Sliding down the cold metal front of the old-fashioned refrigerator, Carmen settled on the floor. Resting elbows on her bent knees, she covered her face with her hands. What else can go-- No. Don’t even think it. She’d already said it twice today and both times something worse had happened.
Carmen tangled fingers in her curly blond hair and stared abjectly around the kitchen—more specifically, what used to be the kitchen. Not only had the contractor torn the kitchen apart, but this morning while she was out getting ideas for cabinets and counter tops, he’d helped himself to her new gourmet six-burner range, the microwave, espresso machine and the oak table she had found at a garage sale several weeks ago and lovingly restored.
What a wretched streak of bad luck she was having. Pausing at the thought, she wondered about that word, streak. To her mind, it implied quick, fast, here and gone, though if that were the case, why was hers going on six months with no end in sight?
She blamed her ex-fiancé. It had started with him. Carmen cringed at the memory, the embarrassing cliché of coming home early from a business trip to find Dave and Tiffany, his twenty-something secretary, banging away on the leather sectional in the living room. Then to add insult to injury, she was stunned to hear, a month after moving out, that not only had the happy couple gotten married, but sweet little Tiff was pregnant. She’d lost count of the times Dave had said marriage was superfluous in this day and age, and having a kid? Never.
Carmen stewed for days after the news, but one night, caught completely off guard by the phone call, everything had changed.
Her beloved grandmother, her only family, had died unexpectedly. Devastated, she flew to Seattle, arranged the funeral, and spent long hours wandering in the old, familiar house, stunned by her loss, overwhelmed by memories in every room, around every corner. She’d come to live with her grandmother when she was eight, orphaned and grieving. Only this time there was no comforting warmth to help her mourn.
The old Victorian house belonged to her now. Taking the advice of her grandmother’s attorney to “doll the ol’ girl up” before making any immediate decisions about selling the place, Carmen quit her job in Los Angeles and moved back to Seattle to settle her grandmother’s estate and upgrade the house.
Over the next several months, she’d scraped and sanded, painted and polished, sorted and discarded, working her way from the attic to the main floor where the serious remodel work needed to be done, beginning with the kitchen. For a short time, she forgot about her bad luck streak as the house started to shine with her efforts. But no. Back with a vengeance when the first contractor took the deposit he insisted was necessary to purchase supplies, then disappeared with half her inheritance money. Now today, the second contractor had stolen her new appliances and the table she had so painstakingly restored to glowing life.
But worse, once she got past the shock, talked to the police for the second time—and how stupid did she feel getting ripped off twice?—she finally noticed her grandmother’s cat Bubba hadn’t met her at the front door, winding around her legs, purring his welcome. Racing from the top of the house to the slightly creepy basement, Carmen frantically called for him, but it wasn’t she opened the back door and walked across the grass toward the alley that she realized the gate had been left wide open. The contractor had used the alley to load his stolen goods, and Bubba was gone.
After two hours, twelve blocks, and fifty hastily printed flyers tacked to every telephone pole in the neighborhood, Carmen had dragged herself home just as ominous rain clouds began to darken the skies. Desperate for a cup of tea, a hot bath, and some food, Carmen had walked into the kitchen. And stopped abruptly as grim reality washed over her once more. No stove, no microwave, no table.
Defeat drained the will to keep standing right out of her legs. Quietly sliding to the floor, she was gratified the old fridge—too unworthy to steal—was still there to ease her way down.
Later, not sure how long she’d been sitting on the bare, cold floor while her mind drifted over the events of the past months, she was abruptly brought back to the present by a persistent rapping at the front door. Startled, she realized full night had fallen and heavy rain was beating against the windows as the wind howled around the eaves. Shivering, Carmen got stiffly to her feet and slowly walked down the dark hallway toward the thick oak door.
Through the beveled glass panes in the upper section, she could just make out the shadowed outline of a large figure standing on the porch. She flinched when a sudden barrage of knocks, loud and impatient, echoed around the foyer joining the noise her heart was making as it pounded in her ears.
Had the police come back? Before Carmen could decide what to do, a bolt of lightning flooded through the windows with a cold, brilliant light, followed immediately by a deafening crack of thunder that made the house tremble. The knocking stopped and a face pressed closer to the glass.
“Hello? I saw you standing there when the lightning flashed, so could you answer the door please?” The man’s voice was low and deep, a bit gravelly. And edgy with irritation.
Carmen walked closer to the door, but had no intention of opening it to a cranky stranger on a stormy night. Not the way her luck had been running. “What do you want?” She was annoyed at the wobble in her voice.
“I have something of yours, something I’m sure you want—”
“Go away! I’m calling the police!”
She heard a series of low-pitched curses, then a large hand slapped against the door, plastering one of her flyers to the wet glass. “Is this you, or not? I’ve got things to do tonight and hanging out on a crazy woman’s porch in a thunderstorm isn’t one of them.”
Making sure the chain was in place, Carmen switched on the porch light and carefully cracked open the door. In the soft glow she meant the eyes of the most handsome guy she’d ever seen. Tall, wearing a long black coat, raindrops sparkling across the broad width of his shoulders, she barely registered his firm jaw, cleft chin and tousled black hair on her way to his deep, brown eyes. He was pale, though so was everyone in Seattle at this time of year. Except on him, the contrast of light and dark just made him even more attractive. Speechless, she could only stare. Was he conjured from the storm? A god of thunder and lightning?
Lowering his hand from the glass pane, he waved the now-disintegrating piece of paper and asked brusquely, “You lost your cat, yes?” Shaking her head to clear it, he misunderstood the movement and scowled. “You haven’t lost a cat?” He stepped back to read the house numbers to the left of the door, then looked at the sodden flyer where the address was still visible.
“S-sorry,” Carmen stuttered. “Sorry. Yes, I lost my cat.” She cleared her throat, then closed the door to release the chain and quickly reopened it. “I’ve had a very bad…” Her soft murmur faded and she took a quick step back when he reached inside his coat. Frowning at her, he slowly pulled out a wet, bedraggled Bubba wrapped in a soft towel.
“You’ve had a very bad…?”
Day? Week? Year? Carmen wasn’t sure how to answer. She reached for the cat, glad that at least one thing had worked out today. “It’s just been one of those days where nothing has gone right.” A frisson of awareness went through her when their fingers connected as she took the cat from him. She knew he’d felt it too when he smiled down at her, his eyes like soft glowing embers as they silently regarded each other.
Bubba wiggled in her grasp, wanting to be let down and no doubt hungry from his ordeal. Carmen set him on the floor and watched him walk regally down the hall. Suddenly shy and unsure about what to say or do next, she tossed the towel onto a side table and turned back to the door. “Where did you find him?”
Smile still in place, he cocked his head. “I live a few blocks over,” waving his hand vaguely down the street, “and noticed the flyer on the telephone pole as I was backing out my drive.” He chuckled. “Just as I was pulling away, my headlights caught the cat crouching on my front porch.” He shrugged, the gesture eloquent, easy, as if no more needed to be said.
Carmen smiled. “Thank you for bringing him home. I’ve been so worried and upset.”
He still gripped the remains of the flyer. Holding it up, he said, “Was your name on this?”
“No.” When he raised a brow, waiting, she laughed and felt her cheeks redden. “Carmen. My name is Carmen Winters.”
“Will,” he said, taking her hand. “Will Blaine. It’s lovely to meet you, Carmen.”
The spark flared between them again as he gently ran his thumb over her knuckles. “Do you think I might come in, Carmen Winters? It’s a bit wet out here.” As if his words had made it happen, lightning flashed and thunder rolled.
Carmen jumped, her hand slipping out of his grasp. Flustered, trying to be cautious when all she really wanted was to drag him inside and lock the door…for a week or so…she said flippantly, “I don’t know. You could be an axe murderer, or an escaped criminal.”
Will laughed and held his coat open, wide enough for her to see his broad chest, his trim waist and long legs. He was wearing a yellow tee shirt and black jeans. “No axe,” he said, spinning in a circle, his coat flaring out around him. It took her a moment to register what was printed on his tee shirt. “Do you work at Renegades?” she asked, admiring the artwork of the most notorious faces of villains and outlaws throughout history. The faces were drawn in such a way that they formed one face, supposedly the owner of the hottest club in Seattle.
“You could say that.”
As he dropped his hands, Carmen suddenly realized something. “Wait!” She reached out and opened his coat, staring at the tee shirt. Then she laughed and looked up at him. “It’s you!”
“Guilty as charged.”
Stepping back into the foyer, still smiling, Carmen had a wonderful, exhilarating moment wondering if her luck was finally changing, if this long streak of bad was finally over.
“Do you think I might come in, Carmen Winters?” Will softly asked again.
Hesitating for only a moment, Carmen stepped aside and opened the door.
Her invitation drew him over the threshold. Carmen turned to shut the door, missing the gleam of sharp, white fangs as his smile widened behind her.