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Something was wrong. Lily Raines knew it as soon as the door closed behind her. It was too dark, the only light coming from the streetlamp outside her living room window. Hadn't she left the light on over her sink? She set down her purse and keys and listened.
The light must have burned out. She puffed her cheeks in a weary sigh and shrugged out of her jacket, the rustle of silk echoing in the silence.
Her scalp tingled with that creepy spider-on-yourskin feelingas if someone were watching her. She'd had it ever since the trial started.
Stress. That's all it was. Goodness knew she had enough reason.
She reached for the living room light switch. "I wouldn't do that."
A dark figure rose up in front of her.
She tried to scream but her throat seized; tried to turn and run but her legs wouldn't carry her.
Hard hands grabbed her shoulders, twisted her violently and shoved her onto the couch.
Gasping for air, Lily bounced back up and swung her fist at the dark shape. She connected with flesh.
"Ouch! Maudit!" The owner of the voice grabbed her and shoved her again, hard. She fell across the arm of the couch and onto the floor, bumping her hip and elbow painfully.
Different voice. There were two of them. Panic clawed at her throat and she scrambled to regain her footing. She screamed for help and tried to get up but her head hit the end table and she saw stars. She tried to crawl away but there was nowhere to go. They were between her and the door.
A different pair of hands closed around her upper arms from behind and lifted her with no effort.
"Let go of me!" she cried, kicking backward. The hands turned into steely arms that wrapped around her, immobilizing her. This one was big, tall, solid. His breath sawed in her ear.
She stomped but missed his instep. His hold tightened. She clawed at his forearms, but he squeezed her so fiercely she could barely breathe. She gasped for air.
The first man stepped in front of her and into the faint light from the window. She squinted. He was skinny. Her height, maybe. Shorter than the one who held her. She'd need that information later to tell the policeif they let her live.
Desperately she kicked, using the second man's hold for leverage. He squeezed her until her ribs ached and whispered something close to her ear. She didn't understand what he said, but the feel of his hot breath on her skin sent terror streaking through her.
The skinny guy laughed as he dodged her kicks. Then his laughter stopped and he grabbed her chin. He stuck his face in front of hers. His breath reeked of garlic. "Calm yo-self, Lily."
He knew her name? She froze, horrified. These men weren't burglars. This was personal.
"Who are y"
The fingers moved from her chin to her throat. "Good girl. Now you gon' be quiet for me?"
His fingers pushed painfully into her neck as she tried to nod. Tried to stop her brain from imagining what they planned to do to her.
Frantically, she searched her memory. She didn't recognize the voice or the accent. Cajun, maybe. She'd
"What do you want?" she gasped.
The Cajun bared his teeth and his fingers tightened. Her larynx closed up. He was crushing it. He was going to kill her.
"Di'n I tell you be quiet?"
She struggled for air. She didn't want to die. She made a strangled sound and clawed at the arms holding her. Her vision went black.
"Careful," the man who held her rasped. "She can't breathe." The punishing pressure on her chest relaxed slightly. "You shut your face!" the skinny guy hissed, but he loosened his hold.
She sucked air through her aching throat. From behind her the rock-hard arms loosened a bit more.
Her eyes were beginning to adapt to the darkness, but she still couldn't distinguish features or clothing. There was too little light and she was too afraid. She swallowed, her throat moving against the Cajun's hand.
"Just tell me what you want. I don't have much money"
He released her throat and snagged a handful of her hair, twisting roughly.
Tears of pain sprang to her eyes.
From somewhere he pulled out a long, thin-bladed knife. He held it up before her eyes, then touched its point just beneath her chin. She automatically lifted her head, cringing away from the deadly blade.
"Come on, Lily, don't make me hurt you. I will, and I'll enjoy it."
The man holding her tensed up. His forearms, strapped under her breasts, tightened.
She strained backward as far as she could. The Cajun grinned at her fear. She swallowed and felt the point of the knife prick her skin. Between the hand clutching her hair, the knife and the other man holding her, she was totally helpless. Totally at the mercy of merciless men. They could do anything to her. She was powerless to stop them.
She nodded jerkily. Tears slid down her cheeks. They were going to kill her and she didn't even know why. "You're on the jury for Sack Simon's murder case." She stiffened in surprise. The trial! Her pulse thrummed in her ears.
"Yes," she whispered. Her fists clenched automatically and her fingernails dug into the arms holding her.
"My boss, he wants the trial over. He don' want Simon convicted."
Lily stared at the shadows of his face. Sharp chin. Long nose. Eyes that were nothing but black holes.
"Idon't understand." She didn't. The trial was half over. The prosecution had presented ample evidence to put Simon away for life.
"Den I make it simple, Lily. The jury can't convict Simon."
The way he kept saying her name terrified her. "Can't convict?" she repeated, trying to make sense of what he was saying. Her brain wouldn't work. How could they not convict? "But he's guilty."
The Cajun pressed the knife blade harder, just enough to sting her neck. "Damn it, woman. I know you ain't that stupid. 'Cause if you are, I might as well just kill you now."
Suddenly, she got it. They wanted her to hang the jury. "But I can't"
He let go of her hair and grabbed her throat again, squeezing.
She coughed. "Pay attention, Lily. The only thing you can't do is tell anyone we was here. My boss wants to know that you will vote not guilty." "Not guilty? That won't work. There's too much evidence. There's DNA."
"Shut up." He tightened his hold on her throat.
She gagged and lost her footing as the man holding her pulled her away from the little guy's punishing hold.
"Stop choking her," he snapped.
"Hey, bioque. You don' give the orders. I do." The skinny Cajun turned his attention back to Lily. He grabbed her jaw again.
"Evidence can be wrong. Do you understand, Lily?" One juror out of twelve. A hung jury. They wanted her to force a mistrial. She nodded.
"You want me to vote not guilty." She coughed again, her throat raw and sore.
"You understand why?"
"To deadlock the jury. A mistrial," she croaked.
"Good girl." He patted her cheek. His fingers smelled of garlic and cigarettesa nauseating, stomach-churning mixture.
By contrast, she had a vague sense of soap and mint from the man behind her. He'd bathed and brushed his teeth before coming here to terrorize her? She almost giggled hysterically.
The garlicky fingers slid down her neck and past the vee of her shirt to touch the top of her breast in an obscene caress.
Lily's stomach turned over. She recoiled, straining backward against the other man. "Pleaseplease don't hurt me."
The man holding her backed up enough to pull her away from the Cajun's probing fingers.
Of the two of them, she'd rather be at the mercy of the bigger man. He seemed to be trying to keep her safe from the little Cajun's pawing.
"Wh-why me?" she stammered, turning her head away from the man's leering gaze.
"My boss, he's a very smart man. He studied the jury. Then he picked you. You the perfect juror."
She didn't have to ask why. She knew. It was because she lived alone and her interior design business was at a virtual standstill since her biggest client had declared bankruptcy. She'd cleared her schedule to design the interior of their high-rise and now she was out of a job.
There were eight men and four women on the jury. The other women had children, husbands, jobs. The attorneys had asked each one about family.
Family. "Oh, God." Her eyes widened in horror as the real reason she'd been chosen dawned on her. Her father. He was in a nursing home, helpless to defend himself. They could hurt him if she didn't cooperate. Her knees buckled. Only the big man's arms kept her from crumpling to the floor.
"There you go. Now you figured it out. I knew you weren't stupid, Lily."
His voice lingered over her name, sending chills down her spine.
"You be hearin' something very soon. Then you'll understand how serious my boss really is."
The Cajun backed toward the door. "Take care of her," he ordered the man holding her.
The tall man released his tight hold and grabbed her wrist. She barely had time for a breath and a fleeting glimpse of his profile before he flipped the afghan from her couch up and over her head.
He spun her around a few times until she stumbled dizzily. Then he lifted her in his arms.
"Don't mess with these people," he whispered. "Do what he said." He knelt and set her gently on the floor, then pushed her. She slid across the hardwood and hit the wall.
Kicking and struggling, she tore at the fuzzy material that blanketed her. Her limbs were weak with fear. She was shaking so badly she couldn't catch hold of the afghan. She sucked in a deep breath, and lint and dust choked her. She coughed, then moaned at the pain in her throat.
Her front door slammed.
Finally she fought her way free of the tangle of knots and yarn. For an instant she crouched there against the wall, hugging the afghan to her chest. Were they really gone?
She held her breath and listened. Silence. She looked around. The apartment was dark. It felt empty.
Barely daring to breathe, she tried to push herself to her feet, but her knees gave way. She collapsed back to the floor, her sore throat contracting around the sobs that erupted from her chest.
She gave up trying to stand and crawled over to her couch, expecting at any moment to be grabbed again. She switched on the lamp with shaky fingers.
Nothing. They were gone.
She huddled in the corner of the couch, hugging her knees to her chest, unable to stop shivering. She was chilled to the bone, although it was September and still summertime-hot in Biloxi, Mississippi.
She didn't know how long she sat there staring at the front door, terrified they'd return. Sick with the knowledge that they knew where she lived.
Still afraid to trust her trembling legs, she crawled over to the door and reached up to throw the dead bolt. The useless gesture was almost funny. They'd gotten into her apartment once. They could do it again. They could come back any time they wanted.tension, her head woozy with fear. Leaning against her kitchen counter, she chafed her sore arms. Her throat and jaw hurt. She couldn't stop trembling.
What was she going to do? They'd threatened her. Threatened her father.
Dad! The little Cajun hadn't said anything specific, but his implication sent icy fear surging through her veins. His boss had chosen her because she was alone and vulnerableand so was her father.
She had to check on him. Carefully she walked over to the couch. Where was the phone? It had been knocked onto the floor when she'd bumped her head on the end table. It was halfway across the room.
She moved unsteadily toward it as pain shot through her shoulders. The man who'd held her had been strong. Thank God he wasn't as cruel as the Cajun.
Just as she touched the handset, it rang.
She jerked away with a startled cry and covered her mouth with both hands to keep from screaming.
It rang again. Her temples throbbed. Her heart raced. She forced herself to pick it up.
"Ms. Raines? This is Mary Bankston, night supervisor at Beachside Manor."
Horror clutched at her chest. No, please!