Everywhere She Goes
(The Mysteries of Angel Butte)
Harlequin Superromance #1896 (January 1, 2014)
Standing between her…and danger
Returning to her hometown is Cait McAllister's chance to stand on her own. That means taking a break from men and relationships. Then she meets her new boss, the intriguing Noah Chandler. As the mayor, he's got bold plans for Angel Butte. As a man, he's so tempting that Cait's vow of independence is in jeopardy.
The most persuasive part of him, however, could be the way he looks out for her. Because when a threat from her past puts her in danger, Noah is there to protect her. And there's no way she can resist a man who has so much invested in keeping her safe.
"Good workout," a woman called from down the row as Cait McAllister slammed her locker door closed and picked up her gym bag.
Smiling her agreement, Cait lifted a hand. "See you Thursday."
Today's class had combined step aerobics with what the instructor called "butt and gut," exercises aimed at core muscles. Cait was currently alternating this class with kickboxing. Conscious of a pleasant ache, she liked that she was getting stronger all the time.
She especially liked the feeling because Blake sneered at women wanting to be muscular.
Swiping her card to check out at the front desk of the health club, Cait grimaced. Oh, sure, show how defiant you are now.
The truth was, Blake hadn't liked much of anything that took her focus away from him. With every day, week and month since she'd broken up with him, she had realized how much she'd surrendered. Friends, activities, even time to herself. She still couldn't believe she'd let it happen.
Problem was, he thought their relationship had been perfect, with only the little flaw that she'd left him. Five months down the line, he still couldn't believe she had meant it when she'd said, "We're done." In fact, she paused now at the door, uneasy to be going out into the dark parking lot. In the glass she could see the reflection of the bright interior: herself, two guys leaving one of the rac-quetball rooms, laughing and wiping sweat from their faces, an employee behind the desk. Outside: nobody.
She could ask for an escort to her car.
Ridiculous. She'd moved a few weeks ago and was bunking with another grad student, so her name didn't appear on a lease anywhere. She was on a second new cell phone number. She'd changed health clubs again—this was only her third week coming here. She'd found yet another new favorite Thai restaurant, stopped at different coffee shops. Taken to varying her parking on campus when she needed to use the library at the university or talk to her adviser, rather than automatically heading for a certain lot. Shopped at a different grocery store each time. Tried to become unpredictable in as many ways as she could.
Blake actually did have a job. He couldn't possibly be stalking her 24/7. Plus, she really thought he'd freaked even himself out when they'd had that last fight in November and he had hurt her badly enough she'd had to be hospitalized overnight. So far, when he tracked her down, he'd been coaxing, not threatening.
Even so…it was April now, and he hadn't given up. To him, her "no" meant "I'm still mad at you, but I'll come around eventually." His frustration and anger had been thinly veiled the last time she'd seen him, when he'd suddenly fallen in behind her with his shopping cart in the cereal aisle at Whole Foods and stayed with her until she drove away. He had pulled out right behind her, too, and tailgated until she'd darted onto the freeway and then off, so last-minute she'd heard brakes squealing behind her and caught a glimpse of his furious face when he couldn't make the exit, too.
Cait squared her shoulders. He couldn't possibly know she was here. She refused to huddle at home every evening. Between her thirty-hour-a-week job and work on her dissertation, her days were full.
Nobody else seemed even to be close to ready to leave, so she pushed open the door and went out.
She was parked just around the corner of the building. There were pools of darkness, but really the lot was well lit. Lights of a passing car on the street washed over her, momentarily blinding her and leaving her trying to blink away dancing spots.
Even so, she was still a good ten or fifteen feet from her car when she saw that a man leaned against the hatchback. She stopped, and he straightened at the sight of her.
"Hey," Blake said, totally friendly. "I was passing and saw your car."
He couldn't have seen her car from the road. He'd either followed her or taken to prowling the parking lots of health clubs she might conceivably have joined.
Cait stayed where she was, wishing someone—anyone—else would come out. A couple of guys would be really good. Poised to run, she also eased her hand into her purse, groping for her phone and praying he couldn't see what she was doing.
"I've asked you to leave me alone, Blake." Thank God, her voice was calm and confident.
He took a step toward her. "I can't even say hello?" He sounded offended, as if she'd been rude.
Bad moment to be hit with how really skewed his perspective was. He was not normal. Of course, she'd already known that, but…
Refusing to retreat, she lifted her chin. Her fingers touched a smooth, flat surface. Her phone, thank God. Now, could she dial without being able to see what she was doing?
"No," she said. "I don't even want you to say hello. I really don't want you cornering me in dark parking lots."
"I didn't corner you—I waited for you!" Anger was making his voice more guttural. "How can I say I'm sorry if you won't listen to me?"
"You've said it."
"Yeah, and how many times do I have to? I'm sorry! Goddamn it, I'm sorry, okay?"
She licked dry lips. "Thank you for saying it. That's better than not saying it. But no. It's not okay."
"You love me. I know you do." He took a couple more steps toward her, his voice now low and persuasive. Warm, affectionate. "Jesus, Cait. I've gotten your message, loud and clear. I swear I won't do anything like that again. Why won't you believe me?"
"Maybe because you swore two other times that you wouldn't hit me again? And, oh gee, you did?" Making a decision, she yanked her phone out and dialed 911 really fast.
"You knew you were pissing me off!" The guttural, furious note was back. He seemed oblivious to the phone.
In the yellow light of the overhead lamps, she saw that his hands had knotted into fists. The sight made her pulse rocket. She slid one foot back, then the other. Please, please, please, let somebody come outside. A car pull in.
If she said no often enough, he'd eventually have to believe her, wouldn't he?
"I don't love you anymore. You killed what I felt for you. You need to accept that." Cait brandished the phone so he couldn't miss it. "If you don't leave right now, I'm calling the police. If I have to scream, a dozen people will come running out of the health club."
His face was ugly, transformed by shock and rage. She was shaking, and she hated knowing he could make her so afraid.
I should run.
He'd be on her before she could round the corner of the building.
She was still frozen with indecision when he snarled an invective and turned to her small car, then kicked the bumper until the car rocked.
"You bitch!" he yelled, and used his booted foot to crumple the fender. As she watched in shock, he circled the car, kicking, smashing, doing to it what he wanted to do to her.
Backing away, gasping for breath, she tore her gaze from him long enough to look down at the phone. Just as she reached the corner of the building, she pressed Send.
At that very moment, he went still and stared at her across the distance separating them. His voice floated to her, quiet compared to the invectives. "I will never accept that you're not mine."
Terrified now, Cait ran for the lighted front of the health club.
"Today's mail," Ruth Lang announced and plopped a pile in front of Noah. Of course, she'd already slit each piece of mail open and paper-clipped the correspondence to the envelope.
He grimaced. "Thanks, Ruth."
His assistant's predecessor had retired when Mayor Li-narelli lost the election. In the first week after he'd taken office, Noah had chosen Ruth, middle-aged, brisk and efficient, from internal applications. There'd never been a moment of regret. Choosing the right personnel was one of his strengths, although he was beginning to realize that hiring a bartender wasn't quite the same as hiring a city engineer or attorney. He'd been glad to have the chance to do both, but there were days he thought all he did was hire. Half the long-timers had decided to retire when they saw the way the wind blew with Linarelli gone.
Ruth smiled sympathetically. "That's what you get for advertising two jobs at once."
Yeah, it was. He wanted to get somebody competent in the job of city recorder, but his real interest was in filling the position of director of community development. Angel Butte had stagnated compared to comparable towns within a three-county area. The only significant move to alter that before his tenure had been the annexation that doubled the size of the city while leaving it struggling to provide expected services. Like too many city employees, the former head of planning had been an old crony, unimaginative and more interested in hanging on to the way things had always been done than he was in new trends in the field. Noah had been hoping that, at sixty-two, he was starting to think retirement. What happened instead was a heart attack. The guy had survived, but he'd admitted to Noah that his wife had put her foot down and refused to hear about him returning to work.