'Get back in the room,' he ordered.

Illustration (Sarah Abarbanel)

I always dreamed that when I grew up I would marry . . . the man of my dream, tall, dark & handsome, educated with a great job."

—Kimberly Garnett, in a college essay

It must have looked like Kimberly Garnett's dream had just walked into the Club D'Elegance in Dolton.

Sitting at a maroon cocktail table amid the club's mirrored walls, Garnett glanced at Robert Thompson and his buddy. Those were two fine-looking men, their heads stylishly clean-shaven. She and her best friend, Antoinette Williams, giggled at gale force.

Tall, dark, handsome—check, check and check.

Looks were exchanged, then flirty words. Before long, Garnett and Williams were sitting with Thompson and his friend.

In the parking lot after karaoke wound down, Garnett said she was tired. Thompson hoisted her up for a piggyback ride as she chortled.

Garnett had met her next boyfriend, and her fate.

She did not know that Thompson would someday force her to end her friendship with Williams. Or that he would beat her so severely that her employer would photograph her face for evidence. Or that the moment would come when Thompson would order the children into their bedroom, shut the door and unleash on her a shattering storm.

That night at Club D'Elegance, there was no foreboding for Garnett, only spark and ignition.

But unknown and unseen, a timer had been set. It was ticking.

Garnett was a single mother, but she didn't really approve.

"Where has the Black family gone?" she wrote in an essay for a class at Robert Morris College. "The Black family used to be cherished, adored. It was almost sacred. If you had it you were stupid if you let it go. Now it's almost impossible to find.

" . . . I wish I had the conversation with my mother growing up that it's not OK to have children & not be married; it's not OK to raise a family on your own."

Garnett had been brought up in a single-parent family herself. Mildred Garnett, a machine operator at the Nabisco plant on the South Side for 37 years, raised three daughters on her own after her separation and divorce from their father. All three of her children built successful professional lives.

Even so, Kimberly Garnett wanted to be married and raise her children in a family with a mother and a father, united in love and reveling in simple family pleasures.

Could Robert Thompson be that partner? Or was she projecting her dreams onto the wrong man?

Within months of that first meeting in 2000, she placed her bet. Garnett, 26, and her two young sons moved into Thompson's home on the South Side.

Antoinette Williams, who lived nearby, visited often. She had met Garnett at Ada S. McKinley Community Services, where Garnett was a secretary and Williams an adoption specialist. The two had become fast friends who enjoyed walking and shopping together.