So much for her good sense of direction.
With her heart thumping against her ribs and a trickle of sweat sliding down her spine, Raquel Walsh eyed the boarded-over windows and peeling paint on the houses lining the street. What the hell she was doing walking through this part of Baltimore?
Obviously, she should have taken the time to call a cab before she left the office, but she'd been so sure she'd find one waiting at the nearest corner. With only the thought of catching the first train home to Philly after a long workweek, she'd rushed through the revolving door of the downtown building into a wall of heat and humidity. Then, with no taxis in sight, she'd hiked her computer bag over her shoulder and started walking in the direction of the station as she kept an eye out for a ride.
Now, because of her impulsiveness, she was hurrying through an area of town where a white woman in a business suit didn't belong, and from the heavy feeling in her gut, she suspected she was going the wrong way.
Hanging above the sidewalk up ahead, a red neon sign shouted "bar" in capital letters. In her mind, it translated to "relative safety", a public place where she could stop and call a cab.
But first, she had to pass a large black man sitting on the front steps of the house across the street on her right. Even from a distance, she was aware of his size and her vulnerability.
His athletic tank top revealed sculptured shoulders and muscular biceps, and his shorts exposed long, powerfully built legs. A basketball rested on the step between his feet. With his hand on top of the ball, he looked capable of easily palming it.
His eyes tracked her as she tried not to resemble a scared rabbit scurrying across the sidewalk in front of a waiting panther. Sitting silent and still, he looked ready to pounce.
She could never hope to outrun him, not with her propensity for clumsiness. In this skirt and heels, she would definitely fall on her face. Squaring her shoulders, she continued walking toward the bar, but a few steps beyond his house, the hair on the nape of her neck stood on end.
Someone ran at her from the gap between the two houses on her left. The man across the street shouted a warning. A shove in the middle of her back sent her sprawling forward onto the rough sidewalk. Even though her hands shot out to brace her fall, her forehead bounced off the pavement, and her computer bag was jerked off her shoulder, wrenching her arm backward.
Momentarily breathless, she remained facedown, stunned. Her muscles tensed, anticipating another attack.
She dragged in a breath to scream.
"Get away from her!" a man nearby yelled, startling her.
The sound of running feet faded into the distance.
"Miss, are you all right?" A deep, slightly southern voice spoke from above her.
Tilting her head up, she found herself looking at the well-developed leg muscles of a dark-skinned man crouching in front of her. His large hand reached for her shoulder.
"Don't touch me!" she yelped, and he snatched his hand back.
"Are you all right?" he repeated. His voice remained calm and soothing as if he were talking to a frightened child. "Do you need me to call an ambulance?"
Shaking her head, she immediately regretted the fast movement as pain pierced her forehead above her right temple. "No. I'm not that hurt." At least she didn't think she was.
She pushed herself up from her stomach to her knees, but they stung from skidding over the gravelly sidewalk. She plopped backward onto her butt with her knees bent to the side, keeping her legs together under her black skirt.
When she looked up, she came face-to-face with the oversized man from the house across the street. Her breath caught in her throat as she froze. Had he been part of the attack?
"You're bleeding, miss. Can I hold this to your forehead?" He reached out with something in his hand.
She flinched and tried to scoot away. "Stay away from me." Her gaze darted around, as she frantically searched for someone to help her, but they appeared to be alone on the street.
"Please, miss." His tone was gentle and patient. "I'm not going to hurt you. I want to stop the bleeding, so we can see if you're going to need stitches." He opened his hand, revealing a white handkerchief.
She stared at the clean, white cloth. "A handkerchief?" Where had he gotten that? He was dressed to play street basketball, so she might have expected a sweaty bandana...
There'd been only one man in her life who'd carried a handkerchief, and his old-fashioned sense of etiquette had been one of the things she'd loved most about him. Now, the ache of his abandonment lived permanently in her chest.
She reached for the offered handkerchief, but the man didn't release his hold. Their hands met as they both brought the cloth to her head. His skin was warm and smooth, and a little shiver ran down her spine. His brown eyes softened with concern as he gazed at her face, but his full lips held a grim line.
"Did you see who did this?" she asked.
"Two guys. They came out of the alley just as you passed the Johnson house. One shoved you while the other sliced the straps and grabbed your bags."
"My purse, too?" She dropped her hand and patted her right side where her small handbag usually rested. "Oh, no. My cardsmy moneymy cell phone," she mumbled under her breath.
Her mother had always told her she had too much book-smarts and not enough common sense. She had no business being in this rough-looking neighborhood. Why had she thought walking to the train station would be a good idea, especially when she didn't know the layout of this city? But she'd been so convinced when she'd started that she knew the right direction to go, and she'd just wanted to get home after a long week of work.
She sniffed back the emotion that threatened to spill, but she would not cry. Having done enough of that in the past few years to last a lifetime, she'd resolved she would no longer be a crier. It was better to shut it all down and not feel anything.
"Hey, miss. You'll be okay." The stranger's low tones slid over her like a soft caress. "Look, the bleeding has almost stopped. I don't think you're going to need stitches." He moved the bloodstained handkerchief away from her forehead.
"Have you called the police?" She listened hopefully for the sound of sirens.
"No, my first priority was making sure you were all right."
"Do you have a cell phone on you?" Maybe if the police came quickly, they would still be able to catch the muggers and retrieve her purse and computer.
"No, but you can use the phone in the house." Marcus studied the young and attractive white businesswoman sitting on the sidewalk.
What was she doing in this part of the city where she was so noticeably out of place? When he saw those two thugs pull out a knife, he thought for sure she was a goner. Thank God, they'd only been after her belongings. She was damn lucky.
"Could you bring your cell out here?" Her vivid blue eyes skipped around, apparently searching for additional threats.
"Miss, it's after five o'clock, but this August sun is likely to give you heatstroke if you sit out here frying your backside on the pavement any longer. Let me help you inside."
She was as skittish around him as a rookie in his first professional game, so he slowly offered his hand and resisted the urge to brush away the strands of blonde hair caught on her eyelashes.
Her eyes clouded over as she stared up at him, and he worried she'd suffered a mild concussion. He'd seen guys on the court take a small hit on the head that seemed like nothing, but had caused the team doctor to fret like an old mama.
"I promise you'll be okay and plenty cooler in the house." He held his hand palm up in front of her.
She hesitated slightly before putting her hand in his. Her grip was strong as he helped her to rise to her knees, but then she gasped and tried to pull free. He turned her hand over, revealing a palm embedded with small stones.
"Only thing worse than gravel in your hands is gravel in your knees." With a light touch, he picked the pebbles off her pale skin. Then he lifted the other and gently brushed the larger stones free from that one too.
"You don't need to do that. I can manage." She tried to pull away from his hold.
"I'm almost done, but you'll have to run your hands under water to get the smaller bits out." He met her gaze. Their faces were so close he could feel her breath across his cheek. A few more inches and he could close the distance between his lips and hers, but that would surely scare the crap out of her after she'd just been attacked. Besides, he wasn't in the market for a woman right now.
She bowed her head and looked at her hands. "They'll be fine."
"Good. Are you ready to go inside?" he asked, getting back to the business of moving her off the sidewalk and into the house.
She nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
When he helped her to her feet, the top of her head barely reached his shoulders even though she wore heels. As they took a step forward, she wobbled slightly.
"Did you hurt your ankle?" He glanced down, looking for signs of swelling, and couldn't help admiring the shapeliness of her calves.
"No. I'm just feeling a little lightheaded." Her tone was much softer than her earlier frightened responses, and it triggered a protective instinct in him.
"Lean on me." He reached down and wrapped his arm behind her back to provide support, liking the feel of her soft curves against his body. And she was definitely curvy with her womanly hips and full breasts, completely opposite in build from the last woman in his life who had been as tall and thin as a supermodel.
"Where are we going?" She pressed two fingers to her temple as if she had a headache.
"To Meemaw's house." He stepped with her into the street to cross to the other side.
She looked up at him with her deep blue eyes. "Whose house?"
"I hope she doesn't live far. I don't feel so good." Her voice quavered as her knees buckled.
Her eyes rolled back, and he caught her before she hit the ground.