Elle awoke to the smell of cologne. A double shot of adrenaline jerked her instantly to full alert. She blinked in the dark. Tried to think. Tried to breathe.
Her cell phone was on the nightstand. Too far away. Inch by inch, she slid her arm beneath the sheet. With her heart beating wildly, it was excruciating to move slowly. The room seemed too quiet and she stilled. Was it only a dream?
A soft creak from the chair at her desk told the truth. Elle cursed Patrick and prayed for help in the same thought. She willed her trembling fingers not to fumble when they touched the phone. Once it was secreted under the covers, she paused and drew a silent, shaky breath. Feigning a sleepy murmur, she rolled to her side, dipping her head beneath the covers. A call to 911 would get help the fastest, but she would have to speak out loud to give her address. Maybe her brother Jack had his cell phone on. She texted, P is here call 911, and pressed Send.
The phone chirped a successful send and Elle cringed. The chair creaked again, louder this time. After two loud stomps, Patrick crashed on top of her, knocking the phone from her grasp. Elle grunted as air whooshed from her lungs. She kicked and shoved desperately and Patrick backhanded her across the face. Terror and pain paralyzed her. He covered her mouth and straddled her, trapping her under the sheets.
“Don’t fight me, Eleanor.” His weight was crushing her lungs. She bit his hand and he jerked it away, enabling her to suck in a shallow breath. Not enough to fuel a fight, but enough to survive the moment.
“I can’t breathe.” She writhed beneath him.
Patrick shifted and she sucked in more air. She wanted to scream and wake the landlord but her throat wouldn’t cooperate.
“Damn it, Eleanor, don’t make me hurt you.”
She ignored him and worked on the problem. Her best friend, Mac, and his roommate were coming over at nine in the morning to help her pack before leaving Boise State University for the last time. She had to survive until then. Determination ignited inside. It was two o’clock. Surely she could stay alive for seven hours.
“Patrick, what do you want?” Elle rasped.
“How can you ask me that?” He muttered.
A bead of sweat slid down Elle’s hairline. She prayed Jack was on the phone with the police, but knew she could very well be on her own. “I’m scared.” It was the truth. Maybe saying it would soften him. A plan was forming, but she needed to gain his trust. At the moment, he had every advantage.
He had not produced a weapon but that didn’t mean he didn’t have one. Not that Elle could defend herself if he did. All she had in the apartment were a few dull knives and a pair of old scissors in a kitchen drawer. And even if she could somehow get to them, she doubted she could bring herself to stab him. The very thought made her head swim.
Patrick turned on the lamp and leaned close, pressing an acrid kiss to her lips. His breath reeked of stale beer and she stifled her gag reflex. “I want you.” He pushed tangled hair from her face. “We belong together.” She shuddered as he traced the line of her jaw with a sweaty finger. The blankets encased her like a sarcophagus.
Elle pushed away thoughts of what he might do to her. “But you don’t even know me.”
“Yes I do,” he spat.
She flinched, fearing his fist again but it didn’t come.
“You won every basketball game your senior year in high school. Including the state championship.”
It wasn’t a secret, she reasoned. He could have easily obtained the information from a cursory internet search. He stroked her hair as one might pet a dog, sending a cold ripple through her.
“You hardly dated in high school.”
Also, not a secret, but that wouldn’t be online, would it? Elle supposed any number of her classmates could have easily shared that gossip. But four years had passed. What would be the point?
“Your brother’s name is Jack.” His voice dripped with condescension, as if to convey how stupid she was not to acknowledge that he knew her intimately. It was like a creepy game show—him revealing trivia about her and her having to guess how he figured it out. Would it drag on like this until Mac arrived?
Patrick twisted a strand of her hair and it pulled painfully. “Pink is your favorite color. You stopped wearing it because Jack made fun of you.” He whispered these words in her ear.
A wave of terror crashed over Elle. Not even her best friend, Claire, knew that. Her nose stung and tears welled in her eyes. “You read my diary?”
He wiped her tears away with the edge of the sheet. “Your mother gave it to me.”
“What?” Elle knew her mother wouldn’t have let him into her home of her own free will. Worrisome scenarios played in her head. “Patrick, what did you do?”
“I didn’t get to see your room.” Patrick trailed a finger down her throbbing cheek and she pulled away. He stiffened briefly. Relaxed. “Your mother is very beautiful. Just like you,” he murmured.
“When did you go to my house?” Elle’s mind whirled. Had Patrick made good on his threats? She tried to recall the last time she’d spoken to her parents. It was at least a week ago, before finals. They would be on their way to Boise from Colorado right now if she hadn’t pulled out of the winter graduation ceremony. Thanks to Patrick.
Elle clenched both fists. This awkward Ph.D. candidate, a teaching assistant for her freshman history class, had morphed into her personal terrorist. The blame was hers, though, for not standing up to him early on when he consistently marked her papers down and demanded that she come to his office to discuss it. It was odd since history had always been an easy A. But he came on so strong, she’d second-guessed herself. She’d played by his rules, thinking it would be over in a few months. It would be easy enough to avoid classes with the professor he assisted. “Do you have it with you? My diary?”
“It’s at home. You can have it when we get back. After the wedding.”
“The wedding?” Here we go. On the upside, maybe he wasn’t planning to kill her tonight. It suddenly became a little easier to breathe.
“It’s all arranged. We’ll get married in the morning. We have an appointment with a justice of the peace at ten. Mother will be there. She’s eager to meet you.”
“But I don’t have a dress.” Given the shock of his pronouncement, it was all she could think to say. Patrick wasn’t just evil; he was totally whacked. And his mother? Was she really in on this with him? The dull knives in the kitchen drawer were fast becoming a serious consideration.
“Mother took care of that. It’s your favorite color.” He sounded giddy. “I’ll show it to you in the morning.” He grabbed a pillow. “We need to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.” He rose and pulled back the covers.
The opportunity came sooner and more easily than Elle had expected. Pulling both legs to her chest, she used her feet to launch him away from her. He slammed into the wall and crumpled between it and the bed. Patrick let out a roar and shoved at the mattress as he struggled to get out of the small space. The lamp tumbled from the nightstand and the room went dark.
Elle leapt from her bed and raced to the front door. She unlocked the deadbolt and yanked on the knob. Nothing happened. It was stuck, jammed somehow. The sliding lock! She tugged at it, unable to do what she did every day without thinking. After several seconds with no success, fear gave way to panic.
“Get back here!” Patrick was on his feet.
Elle dashed to the bathroom, locking herself inside. Had the lights been on, he could have easily intercepted her in the small apartment. A crash and subsequent thud told her he’d tripped over one of the boxes she’d packed. Then she heard footsteps. Patrick cursed as he beat on the door and tugged the knob.
The flimsy bathroom lock would not hold for long. Elle shoved up the window and scrambled out into the cold December night.
Lacy Carter is not who she pretends to be. After six months of hiding from her stalker, a chance meeting with firefighter, Trey Long, sparks hope for a normal life—until she finds a pink rose in her locked car.
Trey can’t forget the beautiful woman who captured his attention and then disappeared. When Lacy becomes a suspect in several arsons, Trey dives headlong into a blazing conflict of interest that risks both his job and his heart.
Both Lacy and Trey must decide who they can trust, and if they’re willing to get burned in the process.