FIFTEEN

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Warning: This chapter contains mild violence.

Virginia's garage door came down with its usual grind, shimmying on its tracks like a hula dancer who had seen better days. The alignment was getting worse, but she was still hoping to make it through the summer before forking out any more money. All in all, the three-bedroom bungalow was in decent shape; however, the few things that did need replacing were a little pricey and had to be ranked by their level of importance, the dishwasher being numero uno.

In the divorce settlement she'd ended up with the house, along with its hefty mortgage, both of which were too big for her to handle. On a friend's recommendation, she'd found this place. Her friend's mother was the immediate neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, a widow who loved kids and had offered to take care of Janine any time. The community was known for its aging homeowners, most of them having nothing better to do than watch out their windows, which was all right in her book—she preferred the eagle eye over the blind eye any day.

She'd put Jack's Gardena townhouse and her Brentwood home on the market in February and sold both within three weeks. A month later, after some major downsizing of furniture, she had packed up her things and moved here, closer to work. The place was tiny, but it was hers and she was proud of that, happy to put all the turmoil of the divorce behind her.

The custody battle had been vicious, with Tom's lashing out becoming more frequent and increasingly hostile. Meanwhile, he'd made it through the primary election, but his chances didn't look good. This, of course, he blamed on her. In the end it had all worked to her advantage, though. The mediator, after listening to Tom's belligerent messages, had recommended full custody awarded to her with limited, supervised visitation for Tom. The judge had upheld the recommendation. And ordered Tom to get some counseling.

Needless to say, Tom was not a happy candidate.

On top of everything else, work had been busy and she was dealing with the building Jack had left her while still searching for clues in his case, all of which was wearing her down and often keeping her out late. Like tonight.

The door hit the ground with a final thunk, the old pulleys and cables surviving another day. Virginia hurried up the front path, the damp, sweet smell of spring rising up from the lawn. Damnit, she needed to get that mower fixed soon too.

The car parked in front of her house was a little unusual, but other than that, the road was deserted, most of the residents already turned in by now. Through her front window she could see light spilling out from Janine's bedroom. Mrs. Johnson was going to get her vote as neighbor-of-the-year . . . screw that . . . neighbor-of-the-decade. The woman was a godsend.

Between the rushing and her distraction, the lack of friction against the key in the lock didn't fully register until she stepped into the foyer and turned on the light. Sudden movement in her peripheral vision had her going for her gun, but it was ripped from its holster by the person behind her just as a gloved hand clamped down hard over her mouth. In an instant she was pushed face-first into the wall in front of her and held in place by a heavy, solid body. She twisted and tried to kick, her screams muffled against the glove.

"Shut up." The male voice was low and filled with heavy menace. "Don't let your daughter hear you."

Oh, God, Janine. What had he done to Janine? Virginia gave up the struggle and held her breath, straining her ears to catch a sound, any sound.

Two voices floated through the quiet rooms . . .

Tom!

They grew louder, about to round the corner into the living room. Her captor muttered a curse and dragged her into the hall closet. With her mouth still covered and her own gun pressed hard into her back, Virginia watched in horror through the louvered slats as Tom entered the foyer holding Janine's hand.

"Are you sure Mommy is going to be there?" Janine stared up at Tom with her favorite teddy bear, a must-have at bedtime, held in the crook of her arm.

Tom stopped at the front door to grab Janine's sweater off the coat rack. Whether or not he knew his ex-wife was home and being held against her will behind the closet door was impossible to tell, but he did glance in its direction before he out-and-out lied. "Yes, your mother is on her way to meet us at the house right now."

Virginia's chest constricted with the effort of fighting off threatening tears as she realized to what extent Tom would go to get his own way.

The light went off, throwing them into darkness. The front door closed.

Janine was gone.

She needed to get free and go after Tom. Her focus went back to the man pressing up against her. His breathing had deepened, filling the cramped space with its foul stench. At the sound of Tom's car pulling away, he dropped his hand to turn the knob. She made a run for it, but he grabbed her hair and held tight, spinning her around by giving it a brutal twist. With the gun still in his hand, he reached for the light . . . and she got the full view of Tom's hired thug.

He had a bloated, ruddy face and dark, greasy hair that hung down to his shoulders. Carrying a combination of muscle and fat, the man outweighed her by a hundred pounds, easily, and wore a dirty undershirt that looked two sizes too small. He gave her the once over, shoving the gun into the pocket of his pants to scratch at the naked gut hanging over a tired-looking belt.

"What's the rush?" He pulled on her hair until she was bent backward and looking up at him. The smell of alcohol permeated from every pore in the man's body, the proof of its strength in the simple fact that it overpowered other odors he was surely giving off. "We're about to have our own little sleepover."

She tried to clear her head, to block the debilitating fear that was sapping her strength. He licked his lips with a look of hungry anticipation before slamming them against hers. She bit down hard—it was like biting into a worm.

"Fuck!" He pushed her back, keeping the death grip on her hair as he wiped his lips with the back of his other hand. Seeing the bright red smear of blood trailing across the glove, his face twisted with rage.

He was more agile than he looked, giving her no time to react as his fist blurred in her vision. Pain engulfed the left side of her face, and she landed face-down on the ground, stunned and surprised. She attempted to get up, but the kick was next, her body going concave with the impact to her ribs. She couldn't breathe, panic rising as she struggled to take in air.

He got down on his haunches, his face only inches from her ear. "You women are all the same. It takes a firm hand to make you behave."

She looked up at him as her body strained. Her left eye had already started to swell and was partially closed, impairing her vision.

"You don't look so pretty now. I think I've changed my mind about the sleepover."

He moved to get up, but she was much quicker. Her hand flew up to his face and her nails dug in. Knowing he'd be easier to find with scratches, she used all of her strength to yank downward.

He screamed and knocked her hand away. "You fucking bitch." Fisting the hair at the back of her head, he slammed her forehead into the ground.

The impact was jarring. The crushing pain had her vision doubling, and for a moment she thought she was going to pass out. She watched through a curtain of blood as he stood and drew back his leg. This time the kick looked to be aimed near the shoulder, and she raised her arm up to try to block it, closing her eyes and bracing herself for the blow.

There was a crack, intense pain, the fading sound of a phone ringing . . . then nothing but darkness.

END OF CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Tom just keeps getting worse and worse, doesn't he? Thank you for reading. I hope that got you nicely riled up! Please consider voting if you liked it.

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