Authors: Jaime McDougall
Copyright 2011 Jaime McDougall
Cover art designed by Stephanie Mooney --
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Being able to dedicate this book to my husband is nearly as satisfying as having completed writing it. Never has he wavered in his support of my passion for writing. He has always been an inspiration, an editor, a friend and provider of chocolate and hugs. My love to him always.
A hearty thank you to Susan Helene Gottfried, author and friend, who helped me take my initial first steps into indie publishing. Her straight forward answers with a generous helping of steel have always helped to give me confidence.
A tip the hat also to Randi Morse. With the eye of an avid romance reader, she waded through my first drafts and gave me amazing helpful critiques as well as enthusiastic support.
Finally, love and thank-yous to my best friend, my sister in all the ways that count, my chocoholic comrade in arms who has supported me through the worst and best moments of my life. I couldn’t have survived without you and neither could my writing. A big box of chocolates and a room to stay is always waiting for you Down Under, Patti.
Keep running, keep running, keep running.
Phoebe’s lungs burned as her mind screamed the mantra.
Keep running, keep running.
How many steps can there be?
She should know. She lived in this apartment building.
Tears ran down her cheeks and her lungs burned for air. Only the random irrational thought broke through the panic keeping her feet moving down the steps.
Keep running. Keep running.
The light of the emergency exit came into view. Almost there…
The door to the stairwell slammed open with a hollow boom. She tripped and clung to the railing to steady herself.
The shock of the cool night air sent a shiver of relief through her body. She’d come out a side exit into an alley. If she could just get to the front –
Suddenly she was thrown to the ground from behind. She hit the concrete, what little breath she had knocked from her lungs. Blood began flowing from where her head hit the ground, and small sparks of light floated into her vision.
How did he catch up so fast?
Desperately she tried to gulp down as much air as she could, willing her lungs to cooperate. Instinct kicked in as the attacker slashed at her, and she curled into fetal position.
He’d turned into a dog. A big dog with vicious claws and teeth he used to tear into her exposed back, thigh and shoulder. She slowly regained her breath but could only use it to scream her throat raw.
Her vision faded, taking the small sparks of light with it. Searing pain ripped through her shoulder as a claw dug down against her bone. One last, long scream tore from her lungs before she was left gasping and sobbing, her fear slowly smoldering into rage.
Things can’t end like this.
She opened her eyes as the dog stood over her, trying to get to her throat. A paw came into her line of vision and she saw her chance. She reached out, grabbed it and squeezed with all the strength she had.
The dog yelped and tried to twist away, but she held on with all the strength she had. She knew she’d only bought herself time. She couldn’t move the dog off her and she couldn’t squeeze his paw all night. He tried uselessly to bite her, his jaws having no strength so long as she squeezed his paw. But she could already feel her strength waning.
Suddenly the weight of the dog flew off her, taking the paw out of her grip. Without thinking, she used her one cooperating arm to drag herself toward the front of the building.
She shivered, her arm giving out, and caught a glimpse of a second dog.
No. A wolf…
Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she listened to the dogs fighting, the battle just a few steps away. She tried her best to curl up against the building wall and willed the growling and snapping to go away. They sounded like they were tearing each other to pieces.
The universe granted her wish, the battle ending with the sound of two bodies hitting each other and a sharp whine. She shivered and softly whined as well, dreading the approach of the winner as one of the dogs yelped and ran away.
A few moments later warm, human hand brushed the back of her head and she screamed again. If it could be called a scream. Her throat burned and rebelled at her abuse of it.
“Ssh. You’re safe now.”
She tried to scream again and move away, but her body wouldn’t obey her commands. She groaned as the full force of the pain washed over her.
He murmured and she relaxed her desperate grip on staying conscious. Sleep seemed so tempting, the black abyss singing a siren’s song to her. Her rescuer – or captor – tried to soothe her, but something dark and dangerous in his voice betrayed him. He was
She tried to bat away his hands but gave up after a few attempts, not sure if her good hand was actually moving.
As she slipped into the darkness, she wondered if death had merely granted her a short reprieve from the inevitable.
Phoebe woke up without opening her eyes, lured back to the land of the conscious by the sounds and smell of bacon cooking. Her stomach growled as she also smelled fresh coffee and butter on toast. She silently told it to be quiet, wanting the easy drift of sleep for just a while longer.
Her eyes shot open at the sound of the fridge opening and closing.
She lived alone.
Adrenaline surged through her, granting her some relief as she began to move. But she still had to bite the inside of her cheek to stop herself from groaning as she brought herself to her elbows. Her head pounded and her skin pulled painfully under the bandages on her back. Her right shoulder throbbed, a thick bandage wrapped awkwardly around it. Tossing back the blankets, she found she’d been dressed in an oversized t-shirt and shorts. Another bandage around her right thigh peeked out from under her shorts.
She swung her legs to the side of the bed and sat up, setting the world spinning. Closing her eyes, she put her hand to her head and took a deep breath. By the sunlight in her apartment, she guessed that it couldn’t be much later than mid-morning. When had she passed out? Last night? Longer?
The clatter of plates in the kitchen forced her back to reality, and she looked over her shoulder toward the combination lounge and kitchen. Her studio-esque apartment had only a lounge-kitchen with an open doorway to the bedroom and a separate bathroom. From where she sat, she couldn’t quite see who had invaded her kitchen.
At least she would be operating in her own territory, as new as it still was. She hadn’t even moved in completely. But she hadn’t spent all this time running just to leave herself completely defenseless.
The kitchen sounds quieted and she reached under her pillow for her knife. Not great when her body felt like one great mass of pain and her injured shoulder happened to be her dominant side, but the intruder didn’t know that. It would have to do.
She pushed forward to sit on the edge of her bed so she could use her bedside table to help her stand. The pain in her thigh shot like lightning up her side to her shoulder, sending her back down to the bed. She sat there trying to catch her breath as her white-knuckled grip on the knife made her fingers start to tingle.
“You’ll rip your stiches.”
She spun around. Or, at least, she tried to. The bandages and injuries beneath them pulled again and a pathetic little whine escaped her lips. Tears welled up in her eyes and she let out a hissing breath as she turned her back to him.
Great. As if she needed to look any weaker in front of an intruder. An intruder who’d made breakfast. At least he wasn’t in a hurry.
“You’re not in good enough shape to be moving around like that.”
She held the knife, ready to use it, as the owner of the voice moved closer and finally came into view. He placed a tray with a hearty breakfast on it – complete with a steaming mug of something sweet-smelling – on the end of her bed. He plucked a mug of steaming black coffee off the tray and then stepped back, eyeing the knife. She looked at the tray and then at him, frowning. He didn’t look overly alarmed at her wielding a weapon.
She bit her bottom lip, her stomach demanding food. He’d even cut up some fruit, which meant he must have bought groceries. She looked down at her clothes and then back at him.
“You’ve seen me naked,” she said, the words coming out more like a croak as she brought her hand up to her throat.
The corner of his mouth jerked up, his lopsided smile making him look a lot less threatening. He sat down in the blue camping chair in the corner of the room.
“Drink the tea. It has honey and lemon to help your throat.” He gestured at the mug as if he made tea and breakfast for knife-wielding women every day. “And I tried not to look.”
She hesitated but her stomach won out. After all, an intruder who made her breakfast couldn’t be all bad. Maybe that’s just how they did it in Echo Falls; breakfast and a robbery.
After another series of slow, painful movements, she brought her legs back onto the bed and moved the tray onto her lap. She put the knife on the bed next to her, within sight so he wouldn’t think of trying to do anything. He gave her space, to his credit, though he looked like he wanted to jump out of the chair each time a groan escaped her lips. Yet every time he so much as twitched, she glared at him and he froze.
The food smelled delicious and suddenly she cared a lot less about her home being invaded and a lot more about the most delicious breakfast she’d ever had. She barely paused for breath as she dug into the buttered toast, cheesy scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage. Usually she didn’t care for bacon but she finished the salty, crisp strips first. Even her sore throat couldn’t stop her from enjoying the feast.
On reconsideration, this guy could break into her place anytime he wanted so long as he promised to make breakfast.
Noticing him watching her eat, looking pleased, she finally slowed down. She took a long drink of the tea and then put down the mug, studying him.
“Do you always give people breakfast after breaking in?”
He chuckled. “Only the ladies.”
She ate the last corner of toast, her eyes never leaving him. “Who are you?”
“Most people start with that question,” he said. “My name is Aidan O’Bryan. I found you last night and brought you here. I thought you’d prefer to wake up in your own bed.”
“I would have preferred waking up in my own clothes.”
He coughed and rubbed the back of his neck. At least he had the decency to look a little embarrassed. She had to give him that. And the fact he’d made breakfast after tending to her wounds. Move in, find good guy to save you from being killed – again… Not exactly her original to-do list.
“Your clothes are in the trash. I can get them out, but you won’t want to wear them again.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, lowering her eyes. She moved to get up. “Thank you for your help last night.”
He moved to help her and she immediately grabbed the knife. He held up his hands and moved slowly, only coming within enough reach to take the tray. He plucked it off her lap and took it into the kitchen. She heard the sound of the taps turning on and let go of the knife.
With her belly full and the threat seeming to have passed, she wanted to curl up and go back to sleep.
Somehow she didn’t think he wanted to do the dishes while she took a nap.
By the time Aidan came back into the room, she’d managed to stand. He protested again about her moving around but resisted the urge to help, his hands full with a glass of water and painkillers. But he wanted to. She could see it in his grey-blue eyes. For a moment she wanted him to help. He must have found her in a bloody, unconscious heap last night and cleaned her up, put her to bed and made her breakfast.
She didn’t know they made men that way anymore.
He was tall with a sensible, short haircut for his sandy brown hair. He moved around the room with a gentle confidence as he walked to stand in front of her. He had an air about him that made her want him to stay while she slept, his presence already coming to comfort her more than the knife. He had the muscles to tempt her to have him stay longer if she’d been in any condition to do anything other than sleep.
She blinked, the thought surprising her. She hadn’t thought
kinds of things for a long time. Obviously the stress of the night before had her mind working in the least productive ways.
He looked at her curiously and she felt her energy along with everything else draining away. He had to go. Now.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done. I can pay you -”
He frowned. “I didn’t help you because -”
She carefully shook her head. “I know. But I can at least pay your for the groceries. I didn’t have bacon or eggs or butter or bread…” Her voice faded to a mutter and she frowned, making a mental note to buy groceries. “It’s the least I can do for you helping me.”
“You don’t need to pay me.” His tone left no room for argument. He placed the glass and pills on her nightstand. “I’d like to talk about what happened last night.”
Flashes of running, claws and teeth flooded her mind. Fear, the stink of fear, pouring off her as she grasped at whatever could save her… Her throat tightened. She looked away until the images passed and then looked at him. He’d unknowingly given her all the fodder she needed to get him out of her apartment as fast as she could.
She made it to the end of the bed and then sat down, exhausted. “Something bad happened. You helped me and I really appreciate that. If you won’t take money for the groceries, I have to ask you to leave. I have appointments to keep.”
He crossed his arms and a shadow of the lopsided grin appeared on his lips. “No you don’t.”
He jerked his head towards her desk. “Your appointment book is open. You don’t have anything written down for today. Or tomorrow.”
So much for trying to be polite
, she thought, looking away. “I meant an appointment with a long, hot bath and a glass of wine. After everything last night I think I’d like to be alone.”
He frowned. “You want to be alone after
“I have a deadlock on the door and locks on all the windows. I’m as safe as I’ll ever be here.” She met his eyes. “And I have a really nice bath tub.”
He didn’t budge.
“You can look if you want to.” She pointed to the bathroom door.
He shook his head. “A bath won’t be good until you heal some, and you shouldn’t have wine if you’re going to take those.” He nodded at the painkillers. “I don’t think you should be moving around alone.”
She nodded. “No bath. No wine. Sleep was next on the list anyway. I’ll be fine. I’m a quick healer.”
He didn’t look very convinced.
Her heart began pounding, the need to get him away and safe growing in her. He’d done her a huge favor and, though he wouldn’t understand it, getting him out would return that favor. Without any better idea, she asked, “Why don’t you leave your card on my desk? I’ll call if I need anything. Take one of my cards. It has a discount on it if you ever need a photographer.”
He wrote his name and number on her appointment book and then picked up one of her cards. It was home printed with a simple design and a frayed corner.
Phoebe Martin. Photographer.
A phone number had been scribbled out and another one handwritten along the bottom. He put it in his wallet and turned back to her.
“I still don’t think you should be alone. We need to talk about last night.”
“We will. Thank you again. I owe you one.” She attempted a smile.
“Is there someone I can call to stay with you?”
She shook her head. “No.”
He couldn’t protest. If he was really the gentleman he appeared to be, then he would leave. She limped to the door without his help but the sweat on her forehead betrayed the energy it cost her. He offered to stay and help, but she already had him halfway out the door.
They stood in the doorway looking at each other for a moment. She could see he wanted to say something, but every instinct in her told her to get him safely away. For his own good.
“I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done,” she said and then closed the door.
Aidan looked at the polished gold numbers on her hardwood door and frowned.
What just happened?
He shook his head. He had to come back later anyway. Phoebe Martin thought she’d only had a bad attack in an alley, but she had another thing coming. And so did he if he couldn’t be there to help her through the changes that were going to turn her life upside down. She’d been attacked by a werewolf and, whether she liked it or not, that made her his business.
Something about her didn’t sit right in his mind, but he couldn’t place it. And not just that she passed off her near death as being about as scary as spilled milk.
Inside, Phoebe locked the deadbolt and pressed her forehead to the cool door, wanting to open the door and call him back. Attractive, strong and could cook. What kind of bad karma had she built up for the universe to wave someone like him in front of her face?
“Rude, rude, rude.” Her stomach roiled as she replayed their conversation in her mind. She’d done him a favor, she reminded herself, but the knowledge did nothing to soothe her. Having just moved to Echo Falls, she could use a few friends. But he would do no good for himself getting tangled up with her. Not until she’d built her new life and convinced herself Echo Falls was safe.
She squeezed her eyes shut, a few tears escaping down onto her cheeks. The flash of teeth and claws entered her mind and she tried to push the images away. The more she pushed, the more they mixed and merged with older memories: flashes of silver, so much blood, a lifeless body. Running, always running.