to her blue blouse and her heels looked impossible to run in.

Then what Nate had feared would happen happened. Her body lurched forward and she sprawled on the asphalt.

He was only a few steps away from helping her. He quickened his pace.

Kylie turned toward him, panic clearly written in her wide eyes and oval-shaped mouth. "No! Stay away!" She tried to army-crawl forward, away from him.

The woman was a fighter. He'd give her credit for that. He just didn't know what she was fighting against.

"Kylie, stop freaking out. I just want to help."

"Stay away from me."

"Kylie, it's me—"

As soon as the words left his mouth, something hard came down across his head. His world began to spin and then went black.

Kylie glanced at the white-haired woman who glared down at her while slapping a rolling pin in her hand. Kylie closed her eyes as tension drained away. Maybe God was watching out for her after all.

"Thank you," Kylie whispered, before realizing she couldn't be heard over the rainfall. She wiped some moisture from her face and said, a little louder, "Thank you!"

The woman continued to stare down at the man, knocked out flat on the ground, and shook her head. "I looked out my window and saw you being chased. I had to help."

Kylie gawked at the man, seeing his face for the first time since this whole ordeal began. She'd never imagined the man who'd given her so many nightmares would be handsome. In her mind, he'd had a long, crooked nose, tangled teeth, hollow eyes. This man had square, even features, sandy-colored hair. Kylie couldn't be sure in the darkness, but he might even be tanned.

She pulled her eyes away—at least she tried to. She needed to call the police. Let them know that this man should be arrested. Maybe she could finally live again. Go back to Kentucky. Focus on her business. Rebuild her life.

Kylie's attention turned to the woman with the rolling pin. She continued to stand over the man, shaking her head as if she pitied the poor soul who tried to mess with her. The woman might have white hair but obviously she had an iron will.

If only Kylie could be that strong.

The woman glanced at her with a perceptive gaze that made Kylie instantly trust her. "I never thought Nate Richardson would be the type to do this," the woman said. "He always seemed like such a nice young man. Of course, I guess that's what everyone says about criminals."

Kylie sprang from the ground, adrenaline—and panic—rushing through each limb. "Nate Richardson? Did you say Nate Richardson?"

"Why, yes, I did. Nate Richardson." The woman nodded down to the man. "He owns the Revolutionary Grill. I was making pies for tomorrow's dessert menu when I saw him chasing you. That's why I had my rolling pin handy. A good thing, huh?"

Kylie squeezed her eyes shut. What was wrong with her? Was she so paranoid that she'd just allowed her brother's best friend to be assaulted? She might as well just leave her bags in the car and find somewhere else to hide. This man wouldn't want her to be around anymore after this.

"Are you okay, dear?" The kindly, grandmother-like figure peered at her.

Kylie shook her head. "I'm afraid there's been a terrible misunderstanding. This man was trying to help me. I just didn't realize it."

"That sounds more like the Nate I know." The woman nodded, not appearing the least bit ruffled. "He seems tough on the outside but inside, he's sweeter than my shoofly pie."

Kylie's hand clamped over her mouth, muffling the urge to cry in horror or let her mouth drop open in shock. She had no idea what to do next. Or where to go. Or how to break the news to her brother, Bruce.

"Let's get him out of the rain until he regains consciousness." The woman tucked her rolling pin under her arm and bent down as if she were going to haul him away herself.

Yes, they did need to get him out of the rain, but just how they'd do that perplexed Kylie. The man probably weighed two hundred pounds. The rolling pin mercenary couldn't weigh half that, even out in this storm soaking wet, and Kylie's own one hundred pounds wouldn't offer much help.

"I'm Darlene, by the way." The woman seemed to think better of pulling the man by herself and extended her hand toward Kylie.

Kylie shook it briefly. "My brother is a friend of Nate's. I'm Kylie."

"I just live right there." Darlene pointed to a white clapboard home only a few feet away. "So let's take him inside. I'll get my husband, Harvey, to help. It may take a moment. He'll have to put his dentures in first."

As the woman retreated inside, the rain began to taper.

Kylie knelt down beside Nate and flinched at the nasty bruise on his forehead. She should have known the man was Nate. But his hood had brought back so many bad memories. Fear had conquered her thoughts, as it often did lately.

Kylie closed her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Nate."

"You should be."

Her eyes snapped open in time to see Nate's eyelids flicker. He rubbed his forehead and attempted to sit up, the sudden lines around his eyes revealing his discomfort. Once he propped himself up on one elbow, his eyes narrowed at her.

"What's wrong with you? Kylie, I presume?"

Kylie opened her mouth, tried to form words. But how did one explain to a stranger the events of the last six months? How could she summarize the terror she'd felt without looking crazy?

"I know it will sound insane, but—" "Wait till I tell the guys at Bible study about this." A man interrupted as he approached them, lumbering along beside

Darlene, a huge grin stretched across his face. "Nate Richardson getting conked in the head by a girl."

Must be Harvey. Kylie looked closer. The man had teeth—nice, white, straight ones. He must have put his dentures in.

Darlene swatted him on the arm. "Harvey, don't give the boy a hard time. It's not his fault that I'm stealth-like."

"Stealth-like? You couldn't sneak up on an elephant. Beats me how someone who weighs so little can make so much noise stomping around the house all the time."

Harvey stuck his hand out to Kylie. "You must be the girl that Nate's fallen for."

"Just give me a hand, Harvey, and drop the comedy routine for a few minutes, will you?" Nate reached his hand up, grimacing at the movement.

Harvey still grinned as he pulled the broad ex-Coast Guardsman from the sopping ground. Nate's free hand still grasped his head and his eyes locked on Darlene and her rolling pin.

Darlene shook her head and raised her hands in the air in innocence. "Don't give me a dirty look. I was only trying to help the poor girl you were chasing. How was I to know it was a misunderstanding?"

"I just want to get out of this rain and lie down. Do you mind?" The commanding look in his eyes left little room for argument—from any one of the three.

Kylie shrank back and nodded. "Getting out of the rain sounds like a good idea to me, too."

Nate raised a finger as if he were going to lecture her, but then pressed his lips together and shook his head. "Right this way."

He took a step and stopped. His hands went to his temple.

"I better walk you back," Harvey said. "You need to go to the hospital?"

"No, I just need some aspirin and a rewind button."

"I can help with the aspirin but that's about it." Harvey squeezed his shoulder. "You'll have to get that rewind button from your magic genie." He paused and pretended to rub an imaginary genie lamp.

Nate put his hand on Harvey's shoulder. "If only I had one, Harv."

Kylie wrapped her arms over her chest and tried to will her teeth to stop chattering. They wouldn't. Nor would her limbs stop shaking. This whole night was just too much. Yes, she'd take one of those rewind buttons also. If only they existed.

Nate knew he shouldn't snap at the woman. She hadn't been the one to hit him over the head with a rolling pin. But if she had waited just a moment to have a logical conversation then maybe she would never have run away and caused this whole fiasco. To Nate, logic and reasoning were the solution to…well, just about everything.

Still, he couldn't deny that Kylie looked just about as skittish as a cornered cat. Maybe he should have just let her run. Maybe he shouldn't have gone after her.

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