If Sarah Daugherty were smart, she’d live somewhere it never got cold. If she were smart, she’d have never let her mother get the best of her. If she were smart, she’d have never married Steven.
Yeah, if she were smart.
She stared at her reflection in the mirrored elevator doors. Somewhere beneath the white down-filled coat and pink scarf, a pathetic, twenty-four-year-old divorcee waited for doors to open and blast her with air that belonged in a freezer. They didn’t disappoint.
Her friend, Lori, laughed. “What a wimp. We’re not even outside and you act like it’s below zero.”
“It’s below zero in Celsius.” Ever since the events that unfolded prior to her divorce, Sarah had been cold. No matter what she did, she couldn’t get warm enough. Winter wasn’t helping any, either.
“Yeah, but last I saw, Dayton still measured temps in Fahrenheit.” Lori stepped out and looked up. “Gee, what happened to the lights? It looks like a freakin’ tomb in here. You’re the workaholic. Do they normally go off after seven?”
“They never did before.” Sarah examined the ceiling while the elevator still provided some light. Bulbs nearby were broken, meaning the ones leading to her car were probably the same way. The doors shut behind her. If it weren’t for the oil and gasoline odors, she could be in a dungeon.
Lori unlocked her car. “Told my sister I would babysit tonight and I’m already late. Do you want to come?”
Babysit? Lori’s niece was only six months old. Sarah’s heart hadn’t mended enough for that kind of torture. “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”
Lori frowned as she opened the driver’s door. “Shit. Wasn’t thinking. Sorry.”
Sarah smiled her no-worries smile. She’d gotten pretty good at it the past few months. “It’s okay. Now get out of here.”
After a brief hug, Lori slid behind the wheel. “I’ll see you tomorrow, kiddo.”
Sarah headed for her little Civic, looking for her landmark. If the owner of the bright yellow Nissan Xterra ever quit his or her job, or decided to drive it to lunch, she’d be heartbroken. Ever since she started using this garage, she’d parked beside The Bumblebee—the name she’d come to call it—where it remained by quitting time. Seeing the tall vehicle brought a smile to her face. What did it mean when a yellow SUV was a bright spot in her life? Maybe that she needed a better life.
The roar of an engine echoed. Lights from behind cast long shadows ahead. Sarah waved as her friend drove by. Darkness surrounded her Civic and the SUV, and as she walked between them she stepped in something crunchy. Bits of white glass dotted the floor, glinting faintly from what little light remained. Another broken bulb.
She jerked upright. Was someone else here? She walked to the rear of the vehicles, making more crunchy sounds of her own. No one approached from the elevators or stairs, not that she could see much. Her heart crept up her throat and she swallowed.
The only sounds came from the pounding in her chest.
“You’re hearing things, you idiot,” she mumbled. Still, pinpricks of fear raced over her skin and she itched to go home. On legs that were no longer steady, she turned back to her car. She opened her purse with shaky hands.
She hadn’t imagined that. Something scratchy and wet with a sweet smell cupped her nose and mouth.
What the— Holding her breath, she grabbed at the mask. Her purse fell and landed with a thud. The assailant wrapped his free arm around her waist and yanked her against his hard body.
“Time to sleep,” he whispered, his breath warm against her ear.
Nooo! She hadn’t escaped Steven’s abuse only to have some stranger take his place. She clawed at his hand, but her gloves prevented her from scratching him. Taking hold of his fingers, she pulled. Bones cracked, but he held on. She yanked harder. His shriek pierced her ear, and he pulled away, scratching her face with the stiff material. Mouth free, she took a clean breath and screamed. Someone had to hear. The place echoed like a canyon. He clamped his hand across her mouth, cutting off her cry for help. Damn it. What would it take to stop him? She kicked him in the legs.
“God damn it,” he muttered.
The attacker lost his balance and loosened his hold. Freedom seemed in reach. She leaned forward, using whatever leverage she could. He righted himself and pulled her back with arms that doubled for a vise. No amount of twisting and turning got her free. She reached behind, hoping to gouge his eyes, but he bent her head back against his shoulder. The mask scraped her face and her neck screamed in pain.
“Keep it up and I’ll snap your neck,” he growled.
Her heart raced. He might not kill her now, but there was no way this would end well. Wasn’t there anyone around to help? Tears welled in her eyes and her chest burned for oxygen. With no choice left, she breathed in the sweet scent. Her world went dark.
* * * *
John Pennington emerged from the stairwell into the parking garage with a playful bounce. Sporadic lighting made him glance up. A few steps later, he stepped in something crunchy. Broken glass glittered in the remaining light. He shook his head. Who would do such a thing? He made a mental note to report the incident. Good thing he didn’t need the light.
He headed for his SUV. A lady’s loafer lay on its side in the aisle. Was some poor woman limping around with one shoe, or had it been used to break the bulbs? He picked it up. A familiar scent hit him, one that always lingered around his vehicle. Strawberries.
A man softly grunted as if straining. Always willing to lend a helping hand, John walked toward the sound and came to a sedan backed in against the wall. The trunk was open and the grunter, a man in his late twenties, struggled with loading his cargo. Cargo he had no right to load. A woman’s shoeless foot stuck out to the side.
John stopped cold. “Hey! What the hell are you doing?”
The culprit jumped, dropping the woman. Her head hit the trunk floor with a thud. John winced. That had to hurt. While he stood there gaping at the woman, the man dashed off.
“Oh no you don’t.” John transmitted instructions to the man telepathically, “Come back here.”
Like a robot, the man stopped and shuffled back to John, jerking with each step. John grimaced. One of these days he’d get better at manipulating mortals. When others took control, the human looked…well…human. For John, they looked like zombies, right down to the glazed-over eyes.
“What’s your name?”
“Ray Brian Fowler.”
“Ray, go over to the wall and sit down.”
The would-be kidnapper followed the instructions.
John crouched before the low-life. “Tell me your plans for this woman.”
“I’m going to take her home and play with her like I did all the others.”
The others? Ray sounded like a boy talking about his favorite toy.
John grabbed Ray’s hand, getting the skin contact needed to link. “Show me the others.”
The grisly scene emerged in his mind. John gasped. Four dead and disfigured women, cut beyond recognition. Their features were not clear, but they all possessed long brown hair, and were all similar in size. Just like the woman in the trunk.
A smile spread across Ray’s face as the memories played out in John’s head. Cutting them had given Ray the thrill he’d needed to rape them. Death had been an unfortunate by-product. All four were buried side-by-side at an old farmhouse up north.
“Oh God!” John dropped Ray’s arm, stopping the horrifying vision. How could one person be so evil?
“Go to sleep, Ray.”
Ray’s eyes closed and his head fell forward.
That would keep him out for a good hour or so. John broke the link, stood and moved toward the woman. “You might not think this now, but today’s your lucky day.”
She didn’t respond. She was out cold.
A mask, the type popular during flu season, covered her face. He tossed the shoe in the trunk and leaned forward to unhook the elastic from around her ears. The car reeked of chloroform, explaining why the young woman was out to the world.
John lifted the mask and stared. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen anyone so lovely. Her long lashes were real, not those fake add-ons, and her full lips… Well, he didn’t need to be thinking about those. Best to see if she was seriously injured first.
Three small scratches marred her cheek. He sniffed for any major blood loss. The scent of strawberries hit him again. Lovely. Just like the shoe. Just like around his… Wait a minute. A purse lay beside her and he searched through it, finding her keys. He aimed the fob toward his SUV and hit the unlock button. The vehicle beside his honked and lit up. “Well I’ll be damned.”
He picked up the shoe. “Okay, Miss Strawberry. Let’s get you back to your car.” He slid it on her foot, chuckling at the penguin-decorated sock. “Cute.”
He grabbed her purse and jogged over to her car. Opening the driver’s door gave him another whiff of her perfume. Damn, he could really get used to that. Reminded him of the garden his mother had planted every year.
After tossing her bag inside, he zipped back to Ray’s car and lifted her with ease. Her fragrance more noticeable now that he held her, he stared at her lovely face. What was he doing? Damn. Blinking didn’t clear his head, so he held his breath. That did the trick. He situated her behind the steering wheel then licked his thumb and applied his saliva over the scratches. As the wound healed, a small heating sensation formed on his thumb and then a rush of warmth filled his palm. He snapped his hand away. What the—
He knelt beside her and slowly ran the back of his hand across her soft cheek, now unmarred. This time the warmth traveled up his arm. Oh sweet Jesus, what was she?
Wonder filled his heart. He removed her glove and took her delicate hand into his own. Luxurious warmth spread. He closed his eyes and sighed as it traveled through his system. He hadn’t felt anything this good in years. No, make that decades.
Soft, whispery breaths and the intense strawberry scent caused him to open his eyes. Lips begging to be kissed were mere inches away. When had he leaned forward? His heart raced. The last time he had kissed anyone had been the night of his turning. He hadn’t missed it until now.
She moved her head and mumbled. Panic gripped his chest. He jerked backward and stood, establishing a distance and clearing his head. Damn. He’d almost kissed her. What was he thinking? She was helpless. How could he take advantage?
He leaned against his Xterra and slid to the ground, landing in broken glass. Great. He leaned sideways and brushed the debris away.
Now what? In order to ensure Ray reported himself to the police, John would have to leave her alone. But she was vulnerable. John hugged his knees to his chest. He could send Ray on his way alone, and the thought tempted him, but anything could happen between the garage and the police station. He needed more assurance than that. Maybe if he locked her inside her car? No one had entered the garage since his arrival. He stood and went over to the door.
Would she get cold? Her down-filled coat appeared warm enough and she wore a scarf. Plus, she was out of the elements. It couldn’t be that cold in the garage, but then, what did he know? He had to trust she would wake up before she froze.
He needed to send her a command in case she left before he returned, but her unconsciousness made transmitting the command more difficult, if not impossible. Cupping her head would be the best way to insure a connection. It would also cause him to lose control. But man, to feel that heat once more… Shit.
Maybe he couldn’t avoid the heat, but he could avoid her scent. Holding his breath, he placed his hands on her. Warmth cascaded up his arms and spread throughout his body. The intensity caught him off guard, and he blinked several times before coming to his senses. “When you wake up, you will feel refreshed. You will remember getting in your car and that you were sleepy. Go straight home and stay in for the night.”
He released her and stepped back, his breathing ragged, her heat dissipating. It was the best he could do without confusing her any more. “I’ll be back to check on you, I promise.”
He activated the locks and shut the door, cutting off her scent. The loss was immediate. He sighed and trudged back to Ray, kicking him awake.
“Ray, get in the back seat of your car.”
The miscreant followed orders while John shut the trunk and got behind the wheel. He drove to the police station and parked on a side street.
Ray didn’t deserve to live. He deserved to be treated as he had treated those women. However, killing him, or even maiming him, would only implicate someone else and John wanted Ray to pay for his crimes.
“Go to the police station and tell all officers you encounter every crime you’ve ever committed. Tell them your conscience finally got the best of you. However, you will not remember me or the lady you abducted tonight. Now, go.”
Ray climbed out and stalked, in that jerky, zombie way, toward the station. Once he reached the entrance, John broke the link. Ray looked up at the building and shook his head as if he had just awakened. After a few moments, he walked through the doors.
Okay, one down, one to go.
John walked back to the garage, aiming to look normal, but the closer he got, the faster his pace. He barged through the stairwell door, practically flew down the stairs, and zipped to his car.
Miss Strawberry was gone.
Disappointment squeezed his chest. Sure, he was glad she’d been well enough to drive off, but he should have gotten her name. He snorted at his idea. Right. Like it would have made a difference. He’d probably never see her again. But as he climbed inside his SUV, all he could think about was her and that lovely scent.