"What the hell are you doing here?" Ben grumbled. A smile tugged at the corner of Dylan's mouth.
"A hell the how are ya would have sufficed Benny ol' boy." As much as Ben hated to admit, he was glad to see the bastard.
"Well then?" Ben urged. Dylan rolled his eyes and let out a low whistle. "Fine. How the hell are ya?"
"I've been better."
Ben's instincts kicked in. "Better? What's wrong?" He was still so protective of the little bugger. How many people had he beaten up for Dylan since they were infants?
"For starters, I'm still a good foot off the ground. Not to mention probably nearing my last breath." Ben instantly released his grip and watched as Dylan tumbled to the floor. He was just as thin as the day he'd left. He hardly looked a day over seventeen. Dylan was Ben's brother's best friend. His Papa had died when he was only a boy and his drunk mother wasn't exactly reliable. As much as Ben liked to pretend he hated him, Dylan always held a small piece of his heart – he was like the bratty little brother you loved only because you have to. Ben watched Dylan straighten his dress shirt. "I missed the abuse Benny Boy." Ben let out a loud snort. He should probably punch Dylan for using that name. "No hug?" Dylan persisted.
Ben spun around and gave him a smack on the back of the head. "You know I only spend time with you because my Ma made me promise."
Dylan wrapped an arm around his shoulders anyway and gave him a tight squeeze. "I know you love me in that tiny heart of iron." He teased. Dylan was right, and they both know it. Ben let out a small grumble of agreement.
Dylan tapped his foot t the beat of the song the band was playing. "So hows about a beer?"
"Actually, now is not a good time."
"How come?" Dylan made himself comfortable at the bar.
"None of your damn business, Dyl."
"Aww, come on. Spit it out cowboy." He grabbed a handful of bar nuts and shoved them into his mouth. "Got a purdy lady waiting for you somewheres?"
"In fact I do." Ben glanced over his shoulder. Where was Diana? She wasn't standing by the jukebox.
"And still you came over to see me?"
"I had to make sure you weren't gonna set my bar on fire."
"You really do love me!" Dylan batted his eyelashes. Ben did smack him good and hard this time. "Well, I'll let ya go then. But I heard you were in town, so I had to come see it for myself. I told Sams there was no way it was possible, but Mike was sure. Deep was positive he had seen you driving in. But I told them no way you'd haul your candy ass back here."
Ben waved away Dyl's crazy ranting and headed back in the direction of the dance floor. Where the hell did she go? He felt tempted to call out her name. Did he scare her off? God he hoped not. It seemed like he was finally getting somewhere with the shy beauty. He'd never seen her let herself go even that much.
"What's got ya down?" Dylan yelled in his ear.
"God, Dyl! It's not that loud in here."
"Lost yer date?" He continued, oblivious to the situation. "Somebody I know?"
"Jesus Christ." Ben cursed, whipping back around to face Dylan. Diana wasn't just some chick he wanted to go around showing off to the world like she was some trophy play-girl. This was Diana, his Diana. He hated the thought of any man looking at her the way he did. And he wanted time with her. Where the hell did she go?
Dylan looked over his shoulder whimsically. "I'm not Jesus! I'm Dylan." Ben punched him in the arm. "I think you really have lost it, pal."
Ben searched the bar for her, looking at the face of every woman. This wasn't like her, she had never even been late before. She wouldn't just walk out on him. Something must have happened, something must have gone wrong. Ben's fists clenched to the point that his joints felt as though they would pop out of his skin. Something was wrong – he could sense it.
Behind the bar lay her purse – something he would never lay his hands on. Looking into a woman's purse was like looking into her most private thoughts and possessions. It was just something a man never did. But this was an emergency. She could be in trouble. Ben plunged himself behind the bar and grabbed Diana's purse.
"Do me a favour, Dyl." He didn't need to turn around to make sure Dylan was still standing there. He was the equivalent of Ben's own tail.
"What is it, boss?"
"Call my brother, tell him I need to leave right now." Ben could hear the urgency in his own voice. He was the master of staying calm in all situations, everyone on the platoon knew it. But this was different; this was Diana.
The playful look on Dylan's face disappeared. It was rare to see Dylan like this. "Ben, what's wrong?"
Ben put his hand on Dylan's shoulder, his eyes meeting his. "I'll explain later. Can you watch the bar until then?"
"Of course." Ben grabbed his leather jacket and pulled it onto his arms.
"Call me if something doesn't go as planned." Dylan stepped behind the bar and tossed a cloth over his shoulder. As much as Ben loved to pretend he felt Dylan was a nuisance, he really loved him like his own brother. He grabbed his dear friend and pulled him into a tight hug.
"It's good to see you, Dyl."
And the serious moment for Dylan was gone. "I knew you really loved me you big fluffy bear you."
Ben headed for his trusty pick-up that he'd purchased the summer of his eighteenth birthday. His hands clumsily reached into his pockets and pulled out his keys. He jabbed them into the ignition and peeled out of the parking lot. He didn't even know where to go or where to start looking. His eyes scanned the streets, attuned to the small details most people missed. Years of patrolling on night shifts made it easy for him to pick out even very small objects in the dark. He resisted the urge to speed down the side streets knowing that it would only prevent him from finding her.
"Where are you, Diana?" He mumbled. Her purse still sat in his lap. He moved his hand around inside it. There was no cell phone. He pulled out a tube of lipstick, a few tampons, finally her wallet. He pulled over onto the dirt shoulder of a back country road and turned on the lights inside the car. Her wallet had a small amount of cash in it, no credit cards, license, or debit cards. Not even a library card. He searched her purse further, feeling the insides of it. There had to be something, something that would tell him where to look for her. Where would she go if she was in danger? He felt something firm at the bottom of her purse. Ben held the bag up to the light and saw a small card tucked into the folds of the fabric. He pulled it out and looked at it carefully. It was her license. "Diana Ashleigh Hanover," Ben breathed. He ran his fingertips over her picture and his instincts immediately clicked in. The card felt wrong. Something was off.
He flipped it over, feeling the edges. There were two cards, glued together. What the fuck was going on? Ben began gingerly prying them apart.
"Benjamin?" He heard a small rap on the window beside him. He nearly jumped out of his skin. He hadn't been paying any attention to his environment.
"Holy shit, woman." He glanced over and saw Diana timidly standing beside his car. He opened the door and slid out of the car. Grabbing Diana, Ben yanked her into him with relief. "Are you okay? Did someone touch you? I'll kill him Diana. I mean it." She trembled in his grasp. "Diana? Honey?" He could hear her whimper. He ran his fingers through her hair and down her back. Ben's jaw began to ache from keeping it so tightly clenched. "Tell me who upset you, Diana."
Diana gingerly pulled herself away from her. He watched her wipe a few tears from her eyes. "Will you bring me home?" She whispered.
"Of course." He took her hand and walked her to the passenger side of the side. Ben opened her door and escorted her in. She sat down and lowered her eyes. Ben placed her hand under her chin and caressed her cheek.
"You don't have be afraid anymore, sweetheart." He said gently. "I'll protect you."
"Benjamin." Her watery brown eyes looked up into his. "Don't."
"Don't what, honey?"
"Don't make those types of promises to me." Another truck rushed by on the gravel road. Diana almost screamed in fright. "Let's just get out of here." Ben kissed her forehead and tried his best to smile at her.
"Whatever you want, sweetheart." He closed her door and got behind the wheel. "So, where to my lady?"
"Home." Diana closed her eyes and let her head drop backwards.
"It's only another few hours before the sun comes up." She remained silent. "Want to grab some breakfast with me?"
She turned her head towards him and attempted to smile. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you had a crush on me." He could tell she was trying to lighten the mood.
Shrugging, Ben made a U-Turn and headed in the direction of Alex Street. "I'd say that's some mighty good intuitions you have Miss Hanover."
Diana's drawl smile vanished. "What did you just call me?"
Ben rubbed his hand through his hair and let out a nervous grunt. "Miss Hanover?"
"I've never told you my last name before." Her figure straightened and her eyes barreled into his.
"I am your boss." He smiled to try avoid upsetting her.
"I never gave you a resume."
"Sweetheart, I –"
"You looked through my purse." It wasn't a question. She snatched it from the console in the centre of the two front seats. She searched through it frantically. "What did you touch?"
"Nothing, I –"
"Nothing? I didn't peg you for both a liar and a cheat."
"Diana, I was just trying –"
"To what? Snoop into my life. A dance isn't good enough?"
"I was just trying to help."
"So your Mama taught you to dance but not to stay away from snooping in women's purses?"
He could almost see sweat beading on her forehead as she checked every single compartment of her purse and wallet. "I didn't steal anything!" He finally hollered. "I was just trying to help you."
"Well then help me by taking me home. I'm sure you know where I live."
She was hiding something. You didn't need to be a cop to figure that out – a pillow could have figured that out. He chose to pull into the diner parking lot anyway – he wasn't letting Diana get away that easily. Her little routine might work with other men, but not with him. Ben put the truck in park and turned to face the panicking blonde beside him.
"Diana, sweetheart." She strategically packed everything back into her purse. "I was just trying to find you. You just disappeared, I thought something had happened to you."
"Well I'm fine."
"No," he placed his hand on her cheek and looked at her softly. "You're not Diana. You're not okay."
"Please don't pretend to know me, Ben."
"Then let me know you."
"I won't eat here." Her change of subject was blatantly obvious.
"Don't change the subject Diana."
"Well I won't eat here." She insisted.
She narrowed her eyes at him and tucked her purse into her side as far away from Ben as possible. "Because I have to show up here at six to begin the morning shift."
"You work here?" He pulled his hand away from her, a bit in shock.
"I also work at the museum as a receptionist."
"Three jobs?" She shrugged her shoulders and unbuckled her seatbelt.
"I can walk home from here."
"When do you sleep?"
"I find time, okay?" She was obviously distressed. This wasn't the way to get her to open up. Ben put the car back into drive.
"Where should I go?"
"You know the big house just off Alex Street?"
"Yeah." He headed back out of the parking lot.
"Well it's not wonder you work three jobs." He joked. "To afford that place."
"I live in the basement." She replied flatly.
"Oh." He inserted his foot into his mouth.
They drove the two minutes to her house and Ben pulled into the driveway. "I'll walk you to the door."
"It's not necessary." Ben ignored her comment and followed her to the separate entrance at the side of the house.
She pulled out her keys and unlocked the door. "Diana." He grabbed her wrist to stop her from entering her apartment. "I'm sorry for looking in your purse, I only meant to help you."
"I know." She whispered, her eyes softening. "It was just a rough night."
Ben placed his hands on her cheeks and leaned down, resting his forehead against hers. "If you ever want to talk," he breathed. "Call me, night or day."
"And you were right." Her eyebrows shifted, her head cocked to the side. "I do have a crush on you." She let out a soft smile. "I mean it though. If you need me for anything."
"Thank you, Benjamin."
She pulled herself onto her toes, her lips gently touching his. He was in such shock he couldn't stop her from dashing into her apartment. "Goodnight Diana." He yelled into the door to make sure she could hear it. Just like a sixteen year old boy, he wanted to hang around outside her door until she came out again. He smiled to himself and almost skipped back to his truck.