Sara English built a life for herself far from her native Los Angeles. As a widow and proprietor of a florist shop in small town America, she lives a mundane life but she’s never forgotten her first love, Santiago Ruiz or the way he hurt her. When he shows up at her door early one morning, he’s a stranger but the old attraction hasn’t died. Last she knew, he was a cop but now he’s sporting a gang tattoo on his back and he’s on the run. When she freaks out, Santiago swears he’s been in deep cover as Javier Morales for two years but his cover was blown and he’s in danger. As their reunion heats up, the drama reaches a new level when her apartment windows are shattered in a burst of gunfire. They go on the run, first to an isolated mobile home, then to a casino, and then to Tulsa, Oklahoma where a showdown with the gang’s leader is inevitable. Unless Santiago can find a way to change things, he’s a dead man. Sara’s committed to the long haul and hopes for a happy ending – if they can live long enough to find one.
Sara English has come a long way in more than miles from her hometown of Los Angeles to the small town of Bentonville, Arkansas but she’s made a new life for herself, no matter how mundane. But when her first love, the man who has still holds her heart, despite her marriage and loss of her husband, no matter how many years have passed….from Stranger Danger, here are the intro and the first chapter. Buy links follow for those who want…the rest of the story!
First things first…..
Mottled clouds marred an early morning summer sky, one as blue as worn denim. The drab brown façade of the apartment building, one of six units, loomed and seemed somehow ominous. He counted the windows and came up with unlucky thirteen. Was it an omen? He wondered and then rejected the notion. Santiago didn’t need a sign to remind him he’d run out of luck. If his situation wasn’t dire, he wouldn’t be here or consider contacting her, but he had nowhere else to go. He hated to involve her and wasn’t even sure she’d help. Hell, he doubted she’d recognize him after fifteen years. His immediate goal, however, was to keep breathing, and if he didn’t find a hiding place soon, his chances of staying alive would be zero.
When he came out of the trees behind the apartment complex and followed the sidewalk past the other buildings, he did his best to amble along as if he were just a guy going about his daily routine. As far as he could tell, no one saw him as he ducked inside Building 2. After a momentary pause and quick prayer to any deity who might be tuned in to listen, he hurried up the stairs and rapped on the first door on the second floor with more force than he intended.
Somewhere he heard the unmistakable sound of vintage country music, a baby bawling, a pair of voices rose in strife, and the dull drone of a news broadcast. His heart thudded with heavy duty bass thumps. If she didn’t hurry, he might be seen, then he couldn’t stay.
“¡Ándale,” he whispered. “Hurry up!”
He steeled himself to smile as he waited, fidgeting, knees trembling, for her to open the door.
Feeling as washed out as her favorite faded blue jeans, Sara English poured a third cup of coffee. This was something she seldom did but today she needed the caffeine high to face another Monday. Sometimes she wondered why she bothered to crawl out of bed and stumble through another mundane day. It’d be easier to curl up and sleep. Then she wouldn’t have to worry or think or go to her florist shop, Posies and Pretties. Although she loved her place, business had never been what she’d expected and these days, she struggled to pay the overhead, let alone make a profit. Maybe I’ll cheer up at the shop. Despite everything else that had gone awry in her life, she loved bright blossoms and flowers. Her stock included other beautiful items, collectibles, a bit of jewelry, and fine glassware.
She rejected a toasted English muffin for breakfast and reached for two Oreo cookies instead. Sara took them apart and licked the white frosting between the chocolate halves the way she’d done as a kid. Then she drank another cup of coffee and headed down the short hallway to brush her teeth.
After pulling her hair back into a tight ponytail, she put on minimal make-upa touch of blush, and lipstick. With a sigh, she picked up her purse and the folder with store accounts she’d brought home from the table and started toward the door.
Someone knocked on it with force. Pounded, she thought, would be a better description. “Hold on a minute,” she called. The teenagers who lived three doors down sometimes bummed a ride from her in the morning. No one else ever showed up this early, so she grabbed her keys and opened the door. “What’s the rush?”
Her voice trailed into silence. A man stood in the hallway instead of Shiloh and Shasta. He was a stranger, no one she knew, with grungy clothes, long hair stringing across his shoulders, and a two or three day growth of stubble. Sara blocked the half open door and put her things on the table beside it.
“I don’t know what you want or what you’re selling,” she said in a firm tone. “But I’m not interested.”
“Wait!” He lifted one hand and caught the edge of the door. His body odor, sour and sweaty, filled her nose and she frowned. Some homeless guy begging for a handout first thing in the morning was way too much to bear, but she wasn’t daunted or afraid. Growing up in East LA had made her tough. “Beat it, hombre,” she said. “You’re not welcome here.”
The man lifted his face, and his eyes met hers, blacker than sin and darker than night. Sara stared back, moved despite herself. An odd sense of familiarity prickled, although she’d swear she’d never seen this man before. He sighed and spoke. “La muñequita, por favor.”
She recognized his voice, would’ve known it blindfolded. Stunned, Sara stared. She peeled away the layers of facial hair, erased the grime, and factored in the years. She recognized him now and wondered why she hadn’t on first sight. Once, he’d been as close to her as anyone. Once, she’d known him better than her own soul, and now she spoke his name without thought. “Santiago!”
He answered in the Spanish of his youth, a tongue she knew too although she wasn’t Hispanic. “Si, la muñequita.”
Little doll. No one but Santiago Ruiz had ever used the nickname. He belonged, however, to the old life, to East LA, to California, not her new life in Bentonville. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
A door creaked open down the corridor and a burst of laughter echoed. Before Sara could react, Santiago pushed through the half-open door, shut it, and locked it. He dropped a worn canvas backpack onto the floor.
Flabbergasted, she stared at him. “What’re you doing?” she said, half angry. “You show up at my door looking like hell, stinking like some gnarly refuge from a homeless shelter and shove your way inside? What gives, Santiago?”
Until now, she hadn’t noticed the way he was panting or how agitated he seemed. He pulled her against him, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her, hard and deep. His lips burned unholy fire against her mouth and against her will, every nerve ending in her body sang a rock and roll tune. His tongue forced entry into her mouth and he French kissed her until she couldn’t breathe. Heat erupted and spread all the way down to her toes. A dizzy sweetness rushed her veins until his rank stench offended her nose so much she broke free.
“God, you smell. What was that, anyway?”
“Adrenalin, mostly,” he said. “I’m sorry, Sara. I didn’t plan to kiss you. It just happened.”
Her legs trembled, unsteady enough that she decided she should sit down. Sara settled into an armchair with a sigh. “What’s going on? Why are you here? And what’s happened? Are you homeless or what?”
His eyes pierced her composure with the keen stare she remembered well. “I’m not homeless although I probably look and smell the part. I’m in danger, Sara. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t serious, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t know anyone I can trust in Bentonville except you.”
Santiago’s presence rattled her ever fragile composure, and his story didn’t make any sense. “Okay,” she said after a few moments of thought. “I get that you’re in trouble, but I don’t understand. Why are you in danger?”
Without blinking, he said, “I can’t tell you that, la muñequita. Or I shouldn’t. It would just put you in danger, too.”
She’d forgotten many things, how sexy she’d always found him, how beautiful his eyes were, and how much he could infuriate her. “You’re about to piss me off,” she told him. “C’mon, share or I’ll kick you out. Tell me what’s going on. Are you running from the law?”
He laughed without mirth, a dry, hollow sound. “No, not exactly.”
Something stirred in her memory. “Last I remember, you worked for LAPD, so you’re a cop. You’re a long way out of your jurisdiction, Santiago.”
“Sara, please. Don’t ask me things I can’t answer.”
She blew air from her nose to vent frustration. “What do you want from me?”
“I need to hole up for a few days. I’d like a shower and some sleep. I haven’t slept in days, and I’m dead on my feet.”
No wonder he looked haggard, she thought. Under the dark bristles of his unshaven face, Santiago was pale, his features drawn. Despite her irritation with his unexpected appearance and his reticence, Sara realized she still cared. Blindsided by emotion, she stood and faced him. “Do you feel all right?” she asked, her hand creeping up to touch his cheek. “You look terrible.”
“Estoy muy consado,” he replied. “No mi siento bien. I’m not sick, though. Can I stay or are you kicking me out?”
Sara followed his bilingual answer and sighed. “Go take a shower, Santiago. Do you have any clean clothes so you can change?”
“In my backpack,” he said. A faint smile flickered across his lips, then vanished as rapidly as it came. “Gracias, la muñequita.”
They stared at each other, wordless, for a few moments. What am I doing? I must be certifiably crazy. More important, what has he done? What in the hell have I gotten myself into? Sara had more questions than answers, but if Santiago said he was in danger, then he was. She’d help for now and see what else came later.
As if he could read her mind, he said, “I appreciate this, Sarita, more than I can say.”
No one had called her anything but Sara in years. Sara, she reflected, was sensible and responsible. Sara English, widow, florist, and designer had carved out a place in the small Arkansas town and fit into the local landscape fairly well. But Sarita, once Sara Straughn, lurked under the skin and retained a little wildness. She could be unpredictable and impulsive. Which one am I? Solid, dependable Sara or Sarita or neither one? I don’t begin to know anymore.
“Are you hungry? I can fix you something before I leave. I run a little shop.”
“I know - Posies and Pretties, just off the Bentonville Square. And, you own it, don’t you?”
He’d managed to surprise her. “Yes. How do you know?”
In a very quiet voice, the kind she remembered could hold menace or emotion, Santiago said, “I’ve been here for six months.”
His answer settled into her brain. “Six months?” she said, the level of her voice just below a shout. “Are you telling me you’ve been in town for six months, half a year, and you don’t come by to say ‘hi’ until you’re in trouble? What the fuck?”
Santiago met her angry stare without blinking. “If I’d come before, you’d be in danger too. Besides, I’ve been….”
“Busy?” she said in a mocking tone. “Tied up?”
“Undercover.” He dropped the single word between them, as weighted and heavy as a pebble dropped into a pond. “I shouldn’t tell you, but I’ve been in deep cover.”
Sara scrutinized his face, glared into his eyes, and decided he told the truth. Some of her anger faded, but she remained irritated enough to ask, “How’d you know I lived here?”
“I didn’t when I came.” He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “I saw you one day, downtown. Until then, I had no idea, although I remembered you came back here, to the University of Arkansas and got married, but I didn’t know where you settled down.”
When he swayed on his feet, unsteady, she grabbed his elbow. “Sit down before you fall down on the floor. Last I heard you were still with LAPD. What happened with that?”
“I still am, sort of, not exactly. It’s a long story.” He collapsed onto the corner of the couch on the apparent verge of passing out.
“You can tell me later. Let me fix you something to eat, a sandwich or something.” She’d always had trouble denying the urge to nurture anyone and anything in her path.
“Gracias,” he said. “Later, maybe. Right now I need to wash and sleep.”
He startled when her bird clock sang the hour in a series of chirps and trills. Eight o’clock. She should be at the shop, turning around the ‘open’ sign in the window and getting ready for her first customer. “Do you want me to stay?” she asked. Catie would be parked behind the shop, wondering where she was.
His brief grin appeared, then vanished. “If I did, it wouldn’t matter, but you can’t,” he said. “You need to make everything routine, business as usual so if anyone’s made the connection between us, nothing’s out of the ordinary.”
For the first time since his arrival, fear twisted a knot within. “How bad is it?” she asked.
“It’s worse than you could imagine, la muñequita. If you trust me, you’ll go and be the same as any other day.”
Did she trust him? Sara pondered it and realized she did. Fifteen years made no difference, despite his odd arrival. “I do, so I’ll try. I’ll come home early, though—”
A frown tightened his mouth and put a line down his forehead. His eyes darkened so she nodded. “Okay, I won’t. I’ll get here around five thirty or six. I’ll probably stop at the market to get some groceries. But you’ll be here?”
“Si. Adios, amiga.”
It was their old parting words, dredged up from deep within. He evoked a past she’d buried, dug up ancient history, and when she answered with the familiar response, Sara realized she’d just told him how very much she still cared.
Somehow, though, she thought he already knew or he wouldn’t have come, no matter how great his need or terrible the danger.