Chapter One

Don’t worry. Do not worry. It’ll be okay. Well, that’s what I was telling myself. The man standing two meters away, his gun pointing directly towards me, didn’t look so confident.

“Please, please I can explain,” I said, my voice trembling.

“Put your hands in the air where I can see them!” he commanded, his police radio crackling next to his ear.

I immediately did as asked, which was a bit difficult sitting on a window ledge with one leg in the house and one leg out. My head was bent as the opening wasn’t all that large and it didn’t allow for a lot of room to raise my hands. But I did my best.

“But…but you don’t understand,” I stuttered. “This is my house. I live here. Well, not here exactly. Not now. But I did. And technically it’s still mine.” I tried to explain the situation.

“What’s your name?” he asked, adjusting his stance to better balance his weight.

“Lizzie. Lizzie Fuller.”

The policeman lowered his gun, but he didn’t put it away. “Really?” he asked cynically.

“Yes, really.”

“If you’re Lizzie Fuller like you say you are, and this is your house, then why have I caught you breaking in the window?”

Okay, that was a bit embarrassing. “I can explain.”

“Please do,” he said, allowing his arm holding the gun to fall relaxed at his side. I guess I didn’t look threatening in the position I was currently in.

“Well my boyfriend Riley is in Ackwood today. He owns his own building company and he was needed there to do a really important quote.” I turned my head and grinned at the officer, hoping he believed my explanation. He should do. It was the truth. “Riley dropped me off here on his way to work.”

“And? What does that have to do you breaking into this house?”

“Well I left my handbag in his car you see, and my keys are in it.”

“You don’t have a spare set?” he asked, his eyebrows somewhere around his hairline.

“Yes. But they’re at Riley’s.”

“Then why didn’t you just go back there and pick them up.”

“Because my handbag with all my keys in it is inside his car. It was either walk back to his house and break in, or stay here and break in. It wasn’t a hard choice. His has a fancy alarm system,” I explained

“You couldn’t call him to come back and give you your bag?”

“Well…” How did I explain that Riley was running extremely late for his meeting and I’d already cost him enough time this morning? “If the window hadn’t been open I would have, but why bother him if I didn’t need to? Can I climb out of this window?”

To be honest I was getting a cramp in a place I didn’t want to explain to this man. I seemed to have embarrassed myself enough already.

He took a few steps backwards, his grip tightening once again around his gun before he nodded. “Move slowly and keep your hands up.”

I let out a sigh and attempted to get out of the window. It wasn’t that easy when I had to keep my hands in the air, but I managed it, only catching my foot on the window sill at the last minute. I tripped, falling forward, doing my best with my hands. I landed with a thud, face first on the timber decking that ran the length of the back on my house.

Bloody hell that hurt!

As I rolled onto my back I hoped to hell that I didn’t have splinters in my nose.

“Are you okay?” the officer asked, attempting to hide his smile as he holstered his gun, and then lifted me by holding me under my armpits. He was pretty strong and had me back on my feet with one easy swoop.

“Yes,” I mumbled, completely humiliated. I was writing a book on 101 ways to embarrass myself. I think I needed to change the title to 102. “What are you doing here anyway?” I asked, brushing some dust from my T-shirt.

“I have orders to drive past every hour and keep an eye on things. When I received the call that a break in was in progress at this address, I got here ASAP.” Without even asking him, I knew who would have reported the break and enter. It would have been my nosy neighbor Hazel, and she would have done it to annoy me.

“Do you have any ID on you?” the officer asked.

“No. It’s in my handbag.

The officer sighed as he considered me. I thought about what he’d just said and why he was watching my house. You see, a while back I had a stalker. Turns out he was a pyscho who had killed a few people, but he’d fallen in love with me. Senior Sergeant Ed Helms of the Westport Police Department had recently informed me that my stalker, aka Joe Woods, had gotten parole and was on his way back here.

“Ed!” I yelled, suddenly remembering he could verify who I was. “I mean Sergeant Helms. He knows me.”

The officer jumped at my outburst but then nodded. “Don’t move,” he said, pulling a phone from a pocket on the very complicated bullet proof vest he was wearing. As sweat ran down the side of his face I figured that the vest was hot. As I eyed the Taser attached to his belt, I too started sweating, but for a completely different reason. I think it scared me more than the gun did.

I stood very still whilst Senior Sergeant Helms was contacted. Once the call was over the officer looked back at me and smiled. “He’s in the area so he’s going to stop by and see for himself.”

I groaned. “We can wait inside if you like. I can put the air conditioning on.” Judging by the stern look that I got back, I figured that we would be waiting right here.

The morning was already turning out to be humid, making my skin clammy and uncomfortable, and I yearned to be inside with the cold air blasting us. But the officer held his ground, glancing around the yard as we waited in awkward silence.

I used the time to assess him, taking in his broad shoulders, stocky frame and round face. I had no idea what ranking he held, but he had no stripes on his epaulet, and he didn’t give me the air of a seasoned officer. No, he appeared to be much fresher from the academy.

Thankfully Ed didn’t take too long. As soon as he walked around the back of the house and onto the deck, his face lit up and his super white smile took over. As he laughed, I scowled back at him.

“Lizzie, you never fail to disappoint. I was having a bad morning until I got the call about this.” He rocked back on his heels and let out a deep chuckle, his toned biceps flexing as he removed his sunglasses, and his teeth dazzling white against the dark chocolate color of his skin

I did my best to ignore his smile.

“It’s okay, Jono,” he said, turning to his colleague. “She’s who she says she is.”

“Sorry,” Jono said, giving me a small smile. “You’ve gotta be careful, you know.”

Yes, I did indeed know.

“I’ll take it from here,” said Ed, still smiling.

Jono nodded. “Sure. Do you still want me to drive past hourly to check on things?”

“Yep. Until further notice.”

Jono seemed satisfied with that. “Righto. Nice to meet you Lizzie.”

“Ummm, you too,” I responded, as he tipped his cap and sauntered off around the corner towards the front of the house.

Once he was out of sight, I looked at Ed as he stood silhouetted against the sun. At close to six foot three, he cast a large shadow over my five foot two.

“I’ll make sure I distribute your photo once I get back to the station. That way everyone’ll know what you look like.”

“Do you have my photo?” I asked, my breath hitching at the thought.

“No. I’ll need to take one.”

I hated having my photo taken, and knowing that it was going to be plastered all over the wall of the Westport Police Department wasn’t encouraging.

“Ummm, would you like to come in for a coffee?” I asked, self-conscious under Ed’s stare. Riley had a theory that Ed had a crush on me. Riley might be right.

“Sure. That would be lovely.”

He followed me as I pushed on the back door, ready to hastily make my way inside. Only problem was, I’d forgotten the door was locked and I almost bounced off it as I hit it hard.

Ed caught me as I stumbled backwards.

“Sorry about that,” I mumbled as my cheeks heated up and I remembered I was locked out. “I just need to break in first.” I hastily stepped away from Ed and made a beeline for the window, and was about to lift my leg over the sill (thank goodness I’d worn shorts today, was all I could say) when Ed put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me.

“Lizzie, why is this window open?” His eyes were no longer smiling. Now they were sharp and in full police mode.

“Pardon?”

“The window. Why is it open? Did you leave it open yesterday?”

Did I? I didn’t think I had.

“We’re watching your house for your safety and you leave a window open?” he asked, incredulously.

“Well, I…ummm…maybe the real estate agent showed someone through and forgot to close it.” The house was currently on the market and looking for a new owner as I now lived at Riley’s. And besides, it held far too many secrets for me to deal with.

Ed let out an elongated breath. It was only eight in the morning and already I’d frustrated him. Ooops.

“Stay here. I’ll go and check it out,” he commanded. When in police mode, Ed could be very bossy, and I could see how he had made it to Senior Sergeant.

I sat heavily on a nearby chair and watched as he squeezed himself through the small open window leading to my lounge room. Once inside, his footsteps echoed on the timber flooring as he did a surveillance walk through the house. After what felt like an eternity, the kitchen door lock clicked, and Ed reappeared.

“It’s clear,” he said, as the lines around his mouth turned up with a smile. “You need to talk to your real estate agent, though. She cannot leave the house unlocked.”

“I will. I’ll call Natalie today. I promise.” I clasped two fingers together and lifted them to my brow, giving him a scout’s honor.

“Why isn’t Riley doing a walk through in the morning?” I had a feeling that there was nothing more that Ed would like, than Riley screwing up.

“He usually does,” I said, defending him. “But this morning he was running late and I told him to just drop me at the door.” I didn’t add why he was running late, but I’m sure the smile on my face gave it away.

The look in Ed’s eye told me he noted it, but he didn’t ask for details.

“Lizzie I don’t want to scare you, but Joe Woods did his first signing in with his parole officer this morning.”

I gulped. “So he’s definitely here then?”

“Yes. He’s definitely here. He has a restraining order stating that he’s not allowed within two hundred meters of you, but that means nothing if he doesn’t want it to.”

I gulped again, the butterflies doing a fancy little dance in my belly.

“I just need you safe,” continued Ed, his eyes softening. “Help me out, will you?”

I nodded, feeling a bit ashamed of myself. “Sure. From now on if any doors or windows are open, I’ll call for help first.”

Ed seemed happy with my response, as he nodded his lips turned up into a full smile.

“Can I come in now?” I asked, still standing at the door.

He moved aside, but didn’t step out of the doorway, so as I entered the kitchen my body brushed up against his, and I heard a quiet groan escape his lips. My heart palpitation almost took my breath away.

Thankfully, once out of his personal space, the smell of fresh paint and building materials settled my heart rate.

My house was a small two bedroomed detached Victorian. When I had purchased it the best way to describe it was that it was a cross between a gingerbread house and a house of horrors. More on the side of the house of horrors. Especially after the day that my stalker Joe Woods had attacked, causing me to fight for my life.

I knew that Ed was right. I should be more careful. It wasn’t something that I wanted to go through ever again.

“I’m sorry Ed. I promise from now on I’ll be careful. And I will follow up with the agent making sure she locks up properly.”

Ed nodded and his shoulders relaxed. “How’s she working out?” he asked.

“She’s alright. She’s a bit stuck up but I don’t really care as long as she sells the house.” Our real estate agent Natalie had been recommended by Ed. She was tall, blond and gorgeous. I hated her, and not because she was gorgeous. She honestly thought she was better than me. But her job was to sell my house and as long as she did that, I could tolerate her.

“Have you had many people interested in buying?”

“A couple,” I responded, moving to the coffee pot and filling it. I then took two cups from the overhead cupboard and found a packet of biscuits, while I waited for the pot to heat up. Did I know how to look after my guests or what?

“Any serious interest?” Ed asked.

“I did have one offer but it was way below market value. I want it sold, but not enough to make a loss on it.”

“Fair enough.”

An awkward silence filled the air between us, and I busied myself pouring milk into the cups, doing my best to ignore Ed’s intense stare. Thankfully my phone rang giving me a distraction. It was my Grandma. Not quite the distraction I was hoping for.

“Sorry,” I said to Ed. “It’s Grandma Mabel. I’ll call her back later,” I explained, switching the phone to silent.

“How is your grandma?” Ed asked.

Grandma currently lived with my parents. After Grandpop relocated to somewhere beyond the Pearly Gates, she had lived alone. That was until she set the oven on fire. Thankfully the only thing of value she lost was her savings, as apparently the oven is the safest place to keep your money. Who knew? After the fire, mum had moved her into my brother Danny’s old bedroom. It seemed like the safer option.

Ed and Grandma had met last month. I’d had the honor of driving her to her weekly doctor visit and Ed had been in the carpark when I came out. Grandma hadn’t stopped talking about him yet.

“She’s great. Currently single.” His brow creased as confusion flicked through his eyes. “In case you were in the market,” I explained, giving him a full smile as I poured the hot coffee into the cups. “She wanted me to let you know.”

As I picked up the cups and walked towards him, I noted the blush that had started at his collar.

“Ahhh. Well, tell her thanks,” he said, accepting the cup that I offered him. I laughed at his grimace before taking a sip of my coffee.

Ed’s eyes softened as his grimace turned into a small smile. “But she’s not the Fuller that my heart belongs to.”

The hot coffee burnt my tongue as I choked on his response, spitting half of my mouthful across the space between us.

Bugger that was hot!

Ed immediately jumped into action, moving to the sink and grabbing a tea towel to mop both himself and me. As he rushed back to me he awkwardly debated whether to mop up my cleavage or hand me the towel. I made the choice for him and snatched it out of his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, his eyes boring into mine. “I thought you knew.” I’d had an inkling, but to hear him say it threw me for six. For once I was lost for words.

After a minute of awkward silence, he said, “You don’t have to say anything.” That was good, because I had nothing. “I know that you’re with Riley, but if ever you feel that the fits not right, I’ll be here. Waiting.”

Okay, that took my breath away.

“Ummm,” I nodded. “Thank you.” I mean, what else could I say?

 

***

 

Ed took a very unfortunate photo of me for the police station wall. I looked at it as he checked it, the smile not once leaving his face. I wasn’t the world’s most photogenic person, and I really hoped reality was better than that photo. My long dark hair was frizzier than normal, my brown eyes were wide with dismay, and my overly large chest was prominent. I sighed as I waved him goodbye, then trudged up the two flights of stairs to my office, ready to tackle some work. After all it was why I was even here today.

Half way up, I heard the knock on the door. It was probably Ed back for an even more humiliating photo.

Retracing my footsteps, I did the right thing and checked the peep hole before opening the door. However, all I could see was the porch, the two front steps and the flowers I had planted around it. Hmmm, that was strange. I didn’t think I had misheard a knock, so I took a deep breath, double checked the chain was securely in place, and then opened the door.

On the mat that welcomed visitors to my house was a package all wrapped up in pretty paper, a pink ribbon tying a note to the top. The note was gently swaying in the breeze, and curiosity prickled as I looked around for who could have left it. I couldn’t see Ed, not that he would have put it there. I couldn’t see my parcel courier Chloe, so it hadn’t come by mail. In fact, I couldn’t see anyone, and by the time my eyes hurt from holding them so wide and scanning the street, I decided that all was clear. Closing the door, releasing the chain and then reopening it, I bent to retrieve the package.

Nerves mixed with excitement as I closed and locked the door and then tore at the wrapping, wondering who had left me a present. Sure I should have opened the note first, but that was something I never did.

My excitement quickly turned to dismay when I saw the gift was a large tub of crunchy peanut butter. Now, I’d never been a fan of peanuts, but since a recent lunch with my ex-psychologist turned bad, I had ended up in hospital with anaphylaxis, peanuts were now my enemy.

My stomach flipped as I placed the tub on the hall table and turned my attention to the note.

The envelope had my name printed in large font across the front of it, and after sliding my finger under the seal, I retrieved a small piece of paper with the word ‘Enjoy’ centered in bold type.

Was this a sick joke?

I ran into the kitchen and pulled back the blinds, wanting to have another look at the street from the safety of being inside. As I did a black sedan, just like the one driven by my stalker, drove past, a gloved hand waving from a half-opened window. My heart missed a whole series of beats, my knees buckled and I sat heavily on a nearby chair.

 

***

 

The gift had meant that I received a second visit from Ed in one day. He wasn’t a fan of crunchy peanut butter either, it seemed. Well, I was basing that on his grim expression when I handed it to him. Along with the note, it was placed in a plastic bag and had a police escort off the premises. Ed was going to have it checked for fingerprints, with the hope that Joe Woods would soon be back where he belonged. Even though, I did remember Joe being in jail when I had learned of my allergy to peanuts so I did wonder why he would have sent it. But I had my fingers crossed that he was the culprit.

After Ed once again waited while I tripled checked locks on the door, he left me to make my way up the stairs once more, this time making it all the way to the top and into my office.

I loved my office. It was my favorite part of the house, and in times of stress it was the room that calmed me. Which was great, considering at that moment, I really needed calming.

Twelve months ago when I had purchased the house, I knew I wanted the bedroom in the attic to be my workspace. As a self-employed bookkeeper, I didn’t need a lot, just a desk, a computer, and lots of room to sort piles and piles of fiddly little receipts. At the time the attic was just one big room with disgusting wallpaper and horrible carpet. But Riley had changed all of that. It was now painted a calming shade of white, the little dormer window looked out over the yard and down the street, and Riley had installed a small bathroom and storage room in the back. The slanted ceiling made the room feel cozy and safe, and when I was in it all the worries of the world disappeared. But this house was for sale. This room would no longer be my sanctuary.

Was I sad about that? In a way, yes. I’d miss the room, but I knew that Riley would build me another one somewhere. So why was I feeling so flat about it today? Why wasn’t the room calming me?

I moved to the window seat and looked down on the yard, thinking about my mood, wanting to delay opening the many boxes of receipts I needed to sort. I aimlessly watched as our local parcel courier Chloe delivered a package to my neighbor Edward. I watched as Mrs Jessop from the end of the street took her dog Trixie for her routine morning walk, and I watched as a black sedan pulled up to the curb outside my house. My heart skipped, but when the car door opened and a middle-aged woman with bad taste in clothing and hair frizzier than mine stepped out and snapped a couple of pics of the For Sale sign in my front yard, my anxiety settled.

I then remembered that I needed to book an appointment with my mind trainer. I’d tried a few things to settle the nightmares I still encountered. At first I’d tried ignoring them, but they upset Riley, so I knew it was time to open the To Be Sorted box in my mind and try counselling. That didn’t work out too well for me, as my psychologist turned out to be Riley’s ex. She also turned out to be the psycho in psychologist, and after her I moved onto medication.

But I hated the medication as all it gave me was more nightmares. So now I was trying some mind training and hypnosis. I’d only been once and if last night’s nightmare was anything to go by, I think I needed to at least go twice. Picking up my phone to book the appointment, I noticed the missed call from Grandma. Ooops.

My parents’ number was on my speed dial list, and judging by the speed that my call was answered, I figured Grandma had been sitting next to the phone waiting for it to ring.

“Hey girlie,” Grandma called loudly. The arrangement of Grandma living at my parents worked well for her, but I had noticed the large vein in the middle of mum’s forehead now pulsed at an alarming rate.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“Not a lot.”

“Oh. Okay. Well what can I do for you?”

“What are you talking about?” I could hear the click as her teeth swished around. A habit she had when she was thinking.

“You called me earlier. I’m just returning that call,” I explained. At eighty five, Grandma’s mind was usually sharp as a tack, but at times she had her moments. Hey, I’m not complaining. I was thirty-three last birthday, and I had my moments too.

“Oh, that’s right. I need a lift. Your mother’s gone out and I need to get to the bingo hall before lunch time. I got a date.”

As far as I knew Grandma and Grandpop had had a long happy marriage. Since his passing, she seemed to be making up for all her missed opportunities.

“Cool. Sure. I can come and get you.” Thankfully I had a spare set of keys hanging up downstairs. “Does mum know where you’re going though?”

“I’m not a kid! I can go out without your mother’s permission,” Grandma snapped.

“Alright! Just checking. I’ll pick you up at eleven.”

“Don’t be late.”

After hanging up the call, I dialed Mum’s mobile phone. You know, just to check that it was okay for Grandma to go out on a date. If Mum was cranky with any of us, she refused to make us our favorite dessert, and Sunday’s family dinner sucked without dessert.

“Hey Mum. Whatcha doing?” I asked, going for the happy, easy going vibe.

“Why do you need to know?” she snapped. “Isn’t it enough that the women in this family cause me enough stress? I can’t even take half an hour for myself without everyone calling me?” Geez, it wasn’t even nine yet and already the Fuller family was cranky.

“Well, I’m just checking that I can take Grandma to bingo at eleven. She has a date.”

I heard the sigh down the phone line. Mum sighed so much I often wondered how she didn’t pass out from lack of oxygen. Right now, I could imagine the crease between her eyes deepening, and her lips pursing with every exhalation of breath.

“Whatever.” She snapped. “I don’t have time for her antics.”

“So I can take her?”

“Yes. Take her. But you’re responsible for her,” she added.

It was my turn to sigh. How did I get myself into these situations?

After ending the call, I sat and stared at the mountain of boxes calling for my attention. I even contemplated opening the first box, ready to start an hour of sorting receipts. I hated receipts. Hated them! And I hated sorting them even more. So why was I a bookkeeper then? I honestly had no idea anymore.

Maybe I should make myself a cup of coffee. That may give my motivation the boost it needed. And if not, what better way to procrastinate than with caffeine in your hand?

Feeling happier already, I ignored the six boxes that were screaming my name, and moved back down the stairs towards the kitchen. Cat was sitting on the bottom stair tread, his fur raised, hissing. I’d inherited Cat with the house, and this behavior wasn’t uncommon for him, but he seemed more irritated than usual. Sidestepping him and hoping to avoid getting scratched in the process, I made my way to the kitchen. And screamed.

A man was standing in the open doorway, smiling at me.

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