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Something had gone wrong.
Two male thug-looking types in dark baggy pants and oversized sweatshirts exited the rear door of the rundown, graffiti ridden brick building. Community health nurse and Women's Crisis Center advocate Jaci Piermont slid further down in the front seat of the clunker she'd borrowed from the center, trying to melt into the darkness. Even in broad daylight, when entering Nap Tower to visit her patients, Jaci never came unaccompanied, and never went near the rear door, a known hangout for drug dealers and troublemakers of every variety.
But tonight it was raining. Pouring actually. The beginnings of a hurricane expected to slam the northeast coast of the U.S., Westchester County in its projected path. They'd specifically chosen this night figuring no one would be outside. Jaci's phone rang.
She checked the number. Carla. Assistant Director of the Women's Crisis Center.
"Hey," Jaci said, peering out the bottom portion of the driver's side window.
"You were due here twenty minutes ago," Carla demanded.
"She didn't show." She being Merlene K., twenty-five-year-old white female in need of assistance to escape a controlling/abusive relationship with the father of her unborn child. No local friends or family willing to intervene.
"Get out of there, Jaci. You can't help her if she doesn't follow the plan."
That they'd been working on for weeks. "Everything was set." Every detail worked out with their contact who resided in the building. Merlene's boyfriend's work schedule checked and verified and rechecked. His accomplice, who kept an eye on Merlene while he worked the night shift, distracted. A duffel for her meager belongings. A change of clothes and a wig so she could alter her appearance and slip away unnoticed.
The door opened again. "Oh no," Jaci said.
"It's Merlene. She's not alone." In the one working light over the door, through the blur of the rain spattered window, Jaci could still make out Merlene's battered face, and that of her bastard boyfriend, pure evil, gripping her arm tightly in one hand, dragging her, carrying a stuffed duffel Jaci recognized as the one she'd dropped off last week, in the other.
Merlene shuffled behind him, hunched over, her right arm clutching her abdomen. Damn him.
Jaci straightened her short, bob-styled black wig, pushed in her false teeth, and adjusted her faux eyeglasses.
The couple was approximately twenty feet away, walking in her direction.
"Do not get out of that car," Carla cautioned.
"She needs medical attention," Jaci whispered as if they could hear her. "Who knows where he's taking her, if we'll ever have another opportunity to help her."
Jaci reached for the door handle.
"Do not" Carla started.
"You'd better call Justin." She never did a pick-up in this area unless Justin was on duty. "Tell him to hurry."
Jaci ended the call. After a deep calming breath, she stuck the phone in the pocket of her black rain slicker, pulled the hood up over her head, and pushed open a door.
Rain pelted her in the face.
"Excuse me," she yelled.
Merlene jumped. Her boyfriend stopped and pulled the woman he treated as a possession, to do with as he chose, close.
"My car won't start," Jaci lied. "You got any jumper cables?" The wind tried to blow off her hood. She held it in place, thankful she'd remembered to slip on a pair of knit gloves to cover her manicure.
"No," the abuser said, and pulled Merlene away.
Please let Justin be on his way.
"Excuse me, miss," Jaci said to Merlene. "Are you okay?"
"She's fine," a deep, irritated voice snapped. He didn't bother to look back at her.
"I'm sorry. But she doesn't look fine. Maybe I can "
Merlene turned around, squinted against the raindrops, and studied her face. "Ja."
Jaci shook her head, warning Merlene not to use her real name. "Are you in need of assistance, miss?" Jaci yelled over the wind.
"Mind your own business," the large man all but growled, jerking to a stop beside a shiny new black SUV almost glowing in the overhead light. While his girlfriend, the mother of his unborn child, couldn't afford maternity clothes, was forced to wait hours at the free clinic for prenatal care, and wandered the building offering to clean apartments and do odd jobs to earn money for food.
Which is how Jaci had learned of her.
Where the heck was Justin?
Merlene's boyfriend released her long enough to open the rear door of his vehicle. And that's all it took. With a look of absolute panic she lunged at Jaci, clamping her arms tightly behind Jaci's neck. "Don't let him take me," she cried out.
Jaci slid her left arm around Merlene's waist and plunged her right hand into her pocket to retrieve the canister of pepper spray she'd placed there earlier. "You are not going anywhere without me," Jaci said. Meaning it. Prepared to do anything within her power to keep Merlene safe.
The first blow struck Jaci in the left posterior ribs, an intense, stabbing pain only minimally less severe than the closed-fisted punch to the right upper arm that felt like it shattered her proximal humerus.
The pepper spray clattered on the asphalt.
He was strong. Angry. And not wasting his time with words.
Well, Jaci was no stranger to the pain of abuse. And if Merlene could deal with it day after day, Jaci could put up with it until Justin arrived. She wound her other arm around Merlene's waist, locking her fingers together, and took a stand.
"Don't hit her," Merlene pleaded, releasing Jaci, trying to push her away.
"No." Jaci tried to hold on. The over-sized bully grabbed her by the wrists, wrenched her hands apart, and pushed her to the side in the same manner he'd probably treat a pesky toddler. The force made her stumble. Her heel caught the edge of a huge pothole filled with water and she went down with a splash. Both hands slapped the cracked, pebble-ridden pavement. Stung. Pain shot through her right arm, which gave out.
The flashing lights of a police cruiser lit up the sky, its headlights illuminating Jaci where she lay.
She tried to get up. "Stay down," Justin yelled, running from his vehicle. His weapon drawn, aimed at Merlene's boyfriend. "Release her," Justin ordered.
Once free, Merlene ran to Jaci and dropped to the ground beside her. "I'm sorry. So sorry," she cried.
"It's not your fault," Jaci said, putting her left arm around Merlene's shoulders. "You're safe now."
Another car sped into the parking lot.
Carla ran toward them. "Are you okay?"
"How did you get here so fast?" Jaci asked.
"When you didn't show up on time I thought you were in trouble. I was already on my way when I called."
And that's why she loved Carla. "Merlene needs medical treatment," Jaci said.
"What about you?"
"I'm fine. Sore, but fine."
"Let me help you," a vaguely familiar masculine voice offered as large hands grabbed her from behind and lifted her to standing position.
Jaci couldn't control a yelp of pain at the pressure on the exact spot where she'd been punched minutes earlier.
"I'm sorry," he said, releasing her. "I didn't mean"
"You are not fine," Carla yelled.
"He hit her," Merlene sobbed. "Her arm might be broken."
"That son of a bitch hit you?" the man asked with rage in his voice.
"Nothing's broken. See." She lifted her arm overhead and across her chest, despite the pain, to prove to Carla she was fine.
"Stay here." The man stormed over to Justin who yelled, "I told you to stay in the car."
That's when recognition dawned. The broad shoulders filling out his dark wind-breaker. The confident stride, camouflage pants and short military-style haircut.
Another one-two punch, this one invisible, knocked the wind from her lungs.
A good friend and, when he was in town, an occasional roommate of Justin's, making him her on-again, off-again upstairs neighbor. He'd been her good friend, too, or so she'd thought. Until she'd thrown sex and the word 'marriage' into the mix and he'd run like she'd asked for a kidney donation then whipped out a salad fork and a steak knife intending to harvest the organ right there on her bed.
That was the last time she'd seen or spoken to him, supporting her brother's claim that no man in his right mind would willingly marry her without a monetary incentive. Men wanted her money and/or her body, but no one wanted her.
Jaci wiped the rain from her face. "I'm going home," she said to Carla. "I'll stop by the center tomorrow to exchange cars."
Carla touched her wrist gently. "Are you sure you don't need an X-ray?"
"I'm sure." Even if she did, she wouldn't go to the hospital now, couldn't risk anyone recognizing her or associating her name with an actual crisis center rescue. Because anonymity kept her safe. Because socialites on the fundraising circuit didn't dirty their hands with actual in-the-trenches work. Because Jerald X. Piermont III would have an absolute hissy-fit if his wayward sister wound up in the online gossip blogs. Again.
Knowing Carla would see to Merlene, and Justin would see to Merlene's butt of a boyfriend, Jaci headed for the car. Suddenly chilled, she needed to get home to warm up with a hot bath and a cup of tea.
She wrapped her arms around her middle to contain a shaky, uneasy feeling.
"Funny," Ian said from behind her. "I never took you for the type to slink off under the cover of darkness."
"No. That's your M.O." She picked up her pace.
"I told Justin I'd drive you home," he said, ignoring her retort. "He'll stop by your place tomorrow to take your statement of what happened."
She turned on him. "Why are you here?"
"Justin asked me to bring him some dry clothes down at the station. I was there when your friend called." He held out his hand. "Give me your keys."
Home from Iraq for at least three weeks and it'd taken a coincidence and a call for help to get him to talk to her? "Go to hell." Jaci turned, took the last few steps to the car, and opened the door.
Ian stopped her from climbing in with a gentle hand on her waist which he used to ease her back into his chest. "I've already been there," he said just loud enough for her to hear. "I'm sorry I left the way I did."
No one was sorrier than Jaci.
Because Ian Eddelton had turned out to be a slug who'd slimed all over any hope she'd had for a palatable solution to the kiss-her-new-husbandor-kiss-her-trust-fund-goodbye dilemma. And the deadline for 'I dos' was fast approaching.
Ian held her close, relieved she was okay, mad as hell she'd come to this area alone, put herself in danger. He'd seen the horrors, the atrocities. Women beaten, raped, and worse.
"You're hurting me," Jaci cried out, trying to twist out of his hold on her.
Ian turned her to face him. "What the hell were you thinking? Coming here at night. Alone. You could have been"
"But I wasn't. Now let go of me."
"What if Justin wasn't available when your friend called?" He held her tighter. "What if he was miles away from here? What if he had no cell service?"
She sucked in a breath and winced in pain.
He'd forgotten how delicate she was. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault." She looked away.
Rage flowed through his system, the urge to beat that miscreant in Justin's custody so bad he was incapable of ever raising a hand to a woman again was hard to contain. "Where else did he hit you?"
She didn't answer.
He scooped her into his arms, with the utmost care, and carried her to the passenger door. "When I get you home I'm going to strip off your clothes and examine every inch of you." Objectively. Impersonally. With complete focus on his mission: To identify injury and evaluate for need of medical treatment. Oh, who the hell was he trying to kid?
"You'll have to knock me unconscious to do it." She struggled to get free.
"The only place you're going is from my arms into that car seat. Now hand me the keys because I'm wet and angry and not in the mood to get shot or knifed by any of the scumbags who frequent this neighborhood."
She gave him the keys.
As he slid her into the car he gave into the urge and whispered, "For the record, I'm not a fan of the new look." If he hadn't known it was Jaci, he never would have recognized her.
"Good," she snapped. "First thing tomorrow I'll make it permanent."
He closed the door and smiled, remembered the stimulating, entertaining banter between them, the companionship, friendship and lust, and felt almost normal. But since his return from Iraq, his life had been anything but.
After adjusting the driver's seat to accommodate his six foot, probably down to one hundred and eighty-five-pound frame, Ian turned the key in the ignition and the old car sputtered to life. "This is your choice for a getaway car?" Thing probably wouldn't reach fifty miles per hour without a good push and the benefit of a downward slope.
"It's not like I was robbing a bank." Jaci turned to look out the window, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. "It blends in," she added quietly.
Yeah. More than her little red BMW would.
Ian turned right out of the parking lot. A few more turns and he was on the highway heading home. A tense quiet filled the car broken only by the rapid slap of the windshield wipers. Most definitely not the kind of quiet the shrink at the rehab had recommended. A bomb blast echoed in the deep recesses of his mind.
He imagined Jaci chatting. The way she spoke so fast and used her hands when she got excited. The melodic fluctuations in her tone. The movement of her sensual lips. Her smile. The way she elbowed him or punched him when he made a snide comment or teased her.
The yelling of soldiers filled his ears. Chaos. "Medic. I need a medic over here!"
Deep breath. Keep it together Ice.
He searched for something to say, to keep him in the present, and homed in on the first thing that came to mind. "Do you have a death wish or something? Showing up at the most dangerous housing complex in the south side of Mount Vernon, in the dark, alone. It was a total rookie move. One that could have gotten you killed." He tightened his grip on the steering wheel to keep from reaching over to shake some sense into her. Anger boiled deep in his gut. Not good. Convincing wealthy benefactors to part with their cash in support of her crisis center was where she belonged. Not on the front line, dealing with reprobates and confronting danger.
His heart pounded. A trickle of sweat wove its way down his temple.
"I'll have you know I've been doing this for three years," she said, "since I started the Women's Crisis Center. And I have never run into a problem until tonight."
Three years? "Pure dumb luck." His heart skipped a beat. "At some point your luck will run out." Just like his had. He wanted to hit something. "Did Justin know?"
"As of tonight he does," she said.
"This woman, the one you set out to rescue tonight. She's so special her safety is worth putting yours at risk?"
"You don't know anything about me, do you?" she asked.
He knew everything that mattered. She was smart, funny, thoughtful, beautiful, sexy, and there was a time he'd rather spend his time with her than with anyone else.
She shifted in her seat to face him. "Come on, Ian. Tell the truth. You never looked me up on the Internet? Never gave in to that niggling interest people seem to have about just how much I'm worth?"
Eyes focused on the road, he shook his head. "Sorry to disappoint but I prefer to get to know people on my own terms rather than reading what others have to say about them, and I'm more interested in your body than your bank account." Was interested. Was, as in past tense. He could not allow Jaci to distract him from what he had to do.
She smiled. "You always tell it like it is, don't you?"
He glanced over and smiled right back. "That's why you love me."
Her smile vanished.
Wrong thing to say. Idiot. Because she didn't love him. At the moment she barely liked him, her scorn totally justified. It was for the best, for both of them. That didn't mean he had to like it.