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Woman of Midnight (Wardens of Midnight) by Helen Scott (1)

Chapter 1

How long had Harper been cocooned in her bed? One day? Three? Sure, she’d gotten up to pee and eat, but other than that, she had just been shutting the world out. Escaping reality was her primary goal, either through TV, video games, or books. The medium didn’t matter so much as the results. She knew she had to get up, that she was supposed to move on with her life, but her bed was just so damn comfy, and none of her friends understood what she was going through.

It wasn’t like any of them had been left at the altar.

No one she knew, outside of movie and TV heroines, had ever been forced to tell all their gathered friends and family that the wedding was off. They’d never paid for their dress, hair, makeup, and their bridesmaids’ dresses and makeup, only to find the money completely wasted. The things she could have done with all that cash . . . She shut down that line of thinking. It would only end up pissing her off as it had done so many times before.

It might have been a year ago, but that didn’t make the pain and humiliation feel any better, especially not on the anniversary of the event. Nope. It was just as raw as the day it had happened. It probably didn’t help that there was still a white dress in her closet and a ring in her jewelry box. Harper glared at her closet while she debated for the millionth time what to do with the dress. The responsible thing would be to sell it or donate it, but all she wanted to do was burn it. Watch the whole glittery mess go up in flames, just like her life had since that day last June.

She sighed and pushed herself up, feeling the stiffness in her joints and muscles from lack of use. A lady on the TV prattled on about how easy it was to spruce up a living room to appeal to potential buyers. It went in one ear and out the other as she made her way to the bathroom. She’d never been stunning to look at, but this was probably an all-time low. Her hair was starting to mat on the side she slept on, while her puffy red eyes made her look as high as a kite. She looked and felt disgusting.

Without thinking, she turned the shower on and stepped in, peeling off her pajamas as the water began to soak them. The ratty old boxers and the thin T-shirt made a cracking noise as they hit the bottom of the tub. It stirred another memory in her, one she wished she could forget above almost all others, of when her mother slapped her across the face, demanding she pull herself together for the sake of their guests. It didn’t matter that her heart felt like it had been drawn and quartered before being run over by a semi-truck. Oh no, all that mattered was the appearance of the family, of making it seem like they could deal with anything and everything without so much as blinking.

She pushed the memory away, focusing instead on the sharp pings of the water hitting her skin as she turned the temperature up, making it as hot as she could handle. Maybe it could melt some of the grime off her. As she went through her routine, she began counting. It was her ritual to keep her mind busy when she was doing something mundane that didn’t require much thought.

Her dresser was the only place she kept clothing anymore, since every time she opened the closet, she wanted to barf. After she pulled on some fresh shorts, her stomach growled, letting her know it didn’t approve of the current state of affairs. She went to the kitchen to rummage for food. Her stomach clenched painfully as she stared at the mostly barren fridge. All that remained was some milk, orange juice, and cheese that looked like she should probably throw it out. She sighed and went back to her bedroom to pull on real pants, the kind that could be worn in public. Her apartment wasn’t big, just a one-bedroom, practically a studio given that the so-called wall that separated it from the living area was just the free-standing closet. It had been all she could afford by herself, and no one would have wanted to be her roommate; at least, not for a while. That much she was certain of.

It was Thursday, which meant the takeout place down the street had free egg drop soup with any order over twenty bucks. Her usual order of beef lo mein, General Tso’s chicken, crab Rangoon, and an egg roll always put the total at about twenty-five dollars, so she usually got whatever the coupon special was for free, which didn’t bother her at all. Plus, it would keep her fed for a few days, so she could hole herself up in her apartment again and not have to emerge until she needed to go back to work.

Harper had used her remaining vacation time to take off, since she knew she’d be a wreck, anyway, and useless if she was able to actually make it into work. The last thing she needed was to piss off her clients and give them the wrong dye job or cut more hair off than they asked for just because she couldn’t get her head on straight.

As she shoved her wallet and phone into her pockets, she made her way toward what she was sure was steamy summer air outside the doors of her apartment building. The hallway was humid enough to convince her of that. It didn’t help that it smelled faintly of fish and stale beer, which turned her stomach. She pushed open the glass door covered in handprints from the customers going into the Mediterranean restaurant she lived over, and exited in the direction of the Chinese restaurant. Living over a restaurant, at least for her, meant that she never wanted to eat there. She smelled the food enough throughout the days and weeks that it killed her appetite for it.

Harper didn’t even see the guy there. Maybe she was too lost in her thoughts, but she could have sworn he’d just appeared out of nowhere just in time for her to smack into the wall of his chest. Before she knew what had happened, she’d bounced off the hard surface and landed on her ass in front of him.

“Shit. Are you okay?” a deep voice rumbled above her.

She pushed up to her elbows from where she lay sprawled on the sidewalk, ignoring the man in front of her. “I’m fine,” she said, waving him off as he leaned down toward her.

A large tawny hand hung in front of her face as she tried to get to her feet, her limbs not fully cooperating with her intentions. She took it, and he tugged. Harper was standing before she had even processed the sensation of his hand in hers. His skin wasn’t just warm, it was hot. The heat seared her own hand as he continued to gently hold it. Once she was stable, she yanked her hand back from his. The feeling of an almost electric current ran over her skin just before it separated from his. Her eyes darted upward, and she found herself almost drowning in the rich brown orbs that stared back at her, stealing her breath.

“Here,” he said, holding out a flier. She took it, glancing at the image of a person running with a dog, before going to move around him. “You should come. It’s more fun than it looks. Plus, the dogs and cats love meeting new people.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” she said, nodding at him as she moved toward her goal of the takeout restaurant.

Harper could still feel those eyes on her as she hurried down the sidewalk, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. It was unsettling, but it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. It might have been the strongest reaction she’d ever had, though. She shoved the paper in her back pocket and pushed the swirl of feelings and thoughts aside by starting to count again.

Later that day, when she rolled over and heard a crumpling sound, her hand reached behind her and retrieved the stray piece of paper she had completely forgotten about up until that point. At the top of the page was the logo she’d first noticed. It was a sketch of a woman running with a dog with “Run 4 Paws” in script next to it. A dog’s face was just under the logo, staring out at her from the paper. Two rich golden eyes were seated in a deep chocolate-brown face with a white stripe running from between its eyebrows down over its muzzle, punctuated by a dark-brown nose. One ear was perked up, while the other was flapped over, making a little triangle on the side of its head. “Atlas” was printed just underneath the photo, along with “Meet me on Saturday, the 9th!” followed by the details of the event. At the bottom was a line of human footprints and dog pawprints, followed by the logo for the animal shelter itself, Wardens of the Heart, and the name of a local pet store sponsoring the event.

For a moment, she thought about going. The event didn’t start until ten, and it was only eight, not that she’d really been to sleep the night before. The memory of those deep-brown eyes that had peered into hers danced in her mind’s eye. She hadn’t noticed it at the time, but he had a birthmark just under his left eye that for some reason made her want to touch it. A groan that was almost a scream reverberated through her chest. What the hell was she thinking? Touching a random dude’s birthmark? Yeah, totally normal. Thinking about going to a 5k when she probably couldn’t even run a mile? That was never going to happen. She balled the flier up and threw it into the corner so it landed in the general vicinity of the trashcan before she rolled over once more and buried her head in the pillow. Tomorrow she’d get up and go for a walk or something, but in that moment, she just wanted to sleep and forget.

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