Guard of Honor by Tracie Delaney
They camefor her again last night.
Dreams so vivid, so real, she smelled the damp, musty air, felt the incessant bite of cold on her skin, and sensed the eyes of her kidnapper watching.
Awake, she lay there in the inky blackness of the New York townhouse her father had bought her as a graduation present, her heart drilling through her rib cage, sweat dripping between her breasts, and listened. She hadn’t imagined it. At first, maybe. But now, after more than a week of the same routine, there was no need to rise from her bed to investigate.
Tap, tap, tap.
The plea came out on a breath, her voice so quiet that she wasn’t sure whether she’d spoken at all.
“Please, stop. I can’t take it anymore.”
The first time the noise came, she’d padded over to the window, peeled back the drapes, and bravely peered into the obsidian night, her elbows pressed tightly to her sides to make herself appear as small as possible. She hadn’t always been afraid of the dark. Not before… but now, it terrified her to the extent that sleep came in snatched slices of time, her mind unwilling to relax enough to submit. A mode of self-protection that gratified her on the one hand and caused her to despair on the other.
She hadn’t seen anything lurking in the backyard that night that would account for the tapping sound, nor on the second night either. By the third night, when the inevitable sound had come, her courage had fled, and she’d remained in bed, covers pulled up to her chin, reciting her favorite sonnets by Shakespeare until the noise had stopped.
She did the same now, her lips moving rapidly, silently, but on this occasion, the ability to clear her mind of all except Shakespeare’s beautiful words deserted her. Instead, she flipped onto her front and resorted to burying her head beneath the pillow and clamping it around her ears, only emerging when the heat of her own breath forced her to come up for fresh, cool air.
Concentrating hard, she waited. And waited. Silence greeted her. She let out a whoosh of air from lungs compressed by fear, and pushed upright. Flicking on the lamp beside her bed bathed her bedroom in a soft light and chased the shadows into the corners of the room. Her fingers trembled as she picked up a half-filled glass of water. She sipped and swallowed, the water a salve to her parched throat.
The green digits on the clock beside her bed read four thirty. Still dark outside. In thirty minutes, the sun would appear on the horizon, painting the sky in oranges and yellows. Another night survived. Another day loomed ahead, a day of nothingness.
She wasn’t getting any better. If anything, the night sweats, the insomnia, and the panic that crawled into her throat and choked her, was increasing in frequency. At first, she’d truly believed therapy would help her. But in the end, it had left her feeling numb and without hope. Six months ago, she’d put her foot down and refused to see her therapist anymore, much to her father’s anguish. “One more month,” he’d pleaded. “Just one more. You’re getting better, Honor.”
Lies. All lies.
From a young age, she’d prided herself on her ability to see the positives in every situation, no matter how bleak the issue might have appeared. A proud graduate of Yale, where she’d majored in theater and performance studies, the path of her future truly had been paved with gold. She had dreams. Big dreams of directing plays on Broadway, of winning a Tony award and proving to her father that she had a bright future in the performing arts.
As CEO of a large multinational corporation that he started from the ground up, Alan Reid had never hidden the hope that Honor would follow him into the family business. Despite his disappointment when she’d chosen a different path, he’d supported her choices fully, and on the day she’d graduated, three years ago, there hadn’t been a prouder father sitting in the audience as she’d walked onto the stage to collect her degree.
And now her future lay in tatters.
She couldn’t even pluck up the courage to set one foot outside her house, let alone bare herself to the scrutiny of others in a harsh and demanding field. Trust was a fragile thing, and hers had been shattered to benefit another’s greed. At least she knew her worth. Sixteen million dollars. An odd number, considering her father’s billionaire status. The kidnapper could have asked for a much larger sum, but that had been the amount of money they’d deemed appropriate to buy back her freedom. Unfortunately for her abductor, the drop hadn’t gone as planned, and her father had reclaimed his daughter and his money.
But not the daughter she’d once been.
The passage of time altered when one’s life was at stake. During her time in captivity, the minutes had crawled by while she’d cried and begged and prayed for her freedom. Yet even now, a year later, time passed slower than it had before she’d been taken. The nights were the worst. In the daytime, she had more success in keeping herself busy. She had her books, her computer, and the TV, although concentrating on anything for longer than fifteen minutes proved a challenge she hadn’t yet overcome.
A triangular shard of light arrowed through a gap in the drapes, a sure sign that thirty minutes had passed since the tapping noise had awoken her. Throwing back the covers, she shoved her feet into her slippers and steadied herself, waiting for the room to stop spinning. Ever since her release, she had occasional struggles with her balance. She did yoga, and that helped, but she still wobbled from time to time. Seventeen days imprisoned in a space where she hadn’t been able to fully stand or properly lie down had messed with her body’s natural equilibrium. Her family doctor had assured her it would come back eventually. Maybe it would; maybe it wouldn’t. She’d given up on banking on anything happening for certain.
A shiver ran through her, and she squeezed her eyes closed, forcing her mind to recall happier images. Those from before he’d taken her. Of giggly, drunken lunches with friends, of going to the theater with Papa, of reading the first positive review of her directorial debut, a play at a tiny off-Broadway auditorium right here in New York. But with each passing day, the good memories edged further away, and the bad ones crowded in.
Shaking her head, she slipped her arms into her robe and tied it securely around her middle. She flicked on the bathroom light and gave herself a cursory glance in the mirror. Two weeks had gone by since she’d fallen for the advertising spiel that the latest eye cream would work wonders and hide all those dark circles. What bullshit. Hers were darker than ever, the papery skin beneath her eyes smudged, an indication of yet another disturbed and restless night.
She opened the bathroom cabinet, and her eyes fell on the bottle of sleeping pills that her doctor had prescribed shortly after she’d returned home. She’d never taken them and didn’t intend to, but something prevented her from flushing them down the toilet. Maybe they acted as a test of her strength, as well as a way out just in case things took a turn for the worse. Almost as if, by keeping them, it put her in charge of something when so many things seemed beyond her control.
The stairs creaked as she made her way downstairs, but other than that noise, the house was quiet. After her release from captivity, her father had begged her to move in with him, but she’d resisted. Taking that step might mean she never regained her independence.
A throaty laugh sounded low in her throat. Independence. What a joke. A lie she told herself under a pretense of normality. Independent women didn’t hide in their homes, afraid of their own shadows. Nor did they refuse to see their friends, who, after trying hard for months to encourage her to leave the confines of her house, eventually faded away, leaving her truly alone.
She switched on the kitchen light and started the coffee maker. Sitting at the table in the center of the large, modern space, she sipped her drink, her hands curved around the cup to warm them. She always felt cold these days, as if her body temperature was lower than that of a normal person.
Draining the cup, she refilled it. At the sound of approaching footsteps, she reached for another mug.
“Morning, Miss Reid.”
Twisting over her shoulder, she half smiled at Jeremy, a member of the security detail her father had hired as a compromise against her refusal to move in with him. Jeremy, Brad, and William operated on a twenty-four-seven basis, ensuring her safety. Except she didn’t feel safe. She’d never feel safe again.
“Hi, Jeremy. Coffee?”
This was their morning routine whenever Jeremy covered the night shift. He was almost as addicted to coffee as she was.
“You read my mind.”
She poured him a cup, pushing it across the table.
“Another bad night?” He jerked his chin at her.
“That obvious, huh?”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him about the tapping, but there was a part of her—one that grew in size as each day passed—that believed the noise was all in her mind. What if he thought she was crazy and reported back to her father? Last week, she’d overheard him talking to someone on the phone. It sounded like whomever he’d been speaking with was discussing the idea of a residential stay at a psychiatric facility. She’d rather be dead than put in one of those places. The last thing she needed was to give her father ammunition, a reason to lock her away, even if the idea came from a place of love.
She and Jeremy sat in companionable silence, interrupted a while later by Brad’s arrival. She left the two men discussing their handover and returned upstairs to shower and dress. Brad wasn’t as friendly as Jeremy, although no one could cast doubt on his ability to do his job. On the one hand, she hated her home being filled with professional bodyguards, craving her former privacy. On the other, the idea of being alone terrified her.
By the time she returned downstairs, Jeremy had left. Brad gave her a curt nod and announced that he’d checked the house—as he always did on a handover—and she could go about her business, but to holler if she needed anything.
Business? What business? All that stretched ahead of her was another long, endless day of rattling around in a house that had once been a home but was now her prison. A wave of loneliness crashed over her. Would she ever find her way back to the woman she’d once been?
As the sun rose higher in the sky, Honor opened the sliding doors at the back of the house and stepped into the yard. She tilted her face up to the sky and let the warmth chase away the dark shadows of the night. Stretching her arms overhead, she bent forward and touched her toes, repeating the action five times to iron out the kinks of another stressful night.
She strolled over to the red oak tree that provided shade on a hot summer day and sat beneath it. An arc of pebbles surrounded the base of the trunk. Seventeen of them in ascending size to signify the days of her life she’d lost and would never get back. She’d put them here the day she’d gotten out of the hospital as a permanent reminder that she’d survived an experience meant to break her.
She needed that reminder now more than ever.
“Am I going crazy?” she whispered.
Picking up the largest of the pebbles, she turned it over in her hand, feeling the weight of it, the smooth outer shell.
Maybe time was running out.