The door slammed behind him as lightning flashed across the summer sky. A boom echoed as thunder struck the ground. Moist summer air filled his lungs and electricity raised the hair on the back of his neck. He savored the scent and held it in like smoke from a cigarette. With a grunt, he exhaled, wishing he had something more powerful than tobacco to inhale.
The unpredictability of monsoon season shot bolts of excitement through him. It gave him energy. Made him want to go on the hunt for someone weak.
A slow grin tugged at his mouth. It had been a long time — nearly a year — since he could do as he pleased. How he hated being restricted like a child, and jail felt like one big time-out. Idiot guards thought they could control him. But he made sure to wish them dead whenever he was forced to comply.
After all, it had worked on his Momma.
If only she’d used time-out with him instead of her wicked ways.
He clenched his fists and blocked the memory, resisting the urge to smash his knuckles on the brick wall. Sporadic drops of rain pelted his head, cooling him off.
His cottony mouth made him long for a strong drink. Something with kick, like whiskey.
Resisting the urge to open his mouth and let the raindrops quench his thirst, he pressed his lips together.
Childhood had abandoned him long ago.
He imagined going to Jeepers Creepers pub and finding an easy woman to keep him company tonight. But this time he’d watch himself and make sure she didn’t have a jealous husband waiting in the wings. Yeah, tonight he’d pick a gal that he could crash with until he got his life together.
There was only one woman he really wanted. She just didn’t know it yet. Their reunion would be sweet, or she’d regret it. He’d make sure of that.
Soon the tangy taste of adrenaline would flood his veins. He missed the tingling sensation, the warmth coursing through him when a woman begged him for mercy. There had been many cries echoing in his head over the past few years. But none of them satisfied his craving. He imagined his first night with her. Yeah, he’d make their time together memorable.
He leaned against the rough brick wall of the decrepit jail building. Grumbling, he popped his knuckles as he waited for his ride. What was taking him so long to get there?
He better not back out just because he found himself a woman with a kid.
First, he had to collect what his narc friend owed him. And if he felt generous, he might let him go without pounding his face in. Depending on how useful he’d be.
Just a running vehicle and some cash. That’s all he needed to get back on his feet. And a decent job. Something low-key to avoid having his background checked. But it had to be legit. Work that would make his probation officer content. Then, when he got himself set up in a place, he’d find that brunette who taunted him in his dreams.
This time he’d get the right house.
Laney Cooper released a shuddering sigh.
She set the table for two one last time and ordered their favorite meal — spinach pizza and antipasto salad -- to celebrate Sam’s life.
Tonight marked the anniversary of her fiancé’s death. She wanted the farewell dinner to propel her into a new year of hope, to help her move on. Blinking back tears, she lit tapered candles and dimmed the lights.
Her shoulders slumped. They had planned the perfect wedding. Images of her dress, the lace veil, and the three-tiered cake flashed through her mind. The perfect honeymoon, a two-week trip to Cancun.
Finding something to look forward to without him was proving more difficult than she’d
imagined. But she’d try. He would have wanted her to.
She approached the window and moved the blinds so she could check the road. Total darkness covered the Huachuca Mountain range in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The inky blackness smothered the sky as the last bit of sunlight faded on the horizon.
No headlights snaked up the mountain. Her shoulders sagged further as she backed away from the window. Dinner should have arrived half an hour ago. She ordered the same thing every week, but tonight she’d added cannoli — Sam’s favorite dessert — to her order. She wanted to end the commemorative meal with something sweet.
Flipping open her cell phone, she quickly bypassed a digital photo of Sam with his arm draped over her shoulder. The evidence of joy on their faces seared her heart if she lingered on the image too long. She’d delete the picture soon. Maybe after she ate.
It’d be hard, but she’d do it.
After dialing to check on her order, she squeezed her eyes shut. The phone rang numerous times before someone finally answered.
"Little Italy. May I take your order?"
She pushed the words past the lump in her throat. They didn’t know how much their lateness hurt. "I don’t need you to take my order. I need you to deliver it."
"Ma’am, I need your name."
She released an exasperated sigh as she ran her fingers through her bangs. "It’s Cooper. My food should have been here by now. You guys know me. I order the same thing every—"
"Please hold." The bored-sounding voice cut her off. She wondered if the man had even heard her complaint. As she waited, a local radio announcer introduced a country western song. Friday nights were always busy at Little Italy, but never so bad that they’d had to put her on hold and force her to listen to music about love gone sour.
A sob crawled up her throat.
"Oh, Sam. Why did you have to leave me? What am I going to do without you?"
Silence echoed in the dimly lit room.
As usual, nothing. Even God had clamped His lips shut.
Sudden longing to visit Sam’s grave one last time tugged at her need to remain cocooned in the safety of her home. When had she last visited the site? Three months ago? Six?
Yet the idea of driving anywhere sent shivers of fear skittering up her spine. The thought of getting behind the wheel of a death trap made her stomach lurch. Driving was simply too dangerous.
Even riding in a cab made her nervous these days.
Baby, her longhaired black Chihuahua, yipped.
Someone must be coming. Thankfully Baby paid attention and alerted her when anyone
approached her house. She didn’t like surprises.
The sound of crunching gravel captured her attention and her stomach knotted. At first she thought she heard people arguing, but when she listened closer she recognized the blood-chilling sound of coyotes attacking some poor creature again. Probably someone’s unfortunate pet. She rubbed her silk sleeves and tiptoed to the door, thankful Baby wasn’t the cornered animal.
Silence permeated the air for several long moments. Even the coyotes had ceased their frenzied howling. Her stomach suddenly growled, making her squeal and jump. She gasped and laughed at her overreaction. No way could such a hyper vigilant nervous system be healthy.
She paused and inhaled several deep breaths. Though eager for her dinner to arrive, caution still made her pause and peer through the blinds. If only she had a sense of security like her pet. Instead, she felt cornered like the hapless animal outside her door.
The past few nights she’d had strange dreams about being pursued by something sinister — like a band of coyotes — but she couldn’t recall the details after she woke up. Worse, she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had been watching her the past few days.
She shuddered and glanced over her shoulder, and then peeked through the blinds a second time.
Maybe she was just being paranoid. Wouldn’t be the first time she overreacted only to discover her imagination had been running wild again.
Most of the time her anxiety came from a credible source. Like the morning she found a snake dozing on her front patio. Thankfully she’d had the good sense to shut the door before it had a chance to react to being startled. Animal control sure came in handy in those situations. She had their number on speed dial… just in case.
It was bad enough she’d found scorpions in her home when she first moved in. The pest control man had searched for them with a black light to make sure he caught them all. She shuddered at the memory and recalled the hairy tarantula in the sink last month. There were enough creepy critters in the desert to make even the bravest woman swoon.
She shuddered again. Fortunately, her exterminator came every other month and killed the pests before they could sting her or her sweet dog. Without Baby as her companion, she would become even more of a recluse — if that were possible.
Hating her weakness, her fear of leaving the house, Laney rubbed her forehead and groaned. Maybe if she had a friend to talk to — someone other than her pet — she could get her life back to normal. But fear followed her everywhere these days, cutting her off from normal relationships. From love and friendship. It even smothered her faith.
You’re not alone…
She sucked in her breath. Had God finally spoken to her heart after all this time?
The doorbell chimed. Her heart jolted even though she’d anticipated the sound. She swallowed hard, fighting to calm her breathing. It seemed ridiculous that she’d expected the delivery, and yet the abrupt noise still made her pulse race.
Baby whined and wriggled in her arms, trying to break free. She stroked her dog’s fur, heedless of her pet’s pungent need for a bath. She sighed and kissed Baby’s head. It must be a new delivery boy, for her pet couldn’t be soothed this time.
"Shhh… It’s okay, sweetie."
But Baby wouldn’t relax and struggled even more.
Laney shouted, "Just a minute!" After jogging to the other side of the house, she placed her dog in her traveling cage so Baby wouldn’t scare the delivery guy. Though small, Baby sounded downright vicious when she growled, especially when an unfamiliar visitor entered her territory.
With a forced smile, Laney wiped her eyes and returned to the foyer. She peered through the peephole to make sure the person was safe before opening the door to them.
A little over a year ago a woman had been attacked in her home, which looked a lot like Laney’s house. The woman had lived less than a mile away. They never caught the man, and the frightened woman soon moved away.
Occasionally border patrol would stop by and check on her because she lived on the foothills. Year round, illegals would hike over the mountain to avoid detection. She appreciated the border patrol looking out for her, but at the same time they had her scared to death, filling her mind with visions of being attacked or robbed. She would rather not know about those situations in her area.
Yep. A person could never be too cautious. She scanned the man’s clothing and recognized his uniform —especially the Little Italy t-shirt. She opened the door and motioned with a wave to usher the deliveryman inside.
The olive-skinned Adonis stared at her, unmoving on her front patio. His gorgeous, light brown eyes fixated on hers. He had a distinct Mediterranean look, mixed with Russian or Greek descent. She stared back, mesmerized for a moment by the slow grin forming on his face. He stood several inches taller, forcing her to look up.
At least the delivery guys were getting better looking. So much so, she found herself gaping when he removed his baseball cap to reveal a thick head of hair and nodded.
The man’s smile grew wider. No doubt her staring flattered him. She couldn’t help admiring the gleam of his straight, white teeth, and the tiny dimple in his left cheek.
Flustered that he’d noticed her gawking, Laney combed her bangs with her fingers. Her cheeks heated as she glanced away and tried to collect her thoughts.
The man shifted his feet and tucked his ball cap under his arm. His grin faded and his brow furrowed. Maybe he’d never made a delivery before and didn’t know what to say.
He grew serious as he scanned her face, settling on her mouth for a fraction of a second, before returning to her eyes.
"Where’s Tom?" Her voice trembled, betraying her still-fragile emotions, her fear.
"Sick. He has bad cold." The corner of his mouth curved upward, and he held out the boxes containing her order. "Your food?"
"Please, come in?" she asked again and licked her lips, a nervous habit that used to drive her sister crazy. What she wouldn’t do to have her sister back, even if it meant getting nagged about her quirks all the time.
The man nodded and averted his eyes as he stepped inside, then captured her gaze again. A deep, tender expression teased his suntanned face.
Warmth melted her insides. It should be illegal to heat a woman’s heart with an intimate glance within minutes of meeting her.
Though the same intense look in the past — before Sam — would’ve made her desire an
invitation to dinner, this man’s attention made her melt on the spot. If only dating didn’t require leaving the safety of her house.
After hesitating a moment, she turned and muttered, "Just set the box over there, and I’ll be right back with a check."
The man nodded as he strolled to the table and set down the boxes. For a moment she watched him, fascinated by his graceful movement. So smooth, and yet so thoroughly masculine. She swallowed hard.
Admiring the chocolate color of his wavy brown hair for a moment, she quickly averted her attention. The fresh scent of his woodsy pine after shave wafted in the air, reminding her of Sam. She sped from the room before tears formed.
Looking at any man with appreciation seemed like betrayal of the worst kind. Especially today, since she’d intended to devote every minute to Sam’s memory. The attraction she felt toward the deliveryman was wrong.
She couldn’t be so lonely that she’d long to spend time with a complete stranger, no matter how nice looking he happened to be.