by Shari J. Ryan
Published: June 18, 2015
Published by: Booktrope
I try to scream from the panic exploding within me, but sound isn't coming out at all any more. I'm placed down on a stretcher as firemen run past me and into the house. They shouldn't go in there.
I shouldn't have been in there.
I should have known...
As my life changes in a split second, questions appear everywhere, falling for a stranger I meet in a dark park is now my only crutch, and lies I didn't know existed culminate into unfortunate truths.
At twenty-five, I thought I had everything figured out, but I couldn't have been more wrong.
In Shari J. Ryan's latest Romantic Suspense, Red Nights, you wonder how dark your world can get before all you see is red.
-Standalone Full Length Novel-
Sleep doesn't come. It hasn't for the past week. I don't even feel tired, and I don't have a desire to close my eyes. It's been an hour since Aspen's lights went off. I heard her crying for a few minutes, but now it's silent. I didn't realize she was taking this so hard. I'm not sure. Either way I hope she doesn’t hear me leave.
I need air. I snatch her keys from the coffee table and slip out the door, locking it behind me.
My only focus as I walk is the seductive white stick I pull out of my pocket. With trembling hands, it takes me a second to steady the lighter, but within moments of my first drag, I fall heavily against a nearby tree. My desire for these things has grown exponentially since the fire. In the past, I've been able to satisfy my need with one cigarette at the end of each day, but now I find myself daydreaming about them from the time I wake up. Not a great sign.
My heart rate slows, and I feel almost human again. While debating whether or not I should go back into the apartment, I stomp the butt out and pop a couple pieces of gum into my mouth. I don't want to go back. Not yet. I keep walking until I end up at a small, unlit park—it's the perfect place to be alone.
The muted tones of the night pull me toward a little fountain, situated between a thick group of trees, and I find a bare spot in the grass to lie down.
I used to lie in the grass at night, watching the stars, remembering what Gran always told me. The sky is a two-way mirror; us on one side, and our loved ones that have passed on the other. They’re in the stars, and they’re able to look down and watch over us. Gran left me when I was only twelve; I've made it a habit to watch the stars at night, in search of one that might be her. Now I have to find Blake as well.
I close my eyes, relishing the cool air. When I open my eyes, I see fire in the sky. The red night overtakes the stars, taking away everything I love.
Is this how it'll always be?
I squeeze my eyes closed once more, hoping when I open them, the sky will return to black. Instead, something wet pushes into my cheek, and my eyes snap open. Panicked, I push myself up on my elbows and come face to face with a dog. I think it's a lab—not exactly threatening. But why is he alone? His tail wags and he nudges me with his snout. I look around to see if his owner is nearby when a flashlight shines in my face and startles me. I throw my arm over my eyes to block out the light.
"I wondered what my dog was sniffing," the man says.
The sound of footsteps grows closer, and the light drops to the ground. I see him emerge from behind one of the nearby trees. "Sorry if we scared you. I didn't think anyone was out here this late at night, so I unlatched the leash."
The dog investigates every inch of me, then covers my hand with kisses. I run my fingers down his back, giving him some attention so he knows I'm friendly. "Cute dog."
The man comes a little closer, dropping his free hand into his pocket. With the glow of the moon and the one dim streetlight reflecting off of his face, I sort of lose the confidence I had a moment ago. He's striking from what I can see in the little amount of light. I'm well aware of the dangers behind meeting a random man in a dark park at midnight, but in my somewhat-reckless state I seem to be stuck in, his presence is oddly calming. "It's kind of late to be sitting here alone, don't you think?"
"It was my intention to be alone in the dark," I say. "What's his name?" I scratch behind the dog's ears, avoiding the stranger's gaze.
"Her name is Lady."
"Lady?" I repeat.
"Yeah, when I got her, I thought it'd be funny to yell 'hey lady!' every time she ran off."
A small laugh escapes me. "Good one."
The man closes more of the space between us and sits down beside me, pulling his dog in between his legs. A part of me wants to put more space between us, but I don't.
"It really isn't a great idea to sit in the middle of a park alone this late at night. And I wouldn't be a good citizen if I didn't warn you of the dangers, of course." He smells like the outdoors, maybe pine mixed with a trace of cologne. It's nice. "I'm Hayes Peyton." He reaches his hand out to me.
I hesitate at first, but there's something intriguing about him, so I offer him my hand. His fingers warm my cold palm. "Felicity."
"Well, Felicity. I hope you carry pepper spray or something. I could be a creep."
I'm not sure the thought of encountering a creep scares me the way it should right now. But I suppose even this man who looks like he just walked off a photo shoot for a high-end magazine could most definitely be a creep. Two weeks ago, I may have had a can of pepper spray on me—if I had even been dumb enough to go strolling through a dark park in the middle of the night. But tonight, my thoughts are fuzzy. My common sense is distorted. And my lack of care for my own safety is a bit frightening. "Nope. Can't say that I do. Guess I'm a risk taker."
As of today.
"All joking aside, Felicity, you should be me more careful." He looks at me with concern, like I'm a baby bird that just fell out of the nest. He stands up and takes his dog by the collar. "It was nice meeting you. It's not every night you run into a beautiful woman, alone in the middle of a dark park." I'm glad it's dark, or he might see my cheeks flush at his words. My heart speeds up again, but for other reasons this time. It’s different from the slow, dying beat of the last few weeks—a tiny spark that flickers and gives me an ounce of hope that I might pull through this.
"Life is full of surprises," I say through a weak smile. It's a start. I guess those facial muscles do still work.
"Come on, Lady. Time to put you back on a leash." Hayes gives me one last glance, showing me the hint of a smile, too.
I've always heard that guys with dogs pick up more women. This guy has it down to a science.
"Good morning," Aspen chirps. Her eyes look a little puffy, like she didn't sleep well. Or maybe it’s from the crying. She steps out of her bedroom and stops dead in her tracks, scanning the room. "What did you…”
"I hope you don't mind, but I clean when I'm stressed out." And your apartment was so messy I felt like running away last night.
"Oh!" I'm not sure if that was a sound of delight. "I almost forgot what the carpeting looked like."
She looks annoyed.
"I made coffee," I say as a peace offering. I lean over to the counter and grab the two mugs, handing her one of them.
She eyeballs me warily while taking her first sip. "Something has gotten into you. I thought I'd have to revive you today just to get you dressed." She looks down at my clothes, which are the same as I had on yesterday. "Stay here. I have something you can wear today."
Please be clean. Not that my current clothes are any better.
I hear her slinging hangers over a rod, and then she shouts, "Got it!" She returns with a black dress and flings it at me. "How's that?"
"This will work." I hold the dress up, matching up the size to my body. It should fit. I think we’re the same size. "Mind if I hop in the shower?" I cleaned that this morning, too.
"Of course. There are towels in the closet."
I walk past her, clutching the dress in my hand, ignoring the sight of her room as I walk past it. It's the only place I didn't get to.
"Hey, Felicity—or Liss, eh?" She giggles. "Where did you go last night? I woke up to use the bathroom, and you were gone."
Shit. I know I shouldn't be worried about an explanation. I just went to smoke a cigarette…and ran into a random hot guy in the middle of a dark, empty park. Totally normal. "Ah, I went out for a walk."
"In the middle of the night?"
I shrug her off and continue toward the bathroom.
"That's not the Felicity I know—Miss I-lock-the-fifteen-deadlocks-on-my-door-and-never-go-out-alone-after-dark."
I'm not that person any more. But I don't respond.
"Well, if it means anything, I like the new, ballsy you," she says.
With a firm crank, the shower roars to life. After a couple of minutes, the small room fills with a hot fog. It looks like smoke. It makes my pulse race. Sweat beads on my forehead and my limbs turn ice cold. Breathing is hard, and my lungs ache.
Great. Now I'm having anxiety attacks in the shower.
I soap up with Aspen's high-end shampoos and body wash, and I rinse off quickly, all while feeling dizzy and weak. I can't get the towel around myself fast enough as I fall heavily against the sink, gripping the edge. I look in the mirror and examine the puffy bags under my eyes. My skin is so pale; my light eyes make me look sick. I'm a poster child for depression, and I don't see an end in sight. Well, I guess I did for a split-second last night. I just have to get through today.
Suck it up, Felicity.
"Wrong place and wrong time, but you do look nice today," Tanner says, looping his arm with mine as we walk through the headstones, approaching a scene I'll want to burn from my mind forever.
Sometime between the time we got here and the time they lowered Blake's coffin into the ground, I allowed Tanner to hold me like he used to. Now, standing behind me, his arms tighten around my shoulders, his chin resting on my head. It feels right, but if Blake were here, it would feel very wrong. It's not like that, though. It's the simple affection between two friends who are agonizing over a mutual pain.
Everyone has left except Tanner, Aspen, Mom, and Dad. My heart is heavy. So heavy, I don't know if I can move. If I leave here, is that me saying good-bye? It'll be like I’m closing his book and saying the end. He's been gone for a week, but now it's undeniably clear that heaven and earth have come between us. This is officially the worst moment of my entire life.
And this is all my fault.
Dad took us all to Blake's favorite burger joint for dinner. It was a nice idea…until we walked in and the hostess asked where Blake was. He ate at this restaurant twice a week. I don't think it was on Dad's agenda to announce Blake's death to an entire restaurant. But when the hostess asked what happened, I told her. "I unintentionally started a fire. Blake died." I don't know how many times I've repeated that statement, but I don't cry when I say it any more. The words are almost robotic.
Dinner is quiet. We're all kind of looking at each other with a zombie-like gaze. I can't stop asking myself how this happened. Why this happened. Why do bad things happen to good people?
Aspen and I slide into Tanner's car; she's in the back and I'm in the passenger seat, my face leaning up against the window. He glances over every few seconds, but I'm not sure what he's looking for. "Can I do anything for you?" he asks.
"Just take us back to Aspen's, please."
We pull off to the side of the road in front of Aspen's apartment. I keep my focus locked on the road in front of us, knowing I don't really have a reason to see Tanner again after tonight, which makes this awkward and somewhat painful. It's amazing how quickly feelings can return. "Can I come in for a bit?" he asks. "This sucks, Liss. I just don't want to go home yet." I ponder the idea, and then realize I won't be able to run off alone and indulge in my ever-growing nicotine addiction if I agree.
"Of course you can," Aspen chirps from the back seat.
"Actually, I think I just need to veg out for a while,” I say. “Rain check?" The look on his face makes me feel like I just ripped his heart out all over again. But I can't do it. Not tonight. I need to be alone. And I need everything that comes along with it.
"Totally cool. I get it."
But he doesn't. He's going home to an empty house, and I'm going upstairs with Aspen. I feel like an ass. "I'll give you a call tomorrow. You know, to see how you're holding up. Okay?"
A tiny smile tugs at my lips. I used to love his determination—the way he didn't give up. "Sure. I'd like that." He leans over, giving me a quick peck on the cheek. "Take care of her tonight, Aspen. Promise?" He looks over his shoulder into the backseat. Aspen, who has her hands clasped together against her chest and a cheesy grin to accessorize, nods emphatically.
No. She's going to bed. And I'm running away again.
"Dude, he definitely still cares about you," Aspen says, trudging up the creaking wooden stairs. "I'm dying to know why you two broke up. I'm guessing there has to be some crazy story behind all of this." She stops in the middle of the stairwell, and I almost crash into her. "I'm your friend. I'm supposed to know this stuff."
We weren't friends during the time I was with Tanner, though; doesn't that kind of excuse me from opening up about past boyfriends? "It's a really long story, and I'm emotionally drained right now." I’m hoping that she'll drop it and continue up the stairs.
She plops down on the step as if it were her sofa. We're literally ten steps away from her door. "Talking always makes me feel better.” I say nothing. “There was just this high level of emotional energy between you too…that’s all," she says, resting her arms over her knees.
"Probably because this is the most amount of time I've spent with Tanner in the past year, and something about it doesn't feel right." I know how Blake felt about us being together, especially after spending six months trying to break us up. "Tanner and I didn't quite keep in touch the way we promised to, but I saw him now and again when he came over to hang out with Blake.
"But why did you break up?" she whines.
"If I tell you the basics will you drop this forever…please?" I beg. This is never going to work. The girl lives in a romance novel.
"Why you gotta be so cruel to me, Felicity?" She lets out an exaggerated sigh mixed with a little laughter. "Okay, spill."
The basics. How do I sum up those six months in one sentence? "I needed to focus on work. I was working doubles five days a week, and when I wasn't at work I was studying new recipes. I told him the timing wasn't good for a relationship. And that was that." I scare myself with how quickly that came.
"You are a crappy liar, Felicity Stone." She stands up and leans over to place a kiss on my cheek. "But I love you anyway." When we reach the top of the stairs, she glances at me from over her shoulder, a playful look swimming in her eyes. "Well, I guess if you don't want him, he's up for grabs." She giggles and tosses her purse onto the table.
Even though I know it was a joke, her statement bothers me. Just because Tanner and I can't be together, doesn't mean I want to see him with anyone else either. Childish? Maybe. But I don't care.
"Kidding," she chirps. "I'm on a man break right now."
"A man break?" I ask.
She turns around to face me. "Yeah," she says, running her fingers through her hair. "I fell for the last guy and…" She pulls in a sharp breath and tosses her coat onto the sofa. "Anyway, I just need a little time right now."
"If you want to talk, I'm here," I tell her.
"Thanks, but I'm not going to bother you with this right now. You have enough going on." She turns around and fusses with her hair, pulling it up into a ponytail. "Love you, girly. See you in the morning."
I sit on the edge of the bed, anxiously waiting for her to go to sleep. My knee is bouncing to its own rhythm, and I'm picking the skin around my cuticles. Please, just go to bed.
The reflection of her bedroom light disappears after a few minutes, but the sound of crying fills the air again. Something is really hurting her.
Something is really hurting me.
The second the cries stop, I grab the keys and jet out the door. As I round the bottom step of the first flight, Aspen's voice echoes down the stairs. "Where are you going?" she croaks
Crap. Crap. Crap.
"Nowhere," I yell in a whisper. "I just need some fresh air. I'll be back in a minute." I'm thankful when she turns around and closes the door without further questions.
The air is cooler tonight; the thick clouds are locking in a misty breeze. I wish I’d grabbed the sweatshirt Aspen lent me yesterday. I pop a cigarette into my mouth and light it quickly so I can wrap my arms back around my goose-bump covered skin.
A fast pace and the warmth in my lungs seem to do the trick as I return to the quiet park. I lay in the grass and my focus is drawn to the sky. I stare through the red hues that only I can see. I can't figure out how my mind is creating the illusion, but it's like the fire is branded there. Like when I stare at something so long that I can still see it when I close my eyes. That has to be what it is.
When the goose bumps surface again, I shove off the dewy grass and find myself standing in the in front of Lady. Behind Lady is Hayes, his hands in his pockets and the newly-familiar smirk dimpling his cheeks. "Guess you don't take a stranger’s advice too seriously, huh?"
"I march to the beat of my own drum, I guess." My smile comes so naturally, yet uncomfortably at the same time. I have this sense of guilt for feeling anything other than sadness right now. Blake is dead. I have no right to be happy. "Come here often?"
He comes a little closer…a lot closer, actually. He's only a couple feet away from me now. "Every night for the past six months. I don't know. I guess it's something about the quiet after a long day. Kind of like a night-cap I guess." In the glow of his flashlight, I think he notices the goose bumps on my arms. He removes his coat and hands it to me. "You're freezing. Take this."
"Oh, I'm fine really. But thank you, that's very sweet." As if Lady understands what we’re talking about, her body rubs up against my leg, nuzzling her warm head under my hand.
"Please take it," he presses. "I mean this in a nice way, but you kind of look like hell. You're shivering, and have you been crying? The least I can do is offer you some warmth." Maybe if he just keeps talking, the sound of his voice will continue offering the comfort I've been missing. God, I hate to ask why he thinks I've been crying. Do I look that awful?
Despite my reluctance, I reach for his coat and drape it over my shoulders. "What makes you think I was crying?" I ask, buttoning the coat over my chest, inhaling the delicious scent of fresh laundry and cologne.
"You're sitting in a dark park alone at night,” he says. “And you're staring at the sky as if it holds all the answers." That's my giveaway? "Plus,” he squints at me. “I think you have a bit of black make-up streaked over your cheek."
Nerves ignite in my stomach. This is humiliating. I slap my hand over my cheek and rub at my cool skin, desperate to hide the truth.
"It's the other side." He laughs softly and moves in closer. "Here, I can help."
He reaches over, but I pull back. "You might be a creep, remember?" My heart hammers at the thought. Maybe I am an idiot for sitting in a dark park alone at night. I'm asking for trouble. My gut is twisting and turning; I know I should walk away now, but I want to feel this guy's touch more than I've wanted anything in the past week. Maybe it's the sound of his voice, or the way his smile is hesitant, but I'm having a hard time convincing myself that Hayes is a threat.
"You're right,” he says. “I did warn you of that possibility. Here." His fingers wrap around my wrist, the warmth of his hand soothing some of my apprehension. "Give me your finger, and I'll show you where it is." I loosen my clenched fist and reach my finger out. With the slightest bit of pressure, he moves my finger up against my cheek, letting his knuckles sweep against my lips. His skin smells like fresh mountain air, and his touch is soothing. This man is making my heart pound so hard I can hear my pulse vibrate in my ears.
I remember now: I'm supposed to be wiping away the mascara streaked down my cheek, not basking in the sensation of his touch.
I rub at the spot for a minute before he says, "You got it all."
I'm with a guy I don't know in the middle of the night, and no one is around to hear me scream if I need help. Come to your senses, Felicity. This isn't some fantastical love story where danger and rapists don't exist. "I should get going. My roommate has probably sent a search party out to look for me." I clutch his coat, ready to peel it off and hand it back to him.
"I wouldn't worry…a search party wouldn't consider you missing for at least twenty-four hours,” he says, his eyes burning into mine as if he just noticed something deeper, something more in them. "Anyway, I hope whatever you're going through gets easier." He places his hand on my shoulder, halting my attempt to remove his coat. "Hang on to that so you don't get cold walking home."
"I don't feel right taking it from you." But it's the most comforting gesture anyone has shown me in a very long time.
He laughs softly and takes his hand from my shoulder. "I have a feeling I might see you again. And if I don't, I'll at least know you're warm."
About the Author:
Shari J. Ryan is an Amazon Top 100 Bestselling author, a Barnes & Noble Top 10 Bestselling author, and an iBookstore #1 Bestselling author. She hails from Central Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and two lively little boys. Shari has always had an active imagination and enjoys losing herself in the fictional worlds she creates. When Shari isn’t writing, she can usually be found cleaning toys up off the floor.
To learn more, visit her at, www.sharijryan.com.
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