The attacker on the ground stood up, wincing, with a sneer of victory. He’d been bested in a fight, but now the odds were in his favor.
“Turn around,” Leather Coat growled to the dark-haired man.
Grace’s gasp was loud in the alleyway. The dark-haired man was unarmed and helpless. They’d already tried to kill him once and now they were going to finish the job.
She had no idea who he was, but she felt connected to him somehow. He had let himself be disarmed to spare her. She had no idea if he could have prevailed against four men, but the way he fought proved that he wouldn’t die easily, not without inflicting a great deal of harm. The dark-haired man knew how to defend himself, not to mention the fact that he walked around with a small arsenal on his person.
Maybe he was a bad guy, too, just like the other four. Maybe she had stumbled onto some kind of turf war of drug dealers or something. Maybe this was a mob shakeout.
She could believe that, absolutely, of the other four but found it hard to believe of the dark-haired man, for no special reason her oxygen-deprived brain could conjure up, except that he had a different look.
Whoever he was, he’d pissed off the four criminals greatly and on the theory that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, she was on his side. As he was on hers. He’d allowed himself to be disarmed and was probably going to die, right now, to spare her.
No. Every cell in her body rejected the notion. He wasn’t going to die, slaughtered like an animal. She wouldn’t let him. Apart from anything else, the instant he was gone, she would be dead, too. She’d seen the goons’ faces. They weren’t the kind to leave witnesses behind.
Together with some oxygen, an electric pulse ran through her, grounding her, giving her strength. She wasn’t ready to die. Not here, in this filthy alley, and not now, two months from her twenty-eighth birthday.
And neither was he going to die. She met his eyes, the deepest brown she’d ever seen. His gaze was clear, direct and sad. Grace caught his gaze, willing him to look at her, to follow her thoughts, darting her eyes to her purse. He could see that the clasp was open. She looked deliberately at her purse, at him, at the man holding her. Over and over again.
He understood. The slight aura of resignation and defeat was gone. Grace watched as he turned back into a warrior, right before her eyes. His broad chest expanded as he took in deep breaths, like swimmers do before going a distance underwater. His stance changed, became springy as he balanced on the balls of his feet. The other men seemed oblivious to the change. They were gloating, sure that they’d won this battle, and weren’t paying attention.
Which was perfect.
Grace had no idea how good a fighter this man was, but she was willing to risk everything to find out. And if he couldn’t overwhelm four men, she’d rather die by a shot to the head trying to get away than by slow torture.
“Hey!” Leather Coat bellowed to him. “You heard me! Turn around right now, you fuckhead, or I’m blowing a piece of her away.”
Leather Coat was distracted by the drama. Like all bullies, he relished control, imagining victory before victory was his, simply because it was unthinkable that he lose. She’d known people like that, who loved wielding overwhelming power over others because it fed their ego. And Leather Coat’s ego must be really pumped right now, holding a gun on a woman, facing an unarmed man four to one. The kind of odds bullies loved.
Grace could feel him relaxing, letting down his guard, ready to enjoy the next couple of minutes. It was a done deal, as far as he was concerned.
Over her dead body.
She waited a beat, allowing Leather Coat’s grip to loosen further, gave a sharp nod to the man, hoping he understood, reached into her purse with a lightning fast move, brought the Mace canister up to Leather Coat’s face and sprayed him full in the eyes.
His bellow could be heard in New Jersey. The big black gun clattered to the ground as he brought both hands to his eyes, roaring with pain and rage.
What she saw next defied belief. Dark Hair had moved almost too fast for her to track. Before her hand was in front of Leather Coat’s face, he was in the air, twirling, foot lashing out, striking his adversaries with meaty thunks! Barely landing lightly on his feet before twirling again.
Grace staggered back, hoping the dark-haired man knew what he was doing, because she’d just put her life in his hands. Leather Coat would surely shoot to kill just like he said he would if he caught back up with her.
They went down like felled trees: one-two-three-four. She still hadn’t registered what she’d seen when the man straightened, and—completely non-winded, completely in control—pulled out something sleek and black from his pocket and spoke into it quietly in a language she didn’t understand, then flipped it closed.
Leather Coat lay on the ground in a fetal position, his desperate gasps for breath echoing off the walls of the alley. The man who had attacked Dark Hair was on his side, eyes rolled up in his head. The man in the fleece track suit lay still, unconscious, his arm bent at an unnatural angle. The man in the bomber jacket had gleaming white bone showing through his jeans, blood pooling under him. The kick had smashed his femur. He was bleeding profusely, the rain sluicing the blood-red water under him into the drains.
Grace stood in the rain, shocked and shivering.
The dark-haired man looked down at the four men for a heartbeat, his face cold and remote, then bent calmly and snapped their necks with an efficient twist of his huge hands. She could hear cartilage crack, four times. Then he calmly scooped up his two guns and his knives.
Grace bent over, ready to vomit her guts out, when a strong hand took hold of her arm. “We don’t have time for that,” the dark-haired man said. “Sorry.”
She straightened and looked him full in the face, wincing, expecting a monster, expecting to see brutality and savagery. What she saw instead was a weary kind of gentleness and what looked an awful lot like remorse.
“I’m so sorry.” His deep voice was low as he wrapped a huge hand around her arm. “For everything. But now we must go.”
Though his voice was calm, he moved fast. In a moment, they were at the mouth of the alley, moving out into the street. He still had his hand around her arm. He wasn’t holding her tightly enough to hurt, but he seemed to be able to propel her forward through the rain as if she had wheels instead of feet.
In an instant, they were out on the sidewalk and the man was checking the street carefully, the kind of survey a soldier would give to enemy terrain.