Authors: Jennifer Dellerman
“Great job, everyone.”
Willow Yancy clapped her wet hands, smiling with approval at her second class of the day over water droplets that flung in every direction. A group of senior citizens peered back, varying degrees of relief and self-satisfaction spreading over their faces.
Extending praise to several of the less confident, she deftly maneuvered them to the shallow end where her partner, Tim, watched eagle-eyed as they traversed up the built-in ramp or utilized the steps, assisting as needed. Only when every member of her class was safely on dry land—or concrete, in this case—and heading out the door did Willow follow, quickly snatching her oversized beach towel from one of the wall hangers and wrapping her body up like a mummy.
“You worked them a bit harder then usual, Mary.” Tim said, his brown eyes sweeping her towel-entombed body. The name startled her, as it did all too often. Something she needed to work on. Three months ago she was given the name Mary Elizabeth Netts. Willow Irene Yancy was listed as missing, presumed dead.
, she told herself. One day she
be able to reclaim her name.
She missed her name. And her long hair. A pang of longing swept over her as she ran a hand through the short, strawberry locks. The cut was choppy, with soft bangs whispering over her forehead. The style made her look younger than her twenty-four years. Add in the new
name and she came across as innocent as a child.
Or a nun. Which she’d felt like most of her life. Focusing on a career in dance meant strict adherence to diet, exercise, and exhausting rehearsals. Between the grueling schedules and her mother’s ever-watchful eye, Willow had little time for fun, much less fun with the opposite sex.
A former dancer herself, Heather Yancy gave it up after finding herself pregnant and alone when the baby’s father abandoned her for another dancer not growing round and awkward with a child. Years and countless bottles of scotch later, Heather met Willow’s father, Ian, married and had Willow.
When it became apparent that Heather’s eldest daughter Maggie didn’t have a graceful bone in her body, their mother had turned to Willow, shoving a little girl into a role she hadn’t wanted. Willow once loved to dance, enjoying her body’s reaction to music, the joy and heat throbbing in her veins as muscles flexed and arched with sensual grace. But the love died—as had her mother, thanks to those bottles of scotch or rum or whatever the woman had on hand—under the near-tortuous requirements necessary for a professional dancer. By then Willow was stuck. She hadn’t gone to college, had no skills other than her finely tuned body. What else was a woman to do?
“Uh, Mary? You all right?” Tim asked, his hang-dog face creasing with concern.
With a blink, Willow forced herself to the present. She was a dancer no more, which was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because she no longer had to please anybody but herself, and a curse because of how it all happened.
Managing a wry smile, Willow responded. “Sorry. Wool gathering. I’m fine, just ready to get dry.” And pop a Tylenol or two. Her knee was aching something fierce.
“Hmmm.” Tim’s eyes dropped in a pointed stare to an area halfway up her covered legs. “Your knee is bothering you.” It wasn’t a question and his comment made her realize she was leaning to her left, easing some of her weight off her right knee, which put pressure on her left hip, another injured site. Both injuries were severe enough that she would never dance professionally again.
It was during her rehabilitation at a secluded hospital that Willow found another passion. A water aerobics instructor might not seem a lofty profession to some, but to Willow it was a turning point in her life, an opportunity to reclaim her love of dance and marry it in a way that aided others, whether to serve a need for gentle joint exercise, or, like her, physical therapy to restore the use of torn or broken tissue.
Unfortunately the dress requirement caused questions she had no intention of answering, thus the reason she generally only left the pool after her class departed. Few people knew the cause of her injuries and Tim wasn’t one of them. Willow could appreciate his concern, but his coaxing insistence at knowing the origins of her wounds was becoming increasingly irritating.
Cautiously, she eased her weight evenly. “A bit. Nothing that an aspirin won’t cure.”
Tim frowned with disappointment. “You ever going to tell me the whole story? The truth, I mean?”
Uh, no. “How it happened isn’t important.”
“But it is, Mary.” She tried not to jolt at the wrong name, or get irritated by his unwanted persistence. “It all has psychological repercussions. While the shattered knee is bad enough, the few glimpses I’ve seen of your hip makes me think something sharp took a deep swipe at you.”
More like a bullet that took a chunk of bone with it.
Willow swallowed back bile at the unbidden memory of agonizing pain, hoping nothing of those feelings showed when she said in a low, soft tone, “The past is over, Tim. It’s not something I want to talk about or dwell on. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to go dry off and change clothes before meeting with Jade.”
Jade Lambert was the community center’s aquatic director, and their boss. She was a pleasant woman in her mid-fifties, calm in a crisis, and certified in first aid, CPR, and AED. She was a rock and Willow trusted the other woman with her life, because Jade—real name unknown—was in the same boat as Willow. Yet while Jade’s new life was permanent, Willow still had hopes her own was not.
Tim opened his mouth, paused, then said, “Yeah, okay, then. Just make sure you have food in your stomach before you take those aspirin.”
Her tummy rumbled at the reference to food. “My stomach is already ahead of you.” Willow grinned, doing her best to ignore Tim’s heated gaze. His unwanted and unwavering interest had begun to rattle nerves already stretched too thin between her forced exile and sleepless nights. “See you later.”
“Yeah. See you Friday,” Tim said as she quickly headed toward the woman’s locker room and out of his sight.
Willow waved a hand in confirmation before stepping into the solitude of the room and padded over to her assigned locker. Everything would be better after speaking with Jade, especially when combined with the burger and fries—long denied by her rigid diet—that awaited her at Chili’s down the street.
She worked the combination lock automatically, thinking ahead to a quick shower to rid her skin of the salt from the pool, followed by a nice, juicy hamburger. Focused as she was on the future, she had to blink several times at the sight inside her locker before it registered.
There, hanging from the top hook by their ribbons, was a brand-new pair of light pink pointe shoes, the type of shoe Willow hadn’t seen, much less worn, in over six months. Her first reaction was the curling of her toes in horror at the remembrance of standing en pointe, or on her toes, for extended periods of time.
Her next reaction was a visceral
what the hell
A slip of yellow paper was attached to the ribbons with a scrawled message.
Miss these? I know I missed you.
She backed up a step, landing with little grace on one of the hard, white plastic benches scattered in front of the wall of lockers, her hip protesting at the jarring movement. Heart dancing a frantic jig in her chest, she scanned the small, narrow room. Across from the lockers were four empty toilet stalls and two shower stalls with their mold-resistant plastic curtains pushed open. At the far end of the room was a vanity with two sinks. The second exit, the one that led to an employee break room, was actually behind the wall of sinks, the backside forming a sort of entryway into the room.
Someone could easily be hiding around that corner, secretly laughing in demented glee at her reaction to their “present” or waiting to pounce on her as she exited the locker room.
Tensing, Willow held her breath, listening for breathing, or shuffling, the movement of fabric. Anything. With all the tile in the room, even the slightest noise echoed. Yet after a minute of hearing nothing but her own racing heart, she gave up.
If someone were spying on her and wanted to harm her physically, wouldn’t they’ve done so by now? If the goal was simply to freak her out, then kudos, because mission definitely accomplished. But if the individual who left the shoes wanted to immobilize her with fear and then attack, she needed to get her feet moving. But she couldn’t get past the tense of the verb in the message.
If someone missed watching her dance, wouldn’t they have written
I miss you
I missed you
? It was the
part combined with the shoes that made her queasy. To her frazzled state, the past tense meant the shoes were from the same person who shot her that horrible day four months ago—the day her life was saved, but when everything she knew and loved had been ripped from her grasp.
Based on the evidence in her locker, the Victim Witness Protection Program wasn’t as secure as Rome made it out to be. She needed to get dressed and out of this room before whoever left those shoes decided to come back.
At that potential threat, Willow galvanized into action. Not bothering to change, she yanked jeans from the locker and tugged them on over her swim bottoms. The skirt of the bottoms, chosen to help hide the scar on her hip, made zipping impossible so she left it undone and threw on the T-shirt and lightweight cardigan she’d worn in. Grabbing her sneakers and purse, careful not to touch the hanging slippers, she slipped into the shoes sans socks. Not the most comfortable, but nothing of what she currently wore was, what with the dampness of her suit seeping into her outer clothing.
Underwear and bra were thrust into her purse and, on impulse, Willow slid out her cell phone and took several quick photos of the inside of her locker. She wasn’t coming back here without an army and didn’t have the patience to wait for a congressional act of approval for deployment. And while anyone who knew her knew she wasn’t given to an overactive imagination or paranoia, she wanted instant and visible proof of why she was about to rush into Jade’s office in disarray, soaking through her clothes.
After unearthing her very pointy nail file, she realized she had a choice to make: Go around the blind corner and possibly into unfriendly arms, or walk back out into the pool area where Tim might still be hanging out. Not that she thought he had anything to do with this.
Did she? After all, she’d just been thinking how irritatingly persistent he’d become regarding her injuries.
Willow frowned, looking from one exit to another. Sure, she could always call for help, but how stupid would she look if she was all alone? And if she wasn’t alone, dallying any longer would only give someone with evil intent even more time to attack. Not to mention what could happen to Jade if she barged in while Willow was slowly being strangled to death, or stabbed, or yanked up by the hair by some mutant super spider intent on sucking out her brains.
Okay. So maybe she did have a vivid imagination, but she sure as hell wasn’t imagining those damn shoes. “Jeez, Will! Get a grip!” she hissed under her breath. “Move!”
Wielding her nail file like a dagger, heart pounding with adrenaline, she rushed towards the second exit, her knee rebelling when she skidded to a halt just past the corner.
No one. Not one damn person was hiding behind the wall ready to slit her throat.
And now she did feel like an idiot. Except she knew she wasn’t. The shoes and note were very real. She just overreacted.
A scraping sound at the door leading to the pool area had her jerking her head around.
Or maybe not.
Not waiting another second, Willow bolted from the locker room and into the thankfully empty employee break room and out into the hallway, slowing to a hurried walk when two female coworkers ambled around a corner. Willow shot them a bright smile as they paused mid-step and hurried away before either could comment on her bedraggled appearance or open fly. A minute later she was rushing into Jade’s office, slamming and locking the door behind her.
Jade, bless her heart, only arched a single dark brow. “Problem?”
Her jeans uncomfortably wet and tight, Willow waddled over, accessing the gallery section on her phone at the same time. Silent, she handed it to her boss.
Lips gradually tightened with anger as Jade looked from one photo to the next. Very carefully she set the phone on her desk and reached up to lift a thin steel chain off her neck. Attached to the chain was a key. That key opened the top drawer of Jade’s desk and from there she withdrew another cell phone. She pushed one button, saying seconds later, “We have a compromise.”
Willow’s eyes widened when Jade handed over the phone. Still a bit shaky, she took it from the older woman’s hand, absently watching as Jade rose from her chair, closed the blinds on the little window behind her desk, and strolled over to one of the metal filing cabinets in the office.
“Hello?” Willow asked, not having a clue who she was speaking to.
“Damn. I was afraid of this. You okay?” a deep, male voice asked. A familiar voice, but one she hadn’t heard in several weeks.
“Yeah. Listen, Willow. Stay with Jade until I get there. Do not step one foot from her sight, do you hear me?”
Willow glanced over to Jade, eyes widening as her boss pulled out a towel, a change of clothes, and a really big, gleaming gun. She sucked in a breath. “Um, okay.”
“I’m heading to you now and should be there in forty-five minutes.”
If possible, her blue eyes widened even more. From New York to Arizona in forty-five minutes?
“The preliminary hearing was moved up a week.” Rome cursed, his displeasure apparent. “And the fucking judge declared insufficient evidence for a trial. Valen is free, Willow. As soon as I found out, I began making plans to move you.”
Willow let out a soft “oh” and sank down onto one of the worn leather chairs in front of Jade’s desk, only to pop back up with a wince as her wet pants squished into her flesh.