A Taste of... Cold Heart
A ghostly whiff of coffee sailed past Cheyenne Valdez’s nose as she sipped her mojito. During the day, The Grind was a quiet little cafe that sold lattes, espressos, and scones. At this time of night, however, the place pulsed with music. People in various stages of inebriation ground on each other on the dance floor while a headache formed in the back of Cheyenne’s skull, throbbing to the beat of the EDM song pumping through the speaker system.
She checked the entrance…again. No one was there.
Before she could decide if she was disappointed or relieved, two girls stumbled past and knocked into the tiny table she’d claimed, almost spilling her drink. She grabbed the glass just in time to avoid drenching her dress, but a few drops splashed onto her hand.
“Dammit.” Strands of her dark hair unraveled from the French twist she’d so painstakingly erected earlier, falling like spiderwebs onto her face. Some even weaved into her mascaraed lashes.
A hot mess. That’s what this was.
As she wiped the sticky drink off with a napkin, her mind wandered to Malcolm. She wished he was home from his stupid SweatFit convention in San Diego. She wouldn’t be here if he was.
They’d been engaged for six months, and they’d barely made any progress on their wedding plans. She stabbed her ice with the straw. That was all about to change tomorrow night. Malcolm would be home by then, and since it was Valentine’s Day, they had plans. Whether he liked it or not, her fiancé was going to discuss wedding venues. Time to get serious about their big day.
Sometimes it was hard to believe that, this time last year, she’d still been a senior at Indiana State. Only a few months remained until graduation when she’d decided that the social sciences degree she’d been pursuing was worthless. Mostly because she had zero interest in any of the jobs in that field. Four years down the drain, just like that.
Cheyenne winced, remembering how upset her parents had been when she’d dropped out. Her old college roommate’s invitation to move in with her in Myrtle Beach had been a godsend, and Cheyenne had wasted little time packing her bags and waving farewell to her mom and dad.
Wiggling her hand in front of her face, Cheyenne smiled as the diamond on her finger caught the light. Getting engaged to a marvelous man and living the beach life was a thousand times better than a social sciences degree.
So what if she experienced a few misgivings about Malcolm every now and then? Pre-wedding jitters were normal, right? Honestly, she loved where she was at now. So did her followers.
On a whim, she’d started posting photos and videos on Instagram to document her journey and had been surprised when people flocked to her account. If she played her cards right, she might become a social media influencer and get paid for being herself. The world was wide open for her now.
She picked up her phone to check the time once again and spotted a notification from a news app. Curious, she clicked on the headline and immediately wished she hadn’t.
Her stomach turned. The article was about a human sex-trafficking ring that finally got busted after going undetected for years. The whole outfit was run by some guy named Kingsley. A psychiatrist, of all things, who’d victimized both adults and children.
Cheyenne shivered, imagining the horrors they’d endured. If her mom found this article, she’d never hear the end of it.
After skimming a few other articles, she closed the app. The hour was late. She eyed The Grind’s entrance one last time and rubbed her neck. Looked like they were a no-show. No big loss. She was more than ready to escape the sweaty bodies pressing in on her little oasis from all sides.
The guy with his arm draped across his girlfriend’s shoulders winked at her and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. Ugh, what a sleaze. That was definitely her cue to bolt.
Cheyenne scratched her nose with her middle finger and grabbed her beaded handbag. She tried to smooth the wrinkles out of the linen skirt she’d borrowed from Leesa before weaving her way toward the door. Time to head home.
Home—Leesa’s beach house—was only a few blocks from The Grind. Maybe the walk would help her unwind and banish the last of her engagement nerves.
Outside, her ears stopped ringing. The brisk February weather was a welcome relief after the heat inside the small club. Once she inhaled a few lungfuls of air that weren’t flavored with cologne and body odor, some of her tension drained away.
The streets were mostly empty when Cheyenne passed by the bakery where Malcolm had proposed. Her followers had absolutely loved their whirlwind romance. When he got down on one knee with a cupcake and a ring, the likes on their posts had more than doubled. And with Malcolm’s friend livestreaming the event, there was only one acceptable response, which she’d uttered even as uncertainty gnawed away in her belly.
Now, it was too late to change her mind. Not when her followers were constantly flooding her DMs with links to local bakers and bridal shops.
Everyone gets cold feet. It’s no big deal. At least, that was what she kept telling herself.
Rubbing her arms to stay warm, Cheyenne continued walking, lost in thought until a squeak-squeak ripped her out of her existential haze. She froze, her head whipping up like a startled doe’s. Were those footsteps behind her?
Her heart accelerated as she peered over her shoulder. No one was right behind her, but beyond that, she had no way of telling because the rest of the street disappeared into shadow. Why weren’t there more streetlights here? When had the chatter and laughter disappeared?
You idiot. You wandered off the main street again. Just get to the main one and quit reading scary articles, and you’ll be fine.
Quickening her pace, Cheyenne headed in the direction of the lights shining a few blocks away.
Her hand darted inside her purse to grab her phone. “Who’s there?” Whirling, she pressed the flashlight app, illuminating the darkened alley. The glow was just bright enough to show Cheyenne that she was alone.
A cat behind a discarded crate greeted her with a plaintive wail, the animal’s eyes glowing an unearthly green when struck by the phone light. Laughing, she crouched and held out a hand. “You wouldn’t happen to be following me, would you?”
The orange tabby hissed and ran off.
Cheyenne sighed. She’d lived in the area for so many months now but still somehow managed to wander off course at least a couple of times a week. Although that was more a factor of her tendency to daydream than poor navigation skills.
Several blocks ahead, a neon sign blinked. After checking her GPS to confirm that was the correct direction, Cheyenne clutched the phone and lengthened her stride. When something clattered behind her, she figured it was the cat getting into the trash, but she broke into a trot just to be safe. There was no one here to laugh at her sprinting down the isolated street like a maniac, and lord knew she could use the extra exercise if she wanted to fit into her wedding dress.
Arms popped out from nowhere, plucking her like a night flower. Her phone went flying as a warm hand clamped over her mouth and an arm snaked around her neck.
Dry lips scraped against her ear. “Hello, gorgeous.”
Adrenaline screamed through Cheyenne’s veins, freeing her from the cold shock of terror. She twisted her head, sinking her teeth into moist flesh. The attacker flinched, and his grip loosened.
She lunged forward, but he yanked her back before she could break free. A thick body flattened her against a dumpster, and her chin cracked the edge while her ribs creaked from the sudden pressure. Something sharp pricked the side of her neck.
A needle. She was operating on borrowed time now.
Renewing her efforts, Cheyenne clawed at her attacker’s skin and tried to remember the lessons from the self-defense courses her mother had insisted she attend. A vague memory of making her body go limp skipped across her mind, but stars burst through the shadows before she could try. Before she could even lift a finger, she was weightless. Floating.
The needle, she realized in a moment of clarity. Whatever drug he’d injected her with was hitting her system. Soon, she guessed she’d be completely helpless.
Her mother’s voice pleaded with her in the fuzziness. Cheyenne’s lips parted, but her tongue refused to work, instead filling her mouth like a wad of cotton. Her knees buckled, and she slowly slid to the ground.
The attacker picked her up like she was a baby and began carrying her in the opposite direction of the lights. Cheyenne’s head lolled back on her neck, leaving her to gaze up at the few stars that twinkled from between the winter clouds.
She blinked, and they started plummeting from the sky, multiplying on the way down until an entire galaxy of shiny yellow dots exploded in front of her. Above her.
Her eyes feasted on the stars until, one by one, they dimmed and died.
A heartbeat later, the rest of the world faded into nothingness too.
Detective Ellie Kline grunted as her fist slammed into a wall of muscle, barely fazing the stout man in the faded gray tracksuit. He deftly swept her leg with his, and her body thumped against the mat, leaving her breathless.
She kicked at his midsection, hoping to unbalance him, but he didn’t miss a beat. His thick arms wrapped around her thigh just before he twirled her onto her stomach.
“Your groundwork is shit, gézer.” Panting, he rolled onto his knees, pushed his body up, and stood over her. “Again.”
Reconnecting with Dotham Yosef was more painful than Ellie had expected. He was older than the last time they’d trained together, but age had only made him stronger. Or she was simply that out of shape.
With more effort than she wanted to admit to herself, Ellie stood and pointed to her water bottle on the bench. “I need a drink. I forgot how much Krav Maga kicks my butt.”
She’d first met Dotham when she was seventeen, less than two years after Lawrence Kingsley—psychiatrist, serial murderer, and leader of a notorious crime ring—kidnapped and tortured her. One bad decision to lie to her parents so she could go out with a boy had ended with Ellie being snatched off the street. In the blink of an eye, Kingsley shattered her safe, orderly world.
While Ellie had escaped without any lasting bodily injuries, her mind was another matter. She’d decided that learning how to protect herself was the only way to assure her own safety, so she’d walked into Sweatbox, a random gym, and found Dotham. Over time, the former Israeli helped build her fighting form and rebuild her confidence.
Dotham had been teaching Krav Maga, the fighting style of Israeli Paratroopers and the infamous Mossad Special Forces, for decades before she met him. Ellie suspected he’d had an eventful life before he became a Krav Maga instructor, but she’d never pushed for details. The man was frugal with both his story and his respect. Someday, Ellie hoped to earn at least one of those things from him.
After she joined the police force, they’d drifted apart, but recent events had encouraged her to reconnect with him. Finally finding and killing Kingsley, after so many years and so many victims, had left her empty and unsettled. Once again, she needed Dotham’s expertise and familiarity to ease her mind. To focus. To move forward.
As she screwed the lid back onto her water bottle, Dotham appeared at her side. The scent of his spicy deodorant tickled her nose. He had a towel around his neck and sweaty wisps of his spiky white hair matted against his forehead. “Sit.”
They both sat on the bench, and for a few moments, stared at the other students and instructors grappling and pivoting across the gym. “Why?” Dotham spoke without turning toward her. “Why have you returned, gézer?”
When she was younger, she’d hated that name. The word, from Hebrew, meant carrot. The first thing Dotham commented on when they met was her fiery red hair, and he’d used it to ignite her during training. Don’t you know how to fight back, gézer? Brittle carrot, I snap you in two. Today, she only perceived warmth in the word. “I missed sparring with you.”
“You’re working problems out.” He scoffed and tapped a wrinkled finger on his head. “Here,” he moved the finger above his heart, “or here. Possibly both.”
Ellie closed her eyes and let the soundtrack of oofs and huhs bouncing off the concrete walls crash over her. A burning sensation blossomed across her chest, and she wondered if the pain was a result of the intense workout she’d pushed her body through or something else.
More likely, Dotham, as he usually did, had her figured out. Not that she was ready to admit that yet.
“Do you know what I’ve been through these last couple of months?”
He shrugged. “I see the news.”
Oh yes…the news.
The narrative spun in the papers and the news channels, while technically accurate, wasn’t the entire story. Her parents ensured the bits about her being abducted off the street by Kingsley as a teen and forced to order the death of another girl hadn’t made the final draft. She turned to Dotham. “I couldn’t save them. Not Fortis, not Valerie, not even Katarina.”
She named them all without flinching, almost welcoming the guilt that tore through her stomach with chainsaw teeth. Her boss, a sex ring survivor, and the mother of the child who now lived in Ellie’s home. All three of those losses weighed on her conscience. All three of those deaths were her fault.
The old man grunted. “My sister. Did I ever tell you about her?” Ellie shook her head, but Dotham was staring into the distance, at something or someone that wasn’t there. “We were orphans, living on the street. Until I could get a job, and then, we were orphans living in a shack. Eventually, my sister found a job as well. A seamstress position. One day, she did not come home from work. For two more days, she did not return. When she finally did, she refused to say where she had been. Nine months later, she had a little boy.”
Ellie pressed her nails into her hands to keep from crying. Dotham had never been so open with her, so exposed. Was he telling her the story now to ease her pain, or his own?
“She died. Barely nineteen years old. On her deathbed, she made me promise to take care of her son.”
His words carried Ellie back in time to another deathbed scene.
“Someone call an ambulance!” Ellie shouted the words as she raced across the room to Katarina and dropped to her knees.
Blood gushed from Katarina’s neck, spilling into a river on the hardwood floor. Ellie used her hands to try to stem the flow, but the wound was too severe. Her carotid was almost certainly severed.
Kneeling on the other side of Katarina, Bethany’s face crumpled. Tears streaked down the little girl’s cheeks.
Come on, Katarina. If anyone can pull through this, it’s you. Your daughter needs you.
She knew her pleas weren’t going to be answered when the woman who had been her nemesis for so long grew pale. Colder. Katarina’s breathing was labored when she reached out and joined Ellie’s hand to Bethany’s.
Her eyes blazed with a final spark as they seared into Ellie’s. A silent demand, joined by Bethany’s choked whisper.
“Mama, please don’t die.”
Somehow, Ellie managed to speak around the boulder lodged in her throat. She locked gazes with the dying mother and gave a tiny nod. “I promise.”
As if the reassurance that her daughter would be cared for was the final thread holding her to this world, Katarina sighed and took her final breath.
Ellie shivered at the memory. The twinge in her chest grew into a tight clench. That day, she’d made a blood promise to a dying woman. A vow that had her questioning her ability to keep it every single day since.
She cleared her throat. “Did you keep the promise? To take care of your sister’s son?”
Dotham released a shaky sigh. “I couldn’t. In the end, I left him at a church. He was barely old enough to walk. What happened after, I do not know.”
Ellie let the silence sit for a minute. “How did you get over the guilt?”
“I don’t think I ever will.” He turned to face her, his face haggard and pale. “But it is bearable. Not because of Krav Maga or any other sport. Physical activity won’t help you heal. I have a therapist I talk to. Been seeing her for fifteen years now.”
Ellie bristled. The last therapist she’d interacted with—besides the mandatory one she’d met with to start the ball rolling on Bethany’s adoption—had been one of Kingsley’s pawns. Dr. Ernest Powell, who’d briefly served as the Charleston PD’s psychologist, listened to Ellie’s problems before turning around and regurgitating every last one of her deep, dark secrets to her former kidnapper. The experience only strengthened her belief that very few people were trustworthy.
“I’m not ready to talk. I can’t. Right now, all I can do is punch.” Ellie hung her head. “But this…” She stood and turned to face Dotham. “This isn’t about them. I need to re-center and refocus. I need to be stronger. For me, not them.”
A damp red curl had fallen free from her ponytail. She laced the strand around her ear while Dotham watched, his gray eyes dull. “These things are often not so simple, but okay…” He stood and marched onto the mat, gesturing for her to join him. “Let’s do it again.”
Ellie stepped onto the mat and posed her body defensively. Dotham understood. She’d known he would. So what if she wasn’t being one-hundred-percent truthful with him or herself? Remembering how she’d failed so many people hurt like hell.
Every day when she passed Fortis’s empty office. Every time Bethany’s little face crumpled when she remembered her mother was never coming back. Every morning when Ellie woke up and guilt knifed her chest.
The grief threatened to consume her. She focused on her body instead, firming her stance and motioning for Dotham to come at her. “Again.”
An hour later, Ellie was sore and walking to her vehicle, more than ready for a long, hot shower. An evening breeze sailed around her, followed by sporadic drops of rain. As expected of Charleston, South Carolina in March, the only predictable thing about the weather was the unpredictability.
She picked up her pace, but the sky opened up before she arrived at her Explorer. By the time she ducked into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut, the spring storm pounded the pavement. She leaned back in the seat and sighed. “Great, now I reek of sweat and wet dog.”
Her head fell back against the seat’s headrest. Above, the rain pounded a haunting staccato rhythm across the roof.
Was Kingsley really gone? Ellie knew it was a crazy thought because she’d witnessed his death. But she’d spent years caught in his grimy talons. As soon as she’d escape, he’d swoop in and grab her again. Letting her imagine she was in control, that she was free, thrilled him.
Her phone buzzed, notifying her of a new text message. When will you be here? So much for relaxing. Ellie barely finished typing her reply of omw before another message from her mother popped up. Bethany is having a panic attack.
Spurred into action, Ellie rushed to start the SUV and maneuver out of the parking space. Eight-year-old Bethany had endured Kingsley’s mistreatment and ended up losing her mother, Katarina, in the deal. He’d kidnapped Bethany, starving and torturing the little girl while he waited for her mother to show up on a rescue mission.
Unfortunately, Katarina’s rescue attempt had ended with Kingsley knifing her throat in front of the child. The dark circles that lingered under Bethany’s eyes when the ordeal was finally over, the bruises marring the fair skin of her starved body, the nightmares she still woke from screaming…they haunted Ellie.
Pressing her foot harder on the gas, Ellie gritted her teeth until her jaw ached. She’d made a promise to protect Bethany in Katarina’s stead, and Bethany needed her.Now.
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