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Shay Mallory felt the sensation of being watched as she walked down her long driveway, her tennis shoes crunching on the sparse gravel. Late morning fog hovered in the branches of the tall redwoods forming a canopy above her. She breathed deep the briny scent of ocean air and willed herself to relax. Not an easy task.
A twig snapped behind her. Tensing, she peered over her shoulder at the deep shadows lengthened by the soaring trees, but saw no one. She was being jumpy. There was no one there. Nothing to be afraid of, and yet she was. Fear clung to her back, digging its long sharp claws into her shoulders, a constant reminder of its needling presence.
She'd spent her whole life jumping at imaginary threats, constantly moving until one town blurred into the next. But her paranoid father had been dead a long time now. For years, there had been just her and Grams in these woods, and no reason to be afraid. No reason to jump.
A whimpering sounded behind her. Smiling, she stopped and turned.
"Hey, Buddy." She squatted next to the large husky that had been shadowing her and rubbed the thick brown fur on his cheeks. He looked more like a wolf than a dog and had been her only companion since Grams died last year. If it weren't for him, she'd be completely alone. She brushed off the thought and the sense of deep sadness that came with it. Until she figured out what was going on with her, spending less time around people would be better anyway.
Buddy sat and she patted his head. "You can't come with me, Buddy. You know that. You scare people."
The dog whined and, lying down, dropped its head onto its outstretched paws, looking absolutely adorable. "I know. They're idiots. Stay here. I'll be right back. Promise." She stood and, with a lighter step and a pat to her pocket to make sure she had her iPod, she hurried down the road.
She knew she should move closer to the city and try to find a job in a design firm. Home-based graphic design businesses could be tough to get off the ground since it seemed as if everyone and their brother could design a website these days. But there weren't too many places she would be able to live with Buddy. He needed room to run, to stretch his legs, to be free where some gun-happy yahoo wouldn't mistake him for a wolf and shoot him. She'd find a way to make the money to fix up the old house and stay right where she was. In her home.
As Shay considered her options, she crossed Highway 1, and headed toward picturesque Main Street. Thank goodness, with the onset of school and the cooler weather, most of the summer tourists were gone and she encountered no one on her way. She passed through an alley between two buildings and walked into the hardware store.
"Good morning, Shay," Mr. Henderson said from behind the counter. "You know, it's not sunny out."
Shay smiled and took off the dark shades she never went without these days. She couldn't take the chance. Without them she'd be distracted and sometimes scared by the colors, but Mr. Henderson was okay. She already knew what his colors were, yellow and blue and happy.
She took a deep breath and looked around her. Luckily no one else was in the store. "I need another tube of Spackle."
"More? What are you doing up there?" Astonishment raised his voice, and his grayish-green eyes bulged a little under salt-and-pepper brows.
"Grams's place must be on a fault line. Cracks keep forming in the walls, especially on the east side of the house."
He crinkled his already heavily lined forehead, creating fissures as deep as the ones in her walls. "You might want to get someone out there to look at the foundation."
"I will," she said to appease him. And she would as soon as she got the money, which wouldn't be anytime soon. "Thanks, Mr. Henderson." She took the Spackle and headed toward the door.
"Let me know if you need any help out there, okay?" Concern softened his voice.
She smiled, and wished not for the first time that Grams could have seen how much he'd cared for her, that they could have spent her last few years together. No one should live their life alone like Grams had.
Shay waved, slid the glasses back on and placed her iPod's earbuds in her ears as she left the shop and hurried down the street to Annie's Fresh Farm Grocery Store. Like so many stores in the village, the white clapboard two-story was adorned with flowers and antiques that made the building look charming instead of old and run-down. Annie's was a little overpriced, but it was better than driving to the large chain store down the highway. Besides, how much did one girl and her dog need?
Shay picked up a dozen fresh organic brown eggs and placed them in her basket, then perused the spinach and tomatoes before adding them to the eggs. As she picked up an avocado and gave it a gentle squeeze, the small hairs on her nape prickled-the telltale sensation that someone was watching her again.
Without making it obvious, she glanced around her, holding her breath and hoping she was wrong. For the past couple of weeks, she'd barely been able to leave the house without running into some kind of problem. Not just the uncomfortable sensation of someone's attention, which usually meant trouble, but suddenly people glowed. Everyone was surrounded by colors, some bright, some dull, some black. Black was the color she was afraid of the most. But the worst part was the noise. People's brains hummed and if a person was excited enough, their thoughts would burst right through the hum.
Shay really didn't want to know what people were thinking.
Mostly she heard a low buzz, all the time, everywhere she went. When it first started, she'd thought she'd go mad, but she'd learned to block it out. To never leave the house without her sunglasses and an iPod. It had been three weeks since the weird buzz and lights had started. Three weeks, and still they hadn't gone away. No one was paying much attention to her. No reason to warrant the nape prickling.
She took a few more steps when the soothing caress of warm energy brushed up against her arm. Gasping, she jumped back, almost dropping her basket. One of her earbuds popped out of her ear. She choked on the breath still caught in her throat and saw the man standing next to her. He was tall and slim with strong arms and snug-fitting jeans. Real snug. Real nice. Thick brown hair curled around his ears and astonishing pale blue eyes stared at her in concern.
"It's okay, I'm fine." She slapped an open palm to her chest to get the air flowing again and nodded, trying to look normal-when nothing about this situation, about this man, was normal. The most beautiful colors she'd ever seen surrounded him. Colors so bright she could even see them through the dark glasses. She couldn't recall ever seeing those particular shades of blue and purple before. Air burst out of her lungs and a feeling of calm settled over her. Better yet, the buzzing noise was gone. Her mind was completely at peace.
She turned off her iPod. Yep, not a sound was coming from him. How was that possible?
"I think that one is ripe. Probably even bruised by now," he said with a cocky grin.
She stared at him, stupefied, then embarrassment kicked in and she dropped the avocado into her basket.
"I-I don't think I've seen you around town before," she stammered, searching for something to say. He was awash in extraordinary colors. She could see right through the dark lenses of her glasses and it left her breathless and amazed.
"That would be because I just got here. I've been hired to oversee the remodeling of a new shop opening in the village-Tamara's Candles and Incense."
"Oh, nice," she murmured as her tongue thickened in her mouth. Obviously, it had been too long since she'd talked to people. Especially men. Drop-dead gorgeous men.
"You realize there's no sun outside," he said, staring at her glasses.
Geez, was it really that dark out? Preparing herself, she slipped off the glasses and dropped them into her basket. The man's aura was more startling than she'd first thought, and he had the most incredible bluish-gray eyes she'd ever seen.
"You have beautiful eyes. You shouldn't hide them," he said, staring into them with such intensity that a warm flush filled her face.
No one had ever said anything like that about her eyes before and she didn't quite know how to respond. So she didn't. She kept her mouth shut and her foot out of it.
"You don't happen to know where I can find a short-term apartment?" he asked, his voice rippling through her in an unusually intoxicating way.
She was staring, overwhelmed by the colors shimmering around his head and the fact that she couldn't hear his mind working. Not even the slightest buzz. Though for some reason he was affecting her body temperature. She let out a deep breath.
Amusement danced in his eyes.
"I'm uh sorry? Did you say something?" she asked, certain flaming-red must be filling her cheeks.
"An apartment?" he repeated.
"There is a real-estate office right down the street." She pointed in the direction he should go.
He had such a wonderful earthy smell, something she could almost place. What was it? Cedar? Cinnamon? Apple? All of the above mixed together in a cornucopia of goodness.
"Thanks, was hoping not to have to deal with leases and finder's fees and all that, since I won't be here for very long."
"Right." What was he talking about? An apartment? Maybe she should ? No. She couldn't. She wasn't used to being around men who made her feel so jittery and tongue-tied. Or like a complete idiot. No, she was better off keeping to herself. And she knew it. Just like she knew she was a complete and utter chicken.
Keep your head down, Shay. You never know when they'll find you. Her father's warnings rushed through her mind. Not that she ever knew who they were, why they were looking or even what they wanted.
But for this man, she could easily forget her daddy's warning. Mercy! With his dark hair streaked with a rebellious red, high cheekbones and wide, promising lips She sighed. Not to mention strong shoulders that stretched from here to eternity. He was built and looked as if he could easily carry her and the world, and fight off whoever they might be.
And then she noticed his hands-large, strong hands. How she loved hands. Some girls liked chests and others liked butts. She loved hands. And his looked solid and capable. A warrior's hands. She sighed again.
"Well, hope to see you around," he said, after the long awkward pause she just realized had happened.
"Um, yeah. Right," she murmured, but too late. He was already gone. Yep. Way to make a lasting impression, Shay. Not!
She glanced around the small store once more before walking toward the cash register. Her handsome warrior must have slipped out. Feeling foolish and distracted, she paid for her groceries, loaded up her tote bag, then walked out the door and collided into someone walking in.
"I'm sorry," she muttered, looking up into a black fathomless gaze.
Shay's heart slammed against her rib cage. She'd been foolish enough to walk out the door without putting her glasses back on or her earbuds back in her ears.
An angry buzz filled her head, growing louder by the second. She shook her head, trying to dispel the distracting noise. Color-or the lack of color, more like a muddy darkness-surrounded him. Head down, she pushed past him. Gooseflesh raising her skin where she'd touched him.
Just go in the store, she thought. Go in and leave me alone.
She should have known that would be too much to hope for.
The man turned and followed her. Fear twisted and turned in her stomach as bile rose in her throat. They are coming, Daddy. They've found me. She quickened her step, trying to put distance between her and the man. It didn't work. He kept after her. What did he want?
She hesitated at the mouth of the alley between the two buildings that led into the parking lot and the quickest way back to her house. To Buddy. But she wasn't sure she wanted to go in there. And worse, beyond the alley, beyond the parking lot, she would be at the highway and once crossed, there was nothing but woods. She'd be alone. Where no one would be able to see her. Or hear her.
She screwed up her courage and spun around on the sidewalk to face her pursuer. Hoping he wouldn't be there.
But he was.
"Excuse me," she said in what she hoped was a strong, steady voice.
His clean-shaven face held no expression. With his dress pants and polo shirt, he looked like any other tourist up from San Francisco. He certainly didn't look like something evil. But he was. She could tell by the dark shadows circling around his head and the slightly bitter, metallic way he smelled.
His nostrils flared as he sniffed the air around her, then he moved closer, his eyes a black void of nothingness.
"Can I help you with something?" she asked, a slight quaver shaking her voice as she took a step back from him.
He didn't answer. Just moved closer, uncomfortably close. She stepped back again and found herself at the mouth of the alley. She squared herself, planting her feet in a wide stance. All those years with her paranoid father teaching her everything from judo to how to shoot a revolver came rushing back. She dropped her tote bag, raised her hands, leaned her body weight slightly forward and loosened her knees.
"Turn around and get away from me," she demanded.
He stared at her with those obsidian black eyes that held no soul, and smiled. It was that smile, dripping with evil, that scared her more than anything he could have said.
What was he?
"What do you want from me?" her voice squeaked. She tried to stop looking at him. She didn't want to see the dark, shifting shadows encircling his head or what was moving within them. What was that? She could have sworn she'd seen teeth. And claws.