Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
“Stay here,” he said after grinding out another curse.
Damn it. All hell would break loose in Atlanta if he didn’t make contact in the next few minutes. He headed across the room.
“Lock the door,” he said, “and don’t open it unless you’re sure it’s me on the other side.”
Shaw rushed toward him, a cloud of snowy-white blanket wrapped around her. He caught her in his arms. The feel of her against him brought an instant of peace, then tightened his body to the breaking point.
“Tell me what’s going on,” she pleaded. “You can’t say what you did and leave me hanging. Tell me I can trust you, and that I’m not crazy.”
“You’re not crazy,” he said. “And I would die to protect you. After everything you’ve remembered, you have to believe that.”
She looked uncertain again. “What’s going on?”
“Something I couldn’t tell you about sooner.” He cupped her cheek the way he longed to have the right to do every day for the rest of their lives. “For the same reason I have to take this call—to keep you safe. Wait for me here. When I come back, I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”
Her forehead crinkled near the darkening bruise she’d gotten in her fall. Her nose was red from crying, and her hair was a riot of tangles.
She was magnificent.
Something of what he was feeling must have slipped into his expression, because Shaw softened against him. She managed a smile that was a wobbly mess. It almost had him dragging her back to bed. Instead, he kissed her petal pink lips and begged whatever angels were still fighting on his side for just a little more help.
“I’m yours, Shaw. Once we get you out of here, once we know everything, whatever you need me to be, that’s what I’ll be. I’ll take care of you and whoever’s messing with you. All you have to do is trust me a little longer and try to remember who’s hurting you in your nightmare. Can you do that for me?”
She stiffened. Then she relented, kissed him back, and stepped away, her hand finding his. “Promise me I’m not going to regret this.”
“You have my word.” He squeezed her fingers. “I’m going to take this call, see what happened with the stairs, and make sure the place is still secure after we slept for so long. Don’t unlock this door until you hear my voice, okay?”
She nodded, her courage impressing the hell out of him all over again. Her next breath was more of a gulp. But she stepped back, her fingers sliding free.
She closed the door behind him and locked up.
, he told himself. He’d fill in Dawson, recon the stairs, and search the place for any new clues as to what this bastard might be up to next. He’d do his damn job. But in fifteen minutes, his ass was going to be back with Shaw. And somehow, he’d find a way to keep her believing in him, in
, after he confessed everything. Then together, the two of them would find a way to get her out of this, including clearing her from federal prosecution.
He speed-dialed on his way to the stairs.
“Code,” the voice on the other end said.
“Get Dawson,” he said, shitting all over operation protocol. “This is Marinos. We’ve had a change in plans.”
“Authorization code?” the voice calmly said.
Cole harnessed his temper as he eyed the smooth edges of the weakened spots in the top boards of the step—a freshly installed bit of scrap wood he’d handled earlier. Which meant his fingerprints would be all over it.
The damage had been meticulously executed. Someone was going out of his way to make Cole look dirty as hell. Someone with sophisticated technology at his disposal, but who’d been packing a simple wheel gun when he’d tried to shoot Shaw in Atlanta.
“Fuck authorization,” he growled. “Get Dawson on the phone. Now.”
Shaw found her clothes. She slipped her sweats on over Cole’s shirt, not wanting to lose her physical tie to him. She didn’t want to be away from him at all, not for a minute.
Her nightmare was still too close. And someone was definitely messing with her in the mansion. But she wasn’t running this time. Whatever Cole needed to tell her when he came back, she’d find a way to deal with the rest of their past. She wouldn’t let either herself or him down again. Nothing else was coming between them. She recalled his scars, living proof of what he’d already sacrificed for her. She could trust him with her life. He’d given her his word. The rest, they would figure out as they went.
She was remembering more and more, almost all of it horrible. But she felt so close to the answers she needed, the ones that would free her to move on to the life she wanted with Cole. The thought of it made her downright giddy.
Maybe the lonely life she’d had to go back to before he’d shown up hadn’t been enough to tempt her to really fight for it. Maybe her mind was getting stronger by the second because someone was finally there who believed her about the misfiring images she kept seeing. Not Dawson or his endless stream of federal officers and agents and psychologists. Their impatience with her nightmare had never given what little she’d remembered a chance to blossom into more. The progress she was making in her recovery now was happening for only one reason.
Because of Cole.
After everything she’d put him through, he’d promised to stay by her side. She was fighting with him, not alone. She’d be fighting for them from now on, the way she should have before.
But against whom?
Who was standing in the way of Cole and her getting back what they shouldn’t have lost as teenagers? She tried to see her shooter’s face and remember more of her dream beyond a scarred man with an old-fashioned gun. But the other details were gone again. She studied the walls and furniture around her while she attempted to force his identity to return, as if her guest bedroom held whatever elusive clues she needed. It didn’t, of course, any more than the rest of the mansion had triggered a single useful recollection.
She’d been all over the house, scouring every closet, room, and drawer. There’d been nothing to find, except for a neglected, forgotten home that no one, including Shaw, had loved in a very long time. And Cole had found no signs of tampering around the Victorian’s windows and doors.
Yet someone was using her quiet, isolated,
retreat on High Lake to get a cheap thrill out of tormenting her. When she found out whom that someone was, she was going to help Cole kick some serious ass. Then she was going to use her sizable connections and financial assets to guarantee that what was left of the man was prosecuted to within an inch of his life.
Think, Shaw. No more waiting around to see what happens next. Get this done!
The strange sounds and voices she’d heard at night, the accidents…they’d all been real. It was a relief to know that for sure. But it was also a puzzle. How had someone managed that?
Someone’s playing with you…
, Cole had said.
As though he knew her patterns, the things and places she preferred most in the mansion, and when he could get in and out of the Victorian undetected, like this last time while she and Cole were sleeping. The sense that she was being watched, that she’d been observed from the moment she’d walked back into this house, was stronger than ever.
She scanned the room she and Cole had spent the last several hours in, not sure what she was looking for. But the instinct wouldn’t let up that something important was there.
She had to call Inspector Dawson about all this. She pushed off the bed, ignoring the headache that had settled in. She began to pace. As soon as Cole came back and they’d talked, she’d tell him about how useless Dawson had been so far. They’d call Atlanta together and demand that someone get his butt up there and help them figure things out. Shaw would take the heat for breaking Dawson’s stupid rule and talking to Cole. But she wasn’t stopping until the inspector agreed to get to the bottom of this.
No more taking no for an answer. No more letting people talk her into doubting herself. Things had gotten completely out of hand.
How had someone known to sabotage her bath, the silverware drawer, the step that was already in bad repair? It was as though…
As though someone were watching her every move. Maybe he had nefarious plans for the whole house and was waiting for the best time to spring each surprise. Had he known about her and Cole’s past even when she couldn’t remember, and after Cole’s arrival he’d found a way to ramp up her already raging anxiety? Had he really been triggering one accident after another, hoping she’d break down and blame it all on Cole?
She scanned her environment again, taking in the details of the guest room she’d cleaned once or twice but otherwise hadn’t spent any time in. There had to be something she was missing. She was CEO of a research corporation. Details would have been her bread and butter. What was she missing? What part of this room
she had her hands on, that someone could have used to his advantage?
She saw the same faded wallpaper as before, and the even shabbier shades on the bureau lamp and the one standing beside the bed. The drapes were pulled across the windows, the night sky bright beyond it with twinkling stars. She turned from the window, her gaze rising to the crown molding that trimmed the ceiling all over the house.
She squinted. She’d cleaned everything, absolutely everything in the Victorian
the ten-foot ceilings. They’d been bothering her, too—the cobwebs, the stains. But her balance was still questionable, and she’d been told to avoid things like standing on ladders.
The blood chilled in her veins, making her shudder.
It wasn’t possible. The solution to how she’d been under surveillance this entire time couldn’t be that simple or that fantastic. Was she being paranoid again?
What was taking Cole so long to come back?
The hell with waiting or being too weak to take care of this herself. She dragged the room’s tallest chair toward the nearest wall, gritting her teeth as her head throbbed. After several misfires, she got herself standing on the seat. She braced her hands on the back of the thing so she didn’t tumble off onto her head, then she let go and straightened. Pushing herself onto the tips of her toes, she stretched until her fingers could feel along the strip of molding above her, pressing to see if it could be loosened. Nothing happened.
Undaunted, she eased back to the floor, moved the chair toward the corner, and repeated her search there. It took two more tries before a portion of the molding literally popped off into her hand, revealing a neatly cut compartment behind it.
Shaw gasped. Her head was throbbing so hard she felt it in her toes. Her body’s tantrum this time was from the shock of discovery, not pain. Her sight line was still several feet away from the ceiling. But she was close enough.
Not that she wanted to believe what she’d found—something that had no business being in a run-down estate in the middle of nowhere that didn’t even have Internet access. It would be easier if she could close her eyes and imagine she was again seeing things that weren’t there.
Instead, she stared at the tiny object.
“What the—” She reached up to grab it from its nest behind the molding. She was betting there was something similar in every room in her house. “Oh my God.”
“Are you certain?” Dawson said.
“That we have an on-site unsub, yes.” Cole had double-checked the damage to the staircase. Then, for what it was worth, he’d once more ensured that every entrance to the house was secure. Afterward, he’d headed through the kitchen and the storage room, straight through to the backyard.
If Shaw’s stalker was somehow tracking what was happening in the house, Cole was going to do his best to keep him from overhearing this conversation. He once again cursed the sophisticated technology he wasn’t in a position to challenge.
“But you have no idea who it is?” Dawson asked.
“There’s no way to know.”
“Or he doesn’t exist.”
“He exists. I doubt there are any fingerprints besides mine, and I don’t have the equipment to scan for whatever electronics he’s using, or to even know if he’s listening in to what I’m saying now. And I can’t tear the place apart looking for how he’s tracking us, without tipping him off that we finally know he’s here. Once we do, we’ll lose our shot for a strategic strike to nail the bastard. But I’ve seen his handiwork for myself. Shaw’s not imagining this. He’s gone quiet again. If my hunch is right, she’s safe for now while he enjoys his latest victory and regroups. But he’ll resurface. And then, if we play this right, he’s mine.”
Dawson grunted. It was quite possible he smiled. Cole could almost imagine the marshal rubbing his hands together with glee. He heard what sounded suspiciously like a match being struck and a long drag being taken from a cigarette.
“So we finally have our break,” the chief inspector said, exhaling slowly.
“Only because the guy’s getting reckless. He could have set up the other accidents when she was in the woods with me, or even before. But I was in the house this time. He knew it, and instead of staying away, he waltzed in right under our noses and made it look like I caused her fall. If Shaw hadn’t remembered about us and the barn fire when she did, if she hadn’t instinctively accepted that she could trust me, he might very well have gotten his wish.”
“You keep saying
,” Dawson pointed out. So far, he hadn’t asked how Shaw’s memory had been jarred so miraculously, after a month of nothing. Or where Cole had been, precisely, when he’d missed his check-in after the unsub had outsmarted him again. “Is there anything tangible to base your gender theory on?”
“Instinct.” Cole ran a hand through his hair, then along his chin. Damn, he needed a shave. “This is obviously personal. Maybe it’s always been personal. It feels like anger to me. A man’s anger. Rage. Maybe even revenge. If it was a woman who was that pissed off, hell, we’d both be dead by now.”
“That’s a very scientific analysis, for one of your garden-variety hunches.” Dawson laughed.
Cole was happy to entertain.
“Look into Shaw’s past,” he said. “For someone with an ax to grind. Someone who’d know the ins and outs of her corporation and the manor house. And also the best ways to screw with her mind.”
“She’s had no long-term relationships that we could find. The woman’s a workaholic loner, and her family’s gone. There are no spurned lovers panting to even an old score, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Look for ties to the crimes at Cassidy Global. The illegal sales of research. The timing of all this is too much of a coincidence for everything not to be linked. Our unsub is somehow involved in the treason and espionage, not Shaw. He’s setting her up to take the fall for his crimes. Making her look crazy is just part of his game.”
Actually, it raised the hairs on the back of Cole’s neck to realize just how long this situation had been going on, while no one had believed a word Shaw was saying—exactly as the asshole had planned. Well, Cole believed her, and he’d have her back from now on.
“I’m going to tell her about the task-force investigation, and that she’s been the prime suspect until now,” he said. “And about the security leaks at Cassidy Global and the pending charges against her.”
“You’ll do no such thing, Marinos. That’s way outside your discretion on this assignment.”
“She’s already figuring it out on her own. And I need her complete trust.”
“If she’s guilty, she’ll run. If—”
“She’s not our suspect any longer. You can take that hunch to the fucking bank. She’s a victim, a witness, and it’s the Marshals Service’s job, Chief Inspector, to protect her until the felon responsible for the Cassidy leaks, her injury, and the stalking that’s now endangering her life can be brought to trial and convicted. I intend to make sure all of that happens. Even if I have to tell her the truth to do it.”
“And how, exactly, are you going to do that for a
who’s spitting mad, once she finds out her ex-lover-knight-in-shining-armor is actually a fed who’s had her under surveillance the entire time he’s been pretending to be her friendly, helpful, aw-shucks-ma’am neighbor?”
It was the very question Cole had asked himself a hundred times over the last several hours.
“I’ll make Shaw understand the direness of her circumstances,” he said. “I won’t give her a choice.”
“Damn it, Marinos.”
“I’ll deal with her while you square things with the task force and the Bureau. I need a forensics team here by morning, with better equipment than I have. Something that will outsmart whatever technology this guy’s using to block mine.”
“Sure, why not?” Dawson said, sounding furious and sarcastic, but not altogether unaccommodating. “Anything else I can do for you in my spare time, in the middle of the fucking night?”
“Dig into Shaw’s past,” Cole repeated. “Even though her memory’s recovering, we can’t afford to wait for her to tell us who this guy might be. We’ve got to find evidence to put him away before he decides terminating her is a better solution than merely freaking her out.”
“You know the football field of crap that’s about to land on your head if you’re wrong about this, right? Once I start the wheels in motion, you’re on the record, Cole. There’s no backing away from this one if it goes south. You could be making some career-ending miscalculations.”