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Someone was in the house.
Sara stared into the bedroom's darkness, wide awake when she'd been asleep seconds earlier. She wasn't sure what had woken her from the first good sleep she'd had in weeks, any more than she knew why she was suddenly certain she was no longer alone in her home.
She simply knew.
One hand instantly moved to her belly. The other reached into the bedside table. Her fingers closed around the gun she'd put there for this very reason. Protection. A single woman living alone needed some way to defend herself.
Careful not to make a sound, Sara pulled the weapon to her and strained to hear any signs of an intruder. The pounding of her heart in her ears drowned out everything else. Even so, she didn't think she detected anything. There was only the steady drone of the air conditioner, cranked up high because she was always hot these days. Eyes wide, she tried to spot what didn't belong there in the darkness. Nothing moved, nothing seemed out of place.
Still, the certainty remained.
She slowly uncurled herself from the body pillow that was the only thing that had let her get any sleep the past several months and rolled onto her back. The lamp switch was just out of arm's reach. She'd have to push herself up to get to it. Or should she even turn it on? Would the light scare off whoever might be out there or simply alert them to her presence and wakefulness, especially if she made too much noise shifting on the bed?
She should have gotten a dog, a big, scary one trained to ward off intruders. A dog would know if someone was in the house, confirming or dismissing her fears instead of leaving her searching for something that might not even be there. But shehadn't known what she'd do with the dog when she went to the hospital. There was no one she could ask, and if she went into labor suddenly, the dog would be left behind alone in the house for days
Her frenzied thoughts must have distracted her from her silent vigil. One moment the doorway yawned with emptiness. The next, so suddenly it seemed to have appeared in the time it took her to blink, a dark figure stood there.
He made no sound as he moved into the room, seeming to float through the passageway. Two others followed close behind.
She took no joy in the knowledge she wasn't imagining things. Terror gripped her so suddenly she couldn't restrain a gasp.
The sharply indrawn breath didn't go unnoticed. The figures came to an abrupt stop, hovering there in the darkness.
"You're awake," she heard a low voice murmur in surprise.
"That's right," she said calmly, somehow managing to keep the fear out of her voice when every instinct wanted to scream. "And you're trespassing."
They began to drift closer again, undeterred by her words or her awareness. Suddenly she realized the one in the lead was raising his hand. The pale threads of moonlight peeking through the slats of her window blinds glinted off something he was holding.
Her heart jumped as recognition slammed into her.
She instinctively spread her fingers wider on her abdomen, as though the small gesture could provide greater cover, more protection, to the child inside her.
"Don't worry, Sara." The voice came again, closer now, softened in a parody of a soothing tone. "This won't hurt at all."
Her response was to cock the weapon in her hand, the sound loud in the silence.
The figures froze.
She aimed right at the head of the one with the needle. "This will."
Jake Armstrong eased himself out of the truck, first his good left leg, then the right that seemed to have failed him yet again. He tried to keep the weight off his right foot, gingerly setting it on the pavement and leaning on the left.
It didn't help. A sharp pain shot down the limb starting at the knee. Gripping the door, he sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. He'd taken two pills as soon as he'd exited the all-night drugstore, downing them without water, needing them too much, hating that he did. For all the good they'd done him. The pills must not have kicked in yet.
Or maybe he'd waited too long and now would have to wait that much longer for them to start working. He hadn't bothered refilling the prescription after he'd run out weeks ago, thinking he didn't need the medicine anymore.
So much for that.
Damn. He'd thought he was doing well, too, enough so that he'd felt confident ignoring the initial twinges that had probably indicated something was wrong. He was used to fighting through pain. He was running farther and harder every day. He felt stronger. His old doctors would say he was pushing himself too hard, and for no reason. That he was lucky to be walking at all after they'd put his knee back together.
"Damn doctors," he grumbled under his breath. "Don't know what they're talking about." Which was exactly why they were no longer his doctors.
At least there was nobody else out on the street at two o'clock in the morning to see him hobbling around. Not for the first time, he was glad he'd gotten a place in this town outside of Boston, rather than staying in the city. The neighborhood remained still and quiet, every house darkened for the night.
He was about to slam the door shut when an explosion cut through the air, catching him off guard, causing him to stumble. Leaning into the door, he whipped his head toward the noise. He knew the sound of gunfire. It came in rapid succession, one shot after another after another.
He didn't have to look far to determine the origin. The shots were coming from inside the house next door.
The house where the pregnant woman lived.
The bottle of pills fell from his hand, forgotten, as he reached for his cell and stabbed in the numbers. The sounds of the gunshots continued to hang in the air, uninterrupted by fresh ones.
"9-1-1. What's your emergency?"
"There's gunfire coming from my neighbor's house. She's a pregnant woman. Lives alone."
"What's the address?" the dispatcher asked with admirable calm.
He quickly gave it to her, answering her follow-up questions on autopilot as he surveyed the house. No lights were on in the building; there was no way to see inside. No further sounds came from within. The closest streetlamp was on the other side of the road, its steady beam barely reaching the lawn. The driveway was empty, her vehicle likely parked inside the garage. The house itself remained shrouded in shadows. He stared into them, but detected no signs of movement.
The echo of the gunfire faded from his ears, leaving nothing but a silence so absolute that he wondered, for a heartbeat, if he'd imagined what he'd thought he'd heard. He dismissed the thought a second later. He knew what he'd heard. It had been gunfire.
Which only made the endless silence that followed and lack of movement inside the house more disturbing.
As if from a great distance, he heard the dispatcher assuring him the police were on their way and asking him to stay on the line. The final words barely reached him. He was already hanging up, moving forward as fast as his gimpy leg would let him.
It would take the police a while to get there, and even longer for an ambulance if one wasn't called until after they arrived and determined it was necessary. She could be hurt. She could be dying, her and the baby. He couldn't just stand there. He had to do something.
He stalked around the edge of the lawn, not wanting to cross directly and get too close too soon. Every second he braced himself, ready for another shot to come from the house, prepared to duck.
It never came. Reaching the front path, he followed it to the door. Hoping he wasn't making a mistake, he pounded on it with his fist.
"Hey" he started to call out, only to stop abruptly, suddenly realizing he didn't know her name. She hadn't introduced herself after he'd moved in last month, apparently no more interested in getting to know him than he was her. They'd exchanged nothing more than brief glances across their lawns whenever they both happened to be in front of their respective homes. She'd give him a polite nod, a short, shy smile as her gaze skittered away. She was pretty, from what he could tell, but evidently not social. Not that he could judge. He wasn't, either.
"Everything okay in there?" he asked instead.
He waited for a light to flicker on inside or for her to answer the door.
A full minute passed. Nothing happened.
He repeated the knock and the call, to no effect.
The lack of a response only stoked his tension. He tried the knob and wasn't surprised to find it locked.
Something was going on. He had to find another way inside the house.
From what he remembered, there was another door in the back of the building. He gave a quick check in the front window. Seeing nothing, he made his way around the side of the house. The other windows were no more illuminating, in more ways than one.
He knocked on the back door, then tried the knob. It turned in his hand. The door swung open silently at his touch. He stayed by the wall, out of view of anyone inside, waiting to see what happened.
Nothing did. Silence resounded.
"Hello?" he called into the darkness.
He slowly moved through the doorway, watching for any sign of trouble. Spotting none, he reached over and flipped the light switch, revealing his neighbor's kitchen. It was empty.
"Hello?" he called again.
Still no response. He ventured farther, keeping his eyes moving in every direction, senses on high alert. The kitchen opened onto a darkened hallway, the gloom pierced by a faint light glowing from one of the rooms. A quick glance in either direction told him the hallway was empty. Reassured, he turned and headed toward the light.
"Lady, are you okay?"
Even as he said it, the floor creaked beneath his foot, betraying his location.
"Stay back!" a voice ordered, drawing him to a halt.
"I still have a couple bullets left and I'm more than ready to use them. I'm calling 9-1-1."
The voice was strong, firm and undeniably female. He half wondered if he should ask who he was talking to, because there was no way that hardened tone could be coming from the mouth of the woman with the shy smile and retreating gaze. But who else would be calling 9-1-1? Did she have someone staying with her? He hadn't noticed anyone, but then, he hadn't been paying attention.
"I already did. The cops are on their way."
She didn't say anything to that. He stood stock-still, listening to the ragged sounds of her breathing inside the room.
"Look, I'm just going to poke my head around the corner so you can see me. I'd appreciate it if you didn't blow it off."
Another long silence, then a reluctant "Okay."
Her tone wasn't reassuring. He wondered for a few seconds if he really wanted to risk it. It seemed like he'd gone past the point of no return now. Taking a breath, he leaned over with painstaking slowness and pushed his head into the doorway.
As promised and suspected, he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. Even as he entered the doorway, his eyes focused on her, she made a nearly imperceptible correction, keeping them right in her sights. He had the feeling she had every intention of putting a bullet straight between them if he looked at her funny.
He did his best to ignore the gun, no easy feat, and met the steady gaze behind it. This was his neighbor, all right. His first impression was that he'd been right. She was pretty, even more than he'd expected. She had soft features, her face full and round, probably more than usual due to her condition. Not a classic beauty, but definitely attractive.
There was nothing soft about her expression. Dark brown eyes met his, unblinking.
The hands that held the gun were steady, as unwavering as her stare. She might be on edge, but there was no doubt she knew exactly what she was doing, and was ready to do whatever else she thought she had to.
"Hi," he said lamely. "We haven't officially been introduced. I'm Jake Armstrong. I moved into the house next door last month. I just came over to make sure you're okay."
Her gaze raked over his face, as though scrutinizing every inch for any sign he wasn't who he said he was or who he appeared to be. He waited, hoping to high hell he passed her inspection.
Finally, just when he was about to coax her to do just that, she lowered the gun. Not entirely. No more than a few inches really. Her finger didn't release the trigger, leaving the impression she was prepared to jerk the weapon back up and fire at the slightest provocation.
Still, it was a start.
Her expression didn't relax, either. Her gaze narrowed, slowly traveling down the length of him and back again. She gave a small nod, as though satisfied. "You're not one of them."
"The people who broke in to my house. You're too big."
Not the first time he'd heard that one. "Who was it? What did they want?"
"I don't know."
A troubled note entered her voice, and the hard lines of her expression softened slightly, betraying the first hint of the fear she must have been feeling. She eased her left hand off her weapon and moved it onto the swell of her belly, as though reassuring herself it was still there, still safe.
His eyes tracked the gesture, a feeling of dread pooling in the pit of his stomach. The obvious answer would have been robbery. That she hadn't said so must mean she believed it was something else. Something related to her baby, judging from the way her hand clutched her stomach.
Why would someone break in to her house because of her baby?
A few answers came to mind, none of them good.
And he had to wonder just what would have happened here if she hadn't had that gun.