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A brilliant flash of lightning jolted Adelaide Charboneau awake from a dead sleep.
She rolled over and stared up at the ceiling, praying this wasn't the beginning of another bout of insomnia, leading to a late-night drawing session in her art studio downstairs.
Thunder rumbled close by and vibrated the house, but her attention focused on the mini-blind as it clanked against the open window frame.
A storm was coming. She could smell it on the air slicing through the two-inch crack at the bottom of the sill. A storm and something more. Something she couldn't quite grasp.
Chills skimmed her bare skin and prickled the hairs at her nape.
She pulled back the covers, climbed out of bed and walked to the window, determined to shut out the uneasy sensation clawing through her, right along with the torrent of rain she knew was coming.
It was hurricane season on the Gulf Coast. An edgy time for the residents of New Orleans who instinctively turned their attention to the southern horizon, and their TVs to the weather channel.
She brushed aside the billowing sheers, pulled up the blind and locked it in place.
The sky lit up again, casting a white-hot glow like a net directly overhead.
Her focus riveted on movement in a cluster of azaleas near the gazebo.
The flash fizzled, but the image was burned on her brain. There was a man standing in her backyard.
Shaken, she closed the window, locked it and stepped back, trying to pick him out in the gloom as her eyes adjusted. Follow-up thunder rumbled, its vibration churning up fear in her mind. What was he doing here?
The answer came crashing into her consciousness with an explosion of shattering glass from somewhere in the massive house.
The back door? He was breaking in.
She stumbled forward, rushed the bedroom door, shoved it closed and locked it.
Adrenaline pulsed in her veins, putting her senses in a state of hyperalert. Was he already inside? Making his way through her kitchen and up the stairs? Had he seen her standing in the window?
The air was still, save the beginning tap of rain on the roof overhead.
Footsteps? She heard footsteps on the stair treads.
Determination pushed her to action. She wheeled around, looking for anything she could use to defend herself. Her gaze locked on a heavy candlestick perched on the corner of the dresser. She snatched it, sending the pillar candle crashing to the floor with a thud.
Grabbing her cell phone from the nightstand, she hurried to the closet, opened the door and crept inside, careful to pull it closed without a sound.
Shoving through the clothing, she pressed into the corner, turned her back to the wall and went to her knees.
Her hand shook as she opened her cell phone and dialed 911.
"Enhanced 911, what is your emergency?"
"A man just broke into my house through the back door." Her voice sounded muffled in the confines of the closet, but too loud in her own ears. "I think he's inside my house."
"Are you Adelaide Charboneau, 1532 St. Charles Street?"
"Stay on the line with me, Adelaide. I'll dispatch an officer to your location."
Squeezing the candlestick in her hand, she strained to hear his footsteps over the hammering rain.
"Please hurry," she whispered, feeling the walls of the closet protecting and smothering her at the same time.
She closed her eyes, trying to keep her fear in check. Help was on the way. Someone would come.
The familiar groan of the floorboards outside her bedroom door intruded into the white noise around her.
Her eyes flicked open in the dark. Her mouth went dry.
It wouldn't take him long to find her, pry her from her hiding place and—
The last graphic thought in her head evaporated with the sound of splintering wood. The bedroom door slammed against the wall.
He was coming for her.
Detective Royce Beckett turned the windshield wipers on high and squinted to see the road in front of him through the frantic flap of the blades.
It was a torrential downpour, the sort he liked to watch from a well-worn chair, holding a bottle of imported beer. But not tonight, not in the middle of the personnel shortage plaguing the NOPD like a bad case of the flu.
The light at the corner of Canal and St. Charles Street turned red. He braked to a stop at the same time the portable police radio attached to his belt broke squelch.
He listened for the verbal traffic to follow, not that it mattered; he was off duty for the night, headed home to get some z's.
"All units in the vicinity of St. Charles Street, please respond to a break-in in progress. 1532 St. Charles, the Adelaide Charboneau residence. She reports point of entry is the back door of the residence. The intruder is inside. I repeat, the intruder is inside. Use extreme caution."
Royce mouthed the name. Adelaide Charboneau. He'd heard it somewhere, but he couldn't place it.
Yanking the radio off his belt, he pressed the call button. "Detective unit thirty-four. I'm three blocks from that location. I'll respond. Send a backup unit."
"Copy unit thirty-four. Units forty-eight and thirty-two will be en route."
"Unit thirty-four clear."
Royce flipped on the lights, stomped on the gas pedal and shot around the corner onto St. Charles.
Home invasions were dangerous. Unpredictable. They could ignite faster than gas and a match.
He glanced at the house numbers every time the wipers cleared the windshield, but he didn't have to look very hard to see a man dragging a woman across the front lawn at 1532 St. Charles Street.
Jerking the steering wheel hard to the right, he slammed on the brakes and flooded the duo in the car's headlights. He unholstered his Glock 9mm, flung open the door and climbed out, using it for cover, as he leveled his weapon on the man holding a scantily dressed woman around the waist. Her feet dangled just above the ground, and she continually rammed her heels into the shin of his right leg.
"Police! Let her go!" he yelled, noting the man's description, and the ball cap obscuring his features. He didn't appear to have a weapon, but it was the one he couldn't see that was the most deadly.
Royce stepped out from behind the door, taking a couple of aggressive steps forward. "Let her go!"
The man staggered to a stop and turned to face him.
Royce held his breath. The moment of truth. The instant fight-or-flight decisions were cast and irreversible.
The suspect shifted his stance, lowered Adelaide onto the grass in front of him and locked her in a choke hold.
Caution worked through his veins. She was on the verge of becoming a casualty if he didn't do something.
Royce took another step forward. "Don't be stupid. Let her go." He closed the distance. Close enough to see the blindfold that covered her eyes and the duct tape wrapped around her wrists.
He went cold all over. This was an abduction? It had to stop here, but if he fired his weapon, he ran the risk of hitting her.
Tension cranked every muscle in his body into overdrive as he prepared to charge in for the takedown.
The suspect shuffled backward, dragging Adelaide with him to the edge of the yard and a thick cluster of azalea bushes.
He shoved her hard in Royce's direction and bolted for cover, leaving Royce without a clear shot.
The woman lurched forward, twisted her ankle and crumpled to the ground on her knees. Reaching up, she pulled the blindfold down and stared at him as he rushed toward her.
Royce kept his weapon trained in the direction the subject had taken, listening to the sound of heavy footfalls trailing the suspect's getaway through the bushes and into the alley.
He was soaked to the bone now. Rivulets of rainwater seeping under his shirt collar and rolling down his back. Sliding to a stop in the wet grass beside her, he glanced up to make sure the subject wasn't mounting a counter attack.
A squad car ground to a stop at the curb and cut its siren. Two officers jumped from the car and drew their weapons.
Royce pointed in the direction the thug had taken, and knelt next to Adelaide Charboneau.
"Are you okay?" he asked, swallowing hard as his gaze traveled the length of the flimsy pink nightgown she wore. It was soaked and sealed to her skin, clinging to her breasts, and leaving little of her body that wasn't accessible to his view.
Uncomfortable with the instant blaze of heat in his blood, he stood up and slogged out of his jacket. Bending down, he draped it over her shoulders. "Sorry it's wet."
She raised her face to his. "It's cover. Thank you."
A trickle of blood trailed from a small cut on her lip.
Concern jolted him, and he knelt back down on the grass next to her. "Your lip is bleeding. Did he hurt you?"
Adelaide ran her tongue over the tiny, insignificant cut on her lip. She'd probably gotten it when she tried to bite him. "It's minor, but I did twist my ankle when he pushed me, and I'm fairly shaken up."
"You put up a heck of a fight."
She nodded, realizing how cold she was even though the rain was tepid and the air warm. A shudder racked her body, followed by another, as she made an unsuccessful attempt to brush the wet hair off her face with the back of her bound hands.
"Can you get this tape off me?" She turned the plea on him, but she already knew the answer.
Reaching out, he stroked the hair back with his fingertips. "It's evidence. You'll have to wear it until the CSI team can collect it, but I can get you out of the rain."
Grateful, she touched his forearm with her hands. A wave of relief flooded her body. Help had come. It had come in the form of a man who for some overwhelming reason made her feel safe for the first time in weeks.
"I'm Detective Royce Beckett."
"Adelaide Charboneau," she whispered as he gently brought her up onto her bare feet, as if she were made of something fragile. He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her against him.
Heat ignited in her body, chasing away the chill. She swallowed hard, knowing if it weren't for Detective Royce Beckett, she'd be trying to kick her way out of a car trunk right now.
She pushed the haunting image into the back of her mind, knowing it would resurface, but not tonight. Tonight she was safe and she had every intention of relishing it.
Royce spotted a cluster of chairs on the veranda next to the open front door and aimed for them, but the moment he stepped forward, Adelaide let out a yelp of pain and sagged against him.
Without hesitation he scooped her up in his arms and carried her across the expanse of grass, up the steps and onto the porch. He carefully set her down on a wicker settee and stepped back.
In the glare and shadows of the headlights, he could see the intense shade of purple forming along the narrow shaft of her bare ankle. "You need to have that looked at. It could be broken."
For the first time tonight he finally got a solid look at her face. It was a fresh face, a beautiful face, he decided as she stared up at him with eyes the color of smooth jade.
The drone of another squad car hummed from up the block, and it pulled in just as the other officers appeared from around the side of the house using their flashlights to comb the darkness.
"Anything?" he asked, dragging his gaze away from Adelaide.
"Nothing. We saw a car pull away from the curb a block over, but we weren't close enough to get a description."
"Do an inside sweep in case the unsub had a partner. I'll call in CSI."
The two officers climbed the steps, drew their weapons and disappeared inside the front door.
Royce pulled the radio from his belt and called in the team, hoping the thug had left evidence he could use to nail him.
Two more uniforms sloshed up the walkway and stopped at the bottom of the steps.
Royce turned just as one of the officers took the stairs a couple at a time and knelt next to the settee.
A jolt of protectiveness jumbled his thoughts, and he had to fight the urge to step closer to her, to pull his jacket tighter around her shoulders, to cover the smooth expanse of her bare leg stretched out on the settee.
"Officer Brooks. It's a horrible night to be out." She gave a tired smile.
Brooks's face was stern as he stared at the tape locking her wrists together, then back up at her face.
"A man broke into my house and tried to take me."
"Do you know who he is?"
"No, I never saw his face."
"You mean you didn't recognize him?"
"I mean I never saw his face. He blindfolded me in the closet."
"Dammit." Officer Brooks came to his feet and turned to face Royce. "She's the best sketch artist the department has ever hired. If she'd seen the bastard, she could draw him, and I'd catch him."
It hit him then, like a Mack truck on the 10 freeway. Adelaide Charboneau, NOPD sketch artist. In fact he'd just used a composite she'd drawn to catch a serial rapist. "I got a look at him."
Adelaide glanced up a him. "If you saw him, I can create a composite."
Royce pulled the image in his brain, then realized how obscured the details were by the man's ball cap. "We'll give it a try, but between his hat, bad lighting and the rain, I'm not sure it'll make a difference."
A look of acceptance passed across her features, and she nodded in agreement. A gesture that seemed to him to be out of place in the exchange.
Glancing up, he watched a long white van pull up to join the string of cop cars bedazzled with flashing lights.
The whole neighborhood was awake now. People rubbernecked from their porches, dressed in their jammies. Fortunately the rain was letting up one bucket at a time, and dawn was just over the eastern horizon.
"It's clear, Detective." One of the uniformed officers stepped through the doorway, while the other one flipped on the porch light from inside the foyer.
"There are a dozen muddy footprints coming in across the kitchen floor, and broken glass at the point of entry. We'll take a look around the perimeter and turn it over to forensics."
"Thanks." Royce turned his attention back to Adelaide, noticing a shiver quake her body. He needed to get her inside and dried off.
Officer Brooks's radio broke squelch and Royce was relieved when his unit was called out by dispatch on an MVA.
"Take care, Miss Charboneau."
"I will." Adelaide raised her bound hands in an awkward wave and watched the two cops hurry for their car, nearly colliding with a woman carrying a case almost as big as she was.