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Jolted from a heavy sleep by frantic gloved hands, Loren Smith struck back at her attacker, hoping that her life would be spared.
She tried to scream, but could only cough as intense heat seared her lungs. Two firemen came into focus, and Loren realized this wasn't an attack but a rescue.
"Your apartment is on fire and we've got to get out of here," one said firmly.
Loren stabbed her feet into her running shoes and grabbed her large emergency duffel bag that was always packed.
"We're going out that way," the fireman said, moving her swiftly toward the window.
"I can't," she screamed, shaking. "I'll die."
She could hear crackling and bursting beyond her bedroom door and she knew there was only one choice. But she froze in place and didn't reach for the fireman who'd stepped onto the ladder outside the window.
Instead she saw her ex-boyfriend of two years ago, Odesi, who'd stabbed her and then tried to throw her out the window as if she were waste.
Loren pushed back with both feet. The fireman behind her took the bag from her shoulder and tossed it out the second-story window. He grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off her feet. "What's your name?"
"Loren. Loren Smith."
"Loren, I'm Lieutenant Tim Heath. I will not let you die," he said quickly and forcefully. "You will be safe. Lieutenant Tuggle will assist you down the ladder. Do not look down. Now, go!" Loren closed her eyes, and just like that the nightmare returned.
Odesi stabbed her… The paramedics arrived in time… The doctors saved her life… You will never model again.
Tuggle jostled her as embers of her life sprinkled down around her. "Stay with me, Loren."
Finally they were on the ground.
At the bottom she was placed inside the ambulance and given oxygen. The TV camera lights beaming into the small windows. There was pandemonium and all Loren could register as a mask was shoved over her face was that her safe haven of two years was being devoured by flames.
It was still black out, but dawn would approach in hours. Rob Hood tried to hide his gun when he realized the sobbing intruder was Zoe's friend, Loren, but she'd already seen it. He held up his empty left hand.
"Please, don't shoot," they both said at the same time, he with the gun, she with defense spray.
"I won't shoot you," he said, putting the gun on top of the baker's rack. "Why are you here? Why are you crying?"
"Why are you here?" Her back was against the quartz-stone kitchen counter, and she was braced to run. This was more than deer-in-the-headlights want to run. Real fear filled the distance between them, and he knew she would have fought if anything got in her way. Rob held up his hands to let her know he wouldn't stop her or hurt her, and even in her mania he hoped she recognized his desire to keep things calm.
Gripping his crutches, he maneuvered slowly, careful not to put any pressure on his new knee. "Loren, what's wrong?"
"I called Zoe not more than five minutes ago, and she didn't mention that you were here in her house. Never mind. I'll leave." Loren's accent enthralled him; the weighty resonance of it made him want to close his eyes and listen to her as one would a smooth jazz piece. He knew of her African American/Native American heritage because he'd heard Zoe mention her best friend's ancestry. He'd been house-sitting at Zoe's suburban Atlanta house for a week while his twin brother, Ben, and Zoe took a much-needed vacation. The house had been empty—until now.
Loren kept her right arm braced against the center of her body, her hand balled into a fist.
The exotic woman, even without makeup, was beautiful, with smoldering green eyes and cheekbones that were high over expressive full lips. She looked scared. He knew from Zoe that the former hugely successful runway model had been disfigured by a boyfriend. That she'd become a virtual recluse.
"Zoe owes me an explanation," Loren said, wiping her eyes.
Rob recalled meeting Loren the past summer at his house. His attraction to the fair-skinned woman had been immediate, but his curiosity over her desire to be alone had catapulted her into his thoughts repeatedly over the months.
Though he'd mentioned helping the troubled woman through her difficulties to Ben and Zoe, they'd relayed her refusal. The fact that she was before him now was like a dream come true and a nightmare rolled into one. Loren wasn't at all happy to see him.
"Zoe and Ben went on vacation because they wanted to spend some quality time alone. I'm sure you know how much they love each other. Besides, ever since we solved the robberies in her stores, Zoe's been going nonstop. They both needed some downtime."
"Stop. I don't want to hear about my best friend from you. I don't believe a word you're saying. Zoe would have called me. She hasn't been gone from here in Atlanta that long."
The house phone rang and she watched as Rob picked it up. "Zoe, your friend is here and she's scared." Rob took his time getting to the table, his knee tender because he'd just run on it from the bedroom. "I'm putting you on speaker."
"Honey, please don't be alarmed—" Zoe pleaded with Loren over the air.
"Too late," Loren snapped, and eased over to the table as Rob pivoted on his crutches and walked back to the doorway that separated the kitchen from the dining room.
"I'm so sorry. Rob is there recovering from surgery and needed to be in a place that had a bedroom on the main level."
"How could you forget to tell me that you have a man staying here? I can't stay here. And he has a gun."
"I had my gun because I thought you were an intruder. You can stay here," Rob assured her.
"Butt out," Loren snapped at him.
"Loren," Zoe chided. "He's right, you can stay there. Rob is in the guest room downstairs and you can stay in my room upstairs," Zoe explained. "That way he won't have to navigate the steps."
"Why can't he go somewhere else? I thought you told me there were a lot of Hoods? He's got like two sisters and ten cousins and another brother, besides Ben, right? Why can't he go stay with one of them?"
"A slight exaggeration, but yes, sweetie. I'm sorry I didn't tell you he was in the house, but I was so caught up with the news of your apartment, I forgot. But there's more than enough rooms to choose from, and you both are mature adults. You can share living space. He's a good guy, sweetie." Zoe's voice was speaking in an empty kitchen. Loren had gotten up and walked back through the den to the foyer.
Rob hobbled on his crutches to the stairs and watched her get her things together.
"Loren! What are you doing?" Zoe demanded.
"Nothing, Zoe. We'll work it out." Loren had a gazelle-like stride that carried her back into the kitchen, where she grabbed a bottled water out of the stainless-steel refrigerator, and she straightened up the table until everything was exactly as it had been before she arrived. "Everything will be fine. I'll call you in a couple days."
"Promise me you'll stay."
The woman was nothing if not a whirlwind of determination. I can't promise, but I'll let you know if I go somewhere else." Loren sighed.
Rob had placed the phone on the table, and before he could get back, Loren had it in her hand and back onto the base. She eased past without touching him and was up the stairs in a flash.
"Where are you going?" Rob asked, hoping he wouldn't have to wrestle her for the room.
"To get a change of clothes, and then to a hotel."
When Rob got up the stairs, she'd already been through Zoe's closet, chosen what she wanted and was about to head past him when he stopped her.
"What are you doing up?"she demanded. "Zoe said you're staying in the bed room downstairs."
"I was going to stay in there but the TV doesn't work. Besides, I'm all settled in this room."
Loren's look said she didn't think much of his answer. "You should go home."
"I don't have a car. And I'm comfortable here." He watched her closely. "You look like hell." Tall like most runway models, she was at least six foot, but tonight she looked small in her nondescript sneakers and borrowed sweatpants, her black hair frizzy and unkempt.
He'd heard stories of how her career had ended, but tonight he saw that she was truly only a shadow of her former self. "You've got bruises that are turning purple. They're going to be scary-looking tomorrow."
"I've had worse." Loren took the stairs down quickly.
"No hotel worker in their right mind would rent to you. You look like a woman that's got trouble following her."
Rob was at the top of the stairs and he could see that she'd finally stopped at the front door. He took his crutches in his right hand and hopped down a few stairs, holding on to the railing.
Her face was in profile, tear-streaked and stressed. When he'd been on the force, he'd talked criminals into turning themselves in, but he couldn't bet whether Loren would walk out the door.
"Your best friend wouldn't recommend you stay here if I were some type of crazed psychopath. You can leave, but you'd be hurting yourself worse."
Still, she reached for the doorknob.
"Loren," he chided. "Don't be so stubborn."
Her fingers slipped off the knob. Rob watched her for a few seconds. "The bed is made and the bathroom is clean. If you want to talk—"
"I don't want to talk about anything." The weight of the world looked as if it rested on her delicate shoulders. Her nose was red from crying and her wavy black hair was limp and in need of washing. She seriously needed to cry and then sleep.
"Okay. You don't have to, but I'm a good listener."
"Are you some kind of armchair psychologist? My life isn't Monday-morning football. I don't want to talk! I'm not your friend and I don't want to talk to you."
"Okay!" Rob almost laughed, but he could see that wouldn't go over well. Loren wasn't like one of his sisters, all of whom had thick skin and were used to his teasing.
"Good night." He turned around and went into his room upstairs, closing the door behind him.
He lay on the bed, the lights off, and wondered what she was doing. Three distinctive beeps answered his question. She'd set the alarm and left.
Rob turned over, closing his eyes. DeLinda, his wife, appeared, and he knew it was because she and Loren favored so closely. But DeLinda had been dead for two-and-a-half years now, and he only saw her in his mind's eye. He could no longer feel or smell her. She was gone and his heart was ready to love again, but he hadn't met anyone.
He'd thought he'd been right about Loren, but apparently not. Sleep crept over him.
He could hear the lower master bathroom shower started and his eyes slid open.
Rob closed his eyes and saw Loren and the challenge she presented. He took a deep breath and let it seep out of him slowly. He'd never met a challenge he hadn't won over. He'd start by feeding her.
He made his way downstairs and started breakfast just as the sun yawned its awakening.
Loren felt feral in her anger for Rob Hood. He's probably just like all men: not able to be trusted. Why couldn't he have just left?
He was making it impossible for her to rest. Impossible for her to think or to move on with the next phase of reclaiming her life.
She lay on the bed in Zoe's pajamas, which looked more like capri pants on her long legs, and stared at the locked bedroom door with the chair wedged under it.
Her eyes grew heavy with sleep, and the papers she'd been writing on crinkled under her weight. Rob Hood was not trying to break into her room as her mind wanted to imagine, but he was singing and doing a terrible job at it.
Getting up, she took the hoodie off the chair and zipped it to her throat. Opening the locked door, she was stopped at the aromatic pleasure.
What in the hell did he think he was doing? The kitchen was her domain. Loren knew the thought was irrational. Rob probably didn't remember she was a caterer. She'd only been to his house one time, and that was when Zoe had asked her to cook for them.
Now Zoe was in love with Ben and off gallivanting on some island.
Walking through the dining room to the kitchen, Loren found a plate of food on the counter with a note.
On the deck watching the sunrise. Join me.
He'd made eggs over easy and hot dogs. Her most favorite breakfast in the world.
Her gaze ricocheted to the phone. The only way he could have known that was to find out from Zoe.
Her tongue slid across her teeth and her mouth watered. She thought of her freezer full of Sahlen's hot dogs from Buffalo, New York, that were all ruined now. And here she had one hot dog, no bun, a dollop of ketchup on the side. An all-protein breakfast, just the way she liked.
She picked up the plate and considered her options. She could go outside and eat her food with him and watch the sunrise. Or not.
Suspicion doused the tiny bit of comfort she took in his thoughtfulness. What did he want in exchange for making her breakfast? Sure, he was being nice now, but all men were nice at first.
The day would come when Rob would likely turn into an angry, violent beast, and she'd think back to today and wonder why she'd ever walked outside.
Taking her plate into the dining room, she sat at the table and dipped her dog into the ketchup before biting. There wasn't a better hot dog on the planet. Her back to the sunrise, she saw the beautiful fireball crest the horizon in the framed print of van Gogh's Sunflowers. She wished she'd actually gone outside to see the real thing.
All the work that had to be done to restore her life crowded in her mind, and the perfect eggs she'd been enjoying turned flat when she glanced over her shoulder and saw Rob outside, looking at her, one crutch under his arm.