Thunder boomed outside The Memory Café. Pamela pushed her chair from the desk and crossed to the window. Lightning lit the darkened August sky, illuminating the fragile trees bowing in the wind along the historic streets of Fredericksburg in Virginia.
She should have left with her employees. Instead, a half-hour after the café closed, she had watched them climb into their cars and drive away. Her heart had pommeled pounded when she twisted the deadbolts before heading to her office.
Why had she stayed alone? Her father said she needed a backbone, so she stayed, trying to live up to his motto: Be strong. Be brave.
She sucked in a deep breath, settled in the chair behind her desk, and looked at the picture of her grandparents, dad, and herself on her laptop. Though they lived in Florida hundreds of miles away, the three of them were her inspiration.
A loud rumble vibrated the office. Pamela jumped. She should have checked the weather channel before deciding to stay late, but the skies had been clear earlier.
Don’t be scared of what you can’t see. Another one of her father’s sayings reverberated in her head. Those words, along with defense classes her dad had paid for, gave her courage but not in a storm. Thunderstorms reminded her of the evil in people, one in particular.
She clicked the mouse, opened the bookkeeping application, and started entering the night’s figures. Lightning cracked, lights flickered. Her heart pounded to the beat of the rain hitting the windowpanes.
Enough was enough; backbone or not, she needed to get out of there. She switched off the computer, grabbed her purse, and then headed toward the back door, turning off the light on the way. She grasped the doorknob with one hand and unlocked the first deadbolt Panama Jack had installed four months ago. The doorknob moved under her hand. Jerking her hand away, she backed off.
The knob twisted again. Her heart leaped into her throat. Not again.
She relocked the deadbolt, ran into the kitchen, and snatched a knife from a drawer before squatting behind the stainless steel island.
The storm rumbled outside. Minutes passed with no sign of movement. Pamela peered around the island. The window in the back of the kitchen lit up. A face stared in. She screamed. Her purse fell to the floor with a loud thud.
Sam? It couldn’t be—he was in jail.
The window illuminated again. The man grinned, his teeth gleaming. Not Sam.
Fear knotted her stomach. She lost her balance and fell. The knife clattered across the concrete floor, hitting the wall. Afraid, she sucked in gulps of air, trying to calm her nerves enough to move.
After a few minutes passed, she surveyed the window. A flash of light cast the outside in a beam of light, followed by a loud clap of thunder. The face had disappeared. She bit her bottom lip. Where did he go? She scooted to the knife on her bottom, not an easy task in a form fitting skirt. With the knife secured in her hand, she rose and pressed her body against the wall.
Slowly, she inched toward the window where the teeth had gleamed at her. Not wanting to see him, but also not wanting to remain scared that the intruder was still out there, she peeked around the window trim. The parking lot came into view. The lights in the back lot glowed while the spaces bordering the building remained dark. The bulb outside the back door had blown since her employees left.
A hissing sound escaped her. The fear she experienced the night of the attack recurred tenfold, as the familiar scene unfolded, and the pressing question popped into her mind. Why did she think she needed to stay alone? Be strong. Be brave. Her dad’s words replayed in her mind.
Someone pounded on a door.
The knot in her stomach jumped to her throat. Kitchen lights were on, making it easy for whoever was outside to see her. She pulled off her stilettos, ducked under the window, then inched toward the switch. Lightning beat her to it.
The emergency lights blinked on, but not in the kitchen. It remained in darkness. Only the glow from the dining room and the hallway seeped through, giving little light.
The knife clutched at her side, she slid her hand along the kitchen wall to the receiver.
The phone line was dead.
It can’t be. Phone lines were underground in the city. With a trembling hand, she reached for her cell inside her purse, coming up empty. Her purse lay on the other side of the kitchen.
Another thump on the door, and her knees buckled. She slumped to the floor. This can’t be happening. The coldness from the concrete floor penetrated her skin. The night of the attack roared into her mind with the sound of thunder.
Lightning flashed, illuminating the room and bringing the image of Sam’s angry face to mind. Pamela flinched. The memory of Sam’s reaction to her when she refused his unwanted advances still unnerved her.
The rain came down harder, drumming even louder against the roof. She had to leave.
Glass shattered across the kitchen from the window the intruder stood at minutes ago. A loud thud followed.
Be strong. Be brave.
On shaky feet, Pamela stood. She clutched the knife in her hand like the killer in Psycho.
The Memory Café’s security alarm whirled. A shattering sound from the dining room penetrated the volume of the alarm.
This wasn’t good.
On the night Sam busted in the back door and attacked her, the police had arrived quickly. She blew out a puff of air, blowing sweat-dampened, dark hair off her forehead, and prayed they would arrive as fast as last time.
A light seeped into the kitchen through the swinging doors that lead to the dining room. A figured moved. The doors swung closed, and the light from the dining room disappeared, taking the figure with it.
Her heart thumped wildly in her chest.
A hand slid over her mouth, and another grasped her wrist. The knife clanked to the floor. The hand left her wrist and slid across her stomach, holding her firmly against a hard body.
“I’m FBI.” A man’s voice whispered next to her ear. “Is anyone else here?” He lifted his fingers away from her mouth. “Don’t scream.”
She swallowed the scream he warned her against and tried to take control of the fleeing instinct as she wondered how he found her so easily. “How do I know you are who you say?” she whispered back.
“You don’t. You’ll have to trust me.”
Trust, not something she did easily. “Why?”
“Either trust me or don’t, the choice is yours.” She felt his hot breath as he leaned closer. “If I was going to hurt you, don’t you think I would have already?”
She absorbed his words. They made sense. Right now, not having a means to contact anyone, he was her only defense against the man at the window.
“Is anyone else in here?” He asked again.
“I don’t know.”
“Stay here.” His hand slid away from her stomach.
Pamela gauged the darkness in the kitchen, and panic set in. She’d take the odds of staying with him over being left alone. “No way.” She spun, running into his back.
Tiptoeing behind him, she held the back of his shirt as they walked into the hallway where he covered the emergency light with one of the kitchen towels from the kitchen, the light in the hallway dimmed. “Why did you do that?”
He turned to glare at her. “Stay quiet.”
I need the light. In darkness, bad things happen.
As if he heard her, his words plunged into her internal rant. “You’re safe.”
The strength of them calmed her, or maybe the pat on her leg that followed did. Either way, the man personified safety. Edging toward the storage room, she spotted a gun in his hands, leading the way. Once there, he said, “Stay.” Before she had a chance to argue, he pulled her hand off his shirt and added, “Don’t argue.” He disappeared into the darkened room. Emergency lights should be installed in every room.
Less than a minute later, he reappeared. Her chewed nails thought he’d been gone a lifetime.
He touched her hand. “Let’s go.”
How could he see? They went through the same procedure when they reached her office. Only this time, she nibbled on the nails on her other hand.
He stepped out of the office.
She finally asked, “How can you see?”
She’d been concentrating but still couldn’t see anything. “Did you cover the lights in the dining room, too?”
“No. It must have malfunctioned.”
“Like the ones in the kitchen.” She didn’t believe it. Someone must have tampered with them. But who? Why?
He crossed to the emergency light in the hallway. “No one’s here,” he said, removing the towel.
She skimmed his dark hair and five o’clock shadow.
“What’s your name?”
“Pamela Young, I own this establishment.”
The overhead lights flicked on, shining brightly. His blue gaze stared into hers. “Are you okay?”
Her hand flew to her chest. She could lose herself in those eyes.
“You’re pale. Shock will do that to a person.” He grabbed her hand and tugged. “You need water.”
The kitchen fluorescent lights glowed, permitting Pamela to see the broken window. He released her hand and walked toward the sink.
She walked toward the object that had made the thud. A brick with an envelope tied to it.
Water soaked her back.
Her eyes were glued to the brick, or rather the note attached to the brick. She didn’t notice the towel he had in his hand until he grumbled, “I’ll do it myself,” and started to blot the back of her shirt.
A glass of water sat on the counter. She drank it, wishing for something stronger to wash down the burning fear.
“I’ll take care of it.” He plucked a couple of latex gloves from a box she kept on the counter, slipped them on his hands, and untied the envelope. After pulling out the note, the agent glanced up at her.
She shook her head. No way would she read it.
He unfolded the paper and silently scanned it. His grim expression confirmed her fear, another note. Her arms folded across her body.
The first said, Give back the bonds.
Two days later and she still didn’t have a clue about the bonds.
The second read: Leave the bonds in the trashcan by the City Docks, or your mother will suffer the consequences.
If the person who made the threat knew anything about her life, he or she would know Pamela rarely talked to her mother. She hadn’t since Vivian decided to leave for a career in New York City.
The previous notes, Pamela had deemed to be sick pranks by teenagers. One was in her mailbox and the other under the windshield wiper on her car. Both were classic juvenile stunts. Judging by the agent’s expression, this note held more impact. “What does it say?” Her voice shook, making the words barely recognizable.
Instead of answering her question, the agent asked, “Are you involved in criminal activity?”
Her mouth opened. The audacity of the question rendered her speechless.
His eyebrows rose, waiting for an answer.
Dropping her arms, she said, “Of course not.” Her chin jutted upward. “What does the note say?”
He glanced at the paper, studied her for a second, then cleared his throat. “It says: you’ve run out of time. Don’t involve the police.”
She turned away, clutching her stomach as bile rose to her throat.
A consoling hand touched her back.
“If you’ve got yourself in a mess, I can help, but you’ll have to be honest with me.”
She straightened and looked over her shoulder. He stood close, too close. “Who are you?”
“Police, is anyone in there?” a voice shouted from the rear of the café.
Thank goodness, the police arrived quickly, Pamela thought.
“In the kitchen,” the FBI guy responded.
An officer wearing a blue uniform appeared. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”
“I just returned tonight.”
The officer chuckled as he shook the agent’s hand. “Glad to see you, Jake Gibson.”
Finally, she had a name. She looked at the man named Jake. His name seemed familiar, but not his face. Hands on her hips, she glanced around the kitchen. Several uniformed police officers inspected The Memory Café.
“Pamela, you need this.”
Pamela She glanced behind her to see Jake holding a towel. “Wrap this around your waist. Your skirt’s torn.”
It took a few seconds for the words to register. She touched the ripped material, feeling the fabric separated. It had torn from the hem to the waist; no wonder the concrete floor felt cold earlier. At that moment, it dawned on her. Jake He stood behind her when she clutched her stomach, getting a view of her bare butt. Pamela glared at him and accepted the towel. Deciding to wear a thong to avoid unwanted panty lines had seemed like the right decision this morning. Next time, she’d go with the lines.
In response, Jake winked.
“Ma’am,” the officer said.
“Sorry, Pamela Young is the owner of The Memory Café. Ms. Young, this is Sergeant Glenn Harrison.”
Pamela She held the towel tightly around her waist and forced a smile. “Please call me Pamela.”
Sergeant Harrison lifted his chin and flipped open a notepad. “PamelaMa’am, what triggered your alarm?”
Jake moved behind the detective, held up the note and shook his head. The message was clear; he didn’t want her to tell the police. His blue eyes urged her to listen. She did. Looking away from the officer and his shadow, she eyed the broken window. “Someone threw a brick through the window.”
Jake’s hand fisted, but he remained silent. His gloves had vanished.
The officer glimpsed the brick on the table then tilted his head toward the window on the far wall. “That window?”
Pamela She scanned the table for the rope that had tied the note to the brick. It had vanished. She shifted her eyes to the hole in the window. “Yes.”
“So youYou have a Peeping Tom?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you give me a description of the person?”
“It was a man. A hood covered his head. The only thing I could see was his teeth and they shined at me.”
The officer wrote in his notepad. “What happened to your front door?”
Pamela believed the agent had caused the commotion in the dining room, but hadn’t asked.
“I broke the glass in the front door when I heard a female screaming and. When no one answered my knock, I broke the glass.”
The officer looked at him. “And you happened to be near the café during a thunderstorm?”
The agent shoved his hands in his pockets. “Yep.”
“I don’t see how you could have heard anything between the thunder and the security alarms, but you’re the agent, not me.” The officer’s phone rang. “Excuse me.”
When the officer walked away, Jake turned to her. “Are you holding up okay?”
“I could be better.”
The officer came back into view. “That was the FBI. They didn’t know you were here, but once I told them, they asked that you stay. Two FBI agents are en route, a forensic artist, and a field agent. Know anything?”
The officer hit his notepad against his thigh. “Typical agent, you guys are never forthcoming.” He turned toward Pamela. “Ms. Young, do you have anything else that you need to tell me?”
She needed to tell him about the notes, but for some reason Jake wanted the information kept quiet. She hoped this vaguely familiar man wasn’t leading her astray. The last thing she needed was to get in trouble with the police for withholding evidence. On second thought, she wasn’t the one keeping information from the officer. It was Agent Gibson. “No.”
Footsteps coming toward them interrupted their conversation. A woman wearing the same blue uniform as the officer in front of her, with the exception of the skirt, stopped beside them. “The light bulb was busted.”
Pamela twisted away from the police. One hand covered her mouth while the other held the towel like a lifeline. She mumbled, “This isn’t good.”
The agent touched her shoulder. The action, although a small gesture, meant a lot.
“If you need anything, give me a call.” The officer handed her his card, then smacked the agent on the back. “See you around.”
“Have a good one,” Agent Gibson replied to the officer’s back, as he handed over an inside out latex glove to the arriving field agent. The FBI’s forensic artist followed.
The agent separated the material and looked inside the glove then nodded. “I’ll send the note and string to the lab.”
“You put them inside the glove?” Pamela asked, looking up at Jake.
Jake He didn’t respond. “I need the lab work expedited on the note, string, and brick,.” Jake then pointed at the third item.
The agent placed the evidence in a Ziploc bag. “Will do.”
The forensic artist led Pamela to a table in the dining room. She gave the a parcel description of the man in the window while Jake cleaned up the glass by the front door.
Within minutes, the artist packed up the supplies and the two agents left.
Pamela twirled, looking for Jake. She found him by the rear entrance, where the doorknob twisted beneath her hands. He shook hands with the officers as they exited the café. Everyone knew him. She took in his clothing. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, not a drop of water on him.
He smiled at the last officer leaving the café before turning his blue eyes on her.
Pamela She jammed her hands on her hips. “If you were outside during the storm, why aren’t you wet?”
He closed the distance to her and jutted his chin toward the hooks by the front door. A black raincoat hung from a hook, a puddle of water beneath it. “I can’t move well in the coat.”
She glared at him.
He montioned for him to follow her and unbuttoned a couple of buttons on the back of the jacket. The flap dropped down, and the words FBI appeared. “I am who I said, except I retired a few days ago.”
She looked him over. “Why were you outside my café this time of night during a thunderstorm?”
“We’ll get to that. First, we have a few things we need to take care of, then I’ll escort you home.”
Her eyes widened.
“Your windows first, and then afterwards, we need to find a way to keep you safe. I’m assuming by your reaction earlier you’ve received other notes.”
She remained silent. What was she supposed toshould she say to him? He wanted answers but wouldn’t answer her questions.
“And by the silence, I know I’m right.”
Her mouth gaped open as he walked into the kitchen. She padded behind him. He was looking through the drawers.
“What are you looking for?”
“It’s in the storage room.” She led the way through the hall to the storage room, removed the tape from a box, and turned, running into his chest again. At five-eight, the top of her head reached his nose. Lifting her chin, she met gentle eyes and swallowed. A warm surge of heat rushed through her body. “Umm, I think there’s a roll of vinyl shelf paper in the corner that we could use to cover the holes.”
He cleared his throat. “I’ll have a man come over in the morning to replace the glass for you.”
“No need. I have a repairman, Panama Jack.”
Jake’s eyebrows arched. “Panama Jack? Well, if he isn’t available, let me know.”
She found the roll and headed toward the front entrance.
Jake unrolled the shelf paper and held it over the small hole in the front door while Pamela stretched the duct tape and attached the vinyl paper to the window. He took the roll and finished taping the other three sides, and then they moved through the kitchen doors to the shattered window and repeated the process.
“I’ll need to make a list for the repairman.” She strolled into her office, settled in her chair, and searched for a notepad.
Jake followed. His concern started to touch a place she didn’t want to consider. Giving up on the post-its, her hands went up in the air. He pulled the pad from an organizer and tossed it to her. “You can’t stay alone.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Agent Gibson—”
“Jake,” he interrupted.
She focused on the paper; anywhere was better than being sucked in by those blue eyes. “I have enough men in my life to watch over me, to a fault sometimes. I don’t need any more.” She knew her comment was mean, but she couldn’t take the chance of letting this man inside the wall she erected after Sam.
He crossed to her side of the desk and propped his butt on the corner. Crossing arms and legs, he looked down at her. “I’m trained to protect. Are your friends?”
She was forced to look at him, all of him. One had been. “It doesn’t matter. You’re not watching over me.”
“At least let me drive you home.”
As if to support Jake’s comment, thunder boomed, and the lights flicked off. The emergency lights immediately flickered, brightening the area.
She wrote the kitchen and dining room emergency lights on the list, then the back door light along with the windowpanes. He made a good point. “I’ll drive to a girlfriend’s house.”
The clock on the wall chimed two. Her friend would unnecessarily worry receiving a call at this time of night.
“What about tomorrow night?” Jake said, interrupting her deliberations.
Tomorrow hadn’t entered her mind. Late in the afternoon, the Band of Friends, known as the BOFs, would be meeting at the café. She could stay with one of them. “I have a friend I can stay with tomorrow night.”
He straightened and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket then flashed a badge. “Proof, I’m who I say.”
Pamela looked at the badge and the picture beside it. The FBI jacket could have been anyone’s, but the badge was definitely his. Again, the name Jake Gibson caught her attention. “The badge has retired across it.”
“Like I said, I retired a few days ago.” He shoved the wallet back into his back pocket. “I’ll sleep on your couch, and you can lock the bedroom door.”
“Could a locked door stop you?”
He touched both her shoulders. Blue compassionate eyes looked at her. “Look, I’m here to help you, not hurt. I can’t force you to let me stay, but I hope you will reconsider.”
As she gazed into his eyes, she noticed the same unfaltering demeanor she had seen in other men who had been to war. The look that said, I’d do whatever it takes to protect you. But why would he volunteer to help her?
He disappeared and a second later returned with his raincoat in his hands. “Come on, let’s get you home.” He tugged on her hand until she stood, then wrapped his raincoat around her.
The deer in the headlights look had to be what he saw when he eased her into his arms and said, “I’ll take care of this.”
She didn’t understand why this man with the familiar name was being so nice to her and didn’t truly know if she could trust him. Yet, she needed help, and he was offering. Burying her head in his shirt, she did what she refused to do in front of another man. She cried.
Something about his rectitude, his charm, and she knew under his watchful eye, she’d be safe. From what or who she needed protection continued to be a mystery.