I had the fortune to come across and be permitted to join a Fiction Relay started by The Reclining Gentleman. Before you read my post, you might want to read:
A glimpse was all she got—dark brown hair, mocha skin, and all-too-familiar black eyes that roiled with hatred. Their gazes connected for a millisecond. The air left her lungs. No! It can’t be! Then the crush of commuters swept her through the open doors into the subway train. Her heart hammering against her sternum, Suzi forced her way forward through the pressing bodies and searched out the window. He was gone.
Or maybe he’s boarded a forward car…!
The floor rocked beneath her as the train lurched forward. She almost fell on top of a seated, bohemian woman (“Hey! Watch it!”), but seized a commuter pole at the last second. She stared in horror at the door that connected the passenger cars for the duration of three, shallow breaths before her brain processed that she needed to move. Now!
Suzi backed up. Then she turned and picked her way as quickly as she could through the packed, rush-hour throng until she was through the door of the next car down. Part of her wanted to keep moving. But then what, when she’d made it to the caboose? Part of her wanted to get off at the next stop and take a long, winding route home. But if he knew she was here, he might already know where she lived.
And then he’d make it to her apartment before she did.
The thought of that he could be on the same train as her made her stomach clench in fear. Perspiration broke out on her forehead and upper lip. But the idea of him sitting in her apartment, in the dark, waiting for her, made her breaths come in rapid, shallow succession.
No-no-no! How could he be here?
In the end, she opted for vigilant speed, which meant remaining where she was, keeping her gaze riveted through the windows at the car she’d just left, and heading straight home. The entire way she berated herself for having become complacent and comfortable in her life—a life she’d worked so hard to rebuild over the past six years. She calculated how difficult it would be now, with almost no savings left, to start over again. Idiot! She should have known better than to think this could last.
Thirty, interminable minutes later, the train pulled into her stop. The passenger-crowd had thinned, and she hadn’t seen him. She was the last one in her car. The next car up was empty, too. Suzi hustled off and ran her gaze along the platform. He was nowhere. Maybe she’d just imagined that she’d seen him…. Was it possible? Maybe, after a long day at a job that was different from anything she’d ever done, plus her wrong-foot start with Gino and her encounter with The Mysterious Sam—who’d even seemed to ruffle Melissa’s feathers—, Suzi’s mind was in overdrive. She thought it through. It made sense.
After all, he was in Florida. Right?
Beginning to see reason, but still jittery, she readjusted her purse and eco-friendly, reusable grocery bag and darted upstairs to the street. It was just after six but already dark, this time of year. Despite having decided that his face had only been in her imagination, her nerves were still on edge. Cold rain pelted her face. The storm’s leading edge had come in earlier than predicted. Remembering that she’d left her umbrella at home, she cursed, tightened the belt on her trench coat, and hurried the last several blocks toward her brownstone.
The streets were eerily quiet. Her footsteps seemed to echo on the pavement, making her hair stand on end. Some people had already put up their Christmas lights, which made garish reflections on the wet sidewalk between streetlamp puddles. Suzi forced a deep breath, exhaled a long, crystalline puff, and tried to calm herself. The worsening storm probably explained the lack of pedestrian traffic at this time in the evening. Right?
There was a lull in the rain. The echo of her footsteps was even louder. She shivered and picked up her pace. Her building was a half-block away. Fumbling for her keys as she walked, and wanting to get inside as quickly as possible, she paused a half-step to adjust her purse. That’s when she heard the extra step.
It wasn’t an echo. She was being followed.
Suzie walked faster. She reached her building’s front steps. Just as she got a toe on the bottom stair a hand clamped down on her right shoulder, and a deep male voice said her name.
Terror gripped her soul for a paralytic second. Then she remembered her training. Grabbing hold of the fear, she channeled the energy into action. Suzi dropped down and cranked her right elbow backward, jabbing it into the man’s gut. Then she pivot-whirled, slamming her left elbow into the man’s jaw.
She registered Sam’s face too late to fully pull the punch.
Sam blocked her elbow, but his palm only slightly softened the blow. He staggered backward a few steps, blinking in surprise and shaking out his hand. In his other hand he held a pint of rocky road ice cream.
“Sam! I’m so sorry!” she stammered.
“Wasn’t ready for moves like that out of you,” he grunted.
“Oh, my gosh! Did I hurt you? I ‘m so sorry!”
“Don’t be. My bad. Here.” He held up the ice cream. “This fell out when you left the subway station.”
Bewildered, mortified, and momentarily ignoring the question of what Sam was doing on her subway train, Suzi twisted to check her reusable grocery bag. Sure enough, a hole that used to be the size of a quarter now gaped huge in the bottom corner. She must have snagged it on the subway when she was too preoccupied to notice. A box of tampons bulged out of the rip, preventing her Lean Cuisine and a few other items from escaping.
Oh, look: Tampax. Fabulous. Good thing it wasn’t anything embarrassing, on top of almost decking the hunky customer from work today…! With a grimace, she shoved the box back in and readjusted the bag.
“So, do you live out this way?” she asked, holding out her hand out for the ice cream and hoping to change the subject.
Before he could answer lightning streaked overhead, accompanied by a simultaneous, earsplitting crack of thunder. Suzi jumped, landing so close to Sam she could see tiny flecks of gold in his green eyes. The smell of him sent a rush through her system, making cheeks hot. His eyes crinkled in amusement at the corners. Then they changed, becoming dark, beckoning beds of moss. Her breath caught in her throat.
Then the sky opened up. The storm’s lull was over, big time.
“Come on!” she yelled. Instinctively, she grabbed his wrist, tugging him up the stairs. A surge of heat sparked through her palm, and she dropped his hand as though it was on fire. But she was glad he continued to follow her up. Not that he really had a choice: the rain was blinding, and they were drenched.
Once inside her small apartment, she pulled out two plush, white towels and tossed him one. In that moment, she was grateful she’d splurged on a few nice things, back when she’d had her corporate job. She hung her trench coat, did a cursory face-and-body tamp with the towel, and began putting her groceries away, starting with a quick dash to the bathroom.
“Do you need some ice for your hand?” she asked, returning to the kitchen and opening the freezer for the ice cream.
“No. Thank you,” he smiled, deepening the lines around his mouth. “Where’d you learn to do those badass moves, anyway?”
“Street defense class,” she said, relieved she been able to answer the question without having to talk about why she’d had to learn the moves, and others like them. She shoved a jar of peanut butter and a bag of chips in the pantry, grabbed the last item, a bunch of celery, and turned to glance at him.
He’d removed his suit jacket and shoes, and stood in her living room. Suzi couldn’t help pausing to admire the way his jet-black hair was towel-touseled… sexy…. His wet, black t-shirt clung to his well-developed pectorals, shoulders, and biceps…. His jeans were another bedroom fantasy, and….
She caught him watching her stare and ripped her gaze away, aware that her heart was beating fast for all the right reasons. Cramming the celery in the fridge, she flushed, thinking sheepishly that it had been a long time since she’d allowed herself to be with a man, which must explain why she was behaving like a sex-parched moron in a desert nightclub. She shut the fridge. Sam was grinning, as though he’d read her thoughts. Suzi’s flush deepened. Then Sam’s face became serious.
“Suzi, I’m actually here to ask you about your involvement with Khalid Mohammed al-Kar.”
Suzi’s lingering, distracting thoughts left her. She puzzled her brows. “Who?”
“This man.” Sam reached inside his jacket and pulled out a photo.
She blanched. It was him. Almost the same as the face she remembered. The one she’d seen on the subway platform today. Only, when she’d known him he hadn’t gone by Khalid Mohammed Whatever.
Then again, she hadn’t always gone by Suzi. And her hair hadn’t been red back then, either.
Her knees went weak, shallow breaths returned. She grabbed the countertop for support, her mind reeling. Maybe it hadn’t been her imagination earlier today. Maybe she was right about having become way too complacent.
But most importantly, in this moment, maybe she shouldn’t be insanely attracted to the man standing in front of her. Who was Sam?