Savi Baker opened her mini laptop to update her résumé and write a cover letter for the “office clerk” position circled in the newspaper classifieds beside her. She’d need to hurry. Marisol’s practice for the children’s pageant at church would be over in an hour or so.
Her years of college and clinicals were irrelevant now. She just needed to find something fast to pay her student loans and keep up the house and car payments. She and Mari had never lived extravagantly, but losing her job last week—three weeks before Christmas—just added to her financial insecurity.
She’d bought and wrapped some gifts for Mari and tucked them away on the upper shelf in her closet. At least Christmas would have some special moments, but Savi would be lucky to be able to pay for groceries, much less the expensive ingredients needed for the holiday gifts she liked to bake for her friends. They would cut back this year by necessity.
After working so hard to achieve her goal of being a social worker and helping young abuse victims cope more easily than she had following her own years of abuse, the loss of her job hit her harder than ever. Another dream lost.
Don’t think about Damián Orlando.
She still didn’t know why she’d been fired. Her supervisor had seemed equally confused, so it couldn’t have been because her daughter, Marisol, had been sick with the flu a couple of weeks before that. Everyone at the clinic was supportive of her being a working single mother. Her friend Anita, the clinic’s receptionist and the only mother figure Savi had known most of her life, had even stayed home with Mari so that Savi had only missed two days of work.
Her supervisor had encouraged Savi to submit an appeal to the state agency responsible for her termination, which she’d done immediately. Was she fired because of the complaint the clinic had received from the mother of one of her new clients? Mrs. Reynolds accused Savi of being indifferent to her daughter’s needs, but Savi and her supervisor had explained to the mother that wasn’t the case at all. With the highly charged emotions in situations involving domestic and child abuse, all case workers had to remain professional, objective, and somewhat emotionally distanced. This was especially true for Savi. She couldn’t let her own demons from the past come to the surface.
In the end, Mrs. Reynolds had hugged her, sobbing. The mother had claimed she understood, and Savi had thought that was the end of it. Maybe not. Had she gone to the licensing agency to complain?
Oh, what difference did the reason make? She’d been fired. It could take months, or even years, to get reinstated; unraveling bureaucracy took time. She didn’t have a huge savings—or time. Her immediate concern was finding a way to support her daughter and herself until she got another job in the mental-health field—if that was even possible.
Absorbed in typing, she jumped when the doorbell chimed. She looked at the time on her screen’s desktop. Too early for Mari to be dropped off—unless something had happened. Barely able to breathe, Savi nearly ran to the front door and opened it, expecting to see one of the youth leaders from the church group.
She gasped, nearly choking as bile rose in her throat. Stupid! Why hadn’t she glanced through the peephole first?She tried to reverse the movement by slamming the door in his face, but it stopped abruptly against his Italian leather wingtip. The muscles in her arms quivered as she pushed harder.
“What kind of greeting is that for an old friend, Savannah?”
Enemy.Not a friend.Savi wedged the side of her bare heel against the door to keep him from opening it any farther. Her lungs burned as she tried to fill them with much-needed air. Dangerous. He couldn’t stay here. He would hurt Mari. She had to get rid of him.
She pulled the door slightly toward her without moving her foot and then tried to slam it with all her strength. He didn’t even flinch. “What do you want?”
He smiled at her and relaxed. “Let me inside. We’ll talk.”
Savi suppressed a shudder. “You’re not coming in. Leave before I call the police!”
His eyes narrowed into slits. Fear crawled up Savi’s spine unlike anything she’d experienced since she’d escaped this man and her father eight years ago. Vile man.Could she fight him off?
“Open this door, you dirty slut, or you and Marisol will regret this pathetic show of bravery.”
Marisol. He knew her baby’s name. Did he know where Mari was? Oh, God, she prayed. Don’t let Mari come home early.Where was Savi’s father? Had he gone after Mari while Lyle was here with her?
“I’m not letting you inside my—”
Without warning, Lyle rammed his body full force into the door, sending the edge of the wood into Savi’s cheek. She hurtled backward until she lay sprawled on the floor, looking up at him. His navy-blue dress pants and wingtip shoes made her shudder as a distant memory tried to smother her efforts to regain her breath, but she tamped it back down. The angry man towered over her.
“Ah, just where a slut like you belongs, Savannah—at my feet.” He reached for her. “Let me hear you scream, for old-time’s sake, you filthy whore.”
No!Memories of the night he’d placed her father’s brand on her could never be erased, no matter how many times she’d tried. Neither could any of the degrading things Lyle had subjected her to at her father’s orders.
She rolled onto all fours and scrambled to get away, sliding on the waxed floor. Lyle’s savage kick slammed into her ribs as his wingtip impacted her left side. The air whooshed from her lungs, and she fought to catch her next breath.
“Your father asked me to bring you and your brat to him. But we’re going to enjoy a little playtime first. What your father doesn’t know…”
Another blow from his shoe struck her side near the same place. Panic set in as her breathing became more labored. Two more kicks followed in rapid succession. The pain!
Maman, help me. Give me the strength to fight him off. Help me protect Mari.
Savi pulled herself up using the hallway table and tried to inhale again. She turned to find Lyle smirking at her. Bastard. She picked up the wrought-iron candlestick from the table. In one swift motion, she swung it at his head, gouging his forehead. She hoped she’d more than stunned him but didn’t wait for him to recover, following through with a knee to his groin. He doubled over and fell to the floor moaning as he held his privates. His blood trickled onto her floor.
Not unconscious yet. Cut off the blood flow to the brain.
She’d learned a number of self-defense techniques from a female Marine veteran in a study group at college. Savi cringed as her finger touched his neck, hating to place her hands anywhere on him, but finally she found the point she sought and pressed—hard. She counted. By thirty seconds, Lyle’s body grew even more limp.
Running to the kitchen, she grabbed her purse and keys and stumbled out the back door. A black BMW sat parked behind her little blue Nissan. She glanced back at her bungalow. Her home, but no longer her safe place.
No sign of Lyle yet, but he wouldn’t be unconscious forever. Breathing had become a struggle, but she refused to escape inside her head to that numb place where she could dull the pain. Mari needed her to stay in the moment.
Mari needed her. Period.
She filled her lungs with as much air as she could stand and held her breath. Oh dear Lord. Why couldn’t she breathe? She pressed her hand to her chest and tucked her elbow against her left side, near where Lyle had kicked her repeatedly. Was something broken?
How had her father and his partner found her after all these years? She’d changed her name, her looks, everything, to keep from being found. No way would she ever let them anywhere near her daughter; they’d never do to Mari any of the things they’d done to her. In some ways, while Lyle had only been her handler, he was more sadistic than her father. Lyle had been the one to place her father’s shameful mark on her. He’d enjoyed hearing her scream and often inflicted even more pain than what her father had ordered.
She opened the car door, got behind the steering wheel, and turned the key in the ignition. She couldn’t zone out now. She needed to get to San Miguel’s… To Mari.
The images of Damián in her office comforting Teresa, his sixteen-year-old niece and Savi’s former client, and of him later last month standing over the inert body of the girl’s rapist father alternated before her eyes.
No. She couldn’t get close to him again. He was dangerous in a totally different way from Lyle and her father—but still, oh, so dangerous.
What other option did she have, though? She could protect herself or die trying, but what if something happened to her and they got their evil hands on Mari? She couldn’t risk that.
Mari needed Damián.