- Paula Altenburg
Chapter One, Part Two
The sun hadn’t yet fully risen over the waterfront.
Giselle Aramandez clutched at the neck of her down parka and thrust her head into the fierce maw of the wind. A storm brewed off the coast, farther out in the ocean, and it promised to be wild when it landed. Charcoal-gray clouds churned the bleak morning sky. The steep climb up the empty streets from the angry harbor, combined with the damp chill in the air, made her wish she’d taken the bus to work from her condo. She wasn’t certain which would be worse—the biting cold or the dank heat of steaming bodies pressed too close together in a confined space.
She rounded a street corner only to be staggered backward by another icy blast. Worry for her grandfather ate into her thoughts. The doctors claimed his heart attack had been minor, and that his mental confusion was to be expected, but he was in his eighties. How minor could it really be?
He’d held her hand to reassure her as she sat with him in the intensive care unit last evening, knowing how much she hated hospitals. She’d felt helpless and foolish because she should have been comforting him instead, but it was almost five years to the day since she’d woken up clinging to him in that very same hospital, her memories gone. The smell of disinfectant and death had brought out her phobia.
Her leather shoulder bag slid down her arm to sway from her elbow, banging against her leg. The streetlights couldn’t seem to decide if they should be on or off, and the alley she approached, her usual shortcut, made her nervous. Although this was a familiar route, she had the sensation of being followed, and the hungry shadows made her more wary than usual. She should have taken the bus.
She hiked the strap of her bag to her shoulder and hurried past the black mouth of the alley. The wind wasn’t quite as fierce here and she hooked a long strand of honey brown hair away from her cheek with one finger. Her antique bookstore wasn’t much farther now, but even in full daylight, the neighborhood around the universities wasn’t the best.
A shadow moved off to her left and her heart leaped into her throat. The street was dark and deserted. The windows of the houses and shops fronting the sidewalk remained black. She was a night person by nature, more comfortable in candlelight than the glare of fluorescents, and the dark didn’t normally frighten her. But all around her, more and more shadows were coming to life.
An old, buried memory clawed its way to the surface. One of the ones that brought her awake in the dead of night, screaming in such terror that her grandfather would have to reassure the neighbors that no, no one was being murdered. And also, in the back of her head, before she could shut off unwanted thoughts, Giselle knew that he lied.
She hurried her steps, boot heels clicking like gunfire against the concrete. The wind tore at the tops of the trees, but the buildings, closer together here, offered some shelter. The front door of her shop came into view and she scrabbled in her bag for the key. Shadows nipped at her heels. Her fingers closed on the key fob and she dove for the door, slamming the key into the lock and twisting it. She shouldered the heavy steel door inward and practically fell inside the store, her heart pounding like a jackhammer.
She caught the door with her elbow and drove it closed, slamming it against the shadows pursuing her, and reached for the switch on the wall between the entrance and the front window. The store flooded with a warm, bright yellow glow that didn’t quite reach the undersides of the long shelves or the corners at the far side of the large room. The shadows in here, however, remained still.
She was safe.
The familiar smell of old paper and binding soothed her. Her heartrate settled to normal. She loved her store. The city she lived in was beautiful and vibrant. Her grandfather was in good hands while he recovered. She would see him that evening, and before they both knew it, he would be home again. How foolish she was to be jumping at shadows.
Business was slow throughout the entire day.
She spent the morning unpacking a box of books on eastern religions she’d ordered for the university graduate students who were her most frequent customers while rain mixed with ice lashed at the windows and shook the plate glass in the door. The storm was turning out to be everything promised, and at ten minutes to five, Giselle glanced up from the shelf she’d been rearranging to the clock on the wall and considered locking up early. She normally stayed open until six, then spent a half hour or so doing administrative and janitorial tasks, but she was anxious to visit her grandfather.
Her uneasiness from that morning returned. The hospital was only a ten-minute walk away, but the storm would keep the streets empty.
As she got to her feet, dusting off the knees of her black tights and tugging down the hem of her short, kilted wool skirt, the front door burst open.
A man, bundled against the weather, stumbled in on a gust of fresh air and wind-driven rain. He leaned against the door, forcing it closed. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and at least from the back, appeared well-built and smartly dressed. The bottom of a thick, navy-colored pea coat touched the backs of lean, denim-clad thighs. A Tilly hat tipped forward, no doubt to help protect his face from the sleet and rain. A gray knit wool scarf bound his throat. He wore gray leather gloves.
Something about the line of his back and the way he carried himself seemed familiar, but her memories remained unreliable. Anything beyond five years in the past remained a blur that her brain refused to examine.
“We’re closing up early because of the weather,” she called out. She never admitted to being alone in the store. Not to strangers. “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?”
Rather than turn to her, the man peered through the front window as if he were waiting for someone. “Yes,” he said, still staring out into the street. “I’d like to see everything you’ve got on poltergeists.”
The request wasn’t all that unusual considering the types of books she carried and that the universities provided a significant portion of her clientele, but he didn’t strike her as a professor or student. They tended to be more specific in their requests.
“From which culture?” she prodded. “And any particular time period?”
“It doesn’t matter. Bring them all.”
So much for closing early.
He’d turned his face, just a little, so that he could still see outside, but she couldn’t quite make out his features.
That sense of familiarity continued to grow. It burst the small seed of contentment she’d been nurturing with thoughts of her grandfather’s recovery and her life returning to normal. Disquiet touched her, reminding her that she didn’t really know what her normal life was—only what she wished it to be.
She smoothed her hands over her thighs, brushing imaginary wrinkles from a neatly pressed skirt, needing to keep her hands busy. “Maybe you should come back another time.”
That sent the corner of his mouth kicking up. She could see the bracket framing the curve of his smile. It wasn’t a warm smile, however. She sensed danger in it, making her back up a step. Her boot hit the corner of the crate she’d unpacked that morning. Its shifting weight made a loud scraping noise against the worn wooden floor in the too-silent store. He faced her fully now.
“You mean when you aren’t here all alone, Giselle?”
Waves of fire churned in her chest at the sound of her name on his lips so that she could no longer breathe. This man came from the past she didn’t want to remember. Rage, and a few more emotions she couldn’t decipher, swept away all logical thought other than the one that drove her onward. She would never forgive him.
She grabbed a heavy book off a shelf and charged at him, raising it over her head in both hands. He grabbed her wrists before she could strike him. The book fell to the floor with a loud bang. Surprise flared in his eyes, fanning her rage. How dare he touch her.
She kicked at him, the toe of her boot nailing his shin and making him grunt with pain. She lifted her knee and tried to ram it into his crotch. He shifted his hips enough to the side that her knee caught the inside of his thigh instead. Spinning her around by the wrists, he crossed her arms in front of her so that she was drawn tight against him, her back to his chest.
And still she kicked at him, now with her heels, and tried to drive the sharp point of her elbows into his ribs. She bit at an arm restraining her, even though his heavy jacket protected him. Her energy finally expended itself and she sagged in his arms.
“You have no idea how much I hate you,” she panted.
“You know me.” His voice sounded dry and remote, as if her reaction to him wasn’t unexpected, and perhaps even bored him a little. He did not, however, release her.
She tossed her hair out of her face as best she could. Stubborn strands clung to her lips. She smelled the wet wool of his jacket, and the cold outdoor scent of the storm on his skin.
Frustration filled her that the piece of memories she needed to explain her actions remained so elusive, and yet apparently, only to her. “I know that I hate you.”
He went very quiet behind her. In his struggle to contain her, or perhaps because he was still fixated on whatever he’d been watching outside, they’d gotten turned around so they both faced the window. She could see his face in the glass. His expression above her head appeared almost shocked by her confession.
Then his gaze sharpened.
“Hate me if you like, but you have thirty seconds to decide whether or not you will trust me.”