Chapter One:

                                                A Helping Hand (continued...)

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Rounding out the box, two fluffy, homemade biscuits two pats of (unfortunately) margarine, an apple cobbler for dessert and a piping hot cup of coffee. Truth be told, I enjoyed my time visiting with these guys, well and gals, as much if not more than they enjoyed the food. Most of them had vibrant stories to tell despite years of drug abuse, mental illness or circumstance bringing them to sleep under this bridge.

 

They were first and foremost people. None of the other mattered, at least not to me or Ella or any of our other employees or volunteers.

 

Rusty shuffled back to his spot along the cement wall with his box and blanket, pulling his hood over his grayish head of hair that I assumed used to be red since everyone called him Rusty. Februarys never got too cold here, about fifty degrees now, not like back east, but any night spent outside could still be dangerous. Rusty only wore a pair of old navy blue sweatpants, a used-to-be white T-shirt, a pair of used Nikes he pulled from a dumpster and the heather gray zip up hoodie I gave him for Christmas. To combat the cold, he wrapped the microfiber blanket around his body—a navy microfiber, perfect for the homeless as the synthetic fibers lacked the moisture absorption properties of the natural fibers and thus stayed dry a bit longer—sitting on the excess he peeled the lid from the soup, bending to smell it first then spooned up his first hearty bite. He looked up to grant me one of his Rusty smiles before moving his attention back to his dinner.

 

Knowing Rusty would be okay for another night, I moved down the line, dropping off boxes from my cart, collecting dirty blankets and giving out clean ones. The sky began to turn overcast darkening with what would be another winter rainstorm. My job became simultaneously easier and harder as more of the city’s homeless pushed underneath the bridge to avoid the shower. Easier because they came to me instead of me having to go to them. Harder because in the confusion, especially with so many newer faces, it got hard to tell who’d already received a meal. They got one a day, that didn’t mean some didn’t try to fool the system.

 

As I bent low to hand off a food box, an unsettled feeling gripped me. The kind where the hairs on the back of my neck rose and goosebumps broke out all over my skin. Slowly I stood straight and turned to face a giant of a man dressed head to toe in black. Including long black slick-backed hair and coal black eyes. So imposing he might have been half giant.

 

The way he stared at me, it was unnerving. Although my insides shook violently, only my hands trembled outwardly and those I concealed with boxes. He sniffed the air, ground his teeth and stepped closer. Every instinct told me to run, that this guy was no good. But didn’t people always think that of the homeless?

 

What if he was just a man in need of a hot meal and I’d used fear and prejudice to cloud my judgement instead of the kindness and understanding I tried so hard to achieve? He probably was just a man in need of a hot meal. I grabbed up a box from the cart and offered it with a tentative smile. He swiped at the meal, knocking it from my hands and advanced on me so quickly I stumbled backward over the cart, knocking my head on the wheel.

 

“Step back,” I ordered as I pushed up from the cold, damp ground rubbing the back of my head and hoping like hell my voice conveyed the confidence I surely didn’t feel. He advanced. “Step back,” I ordered again, louder this time, gaining the attention of my friends. Food boxes forgotten, they jumped to my rescue, at least fifty homeless men and women pushed in between us. Rusty to the front.

 

A newer face, Manny, leaned in to whisper, “Run.” Manny didn’t have to tell me twice. Even though my head hurt something fierce, I stepped back until I rounded the wide column of the bridge and ran toward the repurposed ice cream truck I used to deliver the meals.

 

Commotion sounded loud and threatening from behind me, shouting and snarling, even growls, and I hoped that none of my friends were injured, but at the same time so thankful they’d stood up for me. The keys I pulled from my pocket and fumbled to find the right one as I ran. Not exactly easy to fish out the old truck key with fifteen keys on the ring. Not exactly easy to fish out the old truck key with the rain pelting my face. My drenched hair kept falling in my eyes, sticking to my cheeks.

 

Only maybe five feet from the car a large, blunt object tackled me from the side the way those large football players tackled the guy with the ball. Hairy hands and long piercing fingernails wrapped tightly around my throat and began to squeeze the life out of me. Blood trickled from where his nails punctured the skin.

 

Fighting back best I could, I slapped, kneed and gouged with my own nails, tearing some to the quick. But with his mass, I never stood a chance.

 

I was about to die.

 

My consciousness began to sway. The purple, black and golden spots popping in front of my eyes slowed considerably. My eyes dipped closed and despite my struggle, became harder to open again. Though when they did manage to open, I’d have sworn in a court of law that a head of thick, white-blond hair and a gray trench coat jumped the man in black.

 

Before I could roll out of the way a large black boot attached to the man in black knocked my head as it kicked up to defend himself, slamming my skull back into the cement.

 

Okay, so I had no idea how long I stayed out. Only that it had to be enough time for someone to take me home and get me to bed, because that’s where I woke, in my bed, in my little studio apartment.

 

“Good, you’re up.” With fuzzy eyes my focus shifted to the voice. Blinking several times, the fuzz began to clear which allowed me to see a man sitting on a chair at my kitchen table. He seemed familiar. The harder I stared the more pieces of this afternoon came back to me. The man in black. The attack. The white-blond hair—that had to be him. Even missing the gray trench, his white-blond hair couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. “How are you feeling?” he asked, leaning forward elbows to knees, watching me carefully.

 

“Head hurts.” I cleared my throat, though I winced from the pain and it didn’t even help to clear my scratchy voice. “Throat hurts.”

 

He walked to my refrigerator and stood in front of the open door for several beats before pulling out a bottle of water from the bottom door shelf, twisting off the cap as he made his way back over to me.

 

The moment his hand touched the back of my head to help me lean up enough to drink, my whole body warmed, like sinking into a bubble bath after a long day. Where he bought his cologne, who knew? But he had to keep buying it because I detected hints of citrus and heady spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. And even notes of husky red wine. Basically every one of my favorite smells. I could sit next to this guy forever and never grow tired of his scent.

 

Slowly he helped me drink. The cool of the water felt amazing going down. I pressed my fingertips against the bottle to tip it down more, to give me more. The white-blond man, however, wouldn’t let me drink any faster. Apparently he decided I had enough and pulled the bottle away altogether.

 

“How did you know where I lived?” It might’ve been late, but concern for my safety kicked in.

 

“Your purse. Driver’s license. Key to your apartment on the keyring.” Okay, so his answers checked out. A good samaritan, nothing more. Not a stalker. Good to know. And his voice, wow. His voice coated me in an imaginary melted chocolate, so sweet, rich, deep and decadent. I could get lost in his voice. Lost and never found.

 

No. No. Ridiculous. Not from the sound of his voice. Who got sucked in by the sound of someone’s voice? Me, apparently. Why not add it to the list of stupid reasons I fell for a guy. My track record with men sucked.

 

Oh, look how he treats his puppy. God had he been a mistake. Whiny. Clingy. Wouldn’t let me have my own life.

 

Look at his big, soulful eyes. Cheater extraordinaire. Master manipulator, especially when he got caught cheating. He’d use those eyes to win me back.

 

Well, look at his confidence. He’s not what I normally consider attractive, but confidence is sexy. Controlling bastard. Severe anger issues. Personal Protection Order.

 

My friends would have a field day with this newest revelation. Constantly teasing me, “Girl, you feed the strays of society and then you date them.”

 

Not this time. Despite how his hand felt touching me, the velvet quality to his voice and that he had saved me, the time for him to leave had come and gone. I wanted to change my clothes make a cup of tea and cry my eyes out remembering the attack and how scared I’d been.

Since crying never, but never happened in front of others, he needed to go.

 

“Thank you for your help today,” I said, eying the door. “It’s been a long one and I’m going to rest but I’ll be fine.

 

He pulled the water bottle away and sat back on his knees next to me. His head tilted, brows drawn together as he glared at me. “You’re dismissing me?”

 

“No. I—uh.” Couldn’t think of anything else to say because his face, even distorted in annoyance. So beautiful it made me stupid. Stupid. Thick, blond hair long enough to curl around his ears, strong squared jaw, high cheekbones most women would kill for. Even with the scar slashed through his left eyebrow dissecting it in half, his beauty went beyond anything. And his eyes. Steely gray. Steely gray eyes that looked right through the heart of me.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned. “You hit your head pretty hard.”

Suddenly I didn’t want him to leave. I was a mess. Maybe he shouldn’t leave.  Not answering his question, I asked one of my own. “What’s your name?”

 

“Hunt.”

 

Hunt, interesting. “That short for Hunter?”

 

“Nope. Just Hunt.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Hunt. I’m Breya.”

 

“It’s spelled like Bree-ya.”

 

I gently shook my head, which, still a mistake. The shaking hurt. “No, like fey is spelled F. E. Y.”

 

“Breya,” he said, rolling my name around on his tongue. “It’s beautiful.”

 

We stared deeply into each other’s eyes for several long moments. His brows remained furrowed as if he were trying to figure something out. He needn’t try so hard. I was an open book. Too open most of the time.

 

Our moment ended when he ran a hand through that luscious, silky hair and my eyes moved to the flex of his arm and his bulging biceps. He pushed up from the bed, and with the trench coat gone—wow. The Viking warrior god which stood before me, I legitimately humbled at the sight. No one had the right to make a tight pair of jeans, scuffed and ripped at the knee I assumed from the fight earlier, look so damn tempting.

His entire package was a package I wanted to open. Broad, strong chest and shoulders. Powerful arms. Thick, powerful thighs. Jesus, I needed to stop making a fool of myself and quit staring. Easier said than done, he even made wearing Docs sexy.

 

And I was a rumpled, hand-me-down of a woman. Well if that wasn’t a libido killer. I looked away, running my fingers through my mass of disheveled hair. “I need to shower.”

 

Still unable to look at him, I flipped the covers off. When I went to stand, he had a hand held out to me to help pull me up. I wobbled, dizzy. Most likely from the crack to the head. Having him there to keep me standing, I appreciated it.

 

“You going to be alright?” he asked.

 

“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

“I had a friend check you out. She said you have a mild concussion. She said I should keep an eye on you.”

 

Well that explained why he stayed. “You… had a friend check me out? When?”

 

“After, you know. When I got you away from…” The words trailed off. I could fill the rest of the sentence with any combination. When I got you away from the maniac who tried to kill you seemed the most apropos, however.

 

Slow purposeful steps brought me to the bathroom. Slow and purposeful because my head still swum from concussion and man alike. Putting distance between us seemed like the best possible idea. Door closed, I let out a breath and moved to turn on the shower. The lid to the toilet seat provided the safest place for me to undress. Sitting rather than standing.

 

The room filled with steam as I stood under the hot spray until my fingers turned pruney with wrinkles. Towel wrapped around my head like a turban and pretty rose bathrobe on, I stepped from the bathroom to see Hunt parked on the edge of my bed, elbows to knees, fiddling on his phone.

 

As if he sensed me, his head tipped up and those gunmetal eyes turned liquid silver as he blatantly checked me out. The air in the room felt thick, his mulled fragrance becoming stronger. I bit my bottom lip and closed my eyes, taking in a cleansing breath. When I opened them again, his eyes had solidified back to normal, but I could still read the longing behind them.

 

He cleared his throat and pointed at me, moving his finger up and down. I looked down and noticed my robe not exactly covering me as well as it should. The bane of the busty girl’s existence. Clothing either fit too big, hanging off the shoulder or making me look ten pounds heavier. Or too tight, in the case of my robe, pulling tight around the boobage and showing off more than a hint of cleavage.

 

I quickly spun around walking over to my chest of drawers where I pulled a clean pair of lacy pink panties, bikini not thong, and slipped them on then the matching bra. “Turn around,” I called to him. With my back still to him, I had no idea if he actually did as asked, though it sounded as if he did.

 

Once the bra was hooked, I spun it around cups facing front, fold it up and slip my arms through. Adjusting myself so nothing hung out. Next I slid on a pair of black leggings and a pastel pink cashmere cable knit sweater, which although fitted, fell to mid-thigh.

 

“We’re good,” I told him. And when I turned, he already faced me, making me wonder if he had, in fact, turned in the first place. “Are you hungry? I could whip us up something fast.”

 

He cleared his throat again. “I could eat.”

 

Hopefully we’d get past all this awkwardness making talking to him well, awkward. Since my apartment was basically one room, stepping over to the kitchen area took maybe seven steps from the chest of drawer.

 

Inside the fridge, there was leftover baked chicken, bacon, gruyere cheese, eggs and a readymade pie crust I had planned to use for an apple pie.

An idea hit me. “Do you like quiche?”

 

“You know the old saying, real men don’t eat quiche, Breya.”

 

I stared him down.

 

“Honestly,” he said, shoving his phone in his pocket. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had it. So yeah, I’m open. Can I help?”

 

“Sure. You grate the cheese while I mix up the custard.” I made coffee first and foremost. Rolled out the pie dough into a pie pan, preheated the oven and when the light went off, par-baked the crust. I stopped a few times to pinch the bridge of my nose to try and fight off the headache.

 

Then the couple of times I braced the counter top as a wave of dizziness hit. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice and we continued the prep, adding the chicken we’d shredded up, crumbled bacon and the grated cheese to the custard. Gave the whole thing a mix and poured it into the pie pan. Quiche liked moisture, so I filled a large baking dish with water and placed it on the bottom shelf. Pie pan to the top.

 

It felt nice having another person to help with dinner. We made a salad of greens and carrots and mushrooms to go with the quiche, and when it was finished baking, we piled our plates, poured mugs of coffee and sat down to eat at the table.

 

“Wow,” he said after his first bite. “I can officially say I like quiche.” Unfortunately, then his phone rang. He fished it from his pocket. The name on the screen said Johanna, and my heart sank.

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