I walked up to the door and inserted the key into the lock. Or tried anyway. I fumbled, turning it over until I got it right. Until it slid inside. The building was old and the thick wood door groaned as I swung it open. The key stuck in the old brass lock and I struggled to yank it free.
Suddenly I was shoved from behind. My shoulder banged against the edge of the door as I tumbled inside. I cried out, hitting the ground. There wasn’t time to put out my hands. My entire body took the brunt of the fall. Even my face didn’t escape. My cheek scraped the concrete floor.
I moaned, too stunned at first to move. I heard the door slam and then I was hauled up to my feet. I wasn’t quite ready to stand. The fingers digging into my arms held me up.
“Hey. Sis.” Hot, sour breath blew into my face.
I cringed, pressing a hand to my raw cheek. “What are you doing, Justin?” I squinted at his features in the dark. I could discern very little. Just the gleam of his eyes and the movement of his lips. The light switch was by the door, but I wasn’t reaching it with his grip on my arm.
“Just paying you a visit. I wanted to catch you alone. You’ve been holed up in your dorm all weekend but I had only time on my hands. You know . . . since my wedding got canceled.”
“You’re drunk.” It was an unpleasant reminder of another time. Him. Like this in the dark. Me stunned, caught off guard and shrinking away from him.
He laughed, slurring his words. “I’ve been drinking since Friday night. Since you ruined my life.”
“You didn’t need any help from me to do that.”
“Melanie won’t even talk to me.”
“Good for her,” I snapped. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself.
His fingers squeezed tighter, hurting me. There’d be a mark tomorrow. “Yeah. You’re glad about that, aren’t you? You showed up with your friend and spouted a bunch of lies.”
“They weren’t lies.”
“Oh yeah? I’m a ra**st?”
I quit tugging on my arm and looked him in the face. “You tried to rape me.” The moment the words left me I felt free. The fear—there had always been fear—evaporated. Faded like smoke into the air.
“Tried.” He laughed. “Not much distinction, is there? Between a would-be ra**st and a ra**st. I mean Melanie looks at me like I’m some kind of pervert now.” He paused, the stink of his breath pungent in my face. “No distinction.” His voice was low now. A growling whisper. “I might as well do it. Be what Melanie thinks I am.”
I didn’t have to be a genius to understand his meaning. All I could think in that split second before I moved, before adrenaline fired through my limbs, was that I was stuck in a familiar nightmare again.
I BROUGHT MY HEAD forward. Hard and fast. I’d seen it done in movies countless times. I only hoped it worked.
It worked. And it hurt. I staggered, stunned from the force of my head hitting his face. I was too short to reach his nose. My forehead smashed into his chin and mouth.
His hand dropped from my arm. I ran, his curses burning on the air. Where he stood, he blocked the door, and I was too worried about getting that close to him. If he grabbed me again, it was all over. He would overpower me. He was too big. Twice my weight. I couldn’t let him catch me. I had to avoid him. Hide. Wait until he moved from the door and then make my escape.
I knew the room well. Even in the dark. I ran on silent feet and ducked behind a large canvas. Heart hammering, I took a gulping breath, listening.
Justin’s laughter rang out. “Where’d you learn that move?” He bumped into the edge of a table, rattling the supplies sitting on it. “Well, I can’t wait to see what other moves you have.”
His voice was closer. He was walking down the center of the room. I crouched and started circling the room’s perimeter, seeing the front door in my mind.
“If it wasn’t for you, I’d be on a beach in Martinique right now, married to Melanie.” I kept moving as he talked. “And that job I had lined up working on her father’s campaign? That’s gone, too. You owe me, Emerson.”
I debated reasoning with him. Faking an apology, but then I dismissed it. He wasn’t in a forgiving mood. He was drunk. And he had nothing to lose. He’d lost everything.
“Why don’t you just come out so we can get this over with? C’mon.”
I was almost to the door. A few more feet.
Suddenly my phone started ringing. The ring tone was loud and shrill in the vast space of the studio. I fumbled for it, desperate to reach it and make it stop.
His footsteps slapped on the concrete. My fumbling fingers dropped the phone and I bolted for the door, diving between two easels. Justin just tore through them, knocking them aside like they were toothpicks.
His hands grabbed me. Air rushed over me as he slammed me onto a table. I felt wetness at my back and knew I was on top of someone’s freshly painted project.
It was a mad scramble. Rough hands yanked at my clothes. I fought. Clawing and punching. His fingers curled around the waistband of my leggings. My arms flailed on the table, knocking into supplies, and my hands brushed something familiar. Not a week passed without one in my hand. I snatched it up without thinking, rotating it in my grip. Tip down, I jabbed the end of the paintbrush into his chest.
He screamed. I didn’t know how hurt he was—how much damage I’d done—but he howled and fell off me. Gasping, I dropped down from the table. I moved backward in the dark, barely able to support my weight on shaking legs.
Then light flooded my world. I threw a hand up over my eyes to shield me from the sudden glare.
I heard my name. Arms surrounded me and I screamed, attacking them.
“Em! Emerson! It’s me.”
I shook the hair from my face and peered up at Shaw as if I didn’t quite recognize him. “Shaw?” I started to ask him how he knew I was here, but stopped, remembering that I had texted him. With a choked cry, I flung myself against him and hugged him tightly.
He hugged me back, one hand at the back of my head, the other at the small of my back, warm and firm, fingers splayed widely. “Emerson!” He pulled back, his gaze scanning all of me, from head to toe, missing nothing. “Are you hurt?”
I winced as he brushed his fingers against a raw patch of skin on my cheek. “I’m fine.”
He gaze drifted over my shoulder, narrowing as he caught sight of my stepbrother. “Did he—”