A scrape echoed behind her.
Holly Miller glanced over her shoulder. Darkness, broken only by the occasional streetlight, stretched down the block. Was someone there? Or had she imagined the sound?
She peered into the shadows. Something shifted.
Holly’s breath quickened. She clutched her car keys tighter, and the metal cut into the soft flesh of her palm. An icy wind blew a paper napkin across the empty church parking lot. Everyone else had gone home over half an hour ago. Holly had stayed late to clean the church’s recreational room.
She was alone. In a dark parking lot.
The sensation of being watched crept over her. The same feeling had plagued her for the last few weeks. In the grocery store. At church. While taking a run in the neighborhood. Yet every time she turned to look, no one was there.
Holly waited one heartbeat. Then another.
A cat raced from the darkness. It streaked past the main entrance and skirted around the back of the building.
Holly released the breath she was holding as relief weakened her knees. She chuckled. Her imagination was running away with itself, a side effect of living for so long in Boston. No one was lurking in the shadows to attack her. Not in Cutler, Texas. The tiny town was tucked two hours away from Austin. It wasn’t crime free—Holly knew that from her job as a social worker—but serious incidents were extremely rare.
She forced her muscles to relax by taking another deep breath. The air fogged in front of her. Christmas was next week. They wouldn’t have snow, but it would be cold. Holly picked up her pace. Down the street, Christmas lights were strung on the shops, and a wreath decorated the bakery door. The scent of gingerbread lingered in the crisp air. It soothed her jittery nerves and the last of her anxiety melted away.
She loved Christmas. Everything about it spoke to her heart.
“Silent night, holy night…” Holly sang the familiar tune, her voice carrying through the night. The church choir was performing at the Cutler Christmas Festival in a few days. Holly was the event coordinator, and while it was a lot of work, every bit of effort was worth it. The money raised aided families in need within their community. It paid for elderly residents’ yard work, bought groceries for those unexpectedly unemployed, and helped families with hospitalized children.
She rounded the corner into an alley between the church and adjacent stores. Her sedan sat like a hunched giant halfway down. The parking lot had been full when Holly arrived late to choir practice. She’d been lucky to find a spot in the alley.
The light on the side of the church was out. She hadn’t noticed that before but made a mental note to mention it to Pastor Sam.
Her footsteps echoed against the asphalt. Darkness wrapped around her like a cloak. Another gust of wind rippled through her hair, causing a curl to get caught on her lip gloss. Holly swiped at the wayward strand before hitting the button on her fob. Her sedan beeped, the headlights flashing for a brief moment.
Long enough to catch the man-sized shadow arcing toward her.
The attacker slammed into her with the force of a freight train. Holly collided with the wall of the church, car keys tumbling from her fingers as pain blinded her. Air whooshed from her lungs.
The man pressed against her. She was trapped between him and the wall, unable to move. Inside her head, she was screaming, but her lungs were starved of oxygen. Nothing more than a weak wheezing escaped her lips. The rough brick scraped her cheek.
What did he want? Her wallet? Her car? He could have them both. Holly sucked in a pitiful breath.
“Take it.” Her purse, knocked off her shoulder in the initial assault, dangled from her elbow. “I’ll give it to you. There’s no need to hurt me.”
The attacker ignored her. Had he even heard Holly’s whispered plea? Fear, thick and soupy, sludged through her veins. Her curly hair, flung free of her winter cap, blocked her vision. Holly tried to suck in another breath, but her lungs wouldn’t expand due to the pressure against her back. Dots danced across her vision.
Suddenly, he backed off. Holly pulled in a desperate, shallow breath.
Rough hands gripped her biceps, and the assailant dragged her backward, deeper into the alley. Holly screamed. It came out weak, a side effect of not having a chance to catch her breath. She fumbled to get her feet underneath her, struggling to keep up with his rapid pace while moving in reverse. The alley had two access points. One ahead of them, and one behind. With a horrifying jolt, Holly realized this wasn’t about her car or money. It wasn’t a robbery.
The man wanted her. And he was dragging her to the opposite side of the alley where a potential getaway vehicle was waiting.
No, Lord. Please.
She couldn’t go anywhere with him. Every self-defense instructor she’d ever had said it was harder to escape from a second location.She had to stand her ground here. She had to fight harder.
Holly let her body go limp, catching the attacker off guard. He released her as they both tumbled into a puddle. Cold from the damp ground seeped into Holly’s jeans. She barely registered it. Her heart jackhammered against her breastbone as she pushed to her hands and knees. She sucked in another deep breath and screamed again.
This time the blessed sound carried. But would anyone hear her? The street had been empty earlier, and given the late hour, chances were slim she’d be rescued by a bystander.
The attacker grabbed for her. Holly flung an elbow at his face and missed, hitting his neck instead. He grunted, rearing back with a curse. Holly didn’t wait. She lashed out with her foot. It landed some place soft. The attacker yelped and tumbled back to the ground.
Holly scrambled to her feet. Another scream boiled inside her, but she couldn’t dislodge it from her throat. Every instinct was focused on one thing.
Running. Getting away.
Holly bolted. Her shoes pounded against the pavement and her breath came in puffs. Was he behind her? Chasing her? Her hair blocked her vision. Holly didn’t dare waste a second to push it out of her eyes, nor did she glance behind her.
She could feel him. Coming for her.
The alley felt impossibly long. Like miles in her panicked state, instead of yards. She pumped more energy into her legs, narrowing her focus to the beckoning streetlights visible through the strands of her hair.
She burst out of the alley and into the street. White headlights blinded Holly. She half-spun. An SUV barreled toward her, the screech of tires on the road shattering the night air.