f4h-typeJack Wylie entered Laura’s apartment in under three seconds. The upper half of the duplex had an outside stairwell. Convenient. He glanced into the darkness one last time before guiding the door shut with a soft click. Holding his breath, he tilted his head toward a flicker of light to his right, and listened. Water splashing. The distinct scent of vanilla and burning candlewicks hung heavy in the air. A bath. Shit. Shower spray would have masked the sound of his movements.

Leery of creaking boards, he stepped lightly. His fingers brushed the back of a nubby couch as he felt his way through the darkened living room, careful to keep that crack of light beneath the bathroom door in his line of sight.

He slipped on newspaper strewn all over the floor, and his flailing arm snagged a lamp. With a quick maneuver, he caught it before it shattered. When he raised his gaze, he faced a three-pot macramé plant hanger. The head-like shape of the pottery startled him into pressing the blade of his knife to the throat of a defenseless eucalyptus.

Jesus. Calm down.

He took a deep breath and studied Laura’s studio apartment while his pulse rate decelerated. A double bed jutted from behind a bamboo screen on the far side of the room. Dodging a couch and small dinette, he moved in that direction. He contemplated the closet as a hiding place, but suspected she might need something from it and squeezed his six-foot, four-inch frame underneath the bed instead. Most females stopped looking there around the age of thirteen. Just in case she hadn’t, he checked his wool ski mask. Satisfied with his disguise, he patted his jacket until he found the duct tape he’d stashed in his pocket.

Mentally, he crossed the items off the list Rudy had given him. He’d fulfilled three of Laura’s requests. One: He’d broken in undetected—if you called using a key breaking in. Two: He wore a mask. And three: He was hiding—a pointless gesture since Laura expected him. But why argue a simple point when this entire fiasco rated a ten on the loony scale?

Yawning, he focused on the remaining items on the list. He’d already fudged the first step by entering her apartment before midnight. He caught a break at 11:30 when the bathroom light went on, and his exhaustion goaded him into bending the rules. He’d keep Rudy in the dark on that score.
She turned off the bathroom light. Narrow, bare feet passed within inches of his face. The bedsprings pressed against his shoulders. He pushed aside dusty magazines, clamping his jaw against the urge to sneeze.

Step four: Wait until Laura falls asleep.

In standby mode, he considered his surroundings. Not at all what he’d expected. Luxury. Yeah, that would’ve been his first guess. Not this cramped, economical duplex. Hell, she’d offered fifty grand for a cure. Couldn’t she afford a one-bedroom?

Sleep apparently evaded her and the rolling motions above him elevated in violence. She groaned in obvious frustration. Nervous energy? Was she waiting for him to pounce?

The mattress shuddered and he assumed she’d pounded her fists on it. If he had the pleasure of a soft bed right now, he’d be dead to the world. She’d better settle soon, or he’d get started, regardless. To hell with the list. He’d never been one to play by the rules. Besides, the result would be the same.

The plan: scare the shit out of Laura so she’d never fear her sadistic ex-boyfriend again. Apparently, the jerk got his rocks off playing kidnapper during their relationship. He blamed that damn Fifty Shades of Grey series for the upsurge of domestic violence. Sure, the books had provided a few kinky fantasies for the ladies, but lowlifes like Laura’s ex took the fantasy a step too far.

A whimper. He flexed his shoulder blades and relaxed. Wouldn’t be long now. Women invariably cried themselves to sleep. Worked better than any over-the-counter aids. He listened to her breathing slow … and slow … and blinked himself awake. Her sounds soothed him and he was so damn tired. He shouldn’t be attempting this job after an overnight security shift at the bank, but he wanted to get it over with.

Worried he’d fall asleep if he waited any longer, he slid out. Once he cleared the frame, he pushed up on his fingers and toes, then sprang to the balls of his feet. His right knee creaked. He froze, hovering above her, the paleness of her skin luminescent in the shadows. She lay on top of her comforter, a pair of white bikini panties and a gray tank her only cover.

Nice body. Real nice body–strong and sleek. A cop? Military? Nah, with training like that she wouldn’t be afraid of an ex-boyfriend. But she sure as hell didn’t sculpt those mile-long sexy legs doing aerobics. Slim hips, flat stomach. He whistled softly through his teeth. Damn perfect breasts, fuller than he would’ve expected on someone so lean. Her long, straight hair fanned above her shoulders. He glanced at her face to verify she matched the woman in the head-shot Rudy gave him. His chest tightened and he jerked his gaze away. Too late. Those puffy pillow-lips would haunt his dreams.

Time to go to work. He clasped her by the waist, tossed her onto her stomach, and pushed her face into the pillow just hard enough to muffle any screams. Startled awake, she bucked her curvy, near-naked ass in his face. Sweet Jesus! He sat on her legs, keeping one hand firmly planted on the back of her neck while he used his teeth to tear off a piece of duct tape. With the strip hanging between his lips, he caught her arms behind her and wrapped them several times. He didn’t want to cut off her circulation, but she twisted her wrists and the bonds tightened.

He ripped another piece of tape, cupped this one in his palm, and rolled her over. She sucked in air, but he gagged her before the scream escaped. A hunk of hair stuck to her face under the gag, making her look like a rumpled kid. But the sparks of terrorized fury she shot at him were far from childlike.

Jack faltered. That kind of fear, he’d seen it before. He’d felt it before.

But he’d never provoked it.

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