The incessant vibration of the cellphone on her nightstand woke Kate Phillips from a melatonin-induced deep sleep. She would have ignored the urgent ringing if it hadn’t been the third time in as many minutes that it had gone off.
She rolled over and blinked to clear the sleep from her eyes.
Then a text flashed across the screen.
IT’S RACHEL. ANSWER YOUR PHONE. 911!
The phone vibrated again.
Kate frowned and hit the button to receive the call. “Rachel? What’s wrong?”
“I need you to open your door.” Her younger sister’s voice sounded strained, almost desperate.
“Why?” Kate sat up in her bed and untangled her legs from the sheets.
“Open your door, Kate. Now!”
She dropped her feet to the ground, grabbed her robe from the end of the bed and rushed toward her apartment door. “Okay, okay. Keep your pants on.”
“Hurry. It’s very important. And don’t hang up yet. I have to know.”
“I’m at the door,” she said. “Unlocking.” She fumbled with the two deadbolts and the chain, and looked through the peephole before she twisted the lock on the handle. She didn’t see anyone standing outside the door. “Where are you? I don’t see anyone outside.”
“Just open the door!” Rachel cried.
If Kate wasn’t mistaken, her twin sister’s voice caught on a sob.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” she said as she pulled the door open and nearly fell over the bundle lying on the ground at her feet.
“Is she there?” Rachel asked, her voice a shaky whisper. “Kate, please. Tell me. Is she there?”
“Is who…” The bundle on the ground moved and rolled over. A sweet, pink face turned toward her, and silky, blond hair spilled from beneath the edge of a child’s blanket. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” Kate whispered. “Lyla?”
“Oh, thank God!” Rachel cried. “She’s still there. She didn’t wander off.” Rachel’s sobs filled Kate’s ear.
She squatted next to her sister’s three-year-old daughter and brushed a strand of golden hair from her face.
The child remained asleep, her cherubic face peaceful, despite being left on Kate’s doorstep.
Kate looked around, fully expecting to see Rachel. She rarely went anywhere without Lyla in tow. Her sister was nowhere to be seen. “Rachel, where are you?”
“I can’t say.” She sniffed. “Oh, Kate. I’m afraid. I’m doing the only thing I know to keep Lyla safe. You have to help me.”
“Slow down, Rachel,” Kate said, careful not to wake Lyla. “I need to put the phone down to bring Lyla into the apartment. Hold on.”
“No! Kate, don’t put the phone down. I only have a moment. You need you to listen.”
“Okay,” Kate said. “I’m listening.”
“Take Lyla. Get out of your apartment. Take her to Eagle Rock, Montana, to a man named Hank Patterson. He has a protection agency. He’ll help you protect Lyla. And Kate, you have to make everyone believe Lyla is your little girl. No one can know she was mine. No one.”
“Rachel, what’s going on? Do you need me to call the police?”
“No! You can’t. Please, don’t. Involving the police will only make things worse. If you love me and if you love my baby girl, you’ll do this. It’s the only way to keep her safe.”
“What about you, Rachel?” Kate gripped the phone so tightly, her hand cramped. “Who’s going to keep you safe?”
“Until I figure this out, I have to disappear. It’s the only way. So, please, in your own way, you and Lyla needed to disappear. Hank will help you accomplish that.”
“Rachel, you’re scaring me. Where’s Myles? Why isn’t he helping?”
“I can’t talk right now,” Rachel said, her voice catching on what sounded like a sob.
“I’m your big sister.” Big sister by five minutes. But still the older of the two. “You know you can tell me anything.”
“I know, Kate, but there are some things better left unsaid. In this case, the less you know the better. Keep Lyla safe. Change her name. Change your name. Do whatever it takes to make her your own.”
“For how long, Rachel?” Kate clutched the phone to her ear, afraid to hear her sister’s answer.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back.”
“What do you mean?”
“As long as I’m anywhere near her, Lyla is in danger. In order to keep her safe, I had to leave her.” Her voice hitched. “You have to be her mother. You’re her only chance.”
“Rachel, you’re scaring me.”
“Believe me,” Rachel said, “I’m terrified. Not so much for me, but Lyla is caught up in this mess. They’ll use her to get to me.”
“Who will use her?” Kate asked.
“I don’t have time to go into it. I have to run.”
“Rachel, I don’t know anything about little girls. I barely know Lyla.”
“You look enough like me. The important thing is for you to be Lyla’s mother. She has to believe you’re her mom so that everyone she comes into contact with believes you’re her mother.”
“You don’t understand,” Kate stared down at the sleeping child. “I don’t know how to be a mother. You were always the nurturing one.”
“Just love her. Lyla makes it easy.”
“Rachel, just come back. I’ll protect you.”
“I can’t. Lyla deserves a real life. The way things are right now, I can’t give that to her.”
“I love you, Kate.”
“I love you too, Rachel.”
“Go to Montana. Find Hank. Protect my baby.”
“Please, don’t hang up,” Kate begged.
The call ended.
Tears slipped down Kate’s face as she stared down at the cellphone.
The small bundle lying at her feet moved.
Lyla blinked her eyes open. “Where’s Sid Sloth?” she mumbled, her tiny voice hoarse with sleep.
“I’m sorry?” Kate didn’t understand.
Lyla rooted around in the blanket and pulled from the jumble a stuffed animal that looked suspiciously like a sloth and tucked it beneath her chin. Then she yawned and closed her eyes again.
Headlights glared in the parking lot of her townhouse apartment. A dark sedan pulled into a parking space, and the lights blinked off.
Kate’s heart leaped. She gathered Lyla and her blankets into her arms, and hunkering low, swung her into the apartment and closed the door. She laid the entire bundle on the floor and quickly spun around to close the door.
Footsteps sounded on the sidewalk in front of the apartment.
Kate reached out to turn the button on the door handle lock as the steps stopped. She eased the deadbolt in place as quietly as possible.
The handle moved as if someone on the other side might be trying it.
Her pulse hammered so hard it beat against her eardrums. She waited by the door, afraid to move, not knowing what to expect.
She wanted to call her sister back and ask her what the hell she’d gotten into. The last she’d heard from her sister was a phone call a couple of months before.
Rachel and her husband, Myles, had moved to a small town in Wyoming three years ago, when Rachel was pregnant with their first child. They were concerned about raising their daughter in the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles where Rachel and Kate had grown up. With drive-by shootings, horrendous traffic and pollution, it wasn’t the ideal place to raise a child.
Rachel’s husband had found a job as a communications specialist with a church in a small community. They’d seemed happy. But lately, Rachel’s phone calls were short and not very newsy.
Kate had been so busy with her own career, she hadn’t thought much about it. She’d figured Rachel was busy being a full-time mom.
When her husband of ten years divorced her, Kate gave up on the idea of marriage and children. Her husband had never wanted children. Though she’d later learned he never wanted children with her. As soon as they divorced, he married his pregnant secretary.
Kate had thrown herself into her career in freelance news reporting and left the marriage and mommy business to her little sister, who’d seemed to be doing it the right way.
Kate stared down at the bundle on the floor.
Lyla slept on.
A knock on the door jerked Kate back to her predicament.
She lifted Lyla, blankets and all, carried her into the bedroom, shut the door and locked it. Then she grabbed her cellphone and dialed 911.
“You’ve reached the emergency department. Please state your emergency.”
Kate had never called 911 in her life. What did she say? “There’s someone at my door,” she blurted.
“Are they trying to break in?”
“I don’t know. But it’s late, and I’m not expecting anyone.”
“Ma’am, I’m sending someone over right away. Are you somewhere relatively safe?”
“I’m in my bedroom with the door locked.”
“You might also go into the bathroom and lock the door. Please stay on the line until help arrives.”
“I will.” She laid the phone on the sleeping child, gathered her in her arms and carried her into the bathroom and locked the door.
With nowhere else to sit, she closed the toilet lid and sat on the seat, holding Lyla and rocking her gently, more to calm herself than the sleeping child.
She strained to hear what was going on outside her bathroom and bedroom. The doors and walls muffled sounds. Was that the sound of the wood splitting on a doorjamb?
Her heart hammering against her ribs so hard she could barely breathe, Kate held Lyla tighter and prayed the police would arrive before whoever had just broken the deadbolt on her front door made it through the measly lock on the bedroom door, and then the equally pathetic lock on her bathroom door.
Kate laid Lyla in the bathtub. She had to do something to protect her sister’s child. Waiting for help that might not make it in time wasn’t good enough. She pulled down the curtain rod and thought about jamming it between the walls over the door. She shook her head. That little bit of flimsy metal wouldn’t hold under the weight of a full-grown man. Instead, she took off one end of it and held the other in a firm grip.
If her intruder made his way through her apartment and into the bathroom before the police arrived, Kate would be ready.
She’d never hit anyone before in her life. But she’d do whatever it took to protect Lyla.
A crashing sound heralded the destruction of her bedroom lock and doorframe.
Kate stood back from the bathroom door, holding the curtain rod in both hands like a baseball bat. When the man shoved through the door, she’d hit him hard and fast. She’d have the element of surprise on her side. He wouldn’t know it was coming.
Footsteps sounded in her bedroom. She was eternally grateful for the wood floors in her apartment. She knew exactly when he stopped in front of the bathroom door.
She held her breath, tightening her grip on the curtain rod as she pulled it back and stood like a baseball player ready to slam a home run.
The door handle jiggled, making Kate jump.
She braced herself for what would come next.
In the distance, the sound of a siren wailed, moving closer.
Please hurry, she prayed silently and bent her knees, ready.
Then the door exploded inward.
A man charged through the door, dressed in black, with a black ski mask covering his face. He carried a gun in his hand.
Scared out of her mind, Kate didn’t hesitate. She swung that curtain rod as hard as she could right for the man’s head.
The metal rod connected with the intruder’s face, making a crunching sound as if she’d broken his nose.
The man fell to his knees, clutching at his nose, and moaned. Blood seeped through the knitted mask onto his hands.
All Kate could think was that the man was still upright and able to continue his attack.
She swung again and again.
The masked man raised his arms to protect his head. Then he grabbed the rod.
Kate pulled hard, knowing that if she released it, he’d be able to turn it on her. She couldn’t let that happen. Lyla need her to protect her.
Refusing to let go, Kate swung out her foot and put all her kickboxing training into one mighty sidekick.
She caught the man in the side of the head.
For a moment, her kick didn’t seem to have done anything.
Then her attacker let go of the rod and tipped over sideways.
Kate grabbed Lyla and ran out of her apartment into the parking lot and was almost run over by a cop car.
The police officer slammed on his brakes, skidded sideways and came to a stop inches away from Kate and Lyla.
The police officer jumped out of his vehicle and pulled his gun out of the holster. “Which apartment?”
She pointed to the open door.
“Get into the squad car until my backup arrives.” The officer didn’t wait to see that Kate made it into his vehicle. He ran for the apartment, speaking into the radio clipped to his shoulder, and paused at the side of the door.
Kate slid into the back seat of the police car and held Lyla in her arms.
Another siren wailed nearby, and soon, another police car arrived.
With two officers now on the scene, they entered Kate’s apartment.
Watching through the window, Kate held her breath, hoping they’d caught the guy. She’d never been so frightened in her entire life. And not for herself, but for the innocent little girl lying sleeping in her arms.
Kate stared down at the child’s golden hair so much like hers and her sister’s. Kate and Rachel were twins separated by only five minutes. Now, there was a world between them, and Kate didn’t know where to look for her sister. “Oh, Rachel, what’s going on?”