Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.
She ticked the seconds off silently in her head. Her heart hammered painfully, the desperate waves of panic making it impossible to think. Stay calm. Stay calm, she repeated as she rifled through the drawers of what once had been her mother’s dresser.
Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four.
Shit. It had to be here. This is right where her mother always kept it.
She slammed the drawer closed. The clap of cheap wood echoed in the quiet house. The jarring noise was a dead giveaway.
It didn’t matter though. She was out of time.
His boots rang hallow on the stairs. He was coming. She pushed back the waves of panic and tried to focus.
Thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five.
It took a total of forty-five seconds for him to climb the stairs and reach her bedroom door. She should know. She’d counted it enough times, lying awake in bed listening to the heavy tread of his footsteps and dreading what would come next.
He passed the top of the landing and headed down the narrow hall. She could feel the reverberation of his boots on the bare hardwood floors as he drew closer. Maybe five more seconds, if he’s drunk. Maybe. And then he would burst through the door.
Panic overwhelmed her defenses and struck her full force. She knew hiding was futile. She knew he would find her. Unable to stop herself, she ducked into the closet.
The dark welcomed her, and she slid through the curtain of her mother’s clothes. Her back softly collided with the wall. Inch by inch, she sank down until she sat hunched on the floor. Waiting.
“Ready or not, here I come,” her stepfather, Master Sergeant Samuel Morris, called out in that creepy, singsong voice, like this was some kind of sick game.
Her hands shook, and she clasped them in a tight knot under her chin. Her mother’s scent—baby powder and cinnamon—filled the small space, enveloping her like a warm cloak, and she wished she could hide here forever. Safe. Untouched.
Tears stung her eyes. God, she missed her mother. It was bad before. His punishments had always been harsh, but since her mother’s death, everything had changed.
Hot tears poured down her cheeks. She brushed them roughly away with trembling hands and cursed herself for being weak, for giving into her fear. She had to be strong. She must not cry. If there was one thing Sam liked more than the chase-me game, it was her tears, and she had no wish to give him what he wanted. He could take, but she would not give.
She bit the inside of her cheek until the rusty tang of blood filled her mouth.
Sometimes the pain helped her focus. She couldn’t win, of course. He was too powerful, too relentless. But she refused to give up. There had to be a way out of the trap. There had to be. She just had to live long enough to find it.
Heavy footsteps stopped outside the door. The light bulb overhead clicked. Harsh yellow light filled the closet. She pulled her knees close, shriveling back into the shadows.
“Time’s up, Jill,” he said in his rumbling baritone.
Despite her steely resolve, thin tendrils of fear unfurled in the pit of her stomach, and she knew he was right. The game was over. And he had won. Again. Hatred burned in her eyes as she stared at the heavy beige boots encasing his size-twelve feet.
Sam parted the clothes. The hangers squealed against the metal rod, reminding her of fingernails on slate. The sound made her teeth ache.
She could smell his sour mash breath, and a wave of nausea rolled through the pit of her stomach. Tears threatened, and she forced them back behind a frozen wall. Like a caterpillar, she withdrew inside her icy cocoon to a place far beyond, where he couldn’t touch her.
“Were you looking for this?” he asked.
Master Sergeant Morris dangled a twenty-two caliber sub-compact pistol from a thick finger. Jill’s gaze shifted from the gun to the grotesque smile on his broad face and back again.
The gun. Yes. Every night as he opened her bedroom door, she’d thought about the gun, and pictured a bullet hole centered between his thick black brows. But as usual, he was two steps ahead.
Like Jesse James, he spun the pistol around his finger and tucked it neatly into the back of his fatigues.
“You like games, do you?” he asked.
“Not as much as you,” she said, in a voice that sounded steadier than she felt.
His cruel lips flattened into a thin line. Jill remained perfectly still, her face a stony mask. Sam hunkered down. His meaty hands snaked toward her. Hot fingers slithered around her neck. She shuddered and waited for them to constrict, squeezing off her airway. But they didn’t tighten. Goosebumps dimpled her icy skin as he caressed the long column of her slender throat. Their eyes locked, and as much as she wanted to, she refused to look away.
Never again, she promised herself. Never again would he touch her like this. He would pay. Somehow this sick game would end.
And no matter what the cost, she would win.
Jill Shannon stood with her feet planted shoulder width apart and focused intently upon her mark. Target acquired. Shoulders relaxed, she squeezed the trigger of the 9 mm Glock. The acrid smell of cordite filled her head.
A cocky smile crossed her face as she stole a quick glance at her husband through the thick lenses of the protective goggles. Pressing the button to retrieve the target, she admired the tight grouping of holes that obliterated the center of the bull’s-eye. Dead-on balls accurate, as Master Sergeant Morris used to say.
Alex Shannon kept his eyes trained forward as he completed his round. His grouping was good, a little to the left of Jill’s perfect aim. He lowered his gun and cast a crooked, self-deprecating smile in her direction. “You know, you’re pretty good at keeping my ego in check,” he said as he pulled out his earplugs.
“I’m glad to hear that I serve some purpose,” she said, removing her goggles.
“Like that’s the only thing.”
“A little healthy competition is good for a marriage,” Jill said, her smile widening in appreciation of the ironic inflection in his voice. “Besides, you cant be all that bad. They still allow you to carry a badge and a gun.”
“Yeah, that helps.”
“Girl’s got a point, Alex,” a deep voice rumbled from behind.
“What are you doing here on a Sunday morning?” she asked.
Jackson Levy was a bear of a man, six foot three, and still built like the linebacker he was back in his college days. Alex was no small guy, but next to Jackson, he looked like an undernourished middle-grader.
“Thought I’d get a little shooting in while the wife is at yoga. My own Zen moment, so to speak.”
Jill masked her surprise. Last she heard, Jackson and his wife, Michelle, were separated. If Alex knew about their reconciliation, he hadn’t let on. Of course, that was unusual. They didn’t talk about work. Truth was, they didn’t talk about much at all lately.
“Sometimes I worry about you,” Alex said with a grin.
“Me? What about the two of you? If this is your idea of a date, then … With a cocked eyebrow, Jackson let the words trail off. Stepping forward, he clamped his huge hand onto Jill’s shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze. “How are you doing, girl?”
“Keeping out of trouble.”
“Looks like you kicked your man’s butt.”
“It’s not the first time,” Alex said, giving Jackson a sidelong glance through narrowed eyes. “Jill’s stepfather was Special Forces. She learned to shoot before she could drive. I don’t need to hear any shit from you about my marksmanship.”
“Well, I’ve got a lot riding on your shooting ability. I’ve got to know that you have my back. Maybe I need to take Jill here along with me instead.”
“Not a chance,” Alex said. The response was fast. Automatic. Jill bristled at the proprietary note in his voice. Before she could respond, he continued.
“There’s a big difference between shooting a paper target and a perp. I haven’t let you get shot so far, and believe me, that’s no small feat given the massive target you present.”
Jackson’s wide lips parted in a good-natured smile. “Maybe a bigger target is what you need if you plan on hitting anything.”
“Don’t push your luck, or I might just shoot you myself.” Jackson laughed, and Alex cocked an eyebrow. “I’ll catch you later. I’ve got to take Dirty Harriett here to the airport.”
Alex clapped a hand on Jackson’s shoulder. Jill could still hear his deep, rumbling laugh as she handed in her gear at the desk.
She didn’t miss the appreciative glance she got from the clerk behind the counter as she signed out. If Alex noticed, he showed no outward sign. Was he used to the male attention she attracted? Did he still look at her that way? Did he still look at her at all? Over the course of their five-year marriage, they had slid into a routine. Or was it a rut, she wondered.
“What time’s your flight?” he asked.
“Why so early?”
Jill followed Alex out of the range and down the long, narrow hallway toward the locker room. Her heart pounded in double time as she considered the question, but she kept her voice light.
“I’ve got a project review first thing in the morning and I still have to work on my slides.” Alex glanced at her. He still looked like a college student, his short hair cut away from his angular face and a light growth of stubble on his cheeks. Subtle lines carved their way into the corners of his eyes and lent him an air of experience, falling just short of the war-weary look common to most detectives.
The expression in his golden brown eyes gave her pause. Was he growing suspicious of her frequent trips to the Bay Area? The recent expansion of her role at work provided a plausible excuse for all the time spent away from him. But still.
“I guess we should head straight home then. You don’t have a lot of time to get ready.”
Unaware that she had been holding her breath, she exhaled in a soft sigh. Her long strides kept pace with his as they walked side by side, hands not touching. Jill changed the subject and followed him into the locker room.
“Did you talk to Captain Lewis about the presentation he asked you to do for the conference?”
Once a year, police chiefs from across the country got together to discuss the new strategies and techniques their departments employed. This year, Alex had been asked to present his groundbreaking work on a suite of cybercrime tools. Jill glanced up. Alex’s expression was guarded.
“I thought we talked about this already.”
“Did we?” Jill asked, eyes wide, feigning ignorance.
“It’s a political bullshit assignment. I’ve got better ways to spend my time.”
Jill frowned. It was exactly the type of answer she expected. Tactical. Alex seemed maddeningly oblivious to the types of opportunities that came his way. If only he possessed an ounce or two of ambition.
“Come on, Alex. You’re a smart guy. You know there’s more to it than that. Think of the doors it could open for you.”
“For me? Are you sure it’s me we’re talking about here, because if it is, you know where I stand. All I want is to get back into homicide. Are you sure we’re not talking about what you want?”
“That’s not fair,” she said, controlling her irritation with effort. “The cybercrimes unit has been waiting for a guy with your talent. Think of all of the good you could do.”
“Great, so I can put a dent in identity theft instead of tracking down murderers. Hell of a trade-off, don’t you think?”
“Forget it,” she said, and waved a dismissive hand.
An uncomfortable silence settled between them, and Jill could feel the weight of his stare as they entered the locker room. She deliberately avoided his gaze. There was no point. At times like this, there was no talking to him. The widening gulf between them felt less like a fissure and more like the great divide.
Alex dialed the combination, then handed her a jacket before pulling on his own.
“Listen, Jill, I’m not that guy. Besides, you’ve got enough ambition for both of us.” His voice was soft, and he shot her his best boyish smile in an attempt to take the sting out of his words. “If it helps, Jackson has been pushing me, too.”
It didn’t help. She brushed past him and left the locker room. Ambitious? Hell yeah, she was ambitious. Spending her high school years dirt-poor and in foster homes was inspiration enough to excel. Alex’s Norman Rockwell upbringing didn’t instill him with the same needs.
Half way to the exit, Alex’s cell phone rang, eliminating the need for further discussion. She pushed open the heavy doors and stepped out into the brisk morning air. Thick, gray clouds choked out the sun, and though it wasn’t raining yet, it soon would be. She could feel it.
Jill stayed two strides ahead, carving a path through the parked cars toward the silver Jeep Liberty. The lights flashed as Alex unlocked the door.
“When?” As he spoke into the phone, the change in his tone was instantaneous, sharp, and suddenly all business. Jill turned. The expression on Alex’s face was serious. “When was she expected home?”
What now? Here it was, a cool fall Sunday morning, and they couldn’t spend an hour alone without a call. She knew what came next. An emergency. An excuse. And she would be finding her own way to the airport while he rushed off.
Shaking her head, she opened the door and climbed inside the Jeep.
“Have you called the police yet?” Alex asked as he settled behind the steering wheel, the cell phone still pressed to his ear. With a quick flick of his wrist, he consulted his watch. “I’ll be there in twenty-five minutes.”
Hanging up, he glanced over at Jill. Concern was clearly etched into the lines around his mouth. “That was Abby Watson. I mean Nelson,” he corrected with a quick shake of his head. “She got married.”
Jill’s lips twitched in recognition. An unpleasant stab of surprise shot through her.
“Abby Watson. Your ex-girlfriend?”
“Her sister is missing.”
Technically Abby was still in the picture when she and Alex first started seeing each other. There weren’t many wives who felt comfortable with an out-of-the-blue call from a long-lost girlfriend. Fiancée, Jill amended. And she was definitely not among them.
“And so she called you?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and folding her arms across her chest.
Alex lifted a hand off the steering wheel in a shrug. “I’ve known the family a long time. I’ll drop you off at home before I head over to her parents’ place to see what I can find out.”
His hand stalled as he reached out to start the engine, and he paused, as if a new thought had suddenly occurred to him. “I won’t be able to take you to the airport.”
“I’ll call a cab.”
Jill shifted her gaze out the windshield and felt a cold knot of resignation form in her gut. Duty came first for Alex. Always had. But having him rush off to his ex-girlfriend’s rescue was somehow worse. A stab of resentment flared. She pulled in a deep breath and released it slowly.
It didn’t matter. Soon she’d be on a plane headed for California. She could forget all about the argument, the phone call, Abby Watson, and everything else. By the time she landed, this would all seem so very far away.
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