“True.” She straightened her back, took a long, deep breath, and lifted her chin, looking him in the eye. “I won’t fall apart like that again.”

“Mercy, if anyone has the right to fall apart right now, it’s you.”

He hugged her again, and this time her hands tentatively went around his waist.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re the only person I feel like I can lean on.”

The heat of her body seeped through his shirt, and he was surprised at how thin she felt under his hands. He knew he’d have a hard time letting go.

“Anytime.”

THIRTY-FIVE

Footsteps returned.

Rose sat up, immediately aware of the floor’s hard surface. She’d fallen asleep on the rug, preferring it to the dirty bed. She was cold, but not cold enough to use the strong-smelling blankets. Not until she had to.

It was late. Or else very early. Her internal clock said she still had a few hours before her usual wake time. For a second she missed her phone, slightly ashamed at how reliant she’d become on it for its alarm and time. Her father would say, “I told you so.” He used technology to get the best out of his small ranch, but he never relied on it. He made certain everything would run as close to normally as possible without power.

And here she was feeling helpless without her phone.

The footsteps in the hallway stopped outside her door. They were different from the running steps she’d heard hours earlier. These were heavier, more confident. A loud pounding sounded on the door and she jumped.

“You awake?”

There was the voice. Finally. After fifteen years of waiting, she knew unequivocally that this was the second man who’d attacked her that night. He pounded on the door again.

“Wake up!”

“I’m awake,” she answered before she could decide if it was best to stay silent.

“Get back from the door,” he ordered. “On the bed.”

Without thinking, Rose scrambled onto the old bed, stale fumes rising as she positioned herself against the headboard.

Then her brain kicked in: Is he going to rape me?

Terror froze her muscles as her mind shot down that avenue. Sweat started under her arms and bile churned in her stomach. She grabbed the thin pillow and gripped it across her abdomen. As if that would stop him.

She knew of everything in the room; there was nothing to use as a weapon.

I have my hands and feet. My head.

She would fight back with every ounce of her being. She had nothing to lose.

He cautiously opened the door, letting the light from the hallway into the room. While preparing the room for his prisoner, he’d removed the lamp and everything else. He’d considered removing the bed but had decided it might be useful.

The light spilled across Rose Kilpatrick’s face, but she didn’t flinch.

Does she see no light at all?

She was on the bed as ordered, looking like a cornered animal, ready to bite if he came too close. He’d always thought of her as a kitten. A helpless, tiny animal that needed someone to take care of it and protect it. For years he’d fantasized about that type of relationship with Rose.

He’d taken her because he deserved it. He’d played by the rules for over a decade and as of yesterday had nothing to show for it. Mercy and her snooping had made certain of that.

Fury over his stolen weapons had driven him to act. With one maneuver he’d punished the woman who’d screwed up his plan and grabbed the reward he’d let slip through his fingers fifteen years ago.

Rose.

He’d silently watched Rose since that night, wondering what her life was like. He got glimpses here and there. Rose walking through a store with one hand on her mother’s arm. Rose talking to her preschoolers as they sat in a circle at her feet. He didn’t understand how she read them a book and knew when to turn the pages, but the children had watched and listened with rapt attention.

Now she faced him. Her eyes were closed as usual, but her hands clasped a pillow in front of her.

Like a pillow can stop me. But first he needed an answer.

“Who opened the door?” he asked her.

“W-what?”

“Who opened the front door? The front door was wide open when I got here.”

“I don’t know! I’ve been locked in this room!”

He studied her face but saw only confusion. If she had heard someone come in the house, surely she would have yelled for help. Could I have left it open? It didn’t matter; she was still here.

“Do you remember me, Rose?” he asked in a low, smooth voice.

“Yes.” She looked ready to rip out his throat.

He smiled. Her defiance triggered a pleasing warmth in his belly. “Say my name.”

“I only know your voice.”

A big weight fell from his shoulders. For a long time, he’d wondered if Rose could identify him—he’d heard blind people had amazing hearing recognition. The few times he did have to greet or thank her, he’d lowered his voice, praying she didn’t recognize it, as he fought a need to possess her wholly.

As he stared at her on the bed, that need vibrated inside him.

Patience.

“Do you know what happened to Kenny that night?”

She said nothing.

“Answer me, Rose. It’ll make things easier on you later.”

Her lips pressed together.

“I heard the shots. You killed him, didn’t you?”

A slight tremor shook her body. It was a powerful feeling to be able to stare at a person without her seeing you. And even better was that she had no idea who was talking to her. He looked his fill, appreciating the beauty of the blind woman.

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