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Everything will work out, she told herself. Somehow, she would put her life back together. She’d find another job and an even better apartment. But as for men, it would be a long time, if ever, before she trusted her heart to anyone.
Moving the cup across her forehead and down her cheek, Amy reveled in the heat. Sensing the stranger beside her move, she stepped to the left to avoid a collision. Before she could look up, she felt the man’s hand cover her mouth at the same instant he yanked the coffee cup from her hand and tossed it to the floor.
From the front of the store, she heard someone call, “I’ll check the rest of the store to make sure we’re alone.”
Held tightly against the stranger’s chest, she didn’t have time to think as he pulled her around the pyramid of motor oil cans, just missing a perfectly balanced stack of cheese crackers.
She struggled, making little impact against the man’s grip. With his hand clamped across her mouth, he pinned her head against his hard chest. When she tried to scream, she found she could barely open her mouth enough to breathe, let alone to bite him.
The last thing she glimpsed as he backed through the vertical blinds that hung in the narrow opening between the retail space and the storeroom was her newspaper and cappuccino splattered across the beige tile floor and a man at the front of the store pointing a gun at the clerk who’d been so nice to her.
Though the man in the suit continued to hold her firmly, Amy didn’t stop struggling. If only she could break free. If only she could make a run for the door.
Oh, God, she prayed, help me. Protect me. Please, Lord, let me get out of this alive.
The storeroom was dim and cool, and the stranger who’d preferred his coffee black and fresh steered her to a back corner.
“You can trust me,” he whispered.
Amy didn’t move a muscle. Not even to breathe.
Trust him? She didn’t trust any man, let alone someone who’d just abducted her. And how did she know he wasn’t part of the plan? That he wasn’t a foil for the man holding the gun?
In an instant, Amy recalled every talk show and news story she’d ever seen that had given tips on how to survive a threatening attack. Listen to your instinct. Fear is your built-in radar detector, she remembered a safety expert saying.
Amy believed that the inner radar detector was really God’s voice. However, for the last month she’d been so mad at God she’d given Him the silent treatment. She wasn’t too sure she could depend on His help. And besides, her heart was beating so loudly she didn’t know if she could hear His voice even if He shouted at her.
“You have to trust me. It’s our only chance,” the man whispered as he quietly guided them along the back wall. He moved with a certainty that suggested he knew where he was and where he was headed.
Amy had no choice but to move with him. Together, they stumbled a few steps, and when her feet didn’t move in unison with his, he lifted her and pulled her into a tiny closet.
No sooner had they reached the hiding place than the light in the storeroom flashed on and they heard the squeak of rubber shoes on the tile floor. Doors were flung open, but in his haste the man overlooked the narrow closet door. Then the light flashed off and they heard the squeaky-soled man yell, “No one in the back.”
Though darkness engulfed them, Amy’s eyes adjusted quickly to the lack of light. The square closet was cramped and filled with mops, brooms and pungent cleaning products. Because the stranger had backed in first, Amy faced the door, which was open just a crack. The only light, a narrow beam, came from a high, tiny barred window on a far wall.
“If you promise not to scream, I’ll remove my hand.”
Amy swallowed hard. Blood raced through her veins and perspiration dripped from her brows. Could she trust this man?
Something deep inside her said yes.
Besides, what choice did she have?
The more time elapsed, the more she became convinced the stranger who held her tightly was as much a victim as she was. Nodding slowly, Amy silently promised she wouldn’t yell for help.
Hesitantly, he removed his hand, letting it hover near her lips until he was certain he could trust her. As she studied his hand in the thin ribbon of light, she sensed he was an honorable man. While his hand was large, there was a softness and dexterity in the curve of his fingers that revealed a sensitive nature. And though his nails were manicured and clean, calluses on his fingertips suggested he enjoyed working with his hands. However, the image didn’t mesh with the business suit, silk tie and expensive cologne.
For the first time, Amy wished she’d paid more attention to the man who still held her firmly with one arm. If her life depended on describing him, all she’d be able to say was he was of average height and weight, with blue eyes, light brown hair and a commanding voice. And he smelled so heavenly that the woodsy scent temporarily distracted her from the pending danger, causing her to think of verdant meadows and fast-running clear streams.
Just as she felt she could trust the man, he startled her by reaching into his suit pocket. Immediately, Amy froze as a hard object pushed against her side. She’d been wrong to trust him even a little. When she realized he was punching a number into a cellular telephone, she bit down on her lip to curtail a loud gasp.
The man spoke in a voice just above a whisper. “I’m at the Quick Stop convenience store. There’s a robbery in progress. I’m hiding in the storeroom with a woman who was also in the store. I don’t know what’s going down out there. I saw two men, and at least one has a gun. There’ve been noises which indicate a struggle, but we can’t see anything from back here. They don’t know we’re in the store, but I can’t be certain.”
Amy listened with amazement at the information the man relayed. She’d been so wrapped up in her own troubles that she hadn’t paid much attention to anyone else in the store. And while she sensed the ordeal might be far from over, at least with the police on the way she felt she had a chance of leaving the closet alive.
Instantly, a prayer formed in her mind. Dear God, let the police get here before it’s too late for us and the clerk. Even though she couldn’t see the stranger’s face, she knew without a doubt that he sent the same prayer heavenward.
Two angry voices splintered the silence, followed by the sound of shattering glass. Amy jumped at the noise, and the man embraced her with both arms. This time, though, she didn’t fight his closeness. She took the comfort and strength he offered, and leaned into his protective circle.
“We’re going to be okay,” he whispered. Though his voice sounded confident, she knew he was just as scared as she was. Finding his hand, she squeezed it, and he squeezed back.
The voices shouted at each other again, and Amy pressed against the man. Turning her head as if she couldn’t bear to see what was happening in the next room, she rested her ear against his chest. Finding comfort in the fast but even rhythm of his heart, Amy soon realized that her own cadence matched his.
Outside, car doors slammed. Then the store telephone rang. Someone answered on the third ring. Amy could only assume the police had arrived, and with their presence she prayed this terror would soon be over.
The man turned his ear toward the door, and Amy could tell he, too, was listening for clues as to what was happening on the other side of the wall. However, it was impossible to make any sense of the random noises. One thing was becoming very clear, though; something had gone wrong. Neither of the two voices belonged to the friendly clerk. The robbers were fighting with each other, and who knew what that could mean.
Amy did the only thing she knew to do. She prayed harder and faster.
And as if the man sensed the urgency of her messages to God, he clasped her hands as if to say he wanted to join in her prayers. Because she didn’t dare whisper any more than was necessary, Amy moved her lips as she prayed silently, and from behind she felt the man’s warm breath on her neck as he, too, prayed.
When they got out of the closet, she would owe this man her life. And somehow, she’d find a way to repay him.
Matthew Wynn held his breath as glass crashed to the tile floor, and each time the woman jumped, he tightened his grip on her arms. Though he was playing the role of protector, he’d never been more scared in his life.
For what seemed like forever, the shattering noise came in waves, as if a madman were swooping down the aisles with widespread arms, knocking dozens of jars to the floor. Matt couldn’t begin to guess what was really going on in the convenience store or why the police hadn’t been able to apprehend the robbers. Over and over, he searched his mind for a way to bring this situation to an end, but came up with no safe solution. For the moment, it seemed enough that he protect the woman in his arms.
Matt didn’t need to see her eyes to know she feared for her life. He felt her terror in the tremble of her hand, in the way she pressed against his chest as if she couldn’t get close enough and in the way she’d turned her head as if she couldn’t bear to face the truth. And yet, despite her fear, she’d reached out to comfort him. She’d let him know with the squeeze of her hand and a reassuring rub on his forearm that she believed if they worked together they’d leave the storeroom alive.
Finally, the crashing glass stopped, and both Matt and the woman exhaled at the same instant. Though Matt loosened his embrace, he noticed she didn’t move. In the silent lull, a storeroom clock ticked off the seconds. Though it felt like they’d already been held hostage for hours, Matt guessed the actual time was closer to a half hour. Feeling his legs cramp, he shifted his weight, and he wasn’t surprised when the woman’s movements shadowed his own.
Dear Lord, he silently prayed, show me what to do. Help me protect this woman, and please, Lord, keep Hank safe.
Though Matt didn’t know the clerk well, he thought the world of Hank’s father, Howard, who owned a local chain of convenience stores. Howard had given Matt his first job, and he’d worked in this very store until after college graduation. Back then, he’d had no clue that his knowledge of the storeroom layout might one day save his life. The closet they were hiding in had been added as an afterthought, and instead of having a real door, a makeshift one had been fashioned out of a leftover piece of wood paneling. Because the door blended into the paneled walls, the robber hadn’t noticed it when he’d searched the storeroom.
When the silence continued, it became more unnerving than the crashing glass and angry shouts. What could be happening out there? Should he leave the closet and peek through the doorway? It was their only means of escape, as the delivery entrance was generally locked at all times, and the only window was barely big enough for a dog to crawl through. Plus, it had bars. But even a peek seemed like too much of a risk. If it had been just his own life, he would have taken the chance. But he had to consider the woman, too.
As the silence drew out and the woman’s heartbeat raced his, his thoughts turned toward her. He’d never seen her before, but that wasn’t unusual in a city the size of Lexington. She’d caught his attention the instant he’d seen her by the cappuccino machine. Not just because she was attractive, but because there was a sad turmoil in her eyes that made her seem fragile and lost. He’d wanted to say something profound, but what could you say to a stranger? Instead, he’d barked out something silly about her cappuccino. Then she’d amused him by smiling as she’d sipped the sugary drink. He knew she didn’t like it but drank it just to spite him. And he felt that same spunky spirit now as they patiently prayed for their freedom.
Suddenly there were a hundred questions he wanted to ask her. Like where did she live and what did she do for a living? How did she happen to be in this convenience store this morning? Did she believe in God? Did she love to ride horses across grassy meadows? Did she like corn dogs and chocolate ice cream cones? It seemed silly in this tense moment to wonder these things. Yet it was better than focusing on what could happen if things went wrong.
Without thinking, he brushed his hand across the top of her head, memorizing the silky feel of the fragrant strands. He swallowed hard, desiring to rub his hand down her cheek and neck and across her arms. As if, in the simple touch, he could know this woman. But he knew that was impossible. He sensed her complexity. This was a woman of spirit and passion, yet graced with enough common sense to trust him in this dangerous moment.
The shouting started again, but Matt couldn’t understand what was being said. Instinctively, he tightened his embrace as the woman pressed against him. Leaning his head close to hers, he whispered, “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be over soon.”
In response, the woman placed her hand over his, and in the long, desperate squeeze communicated her faith in him and God. And as her message pulsed through his body, Matt felt something more profound and more deep than he’d ever experienced before. He felt as if he knew this woman in ways he’d never understood another woman. He felt as if she could see through the darkness to his vulnerabilities, to his longings, to his failures, as well as his hopes and dreams for the future. It was crazy, but he felt closer to her and more connected to her than he’d ever felt to anyone in his life.
He shook his head in an attempt to break the bond between them, to prove it didn’t exist, to prove it was merely a figment of his imagination. But the magic permeated the storeroom just as the scent of warm cinnamon bread lingered in the kitchen long after the last bite had been swallowed.
For just a moment, Matt didn’t want the standoff to end. He wanted to go on holding this woman forever.
The woman’s body stiffened, propelling Matt back to the danger at hand. The noises had changed. The front door buzzer sounded, and new voices filled the room. He thought he heard the click of handcuffs but couldn’t be certain.
When she tilted her head toward him as if to ask if it would be safe to go out, he answered by pulling her closer. He wouldn’t risk her life by venturing out too soon.
Finally, a gruff man, who identified himself as a police officer, shouted from the storeroom doorway that it was okay to come out. Matt and Amy sucked in their breaths, leery of leaving their safe nest.
“Dear Lord,” Matt prayed, “thank You for keeping us safe.”
Amy finished, “And thank You for sending a guardian angel my way. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to face this ordeal alone.”
“We made it through together,” Matt said, then squeezed her hand.
The police officer charged into the storeroom and opened the closet door. Both Matt and Amy exhaled in unison.
“There’s a man and woman in here,” the officer called to his partner. Immediately, two paramedics rushed in carrying medical equipment. Even still, Amy remained in the stranger’s protective embrace until a paramedic pulled her free.
Chills suddenly descended upon her, and in that instant, she felt more alone than she ever had before. She looked at the nameless stranger’s blue eyes and thought she saw her anxiety mirrored on his face. She wanted to reach out her hand, to draw them together again, but a flurry of uniformed men blocked her silent plea.
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