“Vanessa?” he said, his voice coaxing.
Terror made her heart jackhammer against her chest as she grabbed the bat she’d dropped when she fell. Her hands were already starting to sweat. “What?”
“Let me in.” His voice held a threatening note that promised things would get much worse if she didn’t. She was so frightened of Manuel, so accustomed to giving him whatever he demanded just to keep the peace, that she almost obeyed.
Almost. Gripping the bat more tightly, she swallowed hard. “No. You’d better leave, Manuel. I’ve got a bat, and I’ll use it if I have to.”
“A bat? You think you’re going to hit me with a bat?” The chain rattled as Manuel struggled to slide it off.
Emma didn’t dare move any closer. She held her stance as sweat gathered on her upper lip and ran down her back.
Suddenly, his voice softened. “I just want to talk to you, querida. This is crazy. What you’ve been doing doesn’t make sense. Why would you run from me? I love you.”
He didn’t love her. He smothered her, wrung the joy from her life.
“I—I want you to leave me alone. Please, Manuel. I don’t want to hurt you. Just go. Live your life and let me live mine.”
“So you can spread your legs for that b*****d who just came out of here?” he cried.
Emma gasped and covered her mouth. Preston! If Manuel had seen him leaving…“Where is he?” she asked. “D-did you hurt him?”
“Not yet, mi amor. I won’t do anything to loverboy if you’ll open the door. Come back to me and everything will be fine.”
Fear squeezed her windpipe, made it almost impossible to breathe. Juanita’s dead. The police just found her body.
Was Preston dead, too? Or was he lying on the ground outside, bleeding?
That thought made her long to throw off the chain and charge outside, wielding her bat. She’d sacrifice anything to reach Preston. Anything except Max. If she let Manuel in, he might disarm her. Then there’d be absolutely nothing she could do.
“Come on, querida. If you don’t want to be with me anymore, we’ll work something out,” he said, still groping for the chain. “You should live in San Diego. I want to see my son. I have that right.”
Normally a man did have the right to see his children. Manuel knew how much she loved her son, knew she’d feel guilty about denying them a relationship. But she couldn’t let Manuel see Max. Manuel had killed Juanita, for God’s sake. He wasn’t sane.
“Not anymore,” she said.
“You gave up that right when you murdered Juanita.”
“Open the damn door!”
Panic stole Emma’s breath, but that split second brought clarity. She had only one choice. Letting Manuel in wouldn’t help Preston. If Manuel managed to reach her, it would be all over, despite the bat. She’d already sent the list to police. His family wouldn’t permit him to forgive her, even if he wanted to. He’d kill her and Preston, too.
The chain was nearly off. In a few more seconds…
Adrenaline had Emma shaking, but she gathered her strength and shoved as hard as she could against the door.
Manuel cried out when the pressure crushed his hand, but she didn’t care. She wouldn’t let him in, no matter what she had to do. She no longer cared about the noise he was making or the fact that they might wake Max. She prayed the disturbance might rouse someone who could help her.
But she had little hope of that. If Preston was still at the motel, still alive and capable of reacting, he’d be here by now. And there wasn’t another soul in the whole complex.
Manuel’s screams echoed in Emma’s head. She wished she could block them out—along with the revolting feel of his hand in the door. The violence sickened her.
Don’t think about it. Just hang on…. Don’t let him in…. Don’t let him in…. Don’t—
Finally Manuel kicked the door, which opened just wide enough so he could retrieve his hand. When it slammed shut, Emma threw the bolt, but she knew Manuel wasn’t going to leave. He was cursing loudly, calling her some of the vilest names she’d ever heard.
“You broke my hand, b***h! I’ll kill you for that. Do you hear me? You’re dead. You’re as good as dead! And this time I’ll enjoy it.”
Emma rushed to the phone. The complex wasn’t supposed to receive telephone service until the day before it opened, but she couldn’t help hoping….
No dial tone. And Manuel was no longer at the door. He’d moved to the window. She could see his silhouette through the blinds as he tested the lock. At first she thought he was trying to wiggle it open, so the sound of shattering glass surprised her. He was coming in.
Grabbing the bat, she turned to run into Max’s room. She had to protect her son at all costs. But the noise had finally awakened him. She nearly tripped over him in the dark as he met her in the hall.
“Mommy?” he said uncertainly.
Emma’s eyes darted to the front door. She wanted to scoop her son into her arms and make a run for it, but Max was too heavy to carry far, and Manuel was too close. He’d cut her off before she could clear the portal.
The bathroom! The bathroom had no windows. She’d lock them both inside and hope they could last until the construction workers arrived in the morning. If Manuel got in somehow, she’d use the bat. There wasn’t any other way.
“Come on, Max,” she cried, and started pulling him into the master bedroom. But Manuel was already in the apartment.
“Hurry!” The bathroom seemed miles away. Emma couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move fast enough. She felt as if she was running through quicksand, going nowhere….
“What’s happening?” Max asked, confused, frightened.
She was too busy dragging him along to answer.
They were only three steps from the bathroom when footsteps pounded behind her. The way Manuel was cursing, the glass made her wonder if he’d been cut. But his injuries didn’t seem to hamper his strength when he seized her hair and yanked her back.
VINCE’S HOME WAS two stories high and made of wood and stone. Large and rambling, it sat on a small creek and had one whole wall of glass. A copse of trees off to the side provided a great place to sit and watch what went on inside the house. But late as it was, everything was dark, so there wasn’t much to see.
Preston turned off the flashlight he’d been using to weave through the trees and knocked gently on the boards separating the stone pillars of the fence. He heard nothing, but he threw a hamburger into the yard, just in case Vince had bought a Doberman in the past few days. He didn’t want to come face-to-face with the fangs of an angry dog. Not that he thought he would. Vince wasn’t a pet kind of man. He didn’t like anything that required much care. So Preston wasn’t surprised when he heard no barking.