Chapter 1

I looked down impatiently at my watch and counted. I had twelve hours and forty-one minutes.

And once again, my eyes drifted to the woman at the front of the line, still rattling off drink orders. I shifted my weight as my foot continued to tap against the cool tile floor, beating out a rhythm that did not remotely resemble the tempo of the cool jazz drifting through the café.

I looked down again. Make that twelve hours and thirty-nine minutes.

It wasn't that the paper wasn't completed. I had already gone through three drafts and countless revisions over the past six months, but for the most important paper of my academic career, it wasn't good enough. This was my graduate thesis, the culmination of two years' worth of classes and research. I had already spent countless, sleepless nights working on it. But this was the last. Tomorrow the final set of edits was due.

The line inched forward.

I didn't need the coffee. It was only eight o'clock, barely evening, and I wasn't tired. It was my reward for a day's worth of revisions and edits, refining the finer points of my arguments. It was also my fuel for another late night of the same.

Twelve hours and thirty-five minutes—it was still worth it, I told myself.

Six minutes and thirty seconds later, I finally had my steaming café latte. The smell alone evaporated some of my frustration, and I sipped at the frothy cream from the top as I shrugged into the sleeves of my jacket. I wasn't paying attention as I walked to the door and apparently, he wasn't either. But when his arm brushed mine, he looked up.

I started to apologize then stopped when I saw his face. He was stunning—beautiful black hair that fell just right and grey eyes that were staring at me—and I blushed as I fumbled for words. He watched me intently for a moment, frozen. Flustered, I mumbled a half-hearted apology and hurried past him into the cold street.

It was a brisk Sunday evening in late October, the first real chill of winter. The sun was setting, and I had to pull my coat closer against me as a cold wind swept through the city streets. It whipped against my exposed skin, blowing my long hair behind me, and I squinted to keep my eyes from watering.

By the time I made it back to my apartment, I had forgotten about him. The temperature had only dropped after the sun went down, and my nose and ears burned as I stepped out of the cold.

The hallway was dim. Most of the overhead lights glowed only faintly. One of the fluorescents flickered pathetically above me before falling dark. Even in the low light, I couldn't miss the mysterious stains across the cheap commercial carpet and the chipped ivory paint.

Maintenance was notoriously negligent, but this was a new low.

I glanced around the floor nervously, unnerved by the quiet. I was not accustomed to this sort of peace. Usually I could hear the Johnson twins screaming for their dinner and the Martins arguing over money troubles, or worse. But tonight, the complex was silent. It was strange.

I dismissed it as nerves and walked down the hallway. My hands were still a little numb from the cold, and I fumbled around my pocket for the keys.

The apartment wasn't much, I'll admit. But as a struggling graduate student, it was all I could afford. It was only me, after all, and I had bigger goals right now than living in a fancy uptown flat.

Finally I plucked the right key and pushed it into the deadlock. It turned roughly, and as I unlocked the regular lock, I leaned against the door to push it open.

That was when I felt someone behind me. I did not know how he followed me from the elevator or how I did not see him when I reached the door. But I sensed his presence now.

"Go inside," he ordered in a smooth voice. I could feel something hard pressing against the small of my back.

I was frozen in the open doorway. My heart hammered in my chest, but I couldn't move. My fear wouldn't even allow me to flee.

It was odd, but I feel the shape of his body behind mine. I could almost see him in my mind.

When I didn't move, he shoved me inside the dark apartment. I lurched forward and stumbled as I struggled to regain my balance. My foot caught on the edge of my door rug, and I barely had time to catch myself with my hands as I fell to the hard tile floor. My palms stung, and the rough impact sent waves of pain up my legs. My latte toppled to the floor and splattered open, filling the air with the smell of coffee.

I turned over quickly to face my attacker.

He still stood in the doorway, an imposing silhouette shrouded in darkness. I scrambled backward on all fours to put some distance between us.

He stalked into the room, slamming the door shut behind him. For a short, terrifying second, we were both surrounded by darkness. But it was almost like I could feel him there in the blackness, like there was some other sense that guided my eyes to where he stood.

When the lights flashed on, I gasped.

It was the man from the coffee shop, looming over me. He looked menacing, his handsome face set in an intimidating scowl.

He didn't stop to look at any of my things—not the shabby TV and DVD player I had propped against the far wall or the very expensive laptop still open on my dining room table. He just stood in the doorway, watching me.

He didn't move as I climbed to my feet, but I watched him warily. I backed away slowly, my hand drifting to my coat pocket where my wallet was stashed. I had my bank card, license, and about twenty dollars in cash. His eyes flitted to my hand.

They say that you should just give a thief what he wants. Your possessions, no matter how valuable, aren't worth your life. At the moment, I was ready to throw my life's savings at his feet if he would leave.

"I don't have much. But-but you can take what you want," I said, stuttering when a ghost of a smile flashed across his face.

I had the unsettling feeling that he didn't want my things, and that scared me more than anything else. Because if it wasn't money that he wanted, then his intentions were much darker than I wanted to believe.

I couldn't let that happen to me, but he was too tall and too strong to overcome. I could only run. I glanced at the door. Maybe he saw my intention, because he stepped forward to grab me.

I dashed in the opposite direction to avoid him, but I was too slow.

He grabbed my arm and whirled me away from the door, slamming me against the wall behind the door. I gasped when my head banged sharply against the hard plaster. He secured me against it, using his body to hold mine in place. I opened my mouth to scream, but a warm, calloused hand covered my mouth, muffling my shout. I grabbed his wrist with both hands, struggling to break free.

With his free hand, he ripped my grip from his wrists. I scratched at his face and managed to claw at his neck. He cursed under his breath and painfully secured my hands in a tight grip.

He leaned close to me, and undiluted, potent fear welled inside of me. I stared at his face—the dark stubble across his jaw, the thick, black eyebrows that framed his intense grey eyes. His face, it was too close, looming only inches from mine.

His eyes danced across my face, then drifted lazily up and down my frame, and despite my jacket, I wanted to hide from his prying eyes. I felt vulnerable and incredibly exposed. My feeble struggles only made me shift against him. The feel of him leaning against me and the warmth of his breath on my neck left my heart pounding.

"You reek of it," he mused. "How could I ever have missed this?"

He looked at me curiously, and I shrank against the wall under his intense inspection. I had no idea what he was talking about, but the acquisitiveness in his eyes frightened me.

His hand still covered my mouth, and I only stared at him, terrified. I recognized my defeat.

The pressure against me lessened, and he leaned away from me until on the hand at my mouth remained. He dug in his coat for something, and I tensed, preparing to fight him off.

When he pulled out a knife, I began to struggle, shouting against his hand. I thrashed and freed one of my arms before I managed to topple the lamp from the small table beside me. It fell to the floor and shattered, scattering glass across the floor.

But the man, his grip was like iron, and he calmly restrained me again. Using his other arm, he grabbed my left wrist and pinned it against the wall. My breathing was uneven and frantic against his hand.

"Be silent," he said. And he pulled back the hand from my mouth. I could taste the salty flavor of his skin, mixing with the tears that fell from my eyes. I let out a muffled sob, but the knife was enough of a threat that I did not make another sound.

He pushed the sleeve of my coat up, and I jerked away from him, but his grip on my wrist was like iron. With a quick flick, he cut a long gash near the inside of my elbow down the length of my arm. I gasped at the sharp pain, but I could only watch as he dragged the knife along his open palm. Crimson blood welled along the cut. A small rivulet beaded and ran slowly down to my fingertip.

He pressed his wound against mine, rubbing the ragged skin with his own. The skin burned and tingled where the torn skin still bled. It was strange, but he watched me carefully as if this odd ritual was significant. He drew back, pulled a handkerchief out of pocket, and wrapped it around his wound.

He did nothing for mine.

"What the hell was that?" I managed to gasp. I was worried and disgusted, and for the briefest moment, I wondered if perhaps it was some sort of fetish. God help me if it was.

"Quiet," he ordered.

He took my other wrist in his other hand, so we stood facing one another. He closed his eyes. He seemed to be lost in thought, and I lunged to the right. But his hold was strong, and the quick motion jerked my shoulders in their socket. It hurt, and I was shocked by the pain. I stood still gasping, waiting for him to move.

He started to whisper things, strange words. And it was like I could feel it again, like there was a breeze in the room, twirling around us. But the air was still. It had to be.

It grew stronger though, whipping and lashing against me. My hair flew into my mouth as the wind focused into a swirling vortex. But my apartment was untouched; the wind affected only us.

And then, the surroundings started to fade, and I blinked in disbelief. I didn't struggle now, and I could still hear him whispering.

At last, the wind settled, and I gasped as I realized that we were no longer inside my apartment. We were standing in the middle of a forest.

Updated 5/5/2013