Excerpt from Chapter One
RUN RACHAEL RUN
READ AN EXCERPT
"Hot damn, give me some of that with jam!”
“Shut it, Brad.”
Rachael Gooding bent down to pick up the tiny black-and-tan dog shivering at her feet. The hem of her cherry-red dress inched higher up shapely legs that drew the subtle, and the not so subtle, appreciation from the male customers who had, for one reason or another, gathered at her favorite neighborhood cafe, the Stomping Grounds.
She scooped up the pooch with one hand, the dress hugging her curves, and red became the color of a dozen fantasies. Tucking the dog into the crook of her elbow, Rachael rose back up to the full five-foot-eight inches of unattainable goddess that sometimes prompted men to say and do stupid things—things that sometimes prompted her to say and do things she might regret, but couldn’t always stop herself from saying and doing. She could, at times, be prickly.
The dog licked her hand. Rachael nuzzled his ear with her nose. “You’re my good boy, Shelby.” Resettling him close against her side, just under her armpit, she angled her head a quarter turn and lowered her gaze to her target.
He was a big man, this Brad…beefy. He wore a faded blue T-shirt, one size too small, probably to make his muscles, which he apparently had more of than manners, more apparent. The number 99 leapt off the front of the tee in oversized white block numerals. Tempted to ask if it stood for his IQ, she resisted.
Shifting her gaze to the other man sitting at the small, window-side cafe table, she arched one perfectly shaped brow, compliments of Monique, who was, in Rachael’s opinion, the absolutely best stylist in Center City.
“A friend of yours, Doug?”
“He…uhm…he’s my brother-in-law, Brad, from Ohio. He’s visiting me and Carrie for a few days.” He gave her a please go easy on the guy look, and added, “It’s his first time to the big city. He’s young, you know, he…” Doug trailed off. He squirmed a bit in his chair, clearly embarrassed by his companion’s crude remark.
Rachael hiked her chin a notch and sniffed. She regarded Brad again, no humor in her eyes. He shot a questioning glance toward Doug, who said, “Apologize, and nicely.”
The cock-sure grin decorating Brad’s face until that moment drooped, and the man actually huffed. “What the—” His expression clearly said Are you shitting me? And it made her want to smack him up the side of the head. Troglodyte.
“You offended the lady.” Doug shifted again. “Now tell her you’re sorry before she cuts you up into tiny pieces, packages you inside little zipper baggies, and doles you out to her pooch as doggie treats.”
Brad’s shoulders slumped. He moped a moment before mumbling, “Sorry,” with all the sincerity of a naughty child who really wasn’t sorry in the least but had just been brought to task by his parent.
He slouched down against the chair back, not looking so big as before. He reminded Rachael of some of the boys from elementary school who used to try showing off to the other boys during recess by pulling her braids, and then crying when she kicked them in the shins.
She wasn’t going to kick Brad in the shins. He was probably already swimming in confidence issues. Besides, if she wanted to punish the man, she didn’t have to resort to physical retaliation. She’d learned more effective ways to deal with bullies than when she was seven.
“I like you, Doug, so your brother-in-law gets a hall pass this time.” She adjusted Shelby against her side. “But you probably shouldn’t let him out on his own until he improves his manners. Not everyone in the big city will be as forgiving as me. The boy might get hurt.”
She’d let him off easy. She’d already wasted more time on Brad from Ohio than she had energy for tonight. If it hadn’t been such a long week, if she didn’t have bigger things to worry about, she might give him a side of buddy, you’re messing with the wrong woman to go with his grandé cup-of-joe. Right now she just wanted to decompress, have a glass of wine, and enjoy some reasonably normal conversation with some reasonably normal people.
Turning so all Brad could see was her profile, she focused on Doug. His expression had relaxed, displaying a hint of relief. She winked at him, out of Brad’s view. The corner of Doug’s mouth twitched with the hint of a grin. Satisfied to let it go, she spun on her heels and walked to the counter. The men who watched her progress took care to be a bit more discreet, less they, too, offend her.
Drew, the owner of the Stomping Grounds, delivered a frothy cappuccino to a customer sitting at the end of the counter and then came over to greet her.
“Hey, Blade, do you want something to eat, or did you just stop in to skewer the tourists?”
Amused by the humor in his tone, Rachael offered up a smile. “I’ll have a burger and fries, and a Pinot Grigio. Make it a blue cheese burger. It’s been a rough week. I feel like treating myself.”
“You got it.” He angled toward her and lowered his voice. “And thanks for sparing me the trouble of having to mop up 99’s blood.”
She put Shelby’s mat on the floor next to one of the black-and-chrome swivel bar stools fronting the counter, and then sat down and crossed her legs. Leaning forward, she rested both elbows on the cool, grey-and-white top, and propped her chin in her hands. She stared off to her right, not really focusing on anything in particular, the chatter in the cafe fading to a non-distinct din.
Restless and edgy, she’d felt that way all week, and maybe a little paranoid, too. She’d had an overwhelming sense of being watched after she and Shelby left the apartment. She’d looked around, even into the cars parked along the street on her way here, but she hadn’t seen anyone or anything unusual. Paranoid? Maybe. She didn’t know, but the feeling had been real.
She hadn’t imagined that feeling, just didn’t know what had brought it on. Not knowing made her feel vulnerable. She didn’t do vulnerable well.