A HARD MAN TO FORGET
She was midway down the courthouse steps when she saw him.
Coming out of the massive wooden doors at the front of the county courthouse, Laura had instinctively narrowed her eyes and shaded them from the sudden brightness with the back of her hand. It was one of those hazy summer days when the sunlight glared off the pavement and the heat shimmered in the air, making objects even a short distance away seem wavy and indistinct. It took all of two seconds for the effects of the air conditioning to evaporate and a fine sheen of perspiration to develop on her skin.
She grimaced and tugged at the clinging fabric of her suit. Welcome to August in central California. Never had the Arctic seemed more appealing.
Keeping her gaze lowered, Laura began to descend the cement steps, eager to get to her lunch date with Jason. The promise of a cool drink on a day like this was enough to get anyone moving faster. Apparently she wasn’t the only one who thought so. A sweeping glance across the courthouse plaza found it abuzz with pedestrians hurrying to and from the building, dashing in and out of the park across the street, all flirting with heat stroke as they, like her, rushed to fit their lunch breaks in during the noon recess.
And then she saw him.
He was sitting at the bus stop on the other side of the street, facing the courthouse. She wasn’t sure what drew her eye to him. In a black T-shirt and jeans, he wasn’t dressed all that differently from the other park dwellers. He wasn’t doing anything to draw attention to himself, simply sitting, utterly still, on the bench.
Then she came far enough down the steps to see that his eyes were focused on the stairs to the building.
Staring right at her.
Their gazes locked across the distance.
Black, she registered in the back of her mind. He had the blackest eyes she’d ever seen. Also the hardest. The coldest. And they were unmistakably pinned on her.
An icy rush of…something swept through her from head to toe. An emotion she couldn’t quite identify, she wasn’t at all sure it was a positive one.
Slowly making her way down the rest of the steps, she tried a tentative smile.
Whatever she may have been hoping for, she didn’t get it. Not a smile. Not a nod. Not a single hint of acknowledgment. Just a relentless, unblinking stare that seemed to bore straight through her.
Unnerved, Laura tried to turn her attention to the rest of him, to see if she could figure out the reason for his intense gaze. He had a handsome face, so handsome she was surprised it wasn’t the first thing she noticed. His strong jaw, clenched in an obstinate pose, underscored a generous mouth, the lips full even when thinned into the uncompromising line they now bore. Black hair matched the darkness of his expression. A few dark strands ruffled in the slight breeze.
And yet it was those narrowed eyes, hard and uncompromising, that drew her. She couldn’t look away, even as they filled her with an awareness that disturbed her. A nervous fluttering built in the pit of her stomach. There was almost a sense that she knew him, though she wasn’t at all sure whether it was actual recognition or the instinctive attraction a healthy woman might feel for a good-looking man.
Anyone with any sense at all would break off the eye contact at first glance and avoid him at all costs. He was a stranger, quite possibly a dangerous one. Yet despite the severity of his expression, the coldness in his eyes, there was something about him that compelled her, something she wasn’t sure she understood.
“Laura, are you all right?”
She jerked her head up to find a man standing at her side. Officer Greg Hendricks, a regular in the courthouse, had come up beside her without her noticing. He peered down at her, his brow furrowed.
“Yes, I think so. It’s just—” She glanced back across the street.
There was no one there.
She felt him follow her gaze to the empty bench. “Laura?”
She quickly scanned the area again in disbelief. The rest of the scene was unchanged—the children, the professionals milling about. But the man was nowhere in sight. He’d vanished, as if he’d never been there at all.
The heat was instantly forgotten, replaced by a chill that rolled down her spine. He had been there. She couldn’t have just imagined him. She’d seen him.
She felt the policeman’s hand on her arm. “Do you need me to call someone? You seem disoriented…”
That made sense. She felt disoriented. Foggy, she shook her head, as though waving off the remnants of a bad dream. “I’m sorry. The heat’s probably getting to me or something.”
“Maybe you should get back inside—”
Embarrassed, she forced a smile and waved him off. “I’m meeting someone for lunch. I’m sorry to have worried you. I just wasn’t expecting it to be so hot and it caught me off-guard for a second.” The excuse sounded weak even to her. It was the best she could come up with. She wasn’t about to tell him she’d been staring at a man who might not have even existed.
“If you’re sure…”
“I am,” she said firmly, more than ready to get this humiliating encounter behind her.
“All right, then. I’ll catch you later.” He brushed by her to climb the courthouse steps. She sensed when he turned back to look at her, and quickly started across the street.
But when she was halfway down the block, she couldn’t resist one last glance around the park.
Feeling foolish, she turned her back on the scene and hurried on, wishing she could shake the sudden chill that had come over her on this steamy summer day.
AS SOON AS SHE TURNED her head, he stepped out from behind the shelter of the tree to watch her hurry away.
She’d recognized him. He’d seen the stricken expression on her face when she caught sight of him, watched the color drain from her skin as she realized who he was. She’d realized that she’d been found. Maybe after three years, she’d thought she was safe from discovery.
Yet here he was.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d hidden when the police officer had approached her. It was obvious the two of them were familiar with each other. They might even be friends. The wave of jealousy that had come over him at the sight of the man’s hand on her arm returned with a vengeance. If they were intimate, she could have told the policeman anything. The officer could have arrested him, giving her enough time to run again. He wasn’t about to let that happen.
The angry energy he’d forced down threatened to boil over and he launched himself forward. Startled, a female pedestrian eyed him warily and gave him a wide berth as she moved down the sidewalk. He hardly noticed. There was too much going on inside of him, emotion pulsing through his veins too fast for him to process. It was times like this that he wished he had some vice—alcohol, smoking—with the power to help him deal. But there was none.
Pivoting on his heel, he stalked down the sidewalk after her. Now that he’d found her, he wasn’t about to let her out of his sight, not until he had answers.
He sure as hell had waited long enough to get them.
Copyright © 2011 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.