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The slam of a car door grabbed Jessica Taylor's attention.
She dropped the clothes in her hand and rushed to the window to scan the front of the house. An unfamiliar silver sedan was parked at the curb. That hadn't been there when Jessica arrived to help Sarah Young escape her abusive husband.
Sarah's face was pale against the blue bruises that shadowed her eye and cheeks and the red swollen lip. But it was the fear in her wide, green eyes that spoke volumes. "It's Robert. He's home," she said, her voice a choked, fearful whisper.
The thought of a confrontation with this manor any man who believed he had the right to beat his wifeswept a wave of bitterly familiar emotions through Jessica. Fear, desperation, hopelessness. For a moment, she was swept back into the past to another confrontation.
The pounding on the door the despair the chilling voice on the other side of the door.
You're mine, Jess.
No matter how many times she'd confronted such evil, she'd never grown accustomed to it.
But she'd also learned to push through her fears until the singe of righteous anger strengthened her and she would never bow to them. She ignored the shakiness in her knees as she pulled her long blond hair into a pony-tail. She only wished she were more dressed down. High-heeled shoes were not the ideal for running if she needed to, but she'd come straight from court and she liked the added height they gave her five-foot-six frame.
She draped on an air of calmness as she turned to Sarah. "Grab your suitcase. We need to go now. He won't find you. You'll be safe, I promise."
Sarah's chin quivered and tears pooled in her eyes. "He's going to be so mad."
Jessica knew this was a pivotal moment. The attack on Sarah was damaging enough to keep her husband in jail overnight, but they'd lost precious escape time while she'd tried to convince Sarah to leave. Even now, she saw the question of whether or not to go on Sarah's battered face.
Jessica understood her feelings. This was Sarah's home and she didn't want to leave it, but she also knew the statistics of intimate partner violence. Robert's violence was escalating, and Sarah might not survive another attack.
Jessica touched her arm, trying to pull the young woman's focus back to the plan. "Sarah, we have to leave. Robert doesn't know about Dean's Den. You'll be safe there, but we have to go now."
The domestic violence shelter Jessica ran in Jackson had safeguards for women in Sarah's position. But those security measures would be futile if Robert had an opportunity to follow them there.
Sarah nodded then stuffed the handful of clothing she held into the suitcase and closed it. "I'm ready."
The back door slammed shut and a man's voice reverberated through the house shouting Sarah's name. Jessica sucked in a breath. Were they already too late?
But relief flooded Sarah's face. "Andrew!" She ran to the bedroom door and called out to him. "Andrew, we're here."
He rushed into the room, grabbed Sarah and hugged her tightly. Jessica could see the relief on his face and the affection for the woman now in his arms. But she was shocked to realize she also knew himAssistant District Attorney Andrew Jennings.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner," he told Sarah. "I was drowning in legal briefs and my phone battery died. I didn't see your messages until this morning. Are you okay?" He touched her face, then her arms, as if checking for himself to make certain she wasn't seriously injured.
"I'm fine. Jessica, this is my brother. Andrew, this is Jessica Taylor. She runs a shelter for women like me."
He turned his eyes from his sister long enough to acknowledge her presence. "We've met."
Yes, they knew one another. They'd worked together in the past and she'd tried with little success to encourage Andrew and the District Attorney's Office to help other victims of domestic violence through stronger charges and higher sentences for batterers.
Andrew Jennings possessed a wide, disarming smile and a charm that put people at ease when he chose to use it. Juries responded to him. The press revered him. And most women swooned at the sight of his sea-green eyes fixed upon her.
But Jessica was not most women.
This man understood high-priced suits and expensive cars. He'd worked his way up the ladder of success in the D.A.'s office by winning cases and domestic violence cases were hardly ever winnable. He had no clue about what the women in her care endured and no desire to learn. All he cared about was getting his handsome face in the newspaper.
Or so she'd thought until she'd watched him pull Sarah into his strong embrace.
"I won't let him hurt you again. I promise I won't." He looked at Jessica as if to drive home his determination.
He needn't have bothered. The angry flush on his cheeks and the fire in his eyes only confirmed what she already knew. This case was too personal for him to be objective. An altercation between him and Robert would make an already dangerous situation much worse.
After all the cases they'd worked together, why hadn't he come to her when he realized his sister needed help? Did he disdain her so much that he wouldn't even acknowledge she was good at what she did?
"We have to leave. I called the courthouse after I got your messages. Robert posted bail. He's on his way here now. Let's go. My car is parked out front."
Andrew grabbed Sarah's suitcase from the bed then led her toward the living room. Jessica followed behind them, noticing the protective way Andrew's arm never left Sarah's shoulder. This was a side of his nature she'd never seen before.
As he opened the front door, a large white pickup roared into the driveway and a man leaped from the cab. Andrew slammed the door and turned to her. "It's Robert. Now what?"
"While I'm talking to him, you get Sarah to the car. Don't stop moving, even for me." She directed her next command back to Sarah. "Don't speak to him. Don't even look at him. Let your brother lead you out."
The young woman quivered with fear. "What if he comes after me?"
"He'll have to get through me first. And believe me, I won't make it easy for him."
Andrew stepped forward. "Maybe I should be the one to confront him."
"I imagine that would only make things worse." She didn't have time to deal with his macho chivalry. They had to move and fast. "I've dealt with men like Robert before. I can take care of myself." She didn't wait for him to agree. She lengthened her stride as she headed for the front door, silently lifting a prayer that God would guide them to safety.
A shadow on the other side of the window stopped her. Heavy footsteps pounded the concrete. Jessica did a quick assessment. The layout of the room made getting to the back door quickly impossible. She had no choice but to confront him in order to buy time for Andrew and Sarah to escape.
The man who opened the door and blocked their path was thirtyish and built like an NFL linebacker. "Who are you?" he demanded when he saw Jessica. He zeroed in on the suitcase in Andrew's hand then stepped inside and slammed the door. "I knew something was up when I saw Andrew's car out front."
To Jessica's dismay, Sarah ignored her wishes and responded to her husband. "I didn't think you would be here."
He glowered at her. "No, you thought I'd still be in jail, didn't you? Well, they let me go. They said your made-up story about me hitting you was bogus so they had to release me."
Jessica knew his statement was untruejust more emotional tormentbut she saw Sarah shrink at its impact.
"That's a lie," Andrew said, stepping in front of Sarah in a protective manner. "The judge issued a restraining order against you and you're already in violation of that order by being here. This can send you back to jail."
Robert's nostrils flared in anger and the muscles in his neck flinched. Jessica stepped forward before this could escalate into an altercation between the two men. She hoped the icy stare she flashed Andrew penetrated his thick skull. What part of "don't stop moving" did he not understand? The path to the back door was still clear. "Mr. Young, my name is Jessica. I'm a domestic violence crisis counselor. Sarah has asked for my help."
He had an angry stare that she was certain struck fear in anyone who crossed him. Now, it was specifically reserved for his wife. But that expression quickly faded and in its place a bewildered one emerged. A note of desperation crept into his voice. "What? Why?"
Even though the situation called for a conciliator, the advocate in her fired up. The befuddled look on his face made her ill. These men always liked to play the victim. But she kept her tone deliberate and measured. "You know why."
From the corner of her eye, she spotted Andrew and Sarah finally moving toward the kitchen to escape through the back door.
He shook his head. "Did Andrew bring you here? He's never liked me. He has been trying to turn Sarah against me since the day we met. He tells lies and you believe them."
"No, the bruises on Sarah are all I need to convince me."
Jessica stared him down. "Sure she is." Robert turned his attention to Sarah and Andrew, who were nearly to the back door. "Sarah!"
"I'm sorry," she cried, stopping and turning back to him. "Please don't be mad."
Andrew reached for her arm and yanked her toward the door. "Sarah, let's go."
Robert turned to intercept them through the front but Jessica matched his steps, firmly blocking his way. Thanks to her added height, she met him nearly eye to eye.
His voice became low and threatening. "Get out of my way."
She refused to be moved. "I won't let you hurt her again."
His jaw clenched and his body stiffened, sure signs that he was getting angry. She knew she should say something to calm him, but those words wouldn't come. This was all too personal now.
"I said, 'Move!'" His big hands jammed her shoulders, pushing her to the floor. Pain seared through her head as it met the edge of the coffee table. A wave of dizziness and nausea swept through her, but she scrambled to get back on her feet. Her eyes refused to focus so Robert was a blur as he took off out the front door and across the lawn chasing after Sarah and Andrew.
Jessica grabbed hold of the table and pulled herself up. She couldn't allow him to reach Sarah. She wouldn't let him hurt her again.
She stumbled a bit as she ran after them but saw Robert reach the car moments after Andrew and Sarah hopped inside. She heard the distinct sound of the door locks and a wave of relief pulsed through her.
Robert pulled on the handle then pounded on the glass. "Get out of the car, Sarah. Open this door and get out now!" His breath caused a fog on the glass. "Get out now or I swear I will kill you. And I'll kill your brother, too!"
She saw Sarah cover her ears to block out his tirade.
As she approached the car, Robert focused his rage on Jessica. "This is your fault. You turned her against me." His hand came out of nowhere and slammed into her face.
Pain ripped through her cheek like a hot searing knife. She stumbled backward and fell to the grass, the hard lawn digging into her hands and knees. She heard heavy breathing as he leaned over her and when Jessica looked up, his muscles were tight and his eyes on fire. His hands were gripped into white-knuckled fists ready to do their damage.
The squeal of the car tires was music to her ears. Jessica blew out a sigh of relief. No matter what happened to her, he would not get to Sarah.
Not ever again.
"Don't move," Andrew ordered as he hopped from the car. He'd gotten Sarah out of the war zone, but he couldn't let Jessica fight the battle alone. He grabbed his aluminum baseball bat from the athletic bag on the backseat. If Robert wanted a fight, he would get one.
He ran back toward them. Jessica was on the ground kicking and fighting against Robert, who already had her one arm pinned with his knee. He was struggling to contain the other arm. She was a fighter but Andrew knew she wouldn't last long against a big guy like Robert.
"Get away from her!" he yelled, swinging the bat with all his force. Robert fell, clutching his side and groaning in pain.
Andrew stood over him, ready to repay his brother-in-law for the damage he'd done to Sarah. He had Robert in just the position he'd longed for. All the anger and frustration he'd struggled with for months swept through him until he was dizzy with rage and all he could see was the target on Robert's head.
He'd teach him to beat up on his sister.
"Don't do it, Andrew."
The calmness in Jessica's voice reached him through the pent-up indignation. He turned his gaze to her. Her blond hair was matted and red at her temple and her clothes were grass-stained. Blood trickled from her lip and her hose were torn. Yet her countenance was calm, controlled. "Sarah needs you."
He glanced back at the car. Even from this distance, he could see the look of horror on Sarah's face as she climbed into the backseat and watched them through the glass. Yet even after all the stuff Robert had put her through, he was certain her worry was more for the man on the ground than for him.
"Let's go," Jessica said, touching his arm, putting all her focus on pulling him out of this situation. Her touch had a soothing effect and the frenzied fury drained from him.
She'd been right about his confronting Robert. It had definitely made things worse.
Andrew pulled her to her feet then walked beside her, glad for the commanding stride she possessed even after such a beat-down.
"Where's your car?" he asked her.
"Down the road. I'll come back for it later."
He opened the passenger door to his car then closed it once she was safely inside, noticing that Robert was still trying to reclaim his sure footing. Andrew rushed around the car and slid into the driver's seat, dropping the bat at his feet as he started the engine. One glance in the rearview mirror showed Robert crawling to his feet and heading their way.
"This isn't over," he yelled, stumbling toward them. He reached the back of the car and pounded on the trunk. "You think you're through with me? You're worthless, Sarah. Worthless and stupid. You're nothing without me. I'll kill all of you!"
Andrew jammed the car into gear and sped away before the maniac had a chance to make good on his threat. He didn't let up on the accelerator as he sped away from Sarah's neighborhood. He'd always had a heavy foot, but today his speed was purposeful. He had to get his sister as far away from that man as fast as possible.
As he hit the interstate, his adrenaline rush began to cool and his heart rate slowed back to normal. He pushed air through his lungs as he checked his mirrors. There was no sign of Robert following them.
He glanced back at Sarah through the rearview mirror and his heart kicked. She looked so pitiful. It had been only three days since he'd last seen her but she had fresh injuriesa black bruise forming around her left eye and a gash on her swollen lip. And he was sure more bruises were hidden by the baggy clothes she wore. He bit back his anger. "Are you okay?"
She looked ready to fall apart at any moment, but she hugged herself tightly and nodded. "I'm all right."
He couldn't forget the terror that had ripped through him when he'd finally gotten her messages. He'd been locked down working on a case and hadn't charged his phone all night. When he'd finally checked it, he'd found six voice mails from Sarah, each one more hysterical than the previous. She'd been alone with Robert, terrified, with no one to help her.
Help me, Andrew.
I need you.