“And sometimes they say the things they mean.” She drew in a breath but it got stuck around the messy ball at the back of her throat. “God, I can’t believe I still love him. I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot. Pretty sure he’s the idiot.”

She smiled at her friend. “Thank you so much for helping out today. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem. I wish I could stay and help longer, but I’m filling in for Randy today. It’s the fall and you know how popular the ghost tours are in the Quarter.”

Nikki grinned, sort of wishing she could join her. “Totally okay. You’ve done so much already.”

After Nikki promised to make Rosie the first meal in her new apartment, they said goodbye and then Nikki was alone.

It was too quiet.

She immediately turned on the TV, so thrilled that the cable had been turned on that morning. She needed the background noise.

Placing the remote back, she stopped and stared at the coffee table the remote had been sitting on. Her chest squeezed painfully. A moving truck had showed up that morning, right after the cable guy actually. At first she had no idea what was in it, and it wasn’t until the men started bringing in the items that she realized it was the pieces Gabe had promised her.

Her throat burned as she looked away, pressing her lips together.

Nikki sucked in a stuttered breath. Every time she thought about the two of them, about what they shared and then what he said to her, it broke her heart over again.

She wished she hated him.

God, it would be so much easier if she could.

Walking into the kitchen, she pulled out the tub of spaghetti her father had made for her. She nuked it in the microwave and spent the next however many minutes mindlessly eating.

There was still so much she needed to do.

After putting away the books in the small bookshelves, she made her way back to the bedroom to tackle the pile of towels just as night had fallen.

She really did love her apartment. It wasn’t huge, probably smaller than the apartment Gabe had at the de Vincent house, but it was perfect for her. She just wished the whole experience wasn’t tainted by the sickness in her heart.

Hell, if she was being honest with herself, she wished he was here with her, sharing a bottle of wine in celebration and breaking in the bed.

None of that was going to happen.

Sniffling, she used her shoulder to wipe away the stupid tear coursing down her cheek as she picked up another towel to fold. She’d get over this and this time it wouldn’t take her four—

Click.

Her breath caught and everything inside her stilled when she heard the front door of her apartment open.

Chapter 31

The back of Nikki’s neck tingled as she dropped the towel she was folding onto her bed. Her body flashed hot and then cold as she turned to the open bedroom door, her heart pounding erratically in her chest.

Someone just walked into her apartment.

Hadn’t she locked the door?

She stepped back from the bed and peered out into the hallway. There would only be one person she knew who was arrogant enough to walk into her apartment unannounced, but it couldn’t be him. Not after everything.

Still, she held onto the little spark of hope and crept toward the bedroom door, straining to see out in the hall. She heard nothing but the low hum from the TV she’d left on in the living room. All she could see was the arm of her couch and the island that separated the kitchen from the living room.

“Gabe?” she called out, her hands opening and closing at her sides.

A heartbeat passed and then a man stepped into her line of sight. A man that was definitely not Gabe unless he lost weight and height in record time.

And decided that a black ski mask was a new fashion accessory.

For a horrifying second, Nikki couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe as she stared at the man at the end of the hall. Like an animal petrified in front of oncoming headlights, she was frozen as her body raced to catch up to what her brain was ordering it to do.

The man started down the hallway.

Icy terror exploded in her gut as instinct finally took over. Springing into action, she lurched forward, grabbing the end of the door. She slammed it shut and then turned the pitiful excuse of a lock.

“Shit. Shit.” She spun around, looking for her cell phone. Black ski masks were bad, so bad. She shot to the bed, yanking up the towel. No phone.

Something heavy crashed into her bedroom door, jarring the whole wall. A shriek parted her lips as she whipped around. Her phone—Christ, her phone was in the living room!

The man hit the door again. Wood cracked down the center, and Nikki stumbled back. Her chest rose and fell heavily as the center of the door gave way, wood splintering. A gloved hand reached through, finding the lock.

Oh my God, she couldn’t believe this was happening. There was a strange man—a strange masked and gloved man in her apartment, and she watched enough Forensic Files to know this was going to end badly.

Her wild gaze darted around the bedroom, landing on the glass doors of the balcony. Instinct told her she wouldn’t make it in time, not with the doors being locked and the bar in place.

Weapon—she needed a weapon.

Spinning around, she grabbed the lamp, the only truly heavy thing she had in her bedroom. The door swung open and she whirled around, ripping the plug out of the wall.

“Stay back!” she yelled, holding the lamp like a baseball bat.

The man started toward her.

Shit.

There wasn’t a part of Nikki that hesitated. She swung that lamp with every intention of knocking the dude’s head off. Except that’s not what happened.

Nikki swung at nothing but air as the man ducked low and charged her. His shoulder hit her stomach hard, doubling her over. A startled gasp of pain parted her lips as he reached up, yanking the lamp from her hands and tossing it to the floor. The lamp crashed into the carpet as Nikki straightened. She darted to the side, going for the hallway.

She didn’t make it.

He got her around the waist. One second she was standing on the floor and the next she was falling through the air. She hit the bed hard, knocking the air out of her lungs. She was startled just for a second, and it cost her.

Twisting at the waist, her scream was muffled as he came over her, slamming a hand over her mouth as he straddled her hips, effectively locking her legs down.

Panic froze her muscles as the man leaned down, lowering his head toward hers. His eyes . . .

His hand pressed on her mouth, bruising her lips as his other hand dropped to her shoulder and then slid down, over her breast.

He squeezed painfully, eliciting a sharp cry that didn’t reach her ears.

A whole new horror exploded as she screamed against his hand. This man—oh my God.

Pure terror fueled the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Bucking her hips, she tried to throw his weight off, but he pressed down. Pain burned through her chest, but she ignored it as she swung her hand as hard as she could, slamming her fist into the side of his head.

The man’s head jerked back and his grip on her mouth loosened. She swung again, connecting with his jaw. A burst of pain lit up her knuckles. He fell back just enough for her to sit up, pulling one leg free. She twisted, reaching for the edge of the bed.

A hand dug into her hair, jerking her head back. Fiery pain pricked along her scalp as he flipped her onto her back.

“Stupid bitch,” he grunted in a voice that raised the hairs along her body.

That voice. That voice. She knew that—

His fist slammed into her jaw. The burst of pain was raw and startling. Then the fire spread across her face. A metallic taste filled her mouth. Blood. Blood. He hit her again.

Another burst of pain radiated from her eye—her left eye—darkening her vision as she collapsed onto the bed. Thoughts were . . . they didn’t make sense all of a sudden. Nikki tried to sit up, but her head felt weird, too heavy.

It hurt.

“Stay down.” A hand slammed into her stomach, winding her. Something . . . something felt like it cracked. A rib?

She went down, stunned and lost in a sea of startling pain and disbelief. Why is this happening? The question cycled over and over. Precious seconds wasted as he grabbed her leg with one hand, dragging her to the edge of the bed. He got between her legs as the ceiling above blinked in and out.

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