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She opened her eyes with a start, not sure what had awakened her.
She was alone in the room, which was quiet except for the sound of an autumn breeze outside her window and the faint metallic squeak of the bed springs.
Had it been Chloe?
Squinting at the clockwhich read 4:32 a.m.she stilled herself and listened carefully, using the supersonic hearing only a mother possesses, tuning it in to Chloe's frequency.
But she heard nothing.
No whimpering. No cries in the night.
Even as a baby, Chloe had been a sound sleeper. And now that she was just past her third year, she was nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning. The girl liked her rest and, unlike her mother, could snooze through a thunderstorm.
But what Lisa Tobin had heard was not thunder.
The noise, if she hadn't dreamed itand she didn't think she hadwas high-pitched and abrasive. Like glass shattering.
Was there an intruder in the house?
Icy dread sluiced through her bloodstream as the thought took hold. She listened awhile longer, hoping it was just her overactive imagination, and the moment she convinced herself it was, she heard another sounda faint, muffled crashcoming from downstairs.
Definitely not her imagination.
There was someone down there.
Could it be Beatrice? Had she awakened in the middle of the night and decided to get an early start on her housekeeping?
Not likely. Bea was efficient, but she wasn't overly ambitious and was as sound a sleeper as Chloe. And even if she were tidying up, she had never been the clumsy type. The woman was as stealthy as an alley cat.
So intruder it was. Probably that punk kid from next door trying to prove himself to his punk buddies.
There had been a rash of break-ins up and down the street in the past few weeks and everyone pretty much suspected the kid. He was the product of a broken homesomething Lisa was all too familiar withand had been acting out ever since he'd reached puberty. In the year and a half she had lived in this house, the boy had been arrested three times. Twice for drugs, and once for burglary. And he was undoubtedly working his way toward arrest number four.
So what should she do?
Sit here and let him clean the place out?
Lisa's first instinct was to call the police, but as she reached to the nightstand for her cell phone, she remembered that she had left it in her purse, which was sitting on the table in the foyer downstairs. She had never had a landline installed, and now cursed herself for it.
So she had two choices. Stay put and hope the punk didn't work his way up the stairs Or confront him.
Neither choice thrilled Lisa, but she was not the shrinking-violet type and she wasn't about to sit here, waiting to be victimized.
So option number two it was.
Throwing her blankets aside, she sat up, swung her legs over the side of the bed, then got to her feet and pulled her robe on. She would need protection, of course. You don't go into a situation like this without it.
But what kind of protection?
Lisa didn't like guns. Hated them, in fact. Had only held one in her hands twice in her lifetime and had felt extremely uncomfortable each time. But before he moved out, her ex-husband, Oliver, had insisted on putting a pistol in a lockbox on the hall closet shelf, telling her not to hesitate to use it if necessary.
It was a typical Oliver move. He was no stranger to violencesomething she had learned only in the last days of their marriage, and part of the reason she had filed for a divorce. His stubborn refusal to consider her feelingsthe pistol, for examplewas the other part. She had thought she was marrying a prince charming but quickly discovered that there was something deadly beneath that charm. Something dangerous and controlling.
A Dr. Jekyll who had quickly morphed into Mr. Hyde. But Lisa had never been turned on by bad boys. She had too much self-respect for that. And where she had once felt warmth, she now felt trepidation whenever she encountered him. An uneasiness that wormed its way into her gut every time she saw him.
As much as she hated to admit it, however, Oliver had been right about the gun. And despite the punk's young age, confronting him without a weapon would be foolhardy.
She didn't have to use it, of course. Merely wave it at him to scare him away. Get to her cell phone and call the cops.
So that was the plan.
One she desperately hoped wouldn't go awry.
Sucking in a deep breath, she moved to her bedroom door and opened it a crack, peering out into the dark stillness of the second-floor hallway.
Steeling herself, she stepped into that stillness and quickly made her way to Chloe's bedroom. She wasn't about to confront anyone without first checking to see that her little girl was safe.
She carefully turned the knob and pushed the door open. To her relief, Chloe was wrapped in her blankets, her tiny figure illuminated by the moonlight from the window, her shallow chest rising and falling.
Despite her trepidation, Lisa felt a sudden warmth spread inside her. The sight of Chloe sleeping always had that effect on her. It had been a lousy couple of years, yet Chloe had been the one constant, the one shining star, in Lisa's universe.
Reassured that her daughter was safe, she clicked the lock button, then pulled the door shut. She didn't like the idea of locking Chloe in, but didn't want to take any chances, either.
Turning now, she headed back down the hallway toward the stairs, stopping at the narrow closet on the left side of the landing.
Checking the darkness at the bottom of the stairs, she quietly opened the closet door, reached to the overhead shelf and found the wooden box where Oliver had left it, almost a year ago. It was secured by a small lock with a combination that was easy enough to remember: Chloe's birth date.
Dialing it in, Lisa unfastened the lock, opened the box, then carefully removed the loaded pistol. She didn't feel comfortable hefting it, but what choice did she have?
"Just point it and shoot," Oliver had told her during one of his more generous moments. "That's all you have to remember."
Easier said than done, she thought.
Returning the box to the shelf, she closed the closet door and turned again toward the mouth of the stairs, listening for more sounds from below.
It was eerily silent now.
No rummaging noises, no whispering voicesassuming there was more than one intruderno footsteps.
Lisa had all but come to the conclusion that the burglar had left when she heard it: the faint, almost imperceptible clink of a glass and the sound of pouring liquid.
Someone was still down there all rightbut whoever it was wasn't ransacking her house. He was helping himself to a drink from the wet bar.
What the heck?
Lowering the pistol to her side, Lisa started down the stairs, her heart thumping with every step. She was barefoot, but like the stairways in many old St. Louis homes, this one was made of wood and was full of creaks and groans, the carpet covering it doing little to muffle the sound of her descent. She may as well have announced her entrance with the trill of trumpets.
As she reached the living room, clutching the gun tightly at her side, a lamp next to the sofa came to life, startling her. She was about to swing the gun upward when she stopped herself, realizing who it was.
Oliver. Drunk or stoned, as usual, sitting on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table, a glass of vodka in hand.
"You've gotta work on your stealth skills, babe. I could hear you at the top of the stairs."
As her heartbeat slowed, anger rose in Lisa's chest, crowding out the fear she was already feeling. "I almost shot you, Oliver. What the heck are you doing here?"
She glanced around the room and saw what had made the noise that got her out of bed: a picture frame lay on the polished wooden floorboards, its glass shattered. The photo inside was one she had always lovedshe and Chloe in front of the lake house, Chloe squirming happily in her arms. It had been taken at a better time in her marriage, nearly two years ago, before Oliver had released Mr. Hyde from his cage.
She had no idea if he had purposely knocked it from the end table or had merely stumbled into it. Whatever the cause, she'd now have to clean up the mess and replace the frame. Another black mark in a string of them as far as Oliver was concerned.
He didn't answer her question immediately. Instead, he took a sip of his vodka and gave her a long, slow smile.
"What's the matter, Leese, you don't like me darkening your doorstep? This is, after all, my house."
"Tell that to my attorney."
"Ah," he said, "your attorney. I'll bet you'd love to have a reason to give him a call. Real movie-star material, that guy."
"I hadn't noticed."
"Uh-huh. Sure. The two of you probably had this planned from the very beginning."
"Had what planned? What are you talking about?"
Oliver smirked, but there was a coldness in his eyes that frightened her. How could she not have known that he was a sociopath when she met him? How could she have let him seduce her into believing he was her man on a white horse?
"I've been thinking about this ever since you tricked me into the divorce," he said.
"What else would you call it?"
"Surviving," she said, then sighed. "It's been nearly a year, Oliver. Time to move on."
"You and your pretty-boy lawyer planned this, didn't you? You knew I was a rich, successful businessman and you targeted me, roped me in, used that cute little rear of yours to break me down, take advantage of me. Started snooping around behind my back, sticking your nose in things you had no right getting into."
She thought about Harvey, her handsome but overly earnest attorney who was nearly twice her age, married and had three kids. Their relationship had always been strictly professional.
"Am I? You got your hooks in me good, babe. I take one look at you in that robe, I get as a randy as a teenager."
Lisa felt her dinner backing up on her. The thought that she'd ever had the desire to take this man to bed gave her an urgent need for a box of gingersnaps. Or a chug of Pepto Bismol.
"Don't flatter yourself," she told him.
"I was trying to flatter you"
She stared at him. "Get out of here, Oliver. You don't live here anymore, and you know what's at stake. So go home."
"And what if I don't?" He shifted his gaze to the gun at her side. "You gonna put a hole in me?"
She frowned at him, then moved to the long table against the wall and set down the gun down, glad to be rid of it.
As she stepped away, she said, "You can take it with you, as far as I'm concerned. I don't ever want you thinking I owe you any favors."
The coldness filled his entire face now as he swung his feet off the table and stood up. "Let's talk about favors, why don't we?"
He moved toward her, and Lisa found herself backing away slightly, wondering now if she should have been so quick to put down the gun. Oliver carried with him such a sense of menace that she was unsure of what he might do.
Despite his history of violence, however, he had never threatened either her or Chloe and she hoped that would continue to hold true.
"You weren't so anxious to refuse my favors when I got you out of that dump of an apartment you lived in. I didn't see you protesting when I put you in a brand-new Volvo. Made sure you and Chloe had all those pretty little clothes to wear."
"I've never said I'm not grateful, Oliver, but none of that means you own me. And right now you're trespassing."
He moved in close, trapping her against the wall. "Trespassing? I haven't been around here in months and this is how you treat me?"
Lisa's heart started thumping again. "Get out of here, now, or I swear I'll"
It came suddenly and without warning. Oliver's hand shot toward her, grabbing her by the throat, slamming her roughly against the wall.
Lisa struggled, feeling her air cut off. She tried to speak but couldn't.
"I'm sorry," Oliver said. "What was that? Were you about to threaten me again? Tell me I don't have the right to come into a house I bought and paid for? You think some computer file you've got stashed, or some piece of paper your lawyer drafted up is gonna change that?"
Panic rose in Lisa's chest. She could barely breathe.
Upstairs, Chloe started to cry, the sound muffled by her door. But Lisa doubted it was their voices that had awakened her. Her usual sound sleep had instead been disturbed by that sense of menace that Oliver carried with him wherever he went. A malignant contagion stirring the air around them.
As Lisa struggled to breathe, he loosened his grip on her throat and she stumbled sideways. But before she could move away from him, he grabbed hold of her arm and shoved her back against the wall.
She was too stunned to move. This was the first time he had ever laid a hand on her.
"Don't you talk to me like that again, you little gold digger." He held her in place and slipped his free hand inside her robe, grabbing her right breast, rubbing his thumb over her nipple. "You may have snagged the gold, but the way I see it, you've got a long way to go before you earn"
A ratcheting sound cut him off. They turned and saw Beatrice standing at the foot of the stairs, a shotgun in her hands, leveled at Oliver.
"You'd best get your paws off her real quick, son. I wouldn't want to muss up the lady's new robe."
Tears of relief filled Lisa's eyes. She hadn't even known Bea owned a shotgunwouldn't have approved if she did, not with Chloe in the housebut the old woman looked as if she knew how to use it and Lisa welcomed the sight.
"If you think I'm kidding," Bea continued, "just try me."
Oliver released Lisa, but his body went rigid, the coldness in his eyes turning into a hard, angry stare. "You don't have the guts, you old bat."
"Don't I?" She moved forward. "My daddy taught me how to use this scattergun when I was twelve years old. I've never shot at nothin' but tin cans, but I'm all too happy to find out what a round of buck can do to a grown man's face. I don't imagine it'll be pretty."
"I didn't come here alone," Oliver told her. "I've got men outside and all I have to do is sound the alarm."
Bea smiled. "You go right ahead and do that, son, see what it gets you."
He studied her a moment longer, then did as she asked and backed away, throwing his hands up as he moved. "Never argue with a shotgun."
Lisa took a deep breath and said, "Get out of here, Oliver, and don't come back."
He snapped his gaze toward her. "Or what?"
"Or I go to the police."
"Why? Because I copped a feel?" He grinned. "Judging by the way your body reacted, I'd say you were enjoying it."
"You know what I'm talking about," Lisa said.
His face got hard and Bea gestured with the shotgun. "Son, I'm about two tics away from squeezing this triggerand it isn't much of a target, but I'll be aiming at your talliwacker."
Oliver's eyes narrowed. "You're gonna regret this," he said, then looked at Lisa. "Both of you."
He walked to the front door and yanked it open, then turned in the doorway and smiled at them again, using his thumb and forefinger to form a gun.
"You're about to find out what happens to women who dump on Oliver Sloan "
He pretended to pull the trigger, then turned again and went outside.