With one last glance over her shoulder, Natalia Parker turned off the sidewalk onto an overgrown path and gave a sigh of relief. She always felt exposed on Augusta’s streets, but here, at the ancient house where she rented the tiny upstairs apartment, red tips and azaleas grown wild mostly hid her from sight. Given a choice, she would never leave the apartment, but starvation was a hard way to die. She’d tried it.
A sharp wind cut through the narrow alley formed by house and fence, making her shiver. She’d gotten rid of her heavy clothes when she’d left Chicago nearly three years ago. The unusually frigid temperatures this week made her regret it.
As if she didn’t have enough regrets already.
She reached the back of the house, resting one hand on the flaking siding to balance as she stepped across the arching roots of a long-gone live oak. A plaster fairy with one broken wing sat on the rough-sawn stump, looking cold in the thin evening light. Clearing the roots and the corner, Natalia headed for the rickety stairs, her thoughts on warmth, security, a cup of hot cocoa and a movie.
Abruptly awareness prickled down her neck. Wrongness. Danger. Her gaze swept the small yard, from fence to crumbling, vine-covered fence, past a pine, an oak and a gum tree, before darting back to the oak.
In the shadows a lean figure stood motionless, his brown leather jacket and brown trousers practically blending into the bark. His stance was casual: one shoulder against the tree, one knee cocked. A dark knitted cap covered most of his long blond hair, and a beard stubbled his chin. For three and a half years, she’d seen him in her dreams. In her nightmares. And now here he was, in the flesh.
He pushed away from the tree, taking a few steps into the light cast by the weak lamp outside her door, shoving his hands into his bomber jacket pockets. “Hey, Nat.”
His voice was low, his manner loose, but neither lessened the menace emanating from him. She’d known danger since she was a child. She sensed it, smelled it, tasted it, chilling the very air between them.
Cursing the mall job that forced her to go out with nothing more than a 4-inch blade for protection, she gauged the distance to the stairs. She was 3 feet closer than he was. She might make it halfway to the top before he caught her–maybe, with luck, all the way. But the door to her apartment would give with one good kick, and the only other exit was a 15-foot drop out the bedroom window. Her sole hope of escape was back the way she’d just come, to the street, to the open.
“What’s wrong, Nat?” he asked conversationally. “Cat got your tongue?”
She locked gazes with him. His eyes were so blue, they defied description. Usually they were full of emotion: warm, heated, laughing, angry, gentle, mocking, deeply, darkly passionate. This evening they were blank.
How had he found her? Why had he bothered? To avenge the wrongs she’d done him? Payback was a bitch, he’d always said.
She’d had enough payback to last a lifetime. She wasn’t looking for any more.