Bodies littered the ground before her, their eyes forever unblinking, frozen in fear. The sky thundered and rain poured down, diluting the blood-splattered ground.
“Hello?” Anastasia called, searching for anyone who might have survived. What happened? Why was everyone dead?
Her lungs burned as she ran through the destruction of what had once been her city. Buildings had crumbled to nothing but chunks of brick, and it took nearly all her concentration to make it safely through the rubble.
“Hello?” she screamed as loud as she could, her throat burning from the force. “Is there anyone left?” Her gaze landed on a man lying face down, his dark hair matted with blood. She approached slowly, each step taking her closer to what she prayed wasn’t reality.
“Dakota?” she whispered, kneeling beside him. She rolled his body over and cried out. “No!” Anastasia lifted his head into her lap and cradled her best friend. What the hell had happened?
She turned toward the sound quickly, raising her fists in the air. A man stood before her wearing a crimson robe. His mouth in a tight line, he narrowed his silver eyes. Dark hair cut short and greying at the temples, he resembled one of the professors at the college, but she didn’t recognize him.
“What happened?” she asked.
Her stomach twisted. “What do you mean? I didn’t do anything!”
The man snickered. “You did everything!”
“Who are you?” She held her ground, determined to protect Dakota even now that he was no longer breathing.
“I will be your death.”
Her alarm clock blared to life, ripping Anastasia from her dream. Shooting up in bed, she reached over and slammed her hand down onto the snooze button. Her body shook from the after-effects of the nightmare.
She groaned and lay back against the pillows, covering her eyes with her hands. The nightmares had plagued her for months now, and no matter how exhausted she was when her head hit the pillow, they continued to haunt her sleep.
“You good, Ana?” Dakota asked from the other side of her closed bedroom door.
Ana jumped to her feet to pull her door open. Her roommate stood in the hallway, wearing basketball shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, having just returned from the gym. His thick brown hair was matted to the sweat on his forehead.
The nightmare image of Dakota lying dead in her arms popped into her head, so she closed her eyes to push the scene away.
Dakota had been her best friend growing up, and they lived next door to each other for their entire childhood. There were no secrets between them, and even now that they were adults sharing an apartment, they hadn’t drifted at all, only grown closer than ever.
“I’m probably just stressed.”
“Everything at work going all right?” His eyebrows bunched as he searched her gaze.
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s just the visit coming up.” She swallowed hard. Her parents were coming by for their monthly visit in three days, something she dreaded despite how much time passed.
Her past fears had a sneaky way of burrowing their way into her imagination.
“You know you don’t have to see them.” Dakota ran his hands up and down her arms in a sweet gesture meant to calm her nerves.
“They help pay the bills, Dakota; I don’t have a choice. Besides, things are better now that I’m not living there.”
“Yeah, I still think it’s ********. We can do just fine on our own.” He released her and stepped back. “I’m gonna go grab a shower. Want to pick up some breakfast before I head to class?”
She offered him a smile and nodded. “I’ll get dressed.”
Anastasia stepped back into her bedroom and closed the door gently behind her. She leaned back against the hard wood and studied the room before her. Her twin bed had been brought from her childhood home, as had the desk, but she’d wanted little else from that place she’d come to hate or those people who haunted her dreams.
Anastasia pulled on jeans and a pale blue T-shirt. Fridays were casual at the used car lot where she worked for her father’s golf buddy, and Anastasia took full advantage of enjoying a day without the suffocating uniform of pleated khaki pants and a stiff collared shirt she wore every other day.
She pulled a brush through her long brown hair and wished like hell she’d been blessed with curls—or any sort of volume—rather than the straight, impossible-to-style hair she had been born with.
It had been two years since she’d had to wear makeup, and ever since moving out, she’d chosen to forgo it. It wasn’t a luxury to her, as it was to most women. For her, covering bruises had been a matter of survival in high school, and now she chose to show off skin that was no longer marred with black and blue.
After applying a small amount of gloss to her lips, Anastasia stepped into the hall and made her way to the kitchen for a quick cup of coffee before Dakota was ready to go.
Just as she passed his room, his door opened and he stepped out wearing a black T-shirt and a pair of dark blue jeans. She looked up into piercing blue eyes and her mouth went dry. She cleared her throat and gave her head a quick shake. Why the hell does he have to be so **** attractive?
Being in love with your best friend was hard enough, but living with him and seeing him every day? That was borderline impossible to handle.
Especially when he looked like Dakota Parker.
“Ready?” he asked as he tucked his phone into his pocket.
“How do you take a shower and get ready so fast?”
He flashed a charming smile. “You should know. You practically roll out of bed looking adorable.”
Anastasia groaned; she hated being called adorable. At five foot four and with no hips to speak of, that seemed to be the male species’ favored word for her. Dakota knew it, too, and when he winked, she punched him lightly on the arm.
“Don’t be a dick.”
Dakota shrugged. “Comes naturally.”
That was a load of BS if she’d ever heard it. Dakota was one of the nicest people she knew, and he would be more than happy to give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it.
Perhaps that’s why he chose to study and become a doctor like his mother.
“Do you have class today?” he asked as they made their way down the stairs of their apartment complex.
She shook her head. “I have to work a four hour shift at the store today and then I’m headed to the library to work on my paper.” Because her parents had refused to help pay for a university—regardless of the fact her father was the ADA for the city of Seattle, and money had never been a problem—Anastasia attended the local community college, taking a few classes on creative writing.
One day she was going to do what she loved, sharing stories with others who longed for escape the way she had throughout her childhood.
“My mom was wondering if we wanted to do dinner tonight. She said she’s making meatloaf.”
Anastasia grinned; Elizabeth Parker’s meatloaf was the best thing in the world. Many times throughout their childhood, Dakota had snuck over a plate of his mother’s cooking when Anastasia was being punished for one thing or another. More often than not, that plate of food was the only thing she’d eat all day.
“They want us to come over there?” That was the only downside, their parents still lived next door to each other. So seeing the Parkers meant she might have to see her own parents too.
Dakota reached down and twined his fingers with hers in a familiar gesture that shouldn’t have had her blood pounding.
“It’ll be okay, Ana. If you don’t want to go, I can see if they’re willing to meet us somewhere.”
“No, that’s okay.” She smiled up at him. “Honestly, I could use some meatloaf.”
“You got it.” He kissed her hand lightly, then released her, opening the door to his red Jeep Wrangler so she could climb inside.
As they made their way downtown for breakfast, Anastasia said a silent prayer that her parents wouldn’t make an appearance tonight.