Emma frowned at the darkened clouds in the distance, barely fighting the urge to groan. With everything else that had happened today, she should have expected the sunny weather not to hang around. Sighing, she pulled up to the curb outside of her sister’s house and quickly stepped out of the car. She slammed the door behind her and when it bounced back open, she slammed it again. One of these days she was going to get that fixed – along with the passenger’s door that could only be opened from the inside, the gas pedal which was only being held on by a hefty wrench, and her completely dead battery.
Her broken battery was the only reason Emma left the car running. Normally, she was a stickler for anything that would save a bit of money, especially if it helped the environment. However, normally, doing so didn’t require her to hang out at her twin sister’s house for an unknown amount of time until she found someone to help jump her car.
It wasn’t that Emma hated being at Elizabeth’s that made her leave the car idling; rather, it was for a number of innocent reasons. For one, her identical twin wasn’t even home, having flown off to Europe months ago for the start of her gap year. Given Liz hated to read, it would be a horribly boring wait. Two, Emma still needed to pack for tomorrow’s trip, and three, there was a large, black canine trapped in the backseat of her car already begging to be let out.
She might not know what to do with him yet, but her sister would absolutely freak if she came back to a paw-printed house and torn furniture. It’s not like Emma would have the time to clean up the mess before her flight.
A deep bark cut into her thoughts and she gave a small shake of her head. She would deal with the dog when the time came to it, but for now she needed to get that package.
Facing her falling apart piece of junk (which she secretly loved), she held out a hand in the universal command for “stop.” Locking eyes with the massive mangled mess that she suspected was part, if not entirely, wolf, she commanded him to stay. He barked again, this time pawing at the door in his desperation, but Emma held firm.
She wanted to be in and out in five minutes before the storm hit, not getting drenched as she chased after a semi-wild animal determined to mark every fence post as his and his alone.
“Stay...um...Max? No, Rex. No...oh I’ll figure out a name for you later. Just stay. Okay? Stay.” She waited until he finally admitted defeat and plopped his butt on the backseat of her car. Satisfied he wasn’t going to whine the whole time, Emma made her way up the short pathway to her sister’s house.
Leaving the front door open behind her in case the dog – Wolf? Horse? Bear? – had separation anxiety, she continued inward to the master bedroom. A large bed with red satin sheets dominated the space, but it was the walk-in closet that grabbed Emma’s attention.
On the top shelf at the back was a black box that she was supposed to grab and take to her sister by the ninth – only two days and an entire ocean away.
God, she was thankful she lived in the time of aviation. Although, that was not to say she was pleased with Elizabeth’s ridiculous expectations of her.
Nevertheless, after their mother had died on their twentieth birthdays two years ago, Emma couldn’t not be there for her younger sister. Regardless that she was only older by a mere twenty minutes, she was the eldest and had mentally promised not to shirk her sisterly duties to a dead mom and unknown father.
Which, for some stupid reason, now included catching an expensive, last-minute flight to Manchester, England in order to deliver a mysterious box and its extremely important contents.
Contents, Emma realized as she finally located it and pulled it off the top shelf, that she knew absolutely nothing about.
Her sister could be asking her to transport drugs or blackmail secrets or other illegal items. Liz liked to party into all hours of the night and even some of the morning. Sometimes she even kept company with some very suspicious characters. So really, who knew what criminal belongings could be lurking inside this box?
Chewing on the inside of her lip, Emma’s fingers hovered over the lid. On one hand, she’d be invading her sister’s privacy; on the other, it could be a potential national security situation…
She had just grazed the underside of the lid when a crack of lightning whipped across the sky. Raucous barking demanded her attention and with a reluctant sigh, Emma left the box unopened. Cradling her twin’s secrets under an arm, she headed out into the pouring rain.
“Quiet...dog!” she hollered over her shoulder as she twisted the key to locked. “It’s just a bit of– mmmmfh!”
Her scream was efficiently cut off by the hard grasp of a hand over her mouth. Frozen in shock, all of Emma’s self-defense training was forgotten as a strong arm locked around her petite waist and jerked her backwards.
At the clear trace of fear in her attacker’s command, Emma’s eyes widened. Why would he fear her?
The bizarre question jolted her out of her stupor. She rammed her head backwards, hitting her head hard into her assailant’s face. She gasped at the pain of contact, but pride filled her when she felt his nose buckle beneath the sudden pressure. His grip relaxed slightly as he howled, but it didn’t loosen enough to free her. Rapidly blinking the stars from her vision, Emma bit down hard on the soft flesh between his thumb and forefinger, gagging only slightly when she tasted blood.
She stomped on his foot before twisting out of the final strength of his grasp as a tornado of expletives exploded behind her. Before she could take two steps on her own, another hand locked around her wrist. She kicked out blindly in the direction of her newest attacker and felt her heel slam into the unprotected cushion of a man’s balls.
As soon as she was free once more, she scrambled toward her car where the dog was currently tearing up the backseat in his frenzy to get out. She prayed to unknown powers that he wouldn’t bolt when she reached for her handle, knowing that her fear for her own safety wouldn’t allow her to wait for him for long.
“Stay,” she pleaded as she wrenched the door open and chucked her sister’s box inside.
But of course, he ignored her command. Instead he dashed into the front seats, then leaped for freedom. She barely managed to dodge his bulking frame. Before she could yell at him to get back in, a terrifying scream claimed the silence.
A knot formed in Emma’s throat as she whirled around due to the close proximity of the painful cries. She was surprised only for a second as she watched the dog rip into her attacker’s wrist, for the feeling was quickly replaced by nauseous horror.
A recently dropped syringe lay in a puddle at her feet, thankfully not yet used.
As the entire situation came crashing down on her in mind-warping clarity, Emma raised a leg and kicked her attacker hard in the stomach. She screamed out in feral frustration as she plowed her foot into him again. Dammit, this was not how she had planned her day to go when she had forced herself out of bed this morning! First, her sister had left a frantic voicemail the night before. Then, when she had requested emergency time off work, she had been fired on the grounds of not giving them enough notice – after having just worked a double shift! And despite having never asked for a single sick day before. And now – now! – she was being attacked by a group of men all because of something her dead mom had done long before she was even born!
“Arrrgggghhhh!” she screamed again, punctuating it with another kick.
The dog released the man’s bloody, broken hand and lunged for his neck. Before his sharp teeth could fight their way past the man’s panicked flails, a movement off to the side had Emma making her own panicked flails. Stumbling forward, she desperately grabbed the dog by the muff of his neck and hauled him out of harm’s way.
She screamed at the sound of gunfire, then again when she noticed the blood pouring out of the man’s head and mixing with the rain. His blank eyes stared up at her in accusation as she vomited onto his legs.
A sharp bark demanded her attention from behind and she turned back to her open car door to see the dog, Tank?, waiting inside expectantly. On shaky legs she climbed inside and with even shakier hands she somehow managed to throw the car into drive. As the tires screeched beneath them, one hand automatically groped for the safety of her seatbelt.
A frantic glance in her rear-view mirror told her that she wasn’t anywhere close to being free of her pursuers. The three men that were still alive were running towards a black SUV just as another one came screaming around the corner. Bile threatened her mouth once more at the confirmation that they had been waiting for her. With a hard swallow she managed to keep it down. Barely.
Emma had known this day might come eventually, had even been trained for it ever since she was a child. However, having lived for twenty-two years without so much as a peep from the mafia, she never believed that they would actually find her. She had slacked off on attending her self defense classes, stopped always having a bag packed and kept close by, and hadn’t had a safe house option in years. The only training she had kept going was her breathing exercises and given her current hyperventilation and scattered mind, she should probably ask for her money back.
But how had they found her? She had habitually kept her head down and her roots adrift even though their mother wasn’t around any longer to force them to constantly be on the move. Was Elizabeth in the same danger? Did the mafia here still have ties to the family in Italy? Was that the truth behind her sister’s urgent voicemail?
A sharp bark had her eyes jerking away from the mirror in horror. She hadn’t been paying attention to her physical surroundings for nearly half a minute. Praying that they weren’t about to crash, she directed her vision forward. A desperate cry escaped her as she slammed on the brakes in an instinctive effort to miss the solitary figure before her. His features were almost completely obscured by the heavy rain and Emma froze as her brain tried to tell her something important.
But then the car was spinning and she suddenly realized that they were on the bridge that marked the last turn to her sister’s house.
With a frustrated sob, Emma let out a string of oaths that cursed her sister’s stupid box, all of her unknown attackers, and the damn idiot standing in the middle of the road that she definitely should have just hit. Had it not been for all of them, she certainly wouldn’t be crashing off the side of a bridge and into her watery grave.
If only Emma had ever taken the time to learn how to swim.