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After the streetlights came on, traveling alone along the empty sidewalk was a very bad idea. But Carey didn't have money for a cab and the bus didn't run at this late hour. She had no choice but to walk home. Most of the time she didn't mind being one of the nameless, faceless inhabitants of the city. City meant anonymity, avoiding eye contact, and a life so fast-paced most people didn't remember her name or when and where she moved.
And Carey moved quite frequently.
What she did mind were the rotten jobs she'd had to work the last eleven months. Without a social security cardor at least not one she was willing to share with her employersthe jobs were monotonous, low paying, and the hours terrible, hence her walk alone in the dark at midnight.
Carey pulled her jacket tighter around her, staving off the cold and clutching her Vogue magazine to her chest, and looked over her shoulder, left then right. With the news media blasting details of the grisly serial killings committed in this neighborhood, she prayed with every step she'd make it home safely.
She kept the hood of her worn gray sweatshirt tugged over her head, her baggy clothes disguising her gender, and stepped up her pace. Steam poured from the grates along the sidewalk and the streetlights that weren't broken illuminated her way. Her landmark was the twenty-four-hour convenience store located across from her apartment building, its bright white lights and red-and-green sign shining into her windows. Three more blocks.
In the distance, police sirens wailed, sending a shiver up her spine. Another mugging? A murder?
"Shut up. I told you to shut up," a voice bit into the night.
Carey froze, her muscles tightening, every instinct she had going on the alert.
Grunts and the dull thud of fists on flesh escaped from the alleyway ahead. Kicking into survival mode, she reached into her oversize jeans and grabbed her pepper spray, flattening herself against the brick building at the corner of the alley. Her heart hammered against her rib cage, threatening to reveal her presence. What should she do? Scramble into the entryway of the building and hope she went unnoticed? Turn and run in the other direction? Call for help? She didn't have a cell phone and pay phones had long since disappeared from the street. If she knocked on any of the doors along this row, would anyone answer?
Probably not. This late at night, a knock on the door brought trouble.
Peering into the alley, she made out the shadow of a man, the glint of his knife blade catching in the streetlight. A drug deal gone bad? Had she stumbled on a mugging? The man with the knife shifted, bringing into view another man cringing on the ground against the wall, his arm shielding his face.
Her father used to tell her there came a moment in every person's life where courage was tested. Fight or flight.
Rage charged in her veins. Fight. Definitely fight.
Screaming, "Fire! Fire!" at the top of her lungs, hoping the word brought attention to the alley, Carey bowled herself into the attacker, blasting her pepper spray in his face. The liquid caught on her finger and burned like fire. A hit to the eyes had to be worse.
The man swore at her, stumbled backward, and slammed her into the wall behind them. Her spine hit the brick with a hard crack, absorbing the impact, making her teeth clatter. She hadn't quite gathered her wits when the assailant grabbed her shoulders, throwing her to the ground like a rag doll. Her head banged into the cement, jarring her vision. The attacker wiped at his eyes, swearing every curse word she'd ever heard, swinging the knife in his hand wildly.
His face was one she would never, ever forget. Dark hair, beady eyes, a hawklike nose and thin lips. Launching himself at her, he slashed his knife through the air, and she rolled, almost managing to avoid the blade. She ignored the sharp sting on her arm as his knife brushed past her. Letting out a bellow of anger, he kicked at her, missing once. He kicked again, connecting with her rib cage.
Curling to protect her head from his blows, she tried to scramble away from him, still shouting, "Fire! Fire!"
She'd been on the run for nearly a year and she wasn't about to die in a cold, dark alley at the hands of a knife-wielding thug.
A police siren howled closer, and with a final litany of curses aimed at her, her attacker took off in the opposite direction, barreling through a line of trash cans and disappearing into the night.
Carey groaned as she moved onto her hands and knees, her body battered, her left arm stinging. She set her hand over the cut and pressed down, hoping it wasn't too deep and wouldn't need stitches. Dragging herself to her feet, she limped toward the man slumped against the wall, unmoving. She touched her fingers to his neck, looking for a pulse. Her hands shook so violently, she couldn't tell if he was dead or alive. She had to get him help.
A woozy feeling passed over her and she fought for focus and control. If she lost consciousness, there was no telling where she would end up. Taking several deep breaths, she moved toward the opening to the alley. Leaning against the corner of the building, hand still pressed over her arm, she cried out again.
Mercifully, the flash of red-and-blue drew closer and an unmarked car with a dash light drew to a hard stop less than fifty feet from her.
Two men leapt from the car, drawing their weapons. "Police. Get your hands in the air."
They weren't in uniform and she quashed the impulse to run. Could she trust they were who they claimed? How could she be sure they weren't dirty and corrupt?
Making a quick decision to believe them, at least for now, she held up her hands obediently, wincing as her arm and ribs cried out in protest. "Don't shoot. There's a man in the alley. He needs an ambulance." She pointed behind her with her left index finger, keeping her hands in the air.
One of men raced into the alley and the second hol-stered his gun, rushing to her. She let her hands drop, the pain in her left arm unbearable.
He towered over her, close enough to touch her, close enough for her to feel the heat radiating from his body. His eyes raked over her and she could scarcely draw a full breath under his scrutiny, her rib cage aching with every inhale, her heart skittering frantically. Fear clashed with her desire for comfort and the sudden urge to lean into him. She was losing it. She must be losing it if she was thinking about turning to this stranger for help of any kind.
He had the slightly dangerous look of man who was a little bit reckless and lived life on his own terms. His hair was dark, worn longer than most men, and a shadow of a beard covered his jawline. With broad shoulders and slim hips, he captured her interest and that was troubling. She didn't have the time or energy to be interested in anyone.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, his dark eyes singeing her with concern.
Carey shook her head, the lie a necessary one. The fierce cold bit into her hands, her chin stung and her arm throbbed. She turned to keep him from seeing her injury. Panic swept over her. She had to get out of here. She couldn't stay a moment longer. She'd clean and bandage her arm herself later. The convenience store sold bandages, didn't they? "I'm fine."
He narrowed his gaze on her as if he didn't believe her. "What happened?"
"I wasn't involved. I just screamed for help."
"I need you to come with me to the station."
Her terror grew stronger. She needed a plan of escape. She couldn't go with him to the police station. He couldn't force her, could he? "I just want to go home." Black spots dotted her vision. She needed to lie down. Soon.
He shook his head and a lock of hair fell over his forehead. "I need to take your information and a statement about what happened here."
Her gaze drifted to that lock of hair, then to his eyes. Surprised by the smoldering heat she found in them, she felt the look as if he'd touched her. A warm shiver moved down her spine and her stomach tightened. This guy had charisma and raw, sexual magnetism in spades. A man with whom she wouldn'tcouldn'tlower her boundaries even a fraction of an inch for fear he'd get inside.
Another siren drew closer and an ambulance turned onto the street. Carey said a mental thank-you for the quick response time and hoped the man in the alley would be okay. She needed to beat feet.
"I didn't see anything." The lie made her ears burn. She could see in his face he didn't believe her.
"You saw enough to call for help."
Why had she stopped and interfered? Why hadn't she kept her head down and kept walking? "I don't remember." What a terrible excuse. Dizziness swept over her and she struggled to remain standing. Home was three blocks away. She could make it.
"Do you have ID?" he asked.
He lifted a brow, never taking his eyes off her, then reached into his back pocket and drew out his badge.
"May I?" she asked, extending her right hand.
Shooting her a wary look, he handed over his badge for inspection. She opened the wallet, his ID tucked inside. He wasn't a plainclothes police officerhe was a detective. He didn't look older than thirty-five. Impressive that he'd made the ranks that young. Assuming he wasn't dirty, her respect for him ratcheted up a notch. "Detective Reilly Truman. I'm sorry, Detective, but I've got to go." Carey threw the badge behind her for all she was worth and took off in the other direction. She made it two steps and then collapsed, a black hole closing off her thoughts.
Reilly watched his badge sail over her shoulder. He swore under his breath, but his irritation was doused when the witness crumpled to the ground. A moment later he was at her side, rolling her onto her back and checking for a pulse.
She'd passed out beneath a streetlight, giving him a better look at her. Reilly brushed the hair off her face, looking for injuries. Except for the unnatural red color of her hair, her beauty was enthralling, her features small and delicate, and her clothes much too big for her petite frame, as if she were trying to hide her figure. Women this beautiful didn't normally go out of their way to conceal their good looks.
He continued his assessment: a scrape on her chin, a cut on her forehead near her hairline, and her left sleeve was covered in blood. Uneasiness flooded through him. The victim's? Or hers?
The emergency response team converged on the scene, three men treating the victim in the alley, one EMT waiting by the ambulance.
"I need some help," Reilly called over his shoulder.
Pulling away the fabric of her sweatshirt, he saw a cut ran in a narrow slice across her upper arm. It was a recent injury and still bleeding. The urge to help her, the need to make her better, torpedoed through him, as strong as it was unexpected. He never behaved this way on a scene. Reilly was known for keeping his cool, yet his fleeing witness was making him lose it.
The EMT jogged over, kneeling down on the other side of her, spreading open his orange bag. The name "Lou" was stitched on his jacket. "What happened?"
"She passed out. Her arm is bleeding."
Lou pulled on a pair of gloves and Reilly tore away the sleeve of her ratty sweatshirt. The sweatshirt was speckled with pieces of asphalt and the sleeve brushed with red. Her arm was thin, free of track marks or bruises. She didn't have the look or smell of a homeless person. What was she doing on the street at this hour?
Lou examined the wound. "Nasty scratch. Maybe a knife?"
"Could be," Reilly said. Why had she lied when he'd asked if she was hurt? Her serene face was such a contrast to the grit and attitude he'd seen a few minutes before. Reilly took another long look. Yeah, she was pretty all right. Good-looking in a way that would drive a man crazy to kiss her, touch her. In other words, Reilly needed to keep his distance times ten and remember the bad things that could happen when a detective overstepped his bounds. His former partner had taught him that.
Tearing open a packet of alcohol swabs, Lou cleaned her wound and then applied pressure to her sternum with his knuckles to elicit a response. Her cobalt eyes fluttered open then clouded with confusion.
"Hey there, stay with us this time," Reilly said, trying to orient her. He set his hand on her right arm.
She spoke not a word and a moment later, she was kicking and fighting like a wildcat. Reilly held her shoulder and hip to the ground, pinning her body before she kicked him or Lou somewhere sensitive.
"Hey! Calm down. We're helping you," Reilly said.
"No, let go!" She bucked her hips in the air and tried to twist her arms free.
Did he need to call someone in for a psych evaluation? Why were the most attractive ones the most trouble? His breath clouded in the cold night air. "You need medical attention."
"No, I don't," she said through clenched teeth. She stopped fighting him and instead glowered at him as if he was her worst enemy. Spunk; he liked that in a woman. Another time, another place, Reilly would find her tremendously appealing. But today, she was part of an investigation, one that required his full attention.
The air between them vibrated with tension. Reilly forced his focus on the case. "This is Lou. He's an EMT. He's going to fix your arm."
He could see her working the information over in her mind. "Fine," she replied through gritted teeth. She turned her head toward Lou. "Thank you."
The polite words were out of place with the rest of her behavior. But Reilly was on the tail end of a thirty-hour shift, his last before a two-week vacation, and he was in no frame of mind to diagnose the mood swings of a temperamental, yet very pretty, witness.