Austin General Hospital would be short a nurse today. Maggie Nash went to bed last night with more than a fever, thanks to her best friend Chloe Atwood who had been kind enough to share her flu germs. She opened one eye then the other. Red glowing numbers pierced the darkness like a black cat’s eyes in a dark back alley.

Heavily lined drapes over a room darkening shade covered the windows, keeping any light from streaming in. Her eyes adjusted, and she strained to see the clock—two-seventeen in the afternoon. Her husband Mike would be working at the hospital pharmacy for another three hours. She wondered how he was holding up since she disturbed his sleep on and off all night. He had asked if he could do anything for her. But when you’re sick with the flu, there’s not much anyone can do that would help.

Legs stretched and bent, along with her arms, as though she were Frankenstein coming to life. Her stomach ached, and her side muscles strained when she sat upright. On the edge of the bed, she slid her feet into slippers, put on her robe and walked out of the room into the peace and quiet of her home.

A thick arm grabbed her around the waist. She screamed and wiggled in the crushing embrace. A leather-gloved hand cupped tightly over her mouth. Her screams silenced. She continued to twist in the intruder’s arms. A hand spread from the bottom of her breast to the top of her hip.

Her captor’s cupped hand on her face forced her back into his chest. A thick blunt object pushed in at the middle of her back. She gasped and her back arched. A gun?

“Quiet,” a deep male voice said. The voice came hushed and furious. “I have a knife. I’m going to remove my hand, and I want you to remain quiet. If you understand, nod.”

Bile churned in her stomach. She nodded.

“Good.” The intruder paused and removed his hand and arm. “Go to the kitchen. Get the phone.”

“The phone? What do you want?” They walked toward the kitchen. She twisted at the waist, trying to see who was abusing her. His hand reached up, fingers pressing into her skull, preventing her from seeing his face.

“Don’t turn around. Straight ahead.”

Her esophagus became a backed up drain pipe of stomach bile. “I can get you money if that’s what you want.”

“Tempting, but that’s not what I’m here for. You’re not supposed to be here.”

She snatched the portable phone from the cradle.

“When’s Mike getting home?”

The vomit rose in the back of her throat, and she dashed for the sink.

“What the…?”

Her head was over the sink, misery audible with each heave of her stomach.

“Jesus.” His body heat radiated warmth; he stood that close. “Don’t run again. You’ll regret it.” Light glinted off the knife blade now at her waist.

“Fine. Next time I’ll puke on you.”

There would be no escaping the horror she found herself in.

Once her mouth was rinsed out and her face wiped, she held onto the counter for support.

He grabbed her arm and repeated, “When’s Mike getting home?”

“You know Mike?”

“I’ll ask the questions. Got it?” He pushed her toward the kitchen chair. “When?” he questioned with force.

“Three hours,” she quivered, falling onto the chair.

Although rape was no longer a credible threat in her mind, it didn’t make the situation any better. This man was serious. But what did Mike have to do with it all?

Maggie wrapped her arms around her waist, hugging herself, and rocked back and forth. Clenching her legs together didn’t stop the out of control jiggling.

“I want you to call Mike and get him home now. Not a word about me.”

Her captor stood behind her, watching, as she pushed the phone buttons.

“This is Maggie. Is Mike available?” Another pharmacist answered, placing her on hold. Her legs bobbed, and her eyes burned as she closed them.

Mike came on the line. “Maggie, what’s wrong?”

“You need to come home.” Her throat tightened. “I’m not feeling very well.”

“Honey, you know I can’t come home just because you’re sick.”

“It’s more than not feeling good. Something’s wrong.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

She heard his concern. The knife blade poked into her side. “I can’t get into it over the phone.” She cried out, “I need you to come home.”

“Hold on.”

“He put me on hold.” She glanced at the blade and swallowed hard.

The man remained behind her, and she still hadn’t seen his face. An offensive lineman’s hand rested on the edge of the table though. Thick and large. Warm breath fell upon her ear. Too close again.

“Nice work.” He pulled the hair binder holding her long blonde hair on top of her head, releasing the hair to fall down her back.

She shivered. To distract herself, she looked at the pictures on the wall. A figure reflected in the glass.

Mike’s voice came back on the line. “Maggie I’ll be there as soon as I can. Do you need to go to the doctor?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Her reply came unsettled.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you.” Mike spoke softly and with meaning. Her heart swelled with the endearment. She hung up and placed the phone on the table.

“Is he on his way?”

“He said he’d be here as soon as he could.” She focused on the picture in front of her. The glass could reveal who this man was. But the house was too damned dark with all the shades closed. She could only see a shadowy figure. Damn!

“Well, I wonder what we could do to pass the time?” He ran his free hand up and down her arm.

She jerked away.

“I’m not going do anything to you. My boss wouldn’t like that. What I want are the drugs, and Mike’s going to give them to me.”

“Drugs? What are you talking about?”

From the reflection in the picture glass, he twirled the knife in his hands. “I’m here to collect a supply he hasn’t delivered on.”

Again, she asked, “What are you talking about?” What was Mike doing? This new revelation had her heart racing as though she were on crack.

“The spouse is always the last to find out.” A deep-throated laugh came from behind, and the knife was back to her side. “You don’t have to worry.”

She flinched with his warm breath on her ear.

“When I get the drugs, I’ll be leaving.”

Ten minutes later the garage door whirred. Mike was home. Maggie turned toward the door.

“Get up. We’re going to meet him.”

Her heart raced as she obeyed her captor’s order. They neared the door to the garage.

“Keep quiet,” he commanded. His right hand with the knife slid to her neck, and his left arm tightened around her waist.

The door opened. Her stomach cramped, and the shivering went out of control.

Mike stopped like a Mack truck hitting a mountainside. His facial expression changed from concerned-caring-husband to what-the-fuck in a miniscule of a second.

“What the hell is going on here, Rick?” Mike shouted, still in his white pharmacy coat. “Dammit! I didn’t want Maggie involved.”

Maggie couldn’t believe this. Her captor had a name. And Mike knew it. How involved was he? And to put them in danger like this?

“She’s already involved. The boss wants his stuff.”

“Well, Maggie isn’t what you want.” Mike’s pitch went up. Was that anger or fear that drove his voice to sound like a girl’s?

“The boss wants the drugs you promised, so he sent me to find them. Instead, I find a pretty young thing waiting for me.” Rick gave her a squeeze, and his hand ran over her ribs and up to her breast.

Her stomach lurched, and she gagged.

“Listen, I don’t have it.” Mike stepped forward. “I’m still working on getting it, and she’s not a part of the deal.” There was desperation in his voice she’d never heard before.

“That’s not what the boss wants to hear. He wants me to bring him the goods. Maybe I should bring him some collateral?” Rick’s hands played with her midriff.

She gagged again, and Rick stopped feeling her. Her head felt like someone was bouncing a basketball inside her skull.

“She’s not collateral for the taking.” Mike lunged at them.

The smooth, sharp blade sank into the soft, delicate skin below Maggie’s left ear and sliced to her chin. Numbness. Warmth. Then pain. Searing pain.

Like a newborn foal with legs unable to keep her upright, she collapsed to the floor. Her head spun as though she had stepped off a merry-go-round. Warm liquid ran down her neck. She placed a hand under her shoulder to ease herself upright, but it slipped away from her. Blood. Her blood. Blood ran down her face and pooled under her head.

Her vision blurred. Her world went gray. Maggie closed her eyes, but they fluttered like a frightened bird. Her body shook. She knew she’d die.

Mike pushed around Rick and dropped to her side. He didn’t move her though. “What did you do?” he yelled.

“You got what you deserved.” Rick’s voice was calm and dripped with spite.

“Maggie, Maggie, can you hear me? Stay with me, honey.”

Her body was cold.

 ~ * ~

“Maggie, you’re okay. We’re at the hospital.” A familiar voice.

Her eyes played peek-a-book with the light. She lay in a bed, yet she knew it wasn’t her own. And her body. Her body light and numb, not feeling like her own either.

Her eyes, now open and aware, adjusted. Aware of the circumstances surrounding the situation. Aware of her husband’s deception. Aware that life as she once knew it was over.

She glanced around the white room at the familiar faces, looking for the voice. There he sat at the edge of her bed, holding her hand. She tried to yank her hand from Mike’s, but instead she watched a slow, drug-induced corpse hand crawl freely across the blanket. The words she wanted to scream at him wouldn’t come either. Pain pierced the base of her skull with a ringing in her inner ear.

Her heart had been broken and shattered on the kitchen floor of their home. Their home was no longer their home.

She turned and saw her mother, Caroline Carlisle. A minor relief. Caroline smiled. Had she seen Maggie try to smile through the pain and bandages?

“Honey, it’s all going to be okay.” It was his voice again.

Her head moved slowly to face Mike, and she pierced him with her stare. How could he possibly think everything was going to be okay?

“You need your rest, dear.” Her mother patted her other hand. “Close your eyes. We’re not going anywhere.”

Maggie closed her eyes at her mother’s soothing command.

The day passed in and out of a painkiller-induced haze. If she had any dreams, she didn’t remember them. Instead, she was living in a damned nightmare.

Her bandages were changed the following day. She no longer had the hand of a corpse. She could drink liquids through a straw and talk at a low level for minimum time. Anger slowly grew in her like the slow drip from her IV bag.

Her father, Steven, slept peacefully on the small sofa in her room. Snow White sleeping on the dwarf’s beds came to mind, and she laughed. Studying her father, the sleeping giant, sadness crept into her thoughts.

This giant of a man gave his only daughter to a man everyone loved and trusted. Mike stole that from her and her family.

The sadness turned to anger, and Maggie made a decision.

“Daddy.” Her voice strained in the cool room. “Daddy. Wake up.”

His eyes popped open and then blinked. “Maggie?” He stretched his legs and arched his back. Moving from the couch to the bedside chair, he whispered, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t strain yourself. Do you want to write?” He continued to whisper. She wanted to laugh but that hurt too much.

“No, I’ll write when I get tired of talking.” She reached out, and he gave her his hand to hold. “Daddy, I want a divorce.”

“What? Why?” He raised his voice. Clearly, he saw no reason for such, and she wasn’t ready to explain—if ever.

“Daddy, please don’t ask me questions right now. Can you take care of it for me?”

“Yes. But I don’t understand why.”

There was a knock at the door, and Mike walked in the room. “They called me at the pharmacy and told me you were awake.” He glanced between them. “Did I interrupt something?”

Her father stood, the puzzled expression he wore seconds ago smoothed away. “I need a coffee. I’ll be back shortly.”

“Thanks, Daddy.”

Mike approached the bed, leaned over and kissed her before she could turn her head. He sat in the empty chair her father left behind. A dwarf now sat in the giant’s chair. Worse yet, a coward.

“How dare you kiss me,” she hissed.

“Maggie, please. Please listen to me.”

She turned away. Hearing his pleas would be one thing, but to see the desperation on his face was another. She had to stay strong.

“I didn’t think they’d come to the house. I didn’t realize they knew where we lived.” He reached for her hand.

She pulled it away, disgusted. “You’re stupid and blind.”

“You’re right. Maggie, the cops are asking questions. I need you to tell them this was a break-in. That we don’t know who did this.”

“What do you mean we? I don’t know these people. You do,” she croaked. Maggie hated not being able to yell or scream at Mike. Her body coiled tight.

“You don’t know them, but you do know one man’s name. I need you to help me right now by not telling the cops anything. I would lose my job, and then what would we do?”

“I’ll do this for you, but you need to do something for me.” She turned and faced him.

“Anything. What?” The pleading tone remained.

“Stay away from me. I don’t want to see you again.” The bandages wrapped around her head, as if she had a face lift, prevented Maggie from expressing any feelings with her face. Her eyes would have to convey her feelings.

“What? I won’t do that. You need me right now. I need you right now.”

She crooked her head to the side. “Get out. I never want to see you again.” Her voice told him her disgust and contempt even if her face couldn’t.

“Maggie—”

“I said get out. Leave now.” Tears ran down her cheek. So much for true love.

The trials of interacting with Mike exhausted her voice and body. She was asleep before her father returned.

Florida Heat

Chapter One