*This story will be available to read until February 25th.
peril in paradise
Damian Garza dragged the barrel of his gun across the tops of the hangers holding her clothes. A chink in the metal snagged a red silk blouse and he smiled at the blemish on the soft fabric. Desire washed over him as he imagined the marks he planned to carve into her flesh—a branding he’d perfected on several women over the past year.
He wandered to her dresser where the faint scent of her perfume lingered in the air. Rays from the midday sun bled through the sheer curtains, bathing the bedroom in a warm glow. Damian caressed her various baubles, hooking the chain of a silver star pendant with his little finger, admiring the encrusted diamonds glimmering in the sunlight. Smiling, he eased the necklace into his pants pocket.
Glancing at family pictures lining the wall, he meandered down the staircase toward the family room where a bottle of Patrón beckoned him. Damian poured a splash into a crystal tumbler and took a sip. He savored the tequila, the familiar smoky taste filling his mouth. Glass halfway to his mouth again, his attention shifted to the sound of the front door opening and closing.
“Good, she is early.” Blood coursed through his loins in anticipation of his sweet release when he finally taught her a long overdue lesson.
He tossed back his drink, choking on the fiery liquid as Ally Marsh appeared in the doorway of the family room.
“What are you doing here?” Damian growled at his stepdaughter.
“Duh, I live here.”
Her impertinence shot a bolt of anger through him. Damian stormed across the room and his lips curved into a sneer as Ally’s brown eyes grew round with fear, his massive hand encircling her frail neck, silencing the shriek blossoming on her lips.
Clara Garza pounded the steering wheel when her call to Ally went straight to voice mail for the third time. “Why doesn’t she answer?”
She replayed the message her fifteen-year-old daughter had left over an hour ago, biting her cheek as Ally’s carefree voice flowed through the Bluetooth. “Hey, Mom. I walked home to get my iPod. Jen’s baking cookies for our road trip. I’ll call you when I get back to her house. Love you. Bye.”
“Damn it, Ally.” Ally had been Clara’s first call after the detectives left her office. Clara told her they should take a road trip up the coast for a girls’ weekend and asked Ally to stay put until she got there in a couple of hours. Her spine stung as if on fire, tendrils of heat fanning out and leaving a trail of perspiration running down her back. “I should’ve warned her about her stepfather.”
Clara had missed her daughter’s call while closing her accounts for Angels of Angeles and emptying a safe deposit box at the bank next to her office. She’d now been stuck in Los Angeles afternoon traffic for an hour, plenty of time for Ally to walk the round-trip mile between houses.
“Where the hell is she?” Clara shouted as she flipped the visor down against the bright October sun, a slip of paper floating toward her. She let the note drift onto the passenger seat where it landed face up. Clara dropped her phone into her lap at the sight of Ally’s handwriting and scooped up the small missive with one hand: Have a radiant day, Mom. Love, Ally.
Clara’s eyes grew misty at the dragonfly Ally had drawn into the tail of the y in her name. She folded the slip of paper and stuffed it into the back pocket of her jeans, then picked up her phone wishing she had Jen’s cell number. When the family’s answering machine picked up, Clara blasted the horn at the endless red lights strung out before her.
God, had it only been two hours since the detectives knocked on her office door looking for her husband? The surreal conversation ran through her mind as she clicked on her blinker and inched her BMW into the next lane of crawling traffic.
“Mrs. Garza?” the tall, handsome man had asked.
“Yes.” Clara’s gaze shifted to the woman standing at his side. Her visitors both wore suits, the only difference being the woman’s missing necktie.
“Detective Wilson,” the man said, flashing a badge. “This is my partner, Detective Hunt.”
Clara’s pulse rate spiked. “What can I do for you, Detectives?”
“We need to ask you some questions about your husband,” Detective Wilson said. “May we come in?”
Clara stepped aside and then closed the door. “Please have a seat.” She motioned to the leather arm chairs in front of her desk.
As they sat down, Detective Hunt pulled a black notepad and pen from her dark blue blazer. Clara thought she noticed a hint of pity in the detective’s eyes.
Clara’s shoulder muscles tightened, and she resisted the urge to tilt her head from side-to-side to relieve the tension. “What’s this about?”
“Do you know where your husband is?” Detective Wilson asked. His tone, like his posture, was all business.
“No. Why?” The shocking discovery she’d recently made jumped into her thoughts. Could they be investigating Damian’s strip club businesses or one of his family’s other illegal activities? Did they know what she now knew—that Damian had been laundering money through her charitable organization, Angels of Angeles?
Detective Wilson stared at Clara as if he could read her mind. “We’ve been investigating Mr. Garza for several months now and believe he’s the Brentwood serial rapist.”
The word rapist slammed into Clara like a sledgehammer to the gut and she gagged back bile as she bolted for the bathroom. After ridding herself of coffee and toast, she splashed cold water on her face and rinsed out her mouth. On the heels of what she’d learned a week ago, Clara knew Damian had disdain for women. But could a rapist be lurking beneath his Prince Charming façade? The implication horrified her.
“Mrs. Garza?” Detective Hunt’s voice echoed through the bathroom door.
Clara stepped back into her office and glared at the two detectives, both of whom now stood facing her. Her mind had already accepted their accusations, but her heart struggled to believe the loving, caring man she’d married two years ago could be such a monster.
“I–I . . .” Clara fought back tears. “Do you have any proof?”
“Believe me, Mrs. Garza,” Detective Wilson said. “Your husband is a brutal rapist.”
Detective Hunt offered her a business card. “If you need help finding a shelter, or if there’s anything else I can do, please let me know.”
Clara’s hand shook as she took the card. “Wh–what happens next?”
“We have an arrest warrant for your husband,” Detective Wilson said, following his partner to the door. “Hopefully, he’ll be in jail by the end of the day, which will give you the weekend to find a secure place for you and your daughter.”
Blaring horns dissolved the memory as traffic again rolled to a stop. To avoid rear-ending the car in front of her, Clara cut the steering wheel hard to the right. Tires chirping, she stomped on the accelerator and raced down the shoulder of the freeway. She honked at a frantically waving construction worker and narrowly missed an impact with a dump truck as she swerved around an asphalt paving crew. The oily fumes followed her as she sped down the exit.
When she’d unearthed the disturbing information about the Garza family, Clara had rented a condo for her and Ally. Now with the horrible accusation about her husband ringing in her ears, she prayed it wasn’t too late to take her daughter and run as far away as possible.
She hooked a right onto a palm tree-lined street in her quiet neighborhood. A hint of sweet honeysuckle blew through her open window as she passed the local park. Clara grasped her phone from her lap and dialed Detective Hunt’s number and was soon being instructed to leave a message at the beep.
“Jesus, doesn’t anyone answer the damn phone anymore?” She swallowed to clear her dry throat and spoke at the beep. “Detective Hunt, it’s Clara Garza. My daughter, Ally, isn’t where she’s supposed to be.” Clara hesitated; the detective had said to call anytime. “Can you meet me at the house? I–I’m worried.”
She ended the call, her thumb hovering over the nine key. What would she tell a nine-one-one operator—that her teenage daughter hadn’t called her back? She couldn’t prove Ally was in any danger. “Get a grip, Clara.”
Soon she and Ally would be on their way to Astoria, Oregon where her closest friend, Devyn Corey lived. Damian didn’t know about Devyn, and she didn’t think he would look for them in the sleepy coastal town. She’d almost told the detectives about the damning evidence she’d uncovered about Damian and his family, but had decided she might need to use her knowledge as leverage against Damian.
A whisper of dread snaked through her gut. Damian would be furious once he knew Clara had uncovered all the family secrets. What if he already knew? What if his family’s corrupt influence kept him out of jail? What if he’d already planned his revenge?
Clara punched the gas and swerved around a minivan in front of her, sending her phone sailing off the passenger seat. Two blocks later, she roared into the driveway, rammed the car into park and leaped from behind the wheel. She ran toward the house and threw open the unlocked front door. Her sweat-soaked cotton shirt clung to her like a body wrap designed to hold in fear.
Ally’s piercing screams catapulted Clara past the elegant staircase and toward the back of the house. A vase shattered on the floor as she cut the corner of the hallway and collided with a table. Her daughter’s bedroom door stood ajar and Clara stormed into the room.
“Noooo!” The word tore from her throat as she rushed toward the bed. “It’s Mom, Ally . . . I’m here.” Clara gathered her daughter’s limp body in her arms. “Hang on, baby. I’ve called for help.”
She laid Ally down on the bed, her shock morphing into anger as she faced her husband. “You bastard! I’m going to kill—”
Clara didn’t see the gun until the muzzle flashed. As the blast banged off the bedroom walls and her ears buzzed from the concussion of the gunshot, she stumbled backward and stared down at the dark stain spreading over her chest. Spots danced before her, blurring Damian’s eyes, casting them in an evil red glow.
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