No one ever told Olivia Scott that being an assistant librarian was a hazardous occupation. She let out a small yelp as two huge books thumped down on the library check out counter in front of her. Chills raced up her spine when she looked into a familiar face.
"Hey, Miss Scott." The man smiled, as his gaze darted to her nametag.
His grin promised a pleasant encounter. She didn't believe the promise.
Green eyes, ringed by sparse blond lashes, held a smarmy charm. He looked about as amiable as one of her teachers in school back in England. Poker faced one minute, obsequious the next. Though he looked to be twenty something, there was something used up and old in his attitude.
"Mr. Cohen. How nice to see you today. Weren't you here yesterday?"
And the day before. And the day before that. Five days in a row.
"I was." He winked. "Found two more books I need to accomplish my goal. Interesting there are so many law enforcement books in the library." His expression took on an almost petulant, indignant expression, a man unhappy with what he found. "Why do you suppose that is? Police procedures, police tests, how to study to be a law enforcement officer. Overkill, don't you think?"
Is that a trick question?
She licked her dry lips, wishing she hadn't forgotten her water bottle in the back office. She could use a nice cold sip to drown her parched throat.
She shrugged. "Maybe they were donated by police officers who decided they didn't need them anymore?"
"Or by guys who didn't pass the test and stopped trying?" Mr. Cohen's voice held no inflection.
She blinked, baffled at his line of conversation. His narrow face, cadaver pale, reminded her of a man who stayed out of the sun because of a long illness.
Or a vampire.
She blinked. October was the month for Halloween and it was only early September.
"Possibly." She smiled but he didn't return her grin.
His voice had a sibilant side, a hiss that emerged when he spoke too fast, which he sometimes did. In five days he'd talked to her many times, and every time she felt uncomfortable. Today he wore a ridiculous navy suit a bit too large through the shoulders and too long in the sleeves. Without a tie, the suit and white button down collar shirt was gauche.
So he's a bit eccentric. You've been accused of that before. She calmed her suspicious mind.
"Did you want to check these out, too?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think they'll help me with my future plans." He ran one hand through his hair--what was left of it. His greasy, collar length tresses appeared an indeterminate shade of blond. His hair receded back from a high forehead.
"Of course. You said you're taking the test for the El Torro County Sheriff's Department, right?"
He leaned on the counter, too close for comfort. She edged back a step.
"I figure if I take the test this time, they'll have to accept me. I'm not too old. I'm only twenty-five." Tall, broad shouldered, and slim-hipped, no one could deny he was in good shape.
"Of course you will pass. Good luck with that." She reached for the books.
His palm came down with a smack on top of the books, and she jumped. "Don't touch these yet."
A tingle whispered up the back of her neck, a warning she considered ignoring but wouldn't. Something didn't compute with this guy. She'd suspected the first time he'd checked out books on Monday that Cohen's elevator didn't take a happy ride all the way to the top.
This time he didn't smile, and sweat beaded on his upper lip. How odd.
Cohen's voice softened with menace. "You're not going to touch these."
He is joking, right?
Once more he leaned forward and captured her gaze. "You aren't going to touch these."
"You don't wish to check them out?"
He leaned on the counter, and Olivia's gaze darted around the small branch library. One old lady had disappeared into the back room to use the Internet computers. Two other people had headed into the stacks earlier and hadn't come out. Come to think of it, one was a strapping, tall young man she'd noticed earlier. Her friends in England would have drooled over the gorgeous American. Who are you kidding, Olivia? You were drooling over him. It would be hard not to. He had that all-American look that a good gene mix guaranteed. The quintessential rough and tumble American her friends secretly would die to meet, even though they'd probably be outspoken in their abhorrence of his significant testosterone and lack of refinement.
A black sweater had stretched over broad shoulders and muscular arms. Worn jeans had curved over his body intimately but not too tight, and he wore athletic shoes. Chocolate brown hair with red highlights had waved close to his head, not quite military short.
Maybe if Cohen knew another strong man was in the library he wouldn't get any weird ideas.
She nodded at Mr. Cohen. "Whatever you prefer."
"I don't think you know what I want, Miss Scott." His voice lowered, conspiratorial. "No one does. That's part of the problem."
He licked his lips, a repetitive, nervous habit she'd noticed every day he'd come here. Now it was Friday evening.
All I want is to rent a screaming scary movie, pop my frozen pizza in the microwave, have a glass of sangria, and enjoy the evening. She wasn't a whiner, but she really, really wanted to whine tonight.
Just let this be over. Let him walk out of here.
"I think you should give me what I need, Miss Scott. You're a nice woman. I think you're pretty, too."
"Me?" The word shot from her automatically.
No one had ever called her pretty. Pathetic, really, that the first man who'd said it happened to be crackers.
"You're English, aren't you?" he asked.
She smiled, but it wasn't from amusement. People seemed to ask her that twenty times a day here in small town Colorado. She expected it by now, even though she found it terribly obvious as well. "Yes."
His cold gaze shot from her hair coiled in a bun, to the Peter Pan neckline of her conservative white blouse and navy suit. "You're modest. Not a whore like most other women in Gold Rush."
Dumfounded, she couldn't speak. Never good at snappy comebacks, her frustration came to a head. Not only did he creep her out, he must be off his medicine. She reached for her left wrist and her grandmother's old wristwatch. Cabochons of moonstone felt smooth and the silver filigree felt rough but solid under her fingers. Time suspended, or so she thought, as the old Victorian era library stayed quiet. As if it watched their exchange with the interest of a wise sage and would make no comment.
Please, someone. The strong young man or anyone, just come out here and scare this guy away.
"What's the matter, Miss Scott?"
"Mr. Cohen, if you wouldn't mind, I need to finish some paperwork before closing in a half hour--"
Cohen jumped. Straight armed and leapt over the desk at her like a gymnast springing over a horse.
She gasped and fell back. Her heel caught the edge of a plastic runner, and she fell.
Cohen jerked her toward him, a gun coming out of nowhere and nudging under her jaw. His fingers dug into her shoulder as he swung her against his side.
"Stop! What are you doing?" She wriggled against his hold, fear shooting through her body.
"Don't say another word. You don't know the meaning of good customer service, do you?" he growled the question.
Olivia's heart slammed in her chest so hard she almost couldn't breathe. Her pulse raced in her veins. Cold metal poked her in the jaw, his arm tightened painful on her shoulder. A million regrets ran through her mind.
I never bought a dog like I said would.
I never took up painting like I said I would.
I never experienced a warm, loving relationship with a man who cares for me. Never had children of my own.
Tears prickled her eyes, anger roiling in her gut with a sickening nausea. Damn it, this wasn't fair. It wasn't.
A dark angel stepped from out of the stacks. The man she'd ogled--what--an hour ago?
"Who the hell are you?" Cohen said to the other man, nudging the underside of her jaw with the weapon.
She winched. "Please, Mr. Cohen--"
"Shut up!" Cohen tightened his grip, transferring his arm to her waist.
She sucked in a pained breath as Cohen's grip tightened.
The man in the dark sweater stopped a good distance away. He lifted his hands as if he'd been told to stick 'em up.
He smiled like Cohen could be his old buddy. "Mark Cohen? Hey, man, is that you?"
Husky and with a richness that throbbed low, his voice inspired steadiness and confidence within Olivia. Her frantic heartbeat slowed, and she managed a deep breath.
Maybe there was light at the end of this dark, horrible tunnel.
"Mark," the man said again, "Buddy, don't tell me you don't recognize me."
Disbelief kept Olivia as immobile as fear. Was this other guy as mad as Cohen? Cohen's breathing quickened. She could feel his chest rising and falling, his palm flattening over her waist. A tremor ran through her. She almost wrinkled her nose as his body odor caught up to her rattled senses.
Cohen's grip loosened. "Do I know you?"
Mystery man nodded, his expression watchful. "It's Trey MacGilvary. You introduced yourself to me at the Sheriff's Department last week. Remember? I remember you from last year, too. When you applied to the police academy."
Cohen's embrace loosened yet again. "You were ... uh ... you were also in high school with me." Cohen sounded calmer.
"That's right." Trey lowered his hands slowly, as if he feared what would happen otherwise.
"You were on the football team."
"So was I."
As Cohen puffed up his chest, Olivia realized Cohen was bigger than Trey, bulkier. Not good. Scary. After all, Trey stood several inches taller than Olivia, his frame powerful.
Trey inched forward as another smile, as charming as Cohen's had ever been, sprouted on Trey's face. "You were better at endurance racing than I was."
A horrible thought ran through her head. What if they both weren't the brightest bulbs in the box? What if they were enacting an unspeakable joke?
That didn't make sense. If this Trey MacGilvary were a law enforcement officer, he wouldn't do such a thing. Would he?
"What is this, old home week?" The words popped from her without thought, and she gasped when Cohen jabbed the gun to her temple.
Brilliant, Olivia. Just keep your mouth shut.
"Whoa, whoa." Trey held his hands up again. "Easy, Mark. The lady hasn't done anything to you. Why do you have a gun to her head? It's time to let her go."
As Trey came toward them with slow, cautious steps, she noted his piercing whiskey brown eyes. For a second her eyes locked with his, and she saw a message there. A solid request for her cooperation. Trust me.
"Mark, it's time to let her go," Trey said again.
Olivia realized Trey had now inched so far forward as he'd talked that he now stood at the counter. His hands dropped once more.
Cohen's breath came even harder, as if he'd completed a marathon. "She doesn't understand how hard it is."
"None of us do." Trey's gaze snapped to Olivia again. "But she doesn't mean anything by it, Mark. She means no harm. Let her go and you and I can talk this out."
Trey's presence, oddly enough, gave her a fierce sense of protection, as if she could trust him with her life. He wouldn't let anything bad happen to her. She didn't know how she knew it, but certainty grew inside until she almost relaxed in Cohen's grip.
"No." Cohen brought the weapon down, tracing her right shoulder, then skimming over the wide collar with the tip of the barrel. "I don't think so. This town had its chance. Gold Rush had its chance and El Torro County didn't take advantage of my skills. In fact," Cohen's voice thickened. "They didn't treat me fairly. El Torro said I didn't pass my tests ... any of them."
Olivia understood now. Cohen had a grudge against the Sheriff's Department. Yet she knew something more motivated him. Something insidious and organic.
"I understand. You feel slighted. But why would you want to involve Miss Scott in all this? She didn't hurt you." Trey moved around the side of the counter, walking and talking, his voice almost soothing. "She's an innocent. If you want to be in law enforcement you have to protect the innocent."
Cohen's arm left her waist as his hand slid, hot and heavy, to her upper back. His weapon remained under her jawbone. "Don't fuck with me!"
She jumped, her heart banging violently.
"Easy." Trey continued to move until the counter no longer proved an obstacle. He now stood within the back opening at the small swinging door. "Why don't you and I take this outside, man to man? You can even keep the weapon on me the whole time. There's no need to frighten Miss Scott anymore."
Yes, please. Please take the bait.
She breathed deeply in and out through her nose and struggled to regain calm. Trey edged through the swinging door. Close, so much closer. What would he do? What could he do?
"It's okay, Mark." Trey nodded, his voice calm and convincing.
"I don't think so!" Cohen shoved her to the left.
She flailed, trying not to lose her balance. She stumbled, tumbled forward into a chair on rollers, and went head first toward the counter. She cried out, holding her hands to break her fall. Her arms defrayed some impact, but her forehead smacked the counter edge with a stunning thwack that dazzled her vision and her head hurt like hell. She cried out.
She fell on her butt and plastered one hand to her throbbing forehead.
Battle ensued between the men, and the furiousness of it, the chopping quick, knife-like slashing moves took her breath away.
Trey moved so fast she swore he blurred.
Grunts, cries from Cohen, the wham and bam of flesh meeting flesh assaulted her ears.
Before she could do more than blink, Trey held Cohen's weapon and Cohen lay on his back unconscious.
Trey grabbed a cell phone off his belt and dialed at the same time he went down on one knee next to her.
Eyes serious and filled with genuine concern, the lightning-fast man cupped the side of her head. "You okay?"
She lowered her hand from her forehead. "I am now."
His gaze peered at her, examining and assessing. "What's wrong? You winced."
"I hit my head on the way down."
Her gaze darted from Trey to Cohen. "What ... did you..."
"He'll be out for a while."
He relayed the situation to 911, requested an ambulance, then cut the conversation and returned the cell phone to his belt.
"I don't need an ambulance," Olivia said.
Trey's handsome smile came unexpectedly, and made her heartbeat quicken. "Maybe not. But he might."
She grinned ruefully in response.
"Can you stand?" Trey helped her up, his hands strong and sure.
She allowed him to ease her into a nearby chair, his hands cupping her elbows.
He brushed hair from her forehead, his touch incredibly gentle. "Yep, you'll have a good bruise here. Better let the ambulance take you in when they get here. You can't take a chance with a head wound."
She glanced at Cohen, still lying unmoving on the floor. "I am not going anywhere in the same vehicle with him."
By now the other library patrons came to the front of the library, eyes wide and faces pale. Questions ensued, murmurs of horror about what had occurred.
Olivia winced as a dull pain throbbed in her forehead. She was just glad to be out of Cohen's clutches and alive.
Trey stood over Cohen and kept watch. When patrons tried to leave, Trey pulled out ID and flashed a badge. "Stay here. I'm off duty but city police will be here to interview you."
"I didn't see anything," one man said.
Trey's expression hardened with impatience. "Doesn't matter. Have a seat over there."
Grumbling, the man settled onto a sofa nearby.
Before long sirens wailed in the night. Unlike those few moments when Cohen held her hostage and time slowed, now things seemed to fly at her in rapid time. The ambulance came and so did city cops. Before long she'd been twenty questioned by authorities and probed by the paramedics until she couldn't wait to forget tonight ever happened, scamper home and hit the sack. From time to time, she noted Trey MacGilvary in the background, and his solid presence gave her comfort. Not that she wanted the comfort. No, she'd rather drown her misery in a movie from her DVD collection, or burrow under the covers with a good book. Anything to pretend tonight hadn't occurred. But nope. Trey stood there, the cops stood there, and the paramedics declared her healthy. She felt A-number one certain she could escape this situation without--
She'd forgotten to call the head librarian Cynthia Horvath, but the police hadn't. Six feet tall of broad, undeniable grit, the blond lioness-of-a-woman stalked through the front door and straight for Olivia. Her boss, blue eyes flashing indignation, moved in like an avenging angel ready to extract an answer or else.
"Olivia!" Cyn flowed through the room wearing a multi-patterned olive green and sunflower yellow dress that ended right above her knees.
Look out, here comes the seventies.