Valerie was ladling a bowl of soup her housekeeper had left when she heard the unmistakable series of clicks to the door to the wing of the cavernous house her parents had chosen for her to feel safe in. The wing where she lived. Alone.
Spoon poised over her bowl, Valerie's body reacted. Listening carefully to the heavy thud of footsteps, her blood turned to ice in her veins. Her heart pounded so hard she could hear her pulse rush in her ears. As the fear spread through her body, her limbs grew heavy. Valerie was frozen.
"Sweetheart? I'm home!" a man's voice called to her. It was affable, charming even, but it was a stranger to her.
Tiny chunks of carrots and chicken stock shook over her bowl as her hand trembled. Hearing footsteps walk down the hall toward the kitchen, she knew she had to turn around. Valerie didn't want her back to the doorway when he came in, whoever he was. Slowly, she managed to force her feet to move, one at a time. Turn one, then the other. You can do this. You have to do this. Make yourself do this.
Valerie didn't want to look. She wanted to close her eyes and be someplace different, but she'd been trying to do that for three years, and it never worked. Teleportation just wasn't possible.
When her body finally faced the door, Valerie tried to take a deep breath, but she couldn't. Air didn't work for her anymore. Each inhale was a painful stab in her chest. Then, the man made it to the kitchen.
He was taller than her five-foot-ten-inch frame but powerfully built, with a barrel chest and slender hips, dressed all in black, complete with a black ski mask.
The ski mask was what did it. Valerie found her voice and screamed.
"Shhhh, sweetheart." The man rushed over to her and pulled her unwilling body into his arms. "Don't scream, sweetheart. The mask is to make you feel better." His voice was soothing, chillingly so, but his hands held her tightly, letting her know he was stronger than she was.
She was in a helpless situation.
Trapped in her own home by a condition even she didn't understand, Valerie couldn't run from him. He must have known that. He was using it to his advantage, knowing she couldn't get away from him.
"That smells delicious, Valerie. I'm starved." His use of her name and the fact he was even here told her he knew about her. Whoever this was knew she never left her home. "You look beautiful today. I've been looking forward to this for a long time."
He was still holding her, trapped in his arms, looking down at her with watery brown eyes, studying her mask. Valerie wore a mask because she couldn't stand to look at herself, much less anybody else. Not that many people saw her; she never left her home. The masks were a throwback she'd outgrown since childhood, but after the incident, she'd turned to them and found a measure of comfort in them. She could pretend she was still beautiful because the masks were. They afforded her a sense of safety in the life she couldn't really control.
But it wasn't helping her now.
"I like the glitter. It matches your eyes." He smiled down at her, but it didn't relax Valerie. If anything, she stiffened in his arms further. Her muscles hurt; she was so stiff, her mind went back to childhood games. Anything to get her away from this man—this stranger who was in her home, acting like they knew each other.
Not getting a response, the man released her, shrugging. "I know this seems strange, Valerie, but I think you'll eventually get used to the situation." He was reaching into the cabinet with the bowls, getting himself one. "I've been watching you. I know what you like. I can make you happy." Ladling his soup into his bowl, he continued, as if none of this was strange in the least. The man turned to her and smiled, the effect chilling behind the ski mask. "You'll see. Come on. Let's eat."
Leading the way to the kitchen table, he stopped and got spoons, knowing exactly which drawer she kept them in. "Sit. I'll grab us a glass of wine." He bent down and reached for a bottle from her wine cooler, then stretched to grab the glasses. He wore black leather gloves. Sinister looking implements. He wasn't leaving fingerprints. Evidence.
With him distracted, Valerie disconnected her brain from her body and made a break for it.
She rushed down the hallway to the door to her wing, her sanctuary. Valerie occasionally went into the other part of the house, but she didn't really have much need to. When she got to the door, her trembling fingers struggled to twist the deadbolt, but she finally managed. She darted down the short hallway to the main part of the house, but as she ran through the main living room—around the credenza, banging her knee on the heavy, teak coffee table—her feet got heavier as she could see the massive front door in her sights.
It was the door to freedom. The door out of this prison. But it was also her only barrier to the outside world. The world she hadn't seen in three years.
The man was coming down the hallway toward her, though. She could hear his heavy footsteps as they plodded her way over the soft carpeting.
She reached the door and fumbled, sheer terror making everything more difficult than it needed to be. Not hearing anything behind her, Valerie took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down and undo the heavy locks on the door. Her mother hated all the locks, said they messed with the integrity of the design of the door, but she needed them.
The man must be watching her. Valerie didn't dare look back at him. She could hear his breathing, but it was drowned out by her own heartbeat as she opened the door and felt the warm, night air on her skin.
Valerie knew she couldn't think too much about what she was doing or she'd never make it. Launching herself out the door was like catapulting an elephant. Her body was heavy with sweat and fear, but she had to make it outside and down the driveway to the road. Words couldn't express how daunting that task was. She didn't have a car. The driveway was a quarter mile long.
The concrete on her bare feet was foreign to her, and hurt, but she forced herself along, each step harder and harder to take the further away from her house she got. But his footsteps were louder, and she knew he followed her.
The man in the black ski mask. With the gloves.
The man who had just let himself inside her home like he owned the place.
Her vision darkened at the edges, blackness creeping in on what was left of the daylight. Valerie had to make it. She had to get past this. She had to do better.
Why hadn't she done what her therapist had taught her about outside? Because she thought she'd always be safe in her home.
Bile rose in her throat, and Valerie gulped deep breaths, desperate for air, but she couldn't get any. The hot, night air singed her throat, making her mouth dry, even with the bile rising. Her fingertips tingled, along with her scalp, the tingles spreading across her skin like wildfire.
Valerie realized she had stopped, so she forced her feet to move forward over the painful concrete, through the thick air. She knew she was about to faint but couldn't let it happen. She forced oxygen into her lungs.
Falling to her knees, Valerie retched, emptying the contents of her stomach into the grass lining the walkway. Some part of her realized how close to the house she still was. And how far she had left to go.
Enormous, black wing-tips filled her vision. Some part of her acknowledged they weren't expensive shoes, and another part acknowledged it didn't matter one whit.
Then, steely arms lifted her against a barrel chest, and the scent of cheap cologne filled her senses.
"I've got you, sweetheart. That was a brave thing you just did, and I'm proud of you. But we need to get some food inside you. Let's go eat before we watch some TV and go to bed, 'kay?"
Hearing the man talk about her bed with such familiarity was the catalyst. Valerie allowed the tingling blackness to take over, preferring that to whatever this man had in store for her.
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Valerie Dunaway is a former socialite who has hidden from the public eye for years due to a horrific attack that left her scarred-physically and emotionally. When a strange masked man makes himself at home with her, she's unable to run. She calls th...