January 27, 2015
Ryan heard the first of the sirens as he turned into the home stretch of his run. He ran most every night after he closed Love’s, the bar he owned with his two sisters. The exercise usually cleared his mind, but not tonight. A storm had started brewing as he’d clocked the first mile and the kind of cold that was indigenous to the desert seeped beneath his skin and made old wounds ache. The glowering sky pressed down on him, sinister against the excessive Christmas lights twinkling merrily around every palm tree and the festive banners that snapped in the bitter wind. Instead of clearheaded, Ryan felt chased.
His German shepherd, Brandy, ran at his side, ears up and swiveling. Even she didn’t seem to be enjoying the ritual as much as usual.
Glad when Love’s came into sight, Ryan slowed his steps and tried to catch his breath. The sirens were closer now and a police car flew past to join more flashing lights about a block down the street. It was after two in the morning, but Mill Avenue near Arizona State University never really slept. Probably drunks out causing trouble. Maybe even the three he’d thrown out of Love’s that night. They’d left him with a bruised face and sore ribs.
Watching through the spitting rain, Ryan cut across an alley and into the parking lot behind Love’s. That’s when he heard the woman scream.
He spun to face the nook between the south wall of Love’s and the cinder-block barrier that hid the side door to the kitchen. He peered into the dark recess, sure that’s where the sound had come from, but nothing moved. Brandy’s ear swiveled as she barked, trying to sniff and see everything at once. She didn’t seem able to pinpoint the scream either.
The next scream echoed around him at the same time pressure filled the space behind his ears and made him feel unbalanced. He stumbled back as lightning flashed and a tremendous bolt snapped down right in front of him. When he looked again, a woman sat inside the small, sheltered alcove with her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped around them. Seconds ago, only darkness had waited there. Long, dark hair gleamed under the muted light, spilling over her shoulders and hiding her face and her skin had an alabaster sheen. There was a lot of it, too. He frowned. She was naked.
With a hand signal for Brandy to sit, Ryan wiped the rain from his face and approached her cautiously. The walls and awning shielded her from the rain, but not the cold. She shivered violently as he crouched down in front of her.
“Hey,” he said in a soft voice. “How’d you get here? Are you okay?”
She looked up with wide, clear eyes as blue as a desert sky. Even in the dark the color was vivid and they shimmered with something he couldn’t begin to define. Long lashes the same rich shade as her hair framed them and accented their luminescent glow. They tilted at the corners, catlike. The dark wings of her brows drew focus to the shape of her face, the smooth line of her nose, the dusting of freckles that covered it.
He dropped his gaze and saw a raw scrape on her shin, another up high on her thigh. A third marred her shoulder. He thought of the sirens and police he’d heard. Was she involved in whatever had been happening?
“Ryan?” she whispered, chasing that thought right out of his head.
The sound of his name on her lips raised the hairs at the back of his neck, somehow trumping everything else. Like who she was, what she was doing here stark naked in the middle of the night.
“You know me?”
He peered into her face, sure he’d never seen her before.
“You’re Ryan,” she said with more certainty.
Her gaze shifted to something behind him. Ryan looked over his shoulder to find Brandy right at his heels with perked ears and a wet, wagging tail, watching the woman. The woman stared back at his dog with what Ryan would swear was wonder.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Sabelle,” she replied, still watching his dog.
Brandy got down on her belly, inching closer in the most unthreatening manner a ninety-five-pound German shepherd could manage.
“Where are your clothes, Sybil?”
She shook her head, pulling her gaze from Brandy to look him in the eye. “S’belle,” she corrected. “Not Sybil.”
“S’belle,” he pronounced carefully. “Why are you naked?”
A hot flush turned her skin pink a second before she lied. “I don’t remember.”
She shifted with agitation and Brandy made a sound low in her throat. Not aggressive. Consoling. The dog had managed to army-crawl close enough to put her big fluffy head on the woman’s lap. Sabelle’s lips parted as she settled her fingers on Brandy’s silky black ear.
She shivered and goose bumps rose on her skin. Ryan quickly reached over his head and pulled off his shirt. It was warm from his body, but damp from the rain. It would cover her, though.
“Here, put this on,” he said, handing it over.
She accepted it, fingering the soft fabric before she pressed it to her face, smelling it. The action was so surprising that at first all he could think to do was mumble, “Sorry, it’s all I have,” while hot embarrassment flooded his face.
“It smells like you,” she said.
Like it was a good thing.
His mouth opened but no words came out. He lowered his eyes while she pulled the shirt over her head. When he looked back, she was covered, thank God. His shirt was huge on her. The shoulders drooped to her elbows and the long sleeves hid her hands.
She huddled in it, her gaze roaming his face, lingering on the cut over his nose, the puffy skin on his cheek, and his swollen jaw. He almost felt the quicksilver stare on his bare chest and bruised ribs. He must look like a big ugly thug to her.
She had bruises and scrapes of her own. He could only hope that her wounds had come from something less violent than his.
“What happened to you? Did someone hurt you?” he asked.
“No,” she said with a definitive shake of her head.
“I didn’t expect it to be painful.”
“You didn’t expect what to be painful?”
She flinched at his sharp tone. “Coming here.”
He didn’t know what to say to that. Here—in the parking lot in the middle of the night—wasn’t anyplace she should be, but she’d obviously been hurt, was probably in shock. She might not even know where she was. He dug his phone out of his pocket and leaned in so the rain running down his back wouldn’t get it wet as he dialed 911.
The storm picked up its pace, hitting the asphalt with such force that raindrops bounced and pooled, pounding the awning overhead with fury. Storms moved fast in Arizona, but this was insane.
“Who are you calling?” she asked.
“The police. They’ll—”
She snatched the phone out of his hand and hit the screen repeatedly until the ring cut off.
Ryan’s mouth was open again. “Okay, now it’s getting weird.”
“No police,” she said. “What time is it?”
When he didn’t answer immediately, she repeated the question sharply.
“I don’t know. Two? Three in the morning?”
Her eyes rounded and she scrambled to get her feet under her. “We need to go. Now, Ryan.”
She stood, long legs protruding from his big shirt. Her hair brushed her shoulders and impatiently she swiped it back. Standing as well, Ryan reached out to steady her as she swayed.
“Easy, girl,” he murmured gently. “Slow down. Take a breath. You’re safe now. Let’s get the police here. They’ll get everything worked out.”
“No police,” she insisted. “They can’t help.”
“Yeah, well. . . .” Neither could he. “Can I have my phone back?”
She turned and started out of the shelter.
“Wait,” he said. “Sabelle Whoever-You-Are. Wait.”
She seemed more alert, more focused, but she’d obviously hit her head. She tucked her arms tight, hands jammed under her pits and head bent as she gingerly picked her way through the glass, gravel, mud, and puddles covering the parking lot, ignoring him until she stepped on something sharp and gasped.
“Hold up. Would you stop?” he said, exasperated. “Let me help you.”
He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the back door before she could protest. She wasn’t a big woman, but she was lush with all the right curves in all the right places. She felt solid against his chest and soft in ways that played games with his traitorous thoughts and made him glad for the bracing rain. Brandy escorted them like a devoted admirer, her wet nose brushing Sabelle’s feet whenever the dog could reach them. Ryan paused before opening the door, half convinced he was making a big mistake. This was the kind of thing you saw on the news where some dumb putz just trying to help ended up accused of wrongdoing.
He jockeyed her weight as he fumbled his keys from his pocket into the lock. Sabelle tightened her arms around him, pressing all those feminine curves closer as Ryan tried valiantly not to notice.
Darkness clustered just inside and obscured the stairs all the way up. The rain boomed against the roof and the cold made plumes of their breath. His skin felt icy.
Except where he held Sabelle. She was like a furnace heating his bare chest.
The door slammed shut behind them as Ryan hit the lights and set Sabelle on her feet again. She continued to hold onto him, staring into his face as if to memorize his features. For all her crazy talk, her eyes looked clear and focused in the dim glow.
Then she twisted away and started up the stairs to his apartment without asking or waiting for an invitation. With a muttered curse, Ryan started to follow but fingers of disquiet played down his spine, making him pause.
The area under the stairs to his apartment served as storage for cases of beer and other supplies. A door straight ahead made a convenient back entrance to the bar, just as the door behind him was a quick shortcut to the parking lot. Usually the stairwell smelled of cardboard, hops, and old french fries. Familiar, comfortable odors that lingered in most bars. Tonight a whiff of rotten eggs hung over it.
Sabelle was already at his front door, waiting. He’d figured out what smelled after he dealt with her. She tried the knob, found it unlocked, and let herself in before he made it up the stairs. Stunned by her audacity, he picked up his pace. Brandy raced ahead and was beside her as Sabelle padded past the kitchen breakfast bar, trailing fingers over the back of the couch as she took in her surroundings.
His apartment was a loft that stretched over Love’s. One room with a wall of windows, it had a spacious, open feel that suited him. Her gaze lingered on the screen sectioning off his bedroom before moving to the clock on the microwave. The digital readout read 2:30. He saw her note it with a deep breath and a nod.
“There’s still time.” She faced him with determination. “I’ve come with a warning. Your life is in danger.”
He might have smiled if she hadn’t looked so distressed. “Okay,” he said carefully.
She nodded, apparently satisfied with that response. “Good. I’d hoped you’d understand. We need to leave here.” She glanced at the clock again. “Quickly.”
“And go where?” he said, not understanding at all.
“Away from here. Here is where it happens.”
Ryan studied her, suddenly weary to the bone. Ever since his brother’s bizarre death—Murder? Suicide? Ryan doubted he’d ever know the truth—Love’s had been a tourist attraction for lunatics. Fanatics who thought that Ryan’s twin brother and sister were blessed by the heavens or cursed by demons had always been on the fringe of their lives. Reece and Roxanne had died (and miraculously been revived) more than once. It went with the territory.
Some of the crazies were dangerous, others merely curious. He didn’t know which camp Sabelle fell into, but the sooner he got her out of here, the better.
“You don’t believe me,” Sabelle said with a hint of disappointment in her voice. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. It’s in your nature to be suspicious. You have trust issues.”
Maybe so. But that was his business. “What’s this danger I’m supposedly in?” he asked politely.
“Death,” she replied almost eagerly. “Yours, I mean.”
He let out a deep breath and shook his head. “Listen, Sabelle. I’d like to help you, get you someplace safe. How about back home?” Or the psych ward you escaped from?
“I can never go home,” she said vehemently.
He lifted his hands, palms out. “Fair enough. But you can’t stay here. I just pulled a twelve-hour shift. I’m tired. All I want is a hot shower and bed.”
Her eyes widened and she shot another quick glance at the screen that hid his bed. Something darkly erotic flashed across her features. For a moment, he couldn’t look away.
“I know you don’t believe me,” she said, her voice breathy and low, “but this isn’t a game or a joke. You can’t just take a shower and pretend it will go away. Do you think I would risk so much to warn you if there was nothing to fear?”
“I think you’re a confused woman who needs some help.”
“I’m not confused. An explosion will decimate this building sometime between now and three a.m. Your apartment will be incinerated. Boom. Gone.”
“Between now and three a.m.,” he repeated, deadpan.
“Stop it. Stop pretending disbelief you don’t feel.”
“Oh, I feel it.”
Narrowed eyes were the only clue that she’d heard him. She didn’t argue, she didn’t try to add details to support her claim. Most liars did.
“You’ll need the money you have stashed beneath the floorboards in your bedroom,” she said with a challenging glance. “Clothes, of course. And Brandy. We’ll need her.”
“I don’t know how much time we have, Ryan. I only know that by three, it will all be over. For both of us.”
She was all-in when it came to this fantasy quest, and her conviction planted a seed of doubt that startled him.
“You are more important than you know, Ryan.”
The laugh he’d tried for earlier finally emerged and his doubt waned. The poor woman was definitely delusional.
“I own a pub. Actually, I own about one-fiftieth of a pub. The bank owns the rest. I spend most of my days and nights behind a bar, serving drinks to people who have less of a life than I do. Unless it’s critical that the drunks get their next drink, I’m the opposite of important.”
With a superior sounding sniff, she moved behind the Japanese screen and into his bedroom. Dumbfounded, Ryan followed, watching her open his closet. She yanked his backpack off the top shelf and stuffed his favorite jeans, a T-shirt, and a flannel button-down into it.
As she turned, she caught her reflection in the dresser mirror and did a double take. For a moment, she stared at her pale face like she’d expected to see someone else looking back.
He tilted his head to the side, watching her watch herself. She saw the movement and quickly glanced away but her cheeks pinked up and she avoided looking at him. She began opening his drawers like she had every right.
And instead of throwing her out on her pretty little ass, he watched her, still trying to figure out what to do about her. Wrestle his phone away? Humor her back outside and lock the doors behind her?
The storm boomed so loud it shook the walls. He couldn’t throw her out in this.
In his top drawer, she found his briefs, added a pair to the pack, and pulled open the next drawer. She rummaged until she retrieved some basketball shorts and held them up to her hips. When she tugged them on, she gave him an eyeful of long legs and bare behind.
She turned and busted him staring. His gaze snared hers and something darkened in the uncertain blue. Neither one of them looked away.
“Do you have shoes I could borrow?” she asked, her voice husky.
He pointed to the other closet door. It took her a moment to turn around and slide the door open. She eyed his size 14 shoes dubiously before she spotted a pair of flip flops on the floor and slipped her feet into them.
“Get the money, Ryan.”
Crazy with sprinkles on top. That’s what this was.
“You planning on robbing me?” he managed to say.
She faced him. “Is that what you think? Are you afraid I’m going to tackle you and steal all your precious belongings?”
She was swimming in his big shirt. The shorts hung down to her knees and the flip-flops looked like snowshoes on her feet. She had the threat potential of a puppy.
Again, he wished he could muster a laugh. Instead, “No” emerged in a wooden tone.
“Get your stuff and wait it out on the sidewalk with me, then. If nothing happens by three, you can call your police and wash your hands of me.”
She handed him his phone like a gesture of good faith. He took it.
“Or I could do that now and save myself the trouble.”
“Yes. You could do that. But we’d both pay the price for your stupidity.”
“Did you just call me—”
“You are in danger,” she said, enunciating each syllable sharply. “You’re going to die if you don’t trust me. How much clearer can I be? I know you’re the kind of man who has to see something to believe it. But why not see it from the outside with me?”
With that, she grabbed his backpack and dropped it at his feet.
He still hadn’t moved, but Sabelle didn’t wait. She crossed to the front door with a stiff back and an air of determination, ridiculous in her borrowed getup and yet somehow . . . convincing.
“How would you know what kind of man I am?” he asked softly.
The question made her pause. She shot a guarded glance over her shoulder, eyes wide and lips parted. Bravado and hunger stared back at him, a combination so mystifying that it shut his mouth.
So what if she was right? It wouldn’t be the strangest thing to have happened in the past month. Hell, in the last week. Even as common sense told him that it was more likely she had someone waiting downstairs to relieve him of the money she’d insisted he pack, he felt himself giving in.
She’d said beneath the floorboards. If she already knew where he kept the money, why not just break in and steal it while he’d been out for his run? Why the elaborate naked-and-afraid act?
“I see you thinking,” she said. “You’re deciding on all the reasons not to trust me. But that’s wasting time you don’t have. Look at the clock, Ryan.” She paused. “Please.”
It was the hitch in her voice that unplugged his common sense and pushed him to the edge.
He exhaled a heavy breath. “Let me get a shirt.”
The tremulous smile she couldn’t hide fast enough called him a fool, but the baby-blues sent another coded message he couldn’t be sure he’d read right. He ducked behind the screen that divided the rooms and pried up the floorboard by his bed with a long flathead screwdriver he kept in his nightstand drawer just for that purpose. He stuffed the whole hard-earned10K into his backpack, shrugged on a shirt, and snagged jackets for both of them on his way out. What could it hurt to sit in his truck and wait it out? If nothing else, maybe he’d get to the bottom of her story.
She waited impatiently by the door, watching the clock switch numbers. Brandy sat at her feet, ready to go. According to Sabelle, they had less than fifteen minutes to get out of there before the whole place was incinerated.
“Hurry,” she said and stepped onto the landing without a backward glance.
Shaking his head, Ryan clicked his tongue for Brandy to follow and locked the door behind him.
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