Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
Cole inhaled slowly, his focus dropping from her to the floor. He dug his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels.
That was it? This rugged, take-no-prisoners-and-ask-questions-later man who’d, as a teenager, promised to protect her forever, then had barged back into her isolated world all grown up and refusing to leave, was being…
Or was he working double-time to keep something from her, like Dawson was?
She blinked. She had no idea where the suspicious thought had come from, but it felt unnervingly right. As right as a dash of ice water to her spinning senses. The question she had to hear him answer
slapped her like an open palm to her face.
“What were we to each other, Cole?”
They weren’t going to keep dancing around whatever he didn’t want to discuss about their past. Not if he was going to stay in her house.
His head snapped up. The look he blasted at her was a muddle of hurt and anger and need. She watched, warily entranced, as the grudge match played out. In the end, need prevailed. Cole’s bone-melting desire for her mirrored the avalanche of sensations that had ruled them as teenagers.
“You said remembering too quickly might damage your mind more. I didn’t know what would be safe to tell you.” He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “We were lovers, Shaw. When we were teenagers, until your father banished me from your life, we were in love.”
Shaw looked magnificent, standing with her hands clenched at her sides, demanding her due. Whatever she’d remembered as Cole had felt her draw inward and away from his touch, she had returned from her withdrawal more off-balance but far more powerful. More like the self-reliant businesswoman she’d become since her father’s death.
“We were…” Her blush was a sexy temptation. “My father…”
She cocked her head to the side as if her mind hadn’t fully processed either Cole’s revelation or whatever else she’d recalled.
“Why didn’t you tell me,” she said, switching gears, “that there was more to us than a platonic friendship?”
Platonic? Cole edged farther away. It was the only way he could keep his hands off of her, rather than continuing the kisses she’d started in the hallway. And not stopping until she was naked and flushed and coming her brains out beneath him. As it was, he wanted her back in his arms, cuddled against his chest, the soft, lush feel of her hardening his body to the breaking point.
Even when they’d been too young to do anything about it—she the beautiful daughter of a man who owned half the mountain, and he the rough-and-tumble son of the town drunk, running wild together through the woods where they’d found each other one fateful spring afternoon—there’d been something intense, almost desperate about their bond. There’d been no stopping their relationship from blooming into more over the years—much more, screw the fact that Shaw’s father and brother disapproved.
“You already seemed skittish enough about having me here,” he reminded her, holding tight to his growing response to the passion-filled memories she’d dug up.
“Because something about you felt…”
“Wrong?” he asked at her hesitation.
The best part of Cole had died the day she’d sided with her bastard of a father against him. He’d walked away from their mountain and never looked back. Not because of Old Man Cassidy’s threats, but because he couldn’t face Shaw and hear from her own mouth the piece-of-crap reasons why she’d turned her back on him. Reasons that didn’t matter anymore, now that she could no longer remember them.
“No. Not wrong.” She walked back to her father’s chair and sat, the cruise ship–size desk now between them. “You felt…familiar but different, and I had no idea what that meant.”
“Than all the rest of this.” She waved at the office and the mansion beyond its paneled walls. “In the parlor last night, in the kitchen, and finally in here. None of it felt real or personal before.”
“Before?” He sounded like a damn parrot, repeating everything back to her, but they were making unprecedented progress. He didn’t want to underestimate—or miss—a single thread of what was returning to her.
“Before I woke and found you here, acting, feeling as if you belonged with me, when I could have sworn we’d never met, let alone been…”
It was too tame a word for what they’d shared. He was jumping off a dangerous cliff, taking them further down the road to exploring their teenage love affair. And he was dragging Shaw with him. But taking her in his arms again, an impulse he’d given in to after her impossibly arousing kisses in the hallway, had jump-started her mind this time. What else was waiting there, on the tip of her awareness, poised to secure her safety and her legal footing if only he could shake the memories loose?
No way could he back off now. If anything, he had to push harder. Guilt over how much he was keeping from her churned in the pit of his stomach. But their twenty-four-hour grace period would be up too soon for him to take a lighter hand.
“I trusted you.” Her unfocused gaze told him she was once again seeing the past rather than the world around them. “I was afraid of…someone. And you were going to face him for me, with me, and we kissed, and you promised you’d never leave me.”
“I didn’t.” He braced his feet apart and snapped his hands behind his back, military style.
“You didn’t promise me?” she asked.
“I didn’t leave.”
She seemed to shrink in size behind the desk that was shielding her. “But we haven’t seen each other for how many years?”
“Why?” She was rubbing where the bullet had damn near taken her head off.
“Why do you think you’re recalling this now?” he asked, the answer to his question far more valuable to her recovery. “Does your head hurt because you’re remembering?”
“I don’t know.” She curled into the chair’s aged leather, her wariness deepening to brooding. “And yes, sometimes my head hurts when I try too hard to make sense of things. At the moment, everything seems to be hurting.”
Cole retreated to the couch, cautious of her pain level. Her doctors had warned that the debilitating migraines she’d experienced since the shooting could return. She needed a bit of space. Some breathing room. They both did.
He couldn’t afford to ignore the price tag that came with each new brush with her past. His job was to move her closer to being healthy, not to trigger another breakdown. They’d mine for more memories, but not until she was ready to dig deeper. There was nothing to gain from her burning out just as they were getting started.
Good thing there was a reason he’d been grateful she’d led him toward her father’s study. First chance he got, he’d planned on checking it out. He doubted she had any conscious recollection of the possible weak point to the mansion’s security that lurked just over her shoulder.
“You wanted to know earlier how I thought I could help you,” he said, anchoring things back to the present. “Since you understand a little more about why I might want to, are you still comfortable having me here?”
“You’re not going to tell me about what I remembered or what happened between us?”
“Beyond that I once cared deeply for you, and that I remain concerned for your welfare? Would it make a difference? Has anything anyone else told you about your life jarred the rest of your memories free?”
“No.” She closed her eyes and rubbed her scar.
“Then we’ll circle back to whatever you want to talk about later, when you’re feeling better. What matters at the moment is whether you’ll still let me help you determine what or who is threatening you in the present, and how he might get to you.”
Shaw couldn’t look at Cole sitting on the couch without thinking of
there, their bodies wrapped around each other, fighting to get closer, deeper, all the way into each other, to that place where they were one and never wanted to be apart.
They’d been lovers once, she and the closed-down man Cole was turning back into. The same man who’d returned her kisses in the hallway as if he’d been craving them for years. Now, like him, she was supposed to switch off their history and forget the fact that once
been what she’d desired most?
“How can you be so certain we can figure out what’s going on around here?” She managed a bland smile. Inside she was shaking.
“I’ve had some basic training in investigation.” He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. “I once knew this house as well as I do my own. I might remember something that would make a difference. That is, if whoever stashed you here doesn’t object to my interference.”
… “What makes you think I have to answer to anyone about what I do in my own home?” A surge of rebelliousness tightened her words at the thought of ever again asking Dawson permission to do anything.
“Because I think when I came to the front door,” Cole said, “I interrupted a call between you and someone who
the electric company. But you haven’t decided yet whom to trust more—him or me. Am I right?”
Her mouth parted, but no words came out. How had he known?
He sat back again, making himself comfortable on the sagging couch. A dominant man in control of his environment. “As I said, I’ve been trained to notice clues and to string bits of information together into observations others dismiss as coincidence.”
“In the military?” she asked, since he’d already said he wasn’t with the police.
“Something like that.” He returned her stare.
“So what does your
tell you about my nightmares? About someone possibly trying to hurt me, when the authorities think my attack was random? Everyone says I’m paranoid about the man with no face in my dream.” She rubbed her bandaged thumb across her thigh. “No one’s going to want to hear that now I think someone’s playing pranks on me or trying to gaslight me. What does your training tell you about that?”
“Like I said before, you should trust your instincts.”
He was looking at her as if he sensed precisely what her instincts were focused on, and how her body couldn’t stop feeling what wanting and having him had once been like.
“What’s your gut telling you?” he asked while she took slow, even breaths, her entire body humming with awareness. “That’s where we’ll start looking for clues.”
“It’s telling me no one’s giving me the whole truth about any of this, including you. That my memory’s holding out on me for reasons I don’t understand, even though it seems to have a soft spot where you’re concerned.” It was rewarding to see the answering awareness flash across his features before his expression smoothed out again. “My gut’s telling me not to trust anyone.”
“I’ve given you no reason to be afraid of me.”
She let out a breath. “No. But you’re hiding something.”
“Why did you invite me back inside, then?” His eyes narrowed. “Why bring me to your father’s office, when we could have gone anywhere in the house to talk?”
“I…I hate this room. But…”
“Is there something here you wanted me to see?”
The question stunned her, then just as quickly, it felt right. Just as Cole himself felt right, even though he was once again deflecting her questions right back at her.
“Yeah, I think so,” she agreed reluctantly, allowing herself to be led into yet another conversation she hadn’t anticipated. “But what could it be?”
Cole looked around the room, his eyes like blue lasers, seeing everything. A muscle along his jaw ticked as he concentrated. He got to his feet and rounded the desk, heading her way. He studied the dated computer that she assumed hadn’t been turned on in years, then continued to the corner of the office. His back to her, he used his fingers to trace along the seams of the wall’s ancient oak paneling.
She joined him, drawn as much by his quiet concentration as by the mystery of what he was doing. What was he looking for? What had she wanted him to see?
Pressing against one of the panels, he dropped his gaze to the floor. She knelt, seeing closer up that the carpet was worn in an odd sort of arc pattern. A soft
was the only warning she got before the panel swung toward her, its bottom dragging along the worn patch.
Shaw scrambled backward, rising to her feet and staring at the hidden door built into the outer wall. Cole was studying his discovery closely.
“Did you know this was here?” he asked.
“No.” She waited. He didn’t turn around. “But you did, didn’t you? Do you think someone might have been able to sneak inside through this?”
His attention flicked to her, but only long enough to say, “Try and open it.” He moved behind her and waited. “I don’t want to get my prints on it.”
“Prints?” She reached for the brass knob, then stopped. “Fingerprints?”
“In case we discover there’s been a break-in, you’ll want to call the local authorities. I’m not interested in finding myself on their list of suspects.”
She didn’t correct him by saying that if she called law enforcement, there wouldn’t be anything local about it. She tried the knob, turning it easily, but the door itself wouldn’t budge. That’s when she noticed the serious-looking deadbolt halfway up its face.
“Key?” Cole asked.
“You’re asking me?”
She shuddered, though not because she thought the secret entrance was a threat. Clearly it could only be opened from the inside. But what other surprises might be lurking in her home, in her life, in her mind, while she stumbled around blindly, trapped by her ignorance?
“How did you know this was here?” Her question came out shaky, when she wanted so much to sound and be strong in front of this man.
His touch on her hand made her jump, but within seconds she’d intertwined her fingers around his.
“We used to play in here as kids during the summer,” he said, “when your father was away on business. All over the house, actually. Your babysitter
never cared, as long as we were quiet and stayed out of her hair while she watched soap operas all day.”
Shaw tried to remember. She wanted to remember the happy, carefree times he’d described. But nothing but a blank was there, where the past had hovered so close only minutes ago.
“Are there more secret passages?” she asked.
“Not from the outside, as far as I know.” He tugged her hand and led her to the desk. “Your father kept a key in the center drawer, taped to the left side near the back.”
He made no move to check for it himself. His overt care not to put himself on the radar of local police was yet another peculiarity they’d have to discuss eventually. For the moment, she opened the drawer so slowly it should have come with a spooky movie soundtrack. She half expected something sinister to fly at her.
It turned out to be nothing more than an ordinary drawer filled with papers and a few ledgers. She felt along the left side until her fingers encountered the blunt edges of something metal and rounded, with ridges down one side. Peeling it away from the tape that held it to the pine interior, she lifted the key out and tried to hand it to Cole.
He shook his head. “You open it.”
She confronted the dust-covered door. She lifted the key, as she suspected she had many times before. It inserted cleanly without a hint of resistance. The smooth feel of it sliced into more than the lock.
She closed her eyes, fresh memories breaking free. She waited for them this time, instead of grasping and finding only emptiness.
Do you think he ever used this when your mother was alive?
asked Cole’s voice from long ago. He was much younger than in the last memory. They both were. Young enough to still need a babysitter.
I wish I could remember my mother
, Shaw had said.
I wish he’d talk about her.
Open it, and let’s see where it goes, Shaw?
“Shaw?” Cole asked, his deep voice pulling her back to the present. He was behind her, standing in almost exactly the same place as in her newest flash of their past. “Are you okay? What—”
“I’m fine.” She turned the key, which took more effort than she’d expected.
The lock gave way reluctantly, grinding, then clicking in submission. She reached for the doorknob with the same apprehension as when she’d opened the drawer. Her mind flashed to the dream memory of being discovered in a closet by a madman. She shoved away the surreal moment and focused on now. On Cole, standing strong and protective beside her. Her hand shook. It closed around the smooth metal. She covered the evidence of her unraveling nerves with her other hand. Then she twisted, pulled, and stumbled triumphantly back into the solid wall of Cole’s body.
The door swung inward, revealing cobwebs. The grime of years of disuse danced in the weak light and chill of the outside world. A riot of ivy cascaded over it, obscuring the view from within and the opening from without. No wonder she’d never noticed it when she’d walked around the grounds.
Cole’s hand curved protectively around her hip. With the other arm, he parted the fall of green. Morning light shafted over them, a spotlight illuminating the dimmest corners of the office. Through the gap he’d made in the vines, she could see the sloping side terrace of the property. In her mind, she could hear echoes of them as children, happily running from the house to play in sweet-smelling summer grass. She smiled at the perfect feel of it.
Then just as quickly, she shivered at the growing creep factor of unearthing so much so quickly. To help brush off her apprehension, she focused on how late it had gotten. They’d been in the office for so long, night had slipped away completely. The sun was up. And thanks to Cole, light was pouring over her, along with another precious memory she wouldn’t have reclaimed without him.
She turned in his grasp, instinct overriding caution. She’d rebelled against this, against the reality of them, since the moment she’d woken in the parlor with him beside her. She’d convinced herself her feelings were one-sided, and that they’d only get in the way. But the impulse to trust Cole kept growing stronger, regardless of the many questions he’d left unanswered. And now she knew for a fact exactly how much he desired her in return.
Caught in a haze of
, encouraged by his silent acceptance and how much his appearance had already brought back to her, she laid her head against his shoulder and held onto him. The moment felt as if she was claiming something infinitely precious, instead of merely giving in to a need for comfort or reassurance.
It was inappropriate, she knew. He’d introduced himself as simply her neighbor, despite the reality of their past. There’d been some kind of bad blood between him and her father. Cole had moved on years ago from their teenage love affair. And thankfully, they’d managed to regain a smidgen of objectivity after her bombshell recollection of how intimate they’d once been. But at the moment she was beyond caring how much of her need for this man she let him see.
“Did I ever remember her?” she asked, her lips trembling against his throat.
“Remember who, darlin’?” Instead of pushing her away, he pulled her hair from her ponytail and rubbed at the pressure points at the base of her skull.
“You’re remembering the first time we found this?”
She nodded. “I guess. A little.”
He nodded, too. When she kissed the skin beneath his jaw that she somehow knew was ultrasensitive, his body tensed. His hand clenched in her hair. The gesture should have terrified her, given her nightmares. But with Cole, it felt amazing. She eased away, almost convincing herself to let go. Then she saw the passion etched across his face.
“You’re remembering more by the minute.” His attention dropped to her lips.
“Not enough. Not why I trust you and need you and feel afraid of you all at the same time, when we haven’t seen each other in years. It’s scaring me to death, more than any of the rest. Wanting you, wanting this…it’s nonsensical. But I can’t stop it, Cole. I can’t stop needing you more every time we touch.”
His eyes darkened at her bold admission. She reached up to touch his face, craving the connection. His hand stopped her, gripping her wrist tightly enough to leave prints on her skin.
“You’re playing with fire,” he warned, recalling to her mind the flames that had invaded her nightmares the moment she’d found him in the woods.
She shook her head, refusing to back off. Not this time. Not from him.
“I’m terrified of fire,” she said. “It keeps showing up in my mind, in places I’m sure it doesn’t belong. Does that mean anything to you? Does it mean I should be afraid of you, too?”
“I’ll do everything I can not to hurt you,” was his cryptic response.
she half expected him to add.
When he didn’t, she curled her lower body into him. The frank evidence that he was as aroused as she was nestled against her stomach. She didn’t really know him. Not enough to be responding to him this way. But Cole was suddenly the one memory Shaw had to have.
“I guess I’m going to have to take my chances, then.” She stretched to her toes until they were face-to-face. “Will I remember even more if you kiss me again?”
A wicked gleam transformed his pale gaze. “There’s only one way to find out.”
His challenge was enthralling. Tempting. She was a woman who thrived on solving impossible puzzles instead of letting them defeat her the way she’d been allowing her nightmare to for so long. A breeze ruffled the ivy beyond the door, scattering goose bumps up her spine. Cole’s hand in her hair pulled ever so slightly, once more rewriting a horrible moment in her dream with an exciting, tender alternative. Her scalp, her entire body, tingled. Her head tilted back, her mouth lifting, an invitation, a dare.