Read an Excerpt
"Yes, Mom. I'll do everything I can to get home for Christmas. Oops."
What a surprise.
Elisabeth Rogers hunched her shoulder to catch her cell phone between her ear and the thick wool scarf she wore, and grabbed the steering wheel with both hands to make the turn onto the snow-packed streets of her neighborhood. Her midsize Jeep swung around the corner and slid into an icy rut in the opposite lane, spinning for a moment before the tires found traction and shot forward.
No accident. No problem. Exhaling a foggy breath of relief as she slowed her speed and moved to the right side of the street, Beth peered through her windshield into the frozen night, promising to buy herself a hands-free phone so she could negotiate the Kansas City streets more safely.
She'd been driving this route home by herself every night for the past four months. She'd driven wintry farm roads back in central Missouri since she was fifteen. She knew better than to be in such a rush.
It was just all that weirdness at work today that left her a little unsettled and anxious to kick off her boots and put up her feet in the quiet security of her own space. Her boss, Charles Landon, the vice president of Research and Development at GlennCo Pharmaceuticals, had sent her to lunch and then disappeared for the rest of the day without an explanation or even leaving his phone on, forcing her to take one meeting for him and reschedule another. Not that she minded thinking on her feet or running the office—Elisabeth was ready and eager to do more than work as an executive assistant. But, at twenty-five, she knew she still had a lot to learn about the world of big business—shehad connections to make, opportunities to develop, dues to pay.
When he'd come back as she was on her way out the door at 5:30 p.m., turned on his fatherly charm and begged her to stay, she'd agreed to work late. It was part of those dues to stay until 9:00 p.m. to type in updates for meeting presentations, revise his schedule—and consequently, her own—and place a couple of overseas phone calls to verify end-of-the-year accountability reports. Despite his apology and claim that he'd been taking care of some personal business that was nothing for her to worry about, she'd sensed an agitation beneath Charles's affable persona that concerned her.
He'd seemed distracted, unable to focus. When he didn't respond to her announcement that she was leaving, she'd gone into his office and found him crawling under his desk to retrieve a pen he'd dropped. He'd snapped at her offer to help him look, then smoothed his gray hair back and apologized as he pulled his pen from the pocket of his pinstriped suit.
"Weird," Beth mouthed. "Totally weird night." She fished her phone from the folds of her scarf and tucked it back up against her ear. "Mom? You still there?"
"Why didn't you wait until you got home to call?" Ellen Rogers asked, knowing her twenty-five-year-old daughter better than she sometimes knew herself. "You know how your dad watches the weather. Kansas City had the same storm we did two weeks ago, and more snow is on the way. You shouldn't be driving and talking at the same time."
"The commute home is the only time I could call," Beth apologized, hating that she'd worried her mother. "You're already in your pajamas, aren't you? I didn't want to startle you awake with the phone ringing at midnight just to tell you my holiday schedule had changed. You'd think it was some kind of emergency."
The Jeep bumped over the corrugated ruts of snow that had fallen, melted and fallen again over the past two weeks as Beth made another, safer, turn. There were a lot of benefits to being a single woman owning her first home—the independence to come and go as she pleased, the freedom to decorate it any way she liked, building up the personal equity. But there were downfalls, too. Shoveling her own sidewalks and driveway at 11:47 p.m. topped that list right about now. Because two more inches of sleety crystals had fallen earlier in the evening, she'd better resign herself to taking a few minutes after unloading her groceries to at least salt the front walk so the mail carrier didn't trip the light fantastic tomorrow.
Not wanting to whine about even the tiniest thing for fear that her parents would fret even more about her decision to move to K.C. after small-town life and an old boyfriend had left her wanting something more, Beth went on with her explanation for the late-night call. "Dr. Landon is under a lot of pressure from the board of directors right now, and he needs me to put in some extra hours. It was too impersonal to send an e-mail to tell you how sorry I am that I'll have to cut short my trip home. I know that Jesse is home from college and that Frank and his wife and the kids will be there."
Her mother confirmed that both brothers would be at the farm for the holidays, while Beth spent most of her December at the office. "You don't have to apologize. I understand what it's like to be low woman on the totem pole, so that it's hard to get vacation time. But surely your office closes for a few days? I mean, who sells drugs on Christmas?"
Beth laughed. "That's what the college degree was for, Mom. I'm in management now. Not retail. People get sick 365 days a year, so GlennCo is producing goods somewhere in the world around the clock. That's a lot of employees and a lot of product to coordinate. It's up to people like Dr. Landon and me to make sure all those worldwide connections run smoothly so that you can walk into a pharmacy or check into a hospital or care facility and get exactly what you need to get well—"
"—even if it's Christmas." Beth's parents had always made her feel proud of her accomplishments. "Of course, your father and I want you to honor your commitments. We'll just make the most of the time you are here, and then maybe you can drive down to Fulton and stay for a week or so in the spring—or whenever you've built up the vacation time and the company can spare you."
Beth smiled. "Sounds like a plan."
"Stay warm. We love you."
"Love you, too, Mom. Give Dad a hug for me, too."
Once her mother had hung up, Beth set her phone on the passenger seat and turned onto her street. As was typical for the suburban neighborhood on a Monday night, the houses were already closed up as it approached 12:00 a.m. Cars were parked and silent, windows were dark.
The one exception was her new neighbor—new as of yesterday, in fact. A light was shining through the slits on either side of the faded, holey blanket masking his front porch window. He was probably still up late unpacking boxes after work. Although she'd seen three or four strapping, good-looking men hauling a bed and what little furniture would fit in the back of a pickup truck yesterday morning, she hadn't had the chance to introduce herself yet. In fact, she hadn't even been home long enough to find out which of the men had actually moved in.
Beth grinned with amusement as she drove past the blue-and-white bungalow house. She could guess that her mysterious new neighbor was single and male— either recently divorced or a confirmed bachelor—if the lack of furniture and tattered, makeshift window covering were any indication.
Her smile widened as she turned into her driveway. Someone had already cleared her drive and front walk. "Thanks, Hank."
She glanced into her rearview mirror at the older house across the street. Her newest friend, Hank Whitaker, was a sweet septuagenarian widower with white hair who seemed to delight in looking out for her. Saturday morning, he'd been bragging about buying a new electric snow blower to replace his older, gas-powered model. Beth had no doubts that Hank had spent the evening clearing the sidewalks all the way down to the end of the block, just to test out his new toy. There were definitely some home-baked cookies and a personal thank-you in his future.
Beth pressed the automatic garage-door opener and pulled inside. Now she could put away the groceries and even have time for a hot bath and a few minutes to read before she went to bed.
After killing the engine and closing the garage door, she reached for her purse and leather attaché bag and looped them both over her shoulder. She got out and opened the back hatch of the Jeep, groaning when she saw the tumble of oranges, yogurt cups and soup cans that had rolled out of the bags—probably when she'd whipped around that corner earlier. She collected the goodies and restuffed the canvas bags, hooking the handles over her left wrist before closing the rear door and window. She was on her way to the wood stairs leading up to the kitchen door when she spotted her cell phone sitting inside on the car seat.
Beth shook her head. "I need another hand."
At this rate, by the time she finally got everything inside, she'd have to skip the bath. Still, if she wanted to charge her phone…
Sliding everything up onto her shoulders, she opened the door and picked up her cell phone. A leather strap caught on the door when she tried to close it. Lurching to avoid strangling herself, the grocery bags thunked down to the bend of her elbow, pulling her farther off balance. Muttering the kind of curse her mother would frown upon, Beth stuck the phone between her teeth, shouldered her purse and attaché, clutched the bags up against her chest and butted the door shut with her hip. Then, in a feat of straightforward determination, she shimmied between the Jeep and garage wall up to the kitchen door.
Thank God she never locked the thing. Turning the knob with her hands full would be tricky enough.
Finding her keys in a pocket at this point would mean… what was that drumming sound?
The door burst open, smacking Elisabeth in the shoulder and knocking her off the stairs. "What the…?"
A dark figure in a stocking mask stormed through the opening, his white teeth snarling through the opening of his mask. Big hands clamped onto her arms and lifted her off her feet, shoving her aside like a lineman clearing the field for a running back.
Groceries flew. The front grill of the Jeep swirled through her vision. Her startled yelp of protest ended abruptly as she hit the concrete floor. The walls crashed and clattered down around her. The dark figure loomed over her like a shadow. Something smacked down hard against the side of her head. A sharp pain swirled through her skull, spinning her world into darkness.
It could have been seconds or minutes later when Elisabeth opened her eyes again. When she blinked away the white dots of light swirling through her vision, she instantly knew three things.
She was alone in the garage.
Her coat, suit jacket and blouse had been unbuttoned.
And her head hurt like hell.
But it wasn't throbbing so badly that she couldn't think. Call 9-1-1, her brain shouted. "Call 9-1-1," she whispered through trembling lips.
Her body jolted at the slam of a door, sending a twinge of pain through her shoulder and hip. Inside? Outside?
The man in the black mask might have gone back into the house. He might not be the only intruder there.
She needed to make that call.
Rolling onto her back was enough to make her dizzy. But even as she squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the queasy response in her stomach to pass, she patted her coat pockets. They'd been emptied out. Her skin crawled with the awareness that the stranger had touched her clothes, touched her. Ignoring the creepy sense of violation, Elisabeth ran her hands along her body and the floor beside her. Beyond the aches and heaviness of her head, she seemed to be unharmed. Her quick inspection discovered bruises, one glove and a tin of mints, but no phone.
Gritting her teeth against the ball bearings pinging from one side of her skull to the other, Elisabeth got her hands beneath her and pushed herself up to a sitting position. She spotted the contents of her purse, scattered through the shadows, and forced herself onto her hands and knees to search for her phone. Oh, no. She'd had her phone wedged between her teeth before they'd both sailed through the air. She squinted to see if she could spot it underneath her car or behind the bike and snow shovel she must have knocked over when she fell. But it was too dark to see and too hard to focus.
The icy temperature of the concrete floor seeped into her palms and through the wool of her gray slacks, rousing her enough to make her realize she was crawling toward the open kitchen door. The door to her back yard was standing wide open, as well.
What if she had passed out for only a few seconds? The garage might be stone-cold quiet, but who knew what waited for her inside the house? Another burglar? Something worse?
"Get out," she muttered, grabbing on to the bumper of her Jeep and pulling herself up.
Kicking aside groceries and the items from her purse, Beth staggered to the wall and punched in the code to open her garage door again. The grinding noise of the rising door grated against her ears and spurred her uneven footsteps. If the man—or men—were still here, they'd hear her escape.
As soon as she made it outside, the blast of damp winter air chapped her cheeks and chest, and eased the foggy disconnect in her brain. She needed to get someplace safe.
Calling to her like a beacon in the night, she turned toward the one lighted window on her street. Clasping her blouse and jacket together at her neck, she stepped knee-deep into the snow and cut straight across the yard to her neighbor's house. She stumbled once. But the icy moisture that sank into her cleavage and dribbled down to the exposed skin at her waist cleared away the last of her dizziness, leaving fear and pulse-pumping adrenaline in its place.
She wasn't safe.