DR. SKYLAR NOVAK had awakened today with a premonition of happiness. And all morning long she’d carried with her the hope, no, the determination, that her premonition would come true. Despite the fact that today was Halloween, the toughest day of the year for her, her spirits were running high. She’d decided to look to the future, not the past, and after all, the future did look promising. She still had her clinic, her brother, Garth, and now she had Edmond, and at long last, a real chance at happiness.
Unable to sleep, she’d made her Saturday morning rounds early and found herself running ahead of schedule—an unprecedented event, certain to please both her brother and Edmond. Taking care not to lose her footing on the ice- encrusted sidewalk, she rounded the corner onto Monticello Street. A gust of cold, clean air, doused with that unmistakable Flagstaff perfume—juniper, and sun and freshly fallen snow—hit her in the face, making her glad she’d decided to walk the short distance from the hospital to the diner.
To the tourists, Flagstaff was a quaint little mountain town filled with colorful shops and reasonably priced motels. To the college students, Flagstaff was a place to pursue a first-class education while enjoying unlimited access to an outdoor Mecca.
Sky, on the other hand, had been born here, raised here…and she’d probably die here.
She turned right, picked her way up the final hill, and arrived at her destination: Jolene’s coffee shop. A hand-lettered sign in the window read, “Best of Flagstaff Nominee Eight Years Running!”
Jolene’s—the Susan Lucci of breakfast establishments. For a moment, her lips curled up at the edges, then, per her routine, Sky did a three-sixty, assessing her environment, determining the quickest escape route and threat level. After her father’s murder, she’d trained herself to be more alert to her surroundings, particularly when venturing out alone. Jolene’s, tucked away on a side street just shy of downtown, was less frequented than the eateries on Santa Fe, Flagstaff’s main drag. At not quite seven in the morning, this block still slumbered.
Security code: green.
A yellowed cardboard clock hung inside the glass-paneled door of Jolene’s. Its red plastic hands indicated the diner would open at seven. Sky tried the door. Locked. The wind lashed out, and she jammed her hands in her pockets. Her gloves and sunglasses lay forgotten on the kitchen counter at home.
Inside the diner, Nevaeh Flores bustled about, wiping counters, laying placemats and filling sugar jars, her back to the door. Despite the early hour, the girl had a swing in her step, evincing a naive optimism characteristic of many of the young women Sky cared for at the family medicine clinic, and poignantly appropriate for someone whose mother had named her heaven—spelled backwards. Perhaps naive optimism was an inherited trait.
Just yesterday, Sky had reluctantly turned over the care of nineteen-year-old Nevaeh, now five months pregnant, to an obstetrician. She rapped on the glass, but Nevaeh danced her way behind the counter without looking up. Shivering, Sky turned and reassessed the street. A baby-blue classic Mustang crept up the icy road and skidded to a stop at the curb in front of Jolene’s. Her throat constricted as she watched a big man exit the vehicle. Easily a foot taller than her, he must’ve been well over six feet. The man approached, head down, gray hoodie pulled forward over his face. No bulge in his lightweight sweats or jacket to suggest a weapon, but he held his arms a bit too far from his body, indicating to her that he might be carrying a sidearm.
Her heart rate jacked with each menacing crack of boot against ice. The man’s shoulders were broad, his waist and hips narrow. She could see the outline of densely muscled thighs working beneath his sweats. He reached the doorway and crunched to a halt beside her.
Security code: orange.
Hold your head up. Look him in the eyes. Don’t act like a victim. His chin came up. Her eyes lifted to his, and a warm brown gaze short-circuited her security system. She was struck by an unreasoned, instinctive urge to trust this man.
He spoke first. “Brrr chill.”
Such a childlike expression from such a dangerous looking source. Before she could stop it, her laugh broke free.
Two vertical lines creased the space between the man’s thick sable brows. “What?”
In order to quell her laughter, she concentrated on the dim scar that traveled the length of the man’s nasal filtrum before coursing into his off-center upper lip. The effect of that slight asymmetry, those full, battle-scarred lips set against otherwise perfect, intensely masculine angles was undeniably sensuous. The word devastating came to mind. He should be a poster boy for cleft-lip repairs. Her shoulders stopped vibrating, but she didn’t trust herself to speak, not quite yet.
“It’s fuckin’ freezing,” he said.
“Now that’s more what I’d expect from an outlaw like you.” Oh. That was inappropriate. But judging by the way every feature on his face worked its way into a rebel-without-a-cause grin, he hadn’t exactly taken offense at the remark.
“Well, all right then. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Doesn’t fit anyway. Buy you a coffee?”
“Thanks, but no.”
“Not into outlaws?”
“Uh…” She rattled the doorknob helplessly.
“One cup. C’mon, flirt and run’s a crime. Don’t make me arrest you.”
Now this was just plain awkward. She couldn’t figure any way out but honesty. “You’re right. I was flirting—and I never flirt—and I absolutely should not have flirted with you just now. It’s my bad. I apologize.”
“I refuse to accept.” Reaching inside his jacket, the man pulled out his wallet and flicked it open, revealing a gold badge. “What’s it gonna be,” he asked, a slow grin spreading across his face, “coffee or cuffs?”
So he was one of the good guys—a detective. Like the ones who’d worked her father’s case with such dedication. Good to know her instincts had been right. But that didn’t change the fact that she was engaged. “You don’t understand. I’m meeting someone—my brother—and my fiance.”
“You’re engaged to your brother?”
“No, I…” Impossible as it seemed in the subfreezing temperature, heat crept up her neck and across her face. “Stop teasing. I said I was sorry.” She lifted her frigid hands to cool her cheeks.
The detective’s fingers slid around her left wrist, pulling her hand close for inspection. “The cheap bastard didn’t spring for a rock?”
Allowing herself a mere moment to enjoy the unexpected rush of pleasure that resulted from his fingertips grazing her skin, she tugged her hand free. “Oh, the bastard’s quite generous, the ring’s at home…this is all so new…and…”
“Edmond proposed last week.” She bit her lower lip. She shouldn’t be explaining herself to this man, good guy or no, but his interrogation technique was difficult to resist. His boldness was tempered with just the right touch of humor and there was a friendly encouragement in his tone.
Leaning in, he reached one arm out and settled his palm on the glass, half- caging her between his body and the door. His head bent low. “Edmond, I take it, is not an outlaw.”
She felt his breath warm her neck, drank in his scent—pine trees and salt. Low in her belly, muscles softened and ached. He was too close. Mashing her back against the door until its rigid contours poked her spine, she pushed him away. “I wish they’d open up.”
He clutched his heart. “Now you’ve gone and hurt my feelings.”
“I only meant I’m cold…you know, brrr chill,” she said, hoping he hadn’t noticed the unsettled tone in her voice.
“Sorry. I’ve got the manners of a polecat.” He knocked on the window and called out, “Nevaeh!”
“I already tried that. I’m afraid her earbud’s connected to her iPod.”
When he whistled a short riff from “Dem Bones”, Sky’s shoulders relaxed, and she found herself laughing for the second time in the space of five minutes. Skylar Novak…first flirting, and now laughing. Maybe for an encore she could mud-wrestle the guy. “You know Nevaeh?”
“Since she was knee high. This Edwin—”
“Proposed just last week, and you’re not sporting ice, checking out your left hand until you’re blind? You sure you’re a girl?”
“Not very PC, are you?”
Shrugging, he pushed his sleeve back and checked his watch. “It’s oh-seven- hundred, why didn’t you and Edmond come together? No ring. No Edmond. I think maybe you’re shining me on.”
“The ring is a bit ostentatious for the office is all.”
“I’d insist you wear the ring.” His gaze wandered from her mouth to her eyes. “If you were mine.”
She looked past him, focused on the distant San Francisco Peaks, their frosted tips gleaming in the sunlight. “I don’t belong to any man.”
“So there’s still a chance for me.”
Rolling her shoulders back, she stuck her chin up. Even though she knew she hadn’t done anything wrong, she felt disloyal to Edmond. “I love my fiance, and I plan on making him happy.”
“If there is an Edmond…”
She crossed her heart.
“If there is an Edmond, you’re not in love with him.”
At that, the hairs on the back of her neck bristled in Edmond’s defense. “Try to keep up. I just said—”
“You just said you loved him, not that you’re in love with him. I bet you love your brother, too, and your cat. But that won’t make for wedded bliss. You said you want to make Edmond happy, not that he makes you happy. You left the ring at home and—”
“I haven’t got a cat. And you’ve overstepped the rules of polite conversation.”
“Nope, that was you, way back at the outlaw remark.”
He had a point, and she didn’t have a comeback, so she kept quiet. The diner would open soon. All she had to do was wait this out.
“Look, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure we’re having a moment here. And…” He paused and turned his palms up. “Please, correct me if I’m wrong, but when you’re having a moment, those rules you mentioned are suspended…momentarily. When you’re having a moment you gotta grab it by the balls, or else something wonderful might pass you by.”
Straightening her back, she met his eyes. “All right, rules suspended. Let me be clear. Edmond is real and true, the truest thing in my life. He makes me believe in the possibility of happiness…even for someone like me. He’s my best friend, and I’d be lost without him.”
Kicking a chunk of ice with the toe of his boot, he dropped his eyes and said, “Fuckin’ shame. That coffee-or-cuffs line was one of my better efforts.”
At last, Nevaeh unlatched the door. Sky blew out a relieved breath. “Nice meeting you, detective.”
“Danny.” He opened the door, motioned for her to go first.
“I’m Skylar,” she said, taking a step toward the door.
“Sky. That suits you.”
Wondering what he could possibly mean by that remark, she hesitated. And that brief, indecisive pause seemed all the invitation Danny needed to grab the moment by the balls.
Allowing the door to swing closed in front of them again he said, “Your eyes are sort of a soaring blue. Your skin looks like you woke up this morning and washed your face in a mountain stream.” His fingers found a lock of her unruly brown hair. “Your hair ripples like that stream. Smells like meadow flowers…and wind and stars.”
Her heart thumped in her chest, as any woman’s would when confronted with such lovely lies from such a lovely man, but as she pushed past him into the beckoning safety of Jolene’s, she mustered a retort. “Look, I’m no expert, detective, and please, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me congratulations are in order. Unless I’m mistaken, you’ve just topped your own bullshit.”
Hard to say for sure, but out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw him wink.
EDMOND WAS REAL and true, the truest thing in Sky’s life, and right now the lucky sonofabitch had his hand on the cusp of her ass. Detective Sergeant Daniel Benson angled his head for a better view of said ass. Edmond’s palm rested oh so casually at the flare of Sky’s left cheek, high enough on her back to get away with it in public. But Danny knew those fingers were just itching to uncurl and sneak into ass territory. A smooth move, and one that if executed properly could hardly be protested, public venue or no.
Seconds passed and the fingers remained in their innocent posture. Wait for it. Wait for it. Now. The hand twitched, the fingers unfurled, and just at that moment, Sky reached her own hand behind her back, laced her fingers through Edmond’s and squeezed. Lucky sonofabitch.
The pair waited near the door until another man joined them. Sky’s brother, no doubt. The brother’s skin was darker than Sky’s, almost swarthy, and his hair was lighter, a pale gold. Where Sky’s features were delicate, his were rugged, and he carried a deep dimple in his chin. The guy looked like a young Kirk Douglas.
The threesome turned and walked toward a booth opposite the counter where Danny had claimed a stool. When his eyes tangled with Sky’s, she smiled politely. He snapped his gaze to the Flagstaff Gazette and flipped the pages until his mind absorbed a headline: Breast Cancer Vaccine Brings New Hope.
When he’d first heard about this vaccine on NPR, he’d made a mental note to discuss it with Katie’s pediatrician. But he hadn’t yet made the call. Maybe this vaccine wasn’t for kids, but he intended to find out. Since his wife’s suicide, a whole slew of medical breakthroughs had become available to teenagers, and he kept up with all of them. Although Grace’s sister would gladly have tended to her niece’s routine doctor visits, he preferred to handle such matters himself. Katie was his responsibility. Katie was his life.
Alongside the vaccine article, a photo showed the inventor, Garth Novak, MD, PhD, shaking hands with the governor. Novak was a local yokel, and the town of Flagstaff was understandably proud. He studied the photo in the paper and glanced back at the man sitting across from Edmond. Sky’s brother was none other than Dr. Garth Novak. Duly impressed, he checked the reverse side of the page to make sure there was nothing important on the back. Just an ad. He ripped the article out for later review and turned his focus to a group of pastries crowded beneath a glass cover. But before he could size up the scones, a chime drew his attention. Looking up, he saw a man in a hockey mask looming in the diner’s entry.
Danny’s hand snuck to his gun side and, in an automatic gesture, patted air. A chill crawled down his spine as his fingers curled around the empty space usually occupied by his pistol. The man shoved the hockey mask up onto his hair and took a seat in a back booth. Danny exhaled, releasing the tension that coiled in his trigger finger. Not a man at all, just a kid. Halloween. Still, he regretted not having his Glock.
He could hear the captain now: Gentlemen, I can’t require you to carry off-duty. But the bad guys don’t work shift. I also can’t require you to wipe your asses, but I sure as shit hope you do. Keep your weapons on you. It’s just good hygiene.
Truth be told, some of the guys on the force would be hard-pressed to choose between their Glocks and their dicks, but Danny wasn’t one of them. Guns didn’t make him feel potent. They made him feel separate, and for what he’d been chasing this morning, it had just seemed wrong to bring it along. Stupid. He should’ve had his pistol. He was sworn to protect, and any jackfool can tell you trouble always happens when you’re least prepared.
Permeating the air, a sweet, heavy aroma awakened his nostrils, and made his mouth water. Nevaeh set a platter of bacon and French toast, a jar of molasses, and a tumbler of strawberry milk in front of him.
“You can thank me later,” she said, using a pencil to shove a riot of blonde curls behind her ear.
“I’ll thank you now. That’s what I call service. How did you…?”
“That’s nothing. I know what you like by now, don’t I? No thanks needed for that.” Nevaeh wrinkled her pixie nose, reached beneath the counter and set a bunny-bottle of Nesquik strawberry syrup in front of him. “I bought this special for you. No one else orders strawberry milk, and Cookie quit stocking it. I picked this up last time I was at Safeway. You owe me $2.79, by the way.”
He pulled a ten spot out of his wallet and stuffed it in the pocket of Nevaeh’s apron. “Yeah, but I just sat down. If you’d quit interrupting, I was going to ask how you got it ready so fast, how you knew I was coming in.”
“Dionne Warwick’s my second cousin twice removed.”
Drizzling his French toast with molasses, he smacked his lips. “No kidding?”
“Yeah. That and the fact that you banged on the door and hollered,‘Nevaeh’.”
“You heard me? You left me standing out in the cold, freezing my— You left me freezing out in the cold? How about I report that little infraction to your mother, pipsqueak.”
“Report me? You should thank me. By the way, there’s this bear at Babies R Us. Makes a heartbeat sound, tricks a newborn into thinking he’s back in his mamma’s belly.”
“Babies R Us. That by the mall?”
“Okay. What am I thanking you for again?”
“I gave you a shot at Dr. Sky. Not my fault you couldn’t close the deal.”
He lowered his voice. “Doctor Sky? She a good doctor?”
“She cares about us, her patients I mean.” Nevaeh propped her elbows onthe countertop’s outdated avocado linoleum. “You should try again.”
“Pipsqueak, one thing I’ve learned over the years is it’s best to respect certain guidelines in life, one of them being not to poach another man’s woman.”
“You were all touching her hair and shit. Didn’t look like you had any life guidelines to me.”
“Well, I do. Guess I was hoping there was no other guy—that it was a dodge, like when a girl gives you the wrong phone number. Besides, I was caught up in the moment. Something you should understand.” He arched an expressive eyebrow at her pooched belly. “But now I see the guy’s real.”
“A lot of girls give you the wrong number?”
“Nah. Not me. I heard about that from my buddies.” He grinned and then heard a wrong sound separate itself from the right noises in the diner. From the scrape of Cookie’s spatula, from the hiss of pancake batter bubbling on the grill, the soft click of a cocking gun made itself heard above clattering silverware and muddled voices.
Swiveling on his stool, Danny found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. His vision tunneled on the weapon. The gunman stood about three yards away, but he appeared much closer. The muzzle of the Colt looked like a cannon to Danny’s eyes. He’d only just glanced up, and already he was in full-tilt survival mode, sights amplified, noises diminished—like watching an IMAX movie without the sound.
In a heartbeat, he assumed responsibility not only for his own survival, but for the survival of every man, woman—he glanced over at Nevaeh—and child in the diner. He even took responsibility for the survival of the asshole waving the gun. He gathered the precious weight of these lives onto his shoulders partly because he was a cop, but mostly because he didn’t know how not to.
“Trick or trick,” the asshole said.
Nevaeh dropped a tray, and plates exploded, scattering utensils and releasing a greasy egg odor into the air.
“Hands up…all of you.” The man pointed the gun at Cookie. “Open the register, old man, and maybe…just maybe I’ll let you live to poison your customers another day.”
Maybe he would. Maybe he wouldn’t. And that was the crux of the dilemma. Danny surveyed the room and counted six civilians. The kid in the back booth. Sky, Edmond, Novak. Cookie. Nevaeh. Make that seven…Nevaeh was pregnant. Christ. Any move to take this guy out would surely put them in harm’s way. And at least for now, there was a good chance the asshole would take the money and leave. The most likely outcome? They would all escape with their lives. As long as no one ruffled his feathers, as long as he wasn’t psycho.
The right thing to do in this situation was hang back, be a good witness, wait for the troops to arrive. Let them catch the bad guy later. For now, the number one priority was the safety of innocents. Be a good witness. He forced his focus away from the gunman’s hands and scavenged for telling details of the man’s appearance.
The asshole was massive. Not as tall as Danny, no more than six foot. But bulky, muscular—looked like maybe he spent the last ten years lifting in prison. His blue-veined, bloated features were mostly concealed by a bushy, black glue- on beard that had likely been purchased in a gag shop.
Hauling in a deep breath, Danny looked him in the eyes. They were clear as blue marbles, dodging about, animated by muscle and nerve, pupils dilating and contracting with the motion. But they were not living. If a soul had once haunted the owner of those eyes, it had long since fled. Nothing human lurked behind those blank orbs now. Danny had the eerie feeling he was staring into the eyes of a ventriloquist’s dummy, and it creeped him out.
By now, Cookie had opened the register, and cash in hand, was edging out from behind the counter.
“Freeze! I’ll tell you when you can move, old man. I want this one—” Blackbeard hitched his chin at Nevaeh, “—to bring me the money.”
Adrenaline dumped sweat out Danny’s pores, kick-started his heart, revved every pulse in his body. He wanted to throttle this freak. Blackbeard had his Colt pointed at Nevaeh. One wrong move and she would be the first to pay. Danny’s fingers twitched, but he kept his hands high, his trap shut.
Nevaeh turned pleading eyes on him, fixed her gaze on the spot she must’ve thought concealed his service weapon. She didn’t realize she was telegraphing cop to the gunman, putting them all in more jeopardy. Hoping the gesture would pass for a nervous tic, he gave his head a quick jerk. Nevaeh must’ve gotten the message because she looked away, briefly covered her face with trembling hands, and then carried the money to Blackbeard.
From the other side of the room came a scraping sound. Sky’s brother clambered to his feet, hands fisted. The gunman’s face reddened. He yanked Nevaeh by the hair and stuck the muzzle of the Colt in her cheek. Her body went rigid in his grasp.
Spinning to face Novak, he said, “Sit down, fuckhole, or first I’ll do her, and then I’ll do her.” He spat in Sky’s direction. “Then I’ll do the rest of the boys, and then I’ll ram this sweet baby in your mouth and watch you squeeze the trigger yourself.”
Novak glanced protectively at his sister, and then nodded at Blackbeard before crumpling back into the booth.
Time for a new plan.
Be a good witness—no longer an option. Not with this asshole grinding a pistol in Nevaeh’s face. But rushing the guy was also not an option. Danny would have to cross a distance of three yards before he could make the tackle. Blackbeard had only to squeeze the trigger to blow Nevaeh’s face off. Danny was good at math. He opted for another tactic—gentle persuasion.
Schooling his voice into a sincere tone, he said, “Please, let her go. You don’t have to do this. We’ll cooperate. All of us.” He nodded his head and made eye contact with every individual in the room until each one nodded back. “See. Every last one of us. You got what you came for. Just let her go, and you can leave with the cash.”
“Fuck you, cowboy.” Blackbeard drilled the gun deeper, and then pulled it away to reveal the dimpled brand of the muzzle on Nevaeh’s cheek. “You can’t order me around.”
“Damn straight. You’ve got the gun. You don’t need to hold the girl for protection. None of us here could take you on. In fact, the longer you stay, the greater the chance you’ll be caught. I’d like to see everyone get out of here alive, including you. So what do you say?”
By way of an answer, Blackbeard popped off a shot, nailing Cookie in the foot. The old man went down sideways. His hip struck the floor with a bone- chilling crunch.
Gentle persuasion—no longer an option. The gunman had just revealed himself to be no petty asshole, but rather a bonafide motherfucker. In other words, they were screwed. Danny had plenty of training in hostage negation, but most of what he knew didn’t apply in this scenario. He had no backup surrounding the building for leverage and nothing to offer in exchange for Nevaeh. He was going to have to wing it.
He was good at winging it.