The bell over the gallery door rang and Harold appeared in the doorway. He clutched the doorjamb for support. One eye was swollen shut and his face was blood streaked. He blinked, then saw her. Grace’s heart clenched as she saw relief flood his face. His free hand reached out to her, shaking, half in and half out of the doorway. “Grace. Oh my God, you’re alive.” Harold’s trembling voice cracked, barely audible over the rain.
Tears flooded her eyes. Harold, her friend. She started forward and was held back by the dark-haired man’s strong hand around her arm.
She met his eyes. “Let me go.” She wanted to shout, but her voice came out a hoarse whisper. She pulled against his hand, but it was like pulling against a steel pillar. He wasn’t letting her go.
“Grace,” Harold quavered, hand outstretched.
Every muscle in her body was tense and shaking, including the muscles in her throat. She had to cough to speak. “Please.” She was trembling so hard she could barely stand. “Let me go to him. He’s wounded, he needs help.”
The rain was pelting down hard now, moving in sheets down the street. She was soaked and chilled to the bone. She was scared and she wanted to get to Harold right now. If she was scared and hurting, he would be doubly so.
The man had maneuvered himself so that he was between her and the street. His shoulders were so broad she couldn’t see around him, he blocked off her entire visual horizon. He scrutinized the surrounding buildings again.
The rain was making the blood on Harold’s face run, his white shirt splashed with pale pink color, plastering his sparse gray hair against the skull. He swayed.
“Oh God.” Grace’s heart was pounding. She put her hand over the man’s where he was grasping her upper arm, his hand so big it met around her arm, coat and all, and nearly snatched her hand away at the heat. It was freezing cold outside, but his huge hand was so hot it felt like an iron against her wet coat. “Let me go to him, please.”
Another tug, the man’s hands tightening further, and then suddenly…Harold disappeared. Or his head did. Where his head had been there was a pink mist dissipating fast in the rain. Half a second later, Grace was facedown on the sidewalk and a ton of male was on top of her. Something was pinging, gouging holes in the pavement, in the walls of the gallery. Shards of concrete rained down on her.
Grace was so shocked, it took her long seconds to realize what the sharp cracks were.
“Goddammit. A sniper.” The deep, low voice was speaking right into her ear, so close she could feel the puffs of his breath. He lifted and pulled her closer to the curb until she was resting against the front fender of a big black vehicle. “The engine block should stop a bullet. Stay here and don’t move.”
Another crack sounded and his heavy body jolted.
Grace lifted her head slightly to look at him. She didn’t process his words in any way. She looked back down the street to where a limp collection of clothes lay sprawled across the doorway to the gallery, the rain washing red, then pink, into the gutter. None of this made any sense, least of all the remains of her best friend, a shattered mass of pink-and-gray flesh.
“Harold,” she whispered, her voice shaking so hard she could barely articulate.
“Is dead,” the man said brutally. “Now we have to stay alive. No, dammit.” He brought an arm like iron over her back. She’d been blindly trying to rise up, putting her shaking hands on the ground to lift herself up to…to go to Harold.
To do something.
“Stay down, dammit,” the man on top of her hissed. One huge hand covered the back of her head and pressed until her cheek lay on the rough pavement. She watched the big raindrops ping and bounce off the concrete, her mind completely blank, empty.
The heavy man on top of her shifted and started talking in a low, deep, urgent voice. What was he saying? Whatever it was, there was no possible response in her. She was too shocked to make out more than a few words here and there. Sniper…west side of Lexington, second-story window, come from Park…
It took her several seconds to realize that he wasn’t talking to her but into a cell. He was discussing some kind of strategy. The words flew into her head and then right back out again. The only thing that penetrated the fog in her head was the deep calm of his voice, the assurance. He could have been a man discussing the menu of that night’s meal. It was amazing to think that voice came from a man under fire.
Even his body was calm. His coat must have been open because she could feel the heat of his wide chest against her back. His heartbeat was strong and steady, unlike her own trip-hammering one, beating wild and high in her chest. His breathing was calm, regular, while she was gulping in great gasps of air that choked her and burned her lungs.
A click and the cell phone closed.
Tears were running down her face, lost in the rain.
“My men are coming.” That deep, calm voice next to her ear again. It was insane, but somehow it calmed her, just a little. “I’ll get you out of here, I promise.”
A huge hand planted itself next to her face on the pavement. He was holding his gun, big and black and oily-looking. Something else caught her attention. A big pool of deep red forming underneath her, spreading and turning pink in the rain.
She was shot! Oh my God, she’d been shot!
Grace stopped breathing for a moment, trying to take stock through her shattered senses. She was freezing, lying in a puddle of red-tinged water, her cheek grinding against the rough pavement, trying to breathe, though the man on top of her weighed a ton. She was cold and shocked and terrified.
But not wounded.
The amount of blood that was now flowing freely down into the gutters was from a serious wound and wasn’t coming from her. Couldn’t. She’d have felt a wound that deep.
“You’re—” Her voice wasn’t coming out at all. She tried again. “You’re wounded.”
He grunted in answer and shrugged, the movement sending a fresh welling of red onto the pavement.
Grace chanced a look upward, trying to gauge how badly he was wounded. God, if he was dying, what could she do?
But he didn’t look like he was dying. His face didn’t in any way betray that he was wounded. He wasn’t grimacing in pain, he wasn’t pale. His skin was that same smooth olive tone as before and he looked as if he were trying to figure out a particularly difficult chess problem, not as if he were in a life-or-death situation with a hole in his chest and a man with a rifle just waiting for them to show. Shockingly, when he met her eyes, he even smiled.