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"Come on, Old Blue, don't fail me now!" Shelby Simons turned the key in the ignition of her 1958 Cadillac and prayed that this time, the engine would turn over. It didn't, of course.
That would have made her morning just a little too easy.
"Fine. Stay here. I can walk the four blocks to Maureen Lewis's place," she grumbled.
She grabbed two large bakery boxes from the backseat and closed Old Blue's door with a little too much force. She loved the car, but it was as fickle as its original owner, Grandma Beulah, had been.
The scent of chocolate wafted from the boxes as Shelby picked her way across the bakery's empty parking lot, and her stomach growled. Stupid diet. Eight days of starving herself, and she still could barely fit into the little black dress her sister had sent from Paris.
But Shelby would fit into it before the Spokane Business Association's black-tie dinner that she'd planned to attend with Andrew Willis.
Andrew, her ex-fiance, who'd promised her a million dreams and given her nothing but lies.
Now, he'd be attending the function with Stephanie Parsons, and Shelby would be going alone, because there was no way she was going to stay home moping about her newly single status. Sure, she'd been planning a wedding two short months ago, but God had had other plans, and Shelby had to believe they were better than the ones she'd made for herself.
Forever with someone who loved her.
She sighed, hefting the bakery boxes a little higher and doing her best to ignore the fragrant aroma that drifted from them. Maureen would be pleased with the assortment of pastries Shelby was providing for the early-morning kickoff to Maureen's birthday bash. She'd invited Shelby to attend the breakfast and the New York shopping spree she and her closest friends were going on afterward, but unlike Maureen, Shelby wasn't a bestselling true-crime writer with plenty of money to throw around. She had bills to pay and a business to run. Being at the bakery she'd opened five years ago was the only way to do it. Though, she had to admit, flying to New York to shop sounded like a lot more fun.
She walked up South Hill, heading toward 21st Street, the quiet morning making her feel more lonely than usual. Two months, and she was over Andrew. If she were honest, she'd admit that she'd been over him two minutes after she'd caught him kissing Stephanie and broken their engagement. But she still craved the connection she'd had with him, still missed having someone she could call when she was walking up a dark street by herself and felt vulnerable and alone. Not that Andrew would have appreciated an early-morning call, but she'd always thought that once they were married
She cut the thought off before it could form.
She hadn't agreed to marry him because she'd thought she could change him. She'd agreed because she'd thought she'd loved him. More importantly, she'd thought he had loved her.
Obviously, she'd been wrong on both counts.
If she'd loved him, her heart would still be broken.
If he'd loved her, he wouldn't have fallen for Stephanie while he was engaged to Shelby.
Shelby frowned, not sure why she was thinking about Andrew. She had plenty on her plate without worrying about the past. She had three deliveries to make and a car that wouldn't start. Maybe Maureen would lend her one of the three cars she owned. If Shelby arrived on time. Maureen was a stickler for punctuality, and if Shelby was even a minute late making the 5:20 delivery, Maureen would not be happy.
She picked up her pace. One more block. She could do that in three minutes. Which was exactly how much time she had left. Up ahead, a dark figure bounded around the corner of Maureen's street, jogging toward Shelby with a swift pace that bordered on a run.
She stepped off the sidewalk as he neared, her heart doing a funny little dance. Dark sunglasses on a nondescript face, a jacket zipped up to his neck, a hood pulled over his hairhe looked like trouble.
Why else would he be wearing sunglasses before dawn?
Why else would he have black leather gloves on his hands?
She fished her cell phone from her apron pocket, knowing the battery was dead and wishing she'd remembered to charge it before a guy who looked like a serial killer jogged by. She pressed the phone to her ear anyway, holding an imaginary conversation and praying he would just keep going.
He did, but she couldn't shake the fear that shivered along her spine as he turned his head, seemed to look right at her.
Shelby clutched the boxes a little closer, watching his progress as he approached 20th Street.
Should she knock on someone's door and ask to use a phone?
What would she say if she did?
There's a guy jogging down South Hill wearing gloves and sunglasses and looking scary didn't seem all that compelling. He stopped abruptly, stood in the shadows of the old manor house that some development company was restoring. Turned to face her. He was a block away, but she could feel his eyes behind those dark glasses, feel them staring straight into hers. Her heart thrummed painfully as he took a step toward her.
One step, but she had a feeling he planned to take more.
Terror froze her in place, every nightmare she'd ever had coming true as he took another step.
A car passed, its lights splashing over Shelby, drawing her attention away from the approaching threat for a split second. When she looked back, the man had disappeared.
She wanted to believe he'd turned down 20th Street and gone on his way, but she could still feel his gaze, hot and ugly and terrifying. She stepped back, afraid to turn her back to the unseen threat, worried that he'd be on her before she even knew he was coming.
Never turn your back on a predator.
That's what Grandma Beulah had always said, but then, Beulah had been a B movie actress and had spent more time in Beverly Hills than the great outdoors. Shelby couldn't claim to know much more than Beulah had about predators, but she knew that standing around waiting for a creepy jogger to lunge from the shadows wasn't going to do her any good.
She pivoted and took off, glancing back and seeing nothing. She was still terrified, still sure she could feel him breathing down her neck, and she half expected to be tackled from behind at any second.
She turned down Maureen's street. Five houses to go, and she could ring Maureen's doorbell, see her friend's cheerful smile. Maybe then she'd be able to convince herself that Sunglasses Guy was nothing more than an early-morning jogger.
An engine revved and headlights splashed across the cracked sidewalk, spilling onto lush yards filled with blooming daffodils and flowering shrubs. Shelby glanced over her shoulder, spotted a black Hummer rolling along the street. There was no one on the sidewalk. No hint that she'd been chased or that her fear was well-founded. She slowed to a walk, lungs burning, heart thundering as she waited for the Hummer to pass.
It pulled up beside her, going so slowly she could easily have outrun it. Big and black with tinted windows, it had plenty of room in the back to stuff a woman.
Had Sunglasses Guy come after her?
Her pulse jumped at the thought. She couldn't see through the tinted glass, but she was sure she felt his dark gaze. She ran the last few steps to Maureen's driveway, her hair standing on end when the Hummer pulled in behind her. The driver's door opened, and Shelby didn't wait to see if Sunglasses Guy would get out. She dropped the pastries and ran for Maureen's door, her pulse jumping as someone snagged the back of her apron and pulled her to a stop.
She screamed, fists swinging, lungs filling for another scream.
"Cool it, Shelby Ann. I'm not in the mood to have my nose broken." The voice was familiar, but she swung again anyway, her knuckles brushing a firm jaw.
"I said, cool it." He grabbed her hand, held it in a grip that she couldn't loosen no matter how desperately she tried.
"Let me go!" she yelled, looking up, up and up into the face of her attacker.
The familiar face of her attacker.
She knew him!
Not Sunglasses Guy.
Hercules. The muscular, too-good-looking-to-be-for-real guy who'd been coming into Just Desserts at the crack of dawn every morning for the past four months, watching her intently as she filled his order. Two doughnuts and a large coffee. Black. To go. She'd noticed him the first day he'd walked into the bakery, and she'd been noticing him ever since. What woman wouldn't? The guy should be on the front cover of a bodybuilder magazine.
"What are you doing here?" She managed to sputter, and he raised an eyebrow. "Looking for you."
"Well, you found me and scared me, and now I've ruined three dozen pastries." Her voice shook as she tugged away. "Maureen is not going to be happy."
"I'm sure they're salvageable." He lifted the boxes, opened the one on the top and frowned. "Some of them."
"None of them. I'm going to have to go back for more." She huffed, eyeing the smashed tops of several muffins, her pulse racing for a reason that had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with the man standing beside her. There was just something about his dark, knowing gaze that unbalanced her, and having him there, talking to her, looking straight into her eyes, studying her face.
Unbalanced was exactly how she felt.
She frowned, pulling the boxes from his hands. "You said you were looking for me. Did Dottie send you?" Dottie had been part of Shelby's life for as long as she could remember. A good friend of Beulah's, she'd shown up at the bakery a week after Beulah's funeral, and she'd been hanging around ever since.
"She said you didn't take your car out for the delivery, and she was worried about you walking here alone."
"My car wouldn't start, so I didn't have much of a choice."
"Next time, call someone to give you a ride."
"Before dawn? Who would I call?" she asked, and he shrugged.
"A friend. Family. Someone who can make sure you get where you're going and back safely."
"I've been getting where I'm going and back safely for years, Herc" She stopped short of calling him what she'd been calling him in her head since the first day she'd seen him. "I guess you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name, but I don't know yours."
"Well, like I said, Ryder, I've been running my own business and getting by just fine for five years. I'm not sure what possessed Dottie to worry now, but you can go back to what you were doing before she sent you out looking for me." She took a step toward Maureen's door, but Ryder pulled her up short.
"What I was doing was waiting for my doughnuts and coffee. Dottie won't sell them to me until I get you back to the bakery in one piece, so going back to what I was doing isn't going to accomplish anything."
"Oh, for goodness' sake! What is that woman up to now?" she muttered, shoving the boxes toward him. "Here. Hold these. I'll tell Maureen that I need to run back to the bakery. If you don't mind giving me a ride, we should be able to get things cleared up pretty quickly and get you on your way."
"No problem." He took a ruined muffin from the top box and bit into it. "Still tastes great. Are you sure your customer won't"
"I'm sure." She cut him off, anxious to give Maureen the bad news and get back to the bakery. She had too much to do to waste time, and she planned to tell Dottie that. Of all the things the woman had done in the four years she'd been working at the bakery, sending Ryder Malone out searching for Shelby took the cake.
A sad attempt at matchmaking. That's what it was, and Shelby did not have the patience for it.
She marched to Maureen's front door, bracing herself for the tantrum she knew was coming. As much as she liked the vivacious, spontaneous fifty-year-old, Shelby thought Maureen was a little too much like her mother and sister. Sweet but spoiled. Kind, as long as things were going her way.
Right now, things were not going Maureen's way, and Shelby expected to hear about it.
She rang the doorbell of the beautiful Victorian, glancing at her watch as she did so. Already five minutes late, and she still had to return to the bakery to get new product. Maureen was not going to be happy.
As a matter of fact, Shelby was surprised she hadn't already opened the door and demanded an explanation. Now that she thought about it, Shelby was surprised there were no lights on, no sign that Maureen was getting ready for her fiftieth birthday celebration. An early breakfast, a limo ride to the airport and an early flight out to New York City.
Be there by 5:20 a.m., Shelby. Not a minute later. Our flight leaves at 8:30, and the girls will be showing up on my doorstep at 6:00 expecting a birthday breakfast to die for.
Maureen's words rang in Shelby's ears, anxiety simmering in her stomach as she peered into the narrow window beside the door. Nothing. Not even a hint of movement.
Concerned, she rang the doorbell again and heard something. A muffled sound that came from deep within the house.
And then the world exploded.
Glass sprayed from the windows to either side of the door. Heat blazed from flames that shot from somewhere. Everywhere.
Another explosion, and she was flying, spinning, hurtling through space. Away from the burning door. Away from the shattered glass. Away from the lightening morning and deep blue sky. Flying and whirling into darkness so black and deep she knew she'd never escape it.