Molly was almost to her car when a voice sounded from just behind her.
“Mawwwwwlleeeeeeeee,” it singsonged.
Involuntarily, she screamed and dropped Gator’s cage, which tipped over on its side. Dimly, she heard Gator’s piercing shrieks as the cage rolled away. She jerked around and caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye. Instinctively, she tried to turn, but it was too late. The hooded figure was almost on top of her.
Strong fingers dug into her arms.
Under the dim parking-lot lights, most of what she saw was black. Black clothes. Black ski mask over her attacker’s face. But she also saw two tiny patches of white where his eyes shone through the mask’s eyeholes. Terror seized her, but then her previous self-defense training clicked in. “You bastard! Let go of me!”
He jerked her closer. “Shut up!” he muttered, the strong odor on his breath escaping from the mouth hole in his mask. For a second, the distinct scent made her freeze, but then she continued to struggle.
“You damn—” But his words choked off when she kicked out, catching him in the groin. She’d hoped his grip would loosen, but it tightened instead. She fought to wrestle away, but a second later she felt a stunning blow to the side of her head.
Through her dizziness, she lunged forward, trying to bite the man’s neck or chest, anything she could reach, but he grabbed a hank of her hair, yanked her head back and punched her in the face. Her body slumped and she almost blacked out. Dimly, she was aware of Gator shrieking and her feet dragging against the asphalt as the man hauled her away from her car.
Suddenly, light blazed directly in her face, blinding her. She heard the heavy, panicked breaths of her attacker just before he cursed and shoved her forward. She fell face first toward the ground, scraping her palms where she caught herself, but her torso and head hit with painful thuds anyway.
She heard the pounding of running feet. A deep, masculine voice just over her head shouting for backup to apprehend a fleeing suspect while he checked on a victim. Then gentle hands touched her shoulder.
“Shhh. You’re okay, darlin’. He’s gone.”
When she whimpered and flinched back from the hands touching her, they retreated. A victim, he’d called her, when she’d never wanted to be a victim again.
She lay there for a few seconds, the newcomer crouched down next to her, his hands deliberately hanging between his knees where she could see them, as if he wanted her to know he wasn’t a threat. Her eyes wandered upward until she could take in his dark blue police uniform. In the background, blue lights flashed, and she registered it was from his patrol car.
“Are you okay?”
Groaning, she forced herself to move and slowly brought her knees under her. It was harder than she would have expected. She raised a shaky hand to her temple, wincing as the raw scrape on her palm met her tender eye and cheek.
“Is he gone?”
“Yes, you’re safe, ma’am. He was wearing a mask. Did he say anything? Any idea who he was?”
“N-no. I mean, he said my name. Told me to shut up. But he used a weird tone. I didn’t recognize his voice.”
“Okay, so it wasn’t a random attack. He knew who you were. Do you work here?”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Molly— Molly Peterson.”
“Molly, it’s me. Officer Wade King. We talked earlier, remember? You’re safe now, don’t worry.”
She stared at him. Despite the trauma she’d just suffered, she wasn’t too far gone to notice he was just as gorgeous as she’d imagined. Sandy-blond hair. Brown eyes—dark, deep orbs that reminded her of mink. A firm, square jaw, a full bottom lip and a slightly cleft chin. The first word that popped into her head was yum.
But despite all that, it was really his voice she focused on.
That voice. She recognized that voice.
“Molly, I said you’re safe. Did you hear me?”
“Yes, yes. I’m safe. And you’re—you’re hot.”