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She'd always been happy enough. Well, if not happy exactly, then…content. But deep down, Angie Rivers knew some thing was missing from her life; she just couldn't put her finger on it. Why should she, when she had a fine job, a fine apartment and fine friends.
Fine ev ery thing, really—unless she thought about it too hard, as she some times tended to do.
In any case, the niggling remained a mystery.
By the time her break came she was already tired from waiting tables, but she had to get to the bank. She'd written her rent check, along with a check for what could be termed a luxury item—an artist's easel. Her first and, as a budding painter, she was very excited about it.
Racing down the block in the warm California sunshine, she dodged bikers, in-line skaters, scooters…it was Monday, for God's sake. Why weren't people working?
If she didn't have to work, what would she do? What a de light ful dilemma to face. She'd kill herself if she strapped on a pair of skates, but…a day to sit in the park and sketch? An entire day to stand in front of her new easel and paint? Mmm, nice fantasy.
Inside the bank, she hit the mid morn ing crowd. And a very long line. With a sigh, Angie pushed up her glasses and looked around at the people waiting ahead of her. As was usual for this upscale area of South Pasadena, everyone was dressed for success. Even the bank tellers.
She tugged at the skirt of her waitress uniform, knowing few would under stand that she did love her job, hard as it was. There hadn't been money for college when she'd gradu ated high school seven years ago, despite her parents' hopes and dreams of her becoming a doctor or lawyer.
Sweet, but un realis tic. Angie hadn't been the best high school student, hadn't played sports or had a good hobby, either, mostly because she'd always worked to help her parents make ends meet. She hadn't minded, though some times she wished they'd really see her, her, Angie Rivers, and not just what they dreamed Angie Rivers to be.
Disturbingly enough, her parents' expectations only seemed to get more unrealistic the older they became. Why hadn't she become successful? Rich? Well connected?
Married with brilliant children?
She didn't like to admit that she'd dug in her heels and purposely become the antithesis of their out-of-reach expectations. But that's what she'd done.
She had goals for herself—they just didn't match anyone else's. She wanted to paint. There wasn't a whole heck of a lot of money in that, unless she found some superb talent from deep within. Oh, and she'd also have to die, as most artists made all their money posthumously.
The bank line she'd chosen still hadn't budged, and there she stood, with only seven minutes left on her break. Craning her neck, she saw an older woman at the counter, doling out change to the teller. One coin at a time.
Behind her was every mother's night mare. A young punk, wiry and dressed for a ghetto fashion show, paced edgily, mut ter ing to himself. He looked like a sim mer ing pot ready to explode.
The man in front of her had a swagger. A sort of I'm-God's-gift-to-women swagger. Angie could easily overlook his cheap, light blue suit and tacky tie as she appreciated—and remembered with vivid clarity—the pain of never having the in clothes.
She was still feeling that pain.
What she couldn't ignore was the way he invaded her space and kept winking at her.
"Come here often?" he actually asked her, brushing his shoulder against hers.
She didn't answer, hoping he'd give up if she didn't encourage him. His hair had been slicked back with enough gel to grease a pig. His breath was hot and smelled like tuna.
"Is the sun shining?" he wondered. "Because I can't see anything but stars when I look at you."
Angie tried a vague smile—why was the line still moving so slowly?—and turned her back to him.
With or without the tuna breath and bad pickup line, she wasn't much inter ested in men. Her ex-fiancé Tony had been no better than her own parents when it came to seeing her, under stand ing her, and she was tired of that, thank you very much.
She was who she was. A great waitress. A wanna-be artist. She was fine, darn them all. Fine just as she was.
She peered behind her and saw that Mr. Edgy had gotten worse. His fists were clenched, his jaw tight. Pure fire and hatred sprang from his eyes, and though she couldn't under stand his mutterings, the tone was universal.
Angie had heard of highway rage, but this waiting-in-a-terminally-slow-line rage was new to her, and a little scary. Shivering, she turned sideways, feeling sand wiched by desperation.
In the next line over stood another man, and this one looked as impatient as she felt. Arms crossed, feet tapping, mouth turned downward in a frown, he embodied the man on the move. Only he was the most heart-stopping man on the move she'd ever seen.
He looked out of place. Not because he was tall, leanly muscular, and gorgeous to boot. Not because he'd disregarded the up-and-comer Southern California look for a simple blue T-shirt tucked into per fectly soft and faded 501s. It was that he made everyone around him look as if they were playing dress-up.
He scowled at his own unmoving line, all testosterone and barely con tained power as his searing light brown gaze scanned the large, hustling bank.
Just looking at him made Angie felt a little breath less. She stood up taller, won der ing what he thought when he looked at her. She knew what she thought when she looked at him. Whoa, baby.
He had sun-kissed hair cut short to his head. His rugged, athletic physique said he could have graced any men's magazine he wanted, and he didn't so much as give Angie a cursory glance when his eyes care fully and pur posely surveyed the room.
Check your ego at the door, Angie.
The bank clerk called for the next customer with all the cheer of a woman facing a bikini wax. Mr. Tacky Suit swag gered up there while Angie willed the line to keep moving.
Two minutes left on her break.
Then—finally—it was her turn. With a sigh of relief, she moved across the tile floor toward the dis tracted-looking teller. The woman had a beehive hair style that looked as if maybe she'd worn it for the past fifty years, and fuchsia-pink lipstick. She glared at Angie as if it were her fault she had to deal with slime buckets in light blue suits.
Later, Angie would marvel at how quickly it all seemed to happen, but for now, time shifted into slow motion. One minute she was glancing at her watch and handing over her signed check, and the next, Mr. Edgy had grabbed her arm from behind.
"Hey—" she started, annoyed, only to swallow the words when the tip of a knife appeared in front of her eyes before settling against her neck.
"Give me all the money in your drawer," he said to the startled teller while still holding on to Angie. "And don't even think about the panic button."
Amaz ingly enough, as Angie was turned in the robber's arms so that he had a better grasp on her, everyone had froze on the spot. Even Mr. Knock-Me-Over-Magnificent, whose big body had gone tense and battle ready, didn't make a move.
"Do it, lady," the man growled at the teller, who let out a little cry and froze like a deer caught in the head lights.
Angie had a moment to feel badly she'd mentally poked fun at the woman's choice of lipstick color before she was rudely whipped forward again. Mr. Edgy stared down at her with a look of blatant hatred, and she took a ter ri fied breath that ended in a little squeak. Fear iced her veins so that her ears rang, making it dif fi cult to hear anything other than the echo of her own blood racing.
"You'll be my ticket outta here." The knife flashed beneath her nose again, making her glasses slip too low. "Got it?"
A response didn't seem to be required, so she closed her eyes, re al iz ing now was a heck of a time to suddenly understand what was wrong with her life—it was boring! She lived her life so pur posely staidly to avoid the parents' hopes and dreams that it had become utterly…unnecessary.
"Move and you die," the punk said with enough fury in his voice that Angie believed every word. "Scream and you die. Breathe and you die."
Okay, she got it. She was pretty much dead.
The teller moaned in distress, and her fingers at tempted to work the drawer in front of her, but she couldn't quite seem to manage it. Angie wanted to scream at her.
"Move it," the guy holding her muttered to the shaking woman.
The teller stared at him blankly and he yelled it again. "Money! Now!" For emphasis he shook Angie, hard.
She couldn't contain the helpless whimper that was ripped from her throat. Her sweater tore from her shoulder. Her glasses slipped off her nose, but she couldn't catch them because he held her so tight. She heard them hit the floor.
Without them, her vision blurred. Her world became reduced to the knife against her throat. The cold steel of the knife dug into her skin. The arm that held her im pri soned was amaz ingly strong and her knees wobbled as her life flashed before her eyes.
Oh, yes, that's what the niggling had been. Her life had been too un ne ces sary. Anyone could have lived it. That it was because she'd tried so hard to break free from those expectations of her didn't make her feel any better. A wasted life was a wasted life.
She needed more time. She needed another chance. She wouldn't waste anything this time!
Her heart drummed. She broke out into a sweat. As if from a mile away, she could hear the teller fumble at her drawer with clumsy fingers, but it must not have opened, because the man holding her swore lividly beneath his breath and shook her again, so hard this time that she cried out more loudly.
"Shut up." His grip tight ened, and Angie cringed, biting her tongue, waiting for the searing pain she figured would ac com pany a deep knife wound.
"Money," he demanded of the teller. "Give me the money!"
It wasn't going to happen, Angie realized blindly. He'd pet ri fied the poor teller so thoroughly that the woman didn't have a chance in hell of opening the drawer, not with those violently shaking fingers, not to mention the shock that had already set in, making her eyes two huge blurry orbs of panic.
Angie was going to die, right here, right now, and all because of bad timing. If she hadn't written the rent check, if she hadn't for got ten to come to the bank yesterday, if, if, if…she could think of a thousand of them.
Standing there, as good as a blind mouse, her sense of absurdity took over. Why else would she think about her apart ment, and the plants that would die without her?
And, oh God, she was wearing under wear with a rip in the elastic. Her mother had warned her about that, hadn't she, about getting in an accident with torn panties? Now everyone in the hospital would know.
If she even made it to a hospital.
Her parents would be contacted and told the truth. Their daughter had died before becoming someone. Anyone. And she'd died in old underwear.
It would kill them.
A shot rang out, and Angie automatically jerked.