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When Silence Falls
By Shirlee McCoy
Steeple HillCopyright © 2006 Shirlee McCoy
All right reserved.
Piper Sinclair knew a bad thing when she saw it, and right now she was seeing it. A dozen ladies, all in various colors and styles of spandex, sat on bamboo mats staring with undisguised adoration at a woman whose banal smile set Piper's teeth on edge. A whiteboard at the front of the room stated the purpose of the meeting — "Love Yourself to Weight Loss." On either side of the whiteboard, long candle-laden tables sent up a steady stream of vanilla-scented air.
"Forget it. I've changed my mind." Piper did a U-turn and tried to exit the room, but Gabriella Webber blocked her retreat, her sweet, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly face set in mutinous lines.
"You can't change your mind. You promised."
"I wouldn't have if you'd told me what this seminar was about."
"I did tell you what it was about."
"You said a weight-loss meeting. You didn't say New Age mumbo jumbo." The words were a quiet hiss, but from the look on Gabby's face, Piper might as well have shouted.
"Shhhhh! Dr. Lillian will hear you."
"I'm barely whispering."
But the slim, smiling woman was hurrying across the room as if she had heard the exchange. "Welcome, ladies. I'm Dr. Sydney Lillian. Please, have a seat. We'll be ready to begin in just a few minutes."
Piper wanted to tell the doctor she wouldn't be staying, butGabby was staring at her with such hopeful pleading she didn't have the heart to walk out.
"Thank you, Dr. Lillian. Come on, Gabby. Let's find a seat." Piper chose a mat close to the back of the room and sat down.
Gabby lowered herself onto a mat a few feet away, then leaned over and grabbed Piper's arm, her dark eyes brimming with excitement. "I can't believe we're really doing this. If this class works as well as it's supposed to, I'll be slim and trim by Christmas. Just in time to find a New Year's date."
"Gabby..." But what could Piper say? That losing weight wouldn't help Gabby find Mr. Right? That Mr. Right didn't exist? That all Piper had ever found were a lot of Mr. Wrongs, all gussied up to look like what they weren't? "You'll have a New Year's date whether you lose the weight or not. You always do."
"I know. I just want this year to be different." Meaning Gabby wanted commitment, love, marriage. All the things women approaching thirty typically wanted. All the things Piper had decided she could do without. She smiled anyway, patting Gabby's arm. "It will be."
"I hope you're right." Gabby sighed and settled back onto her mat.
Piper's bamboo mat was uncomfortable, and the strange affirmations the class was forced to say made her feel even more so. I love my belly. I love my hips. Since when did one need to affirm affection for each and every body part in order to lose weight? By the time the forty-minute session wound to an end, Piper was ready to ask for a refund on her money and her time.
"Are there any questions before we adjourn?" Dr. Lillian's voice was like warm honey, but her eyes were cold.
Piper started to raise her hand and got an elbow to the ribs for her effort.
"Don't you dare." Gabby hissed the warning, her eyes shooting daggers.
Piper grinned, shrugged and let her hand drop. Another woman — a plump blonde with a pretty face and striking blue eyes — raised her hand. "Dr. Lillian?"
Despite her gut-level dislike of the woman, Piper felt a twinge of sympathy for Dr. Lillian as the blonde's cheeks stained pink and a frown line appeared between her brows. "I'm not —"
She never had the chance to finish. One minute scented candles and soft music created an atmosphere of gentle serenity, the next, a dark blur raced into sight. A man. Medium height, wearing jeans, a faded T-shirt and a mask. Carrying a gun. A gun!
He grabbed the blonde who'd moments before been pink with embarrassment or anger. Now she was pale as paper, her eyes wide with fear.
Someone screamed. Others took up the chorus. "Enough!" The gunman shouted the order, the silence that followed immediate and pulsing with terror.
"That's better. Now everyone just stay put and you won't get hurt." He inched toward the door, his arm locked around the blonde's neck, his pale yellow-green eyes staring out from behind the ski mask. Crocodile eyes. And like a crocodile, he had no intention of letting his prey escape alive.
The thoughts flashed through Piper's mind, demanding action. She took a step toward the man. "Let her go."
A mouse could have made more noise.
She tried again. "Let her go. Before you make more trouble for yourself."
His reptilian gaze raked over Piper and dismissed her as no threat. Still, the gun he held never wavered. He kept it pointed toward the group as he took one step after another, slowly, inexorably pulling his victim to the door. Ten steps and he'd be there. Nine.
The long sleeve of his T-shirt hiked up around his forearm, revealing a snake tattoo that coiled around his wrist and up toward his elbow. The deep greens and reds of the serpent seemed to undulate, the gold eyes almost exactly matching the eyes of the gunman. Hard. Evil.
The other women must have sensed the same. Each was frozen in place, eyes fixed on the gun as if staring hard enough would keep it from firing.
Eight steps. Seven. Soon he'd pull the woman out the door and into the parking lot. He'd disappear, the woman with him.
The smart thing to do would be to wait until the man walked outside and then call for help. It's what Piper's brother Jude would expect her to do. A New York City cop, he knew the best way to respond in a crisis, and he'd drilled her on everything from natural disasters to hostage situations.
The blonde's eyes were wide with terror, begging someone, anyone, to stop what was happening. Piper couldn't ignore the plea. She stepped forward again, praying for wisdom and for help. "Hey, you're holding her too tight. She can't breathe. She's turning blue!"
The hysteria in her voice was real, and the blonde did her part, moaning, dropping her weight against the arm that held her. The gunman glanced down and that was the chance Piper needed. She leaped forward, raising her leg in a roundhouse kick she'd been practicing for months. Hard. Fast. To the wrist. Just the way her other brother, Tristan, had taught her. The gun flew from the man's hand, landing with a soft thud on the floor a few feet away. Piper dove for it, her fingers brushing against metal just as a hand hooked onto her arm and threw her sideways.
She slammed into a table, her head crashing against the wall, candles spilling onto the table and floor. Stars shot upward in hot, greedy fingers of light.
"Fire!" Gabby's scream cut through Piper's daze and she blinked, focusing on the gauzy curtains now being consumed by flames.
All around her the room echoed with noise — women calling to one another, feet pounding on the floor, an alarm screaming to life. Dr. Lillian stood amidst the chaos, calmly speaking on a cell phone.
"Piper! Come on, we've got to get out of here." Gabby grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the door.
"Where's the guy with the gun? The woman?"
"Gone. He let go of her when you kicked the gun out of his hand. I think you might have broken his wrist."
The thought made Piper light-headed. Or maybe it was the knock on the head she'd gotten. Whatever the case, she felt dizzy and sick. "I wasn't trying to. I just wanted him to drop the gun."
"Well, he did. But he picked it up again before he ran. Now stop talking and move faster."
Outside, daylight had faded to blue-purple dusk, the hazy mid-July heat humid and cloying. People hugged the curb of the parking lot, staring at the smoke billowing from the three-level brownstone that housed Dr. Lillian's practice. In the distance, sirens wailed and screamed, growing closer with each breath. Soon Lynchburg's finest would arrive. If God was good, and Piper knew He was, Grayson wouldn't be with them. The last thing she needed, or wanted, was her oldest brother's raised eyebrow and overburdened sigh.
What she needed, what she wanted, was to walk away. To leave the burning building and the crying, gasping blonde and shell-shocked, spandex-clad women behind, go home and forget any of this had ever happened. But just as Jude had taught her to be cautious and Tristan had taught her to fight, Grayson had taught her responsibility. She was here for the duration. No matter how fervently she wished otherwise.
She sighed, moved into the crowd of people and waited for help to arrive.
Cade Macalister heard the sirens as he pulled out of Lynchburg Medical Center. He ignored them. Or tried.
"Well?" Sandy Morris didn't need to say more. Cade knew exactly what she was thinking.
"The sirens are close. It won't take long to get the scoop and shoot a few pictures." A reporter for the Lynchburg Gazette, Sandy was the wife of Cade's best friend. She was also seven months pregnant.
"Come on, Cade. What can it hurt?"
"It can hurt a lot if your husband finds out."
"Jim won't mind."
Cade snorted and pulled over as an ambulance sped by.
"They're heading toward the historic district. Something big's going on. See those police cruisers? You know some of the guys on the force. They'd probably —"
"You need to be home in bed, resting. Jim will never forgive me if you go into preterm labor while he's away."
"I'm fine. The doctor just said so."
"Three hours ago you thought you were in labor."
"And I was wrong. This is my first, you know. Come on, Cade. You've got your camera, right? We'll get the scoop. Then you can bring me home."
"Sorry, but I'm on duty tonight. I was supposed to be in Lakeview an hour ago."
"Why didn't you say something? I could have found someone else to hang out at the hospital with me."
"I didn't want you to have to find someone else. Besides, another officer is filling in for me until I get there."
Excerpted from When Silence Falls by Shirlee McCoy Copyright © 2006 by Shirlee McCoy. Excerpted by permission.
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