A Stranger She Can Trust (Escape Club Heroes)
Available May 2017
In USA TODAY bestselling author Regan Black’s new Escape Club Heroes thriller, a guarded man builds a future with a woman without a past…
Outside of one of Philadelphia’s busiest nightclubs, a woman stumbles from her taxi. Beaten and bruised, Melissa Baxter is an amnesiac with a target on her back. Gun-shy, Melissa relies on a handsome hero to help her uncover who she really is.
Carson Lane—a paramedic with his own dark history—can’t help but bring this beautiful, vulnerable woman under his wing. Still reeling from his partner’s murder, he’s no stranger to risk. But as he and Melissa begin unraveling the mystery of who she really is, Carson realizes falling in love could be the biggest risk of all.
Escape Club Heroes: Off-duty justice, full-time love…
Five stars from Melody-Rose, Goodreads reviewer: “The Escape Club Heroes is romantic suspense at its best!”
“The chemistry between Carson and Melissa is undeniable…. A perfect HEA.” –RomanceLibrarian
“Absolutely fantastic! I thrive on amnesia tropes, and A STRANGER SHE CAN TRUST is as good as they come!” -5 stars from Monique (you can read her full review -that made me cry happy tears- at Goodreads)
Carson Lane hesitated in the hallway, the rack of clean pint glasses growing heavy in his arms. Only a few strides separated him from the sea of humanity singing along and cheering the band blasting from the Escape Club stage. This persistent slip and slide of nerves through his gut was ridiculous. Not one person out there would notice him. The longer he stalled, the more attention he’d gain from the bartenders who needed the glassware.
His knee ached, and the muscles in his thigh burned as he struggled with the extra burden. He’d worked a full first shift today, substituting on a Philadelphia Fire Department ambulance, and though his body begged for a break, his mind wasn’t ready to rest. For more than eight months, only exhaustion brought him any peace. His current choices were clear: walk into the heart of the club or walk out and keep going. He had to choose, to do something, or he’d drop the glasses and have a bigger mess to clean up along with the unwelcome questions about his fitness.
Pivoting, he pushed through the swinging door with his shoulder and back. The path memorized, he averted his gaze from the faces in the crowd. People were oblivious to the risks and pain that could be the end of any one of them at any given moment. Official “managed” risks and protocols hadn’t kept his best friend and partner on the ambulance rig alive when they’d answered the call that would be her last.
Every day that he woke up and hauled himself out of bed, he wondered why it had been her and not him. So far, no one had ever given him a decent answer.
Unless faced with a crisis, people had a tendency to ignore the precious, fleeting nature of being alive. As a paramedic, he dealt with the frailties and miraculous resiliency of the human body through every shift. He’d loved his job, despite the occasional sad ending, right up to the shift that had changed everything with an irreversible finality.
William, the bartender working this end of the bar, made room for Carson to stock the clean glasses. “Just in time, man.”
With a nod, Carson completed the task of restocking, picked up the racks of dirty glassware and headed back to the relative quiet of the kitchen. Only an hour until the last set for the band and last call for drinks. He could make it. Had to make it.
In the back of his mind, he heard the echo of his partner’s voice urging him to get over his current mental roadblocks. “Mind over matter” is what she’d say about now, and shove his shoulder. “Gotta do the job.” Sarah Neely hadn’t been known for her tact among the PFD emergency medical personnel, only renowned for her competence and compassion with their patients.
Carson set up the next rack of dirty glassware and pushed it into the dishwasher. He decided she just wouldn’t understand how much of him had died along with her all those months ago. 254 days ago to be exact, and the terror and memories remained raw and painful. Perpetually caught at the edge of that nightmare, he scrubbed his hands on his apron, confused when his palms didn’t leave bloody trails on the white fabric.
He wheeled around to find Grant Sullivan, owner of the Escape Club, leaning into the kitchen doorway. “Sir?”
“I need a word.” He tipped his head toward his office. “Come on back.”
“Sure thing.” Carson untied the apron and left it on a hook by the kitchen door, then followed Grant down the hall. The man’s stocky build and easygoing outlook belied his quickness and boundless energy. At his boss’s gesture, he eased into one of the two chairs facing the desk. The office was quiet, only the dull throb of the band’s bass carrying through the floors.
“How did things go today?” Grant’s brown eyes were bright with anticipation. “On your PFD shift, I mean.”
“Smooth and normal shift,” Carson replied, hoping his relief at the easy question wasn’t too obvious.
Grant nodded, his thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows dipping low with his frown. “And the knee is holding up?”
“Yes.” Carson forced a smile. “Feeling stronger every day.” It was a small fib. The bullet had passed through his thigh, just above his knee, causing all kinds of damage to muscles and connective tissue along the way. He’d resumed walking three weeks after the surgery, but the pain had leveled out around week eight. Contrary to the physical therapy consensus, the motions never got easier. Mind over matter, he thought, as Sarah’s face flashed through his mind.
“I got a call from Evelyn today. She says she’d like to get you back on the schedule full-time.”
“She said as much to me,” Carson admitted, more than a little surprised his PFD supervisor had spoken with Grant. As a former cop, Grant’s connections with first responders in the city went deep, but it still seemed like a stretch.
“So, why do you keep hanging around here?”
Carson fidgeted in his chair, well aware Grant understood the complexities of recovering from bullet wounds. The blow to his confidence in his skills and his faith in the human condition were more significant obstacles than the aggravating pain lingering in his knee.
Grant had lived through the pressures and challenges of life in public service. Forced to take early retirement because of an on-duty shooting, he’d survived the upheaval of a recovery and a significant career change from cop to club owner. His compassion for others in similar circumstances had prompted him to open the Escape Club. His determination to assist those who helped the community was the reason more than half his employees at any given time were like Carson, men and women waiting with varying degrees of patience for reinstatement to their positions.
Except Carson wasn’t sure he could go back to the job. Going back full-time meant a steady partner, a professional commitment and a mutual trust he wasn’t ready to tackle. The idea of forging that connection with someone new terrified him.
He and Sarah had been an effective team. They’d learned to read each other, often without saying a word. Yet when she’d needed him most, bleeding out in his arms, he’d let her down. He still had nightmares of her valiant effort get out those last words. Words he’d never been able to decipher, though his frequent nightmares gave him too many second chances to do just that.
He scrubbed at the stubble on his jaw. What if it happened again and another call ended in gunshot wounds? Would he be able to live with himself if he failed another partner?
“Carson?” Grant prompted.
“I stay because I like the music here,” he replied.
Grant gave a bark of laughter, drumming his fingers on the desk. “Come on. You can give me a better reason than that.”
“Are you tossing me out?” Carson swallowed the lump in his throat. He would deal with it if he had to, but he hoped he hadn’t worn out his welcome. Money wasn’t an issue thanks to his substitute shifts as a paramedic and his occasional work with a construction crew, but shifts here filled a great many empty hours in his daily routine.
“Not tossing you anywhere. I like having you here.” Grant’s brown eyes turned serious as he leaned forward. “You’ve spoken with the department chaplain about the incident and your recovery, right?”
“Several times,” Carson said. Hell, several times last month. Although the counseling sessions helped, they didn’t keep the dread at bay for long. Nothing did. Not physical therapy, not a successful shift as a substitute on the rig. Not a beer with friends, not holiday dinners with family, not a house that was too damned big. In short, he was floundering. If the people around him were worried, he knew they had good reason. Hell, he’d told others the same thing he heard too often lately: get back in the saddle and lean on friends as needed. Too bad he couldn’t go back and retract those platitudes now that he understood just how useless they were.
He’d been an excellent paramedic in no small part because of Sarah. While he could still do the job well—his substitute shifts proved that—he refused to go back full-time and put someone new at risk. What if—
“Counseling is only one piece of it.” Grant’s voice cut into his downward-spiraling thoughts. The chair creaked as he rocked back. “What does help, son?”
Carson bristled against the concerned tone that veered dangerously close to pity. He didn’t need help generating pity. Although he wanted to resist and deny, to push back and claim one final time that he was fine, he couldn’t muster the right words. “Would you believe I’m considering some different career options?”
“That’s fair and reasonable.” Grant nodded. “There’s no judgment here,” he said after a few more beats of silence. “Is it true? Whatever you say stays right here, between us.”
Carson knew that. He also understood the stress he was about to put on that promise. “When you were shot, did you hate the shooter?”
Grant went absolutely still, quite a feat for the man who was always moving, tapping fingers or a foot in time with whatever beat the bands on stage were playing. “Yes.”
“Given the chance, would you…would you have done something stupid?”
“I’m not on the force anymore, but I do not want to hear your definition of stupid,” Grant replied. “I will admit my hate and frustrations eased when I found a new outlet and purpose.”
“Even after the shooter was acquitted?” Carson queried.
“That was a hard day,” Grant admitted. “Alcohol might have been involved in shaking off the news.”
“He ended your career and irrevocably changed your life. How the hell do you get over that?” Carson realized too late he was shouting, and his hands were balled up into tight fists on Grant’s desk. He stretched his fingers wide and raised his hands, palms out in surrender as he sat back into the chair. “Sorry.”
“No need for apologies.” Grant tapped out a quick syncopation on the desktop. “Neither you nor I was charged with negligence or any kind of errors in our unfortunate incidents.”
Carson rolled his shoulders against the prickle of self-loathing sliding down his spine. Being cleared by an official report couldn’t bring Sarah back to life. If he hadn’t made a mistake somewhere during that call, Sarah and he would still be on the job together. Until he identified his mistake, he shouldn’t be trusted as a full-time partner.
“What do you do when you’re not here or subbing on a rig?” Grant asked.
“The police call me in as a sketch artist occasionally. I still help out a friend in the PFD who flips houses on the side.” On the days when his friend had work that didn’t aggravate Carson’s knee injury too much.
“What do you do for yourself?”
Carson shook his head. There was nothing else. What life did he deserve after letting Sarah die? Every time that night replayed through his mind, he searched for an alternate ending. If he’d taken a different route to the call, if he’d handled the victim differently, would she still be here? Maybe, technically speaking, they’d done everything right and yet Sarah had been killed when two other men stormed the ambulance and robbed it. He had to be sure he wouldn’t repeat the mistakes that got her killed.
“I keep waking up,” Carson said at last. “Keep hauling myself out of bed.” It was a lousy answer, but he was pretty sure Grant, having been through something similar, could see right through his excuses. “Someone said it would get easier.”
“Time heals all wounds?” Grant let loose a bark of laughter. “Yeah, that someone is full of crap if they didn’t finish that theoretical statement.”
“What do you mean?”
“It gets easier only when you start letting go.” Grant sat forward again. “You let go only when you start living again. I’m not you, son, and our experiences are different, but shifting the focus from the past, being in the present and finding something to look forward to, carried me through the worst of it.”
Carson didn’t think that accounted for the fear and doubt that plagued him in those rare moments when he managed to shake off the worst of the guilt. “You’re suggesting I find a hobby or something?”
“I’m suggesting you look for something outside my kitchen and your friends in the first responder circles,” Grant said. “And I want to hear how much you enjoy that something.”
By the tone, Carson heard the words as an order rather than a suggestion. “Got it.” He pushed to his feet and left the office, returning to the kitchen to finish up the last responsibilities for his shift. As he went through the motions of closing and cleaning, he forced his mind to think about alternatives for tomorrow instead of dwelling in the past. Other than his family, he didn’t have close friends who weren’t connected to the police or fire departments. Where was he supposed to start searching for a new hobby?
With the trash can loaded, he wheeled it through the back door to the big garbage bins out back. He paused on the way back inside, breathing in the cool spring air rolling off the Delaware River and sighing it out again in an attempt to let go of the past. Up and down the pier, businesses were bustling with customers cutting loose and making the most of Friday night. From this shore and on the far bank of New Jersey, lights sparkled and danced in the reflection of the water. Boats cruised slowly, leaving ghostly trails behind them. From Carson’s vantage point, the traffic on the bridge was little more than a murmur of white noise.
Sarah had died on a hot and humid summer night. He’d survived winter and the holidays without her, made it through Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day, too. Didn’t people connect hope and fresh starts with springtime? Maybe in this new season he could make Grant’s order work and break the cycle of grief plaguing him.
Glancing up, he searched out the brighter stars in the sky, trying to recall the constellations his dad had taught him. Maybe he should pull out the telescope and set it up. It would be one positive way to pass the dark, lonely hours. “Be in the present,” he said aloud, coaching himself. “Let go and start living.”
The advice didn’t bring an immediate result, so he tried again. Repetition didn’t ease the pain or offer any surge of hope. He supposed it was wishful and absurd to think a deep breath and a few new words would offer instant relief.
He turned around at the sound of an engine, holding up a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of headlights as a big car pulled to a stop at the side of the club. He saw a typical white city taxicab with a familiar logo on the back door. Then a slender woman pushed it open and got out, stumbling a little.
“Hey!” The driver jumped out, as well. “You owe me money, lady.”
“I…” The woman frowned at her empty hands. “I don’t have money.” She wobbled, looking around. “Where—”
“Wait right there!” The cabbie rushed around the car to confront her, and the woman cried out as she tried to get away.
Sensing trouble, Carson dashed forward as the woman tripped and started to fall. He caught her, willing his knee to hold up for both of them. “Back off,” he warned the cabbie.
“She owes me the fare.”
“I’ll cover it.” Carson eased the woman down to sit on a discarded pallet. Despite the shadows, he could tell she wasn’t well. Drunk or stoned, the visible fresh scrapes and bruises on her face and arms implied someone had taken a few swipes at her recently. “What happened to her?”
“How the hell do I know? She got in the car that way.”
Carson looked at the woman. “Is that true?” She only stared up at him, then shied away from the cabbie. “Bring me her purse,” he said to the driver.
“No purse.” The driver gestured at the empty backseat. “Just her.”
“Where did you pick her up?”
“Near the Penn campus,” the cabbie answered, and then asked for the fare again.
That wasn’t much help beyond the basic geography. There were a number of reasons for a woman who appeared to be in her midtwenties to be near the University of Pennsylvania campus. Carson reached for his wallet. He handed over enough cash to cover the fare and a tip and sent the cabbie away. When they were alone, he picked up the subtle hitch in her breathing above the muted noises from their surroundings and the occasional raised voices from patrons dawdling in the parking lot.
“Can you stand?”
She stared at him blankly. She had abrasions on her knees and hands, and her left eye was nearly swollen shut. “Escape?”
“Yeah, you made it,” he replied. Pretty clear she was one of the people who sought out the secondary purpose of the club—asking Grant for help out of tight or sticky situations. “What’s your name?”
“Alex-Alexander?” She managed to squeeze out the name through a raspy voice. Laboring, she raised her closed fist toward his hand. When he opened his palm, she dropped a crushed matchbook into it.
Carson stared at the Escape Club logo for a moment, then flipped open the cover. Seeing the name Alexander scrawled on the inside, he pocketed the matchbook. Grant trained all of them to respond swiftly and without question if anyone showed up and asked for Alexander. Carson berated himself for making her wait this long. Her appearance was enough to prove she was in trouble, with or without the matchbook and code name. “Come on.” He reached out a hand to help her up, and she stared at him.
“Escape,” she repeated.
“Yes.” His throat felt raw just listening to her laboring over each word. “You’re safe now.” He needed better light and supplies to administer first aid, which he suspected was the least of her worries. “Come with me.” Grant would know what to do. Carson had to get her inside the building before the staff left for the night.
He knelt down on his good knee, putting him at eye level with her. Her good eye was glassy, and without his penlight, he couldn’t be sure her pupil was properly responsive. She might be high right now, but he didn’t see any typical signs of habitual use on her arms. He resisted making more assumptions. Only the right tools would give him an accurate assessment. “Let’s go inside to see Alexander. You can trust me.”
He held out his hand and waited for her to take it. He helped her stand, but she wobbled with her first step. Exasperated, he scooped her into his arms. Her arms came around his neck automatically, and her head dropped to his shoulder as he carried her the short distance to the back door.
He could feel the toned muscles of her legs under the thin fabric of her skirt. He’d helped his share of addicts on the job, and the safe bet was she wasn’t one. Relieved no one caught him struggling with both her and the door, he called for help once they were inside.
Grant appeared in the hallway first, followed by other members of the staff.
“She asked for Alexander,” Carson said, though it was pretty obvious. “A cab just dropped her off.”
“My office,” Grant said, taking in the details with that penetrating gaze. “Bring us the first aid kit, a blanket and bottled water,” he called out to others.
Carson made it down the hall without dropping the woman. She wasn’t heavy. He situated her in one chair and pulled the second around to face her. He pressed his fingers to her wrist, taking a pulse while he waited for the first aid kit to arrive.
She squinted against the brighter light in the office, but she didn’t fight him while he evaluated her. Every physical indication was she’d been in a fight with someone bigger and stronger than herself.
Her sluggish responses to his questions bothered him. When the first aid kit arrived, he pulled on gloves and took a closer look at her noticeable injuries. The swollen eye was nasty and the color was going to be vivid, but he didn’t think there was a fracture. He used a penlight to test her pupils, being cautious as he manipulated the swollen eye. Both pupils responded but were almost as listless as her speech. With her dark hair and eyes, excellent bone structure and warm golden skin, she’d be lovely under healthy circumstances. There was additional swelling along her jaw, there were bruises on her neck and her wide mouth would be lopsided for at least a day or two. He struggled against a sudden, familiar rush of anger at whoever had used her for a punching bag. Despite answering numerous domestic violence calls, he’d never become immune to the results.
“Who hit you?” he asked.
She tried to shake her head, but he had her face trapped in his hands as he gently prodded again at the black eye.
“Easy. Just take your time,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
He’d expected that answer. Victims rarely outed an abuser at the first opportunity. He reached for antiseptic to clean the split skin above her eyebrow. “Where were you before you got into the cab?”
Her good eye went wide, then closed, her features tightening with pain or shame. “I…I don’t know.”
“No problem. Just relax.” Carson didn’t try to coax more answers out of her. He tended the scrapes on her knees and hands and left the question-and-answer part of the program to Grant. “You’re safe now. That’s what matters.”
She glanced over his shoulder to the doorway with her good eye. “Okay.”
Once her wounds were clean, he really thought the cut above her eye needed stitches more than the glue and small bandages in the first aid kit. Grant came in and offered her a bottle of water and a bag of ice, then retreated. She passed the basic concussion protocol, but he thought she should be evaluated by a physician anyway.
“What’s the word?” Grant asked, stepping into the office again.
“Some good news. Nothing points to a serious concussion,” Carson replied as he peeled off the gloves. “Still, she should probably go to the hospital.”
“No!” The bag of ice landed in her lap, her hands clutching it tightly. “No hospital.” She tried to scoot the chair back out of his reach, but in her weakened state, she didn’t get far.
“Relax.” Grant, perched on the edge of his desk and arched an eyebrow at Carson before turning back to their guest. “Put the ice back on your cheek,” he said, motioning to the ice pack in her lap. “Now take a breath,” he added when she’d done as he instructed. “Why did you come here to the club?”
“No hospital,” she repeated, wincing as she shook her head. “C-can’t go to a hospital.”
Carson signaled Grant to back off. Her breathing had turned rapid and shallow, and her pulse had leapt into overdrive.
“Okay, hospitals are not an option. I get it. Just relax. You’re safe here with us.” Grant’s tone was full of soothing calm. “How did you hear about Alexander?”
Her gaze dropped to the floor, and her eyebrows dipped low over those wide brown eyes.
“I—I don’t remember.” She swallowed.
“That’s not unexpected based on your injuries,” Carson said quietly.
“Carson would know,” Grant added. “He’s a paramedic and I’m a former cop. You don’t know us, but we are trustworthy. Can you tell me how you got hurt?”
She ignored Grant, staring at Carson with her good eye, the other hidden by the ice pack. “You’re Carson?”
“Yes. Carson Lane.” She didn’t look familiar to him, but something in the way she studied him, something about the way she said his name, made him uneasy. “Have we met?”
“I don’t know.” Under the denim jacket and pale blue T-shirt, her shoulders shuddered as she sucked in another breath and tremors set in.
Carson looked around. “I’ll go find a blanket or something.”
“I’ll do it.” Grant moved faster than Carson, leaving him alone with the woman again.
A dozen questions rolled through his mind, but considering her physical and emotional state, he kept them to himself. He wished she would at least give them her name.
Grant returned with a blanket and Carson draped it over the woman’s narrow shoulders, tucking it around her and pulling it down as far as it would go to cover her legs. Her feet were likely still chilled, but it was the best they could do at the moment. She needed real medical attention at a hospital. Was she afraid of one particular hospital or all hospitals?
“Do you have a wallet or purse with you?” Grant asked, settling behind his desk this time rather than on it.
Fat tears spiked her dark lashes and rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t think so. I can’t remember anything.” She clutched the ice pack in her lap again.
“Only the matchbook,” Carson answered, showing it to Grant. Every instinct hammered at him to make this better, but he didn’t know how.
“Hmm.” Grant was doing something on his computer, likely checking for any breaking reports involving a woman of her description. “No missing persons,” he murmured almost to himself. “I could run prints.”
“She’s been through something,” Carson said. “If she doesn’t want to talk about it…” He left the implication hanging out there. He wished there was a woman around who could ask if she’d been raped. He wasn’t comfortable with those questions in this particular setting. “She doesn’t know what day it is, not the year or season.”
“What is the last thing you do remember?”
Grant’s query was met with another fat tear trailing the others. “I remember getting out of the cab. Seeing you.” She turned that good eye to Carson again.
He knew concussions could mess up a person’s memory, but she didn’t have symptoms of that problem. This sounded more as if there had been significantly more emotional trauma involved. Without a battery of tests, there was no way to know the validity, cause or even prognosis of her amnesia.
He reached out and took her hand. “You need to be seen by a doctor.”
“Please. No. I…” She struggled with something and gave up. “I don’t know why. I just know I can’t do that. No doctors, no hospitals. Whatever you’ve done for me is enough. I’ll be okay.”
Carson disagreed. The stark terror in her good eye at the mention of more comprehensive medical care worried him. Had she been attacked at a hospital or possibly escaped a psych ward?
“How about this?” Grant said with infinite calm and patience. “Carson can keep an eye on you for a few hours. Just until morning.”
Carson gawked at his boss. “You can’t be serious. I’m no doctor.”
“A point in your favor based on the patient’s preference. You can handle the observation through the night, right?”
“Anyone here can do that.” Someone else, anyone else, should have done that. Grant’s wife, Katie, had been at the club earlier, and rumor was she always waited up for Grant to get home. The two of them would be a better team to help this woman through the night than Carson.
“You’re the most qualified. You know what symptoms require her to go to the ER.” Grant held up a hand as the woman protested. “Whether you want that or not, I’m not taking a chance you’ll get worse after coming to us for help. Carson is the best person to watch over you tonight.”
She sighed, her lips tight.
“I understand it’s uncomfortable, and I’m open to another option. Would you like us to take you home or call a friend or family member for you?”
* * *
A fresh bolt of panic shot through her like white-hot lightning streaking through a dark sky. The sensation left her gasping. She knew what they were asking. She knew what it meant to call someone. She just couldn’t remember the numbers or names that would connect her to someone familiar. The concept of family made her feel marginally better and a thousand times worse, though the word didn’t induce quite as much dread the way friend did. Alexander was the name on the matchbook, and Grant and Carson were here and had been kind to her. Those three names were the extent of her world.
She fought against the tremors of fear skipping through her body. She wanted answers as much as the men asking the questions.
“No. I guess not.” She studied the man named Grant sitting behind his desk, struggling against the idea that she should know him. The hard jaw and thick build gave off an air of no-nonsense toughness, but his warm brown gaze didn’t induce any fear, and the gray hair salting his temples added a trust factor.
Dropping her gaze to the floor again, she said, “I can’t tell you where I live. I mean, I don’t know the answer.” She fisted her hands in frustration, and her short fingernails bit into her palms. “I don’t know who to call. The names…” Her breath rattled in and out of her chest. How could her head feel so full and empty at the same time? “The names are just gone,” she finished in a hoarse whisper.