The End Begins

by Sara Davison

When your beliefs are at war, does love stand a chance?

Bookstore owner Meryn O’Reilly and Army Captain Jesse Christensen are on opposite sides of a battle. After a series of terrorist attacks in 2053, martial law has been declared in Canada and the military has taken over. When a radical Christian group claims responsibility, Jesse and his platoon are sent to Meryn’s city to keep an eye on the Christians and ensure they are not stepping outside the confines of the law.

Fiery and quick-tempered, Meryn chafes under the curfew and other restrictions to her freedom. Jesse is equally amused, intrigued, and terrified by her spirit. She could find herself in prison if she shows defiance to the wrong soldier, namely Lieutenant Gallagher.

Jesse watches out for Meryn when possible, although she wants nothing to do with him. His worst fears are realized when she commits a crime he cannot protect her from. Now they both face an uncertain future and the very real threat of losing everything, including their lives. With time running out, Jesse works feverishly to convince the authorities to show leniency to Meryn. And to convince her that love can overcome any barrier that lies between them.

Chapter 1

“Gwen, I think it’s about time you began to have a life,” Candice said breezily as she moved across the patio refilling the glasses of the many guests. Gwen glanced around self-consciously, then forced a laugh. It was so like Candice Mallard to launch a campaign to reinvent Gwen’s life in the company of strangers.

The End

And the Beginning

For the first time, the reverent stillness of the old limestone church didn’t fill Meryn O’Reilly with peace. She raised her gaze to the gleaming wooden cross on the wall behind the pulpit. What would happen now? Even the air felt different, colder, in spite of the warm October day. On the way to church she had hardly seen a single person out walking, and only the odd car had passed by her. Everyone seemed to be taking refuge in their homes, as if it were safer, somehow, to stay out of sight. If that continued for long, she didn’t know what would happen to her secondhand bookstore, but there were more important things to worry about this morning.

Meryn’s best friend sat on the pew beside her. Kate clutched her daughter, Gracie, to her chest. Matthew, her four-year-old son, pressed close to her side, as though he could sense the tension in the sanctuary.

The minister climbed the steps to the stage. Although he was a young man, today his steps were slow. When he turned to face them, the invisible weight he carried bowed his shoulders. He clutched both sides of the oak pulpit. Thin light filtering through a stained-glass window cast an eerie rose glow over his lined face. “My friends, you don’t need me to tell you that dark days have come to Canada. A group calling themselves Christians has claimed responsibility for—”

The doors to the right of the stage crashed open, shattering the hush that had fallen over the room.

Uniformed soldiers, carrying rifles, marched into the sanctuary and started down the aisle.

Kate’s short red hair fell over one eye as she dug her fingers into Meryn’s arm. “They’ll arrest us all.” She pulled Gracie closer as other parishioners pushed past them, fleeing toward the back door.

More soldiers appeared in the back of the church, ordering any who tried to escape that way onto their knees. “Down on the floor!”

Meryn looked around wildly. What should they do? Her eyes fell on the little side door at the end of their pew. “Quick, Kate.” Meryn grabbed her elbow and tugged her toward the opening. In all the fear and confusion in the room, no one moved to stop them as they slipped through the door. The shouts and cries faded behind them as they hurried down a dimly lit hall lined with old, wooden tables and stacked chairs. The hallway led to a set of stairs down to the basement. “We can go out the back exit.”

She stopped at the bottom and waited for Kate to climb down, Matthew at her heels. “Why are they doing this, Kate?”

Her friend shifted Gracie to her hip so she could take Matthew’s hand and help him down another step. “Ethan says Parliament convened an emergency session last night. They pushed through a bill to give the military virtually unlimited power to put down the terrorists responsible for the bombings.”

Kate’s husband was editor-in-chief of the local paper, the Kingston Whig-Standard. He’d been at the office for the last forty-eight hours, ever since seven mosques across Canada had been blasted from their foundations during Friday prayers. The deadly attacks on October 10, 2053, the worst on Canadian soil, were already known simply as 10/10.

A question rose in Meryn’s throat but she bit her lip, holding it in for a few seconds.

The fear in Kate’s eyes told her that she was not going to like the answer.

 She pushed back her shoulders, steeling herself. “Do they know who is responsible?”

 “They think they do.” Kate’s voice shook.

Meryn wiped the palms of her hands on her tan dress pants. “Who?”

Matthew hopped down the last step, and his little knees buckled.

Kate held up their clasped hands to keep him from falling. Her hazel eyes met Meryn’s. “Us.”

1

Meryn didn’t move until a loud thud and a shout from upstairs yanked her from her stunned silence. “We need to get out now.” She started down the winding hallway. When she reached the door at the back of the basement, she grasped the handle and pulled it open, wincing when the seldom-used hinges screeched in protest.

If any of the soldiers were outside the church, she’d just announced their presence. Meryn pressed a trembling hand to the doorframe and peered around it to scan the property.

No one was out there.

“Meryn?”

The panicked whisper set her heart pounding. She shut the door and scrambled back down the hallway.

Kate crouched in front of Matthew, struggling to hold onto Gracie and lift her son up with her other arm.

Meryn took the little girl from Kate. “What’s wrong?”

“Matthew fell and hurt his knee. I’ll have to carry him.”

Footsteps thundered down the stairs.

Kate’s eyes widened, but she scooped up Matthew and jerked her head toward a small storage room beside them.

In the dull light sifting through a tiny window near the ceiling, Meryn scanned the boxes piled high against every wall. A large, dust-covered wreath lay on top of the nearest stack of boxes marked Christmas Pageant Costumes. She pointed to a large cupboard in the corner of the room. “Try in there.”

Kate wrenched open the door and squeezed into the tiny space, Matthew’s skinny arms clinging to her neck and his legs wrapped around her waist.

There wasn’t room, or time, for Meryn to try and fit herself and Gracie in too, so she ducked behind the door they’d come in, praying the near-darkness would offer them a small amount of protection. Her throat tightened when boots tromped past the open doorway and continued to the exit.

For a few seconds, they echoed faintly in the distance, then they started back. Whoever was out there drew even with their door and continued past.

Gracie let out a small cry.

Horrified, Meryn pressed a hand over her mouth. “Shh, baby. It’s all right,” she whispered in the little girl’s ear. Had anyone heard? She strained to listen, but there was nothing but silence in the hallway. Suddenly the door she stood behind was yanked away from her. Meryn gasped, her eyes riveted on the rifle pointed directly at her chest.

She raised her eyes to the soldier holding the weapon. He was tall, but she couldn’t make out any other features in the semi-darkness until he reached behind him, the gun still trained on her, and flipped the switch to illuminate the room. Meryn’s throat went dry. She leaned against the wall. God, give me strength. Keep us safe. When the man didn’t move, Meryn lifted her chin, fear giving way to anger as she eyed the weapon pointed at her and Gracie.

Something flashed through the jade-green eyes that probed hers. The soldier stared at her and Gracie, as though wondering what he should do with them now that he had them cornered.

Meryn was fairly certain she didn’t fit the profile of a terrorist. Still, nothing could be counted on any longer. The three gold star shapes on his shoulders caught her eye, and she searched her memory. A captain.

Heavy footsteps reverberated down the hallway.

The captain lowered his gun. “My men are coming. Take her out the back door. Quickly. No one’s patrolling out there yet. Go through the woods and you should be fine.”

Meryn tightened her hold on Gracie. “Are you sure you don’t want to arrest the two of us for blowing up those mosques?”

The corners of his mouth twitched. “Did you do it?”

She kept her eyes locked on his. “No.”

“Then I think I’ll take my chances.” He jerked his head in the direction of the exit. “Go.”

Meryn started for the opening, then stopped.

The man blew out an exasperated breath. “Do you want me to take you in?”

“No, but …” Meryn brushed past him and opened the door of the cupboard. “Kate, come out. He’s letting us go out the back door. Hurry.”

Kate stepped out, clutching Matthew. Her eyes widened at the sight of the gun pointed in their direction.

“Hurry, Kate.” Meryn put a hand on her back and gave her a gentle shove. “There are more soldiers coming.”

The captain met Meryn’s eyes over Kate’s shoulder. “What if my quota for allowing fleeing suspects to escape is two a day?” He sounded more amused than annoyed.

The knot in Meryn’s stomach loosened slightly. “Is it?”

His lips twitched again. “No.”

“Then I think I’ll take my chances.” She forced bravado into her voice.

He waited until Kate and Matthew had nearly reached him before he lifted the gun to let them by. He lowered it again as Meryn approached, forcing her to stop. When he spoke this time, the amusement was gone. “Watch yourself. It’s a whole new world now, and not every soldier will let you get away with that kind of defiance. And while you may not have blown up those mosques personally, just being in this building casts you in a suspicious light.” He lowered his voice. “There’s going to be trouble, and lots of it. My advice to you is to avoid it at all costs.”

“Captain, today I had a rifle pointed at me for standing in a church basement with a baby in my arms. Will the kind of trouble you’re referring to be avoidable, do you think?”

“You could start by not calling yourself a Christian.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

He sighed and lifted the gun. “Just be careful.”

She ducked beneath it and walked on weak legs out into the hallway, where Kate waited. Meryn held tightly to Gracie as they slipped through the back door and crossed the yard. She stole a look behind her as they reached the trees.

The soldier stood, framed in the doorway, watching them go.

Unsure if he could see her or not, she gave him a brief nod before following Kate into the woods.

Chapter 2

“Is somebody out there?”

Captain Jesse Christensen spun around in the basement doorway as his commanding officer, Major Caleb Donevan, came up behind him. “Not that I can see.”

Caleb slung his rifle over his shoulder. “Now that your back is turned, you mean? That sounds … evasive. Let me take a look.”

Jesse stepped aside as his best friend brushed by him. His back and neck muscles tightened as Caleb scanned the woods.

He turned to Jesse, his face grim. “What are you doing?”

Jesse shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Exactly. You’re standing here doing nothing while at least two adults disappear into the trees.”

“Women. Carrying little kids.” He shifted from one foot to the other under the intense scrutiny.

Footsteps thudded behind him.

Caleb looked over Jesse’s shoulder and raised his hand. “Thank you, gentlemen. The basement is clear. Go back upstairs and help keep everyone under control.”

Jesse glanced back as the three men he’d led to the basement retreated down the hallway. Taking a deep breath, he faced Caleb.

The major crossed his arms over his massive chest. “We are under orders to detain and question every adult in the building.”

“I know.”

“So you’ve just disobeyed a direct command. Can you help me out here by giving me anything close to a rational reason?”

“If you need to report me, report me.” Jesse spun around and started down the hallway.

“Hey.”

Jesse stopped and turned slowly.

Caleb strode forward, stopping inches from him. “Look, Jess, I don’t have the stomach for this either. But we have a job to do, and we need to do it or there will be consequences. For us and for national security.”

“I don’t really think a couple of—”

“Stop.”

Jesse clenched his teeth.

“Your job is not to think. Your job is to obey orders. Can you possibly do that from now on?”

He hesitated as long as he dared. “Yes.”

“Good. I have enough to do these days without having to babysit you.”

“Are you going to report me?”

Caleb exhaled loudly. “I get it, Jess, I really do. So I’ll let it slide this time. But if anyone else saw them leaving, I’ll have to file a report. Lieutenant Gallagher’s watching us closely, and nothing would make him happier than one of his little rodents sidling up to him and hissing in his ear that you let a couple of possible suspects go while I looked the other way.”

Gallagher. Jesse repressed a shudder. Ever since he’d been promoted ahead of the lieutenant two years ago, the man had been out to get him. “Understood.” The two men looked at each other for a moment until Jesse dropped his gaze. “Sorry, Cale. I shouldn’t put you in that position.”

“No, you shouldn’t.” Caleb uncrossed his arms and punched him lightly in the arm.

Jesse lifted his rifle. “Do you really think this show of force is necessary?”

Caleb’s jaw tightened. “It’s not my job to think either.” He glanced down the grey-bricked hallway, then lowered his voice. “But if it were, then I would say that, yes, this show of force is absolutely necessary. Those bombs going off on Friday have changed everything, including the rules. People died, Jess. Hundreds of people. And all the evidence points to the fact that it wasn’t an isolated event—more could be coming.

“This Christian group, whoever they are, must be well organized to have pulled something like this off. They have to have a leader, training, supply sources, and plans. And we’re situated halfway between Toronto and Ottawa, the biggest city in the country and the capital, both targets of those bombs, which means that chances are good the epicentre of all that is somewhere around here. We have to be vigilant. We have to take control of this area and not let anything—or anyone—slip by us. If we do, more people could die. And I know you don’t want that. Neither do I—not if there’s anything we can do to stop it. All right?”

“If you say so.”

“I do.” Caleb stepped back. “You talked to them, didn’t you?”

“Who?” Jesse didn’t meet his friend’s eyes.

Caleb tilted his head and looked at him.

“Okay, fine. Yes, I talked to them. One of them, at least.”

“What did she do, cry? Throw herself on your mercy?”

A small smile crossed Jesse’s lips. “No, actually. She got mad. Probably because I was aiming a rifle at her daughter at the time.”

“Hmm.”

“What?”

“You’re not going to do something idiotic here, are you? Because Kingston isn’t a huge city, and we are going to be keeping a close eye on the Christians. Chances are you’ll run into her again. You have to know that getting involved with one of them would be stupid at best, and career suicide at worst.”

Jesse’s head jerked. “Involved with her? I don’t even know her. And did I mention she was holding her daughter in her arms? She’s likely safely back home with her husband as we speak.”

“I’ve never seen that look on your face when you’re talking about a woman. It makes me very nervous.”

“Don’t be. It was nothing. Less than nothing.”

“Just enough for you to risk being called out for insubordination.”

“That was more about the kid.”

“Sure it was.” Caleb shook his head. “Can you focus on the job that needs to be done? And do it?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“Good. Then let’s get to it.” He started back down the hallway.

Jesse shoved back a surge of worry as he fell into step behind him. The thought of the woman, dark hair flowing around her shoulders, her deep blue eyes defiant, flashed through his head. “She was pretty though,” he said, not able to resist taking a parting shot.

Caleb whipped around to face him.

“Sorry.” Jesse pressed his lips together.

“Not nearly as sorry as you will be if I catch you anywhere near her again.”

Jesse didn’t doubt it. He held up a hand. “You won’t. No more thinking, about her or anything else. Just blind, mindless following.”

Caleb stepped closer and clasped his shoulder. “I know I’ve been in Ottawa and I haven’t had a chance to fill you in on everything that’s going on, but it’s bad. The group claiming responsibility for the 10/10 bombings—“The Horsemen” they call themselves—has ignited a firestorm I’m not sure even they anticipated. Christians have already been shoved so far to the fringe, it was inevitable they would be pushed over the brink at some point, and that might be what has happened. We can’t fool around here. There’s a lot more at stake than I can get into right now, but trust me on this.”

“The Horsemen? Really? What’s their end game, to touch off Armageddon?”

There wasn’t a hint of amusement in Caleb’s voice as his fingers tightened on Jesse’s shoulder. “It’s quite possible. And from what I’ve been hearing, they just might have succeeded.”

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