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Linda Howard is the award-winning author of many New York Times bestsellers, including Ice, Burn, and Death Angel. She lives in Alabama with her husband and a golden retriever.
Linda Jones is the acclaimed USA Today bestselling author of more than sixty novels, including Untouchable, 22 Nights, and Bride by Command. She lives in Huntsville, Alabama.
Los Angeles, California She was losing her mind. There was no other explanation. She hadn’t slept more than thirty minutes at a stretch for the past three days. How could she, when the dreams were so vivid and came so quickly, one after the other, startling her awake every time her name was called? Some of the details were murky, but two things she always remembered very clearly: the man, and the way he called to her.
It wasn’t fair. She was twenty-three years old, healthy, unattached—at the moment—and living in the bustling and exciting city of Los Angeles, far from the family she’d left behind in Missouri. She should be having the time of her life, the way she had been just a few days ago, and not dragging herself around in a stupor of fatigue. Normally she wouldn’t complain about vivid dreams of a very large and muscular, mostly naked, dark-haired hunk who felt so real there were moments she actually forgot he was the product of a dream, but she needed her sleep.
Now it was getting worse; he was invading her waking hours, too, though, to be fair, for the past three nights it seemed as if most of her hours had been spent awake. She’d started hearing him at different times, and the way he called her name was getting more and more urgent. Hearing him! Really, truly hearing him. It might be a whisper of her name as she walked down the hall, or a very faint yearning call as she stepped into the shower. She wasn’t imagining the voice. It was real. Only it couldn’t be real. She didn’t do drugs, so that meant she was losing her mind. It was the only explanation. Fine. The mind could go, so long as she could get some sleep.
She’d been sitting slumped at the table, picking at an ordered-in meal, but she was too tired to eat and finally she gave up on the effort. Dragging herself to her feet, she cleaned off the table and tossed what was left of her supper into the garbage can. As soon as she lifted the lid, the strong, sour odor of several uneaten meals hit her right in the nose. Shit, she should’ve taken the garbage out before it got dark. Not that she was afraid of the dark, and the Dumpster for the apartment complex was in a well-lit area just a few yards from the end of the stairwell, but she’d already changed into her at-home grubbies, she was barefoot, and if she dared leave the apartment looking like this the odds were she’d bump into some really hot guy who’d take one look at her and decide she was about as attractive as her garbage. That was the way life worked. On the other hand, did meeting at the complex Dumpster qualify as “meeting cute”?
She could wait until tomorrow to take out the trash, but that would mean waking up to that smell. And that was assuming she actually got some sleep tonight. She was so tired, she didn’t think anything could keep her awake, not even a naked dark-haired hunk.
She tugged the plastic trash bag out of the can and tied the top, tested the knot to be certain it would hold, then trudged out the door, down the flight of stairs just outside her apartment door, and around the corner. “Johanna!”
Her hair stood on end as her name echoed both in her head and from somewhere around her. It was spooky, the way the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. It made her want to run home like a scared little kid, to hide her face in her mother’s lap. And that was the last thing she wanted to do, considering how dead set her mother had been against her moving away. Things hadn’t changed since then, either. Her mother was always warning her to be careful. L.A. was a big city. She hated the idea of her daughter being in such a heavily populated place. So many people! The lecture was delivered on a regular basis: Lock your doors, don’t go out alone at night, watch out for strangers. Yeah, right. That last one was a hoot. She was a hair stylist, so she met new people every day. Moreover, she was fairly new to the area, which meant almost everyone she met was a stranger. Why bother to live in L.A. if she was going to close herself off in her apartment every night? She was here to make her reputation as the hair stylist to go to if you had a special event, someone who could make you look both elegant and edgy. One of these days she’d be stylist to the stars. The strange sound came again. There was an urgency in this latest call of her name, as if it were a warning. “Leave me alone,” she whispered, focusing on the Dumpster straight ahead. The faint sound of her own voice made her sharply aware that there was no one in the parking lot of the small apartment complex at this time of night. People who had to be at work early were already asleep, probably having perfectly ordinary dreams. Those who worked at night weren’t home yet. All she saw were a few cars, including her own, a lamppost, and the winding sidewalk that led to the pool. It was all comfortingly familiar. This was her home now; there was nothing to be afraid of, except the possibility that she was going nuts.
She tossed the bag of garbage into the Dumpster, turned, and stifled a shriek as she lurched backward, almost bumping into the trash container. A tall man with long blond hair stood right behind her, reflective sunglasses making his eyes look like giant insect eyes, with the lights reflecting in the lenses. “Shit!” she exclaimed, then put her hand over her heart as if she could physically calm its frantic pace. “I almost jumped out of my skin!” He paused, his head tilting to the side. “Interesting,” he said. “I didn’t know humans could do that.”
She would have laughed if she hadn’t been so preoccupied with catching her breath. Where had he come from? She hadn’t heard a sound, though he had to have been following almost in her footprints. Surely she should have heard him leave his apartment, heard his door open and close.
She’d been right about something like this happening, she thought in disgust. Her hair was a mess, she didn’t have a trace of makeup on, and she was dressed like a bag lady, so of course a trip to the Dumpster would bring her face-to-face . . . well, face-to-chest . . . with a hunk. He was dressed all in black; he had a serious Johnny Cash vibe going on. Still, she should have seen him, heard him, but she supposed she could only blame her foggy state of mind.
She tipped her head back to look at him. What was with those pretentious sunglasses? It was night. Not that there wasn’t a more than fair share of pretentiousness in L.A., where everyone was a star or about to become one. This guy was no star. She would’ve remembered this face if she’d seen it before. Wowza, she thought dazedly. He could give her dream stalker a run for his money in the looks department.
Like she was in any kind of shape to admire handsome strangers.
The voice was the one in her dreams, and for a moment she was stunned that he’d said anything other than her name. Then the urgency in the faraway voice seeped into her weary mind and uneasiness chilled her spine.
“Excuse me,” she said, stepping to the side to allow him access to the Dumpster. He moved, too, his action mirroring hers, and like a slap in the face she realized he wasn’t carrying any trash. The taste of copper filled her mouth. Every cell in her body seemed to tense as a rush of alertness seized her, but before her brain could quite send the message to scream he lifted his hand and used one finger to pull his sunglasses down so she could see his blue eyes . . . his glowing blue eyes.
The scream never came. She felt herself sinking into that gaze, and the odd thing was, she didn’t want to tear herself free. The growing fear of a moment ago vanished as if it had never existed; instead, she was filled with a sense of warmth and pleasure. He was beautiful. She wanted to please him, to do whatever he wanted.
“Oh,” she said in a voice of wonder, reaching out as if to touch his face.
He caught her hand instead, lifting it to his mouth in an elegant and old-fashioned salute. The touch of his lips was warm on her fingers. “Good-bye,” he said, and slid eight inches of a knife blade between her ribs and into her heart.
That hurts, she thought, but without any urgency. “I don’t want to leave,” she said, faintly bewildered. “I want to stay with you.” Why was it so hard to talk? Why did she feel as if she couldn’t draw a breath? She blinked at him, trying to formulate an argument, but thoughts kept slipping away from her and time faded away. She became aware, on some distant level, that somehow she wasn’t standing in front of him any longer but was lying on the ground in front of the Dumpster. That wasn’t right. She would never . . . too many germs . . . she should get up.
And there he was again, the man in her dreams, as vivid as he had ever been. He said her name once more ...