Big, fat snowflakes drifted down from a gray, cloud-covered sky. Barely five o’clock and the sun had already settled for the night. The air was cold enough that the fluffy bits of ice didn’t melt when they landed on Noelle Mason’s unprotected head. Not that she noticed. Her eyes were staring dead ahead as she put one foot in front of the other, her footsteps sure and steady despite her lack of attention. Her ungloved hands were fisted and buried inside the pockets of her black woolen pea coat. A long red scarf was wrapped loosely around her neck, keeping her skin warm from an external chill she couldn’t feel but knew was real.
The scene she’d witnessed earlier dominated her thoughts, mercilessly replaying in an endless loop, leaving room for nothing else.
A naked blonde with generous curves, on her knees, fellating the man who’d professed to love her, Noelle, and only her.
God, she was such an idiot. No wonder Gil had tried so hard to persuade her to stay in Calgary for Christmas. Spend it with your family, sweetheart. I’m just going to work straight through to New Year’s.
She’d endured a four-and-a-half-hour flight to surprise him because she hadn’t wanted her workaholic fiancé to spend the holidays alone. Well, he’d apparently had the same idea. When she’d burst into the bedroom, it had actually taken Gil a good ten seconds to realize she’d been standing in the doorway, frozen in shock. Gil had choked out her name, his voice comically high-pitched. The blonde, too engrossed with what she was doing, hadn’t looked up.
With only escape in mind, Noelle had backed out of the room, raced down the stairs and burst through the front door, leaving behind her suitcase.
Now, she numbly wondered if there was anything in the suitcase she wouldn’t be able to do without. There was nothing in there that couldn’t be replaced. They were just—
The scarf suddenly tightened around her throat, cutting off her air and sharply jerking her sideways into an alley with head-spinning speed. Noelle was too stunned to do more than mentally berate herself for walking the streets of New York aimlessly after sundown and grapple with her scarf, desperately trying to loosen it.
It loosened, but before she could drag in a lungful of air, a large hand clamped over the lower half of her face. A thin, wiry body that smelled as if it hadn’t known the touch of water in weeks flattened her against a rough brick wall. Noelle struggled, trying to twist her body this way and that, realized her hands were trapped between their bodies and only struggled harder. She tried to bring her knee up to bury it in his groin and couldn’t. Something glinted in the darkness and she screamed. The scream, however, was only inside her head as the knife came closer.
But it never reached her. Noelle saw shock widen beady eyes just before her assailant went flying backward and she was free. She slid down the wall as her legs collapsed beneath her. Gasping heavily for breath, one hand pressed just below her left breast as if trying to keep her pounding heart from jumping right through her ribcage and the other desperately clutching her shoulder bag, Noelle sat on her haunches, knees on the ground, and stared dumbly at the scene unfolding before her.
Her attacker was now the victim. Her rescuer repeatedly smashed his fist into his victim’s face before jerking him upright as easily as one would a doll and slamming him into the brick wall. The limp body sort of bounced against the bricks, but a choked, anguished gasp filled the alley when her savior brought his knee up and ground it against her assailant’s groin. She looked past one broad shoulder to see the dirt-matted head loll lifelessly to one side. Her rescuer stepped back and released his iron grip on her attacker. The body fell to the ground and was quiet.
Her rescuer turned around. Dark, shaggy hair, equally dark eyes, olive-toned skin, lean cheeks and jaw covered in days-old stubble. Noelle flashed back to her second-grade field trip to the zoo where she’d been unwillingly mesmerized by a sleek, predatory jaguar. If the man before her hadn’t just rescued her, she would’ve crossed the street to avoid him.
Noelle blinked, snapped back to the present and noticed the outstretched hand. She swallowed and gingerly placed her small hand in the much bigger one. Large, warm, callused. Comforting. He gently pulled her up. Noelle found herself eye-to-chest and took a quick step back, coming up against brick. She had to tip her head back to look at his face.
“How are you feeling?”
His query brought everything rushing back to her as the cushioning shock dissipated. Her legs were shaky, as shaky as her wobbling insides, and she felt as if she was about to topple in her heeled boots. Her rescuer’s eyes darkened with worry as he reached out and steadied her, those hands cupping her slender shoulders, holding her upright. He made an incoherent sound in his throat and closed the small distance between them. Noelle, tight from tension hop-scotching over her nerves, instinctively, gratefully, clutched at the stranger’s waist through his leather jacket and buried her face in the wide chest.
Tears would’ve probably made her feel better, but they wouldn’t come. She couldn’t seem to stop shaking. Just seconds ago she had been systematically cataloguing the man who had come to her aid. Now she was clinging to him as if he was a lifeline and taking comfort in the hand that stroked her hair and the senseless words that she couldn’t make out but found soothing nonetheless. And he was so warm, so solid. She wanted some of that warmth to seep into her. Maybe then she would cease this useless trembling.
“Hey, can you let me go for two seconds?” he asked, voice low and just a bit rough. “I want to secure the SOB before he wakes up.”
Noelle nodded. But that was all she did. Seconds ticked by and she still retained her hold on him. She heard and felt a low rumble in his chest as he chuckled. The sound was rusty, as if it hadn’t been used in a while. A small smile lifted her lips, but her facial muscles were too tight to hold it steady for longer than a moment. Noelle forcibly unclenched her jaw and released her grip. She splayed her hands on his chest and had to push herself away from him. Deprived of his warmth, Noelle’s arms wrapped about herself.
The stranger didn’t move from her. Instead, he tipped her chin up and searched her face. “Are you going to be all right?”
Throat too tight to force words through, Noelle just nodded. Her smile was unconvincing at best, but she gave another small nod of her head at the question in his eyes. He nodded once and turned to the task at hand. Noelle watched, unblinking, as he dragged the unconscious body over to a Dumpster, removed the man’s belt and secured both wrists to the Dumpster with it. Crude but effective.
He turned back to her and his brows arrowed down in concern. “Hey.” He covered the short distance between them and pulled her back against his chest. Noelle went without a whimper. “It’s okay. He can’t hurt you now.”
“I-I know,” she stuttered, words muffled a little by his chest. “I j-just can’t seem t-to stop shaking.”
“It’s the adrenaline,” he explained, large hands rubbing lightly over her tense back and shoulders. Even through the thick layer of her coat, she thought she could feel the warmth of his skin. “Once it’s out of your system, you’ll stop shaking.”
“Uh-huh.” Noelle wasn’t sure what she was agreeing to. All she knew was that the large, solid male body she had her arms wrapped around was the only thing holding her up, and if anyone else targeted her, they would have to go through him first. It was a comforting thought. That and his body heat eased some of her shaking. Noelle sighed.
Was it her imagination or was there a trace of amusement in his voice?
“I’m okay now, I think,” she said softly, but she didn’t release him, a total stranger. But he had come to her rescue, so it was okay to cling to him shamelessly, right?
He chuckled, a deep sound that sent tremors of a different kind skimming down Noelle’s spine. “I don’t mind standing here all night, but you should go somewhere safer.”
She inhaled deeply and found something more than just comfort in his warm, clean male scent. No lingering cologne or trace of an aftershave, just male and soap.
Somehow, from somewhere, she scraped together enough of her strength to slowly drop her arms and step back. “I… Thank you.” That seemed inadequate, but what else could she say?
He nodded once, eyes locked on hers, as if afraid of a relapse. “Do you need to go to the hospital?”
Noelle shook her head. “No. I think I’m all right.” Then her gaze moved to the unconscious form secured to the Dumpster. “What about him?”
Her rescuer arched a brow. “You want me to get him medical attention?”
“Well, shouldn’t we at least call the police… Oh!” She had a flash of insight. “Are you with the NYPD?”
His hesitation was so momentary that it almost slipped by her.
“Don’t worry about him. I’ll take care of it. Why don’t you get a cab, go home and try to forget this happened.” It was more of an order than a suggestion. Maybe it was the return of her courage, but something made Noelle persist.
“Shouldn’t I give a statement to the police or something?”
“Or something,” he said. “Which means go home and let me take care of this.”
Without waiting for her response, he took her by the arm and pulled her with him from the alley and back onto the relatively well-lit sidewalk. Almost instantly, like a magician snapping his fingers, a taxi materialized in front of them. He opened the back door and deposited her on the cracked vinyl seat. Noelle quickly tucked her legs inside the cab for fear he would close the door on them.
He almost did. Then he leaned down until they were eye to eye. “Take care.”
Noelle watched until he disappeared down the street.
He hadn’t even given her his name.
Disappointment flared through her.
“Where to, miss?” The driver’s Bronx-flavored voice called her from her thoughts.
Where to? Well, her rescuer had told her to go home, but she couldn’t do that. Home was twenty-five hundred miles away. And she sure as hell wasn’t going back to Gil’s.
A hotel. She needed a hotel because she was in no shape to fly back to Calgary tonight.
Her gaze fell to her hands. They trembled faintly.
The words tumbled out before she could stop them. “I need a drink.”
* * * * *
Sergio Ramirez brushed the snow off his hair as he stepped inside the Italian restaurant that everyone in law enforcement knew was a front for the Manetti crime family. However, since knowing and having concrete proof were two very different things, no one could do anything about it. Besides, keeping the status quo meant they could occasionally keep the place under surveillance and see who came and went.
The restaurant was cozy and the rich smells tantalizing. It served surprisingly good food. After all, the chefs were genuine Italians. Like most nights, the place was mainly empty. A man and a woman were seated by the window and two slickly dressed men sat at a table in the back. The couple were tourists, he decided, noting the folded map on their table. The people in this neighborhood weren’t stupid. Complacent, wary, fearful, but not stupid.
The kitchen door swung open and a graying, heavyset man in a white shirt and dark trousers emerged. Seeing the new arrival, Tony Luongo opened his arms in welcome.
“My boy, it’s been almost a week. My wife’s been wondering where you’ve been.”
Sergio allowed himself a faint smile. “Around.” He glanced back at the kitchen door. “Where is Rosario?”
Tony shrugged. “She did not feel so well this morning. I told her to stay home.” Grinning, he leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “But I’m the better cook. What would you like? Cannelloni? Spaghetti? Risotto?” His tone turned coaxing. “I have fresh mussels and scallops today.”
Sergio held up a hand and shook his head. “Nothing, thanks. Just here to meet Jack and Donnie.”
The other man’s brow furrowed. “Are you sure? It won’t take long.”
It took three more reassurances from Sergio before Tony left him alone and turned his attention to the young couple by the window.
One of the men at the back table, the one with his back to the wall and facing the entrance, waved Sergio over. Unzipping his jacket, Sergio crossed the room but didn’t pull out a chair when he reached the table.
“Jack,” he said, nodding at the man who was smart enough to keep his back protected and his eye on the door. He tipped his head at Jack Manetti’s younger brother, who was still working on cannelloni filled with ricotta cheese. “Donnie.”
Jack kicked out an empty chair and gestured with a hand cradling a glass of red wine. “We got time,” he said. “Sit down. Have something to eat.”
Sergio sat but declined the offer of food. “I’m good. Had something before I came.”
The older Manetti cocked a brow. “You knew you were coming here but ate first?” He shook his dark head. “My aunt’s going to be hurt when I tell her.”
Sergio shrugged, an affable smile on his face. “I love the food here, but I can’t eat it more than once a week. Not if I want to live past forty.”
Both Manettis chuckled.
Jack took a swallow of the wine. “We’ll wait for Donnie to finish, then we can go.”
“Sounds good,” Sergio said, wishing his gun was in his hand instead of the holster at his waist. But he was calm, his body relaxed, despite knowing he was going to be taken one step deeper into the Manetti family and their operations. Or perhaps it was because of that knowledge, since a single misstep on his part would end up with his bloated body being fished from the Hudson.
They talked about the Rangers’ chances for hoisting Lord Stanley in the spring while Donnie finished his cannelloni and Jack polished off the remaining wine. None of the men, however, got up until the couple by the window paid for their meal and left. After Tony closed and locked the front door behind the couple, wood scraped on wood as the three men simultaneously pushed their chairs back from the table and rose. The Manetti brothers dwarfed Sergio, both in height and weight. With each new situation, self-preservation had him constantly planning how to injure them enough to escape when he was around them.
With Donnie and Tony behind him, Sergio followed Jack into the kitchen. In that tiny, crowded space, Jack turned to Sergio. “You know the drill.”
Sergio lifted his arms and allowed the younger Manetti to pat him down. They wouldn’t find a wire on him because there wasn’t one to be found. When Donnie reached for his gun, Sergio’s hand snaked out and caught the other man’s wrist. He gave it a warning squeeze.
“Your gun stays with Uncle Tony,” Jack explained. “Or you don’t go any farther.”
Shit. His brain worked furiously.
“You guys don’t trust me?” Sergio asked calmly.
Jack shrugged. “We don’t trust anybody, my friend. No weapons beyond this point. That’s the rule.”
Sergio silently cursed again. He’d worked too fucking long and too fucking hard to blow this chance to find out who was in bed with the Manettis. After tonight, he would have three big names to include in his report.
“Does the rule apply to you and Donnie?”
There was an infinitesimal pause. “You don’t trust us?”
Sergio’s smile was little more than the baring of teeth.
Jack laughed, but he reached inside his jacket, withdrew his semiautomatic pistol and handed it over to Tony. Despite his screaming instincts, Sergio followed suit after Donnie did the same.
Jack pushed open a side door and Sergio followed. They went down a short corridor and through another door that led to a small anteroom. The restaurant itself took up only six hundred square feet, but the building that housed it was significantly larger. People who didn’t know better assumed the rest of the space was used for storage, if they gave it any thought at all.
Jack gave a perfunctory knock on the door directly across from where they’d entered and opened it. Donnie gave Sergio a small shove from behind. Sergio stepped over the threshold into the dimly lit room. A small table, four chairs—and one was already occupied. His pulse sped up.
He was so fucked.
* * * * *
Three drinks later, Noelle exited the lounge-like bar and had taken two steps past the front doors when a yellow vehicle caught her eye. After the night’s earlier episode, she decided it would be prudent to not wander in a strange city at night on foot. She stepped up to the curb and raised her arm to hail a taxi. And she did a quick two-step back when one screeched to a sudden stop four inches in front of her.
Only grimacing slightly and thinking that she would always prefer the slightly slower pace of Calgary, she opened the back door and bent down to enter…
And was helped along by a heavy weight that smashed into her from behind, startling a sound from her while propelling her with undue haste onto the backseat of the cab. Her outstretched hands grappled with the slick vinyl for a second, maybe two, before they slipped and Noelle found herself on her back on the floor, bright flashes of light clouding her vision. Never before had she knocked her head hard enough to see so many stars. In some distant part of her mind, the small part untouched by the heavy, throbbing pain, she thought there was a first time for everything.
And this was her first and would be her last trip to the Big Apple, she decided. She’d traveled to London, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Sydney, Venice, Hamburg, Lucerne and numerous other foreign locales. Never before had a city tried to kill her not once, but twice.
Noelle closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing evenly until the pain between her ears subsided into a manageable ache. Then she cracked open an eyelid. She lifted her right hand to feel for the edge of the backseat. Wanting to drag her bruised and battered body onto the presumably more comfortable seat, she braced her left hand on the floor to push herself up and discovered she couldn’t move her legs—they were tangled with someone else’s. The second man who had hurt her this night in this godforsaken city.
“Are you hurt?”
The voice was low and raspy, but it triggered something in Noelle’s still-recovering memory. Heart picking up pace once more, she peered up at the lean figure sitting rather rigidly on the backseat. She could make out the shape of the head in the gloomy interior of the moving cab. The shoulders were broad and the torso long. The line of the jaw was shadowed with stubble. Her eyes widened. “You.”
There was a dry, masculine chuckle followed by a groan and a muffled curse. “Yeah, me. How are you doing down there?”
“I’m in pain, but I’ll live.” It was the truth. She had banged her head before and suffered nothing more than a raging headache for a few hours. Such were the trials of playing pond hockey with four older—and much bigger—brothers.
“Can you get up?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered and began disentangling their legs. She was puzzled when he didn’t offer his help. Maybe he did only one good deed per night.
Noelle slowly released her breath when she was finally seated beside the man who had saved her earlier only to violently barrel into her from behind a few minutes ago. Pain creased her brow. She closed her eyes, needing the refuge of darkness.
“I thought I told you to go straight home,” he finally said quietly, turning to look at her.
“You did,” she confirmed without opening her eyes. “I didn’t listen.”
She made a noncommittal sound. “Where are you going?”
Noelle’s lashes lifted and she caught the driver’s gaze in the rearview mirror. She had to give the man credit for taking it all in stride. It couldn’t be every night when he gets a woman shoved into his cab by a strange man on the run. Then again, what did she know? Maybe this was a common occurrence for him.
“Then why is the cab moving?”
“I told the driver to drive,” he explained, the words labored.
Noelle frowned. Was he hurt? She slowly turned her head to the right and glanced down. Her frown deepened.
“Is there a reason why you’re clutching your side like that?”
“Yes,” he gritted between clenched teeth, the pain almost successfully veiling the sarcasm in his voice.
Her brow puckered, but it wasn’t because of the ache in her head this time. “Oh.” Her eyes widened. Realization dawned. It was belated, but it did dawn. “Oh God! How bad is it?”
Her headache was forgotten as her hands felt all over his face. It was heated and coated with a sheen of cooling sweat. His stubble scratched her fingertips. Noelle’s exploration halted there as she savored the discreet tingle that shot through her fingertips straight to her tummy. She was a sick, sick woman to be turned on by a man bleeding all over the place.
And only hours ago, she’d believed herself in love with another man.
Noelle gingerly probed beneath her defenses. She should be hurt, torn up inside. Yet all she felt was more anger at herself for being so stupid than at Gil for cheating on her.
The rough voice pulled her back. “Not there.”
Noelle was glad of the darkness as warmth flooded her cheeks.
“Is it just your side?”
“Are you going to let me check it out?”
“Are you a nurse or a doctor or a paramedic?”
She drew back as if attacked by a kitten. Her lips thinned. “No, but I do know basic first aid. Or do you think sheer macho willpower will take care of your injury?”
A rough sound rumbled from his chest. “I’m sorry.” Very gingerly, very slowly, he moved his hands away from his left side and said, “Here.”
Carefully, Noelle scooted down so she could better examine the wound. She pulled the black T-shirt from his jeans and peeled it up. A blade had sliced through the leather jacket and the T-shirt and left a long cut that wasn’t as deep as she’d feared. But it wasn’t as shallow as she’d hoped.
“We should get you to a hospital. You need stitches.”
The only response she got was an indecipherable grunt. She assumed it was a sound of protest.
She sighed. “Shouldn’t I call the police?”
He growled a very decisive negative.
“What is this aversion you have to the police? Is it cops in general or just the NYPD?”
“No,” he repeated more firmly.
“Why not? Your tax dollars pay for their services.” A thought occurred to her. “Uh, you do pay taxes, right?”
He slanted a narrow glance at her. “Yes.”
The taxi came to an abrupt stop and its occupants’ heads bobbled. The man next to her groaned and cursed. Noelle immediately skimmed her hands over his head and through his hair. She stopped when she found the subtle bump behind his left ear and winced in sympathy. Thankfully, there was very little blood.
“We need to stop somewhere where you can lie down and rest,” Noelle said. “Where do you live?”
He relaxed his clenched teeth enough to mutter, “No.”
Noelle tamped down her frustration and tried to sort through her options. No police, no hospitals, no personal residence. Alarm bells should be going crazy inside her head, but they were strangely silent. This man had saved her earlier tonight. She couldn’t believe that he would be a bad person. Perhaps he wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t someone she could blithely abandon. Turning to the driver, she instructed, “We need a hotel.”
“Something big,” she added, reasoning a large establishment wouldn’t take too much notice of two more guests.
The driver skillfully maneuvered the taxi through traffic for an untold number of minutes before stopping several feet from the front entrance of a massive yet elegant structure located on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.
Noelle glanced at her fellow passenger and concluded he would draw too much attention at the check-in desk in his present state. “Wait here,” she instructed and exited the vehicle.
* * * * *
Sergio wondered if he’d lost his mind. He was trusting his welfare to a half-pint of a woman he didn’t even know. True, he probably had a concussion from the blow to his head, but that didn’t mean he had to depend on a complete stranger. The smartest thing for him to do would be to get out of this taxi and hole up somewhere safe until he could track down who wanted him out of the picture in a very permanent way.
Somehow, he was still sitting quietly in the back of the taxi when the brunette returned. As if from a distance, he watched her pay the driver, tipping him an extra fifty for his battered baseball cap, his first-aid kit and his promise to develop amnesia if someone questioned him about them. Without protest, Sergio let her pull the baseball cap over his head and straighten his clothing as best she could, all the while muttering that at least his clothes were dark so the blood wouldn’t be noticeable.
She led him inside the hotel, which he normally wouldn’t have even considered because his salary couldn’t cover a broom closet in here for one night. As they crossed the endless expanse of a brightly lit foyer that seemed larger than a football field and stepped inside the elevator, she stayed pressed up against his side, as if she thought he needed assistance staying upright. A wave of dizziness assailed him as the elevator car began its ascent. He tightened his hold on her. She smiled at the elderly couple sharing the car with them and murmured something that made them aim disapproving looks in his direction.
They got off the elevator before the other two passengers, but the dizziness only worsened. Sergio shook his head to clear it and instantly regretted his action. He was only thankful the nausea was controllable. By the time she located their room, he was putting so much weight on her that she stumbled and had to stop to regain her footing. She somehow managed to keep him upright until she opened the door of their room, led him the short distance to the bed and helped lower him onto it. Sergio closed his eyes and allowed himself to sleep.
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Copyright © 2007 by Ann Bruce. All rights reserved.