The body is gone. So why can I still see it? Ellen Duncan fisted the silk curtains, viewing the front yard through the slit between the panels. Rain spat on the gravel, glistening on the clumps of bone and brain matter. Red blood snaked through the brown rock and crept toward the street. Water gurgled in the gutter and eddied around dams of soggy paper and rotting vegetation.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, a soft percussion accompanied by the deep-throated roar of bombs exploding in the Phoenix suburbs. Columns of black smoke slammed up against the descending vault of gunmetal thunderheads. Fighter jets throttled over the Carefree neighborhood, racing back to Luke Air Force Base to reload.
America was at war with itself.
And everyone was losing.
Ellen’s lungs labored to draw the cool air into her lungs. Stick to the plan. The plan got us this far. It’s my best hope to keep my family together. To keep my children alive. Her dry tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. Despite swallowing hundreds of times since arriving at her parents’ house half an hour ago, she tasted death.
Meaty, metallic death.
It had nearly been hers, her sister’s, her cousin’s, her son’s and her daughter’s.
Her hands trembled, opening up the view.
Opening her to the view of others.
Making herself a target. Making her children and family vulnerable.
She snapped the curtains together. Get a grip. Hold it together. The others will look to me for guidance. My parents are counting on me.
“What’s out there?” Andrew Whiteangel’s deep baritone resonated in her bones. His footsteps were a whisper across the plush carpeting.
Ellen’s nails dug into the silk. The fabric didn’t run. It was tougher than it looked. Like she would have to be. Like she was because he was near. After drying her damp palms on the fabric, she turned. “You scared me.”
Darkness squatted in the living room behind her, reducing the Ethan Allen furniture to chunks of coal. Muffled voices drifted out of the kitchen and rippled down the hall. Cabinet doors opened and closed, no doubt her sister and cousin setting the table. The air thickened with the scents of tomato sauce, cheese, and baking bread.
“It’s been a scary kinda day.” Drew’s white tee-shirt glowed in the dim light. He flicked the switch on the floor lamp.
She blinked until her eyes adjusted, then she focused on him.
A mass of dark chocolate hair swirled around his head, then dipped toward his milk chocolate eyes. Skull tattoos winked from cocoa-colored biceps. “Unless it’s me you’re afraid of.”
Ellen snorted. What a ridiculous question. “Are you feeling homicidal? Crazy? Or just a little nuts?”
“I have my squirrelly moments.” Drew stuffed his hands into his jeans, pushing them lower on his lean hips.
“Don’t we all.” She glanced toward the closed curtains. But this time everyone seemed to be going crazy at once. Ordinary people had attacked each other, then the police, and now the National Guard. The governor of Arizona was dead. And there was no telling what was happening around the country.
“Right now it feels like we’re having a picnic in a park overrun by rabid animals.” He inched closer, heel against toe, as if fearing she’d bolt at any sudden movement.
This was her turf, her home. She would stand her ground, with him at her side. She held out her hand. “We’re safe here.”
“For now.” After freeing his hand from his pocket, he tapped the pads of his fingers against hers then rolled his hand against her palm and laced their fingers together.
“We only have to hold out a bit longer.” The plan was to last for three days. Three days of food and water waited in the garage. Ellen’s dad had laid in more—for others that needed it. He always said there was safety in numbers. Drew was part of that number now. “We can last until order is restored.”
Drew cocked a dark eyebrow. “Hate to crack your rose-colored glasses, Polyanna, but the restorers of order are currently out of order.”
An explosion rippled underfoot. Mom’s collection of artwork rattled on the beige walls.
Ellen shook her head. Not everything had changed. Drew still used pop culture to wrap everyone into neat packages. At least he wasn’t calling her Betty Crocker anymore. She considered her catering business more Julia Childs. “People will come to their senses soon.”
Drew’s grip tightened and his lips thinned.
Son of a biscuit. He didn’t believe her. Ellen pushed aside her doubts. She’d stick with the plan her parents had created. They hadn’t failed her yet. “This is just a temporary thing. You’ll see.”
She tugged him toward the entry hall. A buzzer sounded in the kitchen. The pizza was ready. “Let’s go eat.”
His nose twitched and he licked his lips. “Home made pizza. Yum.” But he planted his feet on the satillo tile paving the entry and didn’t budge. His hand in hers tethered her to him while his free hand brushed the bulge at his hip. Despite hiding under his t-shirt, the gun outline was unmistakeable. “What did you see that upset you?”
She clamped her lips together. Was it too much to ask to eat their late lunch and pretend things hadn’t gone to hell in a picnic basket?
He swept his thumb over her knuckles before stroking the sensitive skin between her fingers with the callused pads. “We can stand here all day, holding hands.”
He eased closer. A wall of body heat loomed over her. Gold flecked his brown eyes. He raised his hand to cup her cheek.
Her heart bumped in her chest. Good gravy. They had things to do. Things like… She glommed onto the last bit of sanity. “It was the body. I kept seeing it.”
And her sister, gun in hand, standing over it.
Drew’s fingers delved into her hair. Cupping her head, he forced her to shift forward and lean on him. Forehead touching forehead, they mingled their breaths. “I would have done a better job cleaning up, but I didn’t want anyone to see we were here.”
Ellen buried her face in his chest, inhaled the pine scent of his body wash and the musk that was uniquely his. “We’re supposed to be safe here.”
It had always been safe before.
Her children needed it to be safe now. So did her sister and cousin and their friends.
They were counting on her to make it so.
Her legs trembled from the weight of the responsibility.
“There’s things we can do to make it more secure.” Drew’s lips brushed her temple.
There and gone so fast, she might have imagined it.
He lowered his hand, gliding his fingers through her blond hair as he did so. “Why don’t we check the doors and windows before we eat? That’ll give me some time to think of a few security measures before nightfall.”
Nodding, she straightened. She could do this. She wasn’t alone, and he had experience, even if it was from the other side of the law. “Did you ever break into a house like this?”
“House. Condo. Hotel room. Apartments. Businesses.” Releasing her hand, he draped his arm around her shoulder. His muscles were taut as violin strings against her side. “Anything within a couple blocks of the train was fair game.”
His Brooklyn accent wrapped around his vowels. Had her questions upset him? Thanks to her father’s fellow lawyers, she knew all about his past drug problems. Drew had even flashed his five-year sobriety chip. “You were a young Bugsy Siegel.”
His lips quirked. “Charming. Charismatic. But dumber than dirt, and I never played well with others. Hunger does that to a kid.”
She blinked. Okay, maybe she didn’t know everything about him. She paused. The family room opened up before them. Family room. She shouldn’t take such a thing for granted again. Two six foot long tables radiated from the sides of the modest oak table. Her cousin Raine kicked at the long green tablecloth as she set plastic forks by the place settings. Trailing behind her, her friends Cheyenne and Colton doled out paper napkins and plates.
The ebony sectional pushed against the wall swallowed a dark-haired teenager. He watched Ellen’s children while pointing out hazards popping up on the driving video game. Nine-year-old Rafe leaned into the turns, while six-year-old Erin stuck her tongue between her lips and twisted the controller this way then that.
Ellen’s sister Rosa glanced up from the granite and cherry wood island separating the family room from the kitchen. Handing the pizza cutter to her geeky friend, Marcus, she opened and closed the red pot holders on her hands. Tension tightened the skin around her eyes. “Can you bring in more soda?”
Rosa looked good considering she’d just killed a coworker in their front yard.
Of course, she had thrown up just half an hour ago.
Ellen knew the reaction to the trauma would strike tonight when reason couldn’t bar Rosa’s memories of blowing the guard’s head off from replaying in her subconscious.
Flattening her palm against Drew’s chest, Ellen angled him toward the garage on the left side of the house. “I’ll grab two, but give Rafe and Erin milk.”
God knew what sugary treats they’d consumed before her ex-husband arrived home and threatened to kill them all. That nightmare would return tonight for her, as well as the children.
Drew traced her collar bone through her tee-shirt. “You gonna talk about the plan and what happened today over lunch? Or are you gonna pretend nothing’s happened in front of your kids?”
Disapproval infused his final words.
She knew what he would do. But he wasn’t their parent. She shrugged off his hold. “It’s not wrong to want to protect them.”
“Not unless you’re placing them in more danger by doing so.” Drew folded his arms over his chest. “The world’s fucked up.”
“This neighborhood isn’t.” She set her hand on the brass knob on the door across from the coat closet. They could hold out for three days. People would be over the crazy then.
They’d have to be.
“This ain’t the Fortress of Solitude, Superwoman. Batshit crazy rolls down hill and you live in the Valley.”
Ellen’s foot twitched with the need to kick him. She hadn’t planned on being delusional forever, just until lunch ended. And maybe digested. “Go check the windows and doors.”
He touched two fingers to his forehead in mock salute then headed toward her parents’ bedroom at the end of the hallway.
With a vicious twist, she shoved open the door to the garage. A wall of sultry air reeking of motor oil, antifreeze, and WD-40 slapped her in the face. Canned goods, water bottles, soda cans, and packets of freeze dried foods formed a heap in the center of the concrete slab. Automobile fluids, syrup, and cleaning products dripped from the pile like demon spit.
She braced her hand against the door jam. A moan lodged in her throat.
Through the open side door, she watched rain pelt the pavers.
The house had been breached.
They weren’t safe inside.
Her children weren’t safe anywhere.