Amber looked at the older woman across the counter and couldn’t help but wonder how she had achieved that particular shade of blue hair color. It reminded her of a bluebird.
“My good friend just gave me a makeover.” The woman patted her hair proudly because of the young woman’s attention. “Do you like it?” she asked, sweeping a light blue strand from her ear back toward the mass of hair that was combed into a beehive.
“It’s lovely,” Amber said as she stamped the return date on the stiff bookmarker and slipped it into the sleeve in the front of the library book.
“She’s getting her license to do hair at the School of Hair and Design in town, if you’re interested.”
Amber smiled, not at all sure if she was ready for that one. . . . Not that she hadn’t done her fair share of experiments—or had her share of disasters, for that matter. It was, after all, part of the role of someone in hiding. But blue hadn’t made the list . . . yet. As it was, her naturally curly hair was dyed a mousy brown, and the thorough brushing she’d given it before tying it into a ponytail had set its volume and frizz potential on high.
“Here is a card for ten percent off.” Mavis set a banana-yellow card on the table that read: Gloria, specializing in natural dyes for the hair and skin. “Spray tan is so popular right now.”
“Thank you,” Amber said graciously enough, though she was starting to think the blue-haired maven was trying to tell her she needed some help in the hair department. That’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black, Amber thought, pushing her thick-rimmed glasses further up on her nose . . . a habit she had picked up years ago in order to avoid direct eye contact. They were perfect for hiding behind.
The bluebird of happiness and hair design nodded at her. “Her shop is just around the corner from here.”
Amber tried not to be offended. After all, the styling of her hair—and clothes, for that matter—was deliberate. The more unnoticeable she was, the better. She cleared her throat. “These are due back on Valentine’s Day,” she said as she checked out the last book. The lights flickered when she spoke. Amber glanced at the computer screen, thanking her lucky stars that the power had stayed on this time. “Thank you, Mrs. Peterson,” she said, reading the woman’s name from the file.
“Call me Mavis, dear,” the blue-haired woman said with a smile. “Everyone does. This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone else.”
. . . . And their business, Amber thought, wondering just how long she could safely remain there. The lights flickered again, and this time they stayed dim.
“You know, I could have my son come in and look at the wiring here,” Mavis said. “He’s an electrician.”
Amber glanced at the clock, which was still clicking away the seconds. It was five minutes to seven. Almost time to close. “Maybe tomorrow.” She turned off the computer before the erratic electricity blew a fuse or a surge caused a system failure. “I’ll have to call the branch office to see if we have a maintenance man on staff first.”
“Well,” Mavis said, “just don’t believe the rumors of the ghost.”
“The ghost?” Amber asked. On cue, the lights flickered, and lightning flashed in the distance, followed by a rumble of ominous warning.
“It’s probably worse due to the storm,” Mavis said. Then added, as if sharing a confidence, “I doubt very strongly that Miss Dimity was in her right mind when she said the library was haunted.” The older woman nodded. “She’s the one you’re filling in for, you know.”
“Ah.” Amber nodded in understanding, although this was the first she’d heard of a ghost. Funny how the employment agency didn’t include that in the job description, she found herself thinking. “They said it was due to medical leave.”
“Oh, it is! She’s undergoing psychiatric evaluation,” Mavis whispered, “but you didn’t hear it from me. Poor dear.”
Amber nodded slightly. She’d assumed it was an accident or surgery. Not . . . insanity.
Without waiting for a response, Mavis went on, “Don’t believe any of that nonsense, though. It was rumored that my own ancestral home was haunted. In fact, that busy bee woman had the whole town convinced of it. For a while there, it seemed as if everyone had gone nuts.”
“Patricia Parker,” Mavis spat out distastefully. “She’s a local reporter . . . and if you ask me, she goes for sensationalism, rather than the truth.”
“I see.” Amber glanced at the clock again. Only a minute left, but it looked like she wasn’t going anywhere soon, what with the annoyed bluebird with ruffled feathers in front of her and the whole library to close. She glanced at the door and the stack of books waiting for her attention.
“Well, enough about that. Welcome to town, dear,” Mavis said, glancing down at the name plaque that rested on the desk. “Amber Smith, it was nice meeting you.”
“It was nice to meet you too.” Amber set her books down on the counter and picked up the yellow card. Rather than throw it away, she placed it in her pocket as the older woman looked on approvingly.
Mavis looked at her cell phone and then pointed to the “No Cell Phone” sign. “I’ll go outside to make a call. I hate to just run off, but I left my Duke at home alone. He’s my little doggie. I know he must be beside himself in the storm,” she continued, gathering up her books.
“I have a cat.” Amber nodded in understanding. “She knocks everything off the counters when she’s agitated.”
“So you know how it is.” Mavis smiled before heading for the door.
Amber more than understood how it was. . . . She was the poster child for the lonely old maid with a cat persona. It is better than the alternative, she reminded herself. Unfortunately, it was also why she’d been forced to take a room which reeked of urine at the local motel and pay extra for the privilege. Amber took a pen and jotted down a note to pick up deodorizer, coffee, and creamer before returning home.
The lights flickered again, and this time she heard a distinct thump that sounded like it had come from the back of the library. She looked up. “Hello,” she called out. She could have sworn she was alone. “It’s closing time. Is anyone here?” In response, the lights flickered once more before leaving her in the dark altogether.
Amber found her purse and felt around for the keys, grabbing a can of pepper spray she kept in the front pouch while she was at it. Clicking on the small flashlight hooked on the key ring, she scanned the room.
The sound of another thump made her turn the light toward the rows of bookshelves near the back wall. She thought for a moment she saw a flash of something in the small beam of light and had to hold down her fear. . . . They couldn’t have found me.
She was probably just seeing things, she decided, as she held the light higher. “It’s probably just a mouse,” she said to bolster her own confidence as she passed the first row of shelves and continued toward the back.
Another sound from the front of the building gave her pause. She turned around. If something was in here with her, it had just circled around her unseen. . . . Maybe there is a ghost. She swallowed, glancing back at the light coming in through the front door. Another flash of light lit the main corridor, making it a little brighter . . . the shadows grew darker and longer. Ten seconds later, thunder sounded.
What is it about a bunch of old books that can make you want to jump out of your sensible shoes when left alone with them in the dark? Amber tightened her hold on her purse, taking some comfort in the fact that it was heavy enough to wallop someone with.
At least if she had to run, she’d worn reasonable shoes. She glanced down at her Doc Martens and the skirt she wore, which was flared a little at the knees. It was certainly wide enough for a decent stride if she had to take flight. She looked back up, pushing her glasses higher on her nose as she did.
Amber jumped at the noise, turning to see an end shelf topple over, the books scattering across the floor. Panicked, she clicked off the flashlight and darted down the nearest row, flattening herself against the last bookshelf. Her breathing sounded loud to her own ears as she tried desperately to quiet it and listen to the room. She swallowed as she heard a shuffling sound that was getting closer. I have to escape!
Unfortunately, she’d managed to trap herself in an aisle that dead-ended. She glanced up at the narrow window above her. If she could climb the shelf, she could slip out the window. Anything is better than being caught!
Amber hitched her skirt up to her thigh, exposing the top of her extra-long knee high stockings. She found footing on the third shelf and a handhold near the top of the one next to it and started to climb up the corner. The shelf near the top tipped slightly when she reached for it. She thought the noise surely must have given her away. She paused a moment, listening for the sound of any movement.
When the lightning flashed again, Amber decided to use the percussion of the thunder to mask her next move. She counted to nine before scrambling the rest of the way to the top. Once there, she only had to crawl a few feet to the latch, and she was home free . . . or would have been, if the lights hadn’t chosen that moment to flicker back to life and expose her position.
Feeling slightly betrayed by the light, she paused for a moment, looking down over the library, somewhat surprised to see she was alone. From her vantage point, she could also see the bookshelf that had fallen over. The hinge on top, where it had been connected, was clearly broken.
Is that all it was? She sighed in relief . . . until the door opened, and Mrs. Peterson walked back inside.
“Miss Smith . . . Amber?” Mavis called out softly when she noticed her missing from behind the counter. She walked down the center aisle and did a double take when she found her. “Oh, there you are, dear.”
Amber made a little wave from her perch, feeling like an idiot.
“Whatever are you doing up there, dear?”
“Ah—the window looked like it was unlatched.” She tested it and her acting skills at the same time. “There, all safe and sound,” she said as she started down.
“Be careful, dear.” Mavis poised herself below, as if she might catch her if she fell.
I would more likely flatten her, Amber thought as she made her way cautiously down, so that wouldn’t happen. When she reached the bottom, Mavis had already turned and was inspecting the books scattered across the floor.
“Whatever happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It just fell. I think the latch broke.”
“Well, that does it!” Mavis said. “As a historical committee board member, I will see to it that this is fixed immediately! It’s a good thing I called my son and asked him to stop by and have a look.”
Amber stooped to pick up a few books and set them in a stack as the woman continued to chatter.
“Someone could have been hurt!” Mavis said as she, too, picked up a book. “I’m glad I came back when I did. Besides, I wanted to invite you to dinner, dear.”
“Thank you,” Amber said.
“Since you are new in town, the least I can do is introduce you around.”
“Ah—” Amber started, feeling trapped by the industrious little busybody. It was the absolute last thing she needed. She quite preferred to remain anonymous. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m rather shy . . . Really.”
“That can all be sorted out with some good friends,” Mavis said stubbornly. “How about tomorrow?”
“I—” Amber began.
“I won’t take no for an answer,” Mavis said right over her response. “And now I really must get back to my doggie, or I would help with these.” She set the book she’d picked up on the stack that Amber had created. “Shall we say seven o’clock, right after the library closes?”
It was obvious she had lost the battle of the dinner invitation. “Yes, thank you,” Amber said, adjusting her glasses as Mavis watched her.
“Very good,” Mavis said. “I’ll also speak to the branch manager about the matter of the maintenance man. If they do have one, he has been appallingly lax in his duties. You just leave it to me.”
With that, the little bluebird plucked her phone from her purse and punched a button. “See you tomorrow, dear,” she said before she left the library for the second time that night.
“It’s worse than I feared,” Amber heard her voice echo in the foyer as she spoke into her cell-phone. With a sigh, Amber stacked the rest of the books on the table. Picking up the last book from the floor, she noticed a yellowed piece of paper sticking out from under the edge of the shelf.
She slipped the page out, surprised to find that it was handwritten instead of copied. It was dated at the top, 1863: During the Civil War, Amber thought as she read, “In my despair, I failed to notice that his intentions were not honorable.” Lightning flashed, followed by thunder that was much louder now.
She slipped another page out that was a little further down. She followed the trail of paper until she found an old leather-bound book that had fallen behind the bookshelf. Most of the pages looked loose and torn. It must have fallen behind the shelf years ago, she thought as she flipped it over in her hand. It wasn’t a book at all. It was a diary. She opened the flap, revealing the first page. “Property of Agnes Hawthorne,” Amber read aloud. The lights flickered, followed by the soft sound of someone sobbing.
Amber glanced up and found herself wondering if the last librarian wasn’t as crazy as everyone thought. Branches scraped across the windows as the wind picked up. It was just the wind, she thought and decided to call it a night. From the sounds of the storm, it was getting closer. If she made a run for it, she might just miss the rain. A clash of thunder had her hurrying to the entrance. She tucked the diary into her purse and turned off the lights.
Lightning flashed, silhouetting her reflection in the door glass as she locked it. The tree branches created shifting patterns of light on the stone, which made it appear as though they were reaching for her. She spun around, surveying the street that had looked bright and cheerful just a few hours earlier when she’d arrived. It now looked deserted and spooky in the dark. She quickened her step as she hurried across the grass toward her car . . . or where she’d left her car.
“Oh no!” Amber cried out, staring at the space where her car had been, and she wondered why anyone would steal it. This can’t be happening! She looked up and down the street. Who in their right mind would steal her old blue Pinto? She belatedly noticed the sign on the lamppost that listed parking between the hours of eight a.m. and six p.m. “Violators will be towed away.” Why do I always see those after the fact?
The wind blew in a swirl around her as the rain picked up. She glanced up to the sky as it began to sprinkle. Great! She didn’t even have a cell phone. Staying off the grid was how she’d managed, so far, to remain undetected. She thought of the phone in the library office and glanced back at the building only to see the interior lights flickering. She swore she had turned them off. She remembered the soft crying she’d heard and shivered. Tomorrow morning in the daylight was soon enough to deal with that one.
The motel was a little far to walk in the rain. Recalling the yellow card she had in her pocket, she pulled it out and read the address of the hair salon in the dim streetlight. Maybe she could at least use the phone, if they were still open. Amber looked at the street address to get her bearings. It appeared that all she had to do was cross the park to get there.
The path through the middle was lit well enough, she decided, as she started out. I might even ask for a pedicure while I wait for a taxi, she thought as she walked. She hadn’t made it this far without learning how to make lemonade when life dished out lemons. She trudged forward, skirting a mud puddle. A twig snapped behind her. She glanced over her shoulder at the streetlight filtering through the tree-lined path.
This time, the noise was much closer. Amber turned back around just as a small arrow hit the tree next to her. She jumped. They have found me! She left the path and the light behind, running for all she was worth across the grass, darting amongst the trees.
She heard the sound of another arrow as it grazed her hair and hit the tree in front of her. She lunged away, only to have another one fly by her shoulder.
She dove for cover and tripped, ending up sprawled across a small mud puddle. Looking behind her briefly, she scrambled to stand and ran into something hard with her head. She spun around and saw a very large man dressed in black step over her with the biggest black combat boots she’d ever seen.
She felt for her pepper spray and watched as the tread of his shoe went over her head. She pointed the can up and let loose a stream of spray, wondering if she could stop him from squashing her like a bug.
“What the hell!” he swore as he wiped his eyes. Instead of reacting to the burning spray, he stepped over her and stood facing whatever foe she had been running from. Her glasses had slipped, making the blurred outline of his blond hair look like a halo with the light filtering through it.
Great! she thought. . . . I’ve just pepper-sprayed my guardian angel. She wanted to warn him, but she was stunned speechless when an arrow bounced off his thigh. Was this guy wearing steel pants? She was dazed, true, and her vision fuzzy, but she would swear that she saw the next arrow bounce off his bare arm.
Clearly annoyed by the attack, the man in front of her caught the next missile with his bare hand and sent it back like a dart. She heard a grunt from the far end of the park. . . . Okay, maybe he is an avenging angel.
He looked back at her and knelt down. “Are you alright?”
She blinked back, unwilling to believe her eyes as his face came into view. She grabbed the glasses that had slipped down her face and rested on her chin. She had an unusual feeling of déjà vu, as she stared up at him. It was as if the man who haunted her dreams had somehow come to life.
He waved his hand in front of her face and came closer. “Do you speak English?”
She adjusted her lenses. The effect of him was worse when she could actually see him clearly. He was too near, too real, and too stunningly beautiful. She swallowed.
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small phone. “I need backup at the park next to the library.”
“Non! You are serious?” A voice flavored with a French accent came back over the speaker a few seconds later.
“Augh,” he sighed. “Yeah, Grandpa, we have a shooter.”
“How is it they find you?” the voice said back. “Do they just jump out of the bushes at you?”
“As a matter of fact,” her guardian angel replied, “we may also need an ambulance. We have a young female down.”
“Assistance is on its way,” the voice over the speaker said.
Her rescuer slipped his phone into the pocket on his thigh and turned back to her. “Are you hurt?”
She stared dumbly at him while every inch of her responded to his masculine presence. That alone was enough to give her pause. She was mesmerized by his blue eyes that were filled with nothing more than concern as he held out his hand to her.
“Ow!” he said a second later as another arrow hit him, this time piercing his shoulder. He stared at it in shocked surprise before pulling it out.
“Oh no,” she groaned as sirens sounded. “Not again.”
He looked back at her, trying to comprehend her words as his eyes flared. She watched as his pupils dilated a little when he gazed at her mud-streaked face and frizzy hair. He shook his head, narrowed his eyes quizzically, and turned away from her.
“That does it!” he said when another barbed arrow hit him. He stood and ran toward the other side of the park.
Amber watched him disappear into the night. She sighed as she stood with a heavy heart and a soggy sweater. Now it was her turn to disappear.
Just put one foot in front of the other, Amber thought as she started off toward the other end of the path. She looked at the yellow card that was still in her hand. “Maybe it is time for blue hair,” she said to herself. “They’ll never suspect that one, and I can disappear again . . . right beneath their noses.”
“Hold on there,” her rescuer called out, running to catch up with her. “Where are you going?”
Amber turned and saw him running toward her and didn’t know if she wanted to run into his arms or run the other way as she watched him approach. From his expression, he didn’t know either. “I just want to go home,” she replied when he neared. She tucked the card in her pocket, not wanting to give anyone the heads-up on her plans to disappear again.
“Home?” His voice sounded concerned.
“Is this her?” An officer walked up behind him. “Are you okay, Miss?”
Amber was surprised she hadn’t noticed the other man behind him. “I’m fine.” She nodded. “Just a little shook up.”
Her savior studied her for a moment like she was a puzzle he was unraveling. “Please,” she said, wiping a splash of mud from her cheek, which only succeeded in leaving a larger smear. “I just want to go home.” She looked down at her mud-soaked clothing.
“The ambulance is on its way,” the officer said.
“That’s good,” her savior said. “I think she may be in shock.”
“No, I’m fine. . . . I just want to go home,” Amber repeated yet again.
“Where is home?” the officer asked, flipping out his notebook.
“Currently, it is the Golden Key Motel down the road,” she said. She could tell by the way he looked at her that he assumed from her state of dishevelment that she was an indigent of some sort. She straightened her shoulders. “I am the new librarian,” she stated defensively. “And, so far, my day hasn’t gone too well. The power went out, my car was towed, and to top it off, I was attacked.”
The officer looked up at her. “A blue Pinto?”
“Did you know your plates are expired?” the officer asked.
“Can we not help this young lady out here, Tom?” her Herculean-sized rescuer asked the officer. “I’ll call Bob’s Towing and have your Pinto delivered back here pronto,” he said, looking at her.
“That is all fine and good, but it still doesn’t explain why I have a man in diapers over there with a lethal weapon,” Tom said as he wrote.
“You caught the man?” Amber asked, a little surprised by the information.
“Yeah, some nutcase,” Tom said. “He was already laid out cold when I arrived.” The policeman cast a suspicious glance at her rescuer, who rubbed his neck. “You wouldn’t know how that happened would you?”
Her guardian angel shrugged, and the officer turned back to her. “How about you?” he asked. “Do you know why a man claiming to be Cupid would be out here shooting arrows at you-Miss?” He looked at her questioningly, his pen poised above the notepad. “Miss?”
“Oh, it is Miss Amber Smith and, no, I-I don’t.” Amber’s voice caught in her throat.
The ambulance’s approach was heralded by the blaring siren. “I think she needs to go to the hospital, not be subjected to the inquisition,” her rescuer said.
“No I can’t possibly go to the—”
“What?” Her angel signaled that he couldn’t hear her over the noise and leaned closer to her, giving her a whiff of aftershave that filled her senses.
“No,” Amber said, backing up. “No hospitals. . . . I am fine.”
“Tell you what,” he said gently. “Let’s have the paramedics check you out, and if they give us the okay, then this nice officer will give you a ride to the motel.”
“This nice officer has a man wearing a diaper in the back of his car,” Tom said in response. “And I’m going to need to get a statement.”
“Correction,” her savior looked back to her, “I will give you a ride and have your car delivered to you by morning.” He smiled at her like she was a two-year-old he was trying to console with a new toy. “What do you say?”
Amber watched as he looked past her and visibly cringed. What is happening now? she wondered as she followed his line of vision.
The officer shook his head with a sigh. “I wish someone would take that police scanner away from her.”
“Her?” Amber couldn’t help but ask as a news van pulled up.
“Patricia Parker, the busy bee herself,” Officer Tom said with a sigh as a woman stepped out of the van. “I’d better go see if Hansen has that poor guy in the squad car before his image is flashed across the ten o’clock news.” He looked back at her rescuer. “I don’t suppose you could help me out here?”
“Let’s get you to the ambulance.” Her rescuer stepped closer to Amber.
“I meant with your girlfriend,” Tom said.
She glanced over at her guardian angel at that announcement. He was still looking past her at the new arrival, his expression unreadable. He glanced back at her. “Can you walk to the ambulance, or do you want a stretcher?” A slow grin spread across his face, taking her breath away.
Amber swallowed, pushed up her glasses, and had to find her voice before she could answer. “I can walk,” she finally said, realizing that he had manipulated her with that question. She didn’t need to go to the hospital and didn’t want the attentions of the paramedic either, but he’d made it the lesser of two evils. . . . I am going to have to pay more attention to what comes out of his mouth, rather than just his mouth!
She was still reeling from her reaction to him when they were bombarded by the media team as they approached the emergency vehicles. Amber blinked at the bright lights and tried to cover her face.
“Get those cameras out of here!” Officer Tom yelled over to the beleaguered young man in uniform left to guard the vehicle. “You know the rules about showing the face of a prisoner,” he said to the voluptuous blonde who stepped in front of the camera and held a microphone up to his face.
“Is it true that Cupid was shooting arrows in the park?” the woman asked.
“Cupid?” Tom asked. “C’mon, Patricia. You and I both know that that’s no Cupid.” He held his hand up and waved her off. “It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There are probably hundreds of Cupids dressed in the same outfit tonight.” He waved his hands. “This is a crime scene, folks.” He herded them back.
“So there were shots fired?” the newswoman asked as she held her ground, refusing to budge.
So this is the busy bee, Amber thought as she looked at the Greek god’s girlfriend. It was fitting that the man who’d rescued her should be paired with a woman who would make Venus envious.
“That is still to be determined,” Tom said, all business. “We still need to collect the evidence.”
“So there were arrows and they are not just hearsay?” Patricia asked as she stepped closer to the officer and angled herself in front of the camera, presenting her best side.
As if she had a bad one. Amber noticed that Tom’s demeanor changed while in close proximity to her bosom. He looked like he was about to break into a cold sweat as Patricia leaned closer to him. He was spared the embarrassment of stuttering or wiping his brow when the busy bee spied the man who walked beside Amber. Patricia’s gaze raked Amber coldly before once again claiming the man next to her.
Patricia motioned for the cameraman to change direction with a click of her fingers. “Is this the victim?” she asked as she walked towards Amber and her rescuer.
Amber felt a gentle nudge on the small of her back as her rescuer guided her toward the ambulance and then stepped in front of her just like before. She could still feel the tingling sensation where his warm hand had touched her, which was surprising, considering she was wearing two thick sweaters.
“What do you have to say about this, Jonathan?” Patricia asked.
“I didn’t know you were back,” her savior answered, employing yet another evasive technique, Amber noted, as she watched the newscaster turn to her cameramen, indicating they should cut. . . . He is very good at manipulating women.
“Miss?” another woman said beside her. The voice sounded like it was coming out of the fog-shrouded haze that was her mind. . . . “Miss?” she said again as she touched Amber’s shoulder.
Amber turned to see a middle-aged black woman standing next to her. “I’m going to take good care of you, hon. Just come over here with me.”
She had to stop the impulse to call out for her rescuer as he walked toward the busy bee, leaving her feeling alone and bereft. Amber sighed. She didn’t understand the strong feelings the man inspired within her. Why do I feel like I’ve just lost my best friend? I seriously need to get a grip! She mentally shook herself. Good grief! He’s a complete stranger I’ve known for all of ten minutes!
“Just sit right here, sugar,” the paramedic said.
Amber found herself seated in the back of the ambulance with a sphygmomanometer on one arm and a thermometer in her ear, wondering how it had all happened so fast. Both gadgets beeped at the same time. The woman read her temperature and typed it into a computer pad as the band inflated painfully on her right arm.
“This is tight.” Amber began to pull on the Velcro strap.
“Nuh-uh, sugar. That stays put till it beeps again. Won’t be but a second more. You just relax now, hon.”
Amber stopped trying to peel off the tight band that was making her lightheaded and looked around at the medical apparatuses that reminded her of that other place. Panic set in, and she started to breathe harder. She felt trapped.
Instead of just a beep, a red light started flashing.
“Aw, darlin', your pressure is way too high,” the woman said as she placed a clamp on her finger.
“No,” Amber said. “I’m just nervous.” She read the name on her badge. “Charlene, please.” Amber shook her head and tried to leave.
“Sweetie,” the woman said. “You just sit tight. I’ll have you at the hospital in no time.”
“No!” Amber said frantically. “It’s the machine.” She pointed. “Has it never acted up before?”
“What’s happening?” Her savior poked his head in.
“Tell her I’m fine, please,” Amber begged.
“Chucky, what have you been doing to her?” he asked the medic.
“You know that’s not funny, Jonathan,” Charlene blustered as she turned to him. “And don’t you ‘Chucky’ me like we were still on the playground.”
“I take back every word.” Her savior held his hands up in defeat.
“Uh-huh!” Charlene turned back to Amber. “Darlin', I need to take you. It’s my job. You’ve been through somethin' awful, and we’re going to make sure you’re okay.”
“Why can’t you?” Charlene asked.
Amber swallowed, looking into her doubtful dark chocolate eyes. She looked away, glancing up at Jonathan with her own fear-filled golden eyes. “Please, I just want to go home.”
“I didn’t even get injured,” Amber said, turning back to the medic. “He’s the one that was hit with an arrow.”
Charlene turned back to Jonathan, who shrugged as if it was nothing.
“See? His shirt is torn.” Amber pointed to the evidence on his shoulder.
He poked his finger into the hole. “Naw, it’s just a scratch.”
“We’re going to take your pressure again,” Charlene said as she reset the machine. “If you pass the second time, I’ll release you. If not, you’re coming with me to the hospital. Understood?” With that, she turned to Jonathan. “Are you going to get over here and let me take a look at your boo-boo, or are you going to try to make my day?” Charlene tilted her head when she spoke, daring him to defy her.
Jonathan sighed as she tried to work the sleeve that was too tight on his bicep up to his shoulder.
“Off with it,” Charlene said.
In one smooth movement, he swiped the T-shirt off of his well-muscled frame and stood looking like a living statue of a Greek masterpiece. Amber was glad the blood pressure monitor hadn’t started yet, but the one taking her pulse through her finger started beating faster.
“You can say that again.” Charlene smiled at the sound of the increased rhythm.
Amber knew she was going to die of embarrassment when the finest example of male flesh she’d ever seen smiled and winked at her. She looked away, pushing her glasses up.
“What were you doing in the park?” Charlene asked him as she wiped the scratch on his arm with alcohol. “Dressed in black, at night, in a storm?” she added.
Admittedly, Amber was curious about that too. And about why the puncture from the arrow she had seen was now just a scratch.
“Actually, I’m here because of the storm,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” Charlene replied doubtfully.
“What?” Jonathan laughed outright. “You think I make a habit out of skulking around in dark parks looking for men in diapers?”
“Hm-mm-mm,” Charlene tsked.
“For your information, I got a call from my mother to check on the library,” he corrected with a chuckle.
“Listen to you,” Charlene said as she put the bright neon pink Band-Aid on his arm. “How is Momma Mavis doing?”
“She’s . . . her usual self.” He looked at her finished ministrations. “Nice touch.”
“I figured you’d go for the extra manly one.” Charlene grinned at the sight.
“Well—I would have,” he said as he pulled his shirt back over his head and tucked it in.
Amber looked away and practiced breathing regularly so that the beeper on her finger and the band that was starting to tighten on her arm wouldn’t give her away again. So this is the electrician? At least she now had the missing pieces of that puzzle. That at least made her breathe easier. . . . She’d almost wondered if he was in league with them.
Amber tried to breathe methodically as the band squeezed tighter. She imagined herself running across a field of flowers, crossing a stream, and dipping her feet in a cool pond. The band relaxed as she continued to fantasize about languishing on the bank, but the illusion took on a life of its own when she looked up into the face of an imaginary lover. . . . It was his face! Her heart lurched, and her eyes flew open. Thank goodness the test is over, or I’d be headed to the hospital for sure! she thought.
“You passed it this time,” Charlene said skeptically.
Amber glanced over to the back of the ambulance and noticed Jonathan watching her with that same puzzled look on his face. He masked it quickly.
“I guess you’re free to go home now,” Charlene said. “I need you to sign this release first, and you need to be aware of some symptoms of shock.” She handed her some papers. “Here, read this, sugar.”
“Thank you,” Amber said to Charlene, who had actually done much to quell her fear.
“Think nothin' of it, darlin'.” Charlene smiled. “That’s why I am here.”
Amber moved toward the back door, where Jonathan still stood, and extended her leg as she stepped out of the ambulance, exposing the lovely hole in the knee of her muddy stocking. She pulled the edge of her skirt down as Jonathan waited patiently for her. Why do I feel so self-conscious around him?
Over his shoulder, Amber could see the news crew standing near the squad car. The younger officer, who had been left to guard the prisoner in the back, waved his hands excitedly as he spoke to Tom.
“Wait here for a second while I see what is going on,” Jonathan said as he, too, watched the new flurry of activity. Not waiting for her answer, he half-jogged over to the vehicle.
Amber knew it was her turn to leave. She looked down the street, where only a few people were looking out of windows to see what was happening outside. She took a few steps toward the sidewalk and was startled by a young man who came out of nowhere. “What’s up?” he said as he passed by the front of the ambulance and continued on his way.
She remembered him from his earlier visit to the library. He’d been doing a report on Greek mythology and had asked for assistance finding a book on Aphrodite.
“Are you new in town, sugar?” Charlene asked as she came around the side of the ambulance and joined her near the open back door.
“Yes,” Amber said as she turned back around with a sigh of regret. They both stood watching the commotion near the squad car and the gathering crowd.
“Hmm- hum,” Charlene said, mistaking her sigh and nodded in the direction of Jonathan. “That is one fine man. If I wasn’t married to Hank, I might be tempted.”
“I am the new librarian,” Amber said, changing the subject.
Charlene gave her a quick glance. “I can see that.”
Officer Tom’s voice rose above the commotion. “What do you mean he’s missing?”
“He vanished,” the younger officer claimed.
“He can’t have just vanished into thin air!” They could hear Tom shout as he threw open the door of the squad car to use the radio.
“I wonder what that’s all about,” Charlene said as both she and Amber looked on.
“We have an all-points bulletin out for a man in his mid-sixties, medium height, a hundred fifty pounds, with gray hair.” They heard the officer’s voice come over the speaker in the ambulance.
“Well, that answers that,” Charlene said as they listened.
“He was last seen wearing a cloth diaper in the vicinity of Elm Street.” The voice over the speaker paused. “He is not armed, but he is considered dangerous.”
“What a spectacle!” Charlene said. “How could they have lost a diapered man right under their very noses?”
Amber looked out at the dark street. The shadows seemed to jump out at her as she stood in the bright light. She felt vulnerable and had to stamp down a new flood of fear as she watched both the officer and Jonathan walk toward them.
Officer Tom spoke up first. “Miss Smith, I have asked Mr. Peterson to take you home. I have some other business to attend to.”
“It’s not that easy for a diaper-wearing man to walk around unnoticed,” Charlene said, putting a comforting arm around her. “You’d think it was a full moon out.”
“If it wasn’t Mardi Gras, I might agree,” Jonathan said.
“Oh, that’s true.” Charlene nodded.
Tom cleared his throat. “Since I have to conduct a man search,” he looked uncomfortable as he addressed her, “I must ask if you have anywhere safe to go, Miss Smith.”
“The motel,” Amber said.
The officer scratched his head. “I am understaffed this evening and am unable to offer police protection. However, Mr. Peterson assures me that he has a place where you will be well-cared-for and safe.”
“Are you talkin' about Ms. Katie’s bed-and-breakfast?” Charlene butted in. “Oh, sugar, you are just going to love Ms. Katie, and that heart-shaped bed of hers is divine.” She winked. “Hank and I got that room for our anniversary last year.”
“But I can’t,” Amber said.
“Why not?” Jonathan asked.
“I have a cat,” Amber said.
“Great!” Jonathan surprised her by saying. “This particular bed-and-breakfast owner happens to love cats.”
“It’s settled, then.” Tom quickly looked back at the camera crew. “I’ll come by tomorrow to get the rest of your statement,” he said as the cameraman and the busy bee started to walk in their direction. “You two had better leave before this becomes more of a circus than it already is.”
Amber stood rooted to the spot.
“Did you want to be on the news?” Jonathan asked her, stepping closer.
“No,” she squeaked a little too breathlessly. She didn’t need to be in his company, either.
“Does she even know who you are, Jonathan?” Charlene asked with hands on hips.
“Ah–” he chuckled. “I’m Jonathan Peterson.” He grinned. “How about you?”
She just stared blankly at him.
“And you are Amber, right?” he asked slowly.
“Okay, Amber,” Jonathan said. “Now can we go?”
She swallowed. The idea of going anywhere with him sent alarms off in her head and body. She glanced up at him, hoping she didn’t expose her inner turmoil. She couldn’t afford that type of complication.
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” Jonathan asked. “Did an arrow hit you?”
She glanced back at Charlene and shook her head. “No!” She glanced over at the reporter, who was talking with Tom and pointing in their direction.
“No, you cannot question the witness,” the officer said as he continued walking toward his squad car.
“I think we can sneak away while Tom distracts them,” Jonathan whispered in her ear.
She was definitely starting to feel queasy.
“Darlin', are you alright?” Charlene asked. “I know the hospital has security.”
“No!” Amber said, perking up. “I mean, yes. I’m fine.” She looked back frantically at Jonathan. “Let’s go.” She couldn’t believe the words had left her mouth.
“Well, I’m comin' over to Ms. Katie’s after my shift to check on you in the mornin'.”
Amber gave her a quick hug, surprising herself. It had been so long since she’d had a friend—heck, anyone who cared. “Thank you,” she said.
“Hmm-hmm.” Charlene grinned. “We’ll have one of Ms. Katie’s special blended coffees out on the porch.”
“Now to get out of here unseen,” Jonathan said. “My truck is on the other block.
“That’s the easy part, sugar.” Charlene winked. “I’ll just give you two a lift.”
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