Jordan Alvarado shut the door to her Jeep and tossed her backpack into the backseat as she settled against the driver’s seat. She’d just picked up her weekly paycheck at the off campus bookstore where she worked and had the next couple days off. She still couldn’t believe she was finally done with college. Well, for now. After four years at UC San Diego she was done with all her classes and would be graduating next weekend—summa cum laude, thank you very much—with a degree in early education. She planned to go back for her Master’s but for now, she just wanted to celebrate that she had her degree and could finally start a job in a field she loved.
She couldn’t wait to celebrate with her boyfriend, Vincent.
That still felt too surreal and didn’t seem quite an accurate word for the man who had stolen her heart.
Completely by accident too. For almost four years of college she’d had pretty much no interest in dating. She’d been attracted to some of her classmates, sure, but her class load and the fact that she was on multiple scholarships left little time for dating. Keeping her grades up had been necessary. She had a lot of friends and preferred to hang out with her girlfriends anyway.
Speaking of…her phone buzzed, alerting her to a text message as she started her engine. She smiled when she saw Vincent’s name on the screen.
Jordan: Leaving work, u at my place yet?
Vincent: No, having drinks w/ an old navy friend, might be out late. Unless u want me to head over now?
Jordan: No, have fun. Let yourself in if I’m asleep.
Vincent: U can join us. I want to show u off.
Laughing to herself, she shook her head. He was such a caveman sometimes. Normally she’d love to meet up with him, but she was beyond exhausted.
Jordan: Tired from work, but next time for sure.
She smiled at the last text. Jordan: Always. Now go enjoy your friend!
She and Vincent had been so consumed with each other the past few months that she wanted him to spend time with his friends, especially since he’d be leaving California soon.
That thought left a hole in her chest. He told her he loved her and she believed him. But that didn’t tell her anything else about their future. As she tucked her phone back in her backpack, she couldn’t help but think of the day she’d met sexy Vincent Hansen as she’d left a coffee date with a friend. He’d been leaning against the outside of the coffee shop, his muscular arms crossed over a very broad chest and wearing a bored expression on his dark, chiseled face. His leg had been in a cast and two crutches had leaned next to him as he waited for a friend who was getting some girl’s phone number.
She’d felt such an immediate, almost visceral reaction to him, it had stunned her. When he’d turned those pale blue eyes on her, she knew he’d experienced something too. Because he’d given her a slow, almost wicked grin that promised all sorts of dirty, naughty things she’d only ever fantasized about. Her face had flamed and she was sure she’d imagined it until he came over and started flirting with her.
The man had had ‘player’ with a capital P written all over that handsome face and toothpaste commercial smile, but she’d been intrigued enough to give him her number. A week later they’d been sleeping together and exclusive. Something that was a first for him. Vincent had seemed almost embarrassed, even clueless, when he’d broached the subject of them being exclusive. When he’d admitted that he’d never had a girlfriend, just casual hookups, she’d realized the man basically had training wheels on when it came to relationships. Not that she was much better considering how infrequently she’d dated the past four years.
Now, four months later, she and Vincent were still together. He’d been in the Navy when they’d first met. As a SEAL at that. His injury had healed, but it was the type that wouldn’t let him keep jumping out of planes and doing whatever else he did in the Navy that made him risk his life most of the time. So he’d decided to take an honorable discharge instead of remaining in the service. She was sad for him, but he was so positive about the future it was infectious. He’d been offered a job at a security company in Miami and he’d already taken it—she just wasn’t sure when he was moving. It was close to his family and he was very tight with them.
Every time he spoke on the phone to his mother or one of his sisters, the love in his voice was evident. His tone and expression always softened and it made her heart melt. It was one of the things that had made her fall for him even harder. She had no family and she’d seen the way some of her friends treated their own with almost apathy. To her that was crazy; as long as they were good to you, family was forever and important. The people who would always have your back. So, the relocation for Vincent just made sense. Of course, she wasn’t sure where she fit into his plans.
Things between them had been amazing. If he hadn’t been laid up with a tibia fracture for the first couple months they’d been together they wouldn’t have been able to spend so much time with each other. It wasn’t that she was glad he’d been injured when they met, but she was glad they’d been able to spend all that time together because it had formed such a deep bond for them. Well, at least on her part.
He was possessive, dominating and just damn sexy. And he was all hers. Since they’d been together, she’d only had a taste of what life with him would be like and she’d loved every second of it. The whole Miami thing freaked her out though because he hadn’t asked her to move with him. Now she was starting to wonder if maybe that wasn’t part of his plan. The truth was, she would move anywhere in the world with that man. He just had to ask.
Shaking her head, she realized she probably looked like an idiot just sitting and staring off into space in the empty parking lot. The bookstore was closed, as were most of the shops along this quiet strip, and she had more important things to do.
As she started to turn her key in the ignition, something bright flashed out of the corner of her eye, drawing her attention.
Blinking, it took a moment for her to realize what she was seeing. The clothing boutique next door was on fire. Flames licked across the roof and up the outer walls, eating up everything in its way in seconds. As if the building was made of paper. Her friend Ginger had poured so much time, energy and love into that shop…
Jumping into action, she grabbed her phone from her backpack and dialed 9-1-1.
The operator’s voice was crisp and clear. “9-1-1, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“My friend’s shop is on fire!” Jordan quickly relayed the address and the carnage of what she was seeing. While talking, Jordan realized Ginger’s truck was still in the parking lot. Ginger was the owner of the store and Jordan’s friend.
She could still be inside. Or worse.
Terror gripped her as she realized what might be happening. For the past month a madman had been targeting various businesses across the San Diego area, burning buildings to the ground. It was always right after dusk and the places were always owned by women. All the owners had gone missing. Twenty-two in total. No one knew what had happened to them, but there was a lot of speculation.
There was no way Jordan could sit in her vehicle and just wait for the fire department and police. Against the female operator’s protests, Jordan dropped her phone and pulled out the Taser Vincent had given her. She didn’t know if she’d need it, but she wasn’t taking any chances in case Ginger’s store had been a target of the serial arsonist.
Hurrying from her Jeep, she didn’t waste time to close the door behind her as she jumped out. Only an alleyway separated their stores, nothing more. Heart pounding out of control, she raced across the pavement, her sandals snapping loudly.
When she approached her friend’s ten-year-old truck she nearly stumbled at the eerie, creaking sounds of the building imploding on itself from all that heat. Though she wanted to, she couldn’t race into a crumbling building. It would be suicide. She just prayed Ginger hadn’t been inside.
Maybe she was just down the street at one of the local coffee shops. There were three in this neighborhood alone and Ginger got her caffeine fix multiple times a day at one or all of them. When Jordan didn’t see her friend in the truck, she started to head toward the next alleyway that separated the boutique and the vintage record store next to it.
She froze as she spotted a huge man with his back to her dragging something—someone!—out of the alley. Jordan couldn’t make out everything, but she could see Ginger’s bright red ballet slipper shoes dragging against the pavement. They were sparkly and ridiculous and she called them her Dorothy shoes.
Ducking behind the back of the truck, Jordan took a deep breath and forced herself to focus. The scent of the smoke from the fire filled the air and she felt frozen in fear. She clutched the Taser in her hand, knowing she had to act fast.
From all the news stories, when the women connected to the fires had disappeared, so had their vehicles. What if this guy planned to kidnap Ginger and drive away in her truck? She peeked around the back and saw how close the guy was. He was almost to the bed of the truck—and Jordan belatedly realized the tailgate was already down. Yeah, no doubt he was planning to dump Ginger’s body in there.
Calling on strength she didn’t know she had, she jumped from her hiding spot, aimed the Taser at the guy’s back and pulled the trigger.
Out of the corner of his eye, Vincent noticed the same four-door sedan he’d seen drive down his street slowly cruise by his house again. For the third time.
This time it stopped in front of a house two down from his and idled. He lived on a quiet, dead-end street and he recognized all the vehicles on sight. Even if one of his neighbors had bought a new car while he’d been out of town, there was no reason for the driver to be creeping around like they planned to do a drive-by. Not that he was actually worried about that. This was a middle class Miami neighborhood that rarely saw crime. But he believed in being vigilant.