A faint thump came from downstairs.
Hannah Lawton sat straight up in bed. Her heart raced as she strained to listen for more sounds. Had someone broken in? Or was her imagination playing tricks on her? She’d been in that drifting-off state, the place right before falling to sleep, and it was possible her mind had manufactured the noise. Wind rattled the windows panes and thunder boomed in the distance. A storm was rolling in. Perhaps that had woken her.
Silence followed. No intruder had invaded her home. Hannah let go of the breath she was holding and silently admonished herself for overreacting. The death threats she’d received recently were stressing her out. As an assistant district attorney for Fulton County, it was her job to represent the state against criminals who harmed citizens. She took pride in her job. Loved it. But these last few months had been difficult.
A quick glance at the clock confirmed she’d only been in bed for half an hour. The baby monitor glowed, Charlotte’s tiny form still in her crib. The six-month-old was an excellent sleeper. Thank goodness. Hannah rose from the bed and, on bare feet, drifted into the nursery. The scent of baby powder hung heavy in the air. It soothed her nerves and tugged a smile from her lips.
Her niece lay center in the crib, dressed in a sleep sack with sheep dancing across the fabric. Charlotte’s arms were thrown above her head. A silky curl played with one chubby cheek. Tender affection swept through Hannah. She’d never imagined juggling single-motherhood, but lately, that’s what she was doing. Her brother and sister-in-law were both Marines. The military tried to avoid deploying married couples at the same time, especially when they had children, but there were times it was unavoidable. Her brother, Ben, was a year into his orders with another two months to go. Her sister-in-law left three weeks ago on hers.
Hannah had been the only family member capable of taking care of Charlotte in the interim. Although juggling the baby’s care with her demanding job was difficult, it was also a blessing. This was probably the closest she’d ever come to having a child of her own. She’d lost her husband five years ago in a war zone an ocean away. Patrick had been best friends with her brother. They’d gone through boot camp together and were stationed at the same base. When Hannah met him, she was in her third and final year of law school. Their romance was a slow burn, but Patrick had won her over with his steadiness and humor.
Falling in love with him had been simple. Losing him had nearly broken her.
She swiped at an absent tear that trickled down her cheek. Grief had a way of creeping up unexpectedly. Or maybe her brother’s recent deployment was triggering all of those old emotions. Ben, his wife Danielle, and Charlotte were the only family she had left in the world. Her dad died when she was in elementary school, her mom shortly after college. She couldn’t imagine losing her only sibling too.She sent up a silent prayer for Ben’s continued safety, along with her sister-in-law’s. Then Hannah pressed a kiss to her fingers before brushing them against Charlotte’s head. “Sweet dreams, sweetie.”
Hannah backed away from the crib and quietly slipped from the room. Her mind swirled with thoughts. Sleep was an impossibility now. Insomnia had plagued her for most of her adult life, and recently, it’d gotten worse. Stress did that.
More thunder rumbled, and a streak of lightning illuminated the staircase. She had a full day of work tomorrow. Maybe some warm milk would help. She hurried to the lower level and into the kitchen. Papers littered the table next to her laptop. Hannah studied the crime scene photos again.
Julie Anderson. She’d been stabbed to death in her own home. Her husband, a local doctor, had been arrested for the crime. His trial began next week, and was already receiving widespread media attention. As the prosecutor, Hannah was in charge of presenting the case to the jury. The weight of responsibility bearing down on her shoulders was heavy. She wanted to bring Julie’s killer to justice. Unfortunately, the case was complicated and emotions among the community were running high. Hannah had received numerous death threats in the last few weeks.
Rain pattered against the roof as the storm picked up. Hannah retrieved the milk from her fridge, but a sound from the living room sent her heart rate spiking again. She froze. The hair on the back of her neck rose as she sensed someone in her home. It was an indescribable feeling. One not based on logic, but on a primitive intuition.
Another scrape came from around the corner. The sound of a boot against the wood floor. Hannah’s panic took flight. Her gaze shot to the mudroom, narrowing in on the security panel next to the door.
It was dark. Unarmed.
Impossible. She’d set it before going to bed. Someone—the intruder—had overridden it.
Lightning shot across the sky, followed by an impressive boom of thunder. Hannah swallowed back a scream. She eased the milk onto the counter before slipping a knife out of the wooden block. The handle of the blade was cold against the heat of her skin.
Keeping her ears pricked for any sound coming from the dark living room, Hannah reached for her cell, charging next to the coffee machine. She quickly dialed 911. The operator picked up on the first ring. Hannah kept her voice pitched low as she identified herself and provided her address. “There’s an intruder in my home. Send the police.”
She eased toward the staircase, never turning her back on the living room. Her hand clutched the knife. Tremors threatened to weaken her knees as another footstep creaked the wooden floor. The area beyond the kitchen was pitch-black, shapes indistinguishable, her view partially blocked by the doorframe.
She needed to get upstairs. The knife was better than nothing, but Hannah was no fool. Whoever had entered her home had evil intentions. Charlotte was alone, innocent and vulnerable. She had to protect her niece. The best option was to lock themselves in a bathroom upstairs until help arrived.
Hannah eased onto the first step. Then the second. Her heart ricocheted against her rib cage. Please, God, help me.
A man appeared in the kitchen doorway. Dressed all in black and wearing a ski mask. Terror streaked through Hannah. She lifted the knife and said, “Don’t come any closer. The police are on their way.”
He froze. She prayed the intruder would retreat, and for one heart-stopping moment, it seemed he considered it. Then, with a growl, he lunged for her.
Hannah screamed, dropping the phone. It clattered to the carpet while she lashed out with the knife as the intruder tackled her. Pain vibrated through her body as her back collided with the steps. Her head rapped against the railing. Stars danced across her vision.
The attacker gripped her throat with meaty fingers, constricting her airway, as he slammed her other hand against the staircase. The knife fell from her grip. Hannah formed a fist with her other hand, and using muscles toned from years of Pilates, punched him in the face.
The impact sang up her arm as agony erupted along her knuckles. He fell back long enough for her to suck in a breath. Hannah scrambled to get out from underneath him. She kicked and lashed out with all the panic and fury of a trapped animal. Some of her hits landed. Others didn’t. But it was enough to scoot herself away from him. Hannah stumbled to her feet. She turned to race up the stairs.
A vise gripped her ankle. Hannah hit the staircase with a violent jolt that rattled her teeth. Her body slid down the few stairs she’d managed to climb. She grappled for the upper hand, but the attacker was ready for it this time. His brute strength was no match for her petite frame. The attacker fisted her hair and twisted her head back until she feared it would snap off her body.
Then the icy touch of a blade kissed her neck.