Chapter OneIt's Amazing How Much Can Change In The Space Of A Heartbeat.
One minute, I was alone in the Tysons Corner leather store organizing stock. Rehanging jackets that had been tried on and decided against, or more likely tried on for no better reason than to get me to turn around and reach up to unhook them. It had been that kind of afternoon.
And then the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. My first thought was, Oh shit, I'm going to be robbed. In which case I would calmly and quietly open up the register and let the crackheads clean it out. There are some things worth fighting for, but a minimum-wage job in a mall store isn't one of them.
"I want . . . that," a voice said far too close to my ear. The voice was deep, masculine, and sort of growly. The owner of the voice exhaled and warm breath moved over the exposed skin at the nape of my neck. I wished I hadn't cut my hair so short. A strange man's breath on my skin made me feel far too vulnerable.
I turned, putting a little space and the brown leather bomber jacket I was holding between us in the process. Now I could see who I was dealing with. His eyes were dark brown lit with amber. His hair matched his eye color and fell just to the tops of his shoulders, although the natural curl made it look shorter. He had an uncompromising expression on features that looked vaguely Slavic, and while he wasn't much over six feet he managed to give the impression that every inch was formidable. He wore blue jeans and cowboy boots and a white long-sleeved T-shirt with a Harley-Davidson logo that couldn't possibly be warm enough in the dead of winter, even in Virginia.
Maybe he really had just come in for a jacket. The hackles he'd raised coming in didn't lie down, though, so I remained on guard. I have pretty good instincts for trouble, and they've saved me too often for me to ignore them.
"I don't think it's your size," I said, continuing to hold the distressed leather between us. Not that it made much of a barrier, but it was something. "There are more over there." I tilted my head to indicate the rack. My hands stayed right where they were, at about middle height where they could block low or high without having to travel the full distance either way.
He gave me a measuring look and then obligingly moved to the display of bomber jackets. I breathed a little easier when he put a couple of feet between us.
"Chandra," he said, drawing the word out. He lifted a sleeve for closer inspection as he said it. "That's your name?"
"Says so on my name tag," I said. I smiled, but my lips were tight over my teeth. I didn't want to encourage any familiarity. He'd come into my store while I was alone, he'd stood too close, he'd breathed on me, and now he was using my name. That was a good tactic for getting somebody to relax and trust you: use their name. It had the opposite effect on me, coming from him.
"Did you know it means 'the moon shining'?"
"No," I lied. I knew what the books said, but I was pretty sure it really meant my birth parents were liberal arts students with more romantic ideas than money or sense. They'd put me up for adoption and stuck me with the name as part of the adoption requirement. Although part of me had always wondered if that was so I could be tracked down eventually. There aren't a lot of redheaded American women in their early twenties with Sanskrit names.
"Do you dream of us?" He raised his head as he asked the question, his eyes intent on mine.
"I have lots of dreams. Everybody does." I shifted my feet, preparing to fight or run if I needed to. I didn't like anything about this encounter. "One of my dreams involves making sales and staying employed. Do you want to buy that?"
"I haven't tried it on yet." His lips curved in a smile I didn't like, even though I had to admit it looked good on him. He looked like he was laughing at me. Toying with me.
"I'm not sure it fits." He took it off the hanger and put it on. It seemed to me that he drew the motions out deliberately, like he was putting on a show for me.
I watched the way he moved, but not because I was taken in by a nice body. I noted the harnessed power in his movements and mentally upgraded his strength significantly over my initial estimate. If it came to fight or fight, I'd run. I was too likely to lose a physical confrontation, no matter how many dirty tricks I knew. He was solid and graceful and he knew how to use his body to advantage.
"I'm Zach," he said, smoothing the front of the jacket. My eyes followed his hands. The jacket looked good on him. I suspected pretty much anything would.
"Nice to meet you." My tone was .at and unfriendly. The gleam in his eyes told me he wasn't discouraged.
"Now we're on a first-name basis." Zach the stranger took a step forward, and I stepped back to maintain our distance. He quirked a brow at me. "Running away?"
I ignored the question. "Bombers are on sale this week. Twenty percent off. Would you like to wear that out?"
"Yes." He grinned at me. "I suppose you'd like me to buy it and leave now."
"You might also want something to protect the leather." I waved at the counter by the cash register. "You should treat it before it's exposed to rain."
"The cow this came from stood outside and got wet," Zach pointed out, his lips twitching with what looked like a barely contained urge to laugh.
"The cow wasn't a fashion garment." I walked around and behind the register, managing not to turn my back to him in the process.
"Already you're changing how I dress, and we haven't even had our first date." Zach the outrageous flirt took the jacket back off and handed it to me so I could remove the security tag and scan the price. His flirting didn't reassure me at all. Everything about him screamed stranger danger, no matter how hot he looked in tight jeans and boots and a leather bomber.
"Then you're getting off lucky, since we aren't going to have a date." I charged him for the leather protector and told him the total.
Zach gave me a gold card that didn't improve my opinion of him in the least. So he had money. That didn't make him safe. It might conceivably make him an even greater threat. Some people thought money would buy anything and enough of it made them exempt from the rules.
According to the card, his full name was Zachary Neuri. I gave him the jacket to wear out of the store and bagged the bottle I didn't think he'd ever use. Which made me even happier about selling it to him.
"You don't trust me." Zach's smile vanished as he donned the garment.
"Mom warned me about guys like you."
"Then you should have expected me." He looked so intent and determined as he said it that I had to fight the urge to take a step back. "I'll be seeing you, Chandra."
After he left I stayed still, focusing on breathing until my heart rate settled down. What was that crack about my mom? I'd meant my adoptive parent, but was he in some way connected with my mysterious all-records-sealed birth mother?
I finally went back to organizing the stock, but I couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. When two other store employees came on and my shift ended, I was glad to leave. I wandered through the large shopping center on a random route just in case I wasn't simply jumpy and paranoid after meeting Mr. I'll-Be-Seeing-You.
Most guys didn't rattle me, not even bullies. Zach had not been most guys. But I didn't see anybody who matched his height and shape, didn't glimpse a brown bomber or curling hair, when I paused and turned to look around me from time to time under the guise of browsing. So I made my way to the entrance nearest my car and headed toward my parking spot. I walked quickly but steadily, head up, eyes forward, the keys ready in my hand.
A trio got out of a car near mine, two men and a woman. I didn't make eye contact, just noted their position and adjusted my angle so that our paths wouldn't intersect.
Except they did, because the trio moved toward me and spread out, making a sort of loose net. They were too close for me to safely get my door unlocked and inside, so I turned to put the side of my car at my back and drew my feet into the cat stance.
The back of my neck was prickling again and goose bumps marched up and down my skin. I ignored the distraction and kept the three of them in my field of vision.
Which is why I saw Zach before they did. He appeared behind them, seemingly out of nowhere, and maneuvered himself in front of me so fast I blinked.
"Rhonda. Wilson. Miguel." Zach nodded at each of them in turn. "Did you want something?"
"Is she your bitch?"
The woman who I guessed must be Rhonda asked the question. I had a sudden vision of Zach and myself in orange prison garb and swallowed a laugh. His bitch? Was she kidding?
"She's my business and none of yours." Zach's answer was flat.
"She's on our territory." This from the big, bald black guy. I wasn't sure if he was Miguel or Wilson. Neither of the men looked Hispanic to me.
"She has a job in the mall."
"She should find another one. It'd be better for her health."
I went cold. Had I stumbled into some sort of gang-related turf struggle? Thanks, Zach.
"I take her health very seriously." Zach's tone intensified with threat.
"As seriously as we take the insult of your presence here?" That came from Rhonda, followed by a round house kick that proved she wasn't just a pretty face.
After that, things happened fast, and moments later the three of them were down. Zach grabbed my wrist, plucked the keys from my hand, and unlocked my car, pushing me inside and following me in one uninterrupted move.
I scooted over the gearshift and into the passenger seat, my back to the door, my fingers reaching for the handle to open it to jump out the other side. Zach caught the arm closer to him in a grip that was hard enough to hurt.
I froze. Then I saw blood on his Harley shirt that hadn't been there before. The shirt had a new rip in it. "You didn't zip the jacket," I said, staring. That was dumb. Leather might have protected him. "Which one of them had a knife?"
"And she called me a bitch." I shook my head and reached out a tentative hand, lifting the shirt to see how badly he was hurt. "Do you need a doctor?"
"No. It wasn't silver."
I frowned, unable to process why the metal the blade was made out of would make any difference to the severity of his wound. My frown deepened when I couldn't find the cut on his perfect six-pack that should have been there to go with the damaged shirt and the blood.
"I'm fine, but feel free to inspect." I looked up and found Zach's eyes on me, full of humor and a heat I didn't think the situation warranted.
I planted my hand on his bare skin and ran it slowly over every inch that wasn't covered by his jeans. Belly, ribs, chest, all of it strong and beautiful and warm to the touch, and none of it marked by any sign of injury.
"I can unzip if you want to keep going." Zach indicated his lap. I took my hand away, let his T-shirt fall back into place, and sat back.
"No, thanks." I didn't know what to think. I still didn't trust him, but he'd defended me, fought for me. Taken a wound for me. And now it had somehow vanished? "Who the hell are you?"
"Zach." He lifted the hand he hadn't released and drew it to his lips. He pressed a warm kiss to the back of my hand. Heat shivered over me. "We have a date."
"No, we don't."
"The moon is waxing." Zach leaned toward me and brought his other hand up to cup my cheek. I didn't pull away. "It'll be full in three more nights. If you don't come to us by then, we'll come for you. It's time."
"What, are you in some sort of gang or cult?" I blurted out the question. "I don't want any trouble."
"Trouble wants you." Zach caressed my cheek, trailed his fingers along my jaw, and touched the racing pulse at my throat. "You'd better find another job. We've been looking out for you, but no-body likes you coming onto panther turf six days a week. Next time there might be more of them, or they might be quicker."
Zach had been unbelievably fast, and he'd still been cut. They could be quicker than that? I mentally kissed my job good-bye and wondered how fast I could find another one. Or maybe I should simply move on. Zach's implication that others were watching me, following me, and planning to move in on me three days from now made greener pastures pretty attractive.
"Don't try to run." Zach frowned at me as if he'd read my mind. "It's dangerous for you to live apart from us, especially now. You need to come home."
"I have a home. You don't belong in it." Not that he'd be unpleasant to wake up to, but he did seem to be up to his neck in complications. Anybody sleeping next to him might be sleeping in a danger zone.
"Maybe you belong in mine." Zach's lips curved, and then his head dipped. It was more the promise of a kiss than the real thing, a brush of lips, a breath of heat. It was enough to send my heart stumbling and make my blood rush. "Come to us, Chandra. You'll find us at the place you see in your dreams."
Before I could think of a comeback, Zach was gone and I was left wondering if I'd imagined the whole thing. Just in case I hadn't and there were more people waiting to spring out at me, I climbed back into the driver's seat and headed for my nice, safe, sane apartment where I hoped there wouldn't be any surprises waiting.
Excerpted from ANIMAL ATTRACTION by CHARLENE TEGLIA
Copyright © 2009 by Charlene Tegli
Published in March 2009 by St Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.