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Meredith Samms heard the front door slam. Not hers. This one belonged to the bottom-floor apartment.
She rented the small one-bedroom tucked into the eaves of the blue craftsman-style house. Her place stretched all of 550 square feet from one end to the other. Still, she paid more per month for the tiny space than her parents paid for a mortgage on a two-story Colonial on an acre in upstate New York. That's what happened when you wanted a piece of what many considered paradisea home three blocks from the ocean in Coronado, the peninsula of prime real estate across the harbor from downtown San Diego.
Garrett Hill lived in the more spacious apartment downstairs. Not that he stayed there often enough to enjoy it. He traveled most days of the month and had been out of town for three solid weeks. Half the time she knew he was home only when she heard the echo of his heavy footsteps.
This trip struck her as odd, the usual blanket of secrecy lifted. A man she'd never seen before had come to the door two days ago looking for Garrett. A courier had left a package for him, saying Garrett gave her name as someone who could sign for it.
Looked as if he'd broken the whole lone-wolf thing he had going on and she had no idea why. She could ask, even though the chance of getting an answer was slim. Heck, he'd never even told her what he did for a living, and she'd sure poked around that topic several times. Good thing she believed in a healthy dose of persistence.
Slipping off the window seat, she grabbed her key and stuffed it into the back pocket of her cut-off denim shorts. The window air conditioner had lost the race against the unusual scorching July afternoon heat. So much for the theory about San Diego always having perfect seventy-something-degree weather.
Thinking maybe heading downstairs for a visit would keep her T-shirt from sticking to her back, she jogged down the steps, letting her running shoes fall heavily to warn of her impending visit. By the time she hit the small entryway at the bottom of the stairs, she expected Garrett to have his door open. Instead it stayed closed.
She knocked twice. On the second rap, the door slipped open as if the wind had pushed it. Since the air stood deadly still today and Garrett was a bit of a security freak, a ball of anxiety started spinning in her chest. With her past, she didn't scare easily but this scene had Bad Horror Film written all over it.
If she'd lived anywhere other than low-crime, military-presence-everywhere Coronado, she might have bolted. Instead, she eased the door open. "Garrett?"
Only silence bounced back at her.
Her foot crossed the threshold and she heard a small crack. Looking down, she didn't see anything other than sturdy wood painted a bright, shiny white.
When she looked up again, there he was. Not Gar-rett. Garrett was tall and muscular, but this guy, the non-Garrett, was enormous. Like, size-of-a-truck enormous. He had blond hair and wore all black to match his dark frown.
Alarm bells chimed in her head. She couldn't breathe over the clanking and dinging.
She turned to run, and that fast he was on her. A strong arm wrapped around her waist, trapping her arms against her sides as a hand clamped over her mouth. The oversize dial on his watch dug into her stomach as he spun her around to face the family room again and her feet went airborne. Kicking out as she went, her heel hit the door and slammed it hard against the outside wall.
Despite her defensive efforts, before she could blink she was inside and out of sight of anyone who might walk by. But no way was she giving in without a fight.
She thrashed and shook her head from side to side, hoping for a second where she could ease out of his grip and scream for help. Not that his hand across her mouth stopped her from trying. She yelled until all the air left her lungs, but the sound was muffled against his palm.
Her eyes focused on the room. Her heart rate, which had already kicked to near heart-attack range, tripled its beat. The sofa cushions had long, jagged rips in them. The few photos in the apartment lay on the floor, the glass smashed and scattered among the papers and furniture stuffing.
Seeing the destruction fueled her survival instinct. She kicked, this time hitting bone near his calf and earning a grunt from her attacker. Instead of letting go as planned, his hold over her stomach tightened. Much more of this and he'd strangle her.
She moved her head and opened her mouth, letting him think she intended to scream again. When he adjusted his grip over her lips, she bit down into the meaty part of his palm and didn't stop until she tasted blood.
One second she was standing, nearly bent over from the pressure of his arm against her middle, the next she was spinning through the air. She smacked against the back of the couch with her full weight and felt it bobble and threaten to tip over. One leg folded under her on the cushion as she landed and a shock of pain ran down her spine to her knee.
The combination of dizziness and terror had her stomach heaving. Her vision split in two then refocused just in time to see her attacker looming over her. Blood smeared his cheek and ran down his hand.
"You'll pay for that" was all he said.
The terse phrase was enough to get her moving again, sore knee and all. She scrambled up the back of the couch, clawing her way over shredded cushions and slipping over the top toward the window. Just as one leg hit the floor, he grabbed the other. Two baseball glove-sized hands held her ankle in a viselike grip.
"You're not going anywhere, sweetheart," he said as he started twisting her foot.
She shifted her hips to keep him from breaking it. "What do you want?"
"Came here looking for one thing but looks like I'll be leaving with another." He leered at her as he spoke.
The sick gleam in his dark eyes touched off a frenzy of panic inside her. Her hands shook and the urge to throw up almost overtook her. It had been years since she'd experienced violence. She blocked it so that she could function every day, but the memories kicked to the surface now.
"Please let me go."
The man just laughed. The deep sound, so menacing in its promise of pain, cut across her nerves.
Keep fighting. The words flashed in her brain and ran through her, soaking into every pore.
When one of his palms slid up her calf to the back of her knee, she knew she had a chance. Waiting for just the right moment, when his sick need to control overcame his battle stance, she kicked out as hard as she could. Her heel crashed into his jaw, sending his head flying backward as he yelped in surprise.
She heard the crunch and then she was free. Momentum sent her flying back against the window. She reached for the curtains to steady her weight. With a roaring rip, the rod gave way and she fell on her butt. Wedged between the couch and the wall, she struggled to get her legs under her.
With a rage-filled cry, her attacker reached over the sofa and pulled her to her feet. The bright red cheeks and clenched teeth didn't scare her half as much as the gun in his hand. She had no idea where it had come from, but it was pointed at the center of her chest.
"You'll learn." He practically spit as he talked. His fingers dug into the bare skin of her forearm.
"I have money." She didn't, but she needed time.
The house sat off the main strip filled with tourists and shops, but people walked by all the time on their way to the water. If she could stall long enough, a witness might see her by the window, call the police to check it out.
His gaze crept down the front of her blouse. "You have everything I need right on you."
Disgust clogged her throat as she glanced around looking for somethinganythingshe could throw through the front window. She spied the overturned lamp on the floor and plotted the best way to drop to the floor and grab it with a man holding on to her arm hard enough to cause bruises.
She'd just resigned herself to a broken arm when she saw a blur of movement behind her attacker. Black hair and stone-cold blue eyes. Six feet of lethal male machine.
Her heart slowed to a jog as the tension rushing through her eased. Everything would be okay now. Garrett Hill had come home.
The usual military haircut and fatigues were gone, replaced by hair brushed down almost over his eyes and faded blue jeans. In the weeks away, his smile had disappeared but one thing looked the samehis strength. A tight black T-shirt stretched across his wide shoulders and chest, highlighting every muscle.
She'd never been so relieved to see anyone in her life. Her shoulders sagged and she had to fight off a smile when an openmouthed stare replaced the attacker's snarl as Garrett shoved a gun into the back of the other man's head.
"Let the lady go, nice and slow." Garrett reached around and grabbed the other man's gun. "This isn't over, Hill."
"Sure feels like it is." Garrett nodded his head at her. "Come over here."
She didn't even make it to the other side of the couch before the attacker lunged. He threw his body backward, aiming his head right for Garrett's chin. Garrett shifted in time to deflect the blow, but the attacker turned around. They were face-to-face with the gun trapped between them. Both of their hands held the weapon as Garrett elbowed the other man in the side of the head.
Already injured, the attacker pulled back. Garrett used the opening to wrestle the gun away. It made a short pffft sound as he shot the attacker in the knee.
The man went down with a whoosh, squealing and moaning as he dropped to the hardwood. Glass crunched under him where he rolled around.
She watched the blood stream onto the floor right before Garrett slammed his weapon against the attacker's head, sending him into a deadly quiet sprawl.
Then Garrett was there, right in front of her. "Are you okay?"
She tried to look past Garrett's stiff shoulders to the still body below. "Is he dead?"
"I don't understand. Who is that?"
"I don't" The words died in her throat when he touched her shoulder, bringing her gaze back to him. She couldn't remember a time in the year since she'd moved in when he'd touched her. "How can you not recognize him? He was in your house."
"There are two things you need to know." Garrett waited until she nodded before continuing. "First, we need to get out of here right now."
She didn't exactly disagree but she wanted to understand. "Don't we need to ?"
His eyebrow rose. "What?"
"I don't know. Something."
"Okay, then. My second point." He held up another finger. "I'm not Garrett."