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Excerpt for CLOSE TO HOME (Mass Market Paperback)

Zebra
February 2015, ISBN: 1420118552

Genre: Romantic Suspense

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Prologue
October 31, 1924
Blue Peacock Manor

Help me! Dear father in heaven, please!

Angelique’s heart was pounding, fear spreading through her bloodstream as she raced barefoot up the wide staircase. She had to find a way to save herself and her children. For the love of God, she had to save them.

Frantic, she gathered the torn hem of her tattered grass-stained skirts in one hand, her legs wet and covered in mud.

And semen.

Proof the bastard had raped her.

Her stomach roiled at the thought as upward, ever upward she ran. Downstairs near the parlor, her grandmother’s ancient clock was ticking off the seconds of her life. Grasping the polished banister, she propelled herself upward, past the second floor still bathed in lamplight, its long carpets running down the corridor and onto the stairs leading to the upper floors of this monstrosity of a house, a home in which she’d once felt such pride.

Fool!

Run! Run! Run!

Don’t let him catch you again!

Lure him away from the children.

Her breath was coming in short gasps, her lungs burning, her body heavy, the stays of her corset stretched. She reached the landing and thought she heard heavy footsteps below.

One of the children?

Or him?

Oh, God.

Sweat running down her back, she climbed to the third floor, where, gasping, she turned down the darkened hallway. Images of the children–-the innocents--filled her head.

Help them! Mon Dieu, please . . . HELP ME!

If she were to die, so be it, but not the little ones. Tears filled her eyes as she thought of sweet Monique and chubby little Jacques and the others, older and yet suffering as well. Stalwart Ruth, Sweet Helen and Louis with the sad eyes . . . Oh, sweet Jesus. Her throat closed. This wass all her fault and the innocents would suffer, die hideously, because of her.

The woman who’d sworn to protect them.

Dizzily she looked down the curving staircase into the shadows below. Flickering lamplight gave off an eerie glow at the landings of each floor and the darkness on the steps between made her blood run cold.

But she couldn’t give into the fear. Not yet.

Come on you, bastard. Follow me. Leave them be! Even as the thought crossed her mind, she knew he wouldn’t let them go untouched. She knew that as well as anyone, didn’t she? It wasn’t his way. Didn’t she have the scars to prove how cruel he could be, this man she’d once loved?

She heard the front door creaking open then bang shut with a heart-stopping thud. She nearly tripped on her skirts as terror enveloped her. Stay calm. You can outwit him. You must. Oh . . . God . . .

His boots rang loudly across the wooden floor of the foyer to thud on the first step.

Her skin crawled and she bit down hard on her lip.

Le monstre hideux, was coming.

Just as she’d known he would.

While clutching the silver cross swinging from a small chain around her neck, she dared look over the railing and saw his menacing shadow, a huge, elongated umber stretching to the ceiling. He was carrying something in his hand. And then she recognized the axe for what it was.

Her insides shriveled at the thought of him swinging the sharp, heavy blade, his intentions to hack her to death all too clear. What chance did she have against his brute strength?

Belatedly she realized she should have run to the stables. She’d discarded the notion as there wasn’t time to ride her mare into the town five miles away through the fog and rain in the muck of the road, across fields or through woods to reach the gas-lit streets of Stewart’s Crossing. Even if she had ridden and reached the town, how could she possibly convince the sheriff that she hadn’t gone stark, raving mad and return in time to save them all? Impossible. Recklessly, she’d ran the house and now regretted that she hadn’t veered to the stables where not only the horses were housed, but in the attached shed a variety of tools-- hatchets, hammers and scythes-- were stored.

She waited.

Her only hope that was when he followed her to the rooftop, she had a chance, a slim one, true, but at least a risky opportunity to turn the tables on him. If she couldn’t save herself, at least she might be able to take the bastard with her.

And what of the baby? Can you sacrifice that new unborn life as well?

Tears burned her eyes.

Again she looked over the curved railing, catching a glimpse of him, now the second floor, climbing to the third.

NOW!

She leaned over the railing and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Run!”

“What the bloody hell?” he snarled glaring up at her, his eyes gleaming a malicious blue above his beard.

“Ruth! Helen!” she screamed desperately, hoping to warn the children. “Get the babies and run away as fast as you can!”

“They’ll never get away,” he warned, a smug look twisting the lips she’d once kissed with such ardor. How had she been such an imbecile? He laughed again and the acrid smell of alcohol reaching her nostrils. He was too close!

Whirling quickly, she dashed along the runner to the attic stairs at the end of the hall. The door was locked, as always.

“Harlot!” he yelled after her. “Goddamned whore, come back here!”

Never!

She sent up a silent prayer for the dear sweet souls of the little ones. Our Father who art in heaven . . .

The clock in the lower hallway began to chime, counting out the hours in reverberating peals.

Hallowed by thy name.

His footsteps quickened and she reached into the pocket of her voluminous skirts for the keys. Fumbling in the dark with the massive ring, she and fumbled with her ring of keys, the metal clinking as she tried, in the dark, to find the right one for the attic door.

Hurry. Hurry. Hurry!

Her pulse was pounding in her brain, her fingers slick with sweat, keys clanking. She dropped the ring only to retrieve it quickly.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done.

On earth as it is in heaven.

The clock continued to strike off the hours and along with the familiar peals came the heavy, determined tread announcing that he was following. Her heart froze. Her breath stilled in her lungs for the briefest of seconds. She inserted another key.

Nothing!

“You think you can run from me?” he bellowed, his words echoing to the rafters, chilling her soul. “You really think you can get away?” His laughter was obscene.

Her throat closed in fear.

Hands trembling, she forced the key into its lock, and twisted frantically. A glance over her shoulder confirmed that he’d made the climb and was now smiling, walking slowly, unhurried, savoring these last few minutes where he could terrorize her for one final time.

Click!

The lock sprang.

She shouldered open the door to the attic.

Let him come.

She was a clever woman and far from dead.

Yet.

Someway, somehow, with just an ounce of luck, she would save her children, if not herself. The air was thick and dank, smelling of dust. She slammed the door behind her, twisted the lock, then scrambled up the narrow, steep flight in all-consuming darkness.

She heard the unmistakable squeak of a bat and a flutter of disturbed wings, but she hardly noticed.

Think, Angelique, think. Do not let him get the better of you! Her mind raced as quickly as her bare feet scurried across the cold floor. This was her chance to even the odds, to grab a weapon to protect herself. She didn’t have much time. Up the last, winding stairs she hurried to the small, glass-encased cupola.

Rain drizzled down the windows of the tiny room and her trembling fingers worked feverishly on the latch of the door. Please, please, please! The lock gave way with little effort, but the tiny door to the roof was stuck, its sodden wooden frame swollen shut.

Gritting her teeth she tried again, throwing her shoulder into the door and feeling the sodden wood hold tight before finally giving way.| He was closer now. She heard him at the base of the attic stairs, rattling the door knob.

No!

Desperately she flung her weight into the door and it finally gave way, opening in a whoosh as it was caught by the wind shrieking down the chasm of the river far below.

Frigid rain spit from the sky, clouds obscuring the moon, but she didn’t pause to look, just quickly returned to the attic. If she could somehow lure him onto the roof, alone, and lock the door behind him, he’d be trapped.

Except he has an axe. He can chop his way back inside.

Damn!

Craaaack! Bam!

The door from the third floor gave way, splintering and crashing loudly against the wall.

Sweet Jesus.

She bit back a scream.

Noiselessly she stepped further into the darkness of the north wing. All the while, she searched the cold space by feel.

The attic stairs groaned under his weight. Taking his time, either because he was afraid of an attack or because he was savoring every moment of his hunt, he ascended.

Frantically she made the sign of the cross over her bosom and forced her mouth shut so that he couldn’t hear her panicked breaths. Calm down. You can out-smart him. He’s an oaf. Don’t fall apart!

Inching backward, her fingers scraping along the wooden walls and bare rafters, splinters catching beneath her fingernails, she bit hard on her lower lip, refusing to make a sound, even with the sharp points of the nails holding the roof shingles in place scratched her head.

Don’t let him hear you.

Crouching, she eased backward, through an icy pool of water where the roof had leaked, her arms outstretched, searching for something, anything to protect herself, but she touched nothing that would help her.

She smelled him now, the odor of alcohol reaching her nostrils. She knelt, frantically feeling the floor and crates stacked upon it. She touched an old picture frame, a trunk, a forgotten basket of needlepoint and moldy crates but nothing hard or sharp, not even a damned rock. Scouring the area blindly, she prayed for some kind of weapon or shield.

There had to be something! Even a small shard of glass. A nail. A hanger. An old iron. Anything!

Thud!

The rafters shook.

Son of a bitch!” he snarled as if he’d hit his head on a low-hanging rafter. She became a statue, not moving a muscle.

Swallowing hard, still huddled close to the floor, she worked her fingers around her skirts in a wide circle. Please! Her finger tips brushed against cold metal, a rod of some kind. Her heart soared. Maybe a forgotten poker from the fireplace or ... no! A candle stick! She almost cried out in surprise and relief.

“Where are you?” he said, his voice soft. Cajoling. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

Bastard! Her fingers clamped around the cool metal. It wasn’t much in the way of weaponry compared to an axe, but it was something hard and sharp. She grabbed it near the tapered end, so that she could swing it and strike with the heavy base, hard enough to crack his skull. She heard him moving, toward the stairs to the cupola. Please, she thought, sure she could lock him on the roof, run downstairs and gather the children so that they could leave him up there as they took the wagon into town.

She sensed, rather than saw him start up the final short flight of stairs through the cupola to the widow’s walk outside. She hardly dared breathe.

But he hesitated. As if he sensed a trap.

No! No! No! Keep going. Just a little farther. Please. Only three or four more steps onto the roof outside!

But he turned back. She heard the door to the widow’s walk slam shut, then felt the vibration of the attic floorboards as he stepped into the garret once more. “Angelique?” he called softly over the wind whistling around the gables. “I know you’re in here. Come on out. You can not get away.”

Sick at heart, she knew there was only one sure way to get him onto the roof. She’d have to use herself as bait.

Ears straining, she heard his footsteps thankfully receding as he walked to the far end of the attic away from her. Dragging the candlestick from its resting place, she sprang, running up the steep, winding steps to the domed cupola again.

This time the door opened easily.

She tumbled outside, tripping on her own skirts and nearly dropping her weapon as she skidded across the slick, flat roof. A screaming wind tore at her hair. Rain lashed at her face, but here, at least she had a chance.

Far below, the Columbia River churned, flowing swiftly westward, a wild dark ribbon cutting through the canyon walls on which this grand house had been constructed. Once it had been her pride and joy. Now, it was a prison.

In her naivete she’d named the imposing structure, Blue Peacock Manor for the birds she so loved, but now the house was nothing but a death trap, perched high over the churning water, her lovely birds already slaughtered at his hand. She’d come across the body of the one she’d named Royal just this afternoon, his shimmering sapphire-like feathers dripping in blood, an arrow’s shaft jutting from his chest.

But she couldn’t think of the senseless sacrifice now . . . not when the children’s lives were at stake.

Drawing herself to her full height, she waited near the doorway. Her plan was to lock him up here and run away with the children.

Not good enough. You need to set this house ablaze. Trap him on this roof and burn the house beneath him. What good is this repulsive prison to you anyway?

“Father forgive me,” she whispered, raising the candlestick high just as the top of his head appear as he ducked through the small opening. She didn’t think twice. Throwing all of her weight into the blow, she struck. Craaaack!

The bones in his cheek shattered and he stumble slightly, howling like a wounded wolf.

She swung again, but he moved and the candlestick glanced off his shoulder.

He grabbed it, stripping out of her wet hands as he made his way onto the roof.

She backed up as he swung. In one hand the axe, in the other the damned candlestick. “Whore,” he said over the wind as he advanced with the infinite patience of a killer who knew he’d cornered his prey. “You tried to hurt me? Kill me?” he said, his eyes narrowing as if he couldn’t believe she had the gall to turn on him.

“Maman?” a frightened voice called over the hiss of another slash of lightening and Angelique glanced to the doorway where ten-year-old Helen was shivering, hiding under the portico. “What is . . .?” Helene, a waif, turned her round eyes to the monster. “No, wait!”

“Go back down, Helene!” Angelique ordered.

“But, Maman–”

“Just go!” Angelique met the girl’s frightened stare for a split second. “And lock the door.”

“No!” He turned toward Helene. “Don’t lock anything!”

Angelique was desperate. “Run! Now!” She leapt forward, throwing her body against his and reaching upward, scratching his face and scrabbling for axe handle.

“What? No!”

Somewhere behind them Helen screamed.

The axe glinted.

But his boots slipped on the tiles.

“Run! Helen! Go!” Angelique ordered as he started to topple. With all her strength, she kicked up swiftly, driving her knee hard into his groin and causing him to yowl and sway, the axe to go flying into the darkness.

Screaming in agony, he clasped one calloused hand around her throat as she kicked hard once more.

Together they fell, the blackness of the night swallowing them both.

Chapter One
October 15, 2014
Blue Peacock Manor

“Oh, God, Mom, you’ve got to be kidding!” Jade said from the passenger seat of the Explorer as Sarah drove along the winding, once-gravel lane.

“Not kidding,” Sarah responded. “You know that.” Through thick stands of pine, fir and cedar, the twin ruts were weed-choked and filled with potholes that had become puddles with the recent rain.

“You can’t actually think that we can live here!” Catching glimpses of the huge house through the trees, Jade, seventeen, was obviously horrified and, as usual, wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion.

“Mom’s serious,” Gracie said from the back seat where she was crammed between piles of blankets, and mounds of comforters, sleeping bags and the other bedding they were moving from Vancouver. “She told us.”

Jade shot a glance over her shoulder. “I know. But it’s worse than I thought.”

“That’s impossible.”

“No one asked your opinion!”

Sarah’s hands tightened over the steering wheel. She’d already heard how she was ruining her kids’ lives by packing them up and returning to the old homestead where she’d been born and raised. To hear them tell it, she was the worst mother in the world and the word “hate” had been thrown around, aimed at her, the move, and their miserable lives in general.

Single motherhood.

It wasn’t for the faint hearted, she’d decided long ago.

So her kids were still angry with her.

Too bad.

Sarah needed a fresh start.

Though Jade and Gracie didn’t know it, they did too.

Perched high on the cliffs overlooking the Columbia River, the massive house where Sarah had grown up rose over three stories of cedar and stone. Built in the Queen Anne style of a Victorian home, its gables and chimneys knifed upward into a somber gray sky and from her vantage point in the car, Sarah saw the glass cupola which opened to the window’s walk. For a second she felt a frisson of dread slide down her spine, but she pushed it aside.

“Oh. My. God.” Jade’s jaw dropped open as she stared at the house. “It looks like something straight out of the Addam’s Family.

“Let me see!” In the back seat, Gracie unhooked her seatbelt and leaned forward for a better view. “She’s right.” For once Gracie agreed with her older sister.

“It’s not that bad,” Sarah argued, but Jade’s opinion wasn’t that far off. With a broad, sagging porch and crumbling chimneys, the once-grand house that had been referred to as the “Jewel of the Columbia” by the locals, was in worse shape than she remembered.

“Are you crazy? This place is a disaster!” Jade was staring through the windshield and slowly shaking her head, as if she couldn’t believe the horrid turn her life had just taken as Sarah drove closer to the garage, another building that was falling into total disrepair. “Mom. Seriously. We can’t live here.” She turned her wide, mascara laden eyes on her mother as if Sarah had gone completely out of her mind.

“You should sell out your part of it. Leave it to Aunt Becky and Uncle Joe and Jake to renovate,” Jade said. “Get out while you can. God, Mom, this is just so nuts that we’re here. Not only is this house like something out of a bad horror movie from, like, 1960, but it’s in the middle of nowhere.”

“It is kinda creepy.” Gracie whispered, leaning forward as the first drops of rain splashed against the windshield.

Was there just a touch of awe in her tone? Sarah fervently hoped not.

“It looks evil, you know,” Jade threw over her shoulder.

Gracie stared upward at the house. “What the . . ?”

“Something wrong?” Sarah asked.

Gracie whispered, “Someone’s in there.”

“What?” Sarah said, “No. The house has been empty for years.”

Gracie blinked. “But . . . but, I saw her.”

“You saw who?” Sarah asked and tried to ignore a tiny bit of dread knotting her stomach.

“I don’t know.” With one hand still on the handle of her roller bag, she shrugged. “A girl.”

Oh, God. Sarah caught an I-told-you-so look from her older daughter.

“A girl? Where?” Jade demanded.

“She was standing up there.” Gracie pointed upward, to the third story and the room at the north-west corner of the house, just under the cupola “In the window.”

Theresa’s room. The bedroom that had been off-limits to Sarah as a child. The knot in Sarah’s gut tightened