Her eyes burned. He was inside them like a fire but not a purifying one. Maddie Christopher opened her eyes to darkness, to the sound of snow driving forcefully against her apartment windows. Her heartbeat filled the room.
His heartbeat was loud enough to make her feel she could drown in it.
No. Not again. Please not again, dear Jesus...
No, not Jesus, the voice whispered through her mind tauntingly, as clear as if someone had stolen soundlessly into the room with her. You know me, my sweet. I'm coming for you. Soon we'll be together forever. Soon you'll be in my arms.
With a cry of terror, Maddie flew out of the bed and across the room. When she flipped the light switch on, nothing happened. The room remained shrouded in darkness--heavy, ominous darkness that was far too familiar. His darkness. Just as he'd reminded her, she knew him.
She could feel him all around her, a prison impossible to escape. And she had tried to escape. He'd been here from the first time she'd met him. He'd never left. No matter where she tried to hide, she couldn't conceal herself from him. She couldn't wash away the dirty feeling or purge it with prayers.
As she'd acknowledged each time the darkness had descended, she acknowledged the truth now: God had abandoned her to this creature. This demon. This lover who breathed his magic, stole her senses, came inside her and seduced her into his perfect embrace.
I'm coming, my love. I'm coming...
Maddie slid down the wall beneath the light switch, wrapping her arms around herself tightly. The room was ice cold with his presence. No, I can't fight him, she thought, shivering violently. She was so tired of fighting.
Remember your loneliness? Remember your pain and your fear, Maddie? You revealed all of it to me. It'll all go away, my love. I promise. Only I will love you. Only I will take you in my arms.
Maddie closed her eyes, giving herself over to the irresistible seduction. The thought, Daddy, you can't save your precious princess this time evaporated before it could complete.
Sweet dreams, my love. You're so soft. You smell like the most delicate flower. Silky skin. Ahh, so perfect. So very delicate...
His arms tightened, even as she felt the feather-lightness of his breath over her body. She shuddered breathlessly in overwhelming defeat and fear of what was to come. No air. No resistance. No will.
My love, bones fragile as a butterfly, ready to fly me to my sweet slumber...
A scream tore from Maddie's throat, almost seeming to become a separate entity. Crushed...like a butterfly. Sobs racked her body hard enough to rob her of consciousness.
Ahh, Maddie, my bride. I'm coming. Until death do us part, my sweet...
Are you there?
The sound of his voice transported her instantly across two thousand miles to Cassidy Christopher's arms. Robyn lay hedonistically enshrouded on the plush bearskin rug in front of a crackling fireplace. Cass looked down at her from the shadows, pushed back only by the amber flames trapped behind a metal screen. A jolt of heat raced when their gazes met. "I'm here, Cass. Always for you."
His smile put a lump in her throat as his face drew nearer. Oh, she loved him!
More and more, she found herself coming to this place to be with him the way she needed to be with him.
"Every time I think of you, you become more real," he said in a hushed voice, deep enough to reach right inside her.
She touched her hand to his muscled chest. Real. Yes.
The truth didn't matter. This stolen time she had with the man she would give anything for had become so real to her, there were times she wondered if Cass knew what was happening in her mind when they talked on the phone.
His mouth came to within a hair's breadth of hers. She saw the fire in his eyes, and it ignited her as much as his harsh words. She wrapped her hands around his face and pulled him down to her, whispering, "I'm yours."
His lips were ravenous on hers yet so loving. He was familiar to her in a way that wasn't possible. Over the past year, they'd shared everything. How could it feel new each time?
"Talk to me," he whispered.
She saw everything she needed from him in his eyes. Love. Love he hid at other times. Love he denied them both because of uncertainties she didn't share.
With her hands cradled around his dark head, she watched him with half-closed eyes. The pulse of something dark and cold went through her. She opened her eyes to blackness above her. Something was wrong. She could feel it in every bone in her body.
She met his eyes. "What's happening?"
This had never happened before. Their secret place had never been invaded by anyone or anything else before. Abruptly, what she saw wasn't Cass. She was there, in his house, but now she was standing at the front door alone. Maybe I should wait... A crash above her startled her into turning toward the noise.
How much longer, honey? Cass's voice tugged her back.
A couple of minutes.
Are you okay?
I'm fine. Don't worry...
Another crash overhead, and then a voice.
Come to me. Come to me now.
It's not time, Robyn insisted.
It is time. Come to me now, my sweet.
She ran headlong over the slippery ground with heavy, erratic footfalls. Twigs broke all around her, and she held up her arms as she raced blindly past branches. It was coming...behind her... so close she could feel its hot breath on her neck.
* * * *
Robyn Warren sat up with a shriek. Her heart thumped viciously in her chest. It was only when she recognized her surroundings in the shadowy light of dawn and acknowledged she must have been having a nightmare that she heard the phone ringing. She turned toward her nightstand. Oh no, Cass...
The feeling that something was wrong continued to grow inside her. Cold, ice cold...
She snatched the receiver, demanding, "Cass?"
"Robyn," another voice, just as familiar as the one she'd anticipated, murmured.
"Maddie. Where are you? What's going on?" A quick glance at the clock revealed it was only five a.m., which meant it was around seven in Wisconsin, where Maddie and Cass lived.
"He's coming for me. I feel him. I hear him. He took someone else. And now he wants me."
Maddie was sobbing so bitterly, Robyn couldn't understand the words she said. Even when Robyn tried to calm her friend down, she knew something was desperately wrong. And she was out of reach to do anything about it.
The thought of Maddie hurt--after everything she'd been through--dug right inside Robyn's chest like a merciless claw. "Maddie, please, listen to me. I need you to hold on."
Robyn rose from her bed and moved over to the desk in the far corner of the room. She'd had an extra phone line put in when she bought her computer. Now she was glad she'd gone to the expense.
"I can't do it anymore, Robyn. He's been killing me slowly, but now he's coming and I can't resist this time either. I have to go."
Just as Robyn picked up the receiver of the phone on the desk to call Cass, her connection with Maddie was severed. "No!" Robyn cried. She checked both phones for a dial tone. They worked. The disconnection had been made from Maddie's end.
Robyn quickly dialed Maddie's number, but got an extremely loud error message from an automated voice. She punched out Cass's number just as quickly. It hadn't even started ringing before he said, "Robyn."
She heard him say her name through the phone line and in her head. There wasn't time to wonder about it... or to remember she'd been with this man in her dream world only minutes ago. "Something's wrong with Maddie. She just called me and the line went dead."
"There's a blizzard here. My phone was down, too." He paused as if wanting to add something, and Robyn sensed he wanted to tell her he'd tried calling her a few minutes ago. He'd tried desperately. Had he had the same nightmare?
Her fantasies, like the one before her nightmare, weren't real, but so many times she had a hard time separating them from reality. Cass hadn't been telling her he loved her. He hadn't asked her what was wrong when the cold fear seized her. He hadn't been terrified for her when their connection--their private world--had cut short. And yet a part of her felt he had been with her.
"My phone's been down until now," he added softly.
"It's more than that," Robyn told him, vividly remembering the tone of his daughter's voice only a moment ago. "I think Maddie's in trouble. I think you need to go to her. Now. Please hurry, Cass. If anything happens to Maddie..." She swallowed a cry of her own hysteria. Maddie had already faced a demon. Once in a lifetime was more than enough.
"I'm going," Cass said, and she heard the fear in his voice as well. He felt it now, too. Something was wrong.
"Call me as soon as you can, Cass. Be careful."
He hung up, and Robyn stood with the phone in her hand and her jaw tight. She was over two thousand miles away from them. What could she do except wait? Her only consolation was that Maddie lived less than ten minutes from her father.
Desperately, Robyn whispered Cass's name in her mind.
He didn't answer.
* * * *
As soon as Cass felt the static in his head, he knew it'd started again. Unthinkable or not, his little girl was in trouble. Before Robyn had even whispered fearfully, "If anything happens to Maddie..." he got up and started to pull on clothes.
"I'm going," he muttered, taking the phone with him downstairs. He didn't bother with the lights.
The static increased with every step closer to his daughter. He knew his head would be about to split by the time he reached her. The strange headaches he'd been debilitated with for well over two decades had vanished without explanation for the past year. Since Natas Sevil's aborted attack on Maddie.
As Cass quickly yanked on his jacket, Robyn said softly, "Call me as soon as you can, Cass. Be careful."
His every instinct with this woman demanded that he reassure her. But he didn't have time. He hung up and grabbed both his cell phone and his keys before flying out the door.
The driving snow did everything it could to slam him back. The snow had begun the previous night, turning quickly into a raging blizzard that had dropped over nine inches onto Plover, Wisconsin.
Cass could barely see an inch in front of him. He followed the seasonal boardwalk railing to the basement garage. Since the building was partially heated, his truck was ready to go. He backed out and flew out of his driveway, trusting the four-wheel drive to keep him on the road. He said a prayer instinctively. I have to protect her. I have to get to my Maddie. Help me, Lord.
The risen sun did nothing to break through the darkness and swirling snow. His wipers slapped it away double-time to no avail. What felt like too much time later, he at last turned onto Highway 54 and increased his speed. Maddie's apartment building was located at the edge of town, not more than five minutes away now. If not for the blizzard, he could have been at her side in no time.
He winced and tears stung his eyes at the static pain in his head. He had to ignore it. "If you touch her..." he muttered, as if the demon who'd pursued Maddie a year ago could hear him.
He dialed Maddie's phone number automatically on the cell phone. As he figured, the signal was blocked. How could Sevil get to her? He was securely locked up in prison. Wasn't he?
He's not. Cass didn't have a single doubt about that. He felt it in the pain splitting his skull in two. In every cell in his body.
A vision of Maddie--four years old in a little daisy print dress and matching hat--crept in beneath the unyielding pressure in his head. She'd been playing the princess trapped in a tower. He could still hear her sweet, demanding voice calling out, "Daddy, I'm trapped in the tower. Come rescue me!"
Cass pressed on the gas harder, aware that if another car appeared ahead of him, he'd never have time to stop.
"Clear the way, Lord. Help me rescue my princess," he whispered.
He almost missed the turn. The vicious scour of snow from every side didn't allow him to correctly gauge the distance or the time. As he jabbed at the brakes in quick succession, he simultaneously made the left turn he needed. His truck spun like a top on the slippery road. When his front tires hit the curb, the back end of the truck fishtailed, but he finally came to a stop.
The plows hadn't come through yet. The road before him was completely covered with snow, making it hard to tell the streets from the sidewalks and lawns. Gritting his teeth, he started forward again. As if he'd intersected some trip wire, a surge of intense agony slammed through his skull.
Maddie's cries came back to him. He'd been able to hear them before he got into the building last time. Even now, he remembered every detail of what he'd seen after he broke through her door. The wind had blown him back. Black wind swirling all around. Cold. The temperature in the room had been colder than any below-zero day in Wisconsin. Even as Cass's head had howled in pain, the touch of pure evil all around had repulsed him. He'd whispered the name of his God, and that was when he'd seen his little girl in the center of all that malevolence.
He'd wanted to get as far from the demon as he could, especially when it'd turned to him. He'd never forget the heat of those yellow eyes bearing down on him as it shrieked in fury.
Cass hadn't run. He had been able to, despite the overwhelming inclination to do just that. He'd forged ahead, right into the heart of the demon. Just as he had when she was a little girl, playing princess, he'd picked Maddie up and taken her to safety.
The evil he felt now, as he parked in front of Maddie's apartment building and raced out into the blinding snow, was just as tangible as it had been a year ago. He couldn't hear over the blowing snow, but once inside the shelter the world fell into dead silence.
Cass found himself sweating despite the frigid weather he'd just come in from. The headache made his vision blurry. He raced up the steps to Maddie's second floor apartment. Still no sound, and yet he dreaded opening that door. Was he too late? Had the evil already swallowed her up this time?
As he fumbled to put the key in the lock swimming before his eyes, he sent up a prayer through clenched teeth. He was losing his strength; the headache drained him with its intensity. "Maddie," he called weakly, shoving the door open.
Nothing greeted him. Not a black wind, not Maddie, not a single blessed sound. And yet the malevolence he felt hadn't abated. A rushing roar of air went through him or tried to push him back, yet he pushed ahead to the back of the apartment. Standing at Maddie's open bedroom door, he realized then that Natas Sevil wasn't there. He was close, but Cass had beaten him to Maddie this time.
He didn't have time to feel relief. Inside the dark bedroom, he saw Maddie's shape across the bed. "Maddie?"
She didn't answer, didn't move. He flicked on the light.
She lay across the bed comatose, the phone next to her. An empty bottle of pills had fallen from her hand. Two tiny red pills were on the cream-colored bedspread.
He flew to her, shouting her name. She still didn't answer, nor did she respond to his shaking. Holding her against him, he muttered, "Ah, Maddie. Why?"
But he knew why. Deep down, he'd never been convinced she'd gotten over Sevil's attack. She'd gone through all the motions for him and for her best friend. Robyn hadn't been fooled by the act either, which was why she'd called Maddie every night and Cass at least once a week.
The pulse he found was so weak, he knew Maddie would die if she didn't get help soon. Fully expecting the line to be dead, he picked up the phone next to Maddie. A dial tone greeted him.
As he gave the 911 operator the information, he saw something that made his heart stop. On the mirror of the vanity across the room, Maddie had written in blood red lipstick: