Excerpt – Shattered Haven

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Allison Winchester lay stock still, every muscle tight with apprehension.

Something had awoken her. A noise. Different from the usual creaks and groans of the old Victorian.

But all was quiet. Was it her imagination? The remnants of a dream?

She eased into a semi-upright position and propped herself on her elbows. A full moon cast its silver glow into the room, the lace curtains making shadowed patterns on the furnishings. The door was closed, her robe hanging from a hook on its back. Next to the bed, two shams and a half dozen throw pillows lay stacked in the upholstered chair with a stuffed Garfield perched on top. Everything was exactly as she had left it. A sliver of tension slid away.

Then it came again. A rattle. Like someone trying to jimmy a window. The tension ratcheted up again, and she lay frozen, ears straining in the silence that followed. When the rattle resumed, she had no doubt. Someone was trying to break into her house.

She sprang from the bed and snatched her cell phone from her purse. As she finished punching in the three numbers, the crash of breaking glass shattered the still night. Panic raced up her spine and settled in her chest, squeezing the air from her lungs. Disjointed prayers circled through her mind, along with frantic commands—lock the door, hide, grab Tom’s gun. When she was finally able to breathe again, her ragged gasp echoed in the spacious room.

Then another sound registered—a calm female voice.

“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”

“Someone’s in my house.” Her voice was a raspy whisper.

The dispatcher continued her soothing tone. “Help is on the way. I’m staying on the line until they arrive.”

Allison tiptoed to the door and silently turned the lock. Downstairs, heavy footsteps thudded against the polished hardwood floors. Her intruder wasn’t even trying to be quiet. She clutched the phone more tightly and pressed it against her ear, that soothing voice her lifeline to safety.

The footsteps hesitated, and for several moments, she forgot to breathe. Then a new noise shattered her already frayed nerves—the creak of the bottom step. Renewed panic spiraled through her. Lord, please help me.

“He’s coming upstairs.” Where were the police? What was taking them so long?

She drew in a shaky breath. Probably less than a minute had passed since she had first placed her call. But she wasn’t going to wait helplessly while a possible killer made his way toward her room.

She backed away, eyes still glued to the door. If he wanted to come in, the lock wouldn’t stop him. One solid kick, and the doorframe would splinter. She propped the phone against her ear with one shoulder and opened her T-shirt drawer, cringing at the scrape of wood on wood. There hadn’t been any more creaks. Maybe he had abandoned his plans for coming upstairs. But she wasn’t taking a chance.

Her fingers scrambled along the bottom of the drawer, reaching for what had lain untouched since she moved to Cedar Key two years ago. When her hand made contact with cold steel, trepidation warred with relief. Holding something so lethal just didn’t feel…safe. She had outgrown her youthful klutziness. But she still didn’t feel confident handling a weapon.

Now wasn’t the time for such reservations.

“I’m getting my gun.” She kept her voice low.

“Help is on the way. Just stay put.”

“Believe me, I will.” No way was she leaving the room. At least until the cops arrived and the intruder was cuffed.

She propped the phone against her shoulder and inserted the loaded clip, hands shaking. Then she waited, weapon trained on the door, her finger poised on the trigger.

According to Tom, the pink GLOCK was a perfect ladies’ gun. He bought it for her a month before he was killed, insisting she keep it with her. He even tried to teach her how to use it.

She should have paid more attention. But she hadn’t seen the need. She lived in an upper class New England neighborhood, separated from the unsavory elements of society. And blind to the unscrupulous activities of her husband. Those same activities had left her a widow at age twenty-four. Tom had needed the gun worse than she had.

A siren sounded in the distance and screamed closer. Her breath spilled out in a relieved sigh. “They’re almost here.”

She moved to the side window and looked out over the small yard that lay along the west side of her house. She wouldn’t be able to see the police. But the reflection of flashing lights in the window of her neighbor’s bungalow would signal their arrival.

A second later, the siren stopped. A figure appeared from the back and charged across her side yard at a full run. Within moments, he had disappeared behind the hedge bordering her neighbor’s back yard.

She laid the weapon on the dresser, disconnected the call and grabbed her robe from the back of the door. The intruder was probably long gone, but she needed to tell the police what she saw. She hurried down the stairs, then crossed the small foyer.

As soon as she stepped onto her front porch, she stopped short. A Cedar Key police cruiser sat in her front yard. But the officer wasn’t alone. He had already apprehended the suspect. He had him pinned against the side of the car and was cuffing him.

She cinched the belt on her robe more tightly and started down the porch steps. The officer turned and nodded a greeting. It was Hunter Kingston. He had somehow managed to catch the intruder and drag him back to the cruiser before she could get down the stairs and out the door. Hunter was good, but she didn’t know he was that good.

He looked her up and down. “Are you all right?

“Yeah, I’m fine. He didn’t come upstairs. I’m guessing your siren scared him away.” She cast a glance at the suspect. “You can bet I won’t forget to set the alarm again.”

One edge of Hunter’s mouth turned up. He obviously recognized her comment for what it was—a threat to the intruder. She had never considered installing an alarm system, had never felt the need.

The stranger turned when she spoke. In the glow of the nearby streetlight, he was an imposing figure, even with his hands secured behind his back. A Guy Harvey T-shirt stretched taut over a muscular chest, and massive arms spoke of hours in the gym. With the close-cut hair, firm set of his jaw and sense of authority he exuded, he didn’t fit the image of a common burglar. He looked more like a military guy. Or a cop.

His eyes shifted from her back to Hunter. “What’s going on?”

“Someone broke into this lady’s house.”

“It wasn’t me. I already told you, I was chasing my dog.”

His tone was nonchalant, the concern she would expect to see absent. Either he had a lot of confidence in his ability to talk his way out of trouble, or he had been through enough arrests that the thought of spending some time in jail didn’t faze him.

Hunter didn’t appear to be buying his story. “At four a.m.?”

“Since three-thirty, actually. He saw a cat and took off. I’ve chased him all over this side of Cedar Key.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Cedar Cove Marina, on my boat. I just arrived this afternoon.”

“I’m going to have to bring you in for questioning.” Hunter opened the back door of the cruiser and guided him around it.

Now the stranger’s eyes did fill with concern. “I need to find my dog. He’s a young Doberman, answers to Brinks. He won’t hurt anybody, but he’s probably halfway to the mainland by now.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for him.” Skepticism filled Hunter’s tone.

Allison pursed her lips. Something wasn’t right about the whole scenario. Hunter would have to be Flash to have covered that much ground by the time she made it outside. She couldn’t identify the intruder. Between the clouds obscuring the moon, the oak that shaded a good portion of her side yard and the distance from the street light, it was too dark.

But she knew where he had come from and which direction he had gone.

“Hunter, wait.” She held up a hand. “Where was he when you saw him?”

“I was coming down First Street, and he ran out from between your house and the one next door.” As Hunter spoke, he gestured with his right hand, tracing the path the suspect had taken.

It was all wrong. The intruder came from the opposite side of the house and went in a different direction. The stranger was telling the truth. And for some unexplained reason, she was glad.

“Hunter, we’ve got the wrong guy.”

His brows lifted in question, and she continued.

“I saw the intruder, just as you got here. He ran out from behind my house and went that way.” She lifted a hand, her index finger extended.

Before Hunter could respond, a Doberman came bounding toward them and skidded to a stop at the open door of the car. The dog put both front paws in the man’s lap and slathered slobbery kisses up one cheek, initiating peals of laughter.

“Now you decide to show up. You almost got me arrested.” Still laughing, he maneuvered to his feet. Not easy with two large paws in his lap and his hands cuffed behind his back. “No more jerky treats for you. At least till tomorrow.”

Hunter stepped behind him and inserted a key into the handcuffs. “Sorry about that. We don’t get many break-ins here. In fact, we don’t get any break-ins. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The stranger shot him a forgiving smile over one shoulder as the cuffs clicked open. “No problem. You were only doing your job. But I have to admit, this was my first time on this side of the handcuffs.” He clipped a leash onto the dog’s collar before extending his hand. “Blake Townsend, Dallas P.D.”

Hunter’s brows shot up again. “You’ve got to be kidding. I was arresting a cop?”

“Former cop, actually. Injured on the job.” He turned toward Allison. “And you, milady, deserve a big thank you for getting me out of hot water. I at least owe you dinner.”

The smile he gave her reached his eyes, creating fine lines at their corners. His manner was joking, but something told her he was dead serious about dinner. And she was suddenly hit with a case of teenage shyness. She reached to smooth her hair, then dropped her hand. Why bother? The first impression was already made—barefoot and bedhead. Not that it mattered.

She returned his smile with one that she hoped projected confidence. “That won’t be necessary. Your words were thank you enough.”

He nodded, then looked at Hunter. “If you’re done with me, I’ll get Bozo here back to the boat. Next time you see us, he’ll be on a leash.” He frowned down at the dog who eyed him eagerly, tail nub wagging. One ear stood at attention, straight and sharp. The other made an attempt. But the top two inches flopped forward. The imperfection lent a comic element to his would-be ferociousness. “I think he needs obedience training. He’s usually a good dog, but when he sees a cat, his brain shuts down and he morphs into seventy pounds of pure, dumb instinct.”

He turned and started down the sidewalk, favoring his right leg. Probably the injury he’d mentioned. There was stiffness in his gait, as if he was trying hard to hide what should have been a pronounced limp after spending the last half hour chasing his dog.

A cop. She had him pegged right. Maybe she was getting better at reading people. It was about time.

When she returned her gaze to Hunter, he was grinning at her. “Checking out the newest Cedar Key resident?”

“Not like you’re thinking.” Her cheeks warmed in spite of her flippant response. Hunter was a good friend. They had a lot in common, right down to their determination to avoid serious relationships with the opposite sex. She didn’t know his reasons, but she knew her own. Serious relationships required trust, something in short supply lately, at least on her end.

“Let’s check out your place.” Hunter’s words cut across her thoughts. “We’ve got a breaking and entering to investigate.”

She squared her shoulders and started up the front walk, uneasiness descending on her with every step. Meeting the injured cop had been a nice reprieve. Now she had to face what she would find inside—a broken window, the possibility of items missing from her house.

And the end of the sense of security she had always known there.