One year ago ...
Emily O’Halleran knew a third glass of wine was a sorry substitute for what she really wanted, but it was easier to get her hands on than the handsome and totally unattainable Mason Croft.
While internally debating the pros and cons of getting drunk, she glanced around her parents’ big backyard. Family and close friends had gathered to celebrate the marriage of her brother, Jonathan, to the love of his life, Andi. Her new sister-in-law was awesome, if a bit intense, and Emily loved her like the sister she never had growing up.
Actually, she’d gotten pretty darn lucky on the sister front in the past couple of years. All three of her older brothers were now married to amazing, uniquely different women. Their large family was growing ever larger, and she couldn’t be happier. Well, she could, but …
Her eyes scanned the makeshift dance floor set up under multiple strands of crisscrossing white lights. The weather was perfect, the slight chill to the night air signaling the end of spring.
Jonathan stood in the middle, holding his new wife as they chatted quietly to themselves, their precious baby daughter, Ashling, sleeping snugly between them. Her third oldest brother wasn’t much of a dancer, but he never gave up an opportunity to hold Andi.
Beck, her oldest brother, had his long arms wrapped firmly around his wife, Gwen. Emily noticed how he was always watching her, touching her, whispering secrets in her ear that made her blush. He cherished her.
Caleb held Dawn, his hands spread across her butt. Oh, how her mighty playboy brother had fallen when he’d first laid eyes on his now wife. He said something to Dawn, and she threw her head back and laughed. They did that a lot.
She was very happy for her brothers. Really, she was. Really. But lately, their happiness seemed to illuminate her sense of melancholy. She longed for someone to love her the way her brothers loved their wives, and the way her father loved her mother.
Her job had given her a glimpse into the darkest side of humanity. She’d come to realize life was uncertain, which created a sense of urgency to live life to its fullest that grew with every case they worked.
Emily was surrounded by a big family she loved and who loved her. Yet, as she watched them on the dance floor, she felt desolate and profoundly alone.
She rubbed the ache in her chest. Good grief, pity party much? She walked over to the bar and held up her empty wineglass. “I would like another one of these filled with some of that, please.” She pointed at the bottle of Darby’s Purple Haze.
“Sure thing.” The bartender took her glass and replaced it with a clean one, popped the cork on the red blend and filled her glass to the mid-point.
“Here ya go.” He winked and set it on the bar.
“Thanks.” She smiled at him. He was good-looking but a definite player. She’d bet her favorite pair of leggings he never left a wedding without a bridesmaid or female guest on his arm.
Besides, she was only interested in one man. Tragically, he didn’t feel the same way about her.
Emily turned and headed back toward her table. Halfway there, her heel caught in the grass, and her long dress tangled around her legs. She gasped. Her wine splashed over the rim as the ground quickly approached. Her eyes squeezed shut and she prepared for an embarrassing face splat when a strong arm circled her waist from behind and stopped her fall, lifted her and set her on her feet in one smooth motion.
“What the—” Her heart raced, as if she’d run a marathon. Which, yeah, that would never happen.
“I’ve got you.” Oh, that yummy, panty-melting voice.
Emily closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then opened them and turned to face her savior. The singularly magnificent, Mason Croft. Her brother Caleb’s best friend. And the guy she’d had a serious thing for since the first time her eyes landed on him standing in her parents’ backyard.
“Thanks. This dress is a menace.” She emitted an awkward sort of snort-laugh. Real sexy, Emily.
“Are you okay?” Genuine concern softened his voice.
“I’m fine.” Emily frowned at the empty wineglass she’d managed to keep hold of. She thought about getting a refill but decided against it. She needed to have her wits about her right now.
Mason accompanied her to a high-top table set up in a darkened area near the edge of the festivities. She set her empty glass down among a few others.
“You sure you’re okay?” He snagged a napkin from the nearby table and handed it to her.
“A little embarrassed but fine.” She wiped the wine from her fingers and set the napkin next to her glass.
He reached up and tucked a hank of hair over her ear that had fallen from her up-do. She could’ve sworn his hand lingered, then he dragged it down her neck and over her shoulder before it fell to his side. Her entire body tingled at his touch and screamed for more. Why did he have to be so darned potent?
“Thanks,” she mumbled as she reached up and haphazardly pinned it back in place.
“Having fun?” He stepped closer in the darkened space.
“Yeah, and the company’s great.” He smiled down at her.
Her mouth opened slightly, then she blinked, snapped it shut and turned to the dance floor. Away from his powder-blue eyes. “They’re all so in love, aren’t they? It almost hurts to look at them. Someday, I hope …”
She gave him a sideways glance and cleared her throat to keep from spilling any more secrets. Stupid wine. Emily was such a lightweight. She knew better than to have more than one glass.
He curled his hand over her shoulder and brought her around to face him. “Someday, you hope what, Em?”
She hesitated, and he tilted his head to the side. “Tell me.”
She marveled at the happy couples across the lawn. “Someday, I hope someone loves me like that and looks at me the way my dad looks at my mom, the way my brothers look at their wives. Like they are the single most important thing in their life.”
Being this close to him and talking about wanting to be loved was surprisingly painful. Emily was suddenly swamped with emotion. Her eyes burned, and she swallowed against the ridiculous urge to cry. She was not a crier.
“Hey, hey.” Mason circled his arms around her and gently pulled her into him.
She pressed her cheek against his chest and wrapped her arms around him. Her eyes fell shut, and she breathed in his scent. She allowed herself to enjoy his embrace for what she knew would be a fleeting moment, then loosened her grip to step back.
His hold tightened, keeping her close.
Her brows drew together and she looked up at him.
For a long moment, he looked down at her, then slowly lowered his face, giving her ample time to pull away. She did not, and the next thing she knew, Mason Croft’s lips were on hers. And, oh, they were just as soft as she’d imagined them to be.
Emily threw her arms around his neck and fell heart-first into his kiss. His mouth moved over hers carefully, almost reverently, at first. She let out a little moan and nipped at his bottom lip. Wanting … needing more. Everything about him and their kiss changed. Intensified. He drew her body tight against his. She raised to her toes in an effort to get closer still. His fingers speared into her hair—making a mess of her expensive up-do—then he angled her head and took the kiss deeper. Their tongues brushed across each other’s as heavy breaths panted from her nose and across his cheek.
Joy rushed through her, and she poured it all into their kiss. It, he, was so much more than she’d ever dreamed, and she’d dreamt a lot. Finally, everything she’d hoped for with Mason appeared to be one step closer to becoming reality.
Laughter cut through the night. He broke their kiss and, hands on her shoulders, stepped back. It ended so abruptly, she almost lost her balance. He steadied her, then quickly let go and cast a furtive look around.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Em. That was a mistake. This—us—can’t happen. You’re Caleb’s little sister. It wouldn’t be right.” He hesitated, then placed a soft kiss on her forehead, turned and walked away, leaving her standing alone in the dark with her heart cracked wide open, wondering what just happened.
Present day …
The young woman fanned her trembling fingers across her belly, her nails jagged and ripped apart, dried blood caked on her hands. The butterfly-like flutters of life she’d begun to feel had stopped the day the man tossed her in this box and buried them alive. She couldn’t even cry over her loss—the monster had robbed her of tears when he stopped giving her food and water. They just wouldn’t come. Instead, she hummed a soft, now useless lullaby into the oppressive, never-ending darkness.
The monster—that’s what she’d started calling him, but only in her head. Never out loud.
It felt like it had been years since he’d grabbed her, shoved her into a utility van, then jabbed a needle in her arm. When she woke up, she had a horrible case of cotton-mouth, a ferocious headache, and one of her wrists was chained to a ring screwed into the concrete wall of some old basement. What she wouldn’t give to be back there now.
Her screams for help in the dank cellar had gone unanswered until nothing remained of her voice but a croaking, harsh whisper. All she’d gotten for her efforts to free herself from the sharp metal cuff was a torn and bloody wrist.
Whenever he walked across the floor directly above her, she’d held her breath as the old beams groaned, sending dust and splinters of rotted wood raining down. A bare bulb dangling high above would bounce and jerk on its wire, splashing light into the corners. A critter of some sort squeaked and scurried in and out of the shadows along the walls. She wasn’t sure if it was a rat or an opossum. Either way, it had creeped her out. A continual drip drip drip came from somewhere in the far-right corner. The stench of wet wood, mold and decay permeated the gloomy space, accompanied by the smell of bleach that had burned her nostrils. At the time, she’d been worried about the health risks to her baby. In hindsight, the basement was certainly better than her current situation.
The monster had always worn the same thing whenever he came to see her. Long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, gloves and old work boots. All black, all very generic, and all completely unidentifiable. A hideous, rubber Freddy Krueger mask covered his whole head. On those rare occasions when he did speak, his voice was garbled, like he was using some kind of device to alter it.
She’d pleaded with him over and over to let her go, had promised never to tell anyone about anything. Because, really, what could she say? She’d never seen his face, had no idea what his real voice sounded like, and she had no idea where she was or even how long she’d been there.
He had just laughed. The distorted, chilling sound from behind that damn mask would haunt her in death. Which shouldn’t be long now. Once his laughter subsided, he would tell her good night, walk up the wooden stairs—twelve of them, she’d counted—shut off the lights, and lock the door.
The first few days he’d given her water and a hunk of bread three times a day. He would remove the handcuff long enough for her to use the filthy bathroom in the corner. She’d tried to escape once, but he’d grabbed her by the hair and tackled her before she even made it to the steps. After that, he was always careful to shackle her hands and feet together.
One day he’d shown up with a legal pad and two, sharpened number two pencils. Her immediate thought was to shove one through his neck and hope she hit an artery. Watching him bleed to death would’ve given her great joy. And to think, there was a time she couldn’t bring herself to step on a spider.
As if he’d read her thoughts, a demonic chuckle had rolled from behind the mask and he’d waggled his finger in her face. “Ah, ah, ah. None of that now.” Then he’d surprised her by tugging off his mask and smiling down at her.
Many times, as she’d sat alone in that godforsaken hellhole, she’d pondered what he might look like. Her muddled brain had envisioned a slobbering, hairy beast with gnashing teeth and beady eyes. In reality, he was none of those. He was … ordinary.
“You don’t remember me, do you? How about when I said hi to you in the corridor and you just looked down your nose at me like I was nothing? Little Miss High-and-Mighty, thought you were too good for me.” He’d stepped closer, face contorted, spittle flying. His anger grew with each word hurled her way.
Reality slammed into her, and any fragment of hope that he would let her go vanished. No sense wasting her dwindling energy pleading with him—her time was up.
She’d been forced to write her Last Will and Testament. At only twenty-four years old, she’d never given a moment’s thought to having a will. Weak from hunger, hand shaking with the effort to grip the pencil, she’d managed to scribble a few things down—a goodbye to her parents and boyfriend and a request that they name her unborn baby Tabitha. The last thing she remembered was scrawling her name across the bottom.
A dry, violent cough burned her lungs and yanked her painfully back to her current hell, trapped in a box.
Fresh air that had been filtering across her bare feet from a small opening had slowed to nothing. Every breath was now a struggle, becoming shallower with each attempt. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to stay awake, and bouts of delirium wreaked havoc with her teetering sanity. A bit ago, she’d imagined herself snapping upright in her own bed, relieved to discover this was all just a horrifying nightmare. She’d banged her forehead, hard, against the top of the box, a brutal reminder she was still trapped.
As she sucked in shallow, panting breaths, she could hear her boyfriend calling out to her, then his voice faded. Her father’s silly jokes and her mom’s laughter drifted through her foggy mind. She hadn’t even had the chance to tell them they were going to be grandparents. Now it was too late.
“I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m sorry, Daddy.” Her apology eked out like sandpaper scraping against the lonely, eternal darkness.