Sassy stood on a corner deep in the Casbah, about to cross the street. She no longer worried about the men from the truck finding her. She’d been here for hours now. The traffickers were long gone.
Earlier she’d drunk from one of the older public fountains, using her hands to slurp water from the spigot. A vendor had taken pity on her and offered her a plate of the traditional flatbread and lamb sausage, so even her hunger was assuaged for the moment.
Her most pressing problem was being a woman alone on the street after dark. Here in Constantine, that seemed to signal that she was looking for male companionship, if the gaggle of young men following her was any indication. They were talking to her, some in French, a few in English, but their comments had grown increasingly bold and coarse.
They were in a darker area. Earlier there had been shopkeepers and people about. Now the streets were all but deserted. Sassy felt the first real frisson of fear.
Suddenly the five young men surged forward to surround her.
“Back the fuck away from me!” she shouted in English.
She knew at least one of them spoke the language because of the lewd suggestions he’d been whispering for the past five blocks.
“That’s not exactly the kind of fucking we had in mind,” the English speaker said, and with that the men pressed in, edging her back into the alleyway they’d just passed.
Oh God, this is really happening. Her anxiety switched into overdrive, and a clammy sweat broke out on her forehead and back.
She took a deep gulp of air and struggled to steady her racing heart. She had to think. Concentrate on what Trey had taught her as a kid.
She stopped walking backward and braced herself, with her feet shoulder-width apart. There were five of them, and they most likely would overpower her. But she could hurt a couple of them before they got her on the ground. She rounded her fingers into the shape of claws so her nails would act as talons. They might take her down, but they’d carry marks.
The man who’d spoken in English signaled to the others. One guy came at her and grabbed her left arm, another came from the right. A third, smaller man grabbed her around the waist from behind and pulled himself close to her, his front to her back. She could feel his erection jutting at her rear end. Bile rose in the back of her throat, and she swallowed hard before flinging her head back to pop him in the Adam’s apple with her skull. He let go of her immediately, cursing in French as he fell to the ground.
The first two men pulled her farther into the alley, backing her into a brick wall. One of them slapped her. She opened her mouth to scream and saw a knife in the fourth man’s hand. He held it up as he approached, and no more words were necessary.
If she screamed, he’d cut her. Oh Jesus. After all this, was she really going to be raped in an Algerian back alley?
The fourth man came closer with the knife. He seemed confident that she was cowed and would no longer fight. She considered her options. Stop fighting and be raped and killed, or fight tooth and nail and be killed. There was no real choice. In that moment, she decided there was no way she could stop fighting.
She went limp, giving the impression that she was relaxing, then she kicked out with her feet, catching the fourth man in the upper thigh. She screamed in rage rather than fear. She’d been aiming for his balls, but the hit had the desired effect. He doubled over, most likely more surprised than hurt. That left the final man. The one who’d spoken so crudely earlier. He picked up his friend’s knife and moved extremely fast. Before she knew what had happened, the blade was pressed to her throat.
A warm trickle of blood oozed down her neck as he pressed the steel against her skin with one hand and fumbled at his pants with the other. His body odor was foul. “I don’t care if you’re alive or dead when I do this.” His laugh was more of a cackle, and she shuddered in revulsion.
The two men on either side of her tightened their grips on her arms. Tears prickled at the corner of her eyelids. This was happening. There wasn’t any way out. If she screamed, he’d just stick that blade straight in and rape her as she bled out.
He yanked at her blouse, pulled up her skirt, and leaned into her, kissing the other side of her neck. There was no reasoning with him, and no cavalry was riding in to save her. She couldn’t stand it. She took a breath to scream, and he pressed the knife a little harder.
“No,” she whispered.
Now a rivulet of blood streamed down her neck. She could smell the alcohol on his breath. She was going to be sick.
His hands were sweaty on her hips, then her thighs, as he tore her panties. He pressed his lower body against her. She tensed for the horror to come, and closed her eyes to block out the inevitable.
Without warning, the man’s weight was lifted up and away from her. Her skirt was hiked to her waist in front, but the back fell into place around her calves. Her shirt was torn open.
She opened her eyes to see the man she’d fantasized about in her teenage years—more than she’d like to admit—tossing the attacker against the wall. Bryan Fisher was throwing the guy into the bricks. The attacker’s head hit the masonry with a sickening thud.
The two men who’d been holding her dropped her arms and started toward Bryan. But when they saw the gun in his hand, they ran like scalded dogs. The other two were already on the ground. Bryan had put them out of commission before he’d ever pulled the first one off of her.
Where had Bryan come from? Not that she wasn’t beyond glad to see him, but how had he found her? And what was he going to do now?
Bryan spared only a glance for the three men on the ground before holstering his Glock. They weren’t going anywhere. One had a broken neck, the other a cracked skull, and the third would be unconscious for several hours.
He felt the adrenaline spike as he looked at Sassy. Her blouse was torn, and the flowing skirt she was wearing when he last saw her in Niamey was dirty and hiked up to the point where he could see her ripped panties and tell that she preferred bikini waxes over Brazilians. The bra she wore looked like something featured in the X-rated dreams he’d had about her over the past six months, even with a torn strap.
She was shaking like crazy, and her eyes were huge as she stood in the shadowed alleyway. He was shaking himself. So grateful he’d found her before any more damage had been done to her, he didn’t know what to say.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to say anything, because she immediately began peppering him with questions as she threw herself into his arms. “Ohmigod! You’re here. How did you find me? What is going on? Are they dead?”
The questions came with the rapid-fire pace of a machine gun. Even when scared out of her mind, Sassy could pull it together, and she never stopped thinking. As a kid, she could cope with disaster better than anyone he knew, and as an adult, she hadn’t relinquished the title.
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and his body tightened with the inevitable response to that adrenaline dump and the lightning-fast switch from killing a man to embracing an abundant armful of warm woman. He knew the hug was an anomaly and decided he better enjoy it while it lasted.
He took a moment to hold her to his chest. “It’s complicated. I don’t know, and two of them are dead, yes.”
Sassy still clung to him, even as she stilled in his arms and tried to step back. He held on to her a moment longer until her hands changed from grasping him around the neck in honest relief to an abrupt slide across his chest with a red-tipped fingernail. He let her go, but he didn’t want to. The comfort of finding Sassy safe washed over him, along with the realization that no matter how hard he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking of her since they’d reconnected last summer after Trey’s arrest.
They were both trying to prove her brother’s innocence, but they couldn’t seem to work together without fighting. Bryan knew that for his part it had more to do with wanting what he couldn’t have, particularly if he wasn’t sticking around. He wasn’t the sticking type, not anymore.
Sassy didn’t help matters by baiting him with outrageous sexual innuendos he had no intention of following up on but that struck entirely too close to home.
She looked up at Bryan; the usual taunting light in her eyes was nowhere to be seen. That obviously had something to do with what had just happened to her. With a jolt he realized that the sensual banter she typically subjected him to was most likely an act. He wasn’t sure why she did it, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to stand here and try to figure it out. Not with two dead men at their feet.
“We’ve got to get out of here.” He moved away from her and took his button-down shirt off to slip it onto her shoulders, like he would dress a child.
He could tell she was still in shock by the way she allowed him to do that without argument. He also straightened her skirt, ignoring her torn underwear and pulling the edges of his shirt together around her waist to button it in two places across her chest.
“We’re leaving now.” He took her hand and exited the alley, picking up her kimar from the dirty ground along the way and draping it around her shoulders. They’d get it on her head in a moment.
He walked her down the street, anxious to put as much distance between them and the alleyway as possible. He wanted to get her out of the Casbah and into a western hotel immediately. It would be a trick leaving the country since she didn’t have a passport with her, but he’d figure that out later.
She’d become very quiet, and he glanced down at her as they hurried through the marketplace. Her neck was bleeding onto his shirt, and her mouth was swollen where one of those animals had hit her. He swallowed the rage that surged up at the sight. Getting her out of here was the priority.
Three blocks over, he stopped to drape and wrap the head covering around her hair as best he could. He took an extra minute to press part of the kimar against her neck to stop the bleeding. As he tucked errant strands of her hair inside the scarf, she seemed to waken out of her temporary stupor and take notice.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Not sure yet. Give me a minute,” he muttered. For tonight a hotel was decidedly best. Particularly as he had no idea what the roads between the coast and Constantine looked like now in terms of roadblocks. Nick and Jennifer were most likely long gone from Skikda anyway.
“We’re going to hole up till I can figure out how to get you out of the country, with or without papers. Those men who got away can identify both of us if they’re so inclined.”
If he didn’t know it already, he would have been clued into something being wrong when she agreed so fast.
“Are you alright?” He dug out his pack of gum and handed her the last piece. “Did they hurt you?” His own voice was calmer now that they were farther away from the alley and he didn’t see the knife at her throat every time he took a breath.
She shook her head and unwrapped the cinnamon-scented stick. “I will be. You just get me to a hotel room with a shower, and I’ll be fine.”
He squeezed her hand and kept moving. “You got it.”
“How did you find me?” she asked.
“Jennifer Grayson told me you were on the truck with those other women. I backtracked from there with a little help from my boss’s contacts.”
The streets were darker than they had been when Bryan arrived. Everything was closed now. He kept hold of her hand as they walked.
“Thank God Jennifer’s alright. How did she get away?”
“Nick got her.” Bryan reached for Sassy’s waist when she would have tripped over a loose stone. “They’re on their way out of the country as we speak.”
“Good.” She nodded but didn’t ask any more questions.
He kept his hands on her, still so relieved he’d found her that he wasn’t ready to let her go yet. Ten minutes later they were at the entrance to the Casbah, crossing the street to his car. They’d passed a half dozen people in total. No one seemed to pay much attention to them, although at six foot five Bryan himself was fairly noticeable. Unfortunately, they’d remember him if authorities started asking questions later.
He helped her into the car and slid behind the wheel. They were closest to the Hotel Novotel Constantine. It took less than five minutes to reach Place des Martyres. From there Bryan pulled into the hotel’s private parking garage as if they already had a reservation. Fifteen minutes later, they were checked into the last available room.
Bryan explained that the airline had lost his wife’s luggage, and the management provided a small bag of toiletries for Sassy. The room wasn’t large by western standards, but it was clean and private, with a shower, tub, and a fluffy robe—but only one bed.
He’d think about that one bed later.
Copyright © 2015 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
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ebook release June 2015 / print release July 2015 / April 19, 2016