January 21, 4:42 p.m.
Lucy Guardino heaved her body free from the black pit that had been her prison, her bloody handprints a stark contrast to the snow. She rolled over, faceup. The sky was growing dark. Not the complete absence of light that had drowned her when she’d been trapped belowground. Rather, the twilight of a winter’s night. A scarlet ribbon of light clung to the hills in the distance, the last remnant of sun that this day would see.
She closed her eyes and rubbed the skin on her neck left raw by the rope. Home. She wanted to go home. To be with Nick and Megan.
How long? How long since her captor had left her? How much time did she have? Snow numbing her body through her wet clothes, her breath coming in shallow gasps, she tried to quiet her thoughts enough to perform the simple calculation.
January. Sun set around five. He’d said his deadline was seven. But how long had it taken her to free herself? How long since he’d left?
How much time did her family have before he killed them?
A bird screeched, shattering the quiet. Lucy opened her eyes. Some kind of owl. Bad omen. Her throat clenched against unbidden laughter, choking it to silence. Even the slight attempt at making a sound burned, her throat scraped raw from almost choking to death down below.
But she hadn’t choked to death. Hadn’t drowned either. She’d escaped.
Her body shook with cold—all she wore were slacks, a silk blouse, and a thin suit jacket. She was soaked through. But she was alive.
He hadn’t intended that. He thought she’d die down in that pit.
Which meant he wasn’t infallible. He made mistakes.
The biggest one was threatening her family. Nick. Megan. She had to save them.
Get up! In her mind, her voice was loud, not to be ignored. The barn. She had to make it across the field to the barn. It would be warm there—and she was cold, so very cold. Maybe there’d be a phone. A car. Weapons.
The dog. Panic danced with pain, centered on her left ankle and foot. For a second she couldn’t breathe, terror throttling her—as effective as the rope had been earlier. Red spots swirled through her vision and refused to vanish even after she closed her eyes. Oh hell, how could she have forgotten the dog? It would scent her blood, stalk her, finish the job it had begun.
Nick. Megan. Their names were a tonic, easing the turmoil. Thinking of them, she could breathe again. She could put aside the pain—no worse than the pain when she’d had Megan, too late for an epidural. What a blessing that pain had been. So very worth it.
Taking control of her breathing, focusing on nothing except her family, Lucy climbed to her feet. Oh God, it hurts, it hurts so bad. Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe. Nick and Megan are depending on you. You’re the only one who can save them.
The pain inched away, waiting for the chance to ambush her again with her next step. She clenched her fists, refusing to lose her momentum. This time she was ready. She took a short hobble-step, balancing on her left toes only long enough to swing her right foot forward.
She staggered across the snow-covered field, leaving a trail of blood behind her. Each step thundered as her left foot touched the ground no matter how briefly. Twice the pain overtook her, forcing her to stop, losing precious time.
Through the haze of misery, she saw Nick’s face, the special smile he reserved for their private moments, coaxing her forward. Megan’s laugh swirled around her, buoying Lucy up against the tide of pain, and she was able to start moving again.
She breathed through the agony, clinging to thoughts of her family, and the barn—a large metal Quonset-hut structure a hundred yards away—slowly grew closer.
The evening was silent. No distant lights or rumble of cars. Just the whispered sigh of wind through the trees that surrounded the field and the rasp of Lucy’s breathing. She wrapped her arms around her chest, trying to generate some heat. Her right hand clasped Megan’s bracelet—it had saved her life. She couldn’t wait to see Megan, to tell her how her gift had saved them all.
She imagined her daughter’s arms—and Nick’s as well—hugging her tight, so tight. They’d be all right, she vowed. He wasn’t going to harm them. Not tonight. Not ever.
Not while she still drew breath.
She blinked and realized she’d made it. She was at the Quonset-hut barn with its large sliding door, built for farm machinery like combines and tractors. There was a smaller, man-sized door beside the larger one. She reached for the latch but stopped.
Light edged its way around the door. More than light. Sound. The rustle of someone moving around inside.
He was in there. She could end this here and now. Finish it before he ever had a chance to get near her family.
Or should she run? Shape she was in, injured, weak, cold, no weapon—how could she take him on?
She glanced around, hating how much effort it took to force a clear thought through the cold that muddled her mind. The sun was gone, vanished behind the hills to the west, but it wasn’t completely dark, thanks to the twilight glow offered by the snow. Across the fields there was nothing except trees.
She had no idea what lay beyond the barn. Perhaps escape. Perhaps her captor’s accomplices.
Perhaps the dog.
That made up her mind. She couldn’t face that beast again.
Lucy’s hand tightened on the latch. He’d made his final mistake, letting her live.
January 21, 7:34 a.m.
“Megan! Don’t make your dad late.” Lucy called up the stairs from the kitchen as she munched on a piece of peanut-butter toast, holding the bread with one hand and unplugging her cell phone from its charger with the other. “Not if you want time to stop by the vet’s and see if Zeke’s feeling better.”
Their orange tabby swirled between her legs, leaving marmalade streaks of hair on Lucy’s black slacks as he meowed, pining for his missing canine companion. Lucy would never admit it to anyone, but she missed the exuberant puppy as well.
Zeke, Megan’s Australian shepherd, had gotten sick yesterday, with vomiting and diarrhea so bad Lucy and Megan had rushed him to the vet. Poor thing was going through a stage where he ate anything—who knew what he’d chowed down while in the backyard. Seeing Megan so upset, in tears as they’d left Zeke with the veterinarian, was exactly the reason Lucy hadn’t wanted any pets in the first place.
It was one of the few times she and Nick had actually fought—and that she’d lost. They’d only been in Pittsburgh a few months, and she was just getting her feet under her in her new job leading the FBI’s Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement task force. Nick had his new psychology practice. Megan was juggling school and soccer and making friends. It couldn’t have been a worse time to take on the added responsibilities that came with an animal.
So, of course, they’d ended up with two, a dog and a cat, in the space of a week. She still wasn’t sure how that’d happened—blamed it on the mild concussion she’d suffered at the time.
Nick bounded through the door to the garage, accompanied by the noise of his Explorer idling. “Megan!” he shouted up the steps.
“I told you I have to cover group tonight, right?” he asked Lucy, stealing a bite from the opposite side of the piece of toast in her mouth while she freed her hands to slip into her suit jacket and smooth stray crumbs from her blouse. She wiped peanut butter from his lip, snagged a quick kiss. Peanut butter and mouthwash, not the best combo.
“Mom’s coming to sit, since I have no clue how long this snooze-fest in Harrisburg is going to last.” Her appointment to the Governor’s Task Force on Violent Crime Prevention was meant to be an honor, but so far the monthly meetings had been more about placing blame and whining about budget cuts, and less about taking action. Exactly the kind of meetings she despised.