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With a flash of fire, a spray of broken glass and an earsplitting boom, the world exploded behind Jillian Drake. Shattered glass might have lacerated her skin as flames burst from the building in front of which she'd been reporting, but strong arms had closed around her, lifting her off her feet and carrying her out of danger just seconds before the explosion.
Her heart hammered at her ribs beneath the heavily muscled arms that wound around her. She clutched at her protector's wool jacket, digging her fingers into the material to loosen his tight embrace. But his grip didn't ease until the heat from the fire receded into the damp night air and the brightness of the flames disappeared into darkness. Then the hold eased enough that Jillian slid down the hard length of his body until her feet touched the asphalt. She squirmed in those strong arms, turning toward the man who held her. But she couldn't see his face; she could see only the dark shadow of shoulders that seemed impossibly wide.
Her breath caught in her lungs, along with the scent of him: wood smoke, leather and something elementally male. She needed to thank him for saving her. But how had he known she would need saving? How had he known the building would explode?
"Who are you?" She asked the most important of all the questions swirling through her mind.
Releasing her completely, he dropped his arms from around her and stepped back. The sudden lack of warmth sent a chill racing through her. Where had he come from? Before the explosion, the area had been the scene of a break-in and was restricted to the police officers who'd been securing it. The police had arrived after the reporters, who were already filming in front of the building because it housed the executive offices of the most powerful and currently the most besieged man in Rapid City, Michigan.
She hadn't noticed her rescuer among the uniforms and media, and standing only a few feet from him now, she could barely see his face. In the narrow alley between tall buildings, he appeared more shadow than human. Was he…?
No. It wasn't possible. Despite all the wild claims people had been making lately, there were no such thing as phantoms. He was real; Jillian had felt him, warm and strong, as he'd carried her off. To safety or danger? As well as the break-ins and explosions, there'd been a couple of murders, too, although no evidence had linked those crimes to these. To his?
"Who are you?" she asked again, tipping her head back as she tried to meet his gaze. She needed him to answer her, even if he didn't tell her his name; she needed to hear his voice, to know he could speak.
"Jillian!" someone urgently called for her. "Jillian!"
It was Charlie, her cameraman. God, what if he'd been hurt? She glanced back in the direction of the shouts and crackling noises of the fire. She had to check on her crew and make sure they were all right. She should have thought of them already.
She would have but for him. She turned toward the man who'd rescued her. The darkness had swallowed him whole, revealing not even a glimmer of his eyes or an outline of those mammoth shoulders. All that remained of him was a faint, raspy-whispered threat. "Don't get too close."
So he could speak. She had questions she wanted to ask, but she couldn't when people she cared about were in danger. Ignoring him, she rushed back toward the burning building. "Charlie? Charlie?"
"Over here, Jillian," the curly-haired young man replied, heaving a sigh of relief as she ran up to where he shakily leaned against a car with a broken windshield. "Thank God you're okay," he told her. "I was filming you and then someone—or something—grabbed you. You were just gone. And then the building blew up…" He shuddered.
She reached out, knocking bits of glass and brick dust from his blond hair. Blood trickled from cuts on his face, dripping off his chin onto his T-shirt. "You're not okay. You're hurt."
"A lot less than you would have been if you'd been standing where you were…"
Jillian glanced back toward the building, unable to discern, for all the debris, where she'd been standing on the sidewalk in front of it. Whoever had grabbed her had probably saved her life. "I'm fine," she assured Charlie. "And you will be, too. Help's coming."
Lights still flashed from the police cars that had already been at the scene when the building blew. Now other lights flashed and sirens blared as more fire engines and paramedics approached.
Charlie shook his head. "Hell's coming if we don't get some footage of this." But as he lifted the camera, his face contorted into a grimace of pain.
"You can't do this," she pointed out. "You're hurt."
"If we don't, we'll be dead. Mike'll kill us for not getting the story, especially with the national networks showing up to scoop us." He gestured toward the other reporters gathered around the burning building, already filming. "We're turning into a joke, not knowing what the hell's going on in our own city."
Anger surged through Jillian, heating her skin more than the flames licking up from the ruins of what had once been an office building. She remembered why she was out here—past the curfew the mayor had declared for River City, Michigan. For the past couple of weeks, the city had been under siege, but no one knew who had declared war or why. Jillian was determined to find out, not just because of the boost it would give her career, but because she'd been ignorant once before of what had been going on under her nose. She wouldn't be that stupid—or trusting—ever again.
"Where's Vicky?" she asked. "Please say that she stayed in the van." The young assistant producer had been back in the vehicle, checking the live feed to the station, when the building had exploded and obliterated the crime scene of broken windows and the front door.
Charlie nodded. "She's okay. She was in the van, which is parked far enough down the street that it's out of the line of fire."
Just as Jillian had been—because of the man from the shadows. But had he come from the shadows or had he come from the fire like Dante rising from his own inferno… Dante. Maybe that was what she would have to call him since he wouldn't tell her his name.
Vicky, her short dark hair mussed, pushed through the police officers trying to secure the new perimeter of the crime scene. "God, Charlie, you're bleeding!"
With another grimace, he shrugged off her concern. "Help me with the camera. We have got to get some footage of the scene."
"We were rolling live when the explosion happened. We got some great stuff," Vicky assured them.
But it wasn't enough to capture what had happened; Jillian needed to know why. And apparently she wasn't the only one. Along with the police cars and the rescue crews that had rushed to the scene, a long, black limousine idled in the street.
"He's here," Jillian murmured, her pulse quickening with excitement as it always did in his proximity.
"It's his business that's burning down," Vicky said.
"They're all his businesses." Every one that had been broken into and burned down in the past two weeks had belonged to one man—the tycoon of River City, Tobias St. John. That was why so many camera crews had been filming outside his executive offices before the building had even exploded She had no doubt that he knew what was going on and why, but she had no hope of getting him to share that information with her. Ever since she'd been hired by WXXM three years ago, she'd been trying to persuade Tobias St. John to grant her an interview—with no success. Even when they had run into each other during one of his rare public appearances, he'd only spoken one word to her.
The word reverberated inside his head like a shout, even though he hadn't uttered it aloud. He couldn't risk revealing his presence.
But he had risked everything—for her. He'd stepped out of the shadows. Hell, he'd run out of them to pull her to safety. Not that she had appreciated or stayed out of danger. She'd rushed right back into it.
The fire blazing behind her, she faced the camera. Her hair tangled around her face, the red waves nearly as vivid as those flames. Her green eyes focused on the lens as if she spoke to just one person, giving that one viewer her undivided attention. God, she was beautiful.…
And so damn ambitious. And smart.
"Don't get too close," he warned her again. She wouldn't hear him this time since he hid again in the shadows. And if she had heard him the first time, she hadn't understood what he meant.
He hadn't been talking about the fire. He'd been talking about so much more. He couldn't let her get too close to the truth. Or she would destroy even more than the bomb he'd set inside the offices he'd robbed.
"Can you get that any clearer?" Jillian asked as she stared at herself on the monitor in the station control room. They wouldn't have had any footage at all if they hadn't been filming live from the scene, so they were able to play back what they'd broadcasted live. Her image blurred as the shadowy figure swept her off her feet. Squinting, she leaned closer to the screen, her hand on Vicky's thin shoulder. "Can you tell who he is?"
Vicky's breath shuddered out. "Don't you mean what? It has to be that monster all the witnesses you've interviewed keep talking about seeing at the crime scenes."
Jillian shook her head even as goose bumps lifted the skin on her arms, and the nape of her neck tingled. Those eyewitness accounts had been about as credible as campfire ghost stories. As if some phantom really rose from the sewers at night to attack the city…
She shrugged off her uneasiness the same way she always had when she pragmatically dismissed those stories told around the bonfire during summer camp. "Not possible."
"So you don't believe in monsters?" Vicky asked.
Jillian couldn't deny that there were monsters in the world. She'd interviewed a few over the years—in the form of serial killers and child abusers. And she'd lived with one.
"I know you don't believe that any of those people really saw anything, but…" Vicky pushed a button and another monitor brought up footage from a few days ago of an older woman speaking into the microphone Jillian held to her mouth.
"Can you tell us what you witnessed before the burglar alarm sounded at St. John's Fine Arts Store?" Jil-lian's voice emanated from the speakers as she posed the question to the witness.
"I don't know what it was that came out of the smashed windows at the front of the building," the older woman replied, her teeth clattering together as she trembled. "It was so big—like some kind of giant— dressed all in black."
"Did you see his face?" Jillian asked. "Could you identify him?"
"I don't even know if it was a man," the woman replied. "He didn't have a face."
More monitors on the wall of the editing room flickered to life—with footage of other interviews, other witnesses saying the same things.
"It was huge."
"Something out of this world—a monster."
"It was a ghost."
"A pha ntom ."
"It wasn't human. It couldn't have been.…"
Jillian focused on just one of those monitors, the one that showed her being lifted in the arms of the man everyone else called a monster. And she called her rescuer.
Charlie had had the camera trained on her as she reported about the attacks on Tobias St. John's businesses, including the robbery in progress at his executive offices. When the man, who was so tall, grabbed her, his head didn't enter the frame. The screen showed only the long, muscular body and broad shoulders, but no face.
"So what was it?" Vicky asked. "You got closer than any of these other witnesses."
Don't get too close…
Had he been talking about the burning building…or himself?
Jillian uttered a shuddery sigh of frustration. "I don't know. The building had just exploded. I was in the dark with him. And distracted. Charlie started calling out for me. I had to make sure he was all right and that you were okay, too."
Vicky flinched. "It was so scary even just watching from the van. I saw that thing grab you and then everything blew up. The lens shattered and the camera broke." Her young voice cracked as she relived the terror. "I didn't know what had happened to you or to Charlie."
"I wasn't sure, either," Jillian admitted. "It all took place so quickly."
"But he let you go," Vicky said. "He saved you instead of killing you…like he probably killed those other women."
Jillian shivered. "We don't know that he's responsible for those murders." Two young women had died, the first just over two weeks ago. The body of the second had been found recently, but she'd probably died around the same time as the first victim, according to the coroner. "They died before people started talking about seeing this…"
"Monster," Vicky said. "But their deaths have to be related. The first woman was the nanny of Tobias St. John's little girl."
Not only had his businesses been attacked, but his nanny had been killed. Fortunately his daughter hadn't been with her; the woman had been alone in the park. His daughter must have been home with him. According to Jillian's sources, her mother had divorced Tobias and left years ago.
"You're lucky to be alive," Vicky cautioned her.
"If he'd wanted me dead, he would have just left me standing in front of that building, and the explosion would have done the job for him."
"Like it could have killed Charlie." Vicky rubbed at her eyes, as if dashing away tears. She cared about the cameraman, but she wouldn't admit to having feelings for a coworker. "I'm glad you sent him home. He really got hurt."