"If you ever feel like you need extra help, please tell me. I've got friends who work in security—"
"I can't run every time someone threatens me." She shook her head. "I've got a partner who watches my back and a supportive captain. It has unsettled me some, but I'll be fine."
Papps sighed. "Sometimes I forget you're not a little girl anymore, begging me to take you to the aquarium every weekend."
She laughed. "I still love the aquarium."
"I'm not surprised, but if you change your mind...seriously—" "I appreciate it, but like I said, I'll be fine."
She would. She just needed to shake off the alarm. Nico was in prison and couldn't hurt her. Or anyone else, for that matter.
"What frustrates me the most is that even though he's finally behind bars, there are still more out there." She pulled up the zipper of her jacket a couple more inches to block the wind. "The work to get people like him off the streets never ends."
"No, but your job isn't to catch all of them. And everyone you do take off the streets is one less criminal who can hurt someone. That's all you can do— one at a time."
"You always know exactly what to say, don't you?" He laughed. "I try."
She smiled, reminded once again of how much she enjoyed being with him and his sons. How they'd become like a second family to her after her mother passed away. And how the emotional and spiritual encouragement they gave her was exactly what she needed. She didn't have to worry about Nico. He couldn't touch her here.
"You ready to get in a few hours of hunting?" Papps asked. "I hear Ryan has thrown down a challenge to see who can get their day's quota first."
Aubrey laughed. "Why am I not surprised?"
"You know me and the boys. We always like a bit of competition."
They stood up and started back toward the duck-hunting blind. All three of his sons shared their father's love of hunting as well as his competitive spirit and had made this weekend an annual event. Aubrey just enjoyed the feeling of belonging.
A second later, a muffled shot echoed off the water, followed by the flapping of wings, shifting her attention to the right.
"Aubrey..." Papps sucked in a sharp breath and grabbed her arm. "Aubrey...I think I've been hit."
He stumbled beside her, then collapsed onto the ground, as she tried to decipher what had just happened. A second later another shot rang out, slicing the air next to her as she knelt beside him. She stuffed down the panic, needing to keep them both out of the shooter's line of sight. Water seeped into her rubber boots. In this position, there was no protection beyond the tall grass surrounding them, but what terrified her even more was that she was certain this wasn't an accident. Not only had the shot been suppressed with a silencer, it didn't seem to have been aimed at any birds.
But motivation didn't matter right now. What mattered was getting Papps out of here alive. The problem was that they were too exposed, and trying to call for help would only expose them further. Staying low, she managed to pull Papps into the outcropping of muddy, tall grass behind them.
"Where were you shot?" she whispered.
She pulled back his shirt, but in the low light of dawn, it was impossible to tell how much damage had been done.
"I have to try to stop the bleeding," she said, "but you're going to have to stay as still as possible."
She untied his neck bandana, folded it quickly, then pressed it into the wound. But stopping the bleeding wasn't going to be enough. They needed medical help. Mitchell was a doctor and only a few hundred yards away, but hunting hours had just started, and even if anyone had heard the shot, no one would think twice about it. As crazy as the idea sounded, she was going to have to try to take down whoever was out there.
Keeping her hands pressed against Papps's side, Aubrey shifted her position slightly to the right, then raised her head. Marsh grasses rustled around her. Duck calls and the boom of shotguns sounded in the distance. A flash of sunlight glinted off a gun as she caught sight of the silhouette of a man.