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"I know it's late, Emma. But try to help Mommy just a little bit longer. Just one little belch. Please?" Of all the evenings to outgrow her night-owl schedule, Robin Carter's infant daughter had decided that the one night her mother wanted to stay up late she would be a fussy pants.
Hiding her frown of frustration, Robin shifted the precious weight in her arms to gaze down into drowsy eyes that were fighting hard not to sleep, despite a full tummy and the midnight hour. From the moment she'd first met her infant daughter, barely two months ago, those blue eyes had been irresistible. Robin glanced over at the clock on her office desk, then back to the baby's agitated plea. They were still impossible to resist.
"You're right. We'll figure out how to make the books balance in the morning. Right now we'd better get home to our comfy beds." She put Emma back to her shoulder and patted her soft back until she heard the burp. Robin grinned, reassured and reenergized by the healthy sound. "Dainty and delicate and tough as a Marine, aren't you?"
Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding Emma's birth, and the adoption that had changed both their lives, Emma did everything in a healthy, robust way. Burping. Eating. Crying. Growing silky brown hair. Claiming her new mother's heart. The four-month-old was all Robin had wanted but feared she would never have.
Relationships had failed.
In vitro had failed.
Robin was closer to forty than to thirty now. She'd put herself through college on scholarships and hard work, built her own floral design business, invested smartly, bought a house with an acreage just outside of Kansas City and landscaped and remodeled it to become her dream home. But her dream could never really be complete if she was all alone.
With her biological clock ticking like mad and no man she wanted in her life, Robin had listened to the advice of her attorney and gotten on a waiting list to obtain the one thing she hadn't been able to achieve on her owna beautiful, healthy baby. Adopting Emma was a miracle that had altered Robin's lonely, workaholic life in wonderful ways she was discovering each and every day as the two of them became a family.
Normally, Emma adapted to wherever Robin took hererrands, shopping, visits with friends. She especially liked coming to work at the Robin's Nest Floral Shop, napping in the bassinet in the corner of Robin's quiet office or supervising customer satisfaction and employee workloads from the baby sling Robin often wore across her chest. Maybe Emma loved the shop because of the building's cool, climate-controlled air, or the friendly employees who doted on her. Or maybe Emma simply loved being close to the reliable, down-to-earth practicality and unconditional love that Robin provided.
But tonight was not normal. And Emma was not a happy camper.
Neither was Robin.
The baby's restlessness could be attributed to something concrete, like the changing barometric pressure as the spring storm gathered strength outside. But it was more likely that Emma had picked up on Robin's frustration with the numbers on her computer. Perhaps Emma was being fussy because Robin had been fussing over the business's books ever since the shop had closed three hours earlier. Her accountant had had some questions about discrepancies between receipts and job estimates and stock manifests. Robin had been away from work far too much since Emma's arrival, and maybe her employees had gotten lazy about keeping track of everything. But spending the night in her office wasn't going to make the books balance for her. And although Emma normally stayed up past eleven most nights, she didn't want her daughter thinking the shop and office were her new home, either.
Robin lay Emma in the bassinet and leaned over to kiss her dimpled cheek, taking a moment to inhale the innocent fragrance that was all powder and baby wash and Emma herself. "Let Mommy make one more check around the place and then we'll go home."
She pulled the cotton blanket over her round little body, hoping that second bottle of formula, a clean diaper and the muffled rhythm of the rain and thunder would soothe her to sleep. But when Emma's face squinched up, promising another bout of crying, Robin hardened her heart against the urge to take the baby into her arms again. "Give me five minutes and we'll be out of here."
Emma's tiny fists batted the air. Robin touched one of the perfect little hands and guided the baby's thumb into her mouth. Emma started sucking and quieted for a few moments, but Robin had pushed them both long enough for one day. The bookkeeping questions could wait for tomorrow. Her daughter came first.
Turning away before sympathetic tears stung her own eyes, Robin quickly shut down her computer and stuffed the shipping manifests and customer orders into their respective files. Since she'd started carrying the diaper bag, her brief case and purse spent most of their time locked up in her car. She carried the necessities in her pockets or, like these files, tucked them into the flowered backpack that was Emma's diaper bag. Pulling her keys from the pocket of her jeans, she hurried out into the hallway and closed the door quietly behind her.
Although she'd always been cautious about her safety whenever she worked late at the shop, Robin had become doubly paranoid lately, and moved through the building to recheck the locks on the back loading bay doors, the windows in the stock and workrooms, the massive walk-in refrigerator where fresh flowers were stored, as well as the doors at the front of the Robin's Nest Floral Shop. It wasn't just that bone-deep need to make sure her child was safe, whether she brought Emma to work or stayed at home with her. A friend and employee of Robin's had been abducted from this very neighborhood eight months earlier. Janie Harrison had been raped and murdered, and her abductor, believed to be the Rose Red Rapist, was still at large.
Robin hated the nickname the press had given to the serial rapist. They'd latched on to the colorful appellation because his first victim had been abducted outside the Fairy Tale Bridal Shop across the street. Rose Red, like the fairy tale, instead of simply naming him after the flower he left with his victims after each brutal attack. At one point, KCPD had even suspected the creep had gotten the roses at her shop.
So Robin didn't stock red roses anymore. If a bride or some other client wanted the red flowers for a wedding or funeral, then she'd special order them. It made her sick to think she'd enabled the creep in even that small way.
Confident that every lock was secure, Robin peeked through the front windows into the wet night outside. Thick sheets of rain puddled on the pavement and created a translucent curtain that dimmed the street lamps and the occasional headlights from vehicles that drove past. Normally, she loved the rain. It made her lawn green up, and the irises she'd planted last fall around her house and in the window boxes in front of her shop were blooming like crazy. The world outside her business near downtown Kansas City seemed gray and quiet tonightperfect for sleeping or curling up with a good book or rocking a tired infant to sleep.
But the women of Kansas City lived in fear on nights like this, wondering what danger might lurk in the shadows. Robin was no exception. The Rose Red Rapist reportedly came out of nowhere, striking his victim from behind and hauling the woman away in a white van to some unknown location where he assaulted her before bringing her back and dumping her body in this refurbished uptown neighborhood.
As if to emphasize the danger, a bolt of lightning zapped across the sky and a crack of thunder split the air, startling Robin and instantly pricking the hairs beneath the sleeves of the blue oxford blouse she wore. She crossed her arms and inhaled deeply, fighting off the chill that seemed to creep right through the glass to raise goose bumps on her skin.
As her eyes readjusted to the darkness, Robin detected a subtle movement in the shadows across the street. She braced one hand against the cool, damp glass and leaned closer, squinting to bring the lone figure, with shoulders hunched against the rain, into focus. Lightning flashed again and Robin caught a glimpse of the slender figure darting beneath the awning above the front entrance to the bridal shop. A coat or dress swung around the shadow's knees.
A woman. Alone on a night like this. Robin's heart knotted with concern. "Oh, sweetie. Be safe."
The woman pulled a hand from her pocket and brushed her straight, wet hair off her pale face. Then she lifted her head and looked straight at Robin. Maybe. The shop was dark and the nearest streetlight was farther down near the parking lot entrance. Robin should be nothing more than a shadow herself.
But the young woman's dark eyes never seemed to blink. She stared so hard that she must be seeing Robin watching her.
Robin breathed one moment of uncomfortable trepidation beneath the imagined scrutiny. In the next breath, she considered unlocking the front door and inviting the stranded woman inside the shop where she'd be warm and safe. Robin moved to the front door, pulled the keys from her pocket. Then the lightning flashed again.
But when Robin blinked her eyes back into focus in the darkness, the young woman was gone.
"Where ?" The woman must have found enough respite to gather her courage and run off in the rain and shadows to her destination again. "Be safe," Robin whispered again.
She needed to do the same. Robin shook off her apprehension about her books, the stormy weather and those mysterious shadows outside and returned to her office. "I'm back, sweetie."
She was greeted by a soft suckling sound that gave her hope that a ride in the car would coax Emma into a deep sleep that would last for five or six hourslong enough to get a decent rest herself so she could tackle the problems at work with a fresh eye in the morning. Smiling at her daughter's resilience, Robin picked her up from the bassinet and strapped her into her carrier. She thanked Emma for her patience with a gentle kiss to her forehead and then slipped a yellow knit cap over her hair and covered her with the blanket. Certain her daughter was warm and secure, Robin pulled the cloth protector over the carrier and closed the round viewing vent over Emma's face to shield her from the rain.
Before turning out the lights, Robin pulled on her yellow raincoat, slipped the diaper bag over her shoulders and picked up Emma's carrier. Since she'd put away her pepper spray two months earlier, not wanting to risk any accidental contact with her baby's delicate skin, Robin pulled a security whistle from the pocket of her slicker and looped the lanyard around her neck. Then they were moving through the familiar hallway and workrooms to the employee entrance from the parking lot beside the restored redbrick building.
With the steel door locked solidly behind her, Robin waited a moment beneath the green-and-white-striped awning above the entrance, assessing her surroundings. Pulses of lightning lit up the clouds in the skies overhead, giving her brief flashes of the rain and night around her.
Although the small lot was well lit, the emptiness between the brick walls of her building and the next one on the opposite side of the lot hitched up her apprehension a bit. Besides the shop's delivery van, parked near the alley behind the building at the end of the loading dock, the only car left was hers, parked in a circle of light beneath the lamppost nearest the street. Lights were working; doors were locked. Street-level shops were closed and the storm seemed to have driven any tenants who lived on the upper floors of the neighborhood high-rises inside.
Still, the rain hitting the awning over her head and rhythmic rumbles of thunder drowned out any telltale sounds that would alert her to approaching footsteps on the sidewalk or to vehicles passing on the street. She knew that, despite all her precautions, there was an inherent danger to a woman walking to her vehicle alone at night in the city. It required a deep, fortifying breath and the knowledge that she had a child to protect from the elements for Robin to pull her hood up over her chin-length hair, stick the whistle in her mouth and step out into the rain.
With her head slightly bowed against the rain drumming on her slicker, Robin hurried across the lot. Hugging Emma's carrier in the crook of her elbow, she made sure there was no one hiding beneath or around her car before tapping the remote and unlocking the doors.
As challenging as it had been at first to learn all the buckles and straps and tabs and slots of loading Emma into her car seat, Robin now made quick work of opening the back door and sliding the carrier into place. Once everything had locked and the car seat was secure, she spit the whistle from her mouth and leaned inside to open the vent on Emma's pink carrier cover, hoping to find a sleeping baby inside.
Instead, blue eyes stared up at her. With her darling face crinkled up with displeasure and looking as if the tears were about to let loose again, Emma swung her tiny fists in the air. "Oh, sweetie. Just give up the fight and go to sleep."
After wiping her wet fingers on the leg of her jeans, Robin reached beneath the damp material that had kept Emma dry and guided a thumb back to Emma's mouth, earning what Robin interpreted as a resigned whimper that things were okay. For now. "You'll be just fine in a minute, sweetie. I promise." She straightened Emma's cap, cupped her soft cheek and smiled. "Mommy loves you."
A flicker of movement reflected off the back window. Startled by the darting shadow, Emma grabbed for her whistle.
Before she could blow it, something hard smacked her across the back, throwing her against the frame of the car with bruising force. She thought the wind had slammed the door against her. But just as it registered that the rain was falling in a straight curtain around her car, she was struck again. This time, lower down. Something hard, narrow and unforgiving cracked against the back of her knees, toppling her to the pavement.
Robin screamed as another blow slammed across her back. Her palms scraped over the wet asphalt as she spread-eagled on her stomach, the wind knocked from her chest. As the pain radiated through her legs, and she struggled to inhale through her bruised lungs, she realized the baby backpack she wore had probably saved her from a crippling or killing blow.
The same backpack also served as an easy handle for her attacker. He latched on to the straps and dragged her several feet away from the car. Terror poured into her veins, thrusting aside the shock that had addled her thoughts. This was it. She was about to become the Rose Red Rapist's latest victim. She needed to shake off this oxygen-deprived stupor, ignore the pain and fight. She had a child to live for and protect.
Her world spinning, her lungs burning, her legs wobbly as a toddler's as she pushed up onto her hands and knees, Robin quickly realized three things. Her attacker's hands weren't on her anymore. She squinted against the strobing effect of the lightning flashes overhead to see that he had stepped over her prone body and was rifling through the contents of her car. Her attacker was dressed in black from head to toe. There was no face, no hair color to see and identify. And he carried a baseball bat in one gloved hand.