“No, no, no!” Melody bumped her car crookedly against the curb as the engine sputtered and died. The check engine light had been on for a week, but she didn’t have the money to get it fixed. She stared at the gauges on the dash, the heater blowing tepid air at full blast against the frost-rimmed windshield. Now what?
Taking a deep breath, she turned the car off, waited a second, and tried to start it again. The blower resumed, but the engine refused to turn over. Closing her eyes, she fought back tears. A mere six months ago, she’d have called for a taxi and let AAA handle the rest. But she didn’t even have insurance right now, let alone roadside assistance.
“Be strong, Melody. The condo is only a few blocks away,” she told herself. Her food was definitely going to be cold by the time she got home.
The inside of the car smelled of sesame chicken—Chinese food was one of the few things that smelled good since getting pregnant. She’d lost her job as a barista after only a few days because the scent of coffee made her vomit, and she had to retreat to the bathroom every ten minutes. Every other place she’d applied wanted references, and she couldn’t risk leaving a trail; Brennan, the pack Alpha, had connections and wouldn’t rest until he found her.
Until she could find another job, she’d been forced to rely on pawning her jewelry to pay rent. The bracelet she’d sold last week should’ve fetched four times the price she’d gotten, but she was a terrible negotiator. She had no idea how she was going to last until the baby was born, let alone take care of it afterward.
Now her car was kaput. She had to come up with a plan, fast, or she’d be forced to go back to her pack with her proverbial tail between her legs. She could picture the scar on Brennan’s upper lip curling in pleasure as he deliberated on how to punish her for running away.
Baby fluttered against her bladder, a new sensation over the last week, reminding her of another urgent need; she had to pee. “All right, all right, I’m going,” she said, picking up the loops of the white plastic bag with her food.
She stepped out of the car onto the icy curb and zipped her parka over her gently swelling belly, though it did little against the icy wind. Her cheeks were already numb. Adjusting her scarf up around her throat, she dug in her purse for some change for the meter.
A passing man in a wool dress coat said, “That’s a handicapped spot, in case you didn’t notice.”
Her shoulders sagged. He was right. She closed her purse and turned away. “Guess that’s one way to get a free tow.”
That got her a look from two women in designer ski parkas, so she clamped her mouth closed. Mom used to berate her for thinking out loud, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Not even after Brennan gave her a bloody lip for speaking her mind.
Putting her back to the wind, she began trudging down the sidewalk toward home. A local festival was in full swing, filling the air with carnival music and laughter, and pedestrians hunched inside their parkas as they hurried along the sidewalks.
She turned the corner toward her condo. It was in a crappy district, but hadn’t required references, and it had a spectacular view of Mt. Susitna. The Sleeping Lady, as the locals called it, reminded her of a pregnant woman, a comrade she often sat and talked to while alone in her living room. And since her escape from the pack, she was alone a lot.
“Better alone than in bad company,” she said toward her belly.
The street sloped downward toward the industrial section of town and a bustling parking lot full of carnival rides. The building superintendent didn’t seem to think the sidewalk along the street was part of his jurisdiction, so the path wasn’t salted. Melody’s designer boots had no traction on the ice, and she had to grip the fence rail for balance as she moved toward the side doorway. One block down, near the flashing lights of the carnival, what appeared to be a small child in a green snowsuit sailed into the air, arms flailing.
Melody paused, gaping. “What’s going on?”
The crowd cheered, and the child seemed to cartwheel upward again.
If she hadn’t been so cold, she might’ve continued past her condo to check things out, but the wind was driving daggers into her exposed cheeks. She rounded the gate post and headed toward the building. Maybe she’d be able to see the activity from her window.
Fingers stiff, she fumbled in her pocket for her keys before noticing that someone had left the door ajar—again. “Oh, no.”
She stepped inside and pulled the door firmly closed behind her, glancing around for signs of an intruder. Last time, a homeless guy had fallen asleep in the elevator and she’d been forced to use the stairs. Her place was on the third floor, and right now, her feet were numb. She pushed the elevator button. “Please be empty.”
Thankfully, it was. The jerky ride to her floor reminded her she had to pee, and she raced to her front door. Dropping her now-cold food on the arm of the sofa, she locked the door behind her, then stripped out of her parka as she beelined it across the tiny living area, through her bedroom, and into the bathroom.
“Gotta pee, gotta pee, gotta pee,” she chanted as she hurried to get her pants down. She was so chilly, even the hard toilet seat felt warm against her skin. Blessed relief filled her as she emptied her bladder.
She was washing her hands when she heard a creak, like someone was moving around her bedroom. Turning off the water, she stood still and listened.
Another floorboard popped.
Every muscle in her body tensed. Although she’d been born to shifter parents, she didn’t have a shifter form to protect herself. Grandfather said mom had given her weak genes. I should call the police. Except her phone was in her coat pocket near the front door.
Breathing hard, she looked for something to use as a weapon. The only item in reach was the toilet brush, so she grabbed it and peered into the murky twilight of her bedroom. The blinds were shut, but there was enough light to see the bedcovers were rumpled, just as she’d left them. The closet didn’t have any doors for someone to hide behind. Maybe she’d imagined it. The building was old and creaky.
Heart thundering, she crept into the room. The top drawer of her dresser hung open. Had she left it that way? The last of her jewelry was in that drawer, her only hope of staying afloat until after the baby was born and she could land another job. She grew light-headed. What if he’d already been in here when she got home and she hadn’t noticed? The thief could be escaping right now.
Still wielding the toilet brush, she rushed toward the drawer and peered inside. She’d never been one for folding clothes, and her panties and bras lay jumbled inside. She gingerly nudged the lingerie aside, looking for the silk pouch with her jewelry.
It wasn’t there.
“Mother fucker,” she said out loud, anger displacing her fear.
She pivoted to the door. If the thief was still in the house, she was going to at least get a description to help the police catch the crook. How dare someone break in here and touch her things? She burst out of her bedroom into the small living area and collided against something solid. Huge. And living.
A giant, tattooed man stood between her and the exit.