Melanie squirmed in the man’s grasp and kicked her stiletto heels hard against his shins as he lifted her from the pavement.
If this had been a Friday night, the heavily-muscled forearm that coiled around her stomach might have been appealing. But this was only Tuesday, and barely six.
She had a date with Darius in fifteen minutes and she just knew he was going to pop the question tonight.
“Put me down!”
Her captor’s voice was a rich baritone. A pleasant chill scampered down her spine at the sound of it. “If you would calm down, I’m sure we can come to a pleasant arrangement.”
Oh God. She should never have worn that hot little number in red. “Do I look like a hooker to you?” She could rephrase that. “Do I look like an available hooker to you?”
He chuckled. “Nothing personal, my dear, but that’s not quite what I’m after.” The man backed away from the deserted street and into an alleyway. The ripe aroma of rotting vegetables competed with the stench of raw sewage.
It was better than her last boyfriend’s apartment. But just barely.
The brute loosened his grip. Melanie threw her hands out, grasping a thick wad of cotton shirt as she struggled to keep from dipping her expensive shoes into the grime.
At the feel of a well-muscled chest and abs, Melanie swept her gaze away from the filth and into the most perfect eyes she had ever seen.
Brilliant as sapphire studs, they twinkled at her bemused look. He swept his hands through elegantly coiffed blonde curls. She was unhappily aware of the zit on her own cheek painstakingly hidden with concealer.
“Do you kidnap people often?” she snapped.
“You were being followed.”
“I was?” Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, my brave hero, right? And then you carry me off to your castle. Forget it.”
His mouth curved into a grin, dimple appearing at the edge of his lip. “I have been a hero in my past lives.”
“Past lives?” Melanie sighed. “Were you a jackass before, or is this a recent incarnation?”
His smile didn’t falter. “Different things. I go by Raphael now.”
“And I suppose I’ve ‘come to be your goddess’ or some such nonsense? They really should take you psychos off the street.” She slipped her hand into her purse, fingers stroking the contours of the pepper spray can.
“Actually, you’re just a victim. But after this, I should become part of the cosmos.”
“Of course.” Melanie peered behind his shoulder at the alley’s entrance. She had ten minutes left to reach the café. The taxi fare would be ridiculous, but by God, she would not let Darius slip away. Not after two years as his mistress.
“Have you heard anything about nirvana?” Raphael interjected. “People who do good come back better and better, until they reach the nothingness of heaven.” His lip twisted in a wry grin. “Quite pointless, really.”
“Really.” She slipped the safety free with her finger.
“Darius is tired of you. And he doesn’t do well with break-ups. Tends to bring a gun to a knife-fight, if you get my meaning?” Raphael smiled, revealing even, ivory teeth.
Why did he have to be crazy and beautiful, and Darius so rich and ugly? Maybe she could make an appointment with a plastic surgeon for him after their wedding. “Darius, touch a gun? He can barely lift a fork.”
“Maybe not. But he has a way of….cleaning up his messes with hired help.” At her blank look, Raphael shrugged. “I was led here to protect you, and die trying. Then, for my sacrificial gesture, I’ll enter the ‘great beyond’. It’s really quite easy. I’m a good soul at heart.” He cocked his head. “Well, I am for now. But I don’t think that’s going to work out now.”
Melanie whipped the pepper spray free and pointed it at his eyes. “It definitely will not.”
His expression turned beatific. “Oh, this is perfect.” Raphael took a step closer. “I can’t wait to be downgraded.”
“You are a terrible liar. Next time you kidnap someone, come up with some better lines, okay?” Melanie depressed the lever and smiled at the pleasant hiss of pain-inducing mist. The creep deserved it.
Footsteps pounded down the alley. Melanie dropped the empty canister and spun toward the sound, hands on her hips. The barrel of a pistol glinted briefly. The dull thump of a silenced gunshot filled the alley.
Raphael slumped to the ground, blood oozing from a hole in his chest. A relieved sigh slipped from his lips.
Melanie smiled and thrust out her hand toward the armed rescuer. “Finally. That creep was really bothering me.” He did not respond.
His face was mildly familiar. Hadn’t he been the gardener at Darius’ estate? “Well, it’s a good thing Darius sent you to find…” Her voice trailed off as she noted the black gloves wrapping his hands to the elbows.
The second gunshot erupted. Pain blossomed at her chest, ribs snapping like delicate petals, and she curled around the hole in her body.
Melanie leaned against the wall, eyes staring with glazed annoyance at the mud seeping into her hose, and the blood staining a perfectly good blouse.
The thug kicked her foot and then turned away, his pistol vanishing into the waistband of his slacks. The tap of loafers on pavement faded into the distance.
Raphael crawled closer to her. “Nothing personal, my dear,” he gasped. “I just prefer to stay one step behind paradise. Sounds frightfully boring.”
“Is not what it’s cracked up to be.” He leaned awkwardly against the wall and closed his eyes. “My thanks. Should take me several centuries to get that close to nirvana now.”
Melanie screamed, though it came out a death rattle, and tried to wrap her fingers around his throat. But the motion only slumped her face first into the puddle of sewage.
An avid speculative fiction writer for the last ten years, Liz Penn is searching for the best agent for her many novels and indulging her bibliophile tendencies.