Her cell phone rang.
Addison Foster glanced at the clock on her computer, concern rippling through her. It was close to midnight. Too late for a run-of-the-mill call. She scooped the cell from the desk in her home office. Chloe McCormick’s name flashed on the screen. As a family law attorney for domestic abuse survivors, it wasn’t uncommon for Addison to receive frightened phone calls from clients late at night. But they never got easier.
Addison answered. “Are you okay, Chloe?”
“I’m okay.” Chloe’s voice thickened with tears. “But I’m worried about going back to court on Tuesday, and you told me to call if I needed to.”
The tremble of fear coursing through her client’s voice was painful for Addison to hear. Chloe’s husband, Michael McCormick, was a violent man protected by a fat bank account and influential friends. He’d beaten Chloe within an inch of her life over a dirty dish in the sink. Broken jaw, fractured ribs, and a concussion. The rules, so he thought, didn’t apply to him. Everything about Michael put Addison on edge. Probably because he reminded her so much of her own ex-husband.
“You won’t be alone for a moment with Michael during the divorce trial.” Addison rubbed her eyes. She’d spent several hours staring at the computer, preparing for court by reviewing the McCormicks' financial documents. “I’ll be with you the entire time, just like today during the pre-trial motions.”
“I know that. I’m just…I’m scared he’ll try to do something before then. Michael always said he would kill me if I left.” Her words tumbled out in a rush, layered with barely controlled panic. “I remembered what you told me. If he shows up, I need to call 911 immediately. But the police may not arrive in time. And Michael won’t obey the restraining order. I know it. Did you see the way he looked at me in court today?”
Addison had. The rage had been tangible, and it hadn’t only been directed toward his wife. Michael’s glare had centered on Addison more than once. He blamed her for convincing Chloe to file for divorce.
He was mistaken. Addison would never force a client to do anything. But that fact wouldn’t matter much to Michael. He needed someone to blame, and Addison was an easy target.
“I’ve done everything in my power to keep your new apartment a secret from Michael.” Chloe and her six-month-old daughter should be safe. But Addison knew better than anyone that guarantees weren’t possible. “Would you be more comfortable staying at a shelter tonight? I can make some calls.”
Chloe was quiet for a long moment. Addison pictured the leggy brunette pacing her small apartment. Then Chloe inhaled before letting out the breath slowly. “No. We’ll be okay.”
“There’s no shame in going to a shelter, Chloe. If you’re worried—”
“I am worried, but I’m also behind locked doors with a security alarm and the police on speed dial.” She let out another long breath. “Seeing him in court today rattled me, and now that the baby is in bed, I have more time to think. It’s…”
“Hard to separate the rational fear from the irrational.”
“Yes. How long, Addison? How long before I feel safe?”
“A long time.”
Years. Maybe more. Addison still carried the scars on her own heart from her failed marriage. “But it gets better. You’re a courageous woman, Chloe. And you’re building a better life for you and your daughter.”
It sounded like the other woman choked back tears. “I don’t feel courageous. I feel like a hot mess.”
“That’s not how I see you. You’re a wonderful mom and an amazing person.”
The compliments were all true, and Addison made a conscious effort to boost her clients’ confidence. It was one of the first things the abuser usually stole.
“Thank you, Addison. I’m sorry to have called so late.”
“You can call anytime.”
They each said goodbye, and Addison set her phone down on her desk. She rolled her shoulders to rid them of tension. Her home office was decorated in soothing colors of ocean blue and white. A candle flickered on the bookshelf, the scent of vanilla floating in the air.
She’d moved to Knoxville four months ago. The tiny Texas town was an hour outside of Austin. It was close enough she could maintain her law practice in the city but still take advantage of the sense of community she’d been missing in recent years. Her house was a two-bedroom ranch style with pretty shutters and a covered patio.
A bolt of lightning lit up the sky, followed by a boom of thunder. Shelby, Addison’s cat, scrambled across the carpet and disappeared down the hall toward the bedroom. The Siamese mix hated storms and had since the day Addison brought her home from the shelter.
“Poor kitty.” Shelby had a hiding space under Addison’s bed. Chances were, the cat was headed there to wait things out.
Lights flickered. The home security system beeped and then went dark. Addison crossed the room to rearm it. Her fingers flew over the keypad, but nothing happened. Frustration nipped at her. The security company had been out earlier in the week to repair the system. Clearly, it wasn’t successful.
A thump came from the rear of the house. Addison froze. Had her cat knocked something over in the back room?
Or was someone in the house?
Her heart rate skyrocketed. Addison held her breath, straining to listen for any sound over the classical music playing on her speakers. Nothing. Indecision waged within Addison. The memory of Michael’s glare from court earlier that day rose in her mind. She had a laundry list of clients whose significant others were just as violent.
Silently, on stocking feet, Addison crossed back to her desk. She opened the drawer. A small can of mace rested inside. She wrapped her hand around it. After her ex-husband violated his restraining order and tried to hurt her, Addison had taken boxing and self-defense courses. Ten years of practice had honed her skills, but a real-life confrontation was far different from a controlled environment.
A creak echoed down the hallway. Addison’s breath stalled in her chest. She knew that sound well. It came from her bedroom door. The hinges needed oil.
Someone was in the house.
Lord, please help me.
Addison scooped up the cell phone from her desk but didn’t pause long enough to call 911. The priority was to get out of the house and to safety. She raced across the living room carpet. Double dutch doors opened to a large backyard and the woods beyond. She could use the trees for cover. Or better yet, she could go to her neighbor’s house. Jason was former military.
Addison unlocked the door with trembling fingers. Her thundering heart made it impossible to hear anything. Where was the intruder? Was he coming for her?
Sucking in a breath, she twisted the knob. The door swung open. Frigid air raced over her heated skin. She slipped into the darkness. The lights from her neighbor’s house—five yards away—glowed like a welcome beacon.
Something shifted behind her.
Addison whirled. A large figure tackled her and sent her flying. Pain vibrated through her body as she collided with a patio chair. The cell phone and mace flew from her hands. They clattered across the cement and landed in the grass.
She scrambled to get her knees under her. The assailant charged, and Addison lashed out with her foot. It landed in his stomach. He grunted in surprise and backed up a few steps.
She got to her feet and ran. Her ankle throbbed, injured in her tumble with the chair. It hindered her progress. Sucking in a deep breath, Addison screamed, but was cut off as the attacker slammed into her again. They tumbled to the ground. All the air whooshed from Addison’s lungs as the weight of the man crushed her.
She shot out an elbow but couldn’t get enough force behind the move to make it count.
The attacker slammed a fist into her head. Stars exploded across her vision. His weight was a cement block she couldn’t dislodge. Addison’s world narrowed to her masked attacker and the frantic beat of her heart. She screamed.
The man’s hands went around her throat and squeezed.