Lora Nelson took her coat from the plastic hook and shouldered her large purse. It had been another boring night shift at the Stop 'N Shop, a twenty-four-hour grocery store just blocks away from her apartment. Even though it wasn't the safest area of town, she'd never had any problems. Maybe it was because the drug dealers and hookers recognized her now, and knew she was broke. She smiled grimly. More like she was broken.
This is my life now. She tried to drum up gratitude. She was alive, and that was a miracle. She wanted to find some joy, she really did. When she'd first gotten free of Richard, every day was filled with beauty. Every dollar she earned was a source of pride. More than a year had passed, and she was still here, marching in place, wondering when things would get better.
Maybe all she'd get was the one-bedroom apartment with its mold-laced windows and bad plumbing; the mind-numbing job with its leering boss and small paycheck; the lonely nights that started with microwave meals and ended with falling asleep in front of the television.
Lora was thirty-three, and her body, though it had never borne children, was more rounded these days, no doubt from her addiction to chocolate mint ice cream.
She looked up and saw Frank Lipscomb. He was tall with the lean build of a runner. He had shaggy brown hair, and hazel eyes hidden behind thick glasses. She'd pegged him in his late twenties, and he was a perpetual student at the local university. He said he wanted an art degree, and she'd seen some of his sketches. He was good. He didn't seem to care that he was a bag boy working overnight shifts. He was cute, and kind-hearted. Still, she'd ignored the flutter of attraction. She didn't trust her judgment about men -- and maybe she never would.
She'd often wondered about the unusual paleness of Frank's skin, and his lack of appetite. She'd never seen him eat anything. Then again, food was her comfort, and maybe she was paying a little too much attention to the gustatory habits of others.
Was she really that bored?
"You want me to walk you home?" he asked.
"Your shift's starting."
"Not yet. This neighborhood isn't safe." He pulled off his glasses and blinked at her owlishly. Was it her imagination or did his eyes seem odd? The irises looked narrow, like those of a cat. "I worry about you."
That surprised her. "You do?"
"You're nice. And... you know."
She waited for him to continue, but he kept blinking at her, and she realized he was done speaking. She smiled. "I'll be fine. Promise."
He nodded, plopped his glasses back on, and turned toward his locker.
Sighing, Lora left the back room and headed toward the front glass doors. She waved good-bye to her replacement, Annie, and then tucked her head down into the upturned collar of her threadbare coat.
She walked briskly down the street. Most of the action was on the other side, where the pawnshop, adult bookstore, and auto repair business (AKA chop shop) were located. Five minutes later, she entered the rusted gates of The Golden Cloverleaf Apartments. Long ago, this part of town belonged to the wealthy. The place used to be one of those glorious mansions with landscaped gardens, marble statues, and in the back, an actual hedge maze. It had all gone to rot and ruin, but Lora liked to imagine it as it once was.
Now the manse was sixteen rundown apartments, ten upstairs and six down.
She lived on the bottom floor, in the back behind the grand staircase. At 3 a.m., it was quiet. She liked the night, the stillness of it. The darkness didn't bother her. She'd faced a real monster, and survived. Very little scared her anymore.
"Lora." Charlie Macintosh sat on the bottom stair, rising when he saw her enter the lobby. "How you doin', doll?"
"Fine." She fished inside her purse and pulled out a Snickers. "For you."
He grinned as he shyly accepted the oversized candy bar. "You don't gotta bring me treats, ya know."
Charlie was in his forties, a recovering alcoholic. Giving up booze had left him with a major sweet tooth. Sugar was sugar, whether it was found in a pint of vodka or in a king-sized Snickers. He was a couple inches shorter than her, but lean and hard-muscled. His short blonde hair was speckled with silver. He had blue eyes with a little too much world-weariness in them, but it never overshadowed his kindness. He knew her schedule better than she did, and for some reason, he'd taken to watching for her to come home after shift. He didn't look like he ever got any sunshine, either. In fact, she couldn't recall ever seeing him outdoors in the daytime.
Then again, she had a night-owl lifestyle herself. It wasn't like she ventured outdoors all that often during daylight hours, either.
"You don't have to wait for me," she insisted.
"How else am I supposed to get my fix?" he teased.
She smiled. It was nice that someone cared about her wellbeing, even if he only did it for the candy. "Good night, Charlie."
"G'night." He tipped an imaginary hat, and ambled toward the back double doors. He liked to eat his Snickers on the porch, staring out into the ruined gardens, but since she liked to go out there and daydream herself, she couldn't fault him.
Lora went inside her apartment, locked the door behind her, tossed off her shoes, shed her coat, and dropped her purse. Her foyer light had burned out a few nights ago and she kept forgetting to change the bulb.
She shuffled into her bedroom already yanking her work shirt out from her black pants. All she wanted was a shower, a glass of wine, and some deep, dreamless sleep.
The next thing she knew, she'd been shoved against the wall. The right side of her face pressed against the smooth surface.
Her heart stuttered then started pounding fiercely.
The intruder held her wrists behind her back with one strong hand. The other hand grasped her shoulder.
Icy fear balled in her stomach. Oh, God. Had she just been thinking about how nothing scared her?
Her throat knotted and her mouth went dry.
"Y-you can have my purse," she said. "Take anything in the house. It's yours."
"Anything?" His breath ghosted over her cheek.
She didn't have much of value: a TV with a built-in DVD player, a jar full of change, a silver jewelry box inherited from her great-grandmother.
"Yes," she said hoarsely. "Anything."
"I want you."
Tears fell. Richard had always taken what he wanted. She hadn't been allowed to say no. Not ever. So, whatever this man did tonight had been done before. But it didn't mean he wouldn't hurt her, or make her feel all those terrible things she'd felt before. How much could the spirit take before it broke?
"Just get it over with," she whispered.
The hand on her neck drifted up to wipe the tears from her cheek.
"I've been watching you," he said. "Waiting for you. Sweet Lora. I know those thoughts you tuck away. The dark dreams you're afraid to reveal because of him. He was a bastard. He wanted your devotion. He wanted to possess you. You thought he would give you what you needed -- but he never gave, did he? He just took."
"Stop," she said. "Just... stop."
He was scaring her in an entirely different way now. An intruder who wanted her money or her physical submission was one thing. A man who plucked out her fears and needs from her own mind was something else.
He let go of her wrists then raised her arms above her head. He flattened her hands on the wall. He pushed fully against her, his arousal rubbing against her ass.
She sucked in a breath.
"Keep your hands on the wall," he commanded. "Nod if you understand."
She nodded. Her heart tripled its beat as the man slowly raised her shirt.
His lips traced the curve of her spine. When he reached the top band of her bra, he slid back down, his tongue flickering along her skin.
"You're a very good girl, Lora." He pressed against her again, his fingers sliding over her hips. "You are so luscious. So beautiful. Do you believe that?"
"No," she admitted.
"I'm proud of you for being honest," he said, approval ripe in his tone. "But I'm disappointed in your answer."
Her stomach squeezed. She swallowed the "I'm sorry," because she wouldn't apologize. The situation had turned into something surreal. She wondered if perhaps she had fallen asleep, and this was a dream.
"Will you accept a gift?"
"Do I have a choice?" she asked bitterly. What would this gift be? His cock ramming into her? She squeezed her eyes shut against another barrage of tears.
"You always have a choice, Lora."
She shouldn't even feel curiosity. She should be trying to think of a way to get free. How could she make him leave without hurting her or taking what little possessions she had? Her treacherous body was reacting to his male strength, to the command in his tone, and to the gentleness of his hands.
He wound something thin and soft around her neck. "Until tomorrow night," he said. "Sweet dreams."
Then he was gone.
For a long moment Lora sucked in steadying breaths, then with her legs quivering, she turned around and faced her empty, dark bedroom.