Each step brought Molly deeper into the project. Except for the tiny circle of light from her flashlight, a curtain of mist shrouded the area. Her back brushed against wooden beams that outlined a doorway. She played her light on the wooden flooring beyond and stepped onto it. The silence unnerved her. Numbness crept into her feet, cold gripped her hands. She tried to whisper “Nick,” but her lips froze.
Maybe this wasn’t her best thought-out move. It ranked right above the time she’d added an ingredient to cake batter fifteen minutes after she’d slid it into the oven. Luckily, the bakery had still been open, and no one at her aunt’s sixtieth birthday celebration had suspected the truth. Not with all the compliments she’d received. Anyway, Nick could take care of himself. What did he need her poking around like Nancy Drew? This might be a good time to dig out her mace.
Her hand went to her pocket. Then something flew at her and knocked her down. She lay sprawled, her face pressed into the naked wood. Her flashlight bounced across the floor, flickered, and died.
“Umph.” The air whooshed from Molly’s lungs.
A heavy weight ground her hips into the floor. Rough hands sank into her shoulder blades. She tried to wriggle free but was pinned down. Then the weight lifted momentarily, and she was tossed onto her back. A dark shape loomed above her, straddling her thighs. It had the configuration of a man dressed head to toe in black. Her hands were held together in a tight grip above her head and her hood was yanked off. Her heart smacked against her chest like a mallet pounding a piece of beef. A light at least a million times more powerful than hers shone into her face.
She blinked and turned her head to the side. Her breath wheezed as if she’d run up the steepest San Francisco hill — twice. She squinted sideways up at Nick.
“What the fu … ” He stared down into her face long enough for her fright to slowly ebb. He released her hands and turned her face toward him. Their eyes locked; mortified, Molly grimaced. What she hadn’t thought out was how she’d react the first time she bumped into him. Even in a city of three quarters of a million, it was possible they’d meet somewhere. Maybe she’d develop a sudden craving for tacos, or he’d get beaned at the construction site and carried into the clinic. What she’d never expected was to find herself lying under him — oh, God, don’t go there — with a beam of light heating her face and probably a scowl distorting his.
For a moment, his knees tightened against her hips. Then he eased off her, stood, and pulled her to her feet. “What the hell are you doing here?”
He sounded anything but happy to see her.
She squinted into the light. He lowered it and flicked it off. He put it off to the side but kept his grip on her arm. “Pretty bad idea, huh?” She tried for a laugh and almost choked.
“What’s this about, Molly?”
It’s about love. Was he too dense to see that? Well, apparently so.
“I saw your car parked … you know … ” She pointed vaguely toward the corner across the avenue. “I was worried.” She shrugged. How lame did that sound? If only she could have said, “I worried because I love you and miss you and was afraid someone might have hurt you badly enough for your folks to debate whether to pull the plug at the hospital.” Too bad she couldn’t say that. Instead, she gave a spot-on impression of a jackass.
“I parked away from the site because I didn’t want anyone to know I was here.”
She bit down hard and grimaced. “Oh, I should have … ” She did a side to side motion with her head and her hands. A habit she’d developed in childhood, when words failed.
“I don’t know what concerned you. Or why you thought it was a good idea to prowl around in here.”
Was he dense with a capital D?
“You’re right. It was an impulse.”
“Impulses like that can get you hurt.”
Hurt. Lately, she’d learned a lot about that.
“It could become dangerous.”
“I wasn’t afraid.”
He shook his head and exhaled, making an exasperated sound. “Well, you should have been.”
Was he worried about her? Was he sending a signal he cared, at least a little bit?
“Try not to advertise the fact that I hang around here at night.”
“Oh.” He didn’t care about her. He was angry she could have drawn attention to him.
“Go home, Molly. Don’t do anything this … ” She knew he was about to say “stupid.” “Don’t do anything like this again.”
“I’m sorry, Nick.” He picked up her flashlight and handed it to her. At least she hadn’t maced him.
He took her elbow and led her toward the doorway. Before they reached it, he stopped dead.
“Oh, shit.” The words were barely audible. Then he looked at Molly. She’d never seen deeper concern on a man’s face. “This could be trouble.”
Nick clamped a hand over her mouth. He pulled her back and led her to where a sleeping bag lay on the floor. He removed his hand and put a finger against his lips, a signal for her to remain quiet.
“Don’t move,” he mouthed.
Molly froze and listened for whatever had caused Nick’s sudden caution. Then, through the dead air that blanketed the site, footsteps. They came from what would soon become the central lobby, then stilled.
Nick pointed and in a whisper got the message across that he intended to investigate. He dug a cell phone out of his pocket and handed it to her. He put his lips against her ear and said, “Thirty seconds. If I’m not back, call nine-one-one.”
As soon as Nick moved through the doorway, Molly left her safe position and crept close to the opening. The encroaching night kept her shrouded but she could still make out Nick’s silhouette. A scrape and then a thud sounded, as if someone had set down a heavy object. Nick moved quickly toward the sound. A dozen feet from him, a dark shape crouched over the faint outline of what resembled a two-gallon sized gasoline can. The man unscrewed the cap. Nick dove at his back and the two men hurtled across the wood floor. The guy was easily six feet in height and burly with hard, knotted muscles that filled out his dark sweatshirt. Before he had a chance to scramble to his feet, Nick hooked one arm around his waist. Molly watched, paralyzed. Then the man shook him off and charged at Nick. Nick raised his arms and covered his chest. The blow grazed his bicep, and he moved in and landed a punch to the guy’s nose. From the crack, Molly assumed he’d broken it. That didn’t stop the intruder from countering with a full-out body assault.
Molly flipped open Nick’s phone and dialed 911. Her heart beat a discordant rhythm against her chest and she spit out the message they needed help. Address? What address? There was none yet. She gave the location along with the two cross streets, snapped the phone closed, and dropped it into her pocket. Then she moved through the doorway. In the central area, Nick and the other man rolled about and kicked at each other. Arms flailed and fists made contact with any of the other’s body parts. The strong odor of gasoline hung in the air. A dark puddle spread across the floor. A can with a spout lay on its side. Nick had intercepted an arsonist.
Molly searched for a board or a tool, something to get in a whack if she had the chance, but found nothing. Nick’s elbow jabbed the man’s ribs. It created an opening for another swing. Like boxers, they circled each other. Fists darted. Nick pummeled his adversary hard in the ribs and managed a couple of elbow jabs to the face. He landed a punch that connected with the man’s jaw, then took one. He stumbled back a few steps and into a wall. Molly dug her mace out of her pocket.
The thug swung in her direction. Blood smeared his face. It wasn’t Duncan Serk. He began to stalk toward her.
Nick vaulted away from the wall and charged at the man’s back. He locked an arm around his throat and grabbed a fistful of hair. Molly raised her can of mace.
Nick’s eyes went to the canister. “What’s that?”
“It’s … it’s mace.”
He yanked the man’s head back. “Use it. Now.”
As Nick ducked his head, Molly clenched her teeth and let loose with a full-powered spray. The thug’s yowl rang in the dead air and his hands flew to his face. Then Nick threw a punch that connected solidly to the side of the man’s head. He sagged, and Nick threw him face down to the floor and twisted his hands behind his back. He pulled off his belt and used it to secure them. He kept one knee jammed into the saboteur’s spine.
The shrill whine of a police siren slashed through the night. As it drew closer, Nick said, “I want you out of here, Molly. Right now.”
She couldn’t seem to process his words, no less move. The siren screamed louder.
“I don’t want you mixed up in this.” His tone turned more forceful. “Don’t argue. Go home.”
Finally, her head cleared. “If that’s what you want.”
“Yes, damn it.”
“Okay.” Molly backed away from him. “Okay.”
“You’re a gutsy woman, Ms. Molly.”
She slipped through the gate opening.
Was she? She stumbled to her car, ripped open the door, and slumped behind the wheel. Or was she just another fool in love?
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