Authors: Colleen Gleason
Copyright 2013 Colette Gale
Tempted by the Night
Â© 2014 Colleen Gleason
Somewhere in the former
State of Nevada
Marisa laid the bundle of daisies
and lilies on top of the grave, then settled back onto her haunches to look down at the stone marker.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, kneeling next to the tufts of grass that sprang up around the crude gray slab. “I brought tiger lilies for you todayâand daisies, even though I know you never really cared for the way they smelled.” She grinned and pushed up the glasses that threatened to slip off her nose. Too much time with her nose in a bookâor twoâin low light had strained her vision. Or so her father had claimed. “Do they have daisies where you are?”
She imagined Dad, who'd been dead for two years, calmly yet firmly insisting that whatever heavenly gardeners there were should keep the daisies from growing near his patch of the afterlife. At least now he was with her motherâa woman Marisa had never knownâand Grandma Nell.
“You'll be glad to know I've begun working on theâ” Frowning, her heart doing an awkward skip, Marisa cocked her head and listened intently.
No, she hadn't been imagining it. Beneath the rustle of leaves, mingling with the calls of a grackle, there was a distant mechanical rumbling. Her heart in her throat, Marisa scrambled to her feet, the one-sided conversation with Dad forgotten. Still listening intently, she peered through the overgrowth of trees.
It was impossible to see more than a few yards beyond this small clearing, between the underbrush and trees and the crumpled remains of early twenty-first-century civilization. Topless houses, sagging roofs and caved-in walls, glassless windows, and rusted-out cars sat amid a tangle of trees, vines, and choking vegetation.
The rumbling sound was drawing closer. There was no mistaking the rare but distinctâand eerieânoise. A four-wheeled vehicle was barreling over the raw terrain, perhaps following roads that had long ago cracked and buckled from the events of half a century ago.
There was no reason to be worried, Marisa told herself, swiping damp palms on her trousers. If it were the bounty huntersâwhich it pretty much had to be, because who else would be in a truck or other mechanical vehicle?âshe had no reason to be concerned. They'd been to her place before when Dad was alive, though only once since. But they'd checked over all the books. There hadn't been a problem.
But as she started walkingâwell, it was more like joggingâback to the settlement, Marisa couldn't keep her anxiety at bay. With the help of the Waxnicki brothers, Dad had worked long and hard to make the secret chamber look like nothing more than a pile of old rubbleâ¦but there was always the chance this would be the time the bounty hunters looked too closely at the jumble of stone, dry wall, and timber. They might notice one of the slabs of lumber wasn't really attachedâ¦
Her heart was in her throat now, and Marisa tried to convince herself it was mostly because she hadn't been expecting this today. Not that the residents of River Vale ever knew when the bounty hunters would come. The men in trucks (MITs) simply showed up, their impending arrival heralded by the chilling sound of their vehicles rumbling closer and closer.
By now, Marisa was rushing along the pathway back to the small village. The path had once been a paved road, but over the fifty years since the Change had occurred in June of 2010, the pavement had cracked from disrepair. Grass and wildflowers grew in the broken areas, making the uneven road look like a jigsaw puzzle. Signs that once announced River Vale and amenities in what had been the nearby town of Shelby were rusted, bent, and faded. An occasional rusted car sat in its own patch of grass and brush, and there was even a faded blue metal thing known as a mailbox.
The large mailbox was on its side, the white
faded into a hardly discernible
. It was badly dented from a scavenger who'd come along sometime during the last half-century, prying it open to see if there was anything valuable inside. Clothing. Books. Tools. Anything that might be useful, and still in its wrappings.
Once, Marisa and her sister Lainey had found a plastic package of bras and silk panties inside the trunk of a rusty car. She'd been more than a little disappointed when the red and pink lace bras had only fit Lainey, but at least she got some of the fancy panties. It was the luck of the find, these discovered treasures, and aside from that, Lainey was the one most likely to have occasion to show off the pretty lingerie. All the young men in River Vale had been interested in looking down Lainey's shirt and wriggling her out of her jeans. If she hadn't moved away, they probably still would be.
Marisa, who was quiet and serious, and whose shirt didn't fill out quite as much as her flame-haired sister's did, had been much too busy with her books for the likes of Luke Desmond, Jamie Gilbert, and Anson Claridge to notice her. But they sure as hell had noticed Laineyâespecially Luke.
Until he broke her heart.
By now, Marisa had reached the edge of the small settlement of River Vale, so named because of an elegant sign that stood by two brick half-walls, as if announcing entrance to some exclusive club. Now the gold-painted letters were faded, and when the V had fallen off, Gil Darnley had nailed it back in place. Decades ago, shortly after the Change, the half-walls had been repaired and extended into a ten-foot wall made of whatever large items the survivors could find. A thick enclosure made from brick, old billboards, train cars, and metal sheets now protected the cluster of less than two dozen households that made up River Vale.
During the day, the gates were open, but at night, of course, they were closed against the threats that came with the setting sun: wolves, an occasional tiger or panther, and, most frightening of all, the zombie-like
Marisa wasn't the only person who'd heard the warning sounds: old Gil Tapper, Matt Redding, Jules and Bobby, and several others had come out of their houses or workshops to look toward the rumbling sound.
“Bin about a year since they come,” Gil said, scratching his chin. Despite his easy words, he must have been more nervous than he let on, for he left three dark red marks on his wrinkled skin.
“Longer'n that,” Matt added. He was wiping his hands on a cloth, his muscular forearms bare. His face was flushed and he used the rag to wipe away a rivulet of sweat trickling down one cheek. He'd obviously just stepped out of the heat of his plastics-smelting workshop.
Plastic was one of the so-called “neo-natural” resources that was the result of the destruction of civilization and the loss of twenty-first century infrastructure. It was everywhere, and in fifty years had shown no signs of degrading or weakeningâunlike wood, concrete, and other manmade objects.
Matt glanced at Marisa, his brown eyes lingering. “I think the last time they were was after your dad passed, wasn't it?”
She nodded, but didn't pause to talk with the others. They could wait and meet the MITs when they came through the gates like a proper welcoming committeeâeven though not one of the River Vale villagers wanted them there. But she had to check on everything. Make sure it was all tidy so the bounty hunters wouldn't find the hidden cache of books and computers.
Marisa trusted she'd find the secret door still closed up, just the way she always took care to leave it. But she had to check just to make sure. Grandma Nell and Dad had kept the secret for years, and they'd entrusted her with it. Only her.
Not even Lainey.
The truck was within easy sight of the main gate to the settlement when Marisa bounded up the wide stone steps to the place she called home. The front half of the plain, rectangular stone and brick building had made it through the earthquakes and storms of the Change, but the back portion hadn't fared so well. Its roof had collapsed and parts of the back walls had caved in.
But in the front, above the main door, the words
William T. Shelby Public Library, est. 1957
were still clearly engraved in the marble lintel.
Marisa let herself inside, inhaling the scent of home: the lingering lemon and grapefruit essences she used for cleaning, the smell of the bread she'd tried to make this morningâwhich had burnedâand, of course, the smell of
. Row upon row, shelf upon shelf, from floor to the fifteen-foot-high ceilingâ¦there were books everywhere.
Not all of them had been part of the Shelby Library when the Change occurred. Over the years, Grandma Nell and Marisa's father had built up the collection from a variety of sources. A librarian herself, Grandma Nell had taught her son, and then her granddaughter, how to categorize the books just as she and her peers had done before the Change, and how to restore, protect, and conserve them. And the collection included everything from numerous copies of the Bible to Nancy Drew, Clive Cussler, Jodi Picoult, and J. K. Rowling, along with unending shelves of cookbooks, histories and biographies, and volumes about animals, plants, and even basic construction, electricity, and plumbing.
And then there was the Special Collection. The books thatâ
Marisa froze. She tilted her head, a hand resting on the old plastered wall as if to help keep herself still. Had she heard someone?
The faintest shuffle? The softest, barest breath of a movement?
Surely not. There was no one else who had any reason to come into her library, no one who even hadâ
The hair at the back of her neck prickled. All the moisture in her mouth seemed to evaporate, moving to dampen her palms.
Someone is here.
She was sure of it.
And whoever it was had no reason to be so silent and sneakyâ¦unless he or she was up to no good.
Heart in her throat, Marisa steadied her breathing and tried to silently talk herself into calmness. It could be a mouse, or even a stray leaf rustling against the window or over the floorâ¦
Let's face it, she told herself. She wouldn't be nervous at all if the MITs weren't here. And they hadn't even arrived yet, so it couldn't beâ
A hand came from nowhere, clamping over her mouth just as a strong arm slipped around her from behind.
Marisa froze, then gave a muffled shriek from behind the fingers covering her mouth. She began to buck and kick and struggle, terror filming her vision red as her glasses tumbled to the floor.
“Shhh! Marisaâ¦it's me,” came a deep, low voice next to her ear. He grunted as she caught him blindly in the gut. “Don't yellâ¦don't make a
.” He still held her firmly, and she was acutely aware of the strength of his solid body and the power in the arms that held her still.
The voice was familiar, butâ¦
Then her eyes goggled with shock, and she yanked at the hand covering her mouth. To her surprise and relief, it allowed her to do so, and she twisted awkwardly in his firm grip until she could see him.
“What in the
He clamped a hand over her mouth again, his shadowy face turning fierce and hard. “Be
,” he hissed. “Unless you want me dead.”
At that, she stopped struggling. Did she want him dead?
yes, she wanted him dead. With an abrupt twist, she pulled away. “You have no idea,” she said grimly, swooping down to pick up her glasses. “How badly I want you dead.”
As she came up, shoving the spectacles into place, she got a good look at him. Her heart gave a little flip and her insides a little shiver, and damned if her mouth didn't go dry.
She hadn't seen Luke since he left River Vale five years agoâthe day after he was supposed to marry Lainey. The day after he'd broken the engagementâand both sisters' hearts.
What the five years had done to Luke Desmond could only be described as sinful. Even back then, at twenty-one and just barely a man, he'd been too good-looking to believeâwith his tousled tawny-blond hair, shocking blue eyes, and ridiculous dimples that shouldn't be sexy on a man but somehow were. But now he wasâ¦
. Just more of everything: more tousled, more tanned, more muscular, more imposing. And he smelled deliciousâall sun-kissed and male, with a tinge of something coppery.
Marisa stepped back.
Get a grip, you idiot.