Pasadena, California, 1999
Whooshhh . . .
The sound circled through her mind like a whispery whirlwind. She stopped and looked up, wondering if a bird had just flown by but saw nothing overhead but clear blue sky. Not sure if she’d really heard anything, she resumed her search of the playground, looking for her best friend, Cody, who had bolted from the classroom ahead of her.
Whooshhh . . .
There it was again, so feathery and light, but inside her head. Lara quickly whipped around, convinced someone was playing a trick on her, but no one was there. Could it have been the wind? She lifted her face and closed her eyes, listening. She felt a faint breeze gently lift the hair off the back of her neck but heard nothing.
She started walking again, scanning the yard for her friend. Where was she? It wasn’t like her to take off on her own. Suddenly Lara’s head exploded with sound, loud and erratic. Through the noise, she thought she heard words.
She started slowly spinning in a circle. “Who said that?” she demanded from the field of asphalt surrounding her.
Kids playing ball nearby glanced up but returned immediately to their game, not giving her any answers. Lara’s heart was pounding, her legs trembling. She ran toward the trees surrounding the schoolyard. She could see the wind blowing through the leaves. Was that what she was hearing? Sweat broke out on her forehead. She wanted the noise to stop. She just wanted to find Cody.
Help me echoed through her head again, but this time images came with the words. She saw a young girl struggling with a man. The image was blurry, but she was sure it was her friend. The man was dragging her into the bushes, his hand clamped over her mouth.
Lara sat down hard on the asphalt, gasping for breath. She felt sick and dizzy. Suddenly a shadow fell over her, and she heard a familiar voice. The images disappeared.
“Lara, what’s wrong?” Miss Lewis asked, squatting down on the hot ground. “Did you fall?”
Lara realized she hadn’t seen her teacher, Anne Lewis, walking toward her. She tried to catch her breath while Anne pulled her to her feet, checking her for injuries.
“You don’t look so good,” Miss Lewis said. “Here, take my hand. Let’s get you to the nurse.”
Lara took her teacher’s hand, allowing herself to be led toward the school building. Had she been dreaming? Was the voice real? Then suddenly it came again: Help me!
She quickly looked up at her teacher. “Miss Lewis, did you hear that?”
Anne bent down, put her hands on Lara’s shoulders and looked into her face. “No, I didn’t hear anything, Lara. What was it? Please tell me.”
“He’s hurting her!” Lara yelled, pulling away and turning to face the school building. Her mind told her the voice was coming from somewhere over there, but how did she know that? This was crazy. She stood there for a few seconds, then closed her eyes and concentrated.
The images hit her fast one after the other with unrelenting detail. Cody’s clothes were being torn from her. The man was beating her. Lara’s hands tightened into fists as she fell to her knees, rage building inside her. Rage against the man who was hurting her friend. She brought both fists down on the asphalt and shouted, Stop! Stop! Stop!
Lara wasn’t sure if she said the words out loud or not. She only knew the man had released her friend and was running away. Exhausted, she slumped over onto the ground, unable to move. Miss Lewis knelt down and picked her up, then carried her across the playground, through the school entrance and down the dark, cool hallway.
Lara found it a relief to be out of the heat, the sound of students’ laughter and their echoing footsteps on the polished floor comforting, normal. She relaxed in her teacher’s arms, the voices in her head strangely silent now. Then the quiet quickly became more threatening than the cries for help had been. What did it mean? Was Cody all right?
They arrived at the nurse’s office, only to find it empty. Anne gently placed Lara in one of the chairs along the wall, assured her that she would be right back, then disappeared in search of the nurse.
Lara tried to relax, but her head swirled with the memory of the voices and images. Feeling faint, she put her head down between her knees and stared at the worn linoleum floor, hoping to ward off the blackness she knew was coming. She vaguely felt a drop of sweat run down her nose. It splashed on the floor between her feet, just before the light completely faded away.
When she came to, she was lying on the examination table. The nurse was putting a cold washcloth on her forehead while her teacher looked on. Lara started chanting “She’s hurt, she’s hurt, she’s hurt” as she tried to sit up.
The nurse gently held her in place. “Who’s hurt, Lara? Are you hurt?”
Just then Lara heard yelling and running in the hall corridor outside. She relaxed. Somehow she knew that Cody had been found. Her friend was going to be okay. “You can go, Miss Lewis,” she said calmly. “Cody needs you.”
Lara saw the nurse and her teacher exchange a look, . then Then Anne rushed from the room. When they were alone, the nurse stuck a thermometer in Lara’s mouth and used her stethoscope to listen to her heartbeat, but everything appeared to be normal. Lara was feeling much better now.
Surf City, 2015
Tuesday, September 15, afternoon
“Wow, traffic’s a bitch today,” Lara muttered to herself as she pulled onto the highway in her vintage convertible Volkswagen and shifted down into second gear, merging with the other commuters.
Suddenly she heard her ringtone, “All Jacked Up,” go off. She grabbed her cell phone from the passenger seat, automatically hitting the speaker button.
“Hey, girl, what’s up?” she answered, already knowing who it was.
“Where are you?” asked her best friend, Cody. “Are you off work yet?”
“Yeah. Just trying to crawl home in this horrible traffic. Why?”
“Because I got a surprise for you.” Lara could hear the grin in Cody’s voice. “Remember that guy at the beach the other day? The one with the curly blond hair?”
“The one that almost ran us over with his skateboard? Yeah. So?”
“Well, Matt and I stopped at the Coffee Bean this morning to get our caffeine fix, and guess who was in line ahead of us? I barely recognized him with clothes on, but the hair was a dead giveaway.”
“Really? Don’t tell me you talked to him?”
She thought back to last Saturday, when she and Cody had been walking on the boardwalk at the local beach. This guy had come whizzing by from behind on a skateboard, barely missing them. Lara had yelled at him, but he’d disarmed her by flashing her the biggest smile before disappearing into the crowd.
“Yeah,” Cody confirmed. “I totally busted him for trying to run us over, and he remembered us, or I should say you. He remembered you. Asked me right away, where’s your cute friend?”
“He did not,” Lara scoffed. “Are you making that up?”
Just then she heard honking and realized she was still sitting at the green light. She dropped her phone in her lap and took off, waving apologetically to the driver behind her. While she looked for a spot on the curb to pull over, she could hear Cody still talking over the speaker. She made a mental note to get a hands-free speaker for her car soon before she got a ticket, or worse, had an accident.
When she was safely out of traffic, she put the phone to her ear and heard Cody saying something about having coffee with someone named Don.
“Whoa, whoa, Cody,” she butted in. “You didn’t actually tell a complete stranger that I would have coffee with him, did you? Are you crazy?”
“I guess I am a little crazy,” Cody teased. “But no, it’s not like I gave him your phone number or anything.”
“Good,” Lara replied, relieved. “But can we talk about this later? Right now I want to get off my phone so I can get home.”
“Sure. You’re not mad, are you?”
“No, silly, I’m not mad. I’ll call you later.”
She let her cell phone fall into the passenger seat again as she checked the traffic and eased out onto the highway, heading for home.
Home was a roomy one-bedroom cottage set behind a large mansion in Seal Beach, owned by Tom and Maddie Griffin. Tom was a professor of mathematics at the university where Lara worked, and he and his wife were also good friends with her parents. One day on the golf course when Tom casually mentioned he was looking for a renter, Lara’s father had called her immediately. She’d moved in the next weekend.
With 1,200 square feet of Spanish hacienda–style decor and a private driveway and carport, it was perfect. The grounds alone were to die for. The cottage was surrounded by beautifully manicured velvet green lawns complemented by pygmy date palms and dwarf citrus trees grouped here and there over an acre of land. Redbrick walkways connected it to the big house and the pool, all lined with brightly colored hibiscus, azaleas, and gardenias.
The cottage even had its own private patio. Lara would never get over what a sweet deal she had lucked into. The professor and his wife said they just wanted a responsible person to keep up the place, and Lara suspected they didn’t need the small monthly rent they charged her.
Lara pulled into the driveway and drove past the big house, waving at Maddie, who was outside working in her vegetable garden. She parked under the carport, unlatched the wooden gate to the patio, and entered the cottage through the sliding glass door off the living room.
She paused to drop her keys and purse on the table, then headed for the bedroom, where she immediately kicked off her shoes. Right now all she wanted was to get into something comfortable and relax.
As soon as she had changed into shorts and a tank top, she poured herself a generous glass of chilled Chardonnay, grabbed her cell phone from her purse, and plopped down into an overstuffed chair. Then she called Cody, who answered on the second ring.
“Okay, so now tell me exactly what happened with, what’s his name? . . . Don?” she asked before Cody could say anything. “I want to hear all about the date that isn’t a date but is a date.”
“Ha ha,” Cody replied. “I just told him that you and I were going to be at the Coffee Bean next Saturday around ten o’clock, so if he wants to meet you he should be there. I had to say something before he disappeared again. And you really don’t have to go, you know. I mean, not if you don’t want to.”
“No, really, it’s okay. I thought about it some more on the way home, and it’s not such a bad idea. I don’t know anything about him, but how do you get to know someone if you never take a chance, right? As long as you go, that is.”
“Yeah, sure. Look at it like that online dating that everybody does now, but you’ve got an edge because you’ve already seen the goods. No phony, out-of-date picture on a dumb website!”
Lara laughed. “Yeah, that’s true. So what’s the plan exactly?”
“It’s simple. This Saturday about ten o’clock we show up at the Coffee Bean and do what we do best, drink coffee,” Cody explained. “He said he’d be there, so we’ll see. Oh yeah, it is Don, by the way.”
“Pretty simple,” Lara agreed. “I guess I can handle that. Oh my God, what am I going to wear? I have to go and scope out my closet. I’ll talk to ya later.”
Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day, with the sun out in full force at eight o’clock. Lara woke up and stretched, smiling to herself. After all, this could turn out to be the best day of her life. A girl could dream. Then her mind flipped to the other side. He could also turn out to be a real jerk. Lord knows, there were enough of those walking around. She decided to ignore that thought. Today she preferred to think positive.
After showering and blow-drying her long auburn hair, she dressed in light-blue denim shorts with a white, lacy, off-the-shoulder top. She decided to leave her hair down instead of tying it up like usual. She applied some light makeup and added some simple turquoise jewelry and she was ready.
Checking herself in the mirror, she saw an attractive girl of medium height. Her high cheekbones had a smattering of light freckles across them, while her slightly slanted green eyes gave her face an exotic look. The shorts showed off her long, toned legs, and the white top looked great against her tan.
Satisfied, she grabbed her purse and keys and was soon flying down Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH as the locals called it, on her way to pick up Cody. Cody lived just a few miles away, in a house with her boyfriend of two years, Matt. Cody had offered to meet her at the Coffee Bean, but Lara figured if they drove together she would have a good reason to bail on this guy if she decided she didn’t like him. Besides, like her dad always told her, safety in numbers.
Cody was ready and met her on the porch. She was dressed similarly to Lara, in shorts and a top, but since she preferred not to deal with the beach frizzes, her blond hair was tied up in a cute bun.
“Where’s Matt today?” Lara asked as they settled into the Bug.
“He’s working,” Cody replied cheerfully. “He wouldn’t be invited anyway. Scoping out potential dating material for my best friend is better done without any male interference.”
“Oh God,” Lara groaned. “You make me sound like an old maid who can’t get a guy on her own.”
“Well, you have to admit you’re not holding a great track record lately. Ever since Raul you’ve been guy shy.”
“Oh, don’t remind me. Raul seemed so nice at first but turned out to be a . . . Oh, what’s the word?”
“Asshole—that’s the word. Never date a guy that thinks he’s prettier than you.”
Lara couldn’t help but laugh as she scoped out the beach parking lot for a space. She found one, and the girls joined the crowded boardwalk, where the vendors were already busy selling everything from hot dogs and snow cones to jewelry and T-shirts.
As they made their way through the sidewalk traffic, dodging joggers, bikers, and strolling couples, Lara glanced at her watch. Good, she thought. We’re a little early. That would give them time to grab a coffee and pick a table before Don arrived.
They entered the cafe, removed their sunglasses, and made their way to the counter, where a young girl with blond cornrows and a nose ring was working. Lara ordered a light-blond roast for herself and a salted caramel mocha for Cody. As they paid and started for a table in the corner, she saw Don walk through the door.
“Oh my God,” whispered Cody. “He’s early.”
“Yeah, I see him,” replied Lara as they scrambled to get settled at a table. She tried to look relaxed even though her heart was racing while she watched him make his way to the counter.
He looked at least six feet tall and was dressed in colorful beach shorts, a white T-shirt, and flip-flops. He had tried to capture his curly blond hair in a man bun, but some had escaped and curled down his back. Lara noticed that his arms and chest were filled out and his T-shirt fit loosely over tight abs. He must work out, she thought. And he was as attractive as she remembered.
They both watched as Don ordered an espresso and flirted with the barista before turning to scan the tables and spotting them. He smiled and started making his way over.
“Hi, ladies,” he said when he arrived at their table. “Cody, right?” he asked, extending a hand. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“Not at all,” Cody said, getting to her feet and shaking his hand. “Grab a chair.” As he dragged it over, she added, “This is my friend Lara.”
“Hi, Lara,” he replied, again reaching out to take her hand. “I’m Don. I’m sorry I almost ran you over last week. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
Lara smiled and extended her hand, then blushed when instead of shaking it he leaned in and brushed it lightly with his lips. She could feel Cody grinning at her but refused to look over.
“Where’d you learn to skateboard like that?” she asked, looking up. She found herself staring into a pair of deep-blue eyes set in a nicely tanned face. His five-o’clock shadow hinted his beard would be a few shades darker than his light-blond hair, and beneath his classic Roman nose she saw a full, friendly mouth, which, when he smiled, was slightly lopsided, making his good looks a little less intimidating.
“I’m self-taught,” he replied. “Not many skateboarders where I come from.”
“Where’s that?” Cody asked.
“Would you believe Dallas, Texas?”
“With that accent, yes I would,” Lara commented. “You’re a long way from home.”
“I really love skating,” Don said. “Racing along the sidewalks with the wind in my face, there’s nothing like it, and it sure beats walking. Do you skate?”
“Are you kidding?” Lara replied. “I’d break my neck on one of those things. I much prefer to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. I’m sure there’s nothing like wiping out on those same sidewalks.”
Don grinned at her. “Ah, you’d love it. I’ll have to teach you sometime.”
Lara just smiled, but something in his expression made her feel like he meant it. He really could teach her to race along the sidewalks. She found herself blushing again and concentrated on stirring her coffee.
Soon the three of them fell into easy conversation, getting to know each other. They found out that Don was the credit manager for a large car dealership on the highway, not too far from where they were now. Cody talked about the preschool, where she taught, and Lara explained a little about her job at the University of Southern California Long Beach campus, where she worked for one of the professors.
After an hour had passed, Lara found she was relaxed and having a good time. She also realized she was very attracted to Don. She wondered if he felt the same way and decided it was time to find out.
“Well,” she said. “I hate to say this, but it’s time to go. Cody, didn’t you say you had to meet Matt for lunch?”
“Oh yeah,” Cody replied, catching on right away. “Where did the time go?”
“Matt. That’s your boyfriend I met last week, right?” Don asked.
“And what about you?” Don turned to Lara. “If you don’t mind my asking, are you seeing anyone right now?”
“I don’t, and I’m not,” Lara replied, smiling as she gathered up her things and stood.
“Wow, really? I would have thought you’d be dating three or four guys at least.”
“I try to limit myself to no more than a couple of guys at a time,” she joked. “But right now you might say I’m in between.”
“I’m glad,” Don replied. “I hope you won’t mind if I ask you for your phone number.”
“Sure,” Lara said, trying to sound casual. She grabbed a pen from her purse and a napkin off the table and wrote her cell phone number on it. She handed it to Don, while Cody tried to keep a straight face.
“All right,” Don said, sounding genuinely pleased. “I’ll call you sometime and we’ll grab a bite to eat or something. You live close by, right?”
“Yeah, just a few miles from here.”
“Me too,” Don said. “Okay, it was nice meeting you both again. Take care.”
And with that he turned and left the shop ahead of them.