I wake up to the glorious aroma of bacon wafting through the bedroom, tempting me to head straight for the kitchen. But the oral hygiene freak in me darts to the bathroom instead because I don’t want to knock my host down with my skunkadelic breath first thing in the morning.
My insistent nose then leads me into kitchen, where Dickhead is busily preparing a breakfast fit for a king. Or a queen. Besides the bacon sizzling away in a cast-iron skillet, I drool over the delectable sight of shredded cheese melting on a mouth-watering omelet in another pan, light rye bread popping up from a four-slice toaster, two bowls brimming with chopped apples, bananas, strawberries, oranges and pineapple and the arousing scent of coffee percolating nearby.
I’ve always been unable to deal with food first thing in the morning, but my appreciative nose and grumbling stomach seem to have plans of their own. The thought of eating right now surprisingly is not at all an unwelcome notion.
“Good morning, Piccolo,” Dickhead greets me all brisk and businesslike. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”
Gone are the satin pajama pants he wore to bed. In their place are what I reckon to be his daily workout clothes, since he wore similar garb after showering at my parents’ house yesterday morning. He’s drenched in sweat, but I don’t mind another revealing glimpse of him in a sleeveless shirt and shorts. He looks good enough to eat all by himself.
He must have gotten up fairly early to work out in his exercise room, which holds a treadmill, weightlifting station and punching bag from what I was able to see in passing last night.
It’s nearly 9 a.m., according to the synchronized clocks on the coffeemaker, microwave and stove top.
“Good morning, yourself,” I reply, ducking my head in a poor attempt not to openly gape at the magnificent masculine specimen standing before me. “How long have you been up?”
He shuts off the burners and plates our food before bringing it to the table, which sits a few feet in front of a sliding glass door leading out to his back patio.
“Long enough,” he says in his usual maddeningly evasive manner.
But I’m grateful he doesn’t bring up the whole episode of me practically throwing myself at him last night after waking up from the most disturbing nightmare I’ve ever had. He seems to be keeping his distance today, which is understandable. I deserve that. I’m still a bit embarrassed over my wanton behavior despite his benevolent rejection — an oxymoron if there ever was one — but I know I would have woke up with misgivings today had we consummated our relationship before I was completely ready. No one enjoys being rebuffed, however sweetly it’s done, but I realize his reasons for doing so were noble and not to hurt me at a time I wasn’t thinking rationally. That’s a testament to his willpower, honor and conscience. I love him all the more for it, not that he knows it. Yet.
He deserves an equal partner, not someone seeking comfort for a few hours in the dark.
He goes back for silverware, coffee and condiments before pulling out my chair to seat me. He joins me, and we eat and drink in companionable silence, savoring these rare moments of peace. It gives me a stolen sense of normalcy after the past couple of harrowing days.
I wish we could stay like this forever.
Later, our bellies full, I shoo him from the kitchen to shower while I clean up.
I prefer to wash dishes by hand, but he doesn’t have a rack on which to place them. Instead, I rinse them off and load the empty dishwasher. I wait until I hear the shower stop to run it just in case it drains the hot water pressure from the bathroom. I don’t want to take the chance of him getting doused with ice-cold water like I used to growing up whenever my parents ran the washing machine and I was showering. That may not be the case here, but I’m not willing to risk it.
I explore my surroundings after I’ve finished my task, discovering a home theater system in the living room that I missed during my hurried tour of his house the night before.
I open the door to his office as I make my way down the hall to his bedroom, smiling at the sterile cleanliness of it. My own desk in the sports office is what I affectionately refer to as organized chaos. There’s a method to the messy madness of it, but it drives Dickhead nuts every morning he comes in there snarling at us to hurry up when we’re on deadline.
This is the only room in which I’ve seen a landline phone, and it’s an old-school push-button black one, at that. So he’s not completely the high-tech gung-ho sort I first thought. Good to know he’s a bit of a throwback, even if he does keep harping on me to get a fucking cell phone. I suppose he’ll be winning that ongoing battle soon, if he has his way, which it always seems he does these days.
He walks out of his bedroom just then, wearing a teal polo shirt tucked into a pair of khaki cargo shorts with white ankle-length socks on his feet. His hair is slicked back with that Gawd-awful gel he loves so much, making me wish I had been daring enough to run my fingers through it before he infested it with that shit again.
I shake my head in consternation, taking the dress I wore yesterday into the master bathroom with me to change back into after I brush my teeth again.
I meet him in the living room and soon after putting on our shoes, we’re on our way to my place. To my astonishment, he knows how to get there without me having to give him directions. He never ceases to throw me off-balance knowing some of the things he does.
He pulls up beside my Tempo, which he gives his usual disdainful once-over before we exit his Accord and head up the dreaded spiderweb-infiltrated stairs to my door. Dickhead, the jerk, laughs at my efforts to dodge them all the way up.
Mandy Jo must have used my spare key to drive my car back to the apartment building with Alex following her in his. Makes sense to have everyone believe I’m home rather than to think the place deserted and ripe for breaking into, especially with the possibility of two murderers at large.
But the first thing I notice when we reach the top landing is that the blinds usually covering my front window are torn down, and through it, I immediately see the open door in the back of my bedroom.
“Someone’s been here,” I manage to croak out, backpedaling into Dickhead.
I NEVER, EVER use the back door. I’ve never even unlocked it since moving here.
Dickhead goes into supersonic protective mode, hustling me back downstairs through all of the spiderwebs I just avoided and into the safe haven of his car while making a 911 call from his cell.
The back door opens onto a single stairway that you can’t see from the parking lot because two behemoth Dumpsters block it. The apartment complex/trailer park itself is completely fenced in, but there’s nothing but train tracks and countless acres of uninhabited land just outside that back door of mine. Which means anyone can easily scale the short wrought-iron fence, climb the stairs and break in without ever being detected.
It’s a chilling thought.
Within minutes, the parking area beside my building is filled with four Bluegrass city police cruisers.
Dickhead tells me to stay put, locking me in the car before talking briefly with the officers and pointing to the back stairway. Two of them draw their guns, with one heading up the back stairs and the other going up the front. The other two stay behind, also drawing their guns and immediately securing the surrounding area before holstering them and conversing at length with Dickhead. Not even a minute later, the two officers emerge from the front door of my apartment and motion to the others. One grabs a case out of his trunk and meets them on the top landing before they all go back inside.
An unmarked car pulls up a short time later. It’s Briscoe and his partner. They huddle with Dickhead for what seems like an eternity until the detectives break it up to join the others upstairs.
Dickhead unlocks the car to help me out and then pulls me into his arms. I welcome the contact, forcing myself to take deep breaths so I don’t hyperventilate or, worse — cry — because there won’t be any stopping me if I start.
I lose track of time as we stand there, his arms around me as I listen to his strong, steady heartbeat. It calms me the way he intends and he eventually draws back a little to feather kisses across my forehead.
That’s exactly how Briscoe and his colleague find us, their gazes curious but not surprised.
“I … I need to see it,” I tell them without preamble.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Miss Granger,” Briscoe says.
“I don’t care,” I reply. “It’s my home, and I have a right to see it. Please.“
Briscoe sighs, looking to Dickhead to reason with me. But I shake my head at both of them in mutinous determination. Briscoe shrugs when he realizes I’m not going to budge, reluctantly taking us upstairs after grabbing shoe covers, hair nets, gloves and masks for us to put on before entering.
The officer who grabbed the case out of his trunk earlier materializes from my apartment as we approach, lifting the yellow crime scene tape across the open front door. I’m guessing he’s a crime scene technician judging by all the protective gear he’s wearing to prevent my apartment from being contaminated while collecting evidence.
“Miss, you really don’t want to go in there,” he warns me. “It’s bad. Really bad.“
But I ignore him, too. I’m tired of being afraid.
Quickly putting on the gear Briscoe gives us, I move past the officer, ducking under the tape, and walk inside to find all four of my bookcases facedown on the floor, novels scattered everywhere. The dining room table and chairs are overturned, but so far, it’s nothing that can’t be cleaned up.
The kitchen appears untouched, but the scene in the bedroom makes my blood run cold.
WHORE is scrawled in red on one wall and DIE BITCH on another. My mattress and pillows literally are shredded to pieces, the clothing in my chest of drawers and walk-in closet in tatters all over the floor.
I don’t bother checking the bathroom.
I back away, wishing I had listened to Briscoe and the crime scene technician.
I don’t want to see any more. I just want to get out of here.