Nicole Masters was sitting cross-legged on her sofa while a cold, autumn rain peppered against the windows of her fourth-floor apartment. She was poking at the ice cream in her bowl and trying not to be in a mood. The past few weeks had been life-changing in a very negative way, which was making it difficult for her to stay upbeat.
Six weeks ago, a simple trip to her neighborhood pharmacy had turned into a nightmare. She'd walked into the middle of a robbery. She never even saw the man who shot her in the head and left her for dead. She'd survived, but some of her senses had not. She was dealing with short-term memory loss and a tendency to stagger. Even though she'd been told the problems were most likely temporary, she waged a daily battle with depression.
Her parents had been killed in a car wreck when she was twenty-one. They'd owned the apartment building in which she had grown up, so finances were never going to be a problem. But she was alone. There were no aunts. No cousins. No grandparents. Except for a few friendsand most recently her boyfriend, Dominic Tucci, who lived in the apartment right above hersshe was alone. Her doctor kept reminding her that she should be grateful to be alive, and on one level, she knew he was right. But he wasn't living in her shoes.
If she'd been anywhere else but at that pharmacy when the robbery happened, then she wouldn't have died twice on the way to the hospital. She wouldn't be mistaking salt for sugar. She wouldn't be missing a head of hair and staggering like a drunk when she stood up. Instead of being grateful that she'd survived, she couldn't quit thinking of what she'd lost.
But that wasn't the end of her troubles. On top of everything else, something strange was happening inside her head. She'd begun to hear odd things. Sounds, not voicesat least, she didn't think it was voices. It sounded more like the distant sound of rapidsa rush of wind and water inside her head that, when it came, blocked out everything around her. It didn't happen often, but when it did, it was frightening, and it was driving her crazy.
The blank moments, as she called them, even had a rhythm. First came that sound, then a cold sweat, then panic with no reason. Part of her feared it was the beginning of an emotional breakdown. And part of her feared it wasn'tthat it was going to turn out to be a permanent souvenir of her resurrection.
She was twenty-six years old and living the life of a senior citizen with dementia, and tonight was living proof. Here she was, alone in her apartment on a Saturday night, eating ice cream and watching the news like some old maid. All she needed was a cat.
Frustrated with herself and the situation as it stood, she stabbed her spoon into the mound of mocha fudge and then scooped up another bite, letting it melt on her tongue while she upped the sound on the TV and watched Pat Sajak bantering with Vanna White. A few moments later, an announcer broke into "Wheel of Fortune" with a special bulletin.
"This just in. Police are on the scene of a kidnapping that occurred only hours ago at The Dakota. Molly Dane, the five-year-old daughter of one of Hollywood's blockbuster stars, Lyla Dane, was taken by force from the family apartment. At this time, they have yet to receive a ransom demand. The housekeeper was seriously injured during the abduction and is, at the present time, in surgery. Police are hoping to be able to talk to her once she regains consciousness. In the meantime, we are going now to a press conference with Lyla Dane."
Horrified, Nicole stilled as the cameras went live to where the actress was speaking before a bank of microphones.
"I thought I had problems," she muttered, instantly ashamed of herself and her attitude.
When the woman began to speak, Nicole leaned forward, absently resting the bowl of ice cream in her lap. The shock and terror in Lyla Dane's voice were physically painful to watch, but even though Nicole kept upping the volume, the sound continued to fade.
Just when she was beginning to think something was wrong with her set, the broadcast suddenly switched from the Dane press conference to what appeared to be footage of the kidnapping.
The clip began inside the apartment. When the front door suddenly flew back against the wall and four men rushed in, Nicole gasped. Horrified, she quickly realized that this must have been caught on the Danes' security camera inside.
As Nicole continued to watch, a small Asian woman, who she guessed was the housekeeper, rushed forward in an effort to keep them out. When one of the men hit her in the face with his gun, Nicole moaned. The violence was too reminiscent of what she'd lived through to ignore. Sick to her stomach, she fisted her hands against her belly, wishing it was over, but unable to tear her gaze away.
When the maid dropped to the carpet, the same man followed with a vicious kick to her midsection that lifted her off the floor.
"Oh, my God," Nicole said. When blood began to pool beneath the maid's head, she started to cry.
As the clip played on, the four men split up in different directions. The camera caught one running down a long marble hallway, then disappearing into a room. Moments later, he reappeared, carrying a little girl, who Nicole assumed was Molly Dane. The child was wearing a pair of red pants and a white turtleneck sweater, and her hair was partially blocking her abductor's face as he carried her down the hall. She was kicking and screaming in his arms, and when he slapped her, it elicited an agonized screech that brought the other three running. Nicole watched in horror as one of them ran up and put his hand over Molly's face. Seconds later, she went limp.
One moment they were in the foyer, then they were gone.
Nicole jumped to her feet, then staggered drunk-enly. The bowl of ice cream that had been in her lap fell at her feet, splattering glass and melting ice cream everywhere.
The picture on the screen abruptly switched from the kidnapping to what Nicole assumed was a rerun of Lyla Dane's plea for her daughter's safe return, but she was too numb to really pay attention.
Before she could think what to do next, the doorbell rang. Startled by the unexpected sound, she shakily swiped at her tears and took a step forward. She didn't feel the glass shards piercing her feet until she took the second step. At that point, sharp pains shot through her foot. She gasped, then looked down in confusion. Her ice-cream-spattered legs looked as if she'd been running through mud, and she was standing in broken glass and melting mocha fudge, while a thin ribbon of blood seeped out from beneath her toes.
"Oh, no," she mumbled, then stifled a second moan of pain.
The doorbell rang again. She shivered, then clutched her head in confusion.
"Just a minute!" she yelled, trying to sidestep the rest of the debris as she limped to the door.
When she looked through the peephole, she didn't know whether to be relieved or regretful.
It was Dominic, and, as usual, she was a mess.
Dominic Tucci was a six-foot-three-inch, third-generation Italian American, and the first member of his family to have a job outside the food industry. He'd been a member of the NYPD for ten years, and a homicide detective for the last three. He loved his joband his downstairs neighbor.
He'd been on the scene only minutes after she'd arrived in the E.R., and had prayed like he'd never prayed before for her to survive. She had, and with what he was determined to view as only temporary complications.
He knew she was struggling with depression, but he also knew that nothing was going to change his love for her. He would take her any way he could get herwarts and all.
And loving her was only one of the reasons why he was at her door tonight. The other was the large, thick-crust pizza he was carryingone half pepper-oni, the other half cheese. Just the way they liked it.
He shifted the pizza box to his other hand and rang the doorbell. Moments later, he heard what sounded like breaking glass. Well aware of her tendency to stagger upon standing, he quickly rang the doorbell again. Just as he was on the verge of ringing a third time, the door opened.
"Hey, Nikki, I thought"
His gaze went from the strained expression on her face to something brown running down her legs and the blood beneath her feet.
"Oh, honey what have you done?"
"It fell," she said.
She hadn't mentioned what had fallen, but he knew this wasn't the time to press for details. As the door slammed shut behind him, he set the pizza box on the hall table and scooped her up in his arms. He carried her into the kitchen, leaving droplets of blood behind them as they went. When he set her on the island in the middle of the room, then squatted down to look at the bottom of her foot, he cursed beneath his breath. She'd really done it this time.
"Oh, baby there's glass in your foot. Do you have some tweezers?"
"Top drawer on the night I mean top drawer on the right in the bathroom," Nicole said. "Alcohol and those uh those sticky strips are in the cabinet on the middle shelf."
Dominic ignored her momentary word confusion to steal a kiss.
"I'm so sorry you're hurt. Hang on a sec. I'll be right back," he said, and hurried from the room.
Nicole sighed. Either the man was a saint or a sucker for trouble, because that was all she seemed able to produce.
He came back with his hands full of first-aid supplies and a look of concern on his face.
"Are you in much pain?"
"Some. It actually burns more than it hurts."
Dominic dumped the stuff he'd been carrying onto the counter beside her, then reached for the tweezers.
"Now then, let's see about getting you all fixed up."
Nicole sniffled. She hated herself for being such a loser, and hated herself even more for whining. But she had to admit she was glad he'd shown up.
"How did it happen, honey? Did you get dizzy again?"
Nicole frowned. "I guess but mostly it was because I wasn't paying attention. I'd been watching the news when they broke in with a bulletin about a kidnapping. Lyla Dane's little girl." She winced as Dominic pulled a sliver of glass from between her toes. "Ouch," she muttered, then sighed. "I should be ashamed. Compared to Lyla Dane, I have nothing to complain about."
Dominic paused, then glanced up. "Look at me!"
When she did, he continued. "I don't want to hear anything negative come out of your mouth again."
Nicole shifted her gaze, silently admiring the perfect arch of Dominic's brows, as well as the warm, caramel color of his eyes.
"What? What? I'm looking, I'm looking."
He grinned. "But you're not listening."
"It's all your fault," she said.
His grin slipped sideways. "Why is that?"
"If you weren't so pretty, I wouldn't be distracted."
He laughed out loud. "Talk like that is liable to get you laid."
"Promises, promises," she said, and then bit her bottom lip as he removed two more pieces of glass. A few minutes passed before he had removed all the slivers. After that, he grabbed a handful of wet paper towels and cleaned the ice cream from her feet and legs before swabbing the cuts with antiseptic.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"About your foot? I think you could use some stitches in a couple of places."
"No, not my foot," Nicole said. "About the kidnapping."
"Oh. Nasty business. Sometimes being famous isn't all it's cracked up to be."
"I guess," she said. "And you can forget the stitches. I've been to the doctor too many times as it is."
"You're the boss," he said, and began opening some gauze pads to bandage up her foot.
His tenderness didn't go unnoticed. As he bent to the task, Nicole reached out and combed her fingers through his hair. It was black and thick, and straight as string. She loved the feel of it against her palm.
"You're a good man," she said softly.
Dominic paused, then looked up. The new growth of baby fuzz on her head gave her an innocent, childlike look, but he knew there wasn't anything childish about her. Before the shooting, she had been a vibrant, sexy woman. That woman was still in there, healing along with the rest of her.
"Thank you, baby," he said softly.
Nicole smiled a little self-consciously.
Dominic started to say something else, then hesitated. Now was not the time to broach the subject of their relationship. It was all she could do to get through a day. She didn't have the mental fortitude to deal with anything else. Instead of talking about their future, he returned to tending to her foot.
Nicole watched silently as he finished the bandages. Once he was done, she started to get down, but he stopped her with a look.
"Stay there until I get the rest of the broken glass cleaned up," he said.
Nicole's shoulders slumped. "Oh yes, I forgot. I'm sorry to be such a bother."
He frowned. "Hey, don't talk about my woman like that."
She rode the surge of delight his words brought.
"So, I'm still your woman?"
"You better believe it," Dominic said. "Now, don't move. I'm still on the job."
Nicole laughed as he headed into the living room with a broom, a wastebasket and a pan of warm water. From where she was sitting, she could still see the television. They were playing clips marking Lyla Dane's rise to fame.
She frowned. Poor woman. Poor little girl.
"Have they identified any of the four men, yet?"
He dropped the last of the debris into the waste-basket, wiped up the sticky spots and started back into the kitchen.
"What four men, honey?"
Excerpted from Aftershock by Sharon Sala Copyright © 2008 by Sharon Sala. Excerpted by permission.
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