Nichole caught the obvious hint. Eric was not about to leave her side any time soon, even if she dared protest his intentions.
Him being here, moving closer and closer toward the privacy of her home was a mistake, plain and simple. Inviting him up to her apartment had started them down an irreversible course of events she feared to tread. Everything about Eric – his mannerisms, his confidence, his overt physical appeal and, most especially, his hot tongue tickling her own – were dangerous to the nth degree. Eric Raven was the makings of an infatuation Nichole preferred to steer clear of at all costs, if possible. The problem was, he was adamant about making sure she arrived home and then back to the office safely under his guard. This would leave too much time alone in his company. Within an office setting, she would be able to control her urges to intertwine herself in his arms. Here, behind closed private doors, Nichole feared she would not be able to demonstrate such willpower.
It had taken some time to build up, but now Nichole was starting to see what it was about this man that had all the ladies in the police force and court offices so stirred up. He was a man driven, and he could drive you – probably very hard – if given the chance. Eric was assertive and handsome; he was one of the sexiest alpha males Nichole had ever encountered. These qualities were beginning to work their way into Nichole’s innermost thoughts.
Despite the fact that he was a born leader, he also had this understated gentleness about him. Nichole was sure this was an attribute many other women had tried to coax out of him, yet had failed. Women had a way of wanting to try to tame the toughest tigers. She wondered how long it would be until she was counted among the dozens who would be trying to rope in this reluctant stallion. Then, a new thought crossed her mind. This sudden sentiment toward her, this hidden piece of his personality, it was almost as though Eric wanted only her to partake of this side of him.
Holding to his earlier promise, Eric never touched her again even as they moved up the tightened space of the staircase leading to her second floor apartment, but he was on her heels the entire time. Eric was so close; Nichole felt the hot wind from his breath down the back of her neck. How he had managed to keep from falling over her or from tripping her steps up during the short walk, she could not guess and honestly did not care. He was like a human barricade behind her, and Nichole loved every moment. Some of her male neighbors, whom she was on a speaking basis with, offered her slight nods as they passed the couple on the stairs and in the hallway, yet none were brave enough to offer the flirty hello’s that she was use to. Nichole could only imagine the intimidating glare that Eric was giving to keep the usually overly friendly males at bay.
“Don’t you have any female neighbors?” he asked in a gruff voice from behind her.
“Why? Are you looking for a date?” She tossed the comment back over her shoulder.
“It looks like I might have a lot of competition for your affection. I counted no less than five guys who looked as though they would be trying to wrestle you to the floor if I weren’t here. I can only imagine what has been happening before I showed up.”
Nichole smirked as she stopped in front of her apartment door.
His lips slipped over the sensitive spot on the tip of her upper ear.
“Maybe,” he whispered.
She had to add extra focus while rummaging through her bag to locate her house key. The simple task was further complicated by Eric digging his solid fingers into her hips while she tried to do so. His breath was heavy on her neck and she was sure she had felt his mouth lightly touch the side of her throat. She was near lightheadedness as her eyes closed from the sensation.
“If you don’t stop, I won’t be able to make it through the door.”
“Then, I guess I will have to claim you right out here for all of your admirers to see that you’re already taken.”
A moan slipped from her lips.
Being claimed and taken had never been high on Nichole’s to-do list. For this delicious man, she just may have to take exception. However, the act of giving her already nosey neighbors a free peep show would have to wait for another day. Drawing on all of her strength, Nichole separated their bodies by stepping nearly into the frame of the doorway and inserted the key into the lock.
Nichole froze mid-action. Something was wrong.
She clutched the knob and found that the door slid backward without her having to turn the aging lock. With a long creak from rusting hinges, the door continued to open effortlessly.
She looked back at Eric. He positioned himself next to her and then used one of his thick arms to gently move her away from the door. His sharp eyes had not missed the ease at which the door opened and the fact that she did not have to use the key to enter. The door had been jimmied, and a heavy body had splintered the wood to help pry the inside chain latch loose. There were telltale scratches along the paint of the door’s frame.
One question flashed across Eric’s mind.
Was the person waiting on the other side?
He held up his palm in the halt position. Nichole weakly nodded in agreement as she clutched her belongings.
When he was satisfied that she understood, Eric moved forward through the doorway. The lights in the apartment were all out, and that was something that Nichole would never do. As a single woman living on her own with no roommate, she always made sure to keep at least one lamp lit so she would be able to easily survey her surroundings upon entering.
The inside was completely dark, only the light filtering in from the common hallway slightly illuminated the space. Somehow she more afraid to stand alone in the hall than to enter the darkened apartment. Nichole took two steps forward and walked right into Eric’s massive back.
He turned and although most of his expression was hidden by shadows, Nichole could make out his annoyance that she had not waited as he had requested.
His attention went forward again as Eric moved a few inches then stopped. There was a slight thump and followed by a low rattle. He had collided with one of the end tables next to Nichole’s sofa. A little more rattling and then a loud click signaled the apartment’s living room being fully illuminated by the lamp on the table.
Nichole’s eyes quickly scanned the area. It was only after several adrenaline filled moments that she realized her vision was not at one hundred percent. Eric still had her lenses in his pocket. How had she made it this long without them on her face? She could see reasonable well without the pair but was now more comfortable with them on. She would have to remember to retrieve the eyewear from him before they parted ways.
When her mind returned to the situation at hand, Nichole saw that Eric had already started a canvas of the modest four-room apartment. He walked the short hall leading to the kitchen to the left, the bathroom on the right, and finally ending at the master bedroom at the rear. He flipped on the hall light as he traveled. His body stood to its full height, probably no less than seven inches taller than Nichole’s five foot six stature. His wide shoulders were squared and he stepped stealthily as he walked forward with his feet equally apart, as if he were trying to prepare his body to react instantly to whatever he would find in the darkened space ahead.
“Are there any other doors?” he called from the end of the hall.
Nichole went a few steps forward, shifting her tote to the other shoulder, causing the floorboards to creak beneath her weight.
“Stay where you are!” Eric yelled and then quickly readjusted his tone. “Please don’t come back here yet. I still need to check the bedroom.”
Not knowing what else to do besides stay put, Nichole fidgeted from one foot to the other. After what seemed like hours, Eric emerged. Nichole saw that the light in her bedroom, as well as those in the kitchen and bathroom, was reflecting into the hallway.
“Find anything?” She actually hoped his response would be a negative.
“I did. Your bedroom window is open.”
Eric stopped in front of her and rubbed the length of her arms. He was trying to calm a shiver that was yet to begin.
“Whoever was here, they couldn’t have left that long ago. They must have heard us talking outside of the door and went down the fire escape in the back, outside of your bedroom window.”
There it was. Nichole’s arms twisted under his grasp as skin began to prickle and the sensation spread on the entire length of her body. The lightheadedness she was now feeling had nothing to do with passion or lust, only fear. What if Eric had decided not to walk up with her? What if the person did not hear her at the door and she walked in on him trying to rob her home? What then?
“Nichole, Nichole,” his voice coaxed her back to this reality. “I know what you’re thinking. The what if’s don’t matter, right now. I’m here and I won’t let anyone hurt you, okay?”
She nodded weakly, feeling the strength in her body starting to dissipate under its own weight.
“Come sit on the couch for a minute. Collect your nerves. I’m not leaving you anytime soon.”
She allowed him to escort her to the middle of the plush beige couch and then felt him place a heavy arm around her. The sense of security he emitted was indescribable. It was like having her own personal bodyguard, ready and waiting to attack anything or anyone that came too near to her.
Nichole’s voice was nearly mute. Her lips moved, but it was hard for actual sounds to escape.
“Should we call the police?”
“We should, but something about this set-up doesn’t make any sense. Just by taking a quick look around, do you see anything missing? Is there anything out of place?”
Suddenly remembering an important fact, Nichole moved forward from the comfort of his arm,
“May I have my glasses, please?”
“Oh, right. I guess you do need those. Maybe I’ll get to stare shamelessly into those heavenly doe eyes again after we get this all sorted out.”
Nichole knew Eric was trying to distract her attention from the seriousness of the situation, but fun and games were far removed from her mind at the moment.
He slipped a hand within his pocket and removed the lenses. Instead of placing them in her outstretched hand, Eric opened the thin arms of the glasses and gently placed each one behind Nichole’s ears. He even pushed them up and adjusted them for her until they sat perfectly atop her oval face. Nichole was speechless. No man had ever taken the time to do that caring act before, not even her father.
“Ah, I knew it,” he exhaled and smiled.
Nichole looked up and searched his face.
“You’re still gorgeous,” Eric spoke in a hushed tone and then placed a chaste kiss on her pouting lips.
Her lips trembled at the touch. The pair locked eyes and were lost to one another. The sound of another door creaking, further up the common hall, finally jarred them back to the present moment.
Nichole sat up and squinted her eyes to readjust to the lenses. She looked around the space and surveyed each corner. Everything was in its place, not even a dust bunny appeared to have been moved.
“It doesn’t look like anything is missing.”
Her furniture was exactly as it should be. The flat screen television was still fastened to the wall. An antique cherry wood grandfather clock, given to Nichole by her late aunt and too large for the area that doubled as her living/dining room area, sat in the corner near the four person dining table.
“Exactly. The bedroom and the other rooms look the same. Even to me, having never been here before, nothing looks to be out of place. What else could the person have come here for if not to steal something? Do you keep a lot of jewelry around? Gold, platinum, anything like that? Do you keep cash hidden here?”
“I don’t really own much jewelry, really only my wristwatch, a few pairs of earrings, and my gold cross around my neck. As for cash, I only keep a few dollars in my bag because I usually only use my debit card, even for small purchases.”
“This doesn’t make sense.”
Eric leaned forward where he sat and placed his elbows across his knees.
His sight suddenly spied the object sitting out in the open for anyone to find.
“Maybe the person didn’t come to take something out. What if he came to leave something here instead?”
After she posed the question, Nichole’s eyes followed Eric’s gaze to the spot he was now focused on. She caught sight of a single white envelope on the glass top of the long table that sat before the couch.
The envelope had Nichole’s first name written on the front, with a thick underline beneath the name.
Both pairs of hands reached for the item simultaneously. Eric’s large palms were faster and he snatched up the envelope to his face. His eyes silently re-read the name. Carefully, he moved the envelope back to hold it over the table. He titled it first to one side and then to the other. Nichole guessed he was trying to determine if any powder or other substance would spill out or maybe he may feel the weight of the contents shift in his grasp. When nothing happened, Eric lifted the unsealed opening.
Nichole scooted forward and chewed at her bottom lip. Her hands were slick with sweat and she was glad Eric had the heart to handle the package. Left up to her, the envelope might have remained unmoved and unopened, and whatever message it was meant to convey definitely would have remained undelivered.
Once the flap was lifted, both Eric and Nichole saw only one item within the folds. A small piece of ruled notebook paper, neatly folded over.
“Do you have any tweezers?”
Nichole was in the bathroom medicine cabinet and back by his side in a flash. She handed the thin double-edged piece of metal over to Eric and waited again.
Eric took in a deep, calming breath. He used the tips of the tweezers to pull the paper from the envelope and then shook it lightly over the tabletop. Satisfied that nothing spilled on the counter below, he used his own hands to unfold the creases.
Nichole’s hands covered her mouth. A silent scream pierced her mind.
Two words, written in the same block lettering used to write the name on the envelope, were concise and to the point.
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