Mercy Johnson flipped open the newspaper to the People section and checked her horoscope. Today will present you with an unusual opportunity.
She certainly hoped so. She needed any good news she could get. The whole damned country needed any good news it could get.
Sighing, she leaned back in her chair and reached for her morning cup of coffee. The world might be ending, but she still intended to satisfy her caffeine addiction. When the weather was warm, she always drank her first cup outside on her apartment balcony. This particular morning had dawned in gorgeous June perfection. The sky was a clear robin's-egg blue, the lush green lawn in front of her apartment building glistened with the morning dew, birds chirped in the tree that shaded her balcony, and the first flowers of summer peeked out of the soil in the planter next to her chair.
What a waste. Mercy wished she could enjoy the blossoming life all around her, but her mounting anxiety made it impossible. Despite the bright sunshine, an impending tragedy loomed over her world. She sighed again, folded the newspaper and dropped it on the table. Reading her horoscope had been an attempt at distraction, but nothing could take her mind off the terrible events of the past few days.
She stared at the headline in huge, bold type: "Deadly Plague Sweeps through Northeast." Fear knotted her stomach. The plague was spreading with horrifying speed. The government had grounded all air travel and imposed a rigid quarantine to try to contain it. Gatherings of large groups of people were prohibited, and most businesses had closed. Even with these extreme measures, disease experts were predicting the vicious outbreak might hit the Chicago area by week's end.
Mercy frowned. What should she do? People were literally dropping dead on the East Coast. And while most people still appeared calm in Chicago, it was a surface calm, as fragile as a fraying string holding a suspended sword. This was when it hurt to be alone, to have no one to turn to, even if it was only for a hand to hold.
A balmy breeze ruffled her hair, bringing with it the rich scent of newly cut grass. Looking out at the clipped lawn, she ran a hand through her tangled locks. She needed a haircut.
Too late. The beauty shops are closed. This may be the last beautiful sunny day I ever see. The thought filled her with foreboding. Normally, she was upbeat and optimistic, but life had turned uncertain. Incredibly, the end seemed near. She'd better seize her happiness wherever she could find it.
Especially when a plague is about to wipe out humanity. Mercy shivered at the gruesome possibility and pressed her fingers into her neck on either side of her chin, checking for the hundredth time that day to see if her lymph glands felt swollen. She'd woken up with a tickle in her throat and a sense of impending doom, but the tickle vanished when she drank a glass of water. The sense of impending doom remained, though. Even the soothing heat of the summer sun on her face didn't help calm her jangled nerves. The human race had finally found a way to destroy itself.
Damn those terrorists to hell! Mercy chewed on her lower lip and forced her mind to ponder the unthinkable -- her chances of surviving the next few days. The media had christened the plague the black tongue. It had started in New York with an epidemic of mysterious cases in the city's hospitals. Then terrorists had written a boastful letter, claiming credit for releasing a bioengineered toxin on the subway. The terrifying new disease had quickly spread up and down the eastern seaboard.
It was almost certainly headed for Chicago, if it wasn't in the city already, incubating in the blood of innocent people.
"Yuck!" Mercy drummed her fingers on the armrest of her chair and pushed the remains of her low-carb breakfast bar to one side. She'd lost her appetite. She wished she had something to do, anything to take her mind off morbid thoughts about germs floating in the air.
The notes of Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys rang out from the folding table beside her chair. Mercy snatched up her cell phone and flipped it open. "Hello."
"Hi, Mercy." A pleasant baritone rumbled in her ear. "It's Noah McKnight."
"Hi!" A surge of surprised pleasure swept through her, easing the knot in her stomach. Noah was the new guy at the office, the one who had all the single women practically drooling.
"Did I catch you at a good time?" He sounded relaxed, without a care in the world.
Yeah, real good. Compulsively, Mercy pressed her fingers to her lymph nodes again. The plague attacked the whole body, destroying the immune system at the same time that it sent infection everywhere. Most victims ended up choking to death on their own swollen, blackened tongues. The death rate was ninety percent.
She forced her morbid thoughts away, forced some cheer into her voice. "I was just relaxing, having coffee and reading the paper on my balcony."
Normally, she and Noah would be at the office already. They both worked at the Argonne National Accelerator Laboratory, where she was a research assistant for a group of physicists. But the laboratory had shut down until further notice. No one wanted to take the chance of catching the disease from a coworker.
"I'm surprised you even got the paper. Most people have stopped working for the duration of this crisis."
Crisis. She liked that word. A crisis seemed manageable. More manageable than a deadly plague that was spreading like wildfire. Tourists from other countries had been exposed in the subway and flown home before they knew they were infected. Already there were scattered cases overseas. The victims might go from a handful to hundreds of thousands within days.
The president had declared an immediate quarantine, and so far no cases had been reported west of Philadelphia, but Mercy suspected the government was hiding the awful truth to prevent total panic. After all, airplanes flew from New York to every city in the United States. Meanwhile, the entire country was holding its breath, since the virus was airborne.
"You know journalists. Nothing stops them from getting the scoop. They'll probably still be covering the news when there's no one left to read it." Stop babbling. You sound like an idiot. But the relief of talking to someone, anyone, was making her a little crazy. And Noah made her crazy anyway, although in an entirely different way. Just the sound of his voice sent electricity racing up and down her spine, sparking heat in other places.
She conjured up his image in her mind and the terror of the plague receded.
"Well, it sounds like you're trying to enjoy our time off, anyway. I'm glad to hear you're staying positive. I admired that trait in you when we talked last week. Do you remember? The people in my department and yours went out for a drink after work. We chatted for quite a while."
"Oh, yeah." As if she could forget. That night now seemed an eon ago in another, better world. They'd all been sitting around a big table, and she'd had a chance to talk to him for the first time. She'd hoped they'd hit it off, but of course every other single girl at the table was vying for his attention too. She'd tried her best to keep from swooning over him too obviously. He had a presence that made him the center of any gathering. At first she'd thought it was purely physical, the natural charm of a tall, broad-shouldered man with a stunning smile, not to mention thick blond hair and dark, soulful eyes. Why the eyes alone … obsidian eyes she'd thought the first time she'd gazed into their infinite black depths. They made her think of the mysterious monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its compelling power to fascinate.
But the sense of presence he radiated was more than that, as she'd discovered while talking to him. He was fun and witty and intelligent with a rare sensitivity to her feelings that turned her insides to mush. They yakked until the bar closed, and they were kicked out on the street. She'd prayed every day since that he'd call her.
Now he had, but the world was ending. Damn!
"Are you surprised to hear from me? I had to make sure you're alive and well." The sincere concern in his voice warmed her heart. She pictured a friendly smile quirking up the corner of his sensual mouth. The tight knot in her stomach loosened some more. She could feel her fear draining away. The worst part of the past day or two had been facing this crisis alone. She had friends, sure, but she was an only child and her parents were both gone. She had no family, no home to run to.
She clutched the phone tight. The sexy sound of Noah's voice tempted her to pretend this nightmare of plague and death wasn't happening. She should be happy, excited, thinking about life and love.
Hell, she was happy and excited and thinking about life and love. The male rumble in her ear was making her forget all about the plague.
What if Noah wanted to forget too? A quick, passionate romance might be just the thing.
The idea left her breathless and giddy. It would be heavenly to find escape in his strong arms, to lose her fears in the pleasure of those firm lips pressed against hers.
"Mercy, are you there?"
With an effort, she let go of the erotic visions that had suddenly blossomed full-blown in her mind. "Yes, I'm here. I'm alive and well, but I'm slowly going crazy. I feel like I'm trapped in my apartment."
A bird sang a cheery song from the branch of the tall oak tree that shaded her balcony. Lucky bird. It didn't have to worry about coming down with black tongue.
"I'm glad to hear that." His words tumbled out with an engaging eagerness. "Well, not glad you're feeling trapped, but maybe if you're bored enough you'll be open to considering an idea I have."
"Spending the day together. I only moved to the Chicago area three weeks ago, so I don't know anyone here. I guess I'm feeling lonely. I'm freaking out sitting in front of the TV listening to reports of the mounting death toll. I need to go somewhere and have some fun. So how about it? Will you live dangerously and go out with me?"
Oh, yeah! Yet despite her enthusiastic libido, Mercy couldn't ignore the stab of fear in her stomach. If she went trotting around the suburbs, she would risk exposing herself to the deadly plague. Then she half-snorted into the phone. Who was she kidding? She was sitting outside drinking her coffee. It wasn't like she had air filters on the doors and windows of her apartment. If the plague reached Chicago, she was a goner anyway.
If ever there was a time to eat, drink, and be merry, it's now, her libido whispered in the back of her mind.
"What would we do?" She knew the restaurants and movies would be closed. Only essential services such as hospitals, gas stations, and grocery stores were still operating and then only with skeleton crews.
Noah dropped his voice to a seductive rumble. "I think the important thing is to get together and do our best to enjoy life while we can."
The hint of passion to come stirred a flame to life inside Mercy. Great! We think alike. She drew in a shaky breath, vivid erotic images once more leaping to life in her mind's eye. She wondered where he was. In his apartment? She pictured him standing and looking out the window as he talked, in blue jeans and a T-shirt, his hair tousled from sleep, his feet bare.
Another image blossomed in her mind, one that made her heart pound harder. Maybe he was still in bed, his naked body wrapped in a white sheet. Even this early in the summer, he sported a tan. She'd noticed the other night how well it set off his wheat-gold hair. Now she couldn't help but wonder if that tan covered his whole body.
She gripped the phone tighter and managed a reply. "Getting together sounds good."
"Great! You might think this strange, but I've been raised to follow my intuition. Ever since meeting you, my gut's been telling me to stick close. I want to get to know you better, and it occurred to me today would be the perfect opportunity for the two of us become intimately acquainted."
Mercy's toes curled at his words. An intimate relationship. That was exactly what she wanted. She licked her lips and lifted an eyebrow. "Strange? I think it's a wonderful idea."
"Good! I'm looking at this gorgeous sunshine and picturing being with you. I can see you sitting under a tree, enjoying a picnic with me." His low, intimate voice simmered with erotic promise. His words caressed her ear. "We'll find someplace private, by a river or a lake. We'll spread out a blanket and share some wine and bread and cheese. Maybe we'll get a little bit drunk. I need to be close to someone. I need to hold someone. I want it to be you."
Mercy's throat went dry. "Why, Noah! We've never even had an official date."
"I know. Believe me, I intended to change all that. I was going to ask you out to a movie next week, wine and dine you, and build a relationship. Somehow I sense it's important to have a relationship with you."
"Oh!" was all Mercy could squeak. Good God, she would have given anything to hear these words a week ago. But could they even have a future now?
"These goddamned terrorists have robbed us of the luxury of time," Noah went on. The man must be a mind reader. "I hate to sound morbid, or frighten you, but…" He let the words trail off. There was no need to finish the sentence.
After a moment, he resumed talking. "Remember, in the bar the other night when I asked you if you were willing to live dangerously? I'm looking for a woman with certain characteristics. That includes having the courage to take a risk. Are you willing to take a chance on a relative stranger?"
Mercy almost laughed. "That's me. People say I take too many chances, but if I see something that needs to be done, I go out and do it."
"Yes, I saw that in you, and I like it. So what about today? I want to feed you cheese while I nibble your ear. I want to stare into your eyes and play with your hair. I want to talk and laugh and get to know you. And later, if we seem as right together as I think we're going to be, I want to lie in the grass with you beneath a bright blue sky and make love until nothing else in all the wide world matters."
Mercy was glad Noah couldn't see her. She was sure her cheeks had turned flame-red. The picture of their bodies tangled together on a blanket somewhere burned in her mind. Her nipples hardened, and she grew damp between her thighs.
"Well? You haven't said anything. Have I scared you off?"
She drew in a breath. "No. I feel the same way, like time is running out, and I'd better seize the chance to live while I still can."
There, she'd said it. She swallowed hard. One last chance for what? Time for lust at least. And maybe, if she was very lucky, there'd be time for a little bit of love.
"I knew you'd be open to the idea. There's something about you: a sparkle in your eyes, a lilt in your laugh, a joy of life. I knew you weren't going to just sit around and wait for death to come calling."
"No more mention of death!" She shook her head, suddenly determined to enjoy this experience to the hilt. "As it happens, I have some cheese and a loaf of French bread."
Noah chuckled. "Now we're talking. I have a bottle of vintage wine and a blanket. I think we're in business. I'm guessing that with most people cowering indoors away from everyone else, the Fox River Forest Preserve might be deserted. We'll find a nice meadow along the river, surrounded by trees. What do you say?"
Mercy gripped the phone tighter to stop her hand from shaking. Her whole body felt weak. At this rate, she'd probably topple onto the blanket and spread her legs the first time he cracked a smile. What did it matter? It was what they both wanted.
"I can be there in an hour."
"Wonderful." She heard the relief in his voice. "I'll meet you in the parking lot."