Declan’s dress shoes squeaked as he rushed through the twisted hallways. He tucked the FedEx box under his arm. No doubt the first of many deliveries today for the guest in room 118. Declan stopped when he saw a housekeeper’s trolley stationed outside a room. Before he could turn around, Jess appeared next to the cart.
“Morning, Declan,” she said.
She fidgeted with the clean towels in her hands. “Can we talk during my break?”
“No time. I’m training the new guy.” Declan couldn’t wait to swap this green polyester blazer for a bulletproof vest. Two years as a bellman was enough. Next week he started a new adventure at the police academy.
“Please listen,” she said. “Your face had nothing to do with why I turned you down last night.” Jess shut the door to the clean room. “I almost said yes, but—”
“I heard you yesterday, so let’s drop it.”
An ornate hallway mirror greeted him as he turned, revealing the jagged scar from his left eye to his lip. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and caught the clear mucus running out of his twisted nose. His grotesque appearance, compliments of an IED blast five years earlier, made him the Grand Desert Resort monster. People ran from the face that no number of medals could conceal. He thought Jess had changed and that last-minute concert tickets would win her over.
A forced smile masked his hurt. “I’ve moved on, Jess.”
Declan quickened his pace, but Jess followed him, pushing her cart. He halted when she stopped at room 195, a luxury suite. Stiff competition for cash tips from wealthy guests forced management to rotate the cleaning crews for these rooms. “I thought Tabitha was cleaning the suites.”
Jess shrugged. “She texted about some family emergency. Just parked her cart and bolted.” She tapped on the door. “Can’t we—”
“Good payday for you.” Declan pointed at the closed door. “Nash is a good tipper.”
He ducked down the next hallway and made a note to avoid the ground floor. And Jess. Just two more weeks.
“Dec—!” Jess’s scream echoed.
He threw the box on the floor and charged through the corridor maze, back to room 195. Jess’s abandoned cart blocked his path.
Declan pushed it over and knocked on the door. “Jess.” Silence. He pounded on the door. Crash.
He reminded himself to breathe as his master key hovered over the electronic pad. Click. He shoved the door open.
Elbert Nash’s arms strained against his shirt as he bear-hugged Jess. His left arm circled her neck, and with the right hand, he yanked a knife from his belt. With her tied hands stretched behind her back, Jess’s eyes bulged as the black weapon scraped her cheek.
Declan dodged the broken lamp on the floor and advanced into the room as the door shut behind him. “Easy, Nash.”
“Throw the deadbolt,” Nash said through gritted teeth.
Declan ignored the request. Nash tightened his grip around Jess’s neck, the height difference compelling Nash to slouch forward.
“C—couch.” Jess’s raspy voice kept Declan focused.
He peered over the furniture. Tabitha lay on the floor with her hands and feet zip-tied. Ragged breaths lifted her chest. Her smashed phone looked like a jigsaw puzzle.
“What’d you give Tabitha?”
Nash laughed. “Move back, bellboy.” The knife slid down Jess’s nose. “I’m walking out with my quota—two girls under twenty-five.”
Stall. “How much do you get for each?”
Voices echoed outside the room—people worried about the scattered cleaning supplies.
Declan held his arms out. “No one’s dead yet, Nash. Just leave the girls and sneak out the back.”
Nash glared. “No way. I bet the cops are coming.” His eyes darted from the front door to the rear sliding doors. “I’ll settle for one.” He dragged Jess toward the balcony.
The weight of Declan’s concealed Glock usually went unnoticed during his shift. Now it pinched the small of his back as if it beckoned to be released. Thankfully, management appreciated Declan’s military service and allowed him to carry his weapon after several recent thefts.
Although Jess trembled against the stocky Nash, Declan knew she would still fight.
“Jess, remember at the high school fair … when I ate a dozen corn on the cob?”
Jess squinted at Declan.
She glanced down at Nash’s arm, opened her mouth, and bit hard into his exposed flesh. In pain, Nash stood straight. Declan drew his pistol and fired once. The impact drove Nash into the back wall, taking Jess with him.
Declan rushed to clear the knife from Nash’s hand as Jess rolled away. After he holstered his weapon, he crouched next to Jess, and cut the zip ties with his pocketknife. She gasped for air as she coughed. With one eye on Jess, he shed his jacket, pressing it onto Nash’s right shoulder.
“Jessica!” a man yelled from the hall.
Jess stumbled to the front door as two security guards sprinted in.
“Todd, come relieve me,” Declan said.
Todd squatted, taking Declan’s place, while the other guard assisted Tabitha.
Declan found Jess in the hallway, rubbing her freed hands. He scooped her into his arms and rested his head on her forehead. “You were so—”
“I need … to … say this,” she said between sobs. “Last night … I couldn’t … since you’re … leaving again … like before.”
He pulled his head back and smiled. “I’m staying. Sheriff Greene offered me a job yesterday.”
Jess’s eyes scanned his face. She kissed her finger, then used it to outline Declan’s long scar. “I’ve wanted to do that for two years.”
Before his legs buckled, Declan carried Jess to a chair near the elevator, cradling her as he sat. He struggled to find his voice. “Do that again.”
He held his breath as the touch filled with love cleansed his scar of its ugliness.