Playing With Fire (CHAPTER ONE)

ISN'T IT AMAZING HOW ONE seemingly innocent decision can change your entire life? For me, that decision came in the form of a grande mocha latte.

Allow me to explain.

The day began normally enough. Translation: I rolled out of bed thirty minutes late, rushed through a shower and hurriedly dressed in the standard black slacks and white button-up top every Utopia Caf�� employee is required to wear. Unlike the other employees, I left the top three buttons of my shirt undone, revealing hints of the white lace (push-up) bra I wore underneath. Don't judge. Some people are mammarily challenged and need a little boost. Anyway, if I showed a little cleavage my pervert boss wouldn't care that I was late. Again.

He might even thank me for coming in at all.

Was it wrong of me to rely on the girls to get me out of trouble? Probably. Did I give a shit? Hell, no. In fact, I un abashedly adjusted them for ample display. I was single, twenty-four and determined to keep this job. Anyone who objected could blow me.

See, my dad suffers from massive heart problems and I'm the "responsible party" in charge of his bills, not to mention the one who finances his stay at Village on the Park, a nearby assisted living center. I would have loved for him to live with me (not that there's enough space in my one-bedroom efficiency), but it's best that he stays there. They have twenty-four-hour monitoring and make sure he takes his medications, which he "forgets" to do when left to his own devices.

Besides, he claims he's never been happier. The women there are "silver foxes," he says, and eager for masculine attention. Dare I mention those silver foxes cost more than high-priced hookers because my dad is always popping the Viagra he buys from his friends?

I'll do anything to ensure my dad's happiness, though, the way he unselfishly ensured my happiness throughout my entire childhood. So I desperately need to keep my current job and get the one I'm interviewing for after my shift.

Can't be late, can't be late, can't be late, I mentally chanted as I searched for my coffee-stained tennis shoes. I've spilled more cappuccinos on them than I've served to high-class snobs. Needless to say, I've served a lot of high-class snobs.

"Aha! Found you, you dirty little bastards." When had I put them in the refrigerator? I tugged them on, shivering as my toes grew numb from the cold.

Meanwhile, the clock ticked away more precious minutes.

I hastily applied blush, mascara and gloss. You'd think the need for money would inspire me to wake up bright and early every morning no matter the circumstances, but you'd be wrong. I was too tired to do bright and early today, even for a stack of greens. Last night I'd bartended a bachelorette party until 3:00 a.m. Me, a girl who knows nothing about alcohol. Sex on the Beach-sure, with the right man. Fuzzy Navel-uh, shower, anyone? Tom Collins-who the hell?

Of course, I'd pretended to be the expert I'd claimed to be in the interview, mixing anything and everything I could get my hands on. My drinks hadn't been the tastiest, but they'd certainly created the desired results. By the end of the evening, all of the women drunkenly swore they loved me and my "wicked nasty" concoctions.

The clock chimed the hour: 6:00 a.m.

"Damn it." I rubbed my tired, burning eyes-then froze when I realized the mascara hadn't dried. Freaking great. I probably looked like a boxer who'd lost the big match. As I scrubbed my face with a wet washrag, I watered my dry, brittle plants, multitasking to save time. What would it take to make the little green monsters thrive?

Finally ready to leave, I dug my keys out of the fishbowl. How many drinks had I sucked down last night? I didn't remember dropping my keys in the water. At least the bowl was presently devoid of fish. Martin, my betta, had kicked it a few days ago. Natural causes, I assure you.

"I hope you're rotting in the sewers," I said, looking down. No way he'd made it into heaven. The little snot had hated me, had always fanned his gills and hit the glass whenever I walked into a room. He'd been a present from my last boyfriend, aka the Prince of Darkness. Was it wrong of me to wish the ex had died with the fish?

No time to ponder the ethics of that dream now. I needed to go. Dressed? Check. Shoes? Check. Keys? Check. R��sum��? Check. I'd stuffed it in my work pants last night in preparation for an interview today. Ugh. Yet another menial job. If only I could crawl back into bed, snuggle under the covers and continue my X-rated dream about Vin Diesel and an easy-squeeze tube of chocolate syrup. Double yum! Something about that bald head drove me wild.

Stop daydreaming, woman. I trudged to the front door just as the phone rang. Sighing, I raced into my bedroom. Probably my boss, Ron, but I wanted to double-check just in case. A quick peek at caller ID revealed it was actually my dad. Late as I was, I didn't even think about letting the machine pick up. I grabbed the receiver and held it to my ear. "Hey, Daddy."

"Hey, doll. What' cha doing?"

"I'm headed off to work. Everything okay?"

"Fine, everything's fine." His deep, rumbling voice never failed to comfort me. "You work too hard."

"Ah, but you know it's what I live for," I said, and my voice held only truth. I'd never, never let this selfless man know I didn't like my job(s). He'd go off and get one of his own, the old teddy bear. Anything to take care of me. No wonder I loved him so damn much. "I'm not happy unless I'm working."

"Just like your mother, God rest her soul. Never did understand that mind-set, myself," he said. I pictured him shaking his head in wonderment. "I won't keep you. I just got to looking through old photo albums of you as a baby. I know you visited the other day, but I still wanted to hear your voice."

See? He's a sweetie. "Now you're trying to make me cry. But I'm glad you called. I missed you and your voice, too."

He chuckled. "Aren't we just a pair of mushy-"

"David!" I heard a woman call.

"Oh, hell," he said to me. To the woman, he grumbled, "Not now, Mary. I'm on the phone with my best gal."

"Did you or did you not kiss Janet in the gardens last night?" Mary demanded in the background.

"Double hell," my dad whispered. Then, "Oh, crap. I think she's wheeling her chair into my room." He paused. "I guess I should have resisted Janet's invitation for a stroll."

"I guess you should have," I said with a laugh.

"I have to go now. Love you, doll," he said.

"David!" Mary called, closer now.

"Love you, too, Daddy."

We disconnected, and I stared at the phone for a minute, a smile hovering on my lips. Shaking my head, I rushed out of my tiny apartment with only one wistful backward glance.

"Let's get this day over with," I muttered.

Outside, the dim spring morning proved wonderfully fragrant with the scent of magnolia, but oppressively hot, the air sticky with humidity. Ah, crap. I'd forgotten to bring a little towel to pat away any sweat. In a few minutes, my clothes were going to be plastered to my body. Oh, well. Nothing I could do about that now.

Not wanting to arrive at work hungry (hungry = bitchy and bitchy = fired), I stopped for a caramel glazed doughnut on my way to the bus station-and missed my bus. MARTA, Atlanta 's premiere miss-it-and-you're-screwed transportation system, being what it was, the delay set me back another twenty minutes.

By the time I raced into Utopia, lines were long and winding. Customers were pissed about the wait and quite vocal about it. I yawned. I mean, please. Cry me a river, Richie Richersons. Jeez. Anyone who could afford a daily six-dollar cup of joe didn't need to be complaining about anything.

Ron, my boss, spotted me and gave me a you-are-so-dead scowl.

I squared my shoulders, thereby tightening the material of my shirt, and offered him a chocolate sundae smile, smothered in whipped cream and cherries. Hmm, whipped cream. That would fit nicely in my Vin Diesel fantasy.

Ron's gaze connected with the girls. He paled, looked away and crooked his finger in my general direction. Without glancing to see if I noticed, he pivoted on his heel, a silent command for me to follow him. Great. Freaking great. This didn't bode well.

Breathing deeply of the cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented air, I passed several men and women who were using the tables as mini work spaces, their computers, faxes and shredders surrounding them. I stepped into Ron's small, cramped office.

"You wanted to see me, Mr. Pretty?"

"It's Peaty, and shut the door," he said, his voice devoid of emotion. He plopped onto his chair, the cluttered desktop shielding his belly paunch. His black gaze remained lowered, not touching any part of me.


Palms now sweating, I did as commanded. The smells of dust and cloying aftershave immediately assaulted me, wiping away any lingering hint of baked goods. Without waiting to be told, I claimed the only other seat in the room. A stiff, uncomfortable step stool I liked to call the Naughty Chair. File cabinets pressed close on both sides of me, making me feel pinned.

I studied Ron. He had thin lips, and right now those lips were pressed tightly together, barely visible slashes of pink in the contours of his rotund face. His sandy hair stood on end, as if he'd plowed his fingers through it one too many times. Lines of tension bracketed his eyes, and his brow was furrowed.

Ron had been pissed at me a lot these last few weeks, but he'd never radiated such disgruntled irritation. Such grim determination. I recognized the look, though. I'd gotten it from other bosses over the last year, right before they fired me.

I smothered a sigh. I hadn't always been a bad employee. For nearly five years, I'd worked as a waitress during the day and a maid during the evening. I'd made enough to pay for my living expenses and support my dad, as well as build a nice savings account-a savings account I'd used up during my (forced) hiatus, aka the two months that it had taken me to land this job at the caf��.

Why couldn't I hold back my restlessness anymore? Why couldn't I quash my discontent, as I had for so many years, and stop sabotaging my only source of revenue?

Though I didn't want to admit it, I knew the answer. I'd woken up one morning and realized life was passing me by, moving at high speed while I wallowed behind. Dissatisfaction had filled me-and had only grown since.

"I'm sorry for anything and everything I might have done," I said, when Ron opened his mouth to speak.

"You're late," he growled. "Again."

The fact that I didn't utter, "Thanks for stating the obvious," should have earned me major good-girl points. "I know, and I really am sorry." When his expression didn't soften, when he still didn't glance in my direction, my heart slammed against my ribs. "I worked another job late into the morning and had trouble waking up."

He stared at the wall clock just behind my head and adjusted his chocolate-smeared tie. "While I like the image of you lingering in bed-"

Sick bastard. Gross. Just… gross. I might have thrown up in my mouth. And yes, I understand the irony here. You brought it on yourself, Jamison. What else did you expect, unleashing the girls like that? Suddenly hoping to hide them from view, I hunched my shoulders.

Wait, Ron's mouth was moving. He hadn't stopped talking.

"-that's just not a good enough excuse. I mean, I can make an exception for it once, twice, but we've had this same conversation seven times now. And you've only worked here a few weeks."

"I'll be on time tomorrow, you have my word. I'll go without sleep if necessary." Did I sound as desperate to Ron as I did to myself? Probably. Damn it. I hated to let him see my desperation. Hated, hated, hated. The more desperate he knew I was, the more he could pull my strings and make me dance like a performing monkey.

He tapped a pen against his desktop. "That's what you said last time. This is a small, independent operation, Belle, and we rely on our employees to provide superior service to keep us in business."

"I do provide superior service," I gulped, adding, "when I'm here."

Frowning, he dropped the pen and pushed a hand through his hair, causing more of the sandy locks to spike straight toward the ceiling. "You think you're good with customers? Really?"

"Yes, really." I knew what was happening here. He teetered on the brink of firing me and was simply trying to work up the courage to utter the words. And, I realized with shattering fear, I might not be able to talk him out of it this time. By this point in our previous talks, he was usually sending me on my way with a stern (but perverted) warning.

Had his irritation given him a supersonic determination no amount of sweet-talking persuasion could penetrate?

My eyes narrowed; my hands clenched into fists. I wouldn't allow him to get rid of me easily. Somehow, some way, I was going to penetrate that wall of nefarious determination. I could not lose this job. Lately very few businesses were willing to take a chance on me, so I could only imagine how long it would take to land another.

"Stupid jobs," I muttered.

"What was that?" Ron asked, his gaze sharpening.

Had I said that aloud? "Oh, uh, nothing." I straightened in the chair. "You were saying?"

He pushed out a sigh. "You have no people skills, Belle. Instead of smoothing ruffled feathers, you set them on fire."

"I'm telling you, I'm a good employee," I said through clenched teeth. And that wasn't a lie. Sure, I usually arrived late, always cussed, sometimes bitched and-and this is not an admission of guilt-(allegedly) borrowed from the stock room. But I worked weekends, holidays and overtime whenever possible. That counted for something, right?

"I can't believe you're making me do this." Ron flipped open a file and ran a blunt-tipped finger down the front page. "Complaint-server is rude and pushy. Complaint-server made tea instead of coffee. Complaint-server is rude. Complaint-server is rude. Complaint-server is rude. Shall I go on?"

"I don't let the customers yell and scream at me." Indignation gave me a sense of bravery, and I sat up even straighter, shoulders squared. Did people have nothing better to do with their lives than complain about a lowly server? "That doesn't make me rude, it makes me human."

"Jenni doesn't yell at customers even when they yell at her."

"Jenni is a brown-nosing moron."

Another sigh. "Belle-" Finally, his gaze landed on me and out of habit slid straight to the girls. He swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing like a dinghy in a tidal wave. "Uh, what was I saying?"

I almost grinned, every muscle in my body relaxing. Penetration complete. And so much easier than I'd anticipated.

Being looked at was far different from hearing his sex-offender voice comment about me lingering in bed. This I could handle. "I believe you were about to tell me to get to work and never be late again. I planned to respond by telling you that you're the best boss in the world and I'll make you proud."

"Yes, I wanted to tell you to get to-" Eyes widening, he shook his head. "That's not what I meant to say," he said, a stern edge creeping into his voice. But he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like brought down by a pair of pretty knockers. "I should fire you, you know. Hell, that's why I brought you in here."

"I know," I admitted softly. I didn't mean to be such a disappointment to him. Honest. I just, well, I had always dreamed of being a-Wait. My eyebrows drew together. Even as a little girl, I hadn't been able to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still didn't know. But being a peon stuck in a cycle of debt and endless servitude hadn't been, and still wasn't, part of my life's ambition.

Don't get me wrong. For my dad, I'd sign my soul over to the devil. Permanent ink. No "out" clause. Dad had toiled and slaved for years in construction, even when his weak heart caused him more pain than one person should ever have to bear. He'd worked so hard because he loved me, because he'd wanted me to have pretty clothes and take fun trips with my friends. But mostly because he'd wanted to make up for the car accident that had killed my mom when I was a toddler.

After I graduated high school, I had convinced him to quit, and I'd happily taken care of him ever since. I didn't regret it; truly I didn't, but my life had fallen into such a rut that sometimes I did wish for something extraordinary to happen to me. Something amazing, perhaps a little wild. What, I didn't know.

I frowned. No more wishing for things I couldn't have. From this point on, I would be a better employee. I would work harder, be less confrontational. Screw restlessness! Ron was giving me another chance, and I wouldn't let him down.

"I swear, Belle, you keep my ulcer in fighting form," he said darkly. He reached into his desk drawer, withdrew a packet of Tums and popped several in his mouth. "Why can't I be more like the Donald and just say it? You're fired. Boom. You're fired. So easy in theory." He sighed yet again, this one a dejected exhalation that made his shoulders sag. "This is your last chance. If you screw this up-"

"I won't. Swear to God." I didn't mention that I needed to leave a wee bit early today if I hoped to make my interview with Ambassador Suites, a nearby hotel. I'd bring up that little gem later. I'd double up my coffee-making or something to earn the early departure. "I'll be so good you'll nominate me for Employee of the Week. Maybe Employee of the Month."

"Yeah. Right." He popped a few more Tums and eyed the girls again. "I can't believe I'm doing this. Go. Open a register before I change my mind."

Grinning, I blew him a kiss, bounded out of my chair and raced to the door. Thank God for perverts.

I SPENT THE NEXT SEVERAL hours being a good little robot, smiling a sunshine-and-roses smile and waving customers to my register like a Miss America contestant. All under Ron's hawklike eyes. Once, I came close to bitch-slapping a woman who had the nerve to ask me if I moved that slow for everyone or if she was just special.

You're certainly a special pain in my ass, I'd wanted to say. But I didn't. I restrained myself from violence (see "bitch-slap" comment above), consoled by the thought that such an evil witch would surely acquire deep, deep wrinkles and lose all her teeth and hair before she kicked it.

My friend Sherridan-the only friend I had, really, since she didn't mind the fact that I had no free time-would have been proud of me for remaining silent and not launching myself forward, a catapult of retribution. When we were in grade school, she'd told me the devil on my right shoulder must have brutally strangled the angel on my left, destroying any hint of moral influence.

I plead the Fifth on that.

Speaking of Sherridan, she strolled into the caf�� a few minutes later, spotted me and waved. She was talking on her cell. She was tall and gorgeous with blond curls and curves that went on forever, curves that were now encased in an emerald pants suit. She marched to me, bypassing the line to stand beside my register, and hooked her cell to her waist. "Hey, you," she said with a warm smile.

"Hey, back," I said, but kept my gaze on the customer and pretended to listen to her order. I loved when Sherridan visited me here. Technically, employees were discouraged from having guests, but lately it was the only time we spent together. "You look good."

"Thank you." She spoke over the frowning customer. "I'm showing a house later today and want to impress the buyer-who is half of the reason I'm here." She clapped her hands in excitement. "I got us dates."

"Dates?" Months had passed since I'd even thought the word, so it was foreign on my tongue. "Do you want cinnamon sprinkled on your half-caf?" I asked my customer.

"With twins," Sherridan said proudly. "Wealthy twins."

"Yes," the customer said through tight lips.

Sherridan didn't pause. "I think the older one likes me." There was a twinge of uncertainty in her voice.

"I'm sure he does," I said. "You're beautiful and smart." Sherridan liked to pretend she was confident, but deep down she needed reassurance when it came to men. She tended to fall for them quickly, become horribly needy and unsure, and drive them away. "I'm working that night, though."

Sherridan's grin slipped a little, and she narrowed her silver eyes suspiciously. "I didn't tell you-" her phone rang "-when."

"Sometime today on that drink," my customer said, drumming her nails on the counter.

"Doesn't matter about the day." I turned, grabbed a carton of milk and poured a measured amount into the proper container. "I'm always working."

"Leslie," Sherridan said to her assistant, "this isn't a good time. I'm in a meeting." She ended the call. "Belle, can't you take a day off? Just one? Please?"

A wave of longing hit me, but I didn't speak for several seconds as the milk steamed, buzzing loudly. When that tapered to quiet, I said, "I wish I could, Sher, but I'm interviewing for a second job later and I'll be working nights if I get it."

"Not another one," she said with a groan.

"Hey, server girl. Can I get an ETA on my drink? I'm in a mad rush, and you're taking forever."

My gaze sought and met the opposition's, my hazel against her brown. My impatience against her annoyance. She was a tall woman, tanned and toned, almost muscular, with leathery skin and hair as dark a brown as mine. But while my hair was long and straight (and, I like to think, silky), hers was short and frizzy, as if she'd left her perm rods in a thousand years too long.

"My name is not server or girl," I muttered under my breath. To her, I said loudly, "It'll be done in a second, sir. Oops, my bad. I mean, ma'am."

She scowled.

"Belle," Ron called warningly.

I gritted my teeth, nearly grinding them into powder, and prepared the stupid half-caf. All the while I chanted in my mind, I will behave myself. I will behave myself. I will freaking behave myself. On the bright side, at least Ron was overlooking Sherridan's visit.

"Well, I should go before Super Curls throws a fit," Sherridan said, ignoring my customer's scowl. She leaned over and kissed my cheek. "Call me if you change your mind about the twins. They have the cutest, tightest asses ever and if you married one-a twin, not his ass-all of your money troubles would be over." With that, she was off.

I handed Super Curls the coffee, but didn't get a thank-you.

"I'll have a skinny venti vanilla, please," my next customer said.

"Sugar free?"

His face scrunched in disgust. "I said skinny, not tasteless."

And so another hour passed unmercifully. I should have chucked my apron and left with Sherridan. "This isn't what I ordered," I heard. "Your fingers touched the rim, so I need you to start over and make me a new, uncontaminated drink," I heard. "You call this an espresso? I've had stronger water," I heard.

Did I complain? Did I mix anyone a swirlie (aka spit in their drink)? No and no! The continued restraint cost me, though. My stomach was a clenched knot of pain. My skin felt too tight against my bones. A tic had developed under my left eye. My back throbbed, and my feet ached-and not from standing too long. I was used to that. The ache was because I hadn't allowed myself to deliver a few much needed ass beatings.

If I didn't get Employee of the Week after this… Wait. I decided I'd rather have a break.

When I sent my last customer on her way, I glanced over at Ron, who had stopped watching me long enough to turn his attention to a woman who looked like she'd walked straight out of an X-rated pin-up. She sauntered past him, her red spandex halter top and shorts revealing more T and A than a Penthouse centerfold-not that I'd ever peeked inside one of those magazines (cough, cough). Ron adjusted his belt. I snapped my fingers to gain his attention, but the woman's thong-clad ass held him enthralled.

The bell above the door jingled, signaling the arrival of yet another group of patrons. Their eyes were feral, and I could tell they were desperate for their morning fix. If I didn't act quickly, I'd be stuck here a minimum-minimum!-of twenty more minutes, and I just didn't have another second of sweetness in me.

With a speed Superman would have envied, I began closing out my register.

"What are you doing?" Jenni, Employee of the Year-or, as I liked to call her, Bitch of the Millennium-demanded. She stood at the only other open register, a short, rounded-in-all-the-right-places blonde who drew male attention simply by breathing. She'd made her hatred of me known my first day on the job, tripping me every time I walked past her, handing me regular coffee when I asked for decaf.

Why she hated me, I didn't know. Didn't care, really.

"You're smart." I scratched my forehead with my middle finger, covertly flipping her off. "Figure it out." With her infuriated gasp ringing in my ears, I strode over to Ron and tapped him on the shoulder.

He jumped and clutched a hand over his heart as he whipped to face me. "Jesus H. Christ!"

"No, I'm Belle," I said drily.

"What do you want?" he grumbled.

"I'd really like to take my first fifteen-minute break. If that's okay with you, Mr. Pretty," I added sweetly.

"It's Peaty." He glanced at his wristwatch. "Fine. Whatever." His gaze slid back to the walking centerfold, now bending over to pick up the napkin she'd "accidentally" dropped, her shorts riding higher up her butt.

Shaking my head, I gathered the necessary items needed for a… hmm. What did I want? A mocha latte, I decided in the next flash. Yep. That sounded good. That's what I'd have. If anyone deserved chocolate, it was me.

"You're such a bitch," Jenni muttered, suddenly at my side to mix a chai tea.

"Your jealousy is showing," I uttered in a singsong voice. I poured two shots of espresso into my cup, then whole milk. I didn't do skim. "If you'd stopped sneaking bites of muffins, ��clairs and cake slices you might have realized someone was due to go on break."

Jenni gasped. "I'll have you know I have low blood sugar. I have to eat."

"Right. I totally believe you and don't think you're delusional in the least."

"You're just begging for a piece of me, you know that?" she growled.

"I don't know what gave you the idea I've lowered my standards, but I assure you, I haven't. I want no part of you. By the way, you have a piece of dough stuck in your teeth." Latte completed, I skipped to an empty table. As I sipped the hot, deliciously sweet liquid (perfectly prepared, thank you!) I stared out the large storefront window and grinned. Ah, my little interlude with Jenni had revived my spirits, chasing away the tension brought on by forced charm.

Across the way loomed a pretty, obviously well maintained brownstone with steel-enforced, tinted windows. The bushes surrounding it were expertly trimmed and hedged. Flowers bloomed prettily in the spring sun, a pink, red and gold rainbow of petals.

But there were no signs, no advertisements to be seen. Occasionally I'd spotted a car or two in the parking lot, as I did now, so I knew people worked there. But I'd never been able to figure out what kind of business it was, had never seen an employee entering or leaving.

The place intrigued me. Always had. I'd thought about sneaking over there late one night and peeking inside, but usually fell asleep before working up the strength to leave my apartment. Perhaps it was a-

I blinked. What the hell? A tall, lanky man in a lab coat suddenly barreled out the front door of the brownstone at top speed, his eyes wide and wild, his white comb-over flapping in the breeze. One minute he wasn't there, the next he was. My back went ramrod straight, the movement swishing precious latte over the rim of the cup. I blinked again, as if the action could jump-start my brain into figuring out why he was running.

The man darted across the street, uncaring as vehicles honked and swerved to keep from hitting him. Two of the cars collided. Even from where I sat, I heard the squeal of tires and the grind of smashing metal.

My eyes rounded as two burly, scowling guys sprinted out of the brownstone, apparently giving chase to the harried, wreck-causing man-who was now racing inside Utopia as if his life depended on it.

The bell chimed and I shoved myself to my feet, spilling my latte further. I set the cup on the table and stared over at the man. Skin pale, features tense, breath emerging raggedly, he scanned the caf�� wildly. His gaze bypassed me, then quickly snapped back. Across the distance, our eyes locked.

"Are you okay?" I called, projecting my voice over the inane chatter around us.

"Please, help me," he choked out. He sprinted toward me, shoving people out of the way and babbling, "They weren't supposed to know. They weren't supposed to chase me."

Some gasped. Some snarled, "Watch it."

When the man reached me, he gripped my forearms. Sweat trickled from his brow; fear filled his dilated eyes. "You have to help me," he said between shallow pants. "They're going to kill me."

Kill? My mouth went dry; my blood mutated into ice, yet hot prickles slithered along my spine. "Stay here," I said. "No, hide. No, stay. Oh, hell. Do whatever while I call 911." His clasp tightened on me, but I tugged free and shouted to the people around me, "Does anyone have a cell phone?" I'd given mine up as an extravagance I could no longer afford. "Anyone?" I leapt around the tables, but everyone purposefully avoided my gaze. "I won't use up your minutes, I swear. This is an emergency."

"I demand to speak with the manager," someone said, wanting, I'm sure, to complain about what had just happened and demand free service.

I rushed into Ron's office and grabbed the phone. The 911 dispatcher answered after only two rings, and I explained what had happened. "A man was chased into this caf��," I rushed out. "He says someone's trying to kill him." As I spoke, a woman screamed in the background. A male groaned.

"Help is on the way," the dispatcher promised.

Heart hammering, I disregarded her plea to remain on the line, and tossed the receiver aside. I pounded back into the main area and skidded to a stop. I'd only been gone a moment, but the caf�� looked like a natural disaster had struck. Tables were overturned. Chairs were strewn in every direction. Coffee slithered along the floor, a black river, with paper cups and napkins floating in it like dead bodies.

Shaking and scared, the caf��'s patrons and employees huddled in a single corner. Only Ron seemed unafraid. His arms were wrapped around Jenni, and he was copping a feel.

The man in the lab coat had vanished. Was he hiding?

The two guys I'd observed chasing him were now in the process of calming everyone down. A third male, whom I hadn't seen exit the brownstone, stood at the doorway, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. He was young, probably in his mid-thirties, tall and muscled, with blond hair and a face any male model would have envied. Perfect, chiseled and droolworthy. He watched the proceedings as if mentally cataloging every detail.

"Everyone take a seat," he finally said, his voice firm, no-nonsense. "Get comfortable. We're going to be here awhile."

"What's going on?" I demanded, since no one else had spoken up. "Who are you?" Maybe I shouldn't have drawn attention to myself, but there was no way in hell I'd just blithely obey, perhaps walking to my own death.

"CIA." He frowned and flashed some sort of badge. "Now sit."

CIA? My jaw performed a dance of drop and close, drop and close. I'd seen agents on TV, of course, but never in real life. Still, everything inside me screamed not to trust him. I mean, Lab Coat's voice kept drifting through my head. They're going to kill me. They're going to kill me!

But… what if Lab Coat was an evil man who needed killing? Or what if Pretty Boy was lying and Lab Coat was really the good guy? What if I confused myself to the point of having an aneurism with all these internal questions?

Think, Jamison, think. Sit down. No, run. Sit. Yes, that's what I'd do. No, no. I should run. As I continually changed my mind, my right foot moved back and forth while the left remained in place. Step, retreat. Step, retreat. Damn it! If I made the wrong decision, there was a very good chance tomorrow's headlines would read: Local Idiot Found Dead. "Victim's friend laments, 'If Belle had taken a day off like I asked, she'd still be alive.'"

My eyes slitted. "What happened to that guy? The one in the lab coat?"

Pretty Boy crossed his arms over his chest and pinned me with a dark, almost hypnotic stare. "That's none of your concern. Now," he said, speaking to the entire room, "I have questions, and you're going to answer me."

Those eyes… they were intense, commanding, a little scary. "I just called the cops," I gulped out. "If you hurt us, you'll be thrown in prison and become Big Daddy's bitch."

His gaze flicked to one of Lab Coat's pursuers, now our guard. He was a beast of a man, with a thick, black beard (were those peas between the hairs?) and more muscles than Arnold in his prime. "Take care of it."

Take care of what? Beast radioed… the cops? He spoke too quietly for me to hear what he was saying. Meanwhile, the other guard ushered everyone into chairs. Everyone except me, that is. Maybe I looked menacing and they didn't want to mess with me. Hey, it was a possibility.

But I didn't understand why they were content to remain in here instead of chasing Lab Coat. Or had they caught him and ushered him away while I was on the phone? Why question us, then, if they already had him?

"That man is a dangerous criminal," Pretty Boy told me. He must have realized that I wouldn't cooperate otherwise.

"It's in your best interest to help us."

Dangerous criminal-the magic words of my capitulation. "All right, fine," I said grudgingly, deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt. He had a badge, after all. "But if anyone pulls a weapon on me, I'm going PMS on their ass."

"So noted," he said with a dry edge, completely unimpressed.

Thankfully, the table I'd occupied earlier remained upright. My latte sat on the surface, unharmed. I plopped down and lifted the cup to my lips, sipping. Warm and sweet-sweeter than it had been earlier, as if the chocolate had thickened. Mmm. I continued sipping, taking comfort from it.

Pretty Boy questioned us one at a time, writing names and answers in a notebook. How very detective he was. He asked everyone the same three questions: 1) What is your name and address? 2) Did you see the man in the lab coat? 3) Did he say anything to you or give you anything?

Pretty Boy spoke with me the longest and had more than the standard three questions for me. What had made me want to help Lab Coat-"the doctor," Pretty Boy called him, careful not to use his real name. Did we secretly plan to meet later? Had I ever met with the doctor before this?

I didn't bother lying. Actually, I wasn't sure I could lie to this man. Every time he turned those intense brown eyes on me, I felt compelled to share my deepest, darkest secrets. Not in a girls' sleepover kind of way, but an I'll-die-if-I-don't kind of way. Very weird.

And you know what? I didn't get any answers to my questions. What was his name? Why were they chasing Lab Coat? What made the man so dangerous? Was Pretty Boy going to eat the chocolate ��clair he'd pilfered from the fridge? I was starved.

Finally, Pretty Boy and his men left, followed quickly by the customers. I'd expected him to threaten us if we told the press or cops-or anyone, really-what had happened, but he didn't. I'd expected the police to arrive (as promised), but they never did. I guess they really had been taken care of, which probably meant Pretty Boy was the CIA agent he'd claimed to be and Lab Coat actually was a criminal. I hoped I didn't get in trouble for having tried to aid him.

Left alone at last, I helped Ron, Jenni and the rest of Utopia's employees clean up the mess. Strangely enough, we worked in silence, not discussing the events. Maybe we were too scared. Maybe we were too confused. Maybe both. As I cleaned, I looked for Lab Coat but found no trace of him.

What a shit-infested day this had turned out to be. The only silver lining was when Ron decided to close the caf�� for the rest of the day, giving me the opportunity I needed to escape to my interview-albeit late.

Maybe, if I was lucky, I'd be hit by a car and could sue for millions.