No ExitBy: Lena Diaz
AS HER FATHER’S limousine turned out of her driveway and headed home, Melissa closed the double-glass front doors and slumped against the wall. She should have been worrying about the crazed gunman who’d forced her off the road tonight. Instead, she kept thinking about how hard it was pretending that everything between her and her father was okay. Because it wasn’t, and it hadn’t been for a very long time.
Wait. Shouldn’t the alarm be beeping, warning her to punch in her code before it went off? She straightened and checked the panel. The status light was green. Disarmed.
She whirled around, panic seizing her for the split second that it took to recognize the heavy Italian accent of her once-a-week housekeeper. She clutched her purse against her side and pressed a shaky hand to her throat.
The older woman and her adult son had just climbed the steps from the sunken living room into the open, two-story foyer.
“You startled me.” Melissa gave a little laugh and shoved her long hair out of her face. “Why are you here so late, Silvia? And Stefano, you don’t see me enough at the office, so you decided to come visit me at home?”
She smiled to soften her words. Stefano’s role as an EXIT tour guide meant he was usually gone for weeks or months at a time, trekking clients through the Rocky Mountains. But this was the off-season, so he was in the office a lot lately, planning for future trips.
“I never get tired of seeing you, Melissa.” He winked, his spiky dyed-blond hair making her think of warm beaches and sand between her toes, something that would be highly welcome this time of year.
He leaned down and kissed her on both cheeks, a perfect gentleman. But he hadn’t always been that way. Since his mother was her father’s live-in maid, she and Stefano had grown up together. They’d shared everything from kindergarten to high school and had fought like true siblings. But even though she’d been guilty of just as many breaches of her father’s strict code of behavior, Stefano usually bore the brunt of her father’s wrath. That was why Stefano had moved out of the house the moment he’d turned eighteen. Thankfully, that was all behind them. He and her father got along much better as employer and employee than father figure and maid’s son.
Silvia patted Melissa’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, bebe. I was worried when you didn’t show up at your father’s, so I called Stefano to wait here with me.” Her forehead wrinkled as her dark eyes studied Melissa. “Is everything okay?”
She tucked her purse beneath her arm and took the older lady’s hands in hers. Just as Stefano had been like a brother, Silvia Conti had been like a substitute mother after Melissa’s own mother and twin brothers had died when she was a little girl. But to this day, Silvia insisted on formalities, addressing her as Miss Melissa, or bebe only when she was worried or upset.
Melissa squeezed the other woman’s hands. “There’s nothing to fret over. I did have some, ah, car trouble, and Dad picked me up. By the time things were taken care of, it was already getting late, so we decided to skip our planned dinner. He drove me straight home.”
Stefano put his arm around his mother’s shoulders and pulled her against his side. “There. You see, Madre? I told you. Melissa’s a big girl. Nothing to worry about.” He tugged his reluctant mother toward the door and settled her coat around her shoulders before shrugging into his. “Come, Mama. Melissa doesn’t seem like she’s in the mood for company.”
Melissa smiled gratefully but made no move to take off her own jacket that she’d retrieved from her Jag before it was towed. Silvia might see the rip in her dress, and she would worry.
Stefano urged his mother out the door. “Take care, Melissa.”
She forced another smile and waited until they’d gone around the side of the house to the guest parking area before closing the door, shedding her jacket, and hanging it on the hall tree. Once Silvia’s little Honda was on its way down the driveway, with Stefano’s cherry-red BMW following close behind, Melissa flipped the dead bolt. She also settled the long iron bar in place over both doors, an extra lock her father had insisted upon when she’d bought the house but which she rarely used. Tonight, for once, she was grateful for her father’s hypervigilance.
His smothering overprotectiveness was the main reason that she’d moved out of his estate after college and purchased this property in the White Hawk Ranch area thirty minutes away. One of their worst, ongoing arguments was over her refusal to hire a bodyguard. But she had some handguns hidden in her office and her bedroom on the unlikely chance that she’d ever need them. She also didn’t want to feel like a prisoner, or pretentious because she had someone following her around all the time. And she’d never been paranoid enough to think someone was out to get her.
After setting the alarm, she slipped out of her heels. She let them dangle from her fingertips and headed through the living room, then up the curving staircase to her bedroom at the end of the long, open-banister gallery.