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CHAPTER ONE

 

Christina Lambert sat bolt upright in her bed, awakened once again by her own screams. Breaths choppy, a bead of sweat trailed down her temple. She flattened a hand to her chest but it did nothing to lessen the dull ache caused by the pounding of her own heart. Her eyes darted from one dark corner of her room to the next, searching for a monster who was never there. He was only in her mind, trapped in memories she couldn’t shake.

Nights like this were why she lived in a house set back far from the road and surrounded by nothing but trees. Last thing she wanted or needed was to have neighbors calling the police every time she had a nightmare. She felt safer there, too.

She stretched to grab her phone from the bedside table and checked the time. Two twenty-one. Three minutes earlier than yesterday morning, six minutes later than the day before that.

Christina flopped back onto the bed with a groan and draped her arm over her face. She laid there for another thirty minutes or so, tossing, turning, willing herself back to sleep. Knowing from past experience that was not to be, she tossed off the covers, swung her legs over the side, and tucked her feet into her old, fuzzy slippers. She shoved up off the bed and shuffled into the adjoining bathroom where she took care of business and washed her hands.

What she saw when she looked in the mirror were the haunted blue eyes of the scared little girl she used to be long ago. She ran the cold water, leaned over, cupped her hands under the spray, and splashed her face once, twice, three times, then shut off the water. Avoiding her reflection, she yanked a towel from the rack and buried her face in its fluffiness. Christina breathed in the calming scent of fabric softener and gave the adrenaline time to dissipate from her system.

She wasn’t always awakened in such an abrupt and horrifying manner. Thank goodness. The nightmares always occurred with more frequency as the anniversary of what happened to her loomed. She’d like to think the timing was a coincidence, but, like her mother used to say, believing isn’t getting, Christina.

“Okay, enough of that.” Calling upon her practical midwestern upbringing, she drew her shoulders back, folded the towel, and hung it over the bar.

She headed back into her bedroom and changed into her workout clothes. A nice little yoga session would go a long way toward shaking off the nightmare.

After thirty minutes of stretching and deep breathing, she was ready for her morning coffee. She ground her favorite beans, dumped the rich, brown powder into the stainless-steel coffee pot that belonged to her grandmother, and plugged it in.

Something about the sound of the coffee churning and percolating and the way the wonderful aroma filled the room reminded her of a better time. A time when she still thought the world was filled with only kind and wonderful people—like her grandmother had been. That fairytale had been shattered at much too young of an age.

She poured the coffee into her favorite oversized mug, hovered her nose over the dark brew, and drew in a deep breath. Ah-h-h. She settled onto her favorite reading spot—a decadent reupholstered fainting couch positioned to take advantage of the light from her big front window. The perfect place for reading and watching the birds in the feeder outside, in between spontaneous naps. All things she enjoyed immensely on a lazy Sunday.

She’d found the old piece when she and Emily O’Halleran, her best friend, had decided on a whim to go to their first-ever estate sale. Christina had gotten hooked on hunting for old pieces she could make new again. Emily, not so much. But her friend was a good sport and always tagged along with the promise of lunch after they were through scrounging through other people’s stuff, as her friend like to tease.

The couch was just one of several unique finds Christina had purchased. In addition to a few smaller pieces, she had a vintage vanity with the original mirror still intact. It was the first thing she’d sanded, repaired, and refinished all by herself. Her favorite piece of all was a large dresser manufactured somewhere in France before the eighteen-nineties. Made from rosewood and satinwood with a marble top, it only needed a few minor repairs to two of the legs and a good polishing to make it look like new. To her delight, hidden behind years of grime was a beautiful, intricate pattern inlaid across the front of each drawer.

Christina had bought it from a young, uppity guy who lived in the city. He’d inherited his grandparents’ farmhouse and didn’t want any of their old junk. His words, not hers. He wanted the house emptied so he could sell it and the property it sat on.

She liked to think she’d rescued the antique from certain destruction and, therefore, felt zero guilt about only paying three hundred dollars for something that appraised at close to five thousand. Besides, the guy had been an arrogant jerk.

 

You didn’t have to be a professional therapist to correlate her passion for saving old pieces of furniture with what happened to her right before her eleventh birthday. Now that Christina thought about it, she realized she was actually the first project she’d ever restored and rebuilt.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Rain battered the small window and pounded down on the roof. That, mixed with the thunder that rumbled and boomed at varying intervals, drowned out the sounds of the nightclub below. Tink-tink-tink. As expected, water began dripping into a metal bowl she kept in the corner of the small storage room.

Felicity Miller welcomed the torrent—it would cover the sound of her escape.

A key rattled, the dead bolt slid open with a loud clunk, and the hinge on the heavy door across the room groaned when it swung open. Eyes closed, knees drawn up in the fetal position, she lay perfectly still. She held her breath to stifle a sneeze caused by the stinky old mattress that served as her bed.

Felicity couldn’t see Wyatt, but she could hear him, smell him, feel him. Proof that a person didn’t need to see evil to know they were in its presence.

He grumbled something like pain in the ass and dragged the door closed and locked it. His footsteps faded as he moved down the long, dark hallway.

She’d made it a point to become familiar with his routine. Most nights he hung out downstairs, either hovering near the bar watching the room or sitting in the reserved corner booth schmoozing with regulars who had money to burn. Because it was Saturday, he would go straight to his office. His two flunkies would always be there ready to listen to him piss and moan about lazy servers, the dancer who was always late, or what a pain in the ass the county health inspector was. When he was done griping, he’d send those two losers out to beat the crap out of some jerk who owed him money. Money he said he needed to keep his club running.

Club was just a nice word for what was really a cesspool of illegal gambling and obscene adult entertainment. The drinks were watered down and overpriced, the food sucked, and he only paid the dancers minimum wage, and still he took a percentage of whatever cash they earned while on stage.

He made his real money dealing drugs, charging protection money to all the small businesses in the neighborhood, and pimping out girls in the private rooms in the back of the club and the old motel he owned next door. Since she’d been dumped there two years ago, one of Felicity’s many jobs was to clean those disgusting rooms, and she’d seen and heard things no kid should ever be forced to see and hear.

 

She hated everything about this gross place and couldn’t wait to get as far away from it—and Wyatt—as possible.

The past few days, things had been different for her. Wyatt had stopped knocking her around, wasn’t working her so hard, and he’d started letting her sleep more than the regular two or three hours. Last night, when she was clearing a table, a customer had grabbed her wrist and dragged her onto his lap. Not the first time that had happened. Only this time, Wyatt had yanked the guy up by his ear and threatened to cut his hand off and feed it to him if he so much as looked at her again.

If that wasn’t enough to set off alarm bells in her head, he’d gotten his favorite stripper, Bubbles, involved. Aptly named because she used a bubble machine while she danced. Felicity figured she used the bubbles to disguise the fact she was a total spaz who couldn’t dance her way out of a wet paper bag.

She was Wyatt’s eyes and ears in the club—his snitch—and she helped recruit and prepare new girls for Wyatt’s many customers. She was rotten to her core and had no qualms about smacking around the other girls to keep them in line. Felicity had always been careful to avoid her until Wyatt forced them together.

 

Bubbles had been none too gentle when she showed Felicity how to apply makeup. She got mad when Wyatt ordered her to give Felicity some of her skanky clothes to try on. After he left the room, the stupid wench threw a short denim skirt, sparkly tube top, and a pair of high heels at her and told her to hurry the hell up. It was the same routine they had for other girls right before they started working in the back rooms, the hotel, or were sent away.

Anyway, because she got her hips before she got her boobs, the skirt sort of fit, but there wasn’t much to hold up the tube top. The ridiculous shoes were so high she almost fell on her face. Long after taking off the clothes, the smell of the woman’s nasty perfume lingered on Felicity’s skin.

She remained still for several minutes after Wyatt left, then tossed off the blanket and stood. Her legs almost buckled, and she shook them out to get the blood flowing again.

“Relax, Felicity,” she whispered as she glanced up at the window near the top of the wall. “You can do this.”

There was no other option—she had to do it.

Her sock-covered feet were quiet on the chilly concrete floor as she moved across the room. After a quick glance at the door, she grabbed the backpack she had hidden behind the shelves. She’d been emptying garbage one day and found it in the dumpster. Felicity dragged the zipper open and tugged out the hat and flannel shirt she’d snuck from one of the private room customers. She’d had to be careful because Wyatt had cameras hidden in each room. She twisted her long hair up and tucked it into the hat, slid her arms into the sleeves of the shirt and buttoned it all the way up. Her nose crinkled against the smell of stale cigarette smoke and sweat, but it was warm, the colors were nice and dark, and it hid the fact she was a girl. Experience had taught Felicity that last one was important.

The only other things in her backpack were sneakers, some underwear and a few pairs of socks, some used textbooks and a couple of dog-eared romance novels given to her by a stripper named Katrina.

She lifted the edge of an old overturned metal washtub and pulled out the pair of battered hiking boots, also from Katrina. Knowing Felicity would find them, she’d left them in a garbage can in the dancers’ dressing room. Inside was a note that said they no longer fit her daughter and that Felicity could have them. Acts of kindness were so rare in her world that she’d almost bawled like a baby. Katrina had written that she wished she could do more but was terrified of getting caught and losing her job, or worse. As a single mom with two pretty, teenage daughters to protect, she couldn’t take that risk.

Felicity tapped the boots on the ground to make sure no spiders had crawled inside before reaching into one and grabbing the plastic grocery bag containing the little bit of money she’d managed to hide. Customers sometimes tossed a dollar or two her way as a tip, but Wyatt never let her keep the money. “Wouldn’t want you getting any ideas, now, would we?” She’d figured out that if she tucked the bills in her sneakers, he wouldn’t look for them there.

Felicity left the money in the bag but tucked it safely at the bottom of the backpack and zipped it shut. She jammed her feet into the boots, thankful for the protection they would provide.

They were about a size too big, but she’d wadded up some paper in the toes, and if she laced them up super-tight, they should be fine. She’d probably end up with some pretty gross blisters, but God knew she’d suffered worse. Assuming there even was a God. She hadn’t seen much evidence of that during her life.

Splinters dug into Felicity’s hands as she pushed a wooden crate across the floor. She cringed at the awful scraping sound and stopped. When no one burst through the door, she shoved it the last few feet until it was directly below the window. After doing a practice run once before, she’d realized that even if she stood on the box, the bottom of the window only came to her chest. To build her upper body strength, she’d started doing pull-ups from a pipe overhead. She didn’t need to be super strong, just strong enough to get out that window.

She squatted down, lifted the corner of the mattress and grabbed the meat mallet she’d hidden there. The cook had a bunch of them, and she hoped he wouldn’t notice one missing. She stepped up onto the box, her grip tight on the rubber handle, and waited for the right moment.

A deep rumble started in the distance. She drew back her arm, closed her eyes and turned away from the window. Thunder boomed, rattling everything on the shelves.

Now!

She slammed the mallet against the tempered glass. It shattered, showering her, the floor, the sill, and the fire escape with thousands of tiny sparkling chunks. Not wasting a moment, she shoved the mallet in her pack and brushed the pieces from the sill. She flattened her hands against it, did a quick hop, and pressed herself up until she could prop her belly on the edge of the window frame. A chunk of glass sliced through the shirt and nicked her as she hung half in and half out of the window. She ignored the pain and worked to wedge herself through the narrow opening. Her backpack got hung up on the frame, but she wiggled free and dropped out onto the wobbly fire escape.

Felicity scrambled to her feet, pressed her body to the wall, and her head dropped back against the bricks. She closed her eyes and took a few seconds to catch her breath. Cold wind lashed against her, pelting her with icy rain. Water dripped from the bill of her hat and onto the boots.

“Move it, Felicity.” She grabbed the lever to lower the ladder and nothing happened. No matter how hard she pulled or pushed, the stupid thing wouldn’t budge. “No, no, no, no, no.”

Standing on a metal platform two floors up in the middle of a thunderstorm while lightning streaked across the sky was not the best situation to be in right now. She had not come this far to be stopped by some stupid malfunction. Overcome by frustration and pent-up rage, she lifted her foot and kicked the lever with everything she had. Miracle of miracles, the ladder released and slid down, rattling and clanking until it stopped.

Felicity threw one leg, then the other over the rail and onto the ladder. One rung at a time, careful not to slip, she made her way to the bottom. She looked down and discovered her feet still dangled pretty high above the ground.

Seriously? Whose stupid design was that?

“Here’s goes nothin’.” She released her grip and dropped to the pavement.

A fiery pain shot through her ankle, and she landed on her butt. Water began to soak into her pants, and she pushed up to her feet. She rotated the ankle and felt a sharp twinge, but no amount of pain was going to stop her from getting away this time.

Felicity adjusted her backpack, put her chin down against the rain, and, staying close to the buildings, ran as fast as she could down the dark alley. By the time she made it to the minimart by the highway, she was soaked to her core and her feet squished in the boots.

Certain her hair was tucked up and out of sight, she tugged down the bill of the cap and lowered her chin, careful to avoid cameras she couldn’t see but knew had to be there. An electronic bing-bong sounded when she pulled the door open. Hoping to warm up, she wandered the aisles and stared at all the colorful cans and bottles in the refrigerator cases. She caught the reflection in the glass of the clerk eyeballing her and knew it was time to go.

Felicity made her way to where all the premade food was and checked out the selection as she thought about how much money she had stashed in her backpack. She reached both of her icy hands under the Plexiglas sneeze guard and opened and closed her fists over the warm trays to restore the blood flow.

“Hey, kid, you need help with something?” The clerk leaned forward over the counter to look at her.

She grabbed a breakfast sandwich, headed to the cash register, and paid the guy.

“Kind of late for you to be out on your own, isn’t it?” His worried gaze traveled over the lot outside. “You in some kind of trouble?”

He sounded genuinely concerned and might actually be a decent person, but she was still too close to the club to take any chances. In her world, no one could be trusted.

“I’m fine.” Felicity deepened her voice and avoided eye contact. “I’m older than I look.”

The bing-bong sounded when she walked outside and hurried toward the side of the building where it was nice and dark. The rain had finally let up, but it had left her chilled all the way through. The kind of cold that made your insides quiver.

Tired from running, she lowered herself to the ground and sat cross-legged with her back against the concrete block wall. The smell of the warm sandwich tempted her, and she carefully unwrapped it and took a small bite. Her eyes closed and she hummed as the flavors of the biscuit, cheese, ham, and egg hit her tongue. Never had anything ever tasted so good.

She allowed herself only one bite, rewrapped it, and tucked the rest safely into her backpack. Exhaustion slammed into her. Felicity’s eyes drooped shut and her head lolled forward. She wasn’t sure how long she’d dozed before being jerked awake by the sound of a car engine. Stupid move, Felicity. She blinked a few times and scrubbed her hands down her face to stave off her desire to fall back asleep.

A guy in a pickup truck rolled up to one of the pumps, shut off his engine, and climbed out to fill his tank. A big blue tarp covered the bed of his truck.

For some reason, she was certain that truck was her last, best chance. She stood, brushed off her butt, leaned over, and picked up her backpack.

The pump clicked off, and the guy secured the nozzle in place. He screwed on the gas cap and headed inside the store.

Felicity crouched down and dashed across the short distance, lifted one corner of the tarp and discovered the back was loaded with scrap metal. She looked over her shoulder as the guy carried a large to-go cup of coffee toward the cashier. Her heart hammered against her chest, and desperation drove her. She slid her backpack under the tarp and managed to squeeze herself between some old bikes and what looked like the drum of a washing machine. She sucked air between her teeth when something sliced through her shirt sleeve and deep into her arm. At this rate, the shirt wouldn’t last long.

The chime from the door sounded just as she tucked the corner of the tarp back into place.

Felicity heard the cashier call out, “Safe trip. Hope the coffee helps.”

“Thanks, but I’ve made the trip from here to Everett so many times, my truck can practically find its own way there.”

Whistling accompanied the sound of footsteps as he got closer and closer. Keys jangled, and there was a slurping sound before the door opened, slammed, and the engine fired up. They started moving, and she blew out a long breath and tried to relax as best she could with a bike pedal digging into her ribcage.

Everett was north of Seattle, way on the other side of the state, with the Cascade Mountains between here and there. None of that mattered. Nothing would stop Wyatt from coming after her.

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