Watchers in the Night
Carolyn Mathers felt ridiculous carrying a gun on a date, but that didn't stop her from donning her shoulder holster and slipping in the Glock. Pathetic, she supposed. Certainly not romantic. But Paul was a cop--he'd understand in some kind of basic way. If she let him get close enough to find out she was carrying, that is.
Grimacing at the thought, she stepped out into the frosty night. The weatherman had said it was ten degrees out. But Carolyn's palms were sweating.
"It's just a date," she muttered under her breath, exasperated with herself. Her words formed a misty white cloud before the bitter wind dispersed it. Sticking her hands into her coat pockets, she braced herself against the cold and descended her front steps, hurrying toward the open parking lot a block and a half away.
She'd chosen ten o'clock on a Wednesday night for this date because when she'd tried to meet Paul at a civilized hour, her work had interfered and she'd had to stand him up. Now, however, she felt tired and unenergetic, and if it weren't for the scrap of pride she had left--the one that told her she was being a coward--she would have begged off again. It appeared that even after three years, she wasn't fully ready to date again.
As soon as her feet hit the sidewalk, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled in a way that was becoming infuriatingly familiar. She stopped and took a slow look around her, searching for the prying eyes her body insisted were upon her no matter what her rational mind told her. Row houses lined both sides of the street, but no faces peeked out from any of the lighted windows. An occasional car passed by--the streets of Philadelphia were ever truly deserted--but there wasn't a single pedestrian in sight.
Shaking her head at herself, she started toward the parking lot once more. One of the big street lights in the lot flickered, then went out, leaving her car buried in the intimidating pool of shadow where the light had once been. The creepy-crawly feeling of being watched heightened, and she hunched her shoulders against it.
This was why she'd brought the gun, this constant uneasiness she'd been feeling for several months now every time she went out at night. Most likely, she was just being paranoid. But she'd been a cop for eight years and a PI for three, and in both lines of work she'd naturally made some enemies. It wasn't a bad idea to be on her guard.
If some nut case were following you, he would have made his move by now, she told herself. No matter how nutty they were, they didn't stalk you for months at a time without making some kind of move, if only to let you know you were in danger.
Forcing herself to relax, she strode briskly toward her car. She glared briefly at the burned-out light. It buzzed to life for a second, then died again. She paid this place one-fifty a month to park her car--the least they could do was keep the lights on! There wasn't even anyone at the booth tonight, and with the cold weather keeping most sensible people in their houses, the lot felt deserted. And ominous.
She was just a few steps from her car when she heard the unmistakable sound of a footstep behind her. She whirled around so fast she almost made herself dizzy.
In the dismal pool of shadow, not ten feet away from her, stood a white male, maybe eighteen or twenty. The street lamp made another feeble attempt to come back to life, and Carolyn got a good look at him. Blond hair spiked with some kind of greasy gel, blue eyes with the color and warmth of a glacier, thin, heavily chapped lips twisted into a menacing sneer. Despite the cold, he wore only a denim jacket for warmth, but from his dilated pupils she gathered he'd found a chemical solution to the cold. His hand moved, and she saw the gleam of a wicked-looking switch blade.
"Well, hello there pretty lady," he said. His gravelly voice should have belonged to someone who'd smoked three packs a day for sixty years or so.
Damn it! When she'd first stepped out of her house, she'd taken a city-girl's care to check out her surroundings, scoping out the area before potentially stepping into danger. But she'd just walked blithely into the darkness of the parking lot with barely a second thought. Trying to prove to herself how tough she was, how unaffected by the constant uncomfortable feeling of being watched. She knew better.
The hoodlum licked his chapped lips. "Whatcha got under that nice coat?"
A Glock with your name on it, she thought. She consciously widened her eyes and made her lower lip tremble, trying to project helpless victim. All she had to do was get her hand under her jacket, and the hoodlum was in for a big surprise.
Her feigned fear must have been convincing, because the kid's eyes gleamed with malicious enjoyment, and his jeans bulged noticeably. Carolyn glanced around the parking lot, but there wasn't another soul in sight.
"Scream, and I swear I'll cut your tongue out," the kid warned, coming closer, brandishing his knife
"P-please don't hurt me," she stammered. Her eyes focused on the knife and her heart rate shot through the roof as adrenaline pumped through her system. The kid was probably hopped up on something, not to mention armed, so her chances of taking him at hand-to-hand combat weren't good. She had to get to her gun before he made his move.
His smile was sly and cold and ugly as sin. "Oh, I won't hurt you none, lady. Long as you behave yourself. Now why don't you slip out of that nice coat for me?"
She sniffled loudly, not having to feign the sound because the cold was making her nose run. She fumbled with the first button on her coat, making it look like her hands were shaking. Sometimes it helped that she was so petite and looked like such a girly-girl. It had pissed her off when her fellow officers underestimated her, but it wasn't a bad thing at all when the suspects did.
Her world shrank until there was nothing in it but herself, her attacker, and this little pool of shadow in which she stood. She continued slowly unbuttoning her coat, mentally rehearsing the hurried reach into her blazer, the quick draw. The hoodlum would be caught entirely by surprise, and she tried to imagine what he'd do. A sensible guy would probably run for his life, but Carolyn doubted this punk would be sensible considering how high he was.
The kid's breath was coming shorter and shorter as he grew more excited. Oh, he was just loving this show of fear, loving the power he thought he wielded! Carolyn looked forward to turning the tables on him.
The last button slid free, and she shrugged her shoulders out of the coat. She meant to let it fall to the ground behind her, but as it slid down her arms she once again felt that prickle on the back of her neck. Her hands were free of the coat, but it didn't hit the ground. Her attacker's jaw dropped open, and Carolyn caught a glimpse of misty white breath brushing past her cheek.
Reflexes took over, and despite the threat of the knife, Carolyn whirled and backpedaled at the evidence of a threat from behind. Her hand plunged under her blazer, seizing the butt of the Glock. And then froze.
Standing there, maybe a foot away from where she had been, was a ghost from her past. How he could possibly have come that close to her without her noticing--or without the knife-wielding punk noticing--was beyond her.
The man had her coat in his hands, and he casually laid it over the hood of a car while the punk quickly determined that he was a much greater threat than Carolyn.
"Stay away from me, man," the punk snarled, poking the air with his knife for emphasis. But he'd lost a lot of his cockiness.
Carolyn blinked rapidly, but the ghost didn't disappear. He looked markedly different from how he'd looked three years ago, when she'd seen him last, but there could be no doubt that it was him. Gray James. The only man she'd ever loved. The man who'd stranded her at the altar and disappeared from her life.
He wasn't dead. For three years, she'd told herself and anyone else who would listen that something terrible must have happened to him. For three years, she'd dreaded getting the news that his body had finally been found. Now, here he was standing in front of her, very much alive, and she could hardly believe her eyes.
Gray had lost a lot of weight, she noticed. He'd never been fat, really, but he'd always been just a touch on the heavy side, no matter how carefully he'd watched his diet. His hair, once always cropped close and neat to his head, formed a shaggy black mane around his pale face, which was devoid of the glasses and mustache he'd once worn. He even dressed differently. Instead of his dress-for-success outfits, he was now wearing a black leather jacket over faded jeans and well-loved sneakers.
Damn, he looked good.
Then he smiled, and a chill traveled down Carolyn's spine.
"I'd advise you to leave the lady alone," Gray said, and if Carolyn had thought the hoodlum's eyes looked cold, Gray's were arctic. His smile was more like the baring of his teeth, and the air fairly vibrated with menace.
Menace? From Gray? The man was so even-tempered he rarely raised his voice, and so gentle he wouldn't even kill a spider in his apartment but would trap it in a glass and take it outside instead.
But that sense of menace wasn't just Carolyn's imagination-- the hoodlum's face had noticeably paled. She tried to shake off her shock and draw her Glock out of its holster. Gray's eyes flicked briefly in her direction and once again she froze, unable to complete the movement. It was like one of those dreams where you were being chased by a monster but you couldn't get yourself to move. She knew it was just the shock of seeing Gray, but that knowledge did nothing to loosen her limbs.
"Don't mess with me!" the hoodlum warned, but his voice held too much fear to be even vaguely threatening.
Gray smiled that terrifying smile again, the one that would have chilled Carolyn to the marrow if it had been directed at her. The hoodlum's knife hand shook.
"I'll do more than mess with you, little boy," Gray said in a low growl, taking a step forward.
The hoodlum broke and ran. Gray took off in pursuit, and Carolyn once more urged herself to draw the Glock. She had to stop this kid, before he terrorized some other woman. Her hand moved sluggishly, the gun catching in the folds of her jacket, and by the time it was out the kid had turned the corner.
Gray pulled up short, then slowly turned to face her once more. He wasn't smiling anymore, but that mysterious aura of danger still clung to him as he came closer. His once plump and rounded face, made even softer and more harmless-looking by his round glasses, was now sharp and angular. Sculpted, even. And yet no matter how different he looked--and no matter that she'd been sure he was dead--she couldn't deny that it was really Gray.
Averting his eyes, he walked past her and picked up her coat from the hood of the car where he'd laid it. She shivered and hugged herself, suddenly conscious of the cold once again.
"Here," Gray said, handing the coat to her.
She shoved her arms into it and clutched it close around her as the chill deepened.
"Come on," Gray said. "I'll walk you back to your house."
She wanted to say something to him, anything, but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and her throat closed up on her. Instead she followed mutely as he walked to her front door, not looking at her. His face was almost completely devoid of expression, although occasionally she caught the gleam of some unknown emotion in his eyes.
Her hands shook for real as she unlocked her front door, and she wondered if she were about to wake up from this dream. But no, it was too coldly real to be a dream. Gray brushed past her without waiting for an invitation, making his way into the living room as if he had every right to make himself at home. She paused in the hall to hang her coat, then followed, thoughts and emotions fighting and scrambling over each other within her.
Relief that he was alive quickly faded. If he wasn't dead, that meant he'd left her of his own free will. The conviction that he'd met with foul play had protected her heart, but now that protection was gone. Pain threatened to overwhelm her if she let down her guard enough to let it in.
He'd squatted in front of the dark walnut cabinet that held her liquor stash. He poured a healthy dose of Scotch into a tumbler, then rose and held it out to her. Nothing for himself, she noticed.
She took the glass from his hand and downed the Scotch in a single burning swallow, grimacing and wrinkling her nose. As a cop, it had practically been a job requirement that she drink, but she'd never particularly liked the taste of hard liquor. Still, she appreciated the warmth right about now.
She cleared her still-burning throat. "So, long time no see," she said, attempting to sound casual and failing spectacularly. She tried to meet his eyes, but he looked away as he unzipped his jacket and threw it over a chair. Underneath, he was wearing a short-sleeved sky-blue T-shirt that clung appealingly to his chest. In the past, he'd always worn his clothes on the loose side to camouflage his extra weight. Carolyn couldn't help noticing that he most definitely did not need to camouflage anything anymore.
Damn it, why was she noticing stupid things like that? Who cared how good he looked, when she'd just found out she'd been mourning three years for a man who was alive and well and hadn't even bothered to say goodbye when he left her?
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine." Except for the fury that was rising within her, that is. "I thought you were dead."
The corner of his mouth twitched, but he didn't quite smile. "You mean you wished I was dead."
He was amused by her anger? By her pain? "You bastard!" she spat, and it was all she could do not to cross the distance between them and land a solid right to his chin. She smacked her glass down on the coffee table. Otherwise, she might have thrown it at him.
He sighed heavily and shook his head. "I should go." He managed to take two steps toward the door before she seized his arm in a grip meant to hurt. Up close, she could smell the faint hint of his cologne, and it made her heart clench in her chest. Cool Water. She'd given him a bottle on their first Christmas together, and thereafter he'd always worn it to please her. The scent evoked memories of chilly winter mornings spent cuddled in his arms. She summoned her anger once more before the pain could overwhelm her.
"Oh no you don't! You don't get to just waltz back into my life for ten minutes, play the hero, and then waltz back out again." Her heart was pounding harder now than it had been in the parking lot. "I want to know where you've been for three years."
He pried her fingers loose from his arm. He'd put on his expressionless mask once more, and even his voice when he spoke gave away nothing about how he felt. "I should have just let you handle that hoodlum on your own. I'm sure you could have taken him. I'm . . . sorry. Now please, I have to go."
She grabbed him again. "You're not going anywhere. Not until you've answered a whole lot of questions." Fury still coursed through her veins, but pain was slowly and steadily working its way in as well. "Two days," she started, but the pain caught up with her and squeezed her throat. Her eyes burned, but no way in hell was she going to let herself cry in front of him. "Two days before our wedding, you disappear with nothing but a three-line Dear Jane letter. Three years I've been trying to figure out what happened to you."
In the beginning, she'd tried to let the police handle it, like a responsible citizen. But because of that damning Dear Jane letter, no one except her had really thought there was any foul play involved. The fact that he'd last been seen leaving his bachelor party with a stripper on his arm hadn't helped her arguments any. She'd launched her own investigation, and it had turned into an obsession. When her superiors had given her an ultimatum--quit the investigation or quit the force--she'd walked away, full of regrets, but unable to let go.
She cleared her throat, hoping her voice didn't come out froggy. "Now you just show up here to 'save' me when you know damn well I can take care of myself, and you're just going to walk away? I deserve an explanation, don't you think?"
The expression on his face softened just slightly. "You do," he said quietly. "But I can't give it to you. I'm sorry."
The weasely answer inspired another surge of anger. Anger was good, much more manageable and energizing than pain. Carolyn seized that anger and held onto it for dear life. "Sorry? You put me through three years of hell and all you can say is you're sorry? Well that just ain't gonna cut it, mister."
Something sparked in his eyes, but his voice remained calm and level. "I know you're angry with me, and I understand why, but I have nothing to give you, Carolyn. I never wanted to hurt you, but life doesn't always give us what we want." A hint of bitterness tinged his voice, intensifying her anger. What did he have to be bitter about? He was the one who did the leaving!
"If you didn't want to marry me, you could have just said so." Damn, did she detect a trace of a sob in those words? Anger, Carolyn. Hold onto the anger. "Instead, you had to disappear mysteriously without a word to anyone. You had to make me worry myself sick over you, convince myself you were dead. And now you just casually stroll into my house and say 'Sorry, Carolyn, I'm not going to explain anything to you?'" She'd latched on to the anger with gusto, and her voice had risen to a shrill level. Perhaps shouting at him wasn't the most effective way to pry information out of him--it had never worked before--but it was better than bursting into hysterical tears.
"You're right," Gray said. "You deserved better then, and you deserve better now, but it doesn't matter. I have my reasons for what I've done, and they aren't reasons I can share with you." Again that hint of bitterness in his eyes. "Gray James died three years ago. It's time you let him go." He turned his back and started heading toward the door.
"You are not walking out on me again!" Carolyn shouted, but he didn't slow down. She drew the Glock and pointed it right between his shoulder blades. "Hold it right there!" Okay, a rational voice whispered in her head, now you're taking a step off the deep end.
Gray glanced over his shoulder briefly but seemed completely unintimidated by the firepower ranged against him. He put his hand on the doorknob.
The bastard really was going to walk out without a word of explanation! Carolyn couldn't believe it, wasn't about to let him get away with it. She swung her aim down and to the right and squeezed off a shot.
The report was deafening in the enclosed space, and Gray's shoulders hunched protectively at the sound. The bullet dug into the wall beside the door, and a shower of plaster dust sprinkled the carpet. The scent of cordite burned her nostrils, and Carolyn wondered how many of her neighbors were even now dialing 911.
Once again, Gray paused to look over his shoulder. She met his gaze and found she couldn't look away. There might have been a hint of reproach in his eyes, but there certainly was no hint of fear. He shook his head briefly, then opened the door. A gust of chill air filled the room. Carolyn willed herself to move, to fire off another shot, to do something to make him stay, make him explain himself. But everything was taking on a dream-like quality, and she couldn't seem to make herself move.
The door pulled shut behind Gray and finally Carolyn was able to shake off the strange paralysis. Shoving the Glock back in its holster, she sprinted for the door and threw it open, careening down the short flight of stairs and looking frantically right and left.
But Gray James had disappeared. Again.
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