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CATARINA Benoit woke to screams. Terrible, frightening screams that echoed through her bedroom. Her heart pounded and sweat beaded on her body. Her long hair hung around her face in damp strands. She clapped a hand over her mouth to still the cries, her throat raw even as her eyes darted around the room. Searching. Always searching.
She searched the high places first – anywhere he could be crouched. Watching. Waiting to strike. She searched the windows. The glass was covered with bars, but she knew that wouldn’t stop him if he found her. Nothing ever stopped him. He could get inside any house, any building. Anywhere. Rafe Cordeau, the thing of nightmares.
She was safe. She had to be. She lived completely off the grid. Underground. She only came out at night. Her one exception to her night rule was her hour of running just before sunset. She worked in a quiet part of town, in a store no one would ever consider she would work in. Rafe would never figure it out, not in a million years. He couldn’t find her this time. She’d planned too carefully. She’d even stolen enough money to get herself a start. Right out of his safe. The one no one could crack. She’d done that. He wasn’t going to get his hands on her again. Never again.
She fell back against the pillows, drawing her knees into her chest, making herself into a small, protected ball, rocking gently to try to calm herself, to push the terror of the nightmare away. She could taste bile in her mouth.
Drawing in great, deep breaths to try to control her wild heart, she felt something else, something inside unfurl and stretch. It terrified her too. There was something in her, biding its time, waiting for a chance to get out, and she feared it was a monster. She feared he’d put it there, he’d somehow made her like him.
She knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep. Every window was covered with heavy drapes to block out the sun, but still, she would never be able to go back to sleep. She forced her legs to straighten. That hurt. Every muscle was sore from the terrible coiling in her body. She knew from experience it would be like that all day, her body feeling as if someone had beat her up with a baseball bat.
She sat up and scooted to the side of the bed, first, as she always did, feeling for the gun hidden beneath her pillow. The solid weight of it always made her feel better. She worked out, trained hard, even when she knew she still wouldn’t have a chance against him if he found her. Even so, she lived her life. Held herself still. Kept to herself. Reduced his odds.
She took a shower in the small cubicle. It was a rigged hose with a spray nozzle over the top of a tiny booth with a drain. It didn’t matter. She was safe. She lived in a warehouse, not her car. Mostly the warehouse was empty, but her martial arts instructor owned the property and he’d allowed her to rent the space when he realized she was living out of her car. He had barred the windows for her. She had put in the double locks herself.
She had done everything necessary to make herself safe, but then she’d made a vow. She would be happy every single second she was living free and alive. She wouldn’t hide in the warehouse, shut away from the world, she would live. She’d be smart and careful about it, but this time, she wouldn’t be a mouse hiding. It hadn’t done her much good the last time, and she wasted that little bit of freedom she’d had. The price definitely hadn’t been worth it then. She was going to make certain it was this time.
Catarina pressed her fingers hard against her temples, unwilling to revisit the moment when he’d last found her and his terrible punishment. Her entire body shuddered. She’d paid dearly, but that had only made her all the more determined to escape permanently. She’d been terrified and he thought that terror would work to his advantage. She let him think that, and then she’d escaped again.
Her life had really started with her martial arts instructor. Malcom Hardy was in his late sixties and from the moment she’d entered his class, he’d seemed to know something was wrong. He didn’t exactly ask questions, but somehow he found out she was living out of her car and he casually mentioned his empty warehouse. That had been the start of their strange friendship.
Catarina had never had a friendship with anyone before, and at first she was distrustful of his motives. It had taken Malcom months to gain her trust enough that she stayed and had a few words privately with him after each class. She hadn’t told him her past, only that she was looking for a job and needed a safe home. She’d used the word safe in the hopes that he would understand without an explanation – and he had.
When she’d escaped, she hadn’t taken tons of money from the safe because she didn’t want Rafe to have more reason to come after her if by chance he’d given up on her. That meant she didn’t have a lot of money. It also meant, if he had given up on her, he’d send his kill squad after her. Either way she wasn’t safe and she needed to be very careful with her money.
Malcom slowly won her over with his many simple kindnesses. He casually dropped by to put the bars on the windows when she’d mentioned she was a little nervous. He’d also been the one to find her the job after she told him what her dream job would be.
Catarina loved her job. The coffee-house-slash-bookstore was old, the kind where poets and writers came and read their work every Friday. It was a throwback world that suited her. Books were everywhere, and people gathered to talk and read and show off their work. She liked that the place was a tribute to a bygone era and the regulars who occupied it were loyal and definitely different.
She made certain never to stand out. She dressed in loose-fitting jeans. A loose-fitting shirt. Her hair had always grown thick and fast and got worse the more she cut it. She’d given up on short hair so she pulled it back in a ponytail or braid and often wore hats. Since everyone who came to the coffee-house wore berets or felt hats, she wasn’t out of place. Most wore sunglasses, even at night, as well, so she did that too, hiding her unusually colored cobalt eyes.