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The floor lurched under Trey Black's feet. Wooden planks, crippled by age and neglect, groaned like arthritic joints forced into movement. He waited one second, two.
Another quick jolt and the old Imperial Opera House stilled again.
The second jerk took him momentarily back to another place, to Afghanistan, to the smell of sun-scorched earth and gun oil, sweat and the tangible scent of fear.
He stood motionless between a row of chairs looking toward the stage, eyes scanning the ghostly fly tower with its combination of counterweights and pulleys, the rusty overhead lighting, the dusty floorboards, worn and marred. It hadn't been his imaginationa few of the fly tower ropes still quivered from the sudden movement.
His mind knew he was not in Afghanistan anymore, but his body had not learned the lesson. He rubbed the back of his neck and ran a palm over his hair, the wild thatch of it still an odd contrast to the buzz cut he'd had until he'd left the army behind a month ago.
It was not enemy fire.
Not the impact from a mortar volley.
The truth materialized.
Small, probably not more than a 2.5, one of a number of quakes that had rumbled through the city in the past twenty-four hours. He'd heard some scientist on a morning talk show explaining that the miniquakes were the earth's way of releasing tension gradually as the tectonic plates ground together. Yet another scientist suggested the shakers could be warnings that the "big one" was coming.
Earthquakes were like people, he figured. Sometimes you couldn't tell if they were friendlies or enemies until it was too late. He shook away the thoughts and called softly into the darkness.
"Wally?" His voice echoed, bouncing in and out of the dark stalls, the mazelike warren of dressing rooms, rehearsal areas and the cavernous empty stage. It was a terrible place for a dog, but Trey had agreed to come check on the little critter when he was done for the evening as a favor to the caretaker. "Wally?" he said again, louder.
He caught the faintest sound, the barest squeak of a floorboard from the royal box, the ornate enclosure at the middle of the lowest tier of seating and the spot with the best sight lines to the stage. Long ago it would have been the place reserved for royalty or VIPs out for a night at the Imperial. Now, on a Sunday night, decades after the theater offered up its last real opera, it was tomblike.
He listened, body taut. The sound didn't come from the rascally dog. He wasn't sure how he knew, but he did.
Nor did he understand why he took cover behind the proscenium and began a surreptitious creep toward the noise.
No reason to suspect it was anything dangerous.
This was San Francisco, not a war zone, and he was in an empty opera house. More likely his unease was paranoia borne of long months dodging sniper bullets or worrying that a careless moment on his part would result in death.
Like the journalist embedded with their unit.
The memory bit at him before he could steel his mind against it.
He recalled the look on Sage Harrington's face when she saw her colleague hit by sniper fire. Her camera fell to the ground and those eyes, those ice-blue eyes, locked on his, soldering the two of them together in her white-hot grief. She blamed him, it was clearly written on her face.
Blamed him, when they never should have been there in the first place. He felt the burn of anger at Sage for her reckless behavior, and himself, for the stubborn way his heart still kicked up at the thought of her.
Snap out of it, Trey. Sage has to live with her decisions and you've got to live with yours.
His mind circled the facts again.
Empty opera house, closed to the public for decades.
Whoever it was making the noise was a trespasser.
Get out of the Imperial and go home.
He shouldered his backpack, heavy with the tools he'd been using to try to repair and replace the rotting wood of the lobby floor. A whisper echoed over to him, a hushed voice belonging to someone who shouldn't be there. A vagrant maybe, who had forced their way through the boarded-up windows perhaps, looking to escape the clinging October chill. He could still call it quits, look for Wally on his way out. It wasn't his problem. Not his responsibility. No reason to feel like he had to protect Mr. Long's investment from intruders. No reason to stay.
He took a deep breath and crept farther into the darkness, heading for the stairs that would take him to the royal box.
The chilled air of the opera house made Sage Harrington's skin prickle all over. Her own hands looked pale and ghostly in the meager light from her lantern, shaking slightly from the temblor she'd just felt and the oppressive blackness. It was ridiculous, really. Stupid certainly, to follow Antonia inside. Not the first time she'd behaved stupidly.
Something about Antonia Verde pricked Sage's instincts. The woman knew the truth about Sage's cousin Barbara, she was sure, something Barbara's husband, Derick, wasn't telling. Then again the whole situation might just be the product of Sage's overactive imagination. Barbara might very well be in Santa Fe like her husband claimed.
In Santa Fe.
Not answering the phone.
Not returning emails.
Nearly at full-term for her pregnancy.
Without sending so much as a postcard to check on the renovations to her beloved opera house. Sage had seen Antonia do something inexplicablepick up a picture of Barbara from the glass side table and hide it under her shirt before sneaking out of the Longs' house.
The cold feeling deep in her stomach returned. Something had happened to Barbara, and Antonia had some information that would help Sage find the truth. She'd grudgingly agreed to meet Sage at the Imperial and talk. Why in the world had they agreed to meet here?
Toughen up, Sage. She would complete her mission, as a man from her past would say, and she found she could not hold back the feelings.
How many times had she thought about Trey Black? Wondered how things would have been different if they'd gotten to know each other somewhere else instead of the hills of northeastern Afghanistan? It seemed surreal, now, that only a year ago she was snapping pictures for a top-selling news magazine, simultaneously afraid for her life and struggling against a powerful attraction toward the captain.
She flashed back to Luis, his body falling at her feet, gone, at Trey's horrified eyes in his dust-stained face. Trey's shock remained only for the barest of moments. Then he was the hardened soldier again, barking orders, shouting into a radio, his attention turned back to the task, the mission, while the medic tried frantically to save Luis's life. Trey Black, a living reminder of the worst moment in her life, simply refused to get out of her head.
Sage shook herself and tried to offer up another prayer for Barbara. No words would come. Only the same impenetrable silence, the same darkness that had cloaked her since her return.
The sound of a stair creaking stirred her senses. Though the stairs to the box were still more or less covered in tattered carpet, the old wood complained under the weight of someone's approach.
Someone? She mentally chided herself. It was Antonia, of course, passing the time while waiting for Sage. Who else would be interested in this old relic? She wished she could shine her lantern into the stairwell, but she resisted the urge. Instead she drew back into the farthest corner of the box and held the light down behind the seat. If she'd learned anything being in a war zone it was that being cautious could save your life. Unfortunately, her caution seemed to have slid into the realm of paranoia. She'd wait to be sure it was Antonia.
A vibration started under her feet, rattling harder and harder until the building seemed to come alive around her. Earthquakeand this time, much more powerful. She held on to the arm of the seat. A rending of wood sounded above her head. It must be the overhead balcony, tearing away from its moorings.
Panic swelled through her as she fought to stand against the bucking floor.
She yanked herself upright and tried to get to the exit, but she went down on one knee again, something sharp cutting through her jeans.
A roar from above made her throw her hands over her head as a section of the ceiling gave way. Fragments of plaster and wood rained down, swallowing up her scream. Dust coated her mouth as she gasped for air, panic bringing her back to the war zone, filling her gut with black despair. There was a heavy pressure and then silence.
Sage was not sure in that moment if she was alive or dead. Her own rasping breath confirmed that she was indeed living and conscious. Though the box was bathed in darkness, a weak light came from the gaping hole in the ceiling where the balcony above had come crashing through. A thick layer of dust drifted downward.
Just breathe, take it slow.
She coughed out a mouthful of plaster dust and took stock. Aside from general aches, she did not feel any lancing pain. Gingerly, she wiggled her legs and arms, turning her neck slowly to one side. She struggled to sit up but something heavy lay across her shoulders, pressing her down. She quelled the panic.
A few more deep breaths and she worked again on wriggling her legs, propelling herself forward since she had no hope of lifting the thick beam. Fortunately, it had fallen across the span of two seats, leaving a small spot of clearance. Sage scooted forward again, her feet scrabbling for purchase.
Maybe it was a whisper of movement, or the slow exhalation of breath, but in a sudden wash of fear, Sage knew she was not alone.
"Antonia?" she whispered.
No one answered. Perhaps she had imagined the presence. Her doctor would say it was a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. She caught sight of the lantern, which had tumbled down the aisle and now lay a few feet away.
She pulled herself forward, her efforts only netting her a few inches before she had to stop for breath, face bathed in a combination of sweat and grime.
The sound of quietly placed footsteps caused her to freeze. They were made by someone heavy and solid, not by the willowy Antonia.
"Who is it?" she hissed. Whoever it was came closer, but try as she might, she could not twist herself into a position to look up. Some part of her, the deep-down place where instinct lay, told her whoever was in that box had not come to help.
"People know I'm here," she said quickly. "People are coming."
The feet moved closer. Sage could feel the boards shifting and bending under the stranger's weight.
She could see only the shadow in her peripheral vision, someone watching, thinking. The gloom that settled over her pressed fear deep into her pores. She was immobilized, trapped and in darkness as this person closed the gap between them.
Her blood pounded in her veins. She would yell, but who would hear her?
In a scrabble of noise, something hurtled into the box, knocking over the lantern.
She screamed as the thing streaked at her, eyes glowing.
Then a wet tongue swabbed her face. She batted at the creature, which her brain finally identified as a dog. The exuberant tongue was attached to a wiry animal with a head that seemed too small for its lanky body.
Shoving him away, she tried to get a glimpse of the stranger.
She realized she was alone again. Whoever had left her trapped there was gone.
Relief made her shiver, and she reached out to finger the dog's velvety ears, which started out erect and then flopped over at the tips.
"Where did you come from?" she managed. He licked her again and sniffed her hair. The dog stopped midsniff, cocked his small wedge of a head.
"Hear something, boy?" she whispered, skin prickling. Was the stranger coming back?
After another moment of listening, the dog took off through the doorway.
She wanted to call after him, to bring the friendly, warm animal back. Instead she applied every ounce of her strength into freeing herself from her entrapment. Inch by painful inch she yanked herself out, scraping her legs in the process. Anger rippled through her like a shock wave. The stranger hadn't gotten far and Sage was going to find out who it was.
She heard the rumble as she ran, the faraway sound of a door being slammed, or a heavy box being dropped onto a cement floor. She reached the bottom stairs and collided with a man heading up. He was big, over six feet and solidly muscled, and her five-foot-four-inch frame bounced off his chest like a tennis ball hitting a racket.
The man's flashlight tumbled down and landed at his feet with a soft thunk.
He picked it up, holding it with one hand, the other hand readied in a fist in front of him as if he was expecting an attack.
Sage shielded her face from the light. "Who are you?"
There was a moment of hesitation. "You want my rank and serial number, or will the name suffice?"
Shock settled over her in a numbing blanket. She didn't need him to repeat the question. The Southern lilt of his voice, the smile she heard hidden in the words. There was no one else it could possibly be. He looked odd in civilian clothes, and the flicker of uncertainty on his face was definitely out of place.
She took the hand he offered and got to her feet, legs gone suddenly shaky. He pulled her up and close to him, one hand grasping hers tightly and the other cradling her shoulder with the gentlest of touches. For a moment she could not summon the strength to balance on her own and she pressed close, her heart swimming with a tide of memory that threatened to drown her. "Thank you."
Something in her voice must have sounded familiar enough. He lowered the light to play it across her face, and in doing so illuminated his own, the planes of his cheeks and forehead and the look of complete shock that materialized on his face. "It can't be," he whispered.
She heaved in a breath and stood up as straight as she could manage. "Do you want my rank and serial number? Or will the name suffice?"
Trey was not a man comfortable with conversation, and in that moment, words failed him utterly. He stared at Sage in disbelief. Her heart-shaped face, dusty though it was, those blue eyes, were unmistakable. He felt like turning on his heel and marching away to give himself time to think. Instead he forced out a glib remark. "Well, ma'am, this is better than the last place we met."
It was the wrong thing to say. Her expression grew distant and shuttered. He stumbled on. "Are you hurt? I heard a crash."
She waved a hand. "Part of the balcony fell. I'm not hurt. Just dirty."
"Why are you here in this old relic?"