Stinging heat flared on my cheek. A harsh male voice cut through the blackness I drifted in. Opening my eyes, Dominic’s features engulfed my field of view. His eyes burned into mine. Why did he look so angry?
“Ella!” It was a sharp whisper, my name on his lips. “Wake up, Ella. You will not leave me. Do you understand?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head to clear the fog still pressing at me. The sting on my cheek came again. Did he just smack me? I questioned myself. My eyes snapped open to find that his face still hovered inches away.
“Why are you angry?” I croaked. My throat was so dry.
“I’m not angry, Ella. We need to get Allison and get back to the cabin. I can’t take care of you out here.”
Allison. I scanned my surroundings. I was laying in the leaf litter, but I was at the top of the hill. I didn’t remember climbing the last yards to the top. Twenty feet away, the boulder that formed the roof of the cave protruded from the crest of the hill. I started crawling.
Peering over the edge of the rock, relief rushed through me when I saw Allison huddled in the protected corner of the small cave. “Allison,” I whispered, trying my best to make my voice sound normal.
She looked up, her blue eyes red-rimmed from crying. “Mommy?” Her whisper was coarse.
“I’m here, baby. I can’t climb down, so you need to come up. Okay?”
“Okay.” She began the tricky task of maneuvering her small frame around the rocks to climb up to me.
Dominic helped me sit up to wait for her, standing behind me so I could lean against his legs.
When Allison got to me she crumpled into my open arms. We rocked together, crying at our joy of being reunited.
“I was so scared, Mommy,” Allison cried into my shoulder.
“I know, baby. I was scared too. But we’re together now. We’re gonna be okay.”
“I heard gun shots. I thought. . . I thought. . .” She couldn’t finish the sentence. She thought I was dead. She didn’t know how close I’d come. She didn’t have to know.
I stroked her hair and shh’d in her ear, trying to calm her. My poor little angel had been through so much, and for the last hour or so she had thought herself an orphan. My heart wept for her.
Dominic knelt behind me. “We need to get back to the cabin,” he murmured. “You need to rest,” he paused, and we both surveyed the forest. “And Jennings is still out there.” While he spoke the last aloud, it was more of a vocalized thought than a statement to me.
I stood and took Allison’s hand, squeezing it. “You’re right. Let’s go,” I said to Dominic.
We took a more direct path back to the cabin, keeping watch the entire way. When we got to the building Dominic went to the front door, while Allison and I went to the back. We snuck in the basement door through which we had escaped earlier.
We were standing in the dark, cluttered space when Allison tugged on my arm. I bent down to hear her whisper. “Mommy, what happened to your arm?”
My heart raced a few beats. She didn’t need to deal with the fear that information would surely produce. But she was in this mess, too, and she deserved the truth. “One of the bullets hit my arm.” A sharp intake of air at my ear broke my heart a little more. “It’s okay, though. It just hit the outside. It bled a lot, and I’ll need stitches, but I’m fine, baby.” I dropped to my knees at her side and wrapped her in my arms.
Pulling away, I led her to the corner by the stairs. I hadn’t heard anything from upstairs. It was too quiet. I would have thought Dominic would’ve come to find us by now. If the front door was locked he would’ve come around to the back, but he hadn’t. So where was he?
“Allison, I want you to stay here,” I whispered. “I’m going to check upstairs. You still have your gun, right?”
“Mm-hmm,” came her murmur through the blackness.
“Good. Same as before. You stay here until I come to get you. Just sit here on the floor against the wall. Okay, baby?”
“That’s my girl. You are doing so good with all this. I’m so proud of you.” I hugged her again. “I love you, sweetie.”
“I love you too, Mom,” she whispered as she hugged me back.
I left her there on the floor, her fear likely spiking yet again, and I made my way upstairs. I moved with as much stealth as I could manage in my physical state. That meant I had to use my gun hand to support me as I crawled, making it particularly cumbersome.
I stopped at the top, listening for Dominic. Muffled voices came from the living area. I strained my ears to hear what was being said.
“She won’t come for me,” Dominic said.
“Oh, I think you underestimate her need to protect,” said another male voice. Was it Jennings?
“That’s what you underestimate, Bill.” Yup, it was Jennings. “She won’t come for me because her daughter comes first. Ella won’t put her in danger for anyone.”
“Perhaps. But she can’t get anywhere without you. You have the car key,” Jennings pointed out.
I didn’t need the key. The car was unlocked, and I knew how to hot-wire. But Jennings was right about one thing. I wouldn’t leave Dominic. I trusted that Allison was safe, and so I would do what I could to save Dominic.
Taking a breath, I chanced a peek around the corner. Dominic sat in the corner of the sofa along the wall. Bill Jennings paced in front of him, his pistol trained on Dominic.
I sank back to the top step and rolled my eyes. What next?