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The place wasn't what she expected. Though she was alone, Amber Riggs kept her features carefully schooled so that nothing in her cool, serene expression reflected dismay. Control was everything. A deal couldn't be made to the best advantage without it, and she did love a good deal.
She got out of her car without checking her makeup or hair. She didn't need to. It wasn't vanity that told her she looked crisp and businesslike. It was just fact. Her careful facade was purposely created with clothes and makeup so that people took her seriously.
If she were vain, she'd still be basking in the glow from the write-up she'd received in this morning's paper: "A go-get-'em real estate manager."
"Best in San Diego county."
"No one gets the better of Amber Riggs."
Great for business, but the praise meant little. Amber loved her work, and because she did, she didn't need anyone's approval.
That's what she told herself.
She looked at the deserted warehouse in front of her and frowned. As good at her job as she was, making money from this building would be like bleeding a turnip. It was too far out of town.
Still, stranger things had been known to happen. At least the owner hadn't cared whether she found a buyer or a renter, and that would give her some options.
Her heels clicked noisily on the rough asphalt as she moved closer. The place was two stories and mostly brick, which gave it definite character. That was good. So was the basement that held the offices. She had to sigh as she noted the deterioration of the roof and the decay of the old brick walls. That wasn't good. And no windows, which meant that the client she'd contacted this morning, the one who wanted to convert an older building into an antique mall, wouldn't be happy.
She could fix that, Amber decided, by going inside and finding something interesting. Something that would appeal. This was her forte, turning the negative into the positive. Her fat bank account could attest to that. For a girl who'd left home exceptionally early with nothing but the shirt on her back, she'd done okay.
She took the key out of her purse and let herself in. Darkness prevailed, but always prepared, she again reached into her purse for the small flashlight she kept there. As she flipped it on and moved past the reception area into the even darker open warehouse, the silence settled on her shoulders eerily. She swallowed hard, losing a fraction of her iron-clad control.
The dark was not her friend. It was an old fear, from childhood, where she'd spent far too much time alone, afraid. Unwanted.
Dammit, not the self-pity again. She was twenty-seven years old. Maudlin thoughts about her past were unacceptable, and she promptly pushed them aside. Her flashlight shimmered, cutting a path across the huge empty place. The beam hardly made a dent in the absolute blackness, and more of her control slipped. Her palms became damp.
Determinedly, she lifted her chin, letting her logic and famed concentration take over. She was a grownup. Yes, she was alone, but she wasn't leaving until she'd scoped out the place carefully. She needed something to lure her potential client.
She wanted the deal.
She made it three quarters of the way across the place when she came to a door. Stairs, leading down. Good, the offices there would be a good selling point. Swallowing her discomfort around the intense, inky blackness, she bravely wielded her flashlight and went down the stairs, entering another large and even darker room.
A damp, musty smell greeted her.
An unnatural silence beat down, so did a terrible, heavy foreboding. In the strange stillness, Amber's every nerve ending froze, rendering her incapable of movement.
In the distance, she thought she heard a male voice call out, but that couldn't be, she was alone.
Suddenly a sound like savage thunder ripped through the room, and Amber decided to hell with control. To hell with the deal. She wanted out.
That's when the earthquake hit.
The unexpected violent pitch and roll of the ground beneath her threw her to the floor, hard. The earth came alive like some monster clawing its way out of hibernation.
Time ceased to exist.
The earth moaned and rocked. As she slid across the cold, concrete floor, her ears rang with the deafening sound. Her skin crawled with horror.
Then she slammed into an unforgiving wall.
Stars exploded into the darkness.
And the last thing Amber heard was her own terrified, piercing scream.
Dax McCall loved driving. Loved the freedom of the wind ripping through his hair, the scent of autumn as the trees turned. Loved the eye-squinting azure sky.
Hell, he was feeling generous, he simply loved life.
The tune-up he'd done on his truck the night before had it running smoothly, and he took the time to enjoy the way it handled the unpredictable mountain roads of Point Glen.
He couldn't have asked for a better day. Mother Nature loved Southern California, specifically San Diego county, and though it was nearly November, the breeze blew warm. Not a cloud marred the brilliant sky. And thanks to the Santa Ana winds, smog was nonexistent, leaving the air unusually clean and pure.
Sunday. His first day off in weeks. Not that he was complaining, he thought, cranking up the rock 'n' roll blaring from the stereo. He loved his job, and knew he was the best damn fire inspector this county had ever seen. But the hours were ruthless, and ambitious as he was, even he needed brain-rest once in awhile.
The last few fires had really taken their toll. He'd just closed an arson case that had spanned two years and caused five deaths. Sometimes at night Dax would close his eyes and see the charred bodies. Worse, he could still see the expression on the family's faces when he'd questioned them. Horror. Pain. Accusation. Sorrow.
Yeah, he needed a day off. Maybe even a vacation. He thought about the wildfires raging out of control in Montana. He could take some time and go help fight them. Not what most would consider a vacation, but in his heart, Dax was first and foremost a firefighter. When he'd turned investigator, he'd never given up his love of fighting fires. Every chance he got, he went back to it.
A shrill ring shattered the peace. Damn. Dax turned down the music and answered his cell phone with all the enthusiasm of a child facing bedtime.
"Better be good," he warned, slowing his truck on the narrow two-lane highway as he came into a hairpin turn.
Shelley, the oldest of his five nosy, overbearing, sentimental, affectionate sisters, had only one reason for calling.
"The answer is no," Dax said.
Undeterred, she laughed. "Dax, honey, you don't even know what I want."
"Oh, yes, I do." But he had to smile because he loved her. He loved all his sisters, even if they drove him crazy. "It just involves a teensy, weensy favor, right? Just a teensy, weensy desperate favorfor a friend?"
"She's not desperate.''''
Yeah, right. "We've discussed this, remember? No more setting me up." He'd told each of his well-meaning, meddling, older sisters that he refused to go out on any more blind dates.
So he was thirty-two and not married, it didn't bother him any. It wasn't as if he hurt for female companionship. But still, his sisters hounded him with friends. And friends of friends. And sisters of friends of friends.
He'd put his foot down long ago, but in their eyes he was still the baby of the family. A six-foot-two-inch, one-hundred-and-eighty pounder with the physique of a man who'd been a firefighter for nearly ten years before he'd become inspector.
"I've got to go, Shel," he said, cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder as he maneuvered the winding road.
"No, you don't. You just don't want me to bug you. Come on, Dax, your last date looked like a twenty-something Dolly Parton and spoke in that stupid whisper no one could understand."
He felt only mildly defensive. Why dispute the truth? So he was partial to blondes. Buxom blondes. Buxom, bubbly blondes, and last he'd checked, there wasn't a law against that. "Hey, I don't bug you about your dates."
"That's because I'm married!"
"You know what? I've got to go." He simulated the sound of static through his teeth. "Bad connection."
"Where are you?" she shouted, which made him grin and feel guilty at the same time.
"On Route 2, by the old mill." Dax frowned as he slowed. Up ahead was the milling plant and warehouse. Isolated from town by at least ten miles and surrounded by woods, the place served little purpose.
It hadn't been used in years. The land was on his list of dangerous properties, a potential disaster just waiting to happen. It was his job to keep properties such as these vacant of homeless people, mischievous teens and desperate lovers.
A small, sleek sports car was parked in front of it, empty. "Dammit."
"Sorry." He pulled into the lot. "Gotta go, Shel."
"No, don't you dare hang up on me"
He disconnected and chuckled. She'd stew over that for at least half an hour before calling him back.
Long enough, he decided as he tossed the phone on the passenger seat and got out of the truck, for him to hassle whoever was snooping where they shouldn't.
The door to the building was locked, with no sign of damage or break in, which meant the trespasser had a key.
A real-estate agent.
He knew this with sudden certainty and shook his head in disgust. The bricks were crumbling. Some were missing. The place could collapse with one good gust of wind.
Who could possibly want to buy it?
And why would anyone go wandering around in it? Muttering to himself, he pounded on the door, waiting to face whatever idiot had decided to go into an unsafe building.
No one answered.
Curious now, Dax walked all the way around the building, calling out as he went, but only silence greeted him. Even the woods seemed empty on this unseasonably warm autumn day.
With a resigned sigh, he moved back around to the front, and examined the weak lock. "Juvenile," he decided with disgust for whoever the owners were.
With a pathetic barrier like this, they were asking for trouble. It took him less than thirty seconds to break in. The large door creaked noisily as he thrust it open and peered inside. "Hello?"
Complete darkness and a heavy mustiness told him there was little to no cross ventilation, which probably meant no alternative exit.
It was every bit as bad as he'd thoughta hazardous nightmare.
He propped open the front door with a rock and entered. If no one answered in the next minute, he'd go back to his truck for a flashlight, but he figured by now, whoever had been inside would be more than happy to get out.
"County Fire Inspector," he called loud and clear. "Come out, this place is dangerous."
A door opened on the far side of the warehouse, and he frowned. "Hey"
The door slammed. Swearing, he ran toward it, yanked it open.
Far below, he saw the flicker of a light and swore again. "Wait!" He stepped into the stairwell, angry at himself now for not stopping to get his own flashlight, because he couldn't see a thing. "Stop!"
Those were the last words he uttered before the quake hit, knocking him to his butt on the top steel stair.
Born and raised in Southern California, Dax had experienced many quakes before. He considered himself seasoned. Still, it was unsettling to be leveled flat without warning, his ears echoing with the roar of the earth as it rocked and rolled beneath him.
The shaking went on and on and on, and he lost his bearings completely. He could see nothing, which disoriented him, and he hated that. Beneath him, the stairs rattled and shook violently. He held onto the rail for all he was worth, not even attempting to stand.
"Don't give," he begged as he clenched onto the steel for dear life. "Just don't give, baby."
At least a six-point-zero, he decided with some detachment, as he waited for the world to right itself again.
But it didn't. He upgraded mentally to a six-point-five.
He heard a roar, then the crash of tumbling bricks, which was a bad thing. Very bad.
As he ducked his head to his knees, protecting the back of his neck with his hands, heavy debris tumbled down around him.
A new fear gripped him thenthe building couldn't withstand the movement. The whole thing was going to go and, in the process, so was he.
Dax prayed fervently for the place, mostly the staircase that he sat clinging to, hoping, hoping, hoping, but with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knew the ancient building couldn't hold up to this kind of jarring.
It was going to collapse and there were two floors above him.
Dead meat sitting, that's what he was.
A metallic taste filled his mouth and he realized he'd bitten his tongue, hard. Half expecting his life to flash before his eyes, Dax was surprised that all he could think of was his family. His cell phone was back in his truck. They wouldn't know where to find his body, and that would destroy his mother.
His sisters would never be able to set him up again.
Then the bottom dropped out from beneath his world, and he fell.
As he did, he heard a scream.