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Five years hadn't altered much of Rowan Dietrich or New York City. The kid who had carried everything she owned in a backpack when she had left for Georgia still owned little more than the clothes on her back. She'd found friends, people who were as damaged and screwed up as she was, but the two most important had really been searching for each other, and now they were together and complete. They would have gladly gone on being her surrogate family, but she'd wanted more than that, more than they could ever give. Leaving them behind hurt, but Rowan knew she'd done the right thing.
If destiny did exist, she thought as she removed her helmet, being alone seemed to be hers.
November had iced the roads with slush and frozen puddles, and forced her to keep her speed minimal as she retreated to the alleys. A few hours earlier she might have smelled what passed as a festive fragrance here: roasted nuts hawked by sidewalk vendors too fat or too poor to care about standing out in the cold. After midnight, the vendors trudged home while the dampness of the river crept east. The unlovely, clammy fumes of the Hudson blended with the perennial sour reek of car exhaust, garbage, and decades of grime exuded by the streets. Not even Pittsburgh, one of the dirtiest cities Rowan had ever seen, stank like New York.
Something small with patchy fur and a long tail skittered across the road ahead of her. It might have been a very small, ratty-looking cat, or a very large, catty-looking rat.
This was a stupid idea.
Sometimes she'd smelled as vile as the streets, back when she'd been a homeless runaway. Living in the bowels of the greatest city on earth didn't include regular bathroom privileges or ample opportunities to keep up her personal hygiene. No matter how often she'd washed, she'd soaked up the acrid, sour odor of the city until she thought she'd never be clean again. Sometimes it had been so bad she'd wondered if every night the city lifted some giant invisible leg and pissed on her while she'd slept.
As for the sights, the Big Apple appeared exactly as she remembered it, a soulless gray and black labyrinth of concrete and steel, as cold in electric light as in the wells of shadow, as indifferent to her as she'd be to an ant. As she hooked her helmet to the lock she'd installed at the back of her seat, she wondered why the passing years hadn't shrunk the city into something smaller and less intimidating. Surely any minute she'd start feeling at least a twinge of fond nostalgia for the place where she'd spent the worst times of her young life.
It wasn't happening. She'd come back home unwanted and alone, and the city still didn't care. Realizing nothing had changed didn't chill her; resentment boiled in her chest.
Screw the Apple.
Her life had been polluted long enough by rage and fear of the things that had happened to her in this place without her permission. She'd come here to free herself of the past and finally face her fear. She would not be beaten into the pavement again by it.
Well? What's it going to be?
She hadn't been thinking about doing this when she'd left the interstate. She'd taken the exit thinking she'd just drive to the river, stop there, and have a look at the city from one of the docks. She'd remind herself of all the excellent reasons why she had to stay on the Jersey side of the Hudson, and then she was driving through the Lincoln Tunnel and uptown into the theater district, her visor up, her eyes searching. For what, she didn't know. She'd left nothing behind but her innocence and two graves.
Three, she corrected herself as some cold part of her brain did the math. The sisters are dead, and the old man is, too. There's no one left who knows who or where or what I am.
In a few hours the Upper West Side would be choked with people and traffic, but in the predawn hours Rowan saw only a few cabs and patrol cars on the road, and some delivery trucks parked with their flashers on as they were being unloaded. Seeing the crates of produce and flowers being stacked on the hand trucks and wheeled into the groceries and restaurants made her stomach twist. When she'd been desperate, she'd stolen food off the back of some delivery trucks; seeing all that unguarded bounty still made her feel hungry—and ashamed.
Quickly she rode past a couple of pricey restaurants she didn't recognize. The leather bomber jacket that had kept her warm during the long, icy ride now felt smothering.
Welcome home, Rowan. Here, have a little panic attack to go along with your sniveling. A garbage truck passed her, splashing her left leg with gray slush. And fuck you.
At the next traffic light she stopped, braced her boots against the road, unzipped, and stripped. As she tied the jacket by the sleeves around her waist, she saw that sweat had soaked the two shirts she wore beneath it. A faint blue glow showed around the edges of her sleeves, and the skin of her inner arms crawled. If anyone had touched her in that moment, she wouldn't have been able to control herself.
Something was wrong, and the cause wasn't her ugly memories of the city. She scanned the surrounding area until she spotted a small group of Latino kids tagging a building under construction across the street. Stylized letters spelled out Neva B Tha Same in jailhouse jumpsuit orange and radiation-warning yellow. Other, equally artistic graffiti riddled the bare cinderblock walls around them.
On her side of the road there was no graffiti. Not a single tag, gang sign, or rap sentiment anywhere on the brick walls between the barred windows and grate-covered doors, all of which belonged to some upscale place. White letters on the dark brown canopy over the main entrance spelled out a single name in elegant script: D'Anges.
Angelic? For the angels? Rowan wasn't sure. Outside the terms used in gourmet cookbooks and magazines, her French sucked.
Red light turned to green, but she didn't ride on, and the sound of her engine finally drew the attention of the graffiti artists to her presence. The boys turned en masse to hoot, whistle, and call out sexual invitations while palming their crotches.
The ultimate thug accolade. Relaxing a little, Rowan studied them. She knew from experience that teenage boys were often the most dangerous predators walking the streets, but something told her this bunch were mostly gab and grab.
"Sí 'mana." The oldest boy, resplendent in his oversize football jersey and carpenter jeans, sauntered over. "I like your ride."
Rowan checked his hands, which were grimy and speckled across the knuckles with yellow back-spray, but otherwise empty. No knives, no guns, no bricks, no tricks. "Thanks."
"Muy melaza." His eyes ate up her bike before squinting at her. "You take me around the block?"
So he could dump her ass and deliver her machine to his cousin's chop shop? "Another time, maybe."
"Coño." He glanced back to smirk at the encouraging catcalls from his friends, and then shuffled closer. "So what you waiting here for? You need directions or something, mami?" She noticed he bypassed ogling her tits to check out her ignition. So that's the plan. "Do I look lost to you, hijo?"
"Mira." Beautiful white teeth flashed against his dark face. "Maybe I take you somewhere, huh?"
As he reached to snatch her keys, she caught his wrist and jerked him closer. He wasn't expecting that, but she needed his body to block her from his friends' view. The leather sleeves encasing her forearms rippled as she looked into his eyes and saw the tiny reflection of her own face blur and change.
Inside Rowan's belly, a burst of heat solidified and began to expand. At the same time a stream of images and words poured into her mind. Ruthlessly she searched through them until she found what she needed. "You're being a bad boy, Juanito."
"¡Alábalo que vive!" The boy's eyes flew wide, until she could see the whites all around the dark irises. "Rosamada? Es tu?"
"Sí." She didn't know enough Spanish to command him in that language, but now that all he saw was the face of the girl he loved, he probably wouldn't notice. "It's too late for you to be out, 'Nito. Say good-bye to your friends and go home now."
Juanito nodded, tugging something from his neck and dropping it into her lap. "For you. You wear it for me, Rosa."
Rowan had to root between her thighs until she felt the metal links and retrieved the heavy chain. A gleaming, solid-silver crucifix hung from it. "Why are you giving me your ice?"
He looked past her. "Enero." Without another word, he turned and trotted back to his friends.
Once upon a time Rowan had been a Catholic, so the cross didn't give her the creeps. Seeing Juanito and his friends make the sign of the cross and kiss their thumb knuckles before they scattered did. She looked over her shoulder, but didn't see anyone or anything but the dark windows of the restaurant.
What the hell had spooked them?
Rowan grabbed her helmet and pulled it back on. Enough was enough. In another day or two she'd reach Boston, where she'd been promised a good job and a cheap apartment. She'd never been there before, but she was ready to make a fresh start. If it didn't work out, she'd hit the road again and move on. There was always another place, another job, another chance.
All she had to do first was break a promise. The one she'd sworn she never would.
The threadbare, moth-eaten blanket of winter night, which covered little and protected nothing, had effectively emptied out the alleys. When temperatures dropped, the usual residents deserted their dismal crate and cardboard-box niches. Sleeping outside when the mercury dropped below twenty was an automatic sentence of death by hypothermia, so like the rats and strays, the homeless retreated to the relative safety of the subway tunnels, abandoned cars and condemned buildings, where the cold couldn't kill them.
Two minutes before she laid down her bike, Rowan felt better about her bizarre impulse to come home one last time. There was no one to see her, and nothing to get in her way. She'd cruise through her old haunts on the way to the cemetery, then ride up through the Bronx and head north before the sun rose.
She rounded a corner and turned down the alley behind it when something hit her from behind. Her bike lurched forward, and she looked back, expecting to see a car that had crowded too close.
The street behind her stood empty.
Rowan glanced down at her tank, which she'd just filled up in Pittsburgh. If she'd gotten some bad gas it would have acted up long before now. The bike wasn't at fault; she'd felt the impact. Something had hit her.
Cold sweat popped out on the back of her neck as she accelerated, the thrum of the engine muted by the pounding in her ears.
He knows I'm here, the terrified kid in her head whispered. The old man. He's coming after me.
Fear-blind as she was, Rowan never saw what blew out her front tire. One moment she was speeding through the shadows and the next she was clinging to the grips as the bike went into a wild skid. Dimly she heard something else blow as the bike tilted, and then she was sliding sideways, the world turning on its head and the front end of a car rushing at her face.
In the instant before the crash, Rowan remembered why she'd promised herself that she would never come back to the city. She'd always feared that if she ever returned to New York, she'd die here.
And now she would.
"So I do not salt the eggplant or the zucchini," Bernard said, "or cook in separate pots. Chef, this is America, not Nice. Everything here, it is quick. No one could tell a difference."
Jean-Marc Dansant turned away from his sous-chef, mainly to keep from throttling him. "I could tell."
"The fat woman no complain, or send it back. She no care." Bernard threw out his hands in his favorite gesture, a combination of frustration and helplessness. "It was fine. The best. . . ." He paused as he groped for the correct English, but failed. "The best courgettes à la niçoise I make."
"Naturellement." He removed his white jacket and tossed it in the laundry bin. "The problem, Bernard, is that she ordered ratatouille."
"Je m'en fiche." His sous-chef stalked out the back door. A few moments later the sound of squealing brakes and crashing metal came from the alley.
Dansant didn't feel alarmed by the noise. No doubt his sous-chef had knocked over the garbage bins with his car again. Bernard in a temper was nothing if not predictable. After inspecting the immaculate kitchen for the last time, Dansant shut off the light switches and went out into the alley to survey the mess.
He expected the smell of garbage, and the sight of it spread from one side of the alley to the other. He did not expect to see a motorcycle lying on the ground in front of Bernard's Volvo, or his sous-chef standing over a tall, skinny boy whose leather garments appeared badly scuffed. Then the biker removed his helmet, and under a mop of disheveled dark curls revealed the thin, furious face of a dark-eyed, pale young woman.
In profile she was all angular bone and creamy white skin; the stately line of her nose at odds with the decadent contours of her mouth and the stubborn set of her jaw.
"Bernard." He spoke sharply to cut off the sous-chef's stream of obscenities in their native language.
His voice drew the girl's attention for a moment, and he saw that her lashes were like her hair, black, thick and curly. They framed eyes that seemed too dark to be so bright. She stiffened as if bracing herself for more trouble, and then saw his face. Whatever she saw made her body change, and she shifted on her feet, moving as if she meant to come to him.
Dansant understood; the feelings rising inside him made nothing in that moment more important than going to her. "Did you knock her down?" he asked Bernard without looking at him.
"Non. She crash into my car." He stabbed a finger at the motorcycle. "Look at the bumper, the grille. They are ruin." He turned his finger on the girl. "You pay for this."
Bernard had to repeat his demand for payment twice more before the girl heard him and turned to face him. "The hell I will. You shouldn't be parked out here in the dark. It's illegal and dangerous."
Hearing her speak made Dansant's situation worse. The girl's low voice had a faint rasp to it, and brushed against his ears like silk cord. Silk, yes, that would suit her more than her boyish leather. He imagined wrapping her in yards of scarlet and gold, weaving it around the length of her torso, coiling it along her long limbs, knotting it so that her hands were bound to his, and everywhere he touched her she would feel twice, on her body and against her slim fingers. . . .
Never had he thought such things about a woman, Dansant thought, appalled. Not even with those he planned to seduce.
How could she do this to him, this girl? She'd barely glanced at him, and he was ready to grab her and drag her inside and lay her out on the closest flat surface.
He breathed in deeply, hoping the stench of the alley would clear his head, but smelled a familiar, coppery scent. At last he saw more than her eyes, her face. Her gloves were in shreds, and both of her knees showed, scratched and bloodied, through tears in her trousers.
Here she was hurt, in pain, and all he'd thought of was having her for his pleasure. He was no better than the idiot berating her.
"I work here," Bernard was telling her. "I park here every night. Bah." He pulled out his wallet and offered her an insurance card. "You give me yours."
"I'm not responsible. Someone hit me from behind." The girl ignored the card, hobbled slowly to where the motorcycle lay beside the car and crouched down. She ran her hand over one misshapen tire, then the other. "Damn it, they're both blown."
"Miss. Miss." When she didn't respond, Bernard stalked over to her. "We call the insurance; let them say who pay."
She bent over to look under the car. "I don't have any."
His sous-chef did the same. "What do you say?"
"Insurance." She stood, bracing one hand against the hood of the Volvo to steady herself. "I don't carry any on my bike."
"So now I must pay for everything. Such convenience for you." Bernard straightened and took out his mobile. "I call police now."
"Wait a minute." She gave Bernard her full attention. "There's no need to get the police involved. We can work this out between the two of us."
She tried to sound more amicable, but for the first time Dansant caught a glimpse of fear in her eyes, and moved quickly over to stand beside her.
"I am French," Bernard informed her before Dansant could say a word. "No stupid. I know your game. You crash into my car on purpose, force me give you money."
"No, Bernard," Dansant told him. "Clearly it was an accident." And if the man didn't soon shut up, Dansant was almost certain he was going to beat him senseless.
His sous-chef folded his arms. "She is scumming me."
"Scamming," she corrected. "And no, I'm not doing that. Look, this was an accident, that's all. Why don't we just call it even and walk away?"
"You ruin my car. You have no insurance. You are no walking away." Bernard began to dial.
"Écrase." Dansant took out his wallet, eyed the car, and removed a handful of hundreds, which he put in the sous-chef's soft hand. "This will pay for the damages, plus two weeks' pay."
"Chef." Bernard frowned at the money. "I do not need my pay tonight."
"Yes, you do. You're fired. Adieu, Bernard." Dansant turned to the girl, who stared at him with visible disbelief. Over Bernard's sputtering, he said, "You are hurt, but I can help you. Come with me."
"I'll be fine, thanks." She seemed genuinely unconcerned about her injuries. "Who are you?"
"Jean-Marc Dansant. I own this restaurant. Come, mademoiselle." He took her arm, and when she pulled back he gestured at her knees. "Look, there, you are bleeding. I have a first-aid kit inside."
"My name is Rowan." She turned her head. "My bike—"
"It cannot be taken, not as it is now," he assured her.
Rowan stared at the hand on her arm and then into his eyes. "Why are you doing this? You don't know me."
She is afraid—of me?
"Oui." He didn't have the words to tell her, not yet. Not when he didn't understand what was pulling him to her. Whatever it was, he could not let it vanish into the night. He released her as he tried to think of something to say. "It is the kindness of a stranger, yes?"
"Not something I usually depend on." Rowan looked down at herself and sighed. "But I do need to clean up."
He clenched his teeth as images of his hands undressing her and washing her filled his mind. "Then come inside with me, please." He offered her his hand this time, and after a long, silent moment, she took it.
"Jamais dans ma vie," Bernard called after them as Dansant guided her through the kitchen door and into the restaurant. "You be sorry you fire me. I am best sous-chef in—"
Fortunately the heavy steel door cut off the rest of what he shouted.
"Wait, please." Dansant left her by the long prep table and retrieved the first-aid kit from the dry storage room. When he returned she had stripped off her jacket and the shreds of her gloves, and was washing her hands at the rinsing sink beside the industrial dishwasher. Under a black T-shirt she wore a long-sleeved white thermal shirt, the cuffs of which were stained red with blood.
For the first time he realized how very tall she was—only an inch or two shorter than he was—and how perfectly her long body would fit to his. He'd never made love to a woman who matched him physically. Nor would he if he left her standing and bleeding in his kitchen while he indulged in such fantasies.
"Let me see," he said as he put the kit on the sideboard.
"They're not too bad. My gloves took the worst of it." She showed him her grazed, reddened palms before looking down. "My knees are a mess, though."
Dansant pulled an empty crate over by the table. "Sit here."
She didn't move. "Thanks, but I think I can do this by myself."
Dansant removed some gauze pads and a small bottle of peroxide from the kit. "You are still shaken, ma mûre."
She limped over to the crate and perched on it. "So are you usually this kind to strangers?" Before he could answer, she added, "I'm not going to sue, if that's what you're worried about."
That she thought of herself as a stranger to him was perplexing. From the moment he'd seen her face, he'd known her. Not who she was, or why she had come to him now, but everything that mattered between a man and a woman. All he had to do was be patient, and wait for her to give herself over to him. Then he would show her what they were meant to be together.
Doesn't she feel it?
"I do not worry about this." He knelt before her to inspect the damage to her knees. "There is debris in the wounds. From the ground." He would need scissors to cut away her trouser legs. "I must remove it."
As soon as he put his hand on her leg, Rowan stiffened. "I don't think so."
He glanced up. "You do not like to be touched."
"Oh, sometimes I like it fine." She stared at his mouth before lifting her eyes to his, and he saw a glimmer of heat and longing. "It's the stranger part I have trouble with."
"So do I." More than he could ever tell her. "Perhaps just for tonight, we should think we are friends."
"Friends." She seemed amused by this, but leaned back on her elbows. "All right, Dansant. Do whatever you want."