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The Case of the Flashing Fashion Queen
A Dix Dodd Mystery (1)
Norah Wilson and Heather Doherty
writing as N.L. Wilson
Copyright © 2011 Norah Wilson and Heather Doherty
Writing as N.L. Wilson
Published by Something Shiny Press
All rights reserved.
A lot of people specialize.
If you have a toothache you go to the dentist, not the doctor (unless he’s a really hot doctor and then you go there first). If you need a new roof, call the roofer. Groceries? Call the grocer. You wouldn’t go to a mechanic for your annual pap smear, nor have your OB-GYN under the hood of your… um… car. Okay, bad analogy. But you see where I’m going, right?
The point is, when you have a special job in mind, you call a specialist. And if you live in Marport City and need someone to get to the truth of a matter—and when the matter is private and dear to your heart—you call me.
You see, I’m a private detective. I’m not so new to the business itself, but new to being out on my own. Six months’ new. I worked for years at a private detective company called Jones and Associates. The number one company in Marport City. All professional. All business. All men. And no matter how hard I worked there, how brilliantly I put things together (and that would be damn brilliantly, thank you very much), I was always the ‘girl’. The one sent to do the coffee runs. The one who ordered office supplies and hunted down the lost files. I never had a real shot at advancing there, despite my many years of service and their many years of promises. So a few months before my fortieth birthday, I set out on my own. Hung up my own shingle.
The boys at Jones and Associates told me I’d never survive, that I’d be hauling my skirted butt back there within the year. Well, it’s been six months, and I’m still hanging onto that shingle. Hanging on by my fingernails, mind you, but hanging on.
These days, I specialize in trailing men who cheat, or who are suspected of cheating. I trail them for wives who are wondering about girlfriends, and girlfriends wondering about wives. Overprotective moms, neurotic dads, and yeah, the occasional jealous ex-girlfriend who just has to know. I find out where, when, with whom and if you’re really interested—how. I take pictures. I take notes. I check gas gauges, tire treads and odometers. I follow trails left by credit card receipts and miscellaneous bills. I check out alibis.
As you can imagine, it isn’t always pretty. But it’s always interesting.
And some cases aren’t always as they seem.
Take for example the case of Jennifer Weatherby, or as I like to call it, The Case of the Flashing Fashion Queen. Who would have known that one phone call, that one seemingly ordinary phone call, would turn into such a mess?
But then, death is always messy. Or rather, murder is messy. Especially when I’m caught smack-dab in the middle of it.
“Hey, Dix. Jennifer Weatherby just phoned to double check our address. I’m guessing her ETA is about two minutes.”
Oh, thank God! I glanced up at my assistant. “Thanks, Dylan,” I said, as though I’d never doubted she’d show.
Jennifer Weatherby had called me two days ago, on May 30. Called, in fact, just as I was writing out the rent cheque for the landlord, and wincing at how pitifully few dollars remained in my account.
Five thousand dollars. That’s what she’d offered me. I’d just about dropped the phone. But Mrs. Weatherby had been clear: five large for a week’s worth of work.
But here’s the thing—sometimes these hot new clients don’t show. Sometimes they call in a fit of anger or jealousy, but when they calm down, they decide they don’t need a private detective after all. And often they’re too embarrassed to call and cancel. So, yeah, I was more than happy when Dylan told me she was en route.
His message delivered, I expected him to turn and leave. Well, kind of. Dylan Foreman rarely did what was expected.
Good thing he was the best assistant I’d ever had.
Okay, the only assistant I’d ever had. And strictly speaking, he wasn’t really an assistant. He was an apprentice. All aspiring private investigators have to complete a period of apprenticeship. I’d done mine with Jones and Associates. When Dylan Foreman knocked on my door just a month after I opened for business and laid his story on the table, I couldn’t refuse him.
The man had a law degree, on top of a degree in communications and another in criminology. After passing the bar, he was scooped up by one of the top firms in the city and had been well on his way to making a name for himself in criminal law. But all that changed one day when he got a call from a scared kid.
The kid had been abducted by his father, a client of the law firm and a suspected child abuser. Bastard had picked the boy up at school and driven him five hundred miles to another city. Police were searching for him frantically. Dylan had been working late that night when the call came in from the missing child. The kid had hit re-dial on the phone while his father had left him alone to go out for beer. Scared and crying, he’d told Dylan the things his father had been doing to him.
So Dylan called the police, gave them the number that had come up on the call display and they’d had the kid within the half hour. Found the little boy alone and scared, battered and bruised.
Dylan knew what he’d done. The minute he’d picked up the phone to call the cops, he knew his career was effectively over before it ever really got started. But all he could think about was the fact that the client had called earlier in the day and the senior lawyers had done squat to protect that kid.
Needless to say, he got flack. Then he got fired. Eventually, he got disbarred.
“If you had it to do over, would you do the same thing?” I’d asked him.
“In a fucking heartbeat.”
I’d hired him on the spot. He worked hard; and thankfully, he worked cheap.
And omigod, he was handsome! And young—all of twenty-eight. Okay, yeah, I had sort of a crush on him, but nothing serious. Nothing that kept me up at night. He was just… nice to look at.
He was pretty good on the computers, too, up to and including some minor hacking when the situation demanded. He also made a mean cup of coffee (and I liked my coffee mean), and he didn’t mind getting his hands dirty when it came to that. Plus, holy hell, my clients loved him. If I had a dollar for every time I’d come out of my office to find a dejected damsel crying on his broad shoulders, the male strippers at The Nuts and Bolts next door would be some happy young men. Except the Canadian mint stopped making dollar bills years ago, and it’s damned hard to make a loonie stay inside a G-string unless you tuck it… Well, you get the picture.
Where was I? Ah, yes, Dylan Foreman, and why I tolerated his idiosyncrasies.
Simply put, we were well matched. What I lacked in compassion, Dylan more than made up for. I could deliver the bad-tasting medicine, but it was Dylan who had the bedside manner. He had a sympathetic ear, a compassionate nature, and a way of really listening to women that few men possessed. While I told the women their men were cheating, he told them they deserved so much better than the dogs who cheated on them. They left my office feeling low, and his desk feeling relieved.
“We’re in perfect proportion, Dix,” he told me once, when I’d remarked on this.
Dylan was handsome in that I’m-not-trying way—chocolate brown eyes, shoulder length brown hair begging to have fingers ran through it. He was built like a basketball player, long, lean and muscular.
And all six foot four of him now stood in my doorway.
Perfect proportion indeed.
“Was there something else you wanted, Dylan?” I fought down the fluster that I was really too old for. Knowing, dammit, that I could always blame it on a hot flash, if need be.
“I was thinking about the business cards.” Dylan entered my office and closed the door behind him.
“Oh, no, not again.” I leaned back in my chair, coffee cup in hand, and clunked my feet up onto my desk. We’d been making do with those print-it-yourself, perforated thingies, but the time had come to order some real business cards. It was kind of fun, but also kind of becoming a pain in the ass getting them perfect. “I told you, nothing fancy on the cards. Just plain simple: Dix Dodd, Private Detective. Address and phone number.”
He frowned. “Boring. We need something people will remember. Something that’ll make you stand out. You know… something with flair.”
“Dix Dodd, Private Detective. Call me if you think you’re getting screwed, or know you’re not.”
“Come on, Dix! It’s perfect. To the point. Unforgettable.”
I shook my head. “And completely not going to happen.”
We both heard the footsteps in the hallway and our conversation halted. The door to the outer office opened to admit a female. I could see her silhouette through the frosted glass window of my office as she stood beside Dylan’s desk. She tipped a hand to her hair, then back down again. She raised a cigarette to her lips, lit a lighter, but pulled both away before she lit the smoke, and before I needed to run out to remind her of the building’s no-smoking policy.
“Don’t worry,” Dylan said, heading for the door. “I’ll think of something else for the business cards.”
“Thanks, I just want something—”
Without benefit of a knock, my door flew open. Dylan stepped aside before the doorknob caught him in a place that could do damage. My feet thumped to the floor; my chair tipped forward as I sat up straight.
“I’m Jennifer Weatherby.”
Beside me, Dylan stood dumbstruck. A first, in my experience.
Of course, I didn’t acquit myself much better. I pride myself on my unflappable self-control. Pride myself on my smoothness in dealing with all kinds of clientele. I didn’t fidget. I didn’t blush. And I didn’t stutter out of nervousness. But I have to admit I was a little stunned by Mrs. Weatherby’s appearance. It’s nothing for women to come into the office a bit overdressed to hide from prying eyes. After all, as much as I may not like to admit it, paranoia often plays a large role in the lives of the women who called upon my services. But this chick had gone just a tad overboard. Like, jumped-off-a-cruise-ship-in-the-middle-of-the-Pacific overboard.
Jennifer Weatherby stood just a few inches short of six feet tall in her modest heels. Modest height, that is. Nothing else about those violet velvet puppies could be called modest. The hem of the purple dress she wore stopped just above the knee. She wore a wide black belt cinched at the waist, and broad shoulder pads that would have made Darth Vader envious. While the neckline of the dress didn’t exactly plunge, it didn’t need to. The lady was well endowed. If Mr. Weatherby was cheating, he certainly wasn’t a boob man. Mrs. Weatherby tipped a well-manicured index finger to the rim of her wide glasses, pushing them back up on the bridge of her nose. Her blond hair was piled high in a feat of engineering that must have required a ton of product. I braced for the reek of hair spray, but all that wafted toward me was perfume. Lavender perfume, of course.
Dylan recovered before I did from this first encounter with the Flashing Fashion Queen.
“Mrs. Weatherby,” he said. “Can I get you a coffee?”
I held my own cup protectively close.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I… I don’t tolerate caffeine well. Makes me jumpy.” The last thing I wanted to see was this lady jumping.
“Perhaps a juice, Mrs. Weatherby?” I offered.
“No… thank you,” she said shakily. “Nothing for me.”
On this cue, Dylan left, closing the door behind him. He’d give us time. Enough time for me to get to the heart of the matter: enough time for an S.O.B. fest, but not enough for a sob fest.
“Please have a seat Mrs. Weatherby.”
I could tell she was nervous. She moved to cross her left leg over her right as she sat, then her right over her left. She finally settled on pressing her knees so tightly together I just knew they’d have those little round, red circle things on the inside if and when she ever relaxed them again.
She cleared her throat hoarsely. Man, she must have been crying for days.
“I don’t know where to begin.”
That was my cue to cut to the chase. “Why do you believe your husband is cheating, Mrs. Weatherby?”
“Jennifer… please call me Jennifer.”
I nodded. “Okay, Jennifer. Why do you believe your husband’s cheating?”
“Oh, I don’t believe my Ned’s cheating.” She pressed her hands to her impressive chest as she drew a deep breath. “I know he’s cheating.”
I opened my desk drawer and pulled out the pad and paper. I’d long ago learned that clients do not like tape recorders on the best of days, and I didn’t bother suggesting one to Jennifer Weatherby. The Weatherby name was well known in Marport City. Ned Weatherby had positioned himself to make a fortune on personal computer safety before anyone even suspected there was a need for such things. But when the viruses and spyware started to hit, he launched his product to the panicking masses just in time to save the businesses that had become so technology-dependent. He’d been a shrewd businessman, buying out his partners just months before he’d patented and launched the product—convincing them cleverly that the company was doomed. Some said Ned Weatherby had unleashed the viruses himself, but nothing was ever proven. Whatever the cause, the effect remained—the Weatherbys were loaded. And in Marport City, loaded meant life in the proverbial fish bowl. Mrs. Weatherby would want her privacy.
“Tell me about the cheating, Mrs. Weather… I’m sorry, Jennifer.” I looked down at my notepad, as always placed upon my lap so the client couldn’t see what I was writing. Some people talked more with the eye contact, needing the comforting encouragement to go on. Others, I’d found, talked more without it, needing the smallest pretense of detachment and privacy as they spilled their stories.
“Ned and I have been married for a long time. Almost twenty years. And I… I thought it was a good marriage. I thought he was happy. I know I was. Who wouldn’t be happy with a man like my Neddy?”
Good. She was an eyes-averted talker. As long as she kept talking, I’d keep my gaze lowered.
“But you don’t think so anymore?”
I heard her pull a tissue from the box strategically placed on my desk.
“He has a mistress. I’m one hundred percent sure he does.”
“You’ve seen her?”
“Oh, yes. Many times.” Her words were muffled through the Kleenex she held to her face, but in my job you get used to tissue-speak.
I was beginning to think Jennifer Weatherby needed a divorce lawyer more than she needed a private dick. The vision of the five thousand dollars growing wings and flying away popped into my head. If she was that sure her Ned was cheating, why did she need me to gather the proof? “Do you have a name?”
She looked up at me startled. “Er, I told you, Jennifer Weatherby.”
“No, I mean, do you have a name of the other woman.”
She sat up straight. “No, no name. But I’ve seen her many times. She drives by the house all hours of the day and night. Once when I was out in the front garden having my tea, she slowed her car down, and stared back at me.”
I was beginning to have real doubts about this client. “That really doesn’t mean—”
“And I’ve seen them coming out of a motel together. The Underhill Motel.”
She nodded, anxiously. “Yes, I was out shopping one day and saw Ned leaving there with this… this floozy.”
‘Floozy’. That word always struck me funny and I bit down on my lip to kill the giggle. I always pictured an intoxicated duck whenever I heard it.
I knew the place. The Underhill Motel was one of the older motels in the city, known for its cheap rooms and its hourly rates. A lot of the call girls work out of it. I made a mental note to check with some of my contacts. But it struck me that whatever Ned Weatherby was up to, and whomever he was up to it with, he apparently wasn’t out to impress them—not at the Underhill.
“Is it possible,” I asked, “that your husband was employing a prostitute? Maybe this was just a one-time thing? Not a mistress but a—”
“No! Absolutely not! I’m sure she’s more than just a prostitute. She loves Ned. She has to love Ned. I mean, who wouldn’t love my Neddy-bear.”
I looked down on the doodles on the legal pad—tight circles usually grouped in two, and ladders going to nowhere. Something that looked like demonic chicken tracks. No, wait… those were webbed feet. Duck tracks, then, wending crazily around the bottom corner of the page. And one big, block lettered word—NOTACHANCE.
Well, now it was a word.
I had serious doubts about this case. Usually clients wanted proof and confirmations of suspicions. Mrs. Weatherby appeared to have both. The other angle, I knew, would be that she wanted blackmail material. And, okay, though it wasn’t my favorite thing to participate in, it did up the ante a bit more. “What is it you’re looking for from me then, Mrs. Weatherby? I mean, if you’re sure Ned is cheating, what can I do to help you out?”
“I want you to follow Ned for a week. I want his every move documented. His whereabouts recorded.
“Here’s what you need.” The Flashing Fashion Queen snapped open her purse and dumped its contents onto my desk. Holy Hannah. I could not believe what this woman toted around. Six paper-wrapped tampons (in different sizes, no less), four different shiny tubes of lipstick, foundation, blush… There were packages of bobby pins and even a small can of hair spray. The woman was a walking feminine first-aid kit. Of course, among the jumble was an envelope marked for Dix Dodd. This she handed to me as she began piling the rest back into her purse.
“I’ve enclosed Ned’s itinerary for this week. Or rather what he says he’ll be doing this week. And I need you to photograph him everywhere.”
“When he’s with another woman?”
“Even when he’s not.”
I looked at her skeptically. Now the winged five thou was flying above my head twittering, ‘Catch me if you can!’
“I know my husband, Ms. Dodd. And I love him desperately.”
“But if he’s—”
She handed me the second envelope—this one pulled from a deep pocket of her purple dress. “That’s five thousand dollars. And there’ll be five thousand more at the end of the week. That’s ten grand for one week’s work, Ms. Dodd. Surely, that’s worth a few extra rolls of film. And a few less questions.”
Surely it was. I picked up the package.
“I just have one question, Jennifer. What does this woman… this other woman, look like?”
She swallowed hard, and wet her lips. “She’s… she’s about your height. Slender. Blond hair, hazel eyes.”
Hazel eyes? How close of a look had Jennifer Weatherby gotten?
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, she’s threatened me. Several times she’s called the house telling me she wanted me out of the way.”
I blinked, then stared at her. “This might be a matter for the police then, Jennifer.”
“No, it’s a matter for you, Dix. I have faith in you.
Buy The Case of the Flashing Fashion Queen here:
A Vampire Romance (Book 2)
Copyright © 2011 Norah Wilson
Published by Norah Wilson
All rights reserved.
Aiden Afflack hummed to himself as he lifted the brass doorknocker to summon St. Cloud Police Chief Weldon Michaels to the front door of hisCarrington Placeresidence. Rapping twice, he stepped back.
What was that tune running through his head? It had been with him since he’d risen this evening.
Queens of the Stone Age? Un-uh.
Collective Soul? Yeah, yeah, that was it. Definitely. He cricked his neck one way, then the other and felt the satisfying crack. Ooh, I’m feeling better now.
The curtain in the bay window twitched, but Aiden feigned obliviousness. From inside, he clearly heard Michaels jam a clip into an automatic weapon. Aiden rolled his eyes. Nobody trusted anyone anymore.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
The voice came through the door. A very cautious man indeed.
“I’m a friend of your wife’s,” Aiden called. “Well, more a friend of a friend, actually, but I have a personal message for you, from her.”
“Nice try. Now move on, before I call the cops.”
Aiden thought about knocking the door in. It was solid oak with a good deadbolt on it, but it could have been made from cardboard and paperclips for all the challenge it would present. On the other hand, there was no reason to get messy.
He cleared his throat, did his best to summon a puzzled tone. “Well, hell, I thought you were the cops. Do I have the wrong address? I’m looking for Chief Weldon Michaels. Got a message for him from his wife Lucy. Pretty woman, ’bout an inch over five feet, brown hair and eyes? Oh, and a real cute little daughter. What’s her name?Devon? Any of this sounding familiar?”
Silence for a few heartbeats. “What kind of message?”
“She wants to come home, but before she can see her way clear to doing that, we need to have ourselves a talk.”
Another pause, then the sound of the deadbolt retracting. The door cracked open, and Weldon Michaels peered out past a security chain.
God save me from fools. Growling, Aiden pushed the door open. The hardware anchoring the security chain tore free from the wall. Before Michaels could cry out, Aiden stepped inside and closed the door behind him. In the next heartbeat, he seized Michaels’ right wrist and squeezed until the other man screamed and dropped the pistol he held. It hit the hardwood floor with a clatter but didn’t discharge.
“A gun?” Aiden released the other man’s hand. “Now I ask you, what kind of a greeting is that?”
Michaels — clearly a slow learner — reached for a second weapon jammed into the waistband at the small of his back. Before he could get to it, Aiden had Michaels face down on the floor with his right hand way closer to his right shoulder blade than God ever intended it to go.
“Jesus, my arm. You’re breaking it!”
“Not even close. You develop a feel for these things,” he said conversationally. “It’s sort of like braking when you’re driving on ice. You gotta find the threshold.”
“No, my shoulder! It’s gonna pop! I swear to God!”
Aiden reefed Michaels arm a half inch higher, eliciting a scream, followed by a stream of curses.
“See? Still plenty of play. It’s a feel thing. Now are you gonna behave yourself if I let you up?”
“Christ, yes! I’ll do whatever you say.”
“Atta boy.” Aiden helped the other man to his feet. “Now, let’s go plug the code into the alarm, shall we? And don’t fuck with me. If the alarm company or the cops call in a minute to ask if everything’s okay, things will be very much not okay for you. Understood?”
Aiden “helped” Michaels to the alarm panel, where he keyed in a five-digit number. The winking red light went out.
“Good man. Now we’re going to need your handcuffs. I know they can’t be far away, since you laid hands on that pistol fast enough. So be a darling and let’s go fetch them.”
Michaels swore again.
“I know, I know. It’s gotta sting, getting cuffed with your own bracelets, but look at it this way: they’ll be a helluva lot more comfortable than the alternative if you force me to improvise.”
Michaels sagged. “In that drawer.”
A minute later, Chief Weldon Michaels sat cuffed in one of his own kitchen chairs, a sturdy-looking oak proposition. Michaels somehow managed to look both scared and pissed at the same time.
Aiden took a seat at the table, placing both guns — one retrieved from beneath the telephone table in the entryway and the other from the small of Michaels’ back — on the gleaming wood surface. “Okay, Weldon — may I call you Weldon? — we need to talk.”
Michaels glared back. “You’re wasting your time. I don’t keep anything of value of here, at least nothing portable enough to carry off. And damn you, you’ve already scored both my guns. I suggest you just let yourself out and get while the getting’s good.”
“You think I was bullshitting earlier, don’t you? You think I was feeding you a line about your wife to get inside?” Aiden leaned back in his chair and kicked his feet up to rest on the table. “That’s rich.”
Fear flashed in the other man’s eyes, which he quickly attempted to hide with bravado. “Look, mister, if you have a message for me, let’s get on with it.”
“If you’re gonna call me mister, you might as well make it Mr. Afflack. Or Aiden, if you prefer.”
Another flash of fear. Aiden could almost hear the wheels turning in Michaels’ head. He’s shown me his face, given me his name. There can only be one reason for that….
“Not to worry, Weldy. I think I’ll call you Weldy.”
Michaels tensed. Testing the cuffs and the strength of the chair’s spindles, no doubt.
Aiden sighed. “For Chrissakes, I’m not planning to kill you. I’m just going to spend the night here chatting, much like we are right now.”
Michaels blinked. “Spend the night?”
“Forgive me. It’s probably horribly uncomfortable with those cuffs on. Let me just deal with these nasty guns. Then I’ll take the bracelets off so we can talk all civilized-like.”
Aiden picked up the SIG 9mm with his left hand, grasped the barrel with his right. Closing his eyes, he slid his hand up and down the barrel a few times to attune his mind to the metal. Then he bent it effortlessly.
Aiden placed the ruined pistol back on the table, picked up the .22 and repeated the process on the gun’s short barrel.
“What the … how’d you do that?”
Aiden shrugged. “A parlor trick. You should see what I can do with a dinner fork.” He stood and extracted the handcuff key from the pocket of his worn jeans. “Now, about those cuffs….”
Michaels shrank back.
Aiden lifted his eyebrows. “What? You’d prefer to keep them on after all?”
The other man collected himself, embarrassment staining his cheeks. “Of course not. Please remove them.”
As soon as his hands were free, Michaels immediately started massaging his sore right shoulder.
“Ah, yes, the shoulder. Sorry about that.” Aiden gave him his best aw shucks smile. “But I couldn’t have you putting bullet holes in me, could I?”
Michaels said nothing, but the stiffness in his face spoke volumes. Good. Get brave, you miserable little wife-beating worm. Get angry. Give me a reason to hurt you again.
Michaels cleared his throat. “So, this message from my wife?”
“She wants to come back toSt. Cloud. In fact, she’d like to move back into this very house, seeing as she put so much sweat equity into it.” Aiden glanced around at the tastefully appointed kitchen. “I must say she did a great job.”
“Of course she can come home. That’s all I’ve wanted since she left.”
“Ah, but there’s a catch, Weldy. You can’t stay.”
Michaels made a choking sound, but quickly found his voice. “She thinks I’m just going to clear out of town?”
“That would be ideal, but no, I don’t think she expects that. It will be sufficient if you leave this house and never darken the door again.”
Michaels started to bluster that he owned the goddamned place and no one could put him out of it, yadda, yadda, yadda.
“Save it,” Aiden commanded. “You see, I know what you did to her, Weldy.”
A pause. “I don’t know what she told you, but—”
“You systematically isolated her from her friends and pressured her into quitting work. Then, when you got her where you wanted her, you escalated the abuse. You terrorized her, Weldy. You threatened the life of her child if she tried to leave you. Is any of this sounding familiar? No? Well how about this: you used your position and power to convince her that escape was impossible.”
Michaels leapt up, his face wreathed in fury. “You don’t know the first fucking thing about my family.”
Aiden swung his feet to the floor, but remained in his chair. “Oh, I know quite a bit, Chief Michaels. For instance, I know you’ve been abusing the police resources at your fingertips to search for her, ensuring she had to stay on the run, unable to stay anywhere for any length of time. I know she’s terrified for her life and that of her daughter.”
“If she’d just—”
“Shut up, Weldy, and listen. I’m the messenger, and the message is that it’s over. She’s coming back, and you, my friend, are going to become the most obliging, most accommodating, most respectful ex-husband on the face of the planet. Oh, and you’ll relinquish any rights to the child.”
“Fuck you.” Powered by rage, Michaels gripped the table’s edge and overturned it, then bolted for the door.
Grinning, Aiden swept the table away as if it were constructed of matchsticks and gave chase, overtaking his quarry in a blur of speed. By the time Michaels reached the door, Aiden lounged against it, the picture of indolence.
Michaels’ face suddenly looked like it was stretched too tightly across the underlying bones. Shock did that to some people. With others, their faces went slack, as though—
“Who are you?” Michaels rasped. “Dear God, what are you?”
Aiden allowed his smile to spread, noting the precise moment when Michaels caught the first glimpse of his grossly elongated cuspids. This time, Michaels’ face slackened.
“I’m glad you asked.”
# # #
Sam Shea burrowed deeper into her denim jacket and shifted her legs yet again. The August night was soft, and three hours ago she would have called it warm. Now, however, dew was beginning to form on the blades of grass around her. Only the patch beneath her butt and outstretched legs remained dry as she sat propped against the base of a gargoyle statue.
Yes, a frickin’ cement gargoyle. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a lot of choices about where to pitch her tripod. It was the only spot in the vicinity where she could get far enough away from the ubiquitous streetlights to see even the brightest stars in the sky. Rural shoots were so much easier.
Of course, it was anybody’s guess what she was here to capture. It might have nothing to do with celestial bodies. On the other hand, what else could it be?
Well, okay, ninety minutes ago, she’d have laid bets that she was here for an electrical storm. The flashes of lightning had started to the south, illuminating the suburban landscape in an eerie purplish light. Counting the seconds between flash and boom, she tracked the storm from nearly ten miles off. She’d pack up and head for the car when it reached six miles, the safety zone. No photo was worth getting killed for, especially when she could get a decent shot from the relative safety of her rented Acura. But the storm had veered off at the last moment, making a retreat to the car unnecessary.
So if it wasn’t a fantabulous light show, what the heck had drawn her here?
For the first time in a very long time, she wondered if her vision had let her down. Right place maybe, but the wrong time? Or maybe there was anotherCarrington PlaceinSt. Cloud, and she’d camped at the wrong one. But what were the chances of that in a city of just over a 100,000 people? Of course, maybe there was anotherCarrington Placein an entirely differentSt. Cloud.
Except she knew she wasn’t wrong. She was never wrong. She’d thought so once, six years ago. After five hours of nothing more dramatic than the occasional distant meteor streaking across the night sky, she’d given up her post in disgust and gone back to the dubious comfort of her motel bed. The next morning, she’d found the local coffee shop abuzz about the dishwasher-sized meteorite that had crashed to earth in a pasture eight miles out of town. The same pasture where she’d abandoned her vigil at 4:00 a.m. If she hadn’t bailed out, it would have made a hell of a photo.
No, she wasn’t wrong. Despite the boredom of the past few hours, the raw energy that had drawn her here still persisted. Something was going to happen here, dammit.
For the umpteenth time tonight, she flicked on her hand held infrared spotlight, lifted her infrared binoculars to her eyes and did a ground-level scan. Two houses down, a skunk made its leisurely way across the front lawn, oblivious of the surveillance. Nothing else stirred. With a sigh, she lowered her binoculars and flicked the light off.
No light show in the sky. Nothing interesting on the ground.
She leaned back again, wriggled her butt into a more comfortable position and glanced up at the leering griffin’s massive head. “Don’t let me nod off, okay? I’d hate to miss the fireworks. Or whatever we’re going to have.”
Predictably, the griffin made no reply.
“Okay, be like that,” she muttered. “See if I—”
The sound of a door closing — specifically, the door of the two-story house directly across the street — cut short her one-sided conversation with the gargoyle. Automatically, she reached for the floodlight and the binoculars.
There! A man — rendered slightly greenish, thanks to the infrared technology — gliding out the flagstone driveway.
Quickly, she traded the binoculars for the tripod-mounted digital camera, flipping it to NightShot mode. A quick look through the viewfinder confirmed the target was out of range for the camera’s infrared illuminator. Dammit. She squeezed the trigger switch on the spotlight again, locked it in the on position, planted its legs in the soft earth and trained it on the adjacent driveway. This time when she found her subject through the viewfinder, her mouth went dry.
Dear God! If she could give the fiercest storm a corporeal human body, this is what it would look like. Beauty and violence, all rolled up in one gorgeous, terrible package.
God, what a face!
Hard zoom, focus, click.
Without conscious thought, habit took over as she snapped picture after picture.
She watched him draw out a cigarette and apply a flame to it. Fascinated, she watched him inhale deeply, remove the cigarette from between sensual lips, then exhale. Then he lifted his lids and looked directly into her camera lens.
Sam pulled back, shrinking closer to the gargoyle’s cold cement base. He can’t see me. Not from this distance. He’s standing in the light and I’m buried in shadow. And he sure as hell can’t see my spotlight.
Carefully, she leaned forward again to peer through the viewfinder. And there he was, still staring straight into the camera. And then — holy mother of God — he smiled at her. A knowing, toe-curling, sex-drenched smile.
She jerked back again, but this time, she failed to suppress a gasp. Not that it mattered, because he was gone. Vanished. She searched the sidewalks for his retreating form, but he’d melted away as completely as the smoke from his cigarette had dissipated in the night air.
She exhaled the lungful of air she’d been holding. Whew! That was … interesting.
But even more interesting was the dawning conviction that nothing more was going to happen here. As she sat there bringing her heartbeat under control, she realized that the muted anticipation that kept her rooted to this spot for half the night had dissipated. Interesting, indeed.
Well, no point hanging around now. She got to her knees and packed her gear. Before stowing the camera, she flipped back through the pictures she’d captured to make sure she hadn’t imagined the last minutes. She hadn’t. There he was. Even frozen in greenish miniature, he emitted an improbable dynamism. She frowned. Could he be the force that had called her here? A shiver lifted the hairs on her arm. It didn’t seem very likely. Of course, the alternative to that scenario was that her vision had been just plain wrong, which was even less palatable than the thought that a man might have drawn her here.
Sighing, she shut off the camera and tucked it carefully in the carry tote. With a last glance around the empty streets, she headed for her car. Ten minutes in a hot shower and a few hours sleep on the pillow-top mattress at her hotel would fix her up. She’d figure this thing out in the morning.
# # #
An hour later, she turned on a lamp and crawled out of bed. The dream would just keep coming back if she didn’t write it down. She found a pen and hotel stationery and scribbled the words St. Cloud, riverbank under the bridge, tomorrow night. Call and postpone your flight!
There. Maybe now she could sleep.
Three hours later, after a poached egg and a cup of room service coffee, Sam uploaded the images from her camera’s flash card onto her photo viewer, a task she would normally have done last night. Backup was critical in this business. But since she hadn’t captured anything saleable, she hadn’t bothered. Now, she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw confirmation that the upload was successful.
She paged quickly through the first few photos, which she’d taken merely to fine-tune her settings. The house across the street with its foot lighting, the row of streetlights marching west, the retaining wall behind her. Then she reached the first shot of the man.
Ugh. Monochromatic green. NightShot was useful for surreptitiously framing your shot, but you then had to switch modes to get a normal-looking color shot. Of course, that required using a visible flash, which in turn required her to be considerably closer to the subject. It was great for photographing small critters in darkness, but not so great for capturing people. It just wasn’t socially acceptable to creep up on a stranger and blast their night vision away with a blinding flash.
Especially this stranger.
She bent closer to the display to inspect her work. She’d zoomed in on the guy, but it was a full body shot rather than tight to the face. He looked taller than she remembered, but the wide shoulders and narrow hips were the same, as was the longish, wavy hair. He wore what appeared to be a leather jacket over a dark shirt and dark pants.
She pulled back, feeling oddly disappointed.
He had the kind of body that would make any woman look twice, no question about it. But she just wasn’t feeling that same gut punch she’d felt last night. Guess she could chalk last night’s reaction up to jet-lagged giddiness and the late hour.
She toggled up the next photo, and oh, baby, there it was, that thrill low in the belly.
A high forehead pleated in a frown, and a straight nose. Several strands of curly blond hair spilled forward to graze high cheekbones, partially obscuring his eyes. At least, she thought his hair was blond. It was too pale to be otherwise. The light also illuminated lean cheeks, a strong chin and an unsmiling mouth. Beautiful. Stern. Forbidding.
She advanced the next photo, and sucked in her breath on a hiss.
His face was tilted toward her to better reveal a sinfully gorgeous male mouth, but that wasn’t what set her heart to pounding. It was his attitude of sharpened senses. She could swear he was scenting the night breeze through those flared nostrils, his head cocked to catch the slightest sound, eyes searching the darkness. She leapt out of her chair, overcome by the sensation that she was about to be discovered.
God, woman, get a grip. She snorted at her own panicked reaction. He couldn’t see her. Not now, and not last night, either. At most, he may have suspected he was being watched and played to a possible audience, but standing under the streetlight like that, looking into the deep shadows…. No, there was no way he could have seen her.
She seated herself in front of the viewer again and toggled up the next photo. Despite being prepared this time, her heart still jolted in her chest.
He was looking straight at her!
And oh yeah, he’d known he had an audience. An appreciative audience. Unlikely as it seemed, he must have sensed her. Awareness was written there in his face, in the lift of an eyebrow and that sensual, full-lipped smile.
Sam expelled her breath. “Well, aren’t you all that?”
The unknown man smiled back from the photo, his NightShot-glowing eyes maddeningly unreadable.
The word slid into her mind, making her lips tighten. Last night, she’d allowed herself to contemplate the idea that this man might be the force that drew her here. The idea was no more palatable in daylight than it was in the dark of night. To think she might have delayed her return to Sioux City after the Montreal gallery opening, extending her Canadian trip to come to St. Cloud, New Brunswick, to take a photo of a mere man?
No. No way. It didn’t bear thinking about. She’d been mistaken about the time and location, that’s all. There was a first time for everything, right? Besides, last night’s vision had rectified the mistake. She now had a very clear idea where she needed to be and when.
She toggled the curser, but there were no more images. Sam moved backwards to the final picture, the one where she was sure he knew she watched him, and shivered.
Maybe she’d do a little research, for curiosity’s sake, starting with finding out who lived at thatCarrington Placeaddress she’d camped outside of last night. Maybe something would surface to explain why she’d been called there.
Four hours later, she had a fix on the owners, a couple by the name of Weldon and Lucy Michaels. A Local Google search revealed that Weldon was the chief of police here inSt. Cloud, but turned up nothing on Lucy. Well, that let out anything nefarious going on inside that house, him being the chief of police and all.
She pushed thoughts of Michaels and his late night visitor to the back of her mind and turned her attention to preparing for tonight’s stakeout. After studying maps at the library, she drove unerringly to the downtown, parked in a parking garage, and set out on foot with her camera bag slung over her shoulder. A four-minute walk connected her with the riverfront walking trail, and another ten minutes put her practically in the shadow of the bridge. The grass was tall here, with a couple of distinct trails leading down the embankment toward the river. This was it. This was the place. She fished her digital out her bag and took a couple of shots.
The sound of crunching gravel alerted Sam to the presence of another pedestrian. She glanced up to see a young man approaching from the west. As he neared, she noted industrial facial piercings and a faux-hawk.
She lifted a hand. “Excuse me, could I—”
“Sorry,” he said, side-stepping her. “I don’t pose for tourists.”
As if. Before she could correct his assumption, he’d walked on. She jogged to catch up.
“Hey, if I wanted to take your picture, I wouldn’t want to do it here. I’d want to do it in a studio, or at least with the proper lighting equipment to do you justice. But that’s not why I stopped you. I just have a question.”
He slowed. Apparently flattery worked. “Whatcha wanna know?”
“Those paths back there, the ones leading down to the river. What’s that all about?”
He shifted the bag he was carrying from one tattooed shoulder to the other. “Homeless.”
Sam felt the truth resonate inside. Yes, that fit with the feeling the dream had left her with. “Is anyone down there now?”
Judging by the look he gave her, she expected him to say, What am I? Kreskin?, but what actually emerged was, “Dunno. Maybe. Or maybe they’d be out hustling for handouts this time of day.”
Sam chewed the inside of her lip. “The police don’t object to them living down there?”
“The cops?” He snorted. “Don’t imagine they give a rat’s ass where they sleep at night, long as they’re outta sight. All they really care about is keepin’ the panhandlin’ under control.” He glanced up the trail, obviously wanting to be on his way.
“Thanks for your help.”
“No problem.” He hiked his bag up and walked off.
She lifted her camera and took a few shots before crossing the neatly mown green to the taller grasses. She picked the closest path, which also happened to be the most well-worn, and descended the embankment, pausing occasionally to take more pictures. Passing through a thin belt of trees, she emerged to find a hard-packed footpath paralleling the river’s edge.
The smell assailed her immediately. There was the usual pungent river smell that made you think of mud and fish and silt and organic rot, but underlying it was the unmistakable odor of human urine. Ugh. She snapped another picture.
She turned west and walked toward the bridge. Before she got twenty yards, she spotted the first makeshift shelters. Made from a mishmash of plywood, corrugated cardboard and blue plastic tarpaulins, the flimsy structures huddled just inside a thin belt of trees she’d just come through. No wonder none of this was visible from the walking path. For that matter, it probably wasn’t terribly visible from above either, save perhaps for a few flashes of blue through the canopy of leaves.
Briefly, she thought about following the path all the way to the bridge and out the other side of the copse of tree. The riverbank appeared to be deserted, but she couldn’t bring herself to go further. Deserted or not, there was something invasive and ugly about wandering past these squalid refuges like a sightseer, camera in hand. Plus, frankly she was scared. These people couldn’t or wouldn’t be integrated into normal society, often due to chronic mental illness. It was the same in cities all overNorth America. Bursting at the seams, psychiatric hospitals everywhere disgorged their long-term residents into their streets to make do the best they could.
She retraced her steps and continued west along the trail until she found another path in the tall grass. As she expected, it led down to the river, then back toward the treed area that concealed the tent community. Again, she ventured only far enough down the path to spy where flashes of blue tarp began to reappear. Though less plentiful on this side, she counted six structures, some of them no more than lean-tos.
She turned and looked west. Less than a mile away, tall condominium buildings and a handful of old brick office buildings rose up against the skyline. Sighing, she retraced her steps up the incline, through the tall grasses to the manicured green bisected by the graveled walking trail. Just like that, she was back in the shiny cleanSt. Cloudof the tourist brochures.
She turned back eastward and followed the trail for a hundred yards or so before veering off toward the concealing ribbon of brush and trees that shielded the shelters. A handy thing, that little green belt. It kept the homeless out of sight and out of mind for the tax-paying, job-holding, upstanding citizens ofSt. Cloud. That same invisibility kept the ire of the police off the backs of the vagrants.
She followed the tree line with difficulty. The grass here was knee deep, and without benefit of a beaten path, it conspired to trip her with every step. But just the other side of the bridge, she found what she was looking for — the perfect vantage point for surveilling the area later tonight.
Tucked just inside the tree line, it afforded enough cover for her, and offered the best view she was likely to get of the encampment below. Also ideal was the positioning of the streetlights on the four-lane bridge above and the towering light standard that illuminated the walking trail behind her. With any luck, there should be sufficient light to monitor goings on without having to constantly sweep the area with her infrared equipment. Likewise, it was close enough that she could step out of the tree line quickly if the commotion tonight turned out to be a light show in the sky.
Satisfied, she trekked the short distance back to her car. Just one more task and she could go back to her hotel and catch a few hours sleep. Stashing her equipment in the trunk of the rental, she walked half a block toQueen Streetand found a payphone. She located the general number for the St. Cloud Police Department, plugged a quarter into the phone and dialed it.
When the receptionist answered, Sam instructed the woman to put her through to Chief Michaels, employing the tone she’d learned in her first year in business-for-self. The trick to obtaining cooperation was not to demand it, but rather to simply take that cooperation for granted. Faced with such easy, inherent authority, most people gave her exactly what she expected. The St. Cloud PD receptionist was no exception.
The phone rang twice in Michaels’ office before it was answered. “Chief Michaels,” a voice clipped. “Who am I talking to?”
“Good afternoon, Chief. I’m a reporter for—”
“Whoa. You can stop right there, lady. We have a communications officer who handles press inquiries. Call the switchboard again and they’ll route you—”
“You had a visitor last night. Is that right, Chief Michaels?”
A pause. “I’m going to transfer you to my personal line. Please hang on.”
She heard him make the transfer. Before his personal phone could manage a full ringburst, he’d picked it up.
“Dammit, what more do you people want from me?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, rushing to fill the silence. “I’m just a little tense. The moving company is there right now, packing up my belongings. I’ll be out by nightfall, just like I said.”
Sam blinked, listening to his ragged breathing. What the devil was he talking about? Channeling that voice of authority again, she went fishing: “Very good. And the rest?”
“I won’t hurt her again, I swear it. I won’t even make contact. She can move back tomorrow. I’ll give her a divorce, full custody ofDevon, the house … whatever she wants.”
Holy crap! What had she stumbled into?
“Hello? Hello?” The chief’s voice rose on a note of panic. “Are you still there?”
“Relax, Chief. I’m still listening.”
“You have to believe me! I’ll never lay a hand on Lucy again. On either of them. God, I won’t even breathe in their direction. You’ll see. You can watch me as closely as you like.”
He’d been abusing his family? Bastard. “You can bet we’ll be watching,” she said in her silkiest voice. “Need I tell you what we think of recidivists?”
“No, ma’am. I’m sorry. Jesus … my ulcer. I have to go. I’m sorry.”
The line went dead. Slowly, Sam hung up the receiver. Well, well, wasn’t that interesting? Chief Michaels’ late-night visitor had been a friend of Mrs. Michaels. And a very persuasive one, by all appearances. What could he possibly have said or done to reduce the chief of police to the jabbering wreck she’d just talked to?
She thought about the photos back in her hotel room and the peculiar energy that had emanated from Michaels’ caller, and decided he was probably quite capable of decimating stronger men.
No matter. It was none of her concern. Michaels was still alive and well, and presumably newly embarked on the straight and narrow.
But who was the mystery caller? The estranged wife’s new boyfriend? Hired muscle? Some vigilante out to avenge victims of violence? Random whack-job?
Well, she wasn’t going to solve that mystery here, standing in a phone booth.
Correction — she wasn’t going to solve that mystery at all.
Stepping out of the phone booth, she headed for her rental and the promise of a nap back at her hotel room. She had to be fresh, had to focus on tonight. Whatever the reason she’d been called toSt. Cloud, it would all become clear tonight.
Buy Nightfall here:
The Merzetti Effect
A Vampire Romance (Book 1)
Copyright © 2011 Norah Wilson
Published by Norah Wilson
All rights reserved.
AINSLEY CRAWFORD STEERED her 1993 Crown Vic to the empty curb, wincing at the ugly crunching sounds her power steering made as she cranked the wheel. Great. Fluid must be leaking again. She needed another repair bill like she needed a bladder infection.
What she should do is dump the old boat and get something smaller, something easier on gas and maybe with a bit of warranty left so she wouldn’t have to pour money into it so regularly. Of course, if she ever wanted a new car, she was going to have to learn to keep her mouth shut.
Right. Like that was gonna happen. She’d pretty much sabotaged her prospects when she’d reported that handsome anesthetist who was dipping into the anesthetic agent, shortchanging patients in the process. Although the situation was dealt with promptly and appropriately, it turned out no one liked a whistleblower.
Well, at least she had a lead on a new job. A better paying one, even, and God knew she needed the money. Lucy and Devon were depending on her, maybe for their very lives.
Which was why she was here. Except here looked pretty creepy. She glanced around, reluctant to kill her engine or release her door locks.
Okay, not creepy, exactly. It was a respectable enough commercial zone; not a slum by any stretch of the imagination. And she’d lived here in St. Cloud, New Brunswick, long enough to know she was less than three or four blocks from the club district, which would be hopping even on a Wednesday night, so it wasn’t like she was in the middle of nowhere. But the quiet buildings gave off a different vibe once they were abandoned for the night. Beneath the streetlights, the empty avenue shone after the warm August rain.
Ainsley turned off the ignition and the engine stuttered and coughed to a stop. The tic-tic-tic of her cooling motor sounded overly loud in the ensuing silence. Then the rain started up again, drowning out other sounds. Raindrops pattered on the car’s roof and smeared her view of the urban landscape, intensifying her sense of isolation.
Before the cast of her thoughts could get gloomier, she grabbed her umbrella from the passenger seat and shouldered her door open. She fumbled with the umbrella a moment to get it open, then stepped out into the night. Closing the Crown Vic’s door, she peered around. Not a soul moved on the street. Though lights burned in the office building windows, she knew they were deserted.
Well, mostly deserted. Her prospective employer, Dr. Delano Bowen, waited for her in one of them.
She’d balked when he’d asked for an evening interview, and his warm-whiskey voice had cooled over the telephone line. He had a conference to attend in San Francisco, he’d informed her, and he intended to fill the position before he left, one way or another. Desperate as she was for the job, she’d agreed to the nighttime interview.
Of course, that hadn’t stopped her from checking him out. If the research sponsor, a major bio-medical company, hadn’t confirmed his claims, she’d have cancelled. But he had checked out. According to Bio-Sys Genomix, he was analyzing the DNA of individuals afflicted with a particular blood disorder in the hopes of unlocking a cure.
What he needed, he’d said, was a cross between a phlebotomist to draw blood, a research assistant to help with his investigations, and a secretary to deal with the paperwork.
She stood there a moment, rain spattering up on her legs as she contemplated her utter lack of experience in the foregoing areas. But dammit, eight years as an OR nurse in a Level 1 Trauma Center had to count for something.
She pulled the folded piece of paper out of her purse and checked the address again — 420 St-Laurent Street — compared it with the number on the closest building, then headed west. Shouldn’t be more than a half a block.
As it turned out, it was more like a block and a half, which carried her closer to the club district than she’d expected. The rain fell harder and she picked up her pace, cursing. Her low-heeled leather pumps were going to be ruined. She dashed up the walkway to the building’s front door and tried to yank it open, but it didn’t give. Another tug. Locked.
Great. She glanced around for a buzzer, but instead found a note taped to the glass door from the inside.
Ms. Crawford. My apologies. Please use the entrance at the back of the building.
She backtracked to the sidewalk and dashed westward, stopping at the alley running between Dr. Bowen’s building and the next building. The lane was narrow, barely wide enough for a single vehicle to pass. It was also liberally spotted with puddles. Her shoes would be ruined for sure if she slogged through that.
Maybe she’d be risking more than her shoes.
The thought sent a jitter of uneasiness through her. She glanced around quickly. Nothing moved on St-Laurent. She looked back down the alley. At the midway point, a single security light mounted on the brick facing of the adjacent building cast enough light to show the alley was empty. No nooks or crannies for an assailant to jump out of; no doorways, no garbage bins for them to hide behind.
So why were the hairs on the back of her neck lifting?
She chewed her lip a moment, then made her decision. She had Dr. Bowen’s phone number on the paper in her purse. She’d dash to the nearest bar and use a payphone to call him. If he still wanted to do the interview, he could damned well meet her at the mouth of the alley to escort her into the building. Or better still, in whatever warm, dry pub she found from which to make the call.
She turned to continue up St-Laurent, but a blur of motion caught her eye. She swiveled toward it.
A man, black clothing and a white blur for a face. Where had he come from? Before she could so much as gasp her surprise he was on her, pushing her into the alley.
She brought the umbrella down, intending to defend herself with it, but he was too fast. He squeezed her wrist in a grip that shot paralyzing pain up to her elbow. She dropped the umbrella. And then he was driving her deeper into the alley, bearing her along as though her resistance presented no more challenge than a feather.
Crackhead. Had to be. No ordinary man had that kind of strength. Fear surged as she remembered the one she’d seen in the ER last month. Out of his mind on a dose of crystal meth that should have killed him, he’d shaken off three cops like they weighed no more than dandruff on his shoulders.
She gathered her breath to scream, but again he was too quick. He clamped a hand over her mouth and slammed her against the unyielding brick wall. Tears leapt to her eyes, blurring her vision.
Resistance was likely to get her killed.
Reasoning was out of the question.
Cooperation… He probably just wanted money. For these guys, it was all about feeding the habit, buying more gack to snort up his nose or shoot into his veins.
Her right hand dropped to her purse, which was still slung over her shoulder. She pushed it toward him. “Take it.” She mumbled the words out against his palm, hoping he’d understand. “Money. Take it.”
His lips curved with real amusement, which stirred a far deeper fear than had his physical attack. For the first time, she looked closely at his face. His eyes gleamed an eerie yellow-gold under the security light. They were most definitely not the eyes of a hopped-up junkie.
“It’s not your money I want.”
Oh, God. She was going to be raped in a rainy alley while everyone huddled indoors where it was warm and dry. Where they wouldn’t hear her cries.
“No, sweetheart, I don’t want that, either.”
His lips parted on a smile and her gaze dropped to his bared teeth. As soon as she saw his incisors, she knew what he did want. Her rational mind rebelled against the truth, but her blood knew. Her pulse leapt into overdrive.
The word was smothered against his hand. He angled her neck and sank his teeth deep into her throat. She felt the pierce of his grossly elongated incisors like the hot stab of IV needles. Adrenaline arced through her, lending her strength as she fought him, but she might as well have tried to knock down the brick wall at her back.
On and on she struggled, but he clung to her, oblivious of her efforts. But he didn’t seem to be doing much more than just hanging on. Why wasn’t he sucking or otherwise working the wound? Wasn’t that what vampires did? Or did they tear throats out and lap the blood?
She shivered. God, she was so cold…
Cold. Blood loss. Shock!
Oh, shit, she was going into shock.
Goddammit, he’d pierced her carotid artery. He was letting her own thundering heart pump the lifeblood out of her. A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in her chest at the irony.
Seconds later, she sagged against the building, mirth — and strength — gone. Only his weight against her held her upright.
A violent tremor shook her. Cold. She was going to die here in this alley.
And her shoes were ruined.
Then, miraculously, he released her. She crumpled to the wet asphalt. Dear God, she was so cold. Was she dead?
No, not yet. If she were dead, she wouldn’t feel the cold rain or the hot abrasion of the asphalt on her hands and knees.
So why had he left her?
She managed to lift her head to peer through the driving rain, searching for her assailant. There, deeper in the alley. And dear God, he was locked in combat with another man! A man who must have pulled the creature off her.
She wanted to shout, to warn her would-be savior that he wasn’t dealing with your average thug, but her vision wobbled. Feeling oddly detached, she put a hand to her throat and it came away red. The rain quickly washed her hand clean, but a downward glance confirmed she was still bleeding. Her tan trench coat was streaked with red.
Oh, man, she was tired. More than anything, she wanted to lie down. She wanted to just curl into herself and let the hovering blackness take her. But the man who’d tried to save her … the Good Samaritan … if she didn’t get help, he’d die.
She pushed herself to her feet and stumbled toward the mouth of the alley, one hand pressed to her neck to try to stem her bleeding and the other pressed against the building’s wall to keep herself upright. She’d lost one shoe, so she kicked the other one off. Almost there.
Then the world started to swim. She blinked and blinked, but the blurriness refused to clear. She found herself on the ground again, felt the asphalt burn her already scraped knees. Then the same abrasive surface kissed her cheek as she pitched face-first onto the street.
Too late, Ainsley. As usual. You’re nobody’s savior.
Delano Bowen watched the beaten vampire’s retreat long enough to be certain the creature was really leaving. He expelled his breath. Thank God. It had been close. For a moment, he’d thought he was going to have to destroy it. Black-hearted devil hadn’t wanted to give up his kill.
Well, they’d soon see who killed whom.
And speaking of dying, he’d better see to the woman before she succumbed to shock. He strode to the mouth of the alley where she lay crumpled on the wet asphalt. Kneeling, he rolled her over, bent close and deftly arrested her bleeding. He drew away from her to find that her eyes had fluttered open.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve got you. You’re going to be all right.”
The assurance seemed good enough for her, for she slipped back into unconsciousness. He gathered her into his arms and stood.
“Come on, Ainsley Crawford. We have work to do.”
No, not just hot sex. Incredibly erotic, deliciously forbidden stranger sex.
Ainsley knew it was a dream. Knew it wasn’t really happening. But dear God, it was good. And it felt so damned real. She could almost smell him, musky and male and incredibly arousing…
A small sound tugged at her awareness, but she clung to sleep. She wanted to stay in the dream, wanted the stranger to keep on stroking and licking and sucking her as her hands clenched in his hair. She wanted him to keep his mouth on her intimate flesh, his hands on her body. Just a few minutes more…
Then the sound came again. A beeping. Familiar but wrong. Out of place in the dream. What the hell was it? It sounded like a … oh, hell, a monitor alarm!
She came awake with a start.
The first thing she saw was the bedrail on the left side. Then the IV pole with the suspended bag of deep red fluid. She glanced down to see an IV line disappearing into her arm.
Holy shit. She was in hospital. And the beeping was a monitor. It blinked at her from its position right beside the IV pole.
Glancing at her hand, she saw the pulse oximeter had slipped off her finger. She slid the clothespin-like device back on and the beeping stopped. A quick glance at the monitor showed her oxygen saturation was okay.
Oh, man, she was really in hospital? Being transfused?
She pressed her legs together beneath the blankets, and the last traces of arousal from her sex dream withered. Urinary catheter. Ugh. She was definitely being transfused. But why?
Omigod, the alley! Heart suddenly hammering, she struggled to sit up.
“Ah, you’re awake. That’s good.”
She yelped, more at the unexpected hand on her shoulder urging her back against the pillows than at the masculine voice from the right side of her bed.
“Easy. You’re safe now. I’m a doctor.”
Her gaze locked on him and she let out a gasp.
It was him. The man she’d been imagining, the stranger/lover.
Okay, she was still dreaming. She must be. How else could she have conjured him to look exactly like the man in her dream?
Then another thought struck her: maybe she was dead.
Maybe she never escaped the alley after all. Maybe her lifeless body lay there still in a blood-darkened puddle, and this vision, this whole hospital room encounter, was just the result of her oxygen-starved brain dying.
She closed her eyes for a second and reopened them. The man beside her remained unchanged. Shoulder-length black hair, glossy under the lights, sprang back from a widow’s peak. Behind the lenses of Italian designer frames, dark brown eyes glowed like banked coals under heavy, slashing eyebrows. Dark, intense, sexy.
She started to lift a hand, thinking to touch his face to test if he were flesh and bone, but — ow, ow, ow — was quickly reminded that her arm had been harpooned with an IV catheter.
Okay, so it looked like she hadn’t dreamed him, she wasn’t dead, and she really was being transfused. So she had to be in hospital. But oh, baby, if this was the ER, this guy was new to the rotation.
“Where am I?”
“You’re under my care, and you’re currently being treated for blood loss and shock.”
She shivered convulsively. The alley. A creature straight out of her nightmares had attacked her, driven his teeth deep into her neck and —
Her mind shied away from the memory. Better to stick with the rational, the world she knew. Medicine.
Her gaze flicked back to the IV pole. “Whole blood?”
“How much have I had?”
“We’re coming up on 2000 mls.”
She felt her face go slack. “So much?”
“By my estimate, you’d lost almost forty percent of your blood, Miss Crawford.”
Holy Hannah. Her gaze leapt back to the unit of blood suspended from the IV pole, her brain ticking at a hundred miles an hour. “Then you wouldn’t have had time to crossmatch the blood…”
“It’s perfectly crossmatched.”
She blinked. How’d he manage that feat? With this kind of blood loss, they usually started pushing the O-neg while they waited for typing and crossmatching, switching to the precise match as soon as they had the info. In any case, if they’d pushed that much blood, her coagulation factors would almost certainly be out of whack…
She lifted her right hand — carefully this time — to her neck, only to find her puncture wounds covered by a dressing. She clapped her gaze back on the hunky doctor who sat so quietly at her bedside. The doctor who in her dreams had blazed a trail of kisses down her body…
She blinked the image away, cleared her throat and asked, “What about the possibility of a bleed?”
He lifted a dark eyebrow. “You know your transfusion medicine.”
“I should. I’m an OR nurse.”
“Indeed.” The corner of his mouth lifted in what might have been a smile, but he obligingly ran down the numbers — hemoglobin, platelet count and the rest. “Based on what I’m seeing, I don’t think we’ll have to worry, but we’ll keep monitoring the situation.”
Okay, so she seemed to be out of immediate peril. Time to tackle the hard stuff.
“How’d I get here?”
One beat, two, three, as though he were weighing how much to tell her.
“I brought you.”
“You brought me?”
“Yes. I was there, in the alley. I saw the attack.”
“No.” The denial emerged on an exhalation. She wasn’t even sure what she was denying.
“Yes. I witnessed it. I saw that creature attack you.”
Her heart started banging again. A man fiercely grappling with her attacker. A black-haired man.
“You were there.” A statement, not a question. She remembered now. And she remembered something else.
His was the face she’d seen when she’d surfaced from that cold hell she thought was death. Then she remembered what had wakened her from that icy place — his mouth, hot on her bare throat, like a lover’s.
No. No way. It hadn’t happened. It couldn’t have. Just a dream, like the other one.
She wet her lips. “Where are we?” Lifting her head, she scanned the room. No nurses came and went. Nothing fit her experience with various wards at the hospital. “This isn’t the Regional.”
“You are in my home. But I assure you it is as well equipped as your hospital to deal with your particular emergency. Better equipped, in fact.”
This was his home? It looked more like a trauma treatment room. And how freaky was it that he’d brought her here to treat her? Scary-freaky. Fear warred with anger. By the slimmest margin, the latter won.
“I can see for myself that you’re well equipped. My question would be, why? And while we’re at it, why didn’t you call an ambulance to take me to the emergency room? That would be the logical response.”
Those glowing eyes narrowed to dark slits. “And what would you have told them at your ER, Nurse Crawford?”
She lifted her chin. “That I’d been attacked by…”
“A vampire?” he finished.
“Yes! You know I’m telling the truth. You were there. You saw it.”
He didn’t move so much as a muscle, but for all his stillness, he emitted an odd leashed energy. It poured off him in waves so potent, she could almost imagine she saw an aura of energy surrounding him.
“Indeed I did witness it. But the ER staff who would have attended you weren’t there. They didn’t see it.”
“You could have hung around and explained.”
His lips turned up at the corners in a flash of amusement that was gone so quickly she wondered if she imagined it. “Yes, I suppose I could have given them the Readers’ Digest version of events, but I rather value my professional reputation.”
“Okay, yes, they’d be skeptical in the extreme, until they’d seen this.” She lifted a hand to her throat, where she could still feel the pain of her wounds beneath the bandage.
“Remove the dressing.”
She blinked. “What?”
He opened the drawer on her bedside table and extracted a hand mirror, which he offered to her. “Remove the dressing and have a look.”
Panic flared. Did she really want to view those puncture marks? She knew the attack had happened. She remembered it in horrifying detail. But to look on her wounds would make the proof of it incontrovertible. If she looked in the mirror, she couldn’t then decide she’d dreamed it. She couldn’t then conclude, for the sake of preserving her own sanity, that she’d had some kind of psychotic break.
“Not up to it? I see.” He started to return the mirror to the drawer.
“Give it to me.”
“Are you sure?”
Her answer was to peel the adhesive dressing away with one swift motion.
“So be it.”
She accepted the mirror from him, angling it to get a look at the puncture marks. Once again, her pulse skyrocketed. The skin of her throat was smooth and unbroken, with nothing but some faint bruising and some redness from the adhesive removal to suggest any kind of trauma.
She put a hand to her throat, running her fingers over the area to confirm what her eyes had already told her. Sweet Jesus.
“You see why the medical staff at the hospital might question your story?”
“But how? I was bitten… I can still feel the burn. Where did the puncture marks go?”
Behind the lenses of his glasses, his eyes seemed to blaze even stronger than before. “These creatures cover their tracks by infusing their victims with a substance that promotes coagulation. It’s similar to the MPH beads you might use in surgery to stem a bad bleed, but it also promotes ultra-rapid healing of the wound.”
She laughed, a choked sound that bordered on weeping, which God knew was closer to what she felt like doing.
“You’re telling me vampires walk around with Bleed-X in their pockets, ready to sprinkle it on their victims’ wounds afterward?”
“They secrete the substance at will.” He pried the mirror out of her hand and put it back in the drawer. “Of course, the victim of an attack like this typically expires from shock shortly after the evidence fades.”
“Well, that must give the Coroner’s Office fits on cause of death.” She heard her own words and marveled at how reassuringly sarcastic they sounded. Was she really having this conversation with this stranger about vampires?
He shrugged. “Occasionally. Though many victims are street people — drug addicts, prostitutes, vagrants, runaways. No one investigates too closely when one of them turns up dead.”
The truth of the latter statement was undeniable. She’d seen for herself the ease with which street deaths were accepted. She’d even protested it. Until the business with Lucy. Until she decided she couldn’t afford to make waves over something she wasn’t going to be able to change anyway.
She forced her numb mind to work. “I still don’t understand why you brought me here. Why not call an ambulance and let someone else worry about it?”
“Because, as you must be coming to appreciate, I have a special expertise in these matters that conventional medicine lacks. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say I’m alone in my field.”
Well, there was something she had no trouble believing.
“Besides,” he added, “had you not been coming to meet with me, you would not have suffered the attack. For that, I feel a burden of guilt.”
Going to meet him? Then he must be… “My God.”
A smile ghosted over his lips. “No, not God, Ms. Crawford. Though on occasion, I have been accused of harboring a God complex.” He offered his hand. “Dr. Delano Bowen.”
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“So, what’s the story?”
Nita Reynolds glanced up at her law partner, Brad Knopfler, who stood framed in her doorway, without really seeing him.
Brain tumor. A couple of bad headaches, and now they said she had a tumor in her head. Just like her father. God, she’d only had that MRI because her mother had hounded her within an inch of her life to ask for it. Neuro-imaging was not the medical community’s usual first response to a complaint of migraine with aura, and she’d felt like a major hypochondriac even asking her doctor about it.
She blinked. Shit. “Sorry, Brad, what was that?”
Taking her question as an invitation, he crossed the plush carpet to settle in one of the leather armchairs opposite her desk. “Your meeting with the Crown Prosecutor this morning,” he prompted, loosening his tie and lounging back in the chair. “How’d it go?”
Better than the visit with my doctor right after that.
“Good.” When that came out as little more than a croak, she cleared her throat. “It was good. I talked her down from indictable to summary offence.”
Brad lifted an eyebrow. “Good job. That’ll save your guy four or five years, if he’s convicted.”
“Yeah, and there’s a pretty good chance he will be.”
“Hey, are you okay, Nita? You look a little … I don’t know. Wiped.”
Wiped? Try dying.
She bit back on a bubble of laughter that threatened to erupt. Gawd, if she laughed now, she’d start crying.
“You know what? I am tired.” She closed the file she’d been staring at for the past half hour. “I think I’m gonna play hooky and go home.”
“Nita, Nita, Nita.” Brad shook his head sadly. “It’s four o’clock in the afternoon. That hardly qualifies. Hooky is when you call the office whilst tangled with your lover who is nibbling you in places that make your voice go husky, thereby lending you some credibility when you plead swine flu or bubonic plague or something.”
At his words, a mental image sprang to life. Specifically, the image of Detective Craig Walker’s hulking length sprawled on her five-hundred-dollar Egyptian cotton sheets, and her own body sprawled atop his….
Suddenly, her heart beat faster. And not at the mental image alone. She’d conjured it too often in these past few months for it to have that dramatic an effect. No, her heart beat faster at the idea taking root in her mind. The mind that could be lost to her all too soon, like her father’s was after his first surgery. But it wasn’t lost yet. She still had full mental capacity, full motor function. Full control of her life, at least for the immediate future.
Time to put it to good use.
She stood, smiling for the first time since leaving Dr. Woodbridge’s office. “You know what? You’re right again, Brad. You’re absolutely right.”
Grabbing her purse, she strode out.
Detective Craig Walker massaged his forehead as he listened to his aunt’s friend’s mother rant about the graffiti artist who’d been tagging abandoned buildings in her neighborhood in the decaying west end of Fredericton.
“I’ll ask patrol to look into that, ma’am,” he interjected, when it appeared she was winding down. Unfortunately, that only served to rev her up, as she interpreted his response to mean the police department did not concern itself with vandalism. He switched the receiver to the other ear and slouched back in his chair, resigned to listening a while longer.
Frankly, he’d driven through that neighborhood the other day and thought the graffiti was an improvement. And for once, he could actually approve the messages, which were clearly the work of environmental activists rather than the usual gang-related crap. Vegan environmental activists, judging by the two-buildings-wide Stop feeding cows; start feeding people message. But his favorite was the one with the beautiful, amazingly detailed rendition of the earth with the caption beneath: Earth. Pass it on.
“I understand your concern, Mrs. Brewer,” he said when she paused again for breath. “But I’m assigned to Major Crimes, and my Sergeant would kick my butt if I took time away for something like this. I’ve had two serious new cases just today, and dozens more getting colder by the minute. The best I can do in the circumstances is pass your concerns along to patrol, who will look into it. If Aunt Gena herself called me, I’d have to give her the same answer.”
That wasn’t strictly true. He couldn’t think of much he wouldn’t do for Aunt Gena, if she asked him. But the rest of it was true, including the grinding workload. And with the fiscal belt tightening undertaken by the newly-elected mayor, the manpower additions they’d been counting on weren’t likely to materialize.
After a few more assurances, he managed to get Mrs. Brewer off the line. A quick call to patrol/community policing, and the whole thing was someone else’s problem.
Too bad he couldn’t slough off his personal irritations so easily. Ray Morgan, a colleague in Major Crimes, was trying to set him up with his wife’s friend from the newspaper. Or rather, Ray’s wife Grace was trying to set him up. What was so hard to grasp about ‘not interested in a relationship’? These people who were so damned happy were a pain in the ass.
And on the other side of the spectrum, he kept having to stave off Denis Dallaire. Newly divorced, Dallaire was hitting the bars again, and couldn’t seem to grasp that every single guy didn’t want to be out there chasing skirts every freaking night. The thing was, Craig had caught his share. Now, it just seemed more trouble than it was worth, which depressed the hell out of him. He was only 34, for chrissakes. A healthy 34-year-old man should want to be out there, shouldn’t he? It was almost enough to make him take Denis up on the challenge.
But nah. Too much effort. Not so much in the chase, but in the extrication afterward.
And yeah, the vague emptiness it left him with. Not that he’d ever admit to it. At least not anywhere within earshot of Ray Morgan. There’d be no stopping Grace’s matchmaking.
He’d just gotten back into the flow of his arrest report when his phone rang again. “Walker.”
“Detective, it’s Nita Reynolds.”
He’d straightened in his chair even before she identified herself. He’d have recognized that voice anywhere. Confident, controlled, self-contained, but with an underlying hint of heat that was all the sexier for its subtlety. Much the way she looked.
“Ah, Ms. Reynolds,” he said, pushing down the jumbled mixture of feelings she always managed to evoke. “Let me guess. You’re representing the enterprising Edward Rayburn, who set out to find a buyer for his girlfriend’s daughter while said child’s meth-addicted mother sits out a jail term.”
“I think you mean he stands accused of trying to sell the child,” she corrected. “But no, I don’t represent him. I was calling—”
“Of course! Gordon Bohner. I wondered who he’d find to represent him.” The thought of what Bohner had done to his own mother to extract enough money for his next fix hardened his voice. “Your mother must be proud of you, Nita.”
She snorted. “I don’t think she ever got over her disappointment when I left Highpriced & Pompous to do Legal Aid work. And I’m not even going to ask what Mr. Bohner did.”
He grinned at her use of the nickname for the multi-province mega-firm Hightower Ponder. “Don’t you mean you won’t ask what Mr. Bohner stands accused of doing?”
She made a sound, but he couldn’t tell whether it was an exasperated sigh or a stifled laugh.
“God, I must be crazy,” she said.
This time, he definitely detected laughter in her voice. And in that moment, he knew she wasn’t calling about anyone’s case. The realization sent a bolt straight to his groin. He glanced up at fellow detective Sean Casey, who sat two desks over in the detective’s bullpen. Casey appeared to be engrossed in reading a file, but Craig angled his chair away from his colleague.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “You had the good judgment to call me, after all.”
“Good judgment?” She laughed again. “That remains to be seen.”
He waited. Pointedly. He could have waded in there, helped her out, but dammit, why should he? He’d done the asking last time. Two times, actually. The first time, he got a polite turndown. He would never have asked again, except all the signals were still there, in flashing neon. When she turned him down the second time, she’d made it clear she didn’t date cops. Period.
“I was wondering if you’d like to go to dinner with me tonight. My treat. I thought maybe Soloman’s.”
Soloman’s. Pricey, but they had the best steak and seafood in town. They also had a relaxed enough atmosphere and dress code to attract regular Joes like him once in a while. And more significantly, Soloman’s was a two-, maybe three-block walk from Nita Reynolds’ downtown condo apartment. The thought sent another jolt below the belt. Settle down, boy.
“To be completely clear, are we talking about a date here?”
“Yes.” One word, but it managed to sound strangled.
He leaned back his chair, feeling in control. A strange sensation indeed when it came to this woman. And probably short-lived, so he should enjoy it.
Apparently, he must have enjoyed it a little too long, because her voice was a little testier when she spoke again. “What? Have I stunned you into silence? Shocked you with my forwardness, maybe?”
“Nah, I was just searching for the weather report from hell. I’m guessing it must have frozen over down there.”
“What about your no cops rule?”
“Some rules are meant to be broken, Detective. I know you of all people would subscribe to that notion.”
“Given how often I land myself in hot water with the brass, you mean?”
She made no reply.
“No comment?” he prodded.
“Sorry,” she said politely, “I was letting the record speak.”
He laughed. “Okay, it’s a date. I’ll meet you there.” After a few beats of silence, he added, “What time?”
“One last thing, Detective….”
He heard her disconnect, but still he sat there with the receiver in hand, her words echoing in his mind. Come prepared. The dial tone kicked in, and he hung up.
Jesus. He was sitting in the middle of the bullpen with a hard-on. Suddenly, he didn’t feel so in control.
Nita resisted the urge to pull her compact out of her purse and check her lipstick. It was perfect when she’d applied it, and it was still perfect. For what she’d paid for it, it wouldn’t dare smudge. And dammit, she looked good in her new DKNY tank dress, cute denim jacket and with calf-hugging leather boots. Hot without being too over-the-top, man-hunting slutty.
Or was it? Maybe the boots were too much.
Argh! Stupid to be nervous. It would be better when he actually got here.
Not that he was late. She’d come early to get away from her silent apartment, hoping that the buzz of conversation and the discreet bustle of the wait staff would distract her. Plus she’d wanted to be in place first to establish some kind of … what? — ownership? — control? … of this piece of recklessness she was about to embark on.
She picked up her wine, but instead of gulping it nervously, she forced herself to slow down and appreciate it. She swirled it in its glass, admiring its legginess a moment before inhaling its bouquet. Lovely. She’d bypassed the subtle sophistication of her usual French favorite and picked a lively Australian Shiraz. Lush and peppery, it was perfect for her mood. She took a sip, savoring the dominant blackberry flavor and the feel of the tannins in her mouth.
“Am I late?”
Dammit. She’d wanted to see his entrance, watch him cross the room. She glanced up and smiled. “Not at all.” Their gazes collided, and her pulse leapt like she’d touched a live wire. Oh, Christmas! What had she invited? He was so big, so raw, so masculine. “Have a seat.”
He did, and the hovering waiter moved in on him immediately. He glanced at her wine, then ordered a beer.
“You look beautiful,” he said when the waiter left. The frank appreciation in his ridiculously blue eyes echoed the sentiment.
“Thank you.” She inclined her head in acknowledgement. “You look pretty good yourself.”
That was the understatement of the year. Their previous encounters had pretty much been confined to the courtroom or the stationhouse, so she knew he cut an imposing, if slightly incongruous, figure in a suit. But tonight he wore a tan-colored ultrasuede sport coat over an oatmeal colored sweater with a very fine looking pair of denims in a shade of blue almost as piercing as his eyes. Her hands itched already for the tactile sensation of those fabrics. And as for what lay beneath….
She didn’t realize how hungrily she was staring until her eyes completed the journey up his chest, past his strong neck to the brutally hard planes of his face and met his gaze. Oh, yikes!
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
He lifted an eyebrow. “For what’s on the menu, you mean?”
“Depends. Is there something else on offer?”
She felt a blush climbing her neck, but held his gaze. “Most definitely.”
He stood abruptly, jarring the table and nearly toppling her wine. Flagging down a passing waiter, he said, “The lady’s not feeling well.” He pulled out his wallet and pressed some bills into the waiter’s hand. “For the drinks.”
She stood and he was at her side instantly with a solicitous hand at her back. As they wended their way among the tables to the exit, she felt the burn of that touch through her clothes. Come to that, she felt his body heat reaching out to her. God, he was a blast furnace. She couldn’t wait to get her hands on him.
“Your car or mine?” he asked when they hit the street.
“My place is just a few blocks away. Why don’t we walk it?”
“Okay, but first I have to do this.” He pulled her into the alley between the restaurant and the art gallery next door, pushed her up against the cool brick of the building and kissed her.
It was not a searching, tentative kiss. It was urgent and fiercely demanding, as were the hands that skimmed down her shoulders to her hips. Her blood leapt in response, and she met his mouth with demands of her own. Her hands found their way under his jacket, then under his sweater. His skin was just as hot as she knew it would be, but the muscle beneath was so much more solid than she’d imagined. Like no man she’d ever touched.
She slid her arms around him, and he made an approving sound against her mouth. And when she slid her hands down to test his butt through the denim of his jeans, he surged against her thrillingly, once. Then he pulled back, the cool of the August evening replacing his warmth.
“Baby, we gotta get this off the streets. C’mon.” He tugged her back onto the sidewalk and wrapped one arm around her shoulders. “Lead the way.”
Needing Nita, a 15,000 word novella, is free on all platforms. Please help yourself at the online bookstore of your choice.