The phone rang, jolting Kat from her sleep.
She knocked her head against the end table, only then realizing she’d wedged herself next to the bed. The phone rang again. Her arms flailed out, searching for the source of the piercing persistence. She blinked several times before her hand clasped the phone’s handset.
“H-hello,” Kat groaned.
Her room remained shrouded in darkness with only a thin sliver of light beaming into the room. It took her a moment to remember her surroundings and everything that had passed from the previous night.
She had squeezed herself in between the bed and the nightstand in case her assailant decided to follow up from their skirmish. In her haste before sleep, she had drawn the curtains to both windows closed and had moved her sitting chair against the door along with her suitcase, angling it to fall and make noise should someone try to slip inside. The wardrobe had more resembled solid stone during her efforts to move it, and so, she had resorted to just using anything she could find.
Kat rubbed at her blurry eyes with her free hand, realizing she still held the receiver.
“Hello?” She repeated adjusting the phone against her ear.
“Miss Katharine. I apologize. It is well passed noon, and I thought I would see if you wished to head into town with me?”
“Oh.” Kat yawned and licked her dry lips. “No, thank you. I think I’ll eat something and try to wake up the rest of the way. Did the guards report hearing or seeing anyone suspicious last night?”
“No. All was quiet on their end, but I will have them on alert today and this evening, if that will put you at ease?”
She sighed and considered dismissing the concerns, but not listening to her instinct was a lesson she already knew all too well. “Yes, thank you. I’m sorry for the trouble.”
“Not at all, Miss Katharine. If you do not get restful sleep during your time here, then I will be failing in my duties.”
She felt a small smile spread across her lips. “I’ve never thought you failed at anything. Thank you for caring for me so much.”
“Of course. And you know, even if it weren’t part of the job, I would still be happy to do it.”
Kat chuckled and adjusted the phone. “I guess that’s why they call it family.”
“I believe so, Miss Katharine. I’ll be back in a few hours. Ask the maids should you need anything. I will have my cellular phone, but I detest that contraption unless there is an emergency.”
“I understand,” Kat laughed. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’ll see you when you get back.”
She clicked the handset back on the base.
Kat found her spare clothes in her suitcase and dressed. She wore jeans and a deep crimson tank top. Her hair stuck out in all directions from her unusual sleeping position.
Just a simple braid, for now, she decided.
No one else would be arriving for a couple days still, so not much point in dressing up. Also, she could worry about settling in later.
Her stomach still swam with anxious knots but growled from the lack of food. Last night left an uneasiness inside, making it impossible to relax. Kat glanced around the room. She knew Walter had agreed to let her find her phone. However, he was not the most compliant man, despite his status as a butler. She bit her lip. Kat needed to find her phone and the perp.
The manor lost its looming tension in the afternoon light. Shadowy corners now glistened with glazed moldings. A few of the maids she knew from childhood busied themselves cleaning and organizing for the week’s events to come. She greeted them but excused herself to find the kitchen. After a few winding halls, Kat paused as the scent of cooked chicken wafted out from the stainless-steel room.
A woman in a white shirt and black slacks hurried about in the kitchen. Her dark hair was in a tight bun, and she wore no rings or any kind of jewelry. Kat stood watching her for a moment. The maid prepared a small roasted chicken and began to cut tomatoes.
A hand rested on Kat’s shoulder.
“Ahhh,” she yelped and grabbed at the hand before she realized what she was doing.
Walter stood next to her. His face drew into an apologetic smile. “I’m so sorry, Miss Katharine. I didn’t mean to frighten you again. I forgot to ask before I left, if you went looking for your phone, yet?”
Kat released his hand and took a deep breath. “It’s okay. I’m just glad I didn’t try to throw you against the wall or anything. I haven’t had a chance to go looking for my phone.”
“I did. Unfortunately, the screen was cracked. I had Miss Lily take care of it.” He waved toward the maid in the kitchen. “She took it to town this morning. They have an electronics repair store there. We should have your phone back to you before the end of the week. I can give you a temporary one. Please just let me know if you need one.”
Kat sighed. “I’m just glad no one attacked you. Thanks for getting it fixed for me. I should be okay without it for a few days. I could use a flashlight though.”
“Oh?” Walter raised an eyebrow. “Planning more midnight excursions?” His mouth quirked to a slight smile, but his eyes wrinkled at the edges.
“Not really planning it, but I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”
“Very wise of you, Miss Katharine.” Walter dug into his pocket and pulled out a small LED flashlight. “Hopefully, you won’t need it. There are more located in the study across the hall should you need them.”
“Thanks, I really appreciate it.”
“Also,” Walter gestured towards the kitchen. “You should get something to eat. Miss Lily is our finest cook, other than the head chef, of course.” Both he and the maid chuckled.
Kat almost had to wipe away drool as she grabbed a plate.
Walter excused himself from the room, and Kat made her way to a nearby study to find some books to read after she ate. A couple of the maids stopped by to introduce themselves or to say hello again since she had been gone for so long. Reading the day away had always helped her to relax since childhood. Plus, her arms and legs still ached from last night’s fight with the mystery man. She still had to figure out who he was and what he wanted. Kat decided to investigate more that evening but to hopefully figure something out by midnight to get her sleep schedule back in order.
She left her dishes in the sink but couldn’t sit still long enough to read. The itch to investigate crept through her. Her first priority needed to be scouting the area, though, with the amount of ground she needed to cover, half a dozen officers would’ve been ideal.
Talking to the couple of security guards from last night would be next, she thought.
Her eyes darted from each shadowed corner, examining every inch of the house.
The enormous manor changed with the fading sunlight. It reminded her more of a giant tomb with the passing hours. The perp could be lurking anywhere. Her hand twitched at the thought of him. She would’ve given anything to have him cuffed in a cell by then.
Kat sighed, realizing her nerves were getting to her.
Maybe some fresh air would do her some good. And, give her a chance to start checking for signs of forced entry.
The main garden bloomed near the rear entrance to the South Wing. One of the maids had mentioned it when she’d finished her meal earlier.
Cutting through the central courtyard would have been faster, but she wasn’t familiar with the new renovations. So, Kat continued to walk through the corridors using the fading light outside for guidance. She tried a pair of French doors and got lucky.
Warm evening air greeted her, while lamps lit the pathway illuminating the nearby array of flowers. The area had a small sitting bench at the center circular path not far from her. To a casual observer, it was the epitome of serene. Yet, to her paranoid-driven mind, each growing shadow reminded her of the home invader. She had a sneaking suspicion he was still there.
Hell, it almost felt like he was watching her.
The hairs on the back of her neck hadn’t stopped prickling most of the afternoon.
“It would be nice out here…if I wasn’t so damn anxious.”
Her hands brushed against small tree leaves down the path. She smiled and knelt to smell a group of violet snapdragons. They had been her favorite since childhood. It had always been fun to pinch them and make them snap. The key around her neck slipped out and entangled in the leaves. She sighed, freeing it and tucked it away once again.
“I’m surprised you are still here,” growled a low voice.
Kat jumped and spun around. Every muscle in her body tensed, ready to slam the damn perp to the ground. She had let her guard down for an instant.
Maybe, he had been watching her all along.
Her chest thudded from the sudden chill in the air. Her eyes scanned the courtyard. No one else appeared nearby, but her instinct knew better.
“Show yourself,” she called and inched down the path.
“It was foolish for you to stay. You should have known that.”
“Who are you? Stop playing games or do you want another ass kicking?”
The growling voice let out a deep resonating laugh.
“You think you can take me out?” His whispered response drew a sharp breath from her.
He’d let the heat from his breath tingle against her ear.
She roared, twisting her body, and swung a roundhouse kick behind her, yet only caught air. Kat ground her teeth.
“Alright, dumbass. You’ve got exactly five seconds to show yourself and surrender before I consider you armed and dangerous. At which point, the kid gloves come off.”
A challenging snarl echoed around the courtyard.
Great, Kat thought, I’m gonna have to explain to Walter why all of the flower beds are ruined after this, aren’t I?
She grabbed her flashlight out of her pocket and clicked it on in the fading light. It showed nothing more than familiar bushes and flower patches. Trees rustled in the windless air. Kat bit her lip and set the flashlight on the bush in front of her. She knelt, reaching for her knife in its calf holster.
Another low growl rumbled nearby.
Dirt clung to her arms and twigs pawed at her clothes as she crawled through the flower bed. She needed to get the edge on him. But, if she did surprise him, then she might have to explain to the local force why there was a dead body in their rose bushes.
“I will find you. Hiding only makes this more enjoyable for me.”
Kat held back a curse. This guy made her blood boil and freeze all at the same time. He seemed closer to her. She guessed maybe less than a yard away judging by his voice.
Shouts rose up from inside the house. A small click sounded from an opening window.
“Miss Katharine…Miss Katharine,” Walter called out.
Thank goodness, Kat thought.
“Quit playing out here and get inside. We have a problem. Please hurry!” Walter closed the window, and more shouts erupted from the front of the house.
Kat’s mouth dropped open. What the hell did that mean? A problem did not tell her a damn thing.
The familiar low growl churned the air and her stomach.
Could it be the man attacking her? Is that who he meant?
She needed answers and fast. Kat bolted from between the bushes.
The door sat just a few feet from her. Being the bait wasn’t her best idea by far, but time was against her.
Footsteps thudded out from behind her the moment she ran.
She bellowed out, sprinting at full speed, and grabbed the handle. Kat pushed the door open as hands grabbed her shoulders.
She spun low, knocking his legs out from under him.
Kat and her assailant collided through the opening and tumbled across the marble floor. As she scrambled to stand, a hand grabbed her ankle. She kicked, but he held on with an iron grip. Kat glanced back at the cloaked figure, expecting to see some prison-tattooed thug or a sinister sneering murderer, and instead met the eyes of an attractive young man not much older than herself. He wore a black leather duster and dark boots. His blazing-blue eyes pierced her soul with their drowning depth. His dark hair fell loose around his face, gliding down in waves.
Kat stared at him. Her instincts pinpointed him as dangerous, yet for some reason, it didn’t register him as life-threatening.
He growled, then paused, “Why do you stare at me with such a bewildered look?”
Her mouth worked, then she bit her lip, unsure of how to respond.
“Never mind. This night I shall take your life and be free.”
Kat kicked at his face, but the speed of his dodge transfixed her even more.
The man lunged and gave her a wicked smile.
As his teeth protruded from under his lip, Kat froze.
All her training vanished from her mind.
It left only the horror that she indeed stared death in the face.
And, it wanted her blood.