“It’s time,” the Plunderer’s chilly breath prickled her skin.
“You promised seven minutes. It’s been five.”
“You’ve seen it all. Let’s be on our way.”
“What is two minutes to you?” Her eyes never wavered from the window. “Don’t worry. They can’t see or hear me anyway.”
Her first minute had been wasted in blinding tears. She determined to cherish the time that remained.
Mom leaned down and plucked a present from under the tree, handing it to Jenna. Baby sister was no longer little. She hardly recognized the dimpled beauty sitting near the fireplace.
Kyle’s lanky legs dangled over the end of the couch. When had he grown so tall? He ruffled Alfred’s fur and laughed at Dad’s antics.
Why had she left? She could no longer remember.
The candy canes hanging on the tree made her mouth water. She inhaled, as if the aroma of cinnamon buns and fresh coffee, steaming from the sideboard, could penetrate these thick panes. Her frozen hands reached for the warmth of the fireplace. She longed to hear the favorite carols Mom played every year during gift exchange, but this wretched prison blocked all comforts.
She yearned for these things, but stronger was the ache for familiar arms and infectious laughter. It would never be. The Plunderer had seen to that. He tightened his silken cloak of deceit and chuckled.
Mandy drank everything in, as a soul dying of thirst in the desert. She caught a glimpse of the mantle and choked back a sob. Her stocking still hung between Kyle’s and Jenna’s. They missed her? For years The Plunderer had assured her they didn’t.
Sweet nostalgia, fierce longing, and lonely misery seared her mind with regret. She wished time was a friend, but friends didn’t exist.
Her mother looked toward the door. A wistful sadness lined her face. A solitary tear trickled down a worn path, one drop of sorrow in stark contrast to their boisterous cheer.
“God, what have I done?” The words escaped her lips before she could call them back. The Plunderer’s raucous laughter jarred her conscience, and his bone-chilling fingers squeezed once more.
“It’s too late for questions. God isn’t listening. You are mine now.”
The clock began to strike. In desperation she called her father’s name.
Her heart stopped. Had she imagined his voice? Hope and urgency illuminated his face. He could hear her? In three giant strides he flung open the door.
“No.” The Plunderer snarled and grabbed her.
“Daddy,” she yelled with all her strength, reaching for him. The Plunderer lost his hold, then vanished.
She wept in her father’s powerful embrace.
“My precious girl.”
“He said you wouldn’t want me—that I was too far gone.”
“You’ve been lied to. You are ours, loved and wanted. Always.”