Gabriella unlocked her front door and stepped inside, pleased she’d made it home a little earlier than usual. As a teacher’s aide for a special education class, she often had to stay late to help a student. No one had needed extra help today, and she hadn’t wasted time getting home.
She wouldn’t pick up her daughters for over an hour. Bella would go straight from Lane Tech High School to Spencer Elementary School, to help with the tae kwon do club. And Cece, her ten-year-old, had an after school program today at Spencer for students who wanted to learn French. So Gaby would have time to study for her own class that evening.
Pediatric nursing. Her mouth relaxed in a smile. Her favorite subject in nursing school.
Dropping her purse on the hall table, she shrugged off her coat and tossed it over the newel post of the staircase. Stilled.
Something was wrong.
The cool smell of spring rain and damp earth swirled through the air. As if she’d left a window open. Or the back door.
All the windows had been closed and locked when she left this morning. She’d double-checked the back door, too. She did that every morning before she left for work.
Her hand shaking, she reached into her purse and curled her fingers around her phone. Pulling it out, she fumbled to press 911 as she crept toward the kitchen at the back of the house.
Maybe she was being paranoid. It was possible she’d forgotten to close the window above the sink. Sometimes Bella opened it, to lean close to the screen and peer into the garden. Her older daughter liked to watch the birds at the backyard feeder.
She edged through the tiny dining room she’d made into an office, then froze. Not paranoid.
Someone was in the kitchen. Opening drawers. Closing them. Not even trying to be quiet. Backing away, she was half-way across the living room when her 911 call connected.
“What is your emergency?” asked a nasal female voice.
The noise in the kitchen stopped. Gripping her phone, Gaby turned and ran for the door. A hand grabbed her braid, yanking her painfully backward. When she put up her hands instinctively, hard fingers closed around her wrist. Her phone flew through the air, landing on the floor with an ugly crunch and sliding beneath the coffee table.
“Where is it, bitch?”
Gaby sucked in a breath. Spun around to see her ex-husband glaring down at her. “Julio?” She hadn’t seen him since the day he was arrested at Spencer school, not even when she’d signed the divorce papers. In the year that had passed, he’d become more muscular. Wider. Harder. He’d clearly been working out in Cook County Jail.
Sweat poured down her sides as she tried to swallow her terror. Her stomach heaved, but she managed to choke back the nausea. She couldn’t show any weakness in front of him. “What are you doing here? What happened? You’re not supposed to be out of…out of there.”
His fingers wrapped hard around her wrist, grinding her bones together. “You can say it, Gaby. Why am I out of that hell hole?” He tugged her closer, rage twisting his expression and darkening his eyes. “Just lucky, I guess. They opened the door this morning and said I was free to go. I went.”
“Then why are you here?” She didn’t dare glance at her phone. She hoped the 911 dispatcher was listening, though. That she’d send the police. “What are you doing in my kitchen?”
He squeezed her wrist, sending pain arcing up her arm. But she refused to cry out. Refused to let him see her pain. That just excited him.
His mouth thinned when she merely stared at him. “You keep money in the house. I need it. Where is it?”
“You think I’m stupid enough to keep money in here? After you stole it the last time?”
“Yeah, I think you’re just that stupid.” He slapped her, moving so fast that his hand was a blur. Her head snapped back and stars burst behind her eyes. “So get me that money.” His already painful grip on her wrist tightened further, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out. “Maybe, if you behave yourself, we’ll have a little fun before I leave.”
His eyes glittered as they swept up her body. Stopped at her breasts. She had to steel herself to hold his gaze. “You always were a good lay.”
“Fine.” She didn’t have to pretend to let her voice quiver. “I’ll give you my cash if you promise to leave immediately.”
“You don’t want to have a little fun in the sack?” He grabbed her breast, crushing it hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. “Maybe I can talk you into it.”
He was moving her toward the stairs so easily. Like she weighed no more than a doll. Horror swept over her. She knew what happened next. “Don’t…don’t you want that money?”
“I’ll get it later.” He shoved her to the bottom of the staircase. “Once we’ve had our fun.”
Gaby scanned the room, looking for a weapon. Anything that could stop Julio.
There. On the table by the door. The heavy glass bowl that held her keys – a wedding present from Julio’s aunt.
She’d only have one chance. She had to make it good.
He pushed her toward the stairs again, and Gaby pretended to stumble. She must have surprised him, because he let go of her wrist.
She put her hands on the table, as if using it to pull her upright. When Julio grabbed her right wrist, she lunged for the bowl with her left hand. Swung it around and smashed it into his face.
Blood spurted out of his nose, and he dropped her hand to cover it. “You bitch!” he screamed.
Gaby smashed the bowl into the side of his face. He staggered, his knees bending, but rose up, murder in his eyes.
She swung again, but as he reached for the newel post to steady himself, his fingers gripped the coat and it fell away. As he floundered, she gripped the bowl with both hands and swung as hard as she could.
With a sickening, hollow thud, the bowl connected with the side of his head. In slow motion, he collapsed on the floor, his legs folding beneath him like an accordion. He sprawled half-on the stairs, blinking but otherwise unmoving.
Gaby scrambled for her phone. Clamping it in a desperate grip, she stepped over Julio’s body and threw open the door. It banged into his shin. Hard. It must have opened a cut on his leg, because blood darkened his jeans, and the copper smell of it filled the air.
Pressing a hand to her stomach, as if that could hold back the nausea rolling through her, she slid through the opening and ran down the steps. “Are you still there?” she asked, her voice wobbly.
“Yes. Police are on their way.” Gaby began to cry.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” the dispatcher asked, her voice calm and impersonal. Exactly what Gaby needed.
“Julio. He’s in my house. He tried…he tried to rape me. Wanted my money.”
“Is this your address, Ma’am?” The dispatcher recited numbers and a street. It took Gaby a moment to process.
“Yes,” she managed to get out between wrenching sobs.
“The police will be there in less than a minute,” the dispatcher said. The click of computer keys filled the silence. “Is he still in the house?”
“I hit him,” she said, hiccupping a sob. “In the head. With a bowl. He fell down. I ran outside.”
“Can you go to one of your neighbors until the police arrive?”
“I’ll…I’ll see if anyone’s home.”
They wouldn’t be. Everyone on her block worked. Most of them had two jobs. None of the parents could afford to stay home with their kids. But she needed to be away from the house. If Julio woke up and came after her, he’d kill her.
She’d seen her death in his eyes.
She was three doors down from her own house when she heard the sirens. Moments later, a squad car turned onto her street. Another one followed closely behind. As the police jumped out of the squad, she ran toward them.
“Are you Gabriella Stefano?” one of the officers asked.
“Yes. My ex-husband is in there.” She pointed at her house with its still-open front door. “He’s supposed to be in prison. I don’t know how…” She stopped. Swallowed. She had to get control of herself. “I hit him,” she said, a little more calmly. “With a glass bowl. More than once. He finally fell down, and I ran out the door.”
A female officer cupped her elbow. “Why don’t you sit in the back of our squad car while we check the house?” she said, her voice kind. “For your own safety.”
“I…” She glanced at her house and shuddered. Safety? She wasn’t sure if she’d ever feel safe again. “Okay.” Her legs trembled, and her chest tightened. “I’d like to sit down.”
The woman helped her into the back of the squad car, then leaned in. “I’m going to lock the door, just in case. You won’t be able to open it from the inside. Are you all right with that?”
Gaby didn’t want to be locked in the back seat of this car. But she nodded. She couldn’t get out. But that meant Julio couldn’t get in.
Once she was inside the squad car, all four officers drew their guns. Two of them edged down the narrow sidewalk between her house and the one next door. The other two walked up to the front door.
They shoved the door open and ran into the house. Gaby listened, but she didn’t hear any sounds. No shouting. No yelling.
She gripped the arm rest in the door of the squad car, staring at her house. Wondering what was happening inside. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the woman came out of the house and opened the door of the squad car. She squatted next to it, her face level with Gaby’s.
“He’s gone,” she said. “There’s blood on the floor, and we found the bowl you used to hit him, but it looks like he ran out the back door. There are drops of blood across your kitchen floor.” She scanned Gaby. “Are you bleeding?”
“No.” Gaby wrapped her arms around herself. “No blood.”
Julio was gone? Terror had short-circuited her brain, and it wasn’t processing. She couldn’t focus on anything besides the fact that Julio had gotten away. He wasn’t in prison, and the police hadn’t caught him. He was free to come back and terrorize her again.
And he would. He would be back.
Oh, God. The girls. He could come back and hurt Bella and Cece.
Last year, while Gaby had been at the grocery store, he’d tried to strangle Bella. The girl hadn’t told her mother, afraid Julio would punish her for ratting him out.
Gaby closed her eyes and tried to breathe around the frantic terror that filled her chest and cut off her air. Lightheaded, she gripped the armrest as she swayed on the vinyl seat of the police car.
Julio blamed Bella for his arrest. What would he do to her if he found her?
“My girls.” Gaby pushed the words out of her frozen chest. She grabbed the police officer’s arm. Held it tightly, willing the woman to focus. “He might…he might try to hurt them.”
“Where are they?” the officer asked. She dislodged Gaby’s fingers gently, then grabbed her radio.
“At…at Spencer Elementary school. Bella is helping Ms. Taylor with her tae kwon do club. Cece is at her French lesson. In the accelerated language program.” Gaby wrapped her arms around herself, trying to hold it together. “That’s where Julio was arrested. He might go there. He might try to hurt Ms. Taylor, too.”
The officer, L. Weldon according to her name badge, cocked her head. “Is that Raine Taylor? Engaged to Connor Donovan?”
“Yes. That’s her name. Raine Taylor.”
“And your girls are at the school with her.”
“Bella is. Cece is in the French class.”
Officer Weldon reached for her radio, and Gaby tapped the woman’s arm. “If Detective Jennings is available, could you ask him to get them? He knows Bella and Cece. They know him. They might not be as scared if Alex got them.”
Weldon cocked her head. “You know Jennings?”
“Yes.” Gaby flushed as she pictured the tall, blond detective. “From before. When Julio was arrested. He knew Bella from the tai kwon do club. He comes over to check on us once in a while.”
“I’ll call the station, see if he’s around.”
She stood up and walked away. Gaby heard her murmuring on the phone. She glanced over her shoulder at Gaby, then turned and continued talking.
A minute later, she was back. “Jennings is going to get the girls from the school. He’ll meet us at the station.” She touched Gaby’s shoulder. “He’s going to call me the moment he has them, so you’ll know they’re okay. All right?”
Gaby took a deep, trembling breath and let it out slowly. “Okay. That’s good. I trust Alex.”
The officer squeezed her shoulder, then dropped her hand. “I know you’re worried about the girls, but Jennings is on his way to the school. He’ll be there in less than ten minutes. I still need your help. Are there any guns in the house your ex-husband might have taken?”
“No.” Gaby shuddered. “No guns.” Thank God. What if Julio had found a gun? She would probably be dead.
“It looks as though he was searching for something in your kitchen. Any idea what it might have been?”
“Money,” she whispered. “I used to keep some cash in the freezer.”
“Not any more?” Officer Weldon asked.
Gaby shook her head. “Julio found it before. Stole it. After that, I put it where he couldn’t find it.”
“Maybe not such a good idea to keep money in the house. In case he comes back.”
“He will come back,” Gaby said, wrapping her arms around her waist. “Not for my money, though. He’ll come back because I won. That will eat at him.” Yes, Julio would be back. He couldn’t bear being bested by a woman.
Her heart fluttered like a frightened bird. She wanted to pack the girls in her ancient Toyota and run. Take off and disappear until Julio was in jail again.
She couldn’t. The girls needed to go to school. And so did she.
“Is there someone you can stay with?” Weldon asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll figure something out.” She couldn’t endanger any of her friends. Or her family members.
The police officer scribbled something in a small notebook. Then she touched Gaby’s hand. As if apologizing in advance. “Can you tell me exactly what happened?”
Her chest clenched as the memories swept over her. She closed her eyes. Counted to ten. This was important. She had to get it right.
She recounted the story, from the moment she walked into the house until the cops arrived. Finally she said, “He’s supposed to be in prison. He got a fifteen-year sentence. How did he get out?”
Officer Weldon frowned at her. “What do you mean, he’s supposed to be in prison?”
“He was arrested a year ago.” Gaby forced herself to breathe deeply. She had to focus. Alex would take care of the girls. She had to do her part, as well.
Another deep breath, and the tightness in her chest eased enough for her to speak more easily. “Julio assaulted Ms. Taylor at the school. Spencer School. A year ago. He tried to beat up the cops who were arresting him. He’s been in Cook County Jail ever since. His trial was a month ago. He was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years. So how did he get out of prison?”
“Holy hell.” Weldon shoved her hand through her short reddish hair and stood up. “Hey, JJ,” she called to one of the other cops. “We have a problem.”