Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
High Lake Mountain, Georgia
Three Weeks Later
Shaw woke in the dead of night, kicking at the attacker who’d discovered her in the conference room closet.
Awareness returned, her nightmare’s lingering hold as sickening, as real, as every other time she’d dreamed it since her shooting. But, thankfully, there was a pile of suffocating pillows beneath her, not office carpeting. There was no faceless man or brutal grip restraining her. Instead, her arms and legs were tangled in linen sheets, the fabric so fine and so old it was gossamer-soft to the touch.
She forced her eyes to open completely.
She wasn’t being dragged to her death by a murderer. She was sitting alone on an overstuffed mattress, fighting her bedding and losing her mind, grasping for the details of that night’s memory before they once more slipped beyond her reach. Just as every other recollection of her life before the shooting had stubbornly refused to return. Which left her smack-dab in the middle of a living nightmare, in a world beyond her control that her detail-obsessed brain refused to make peace with.
“This is ridiculous, Esme,” she said to the cat winking sleepily at her from the foot of the bed. “And it’s not working. How did we end up here?”
being Shaw’s grandmother’s bedroom on a secluded mountain estate she couldn’t remember any better than she did her family or the life in Atlanta, Georgia, she’d been whisked away from.
Her body and flannel nightdress were drenched in sweat. Her mind, her thoughts, every part of her was shivering. Not from fear. But from the possibility that she might never remember what she had to in order to reclaim the successful life she’d been assured had been hers before that awful night.
She wrapped her arms around herself and gave her mind a mental shake.
A bedside lamp illuminated the room. Its cheery glow was no match for the dark spell the dream had cast. Something thudded softly beyond her closed bedroom door, jerking her gaze toward the hallway.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered to her cat.
Nonplussed, Esmeralda began cleaning her front paws, ignoring Shaw. As the regal blue point Siamese moved, her gold charm sparkled, a pendant Shaw had discovered in a drawer in the downstairs parlor and spontaneously attached to Esme’s collar. If anything really were wrong, certainly her cat wouldn’t be lounging around taking a relaxing bath.
Inhaling, Shaw willed her racing pulse to settle to a more sane pace.
After the shooting, at first it had been only the nightmare filling her mind with jumbled images and voices, and then with anger and violence and hate. She never recalled anything of substance about the dream or that night, not once she awoke. And even if she had, she couldn’t trust that the memories would be real. It was entirely possible, her neurologist had warned, that her nightmares were the spinning nonsense of a still-broken consciousness. It could be simply her brain’s attempt to repair the damage done to her psyche. Or her sanity could finally be unraveling for good.
Because, these last few days, she’d started hearing noises and bodiless whispers and even footsteps while she was awake and bustling about this alien-feeling, Victorian monstrosity that was supposed to be making her feel safe.
As much as she could within the physical restrictions of her recuperation, she’d been digging through the mansion’s contents for answers. Who was she, really?
was she? She hadn’t been cleared to drive yet. There was no Internet access or cable TV up there. What else was she going to do with her time but organize and clean each and every room until she’d convinced herself there was nothing of importance to discover? No matter how hungry she was to know something, to be someone, that moment of enlightenment never came.
something, some memory, lurking nearby. It was as if she could sense an elusive piece of her mind’s puzzle just beyond her grasp, so close it nearly maddened her. Each time she failed to capture it, she fought off a fresh wave of helplessness. Helplessness, giving up, was something she was certain the real Shaw Cassidy never allowed herself to feel. She hadn’t always been like this. She was certain of it. She hadn’t forever been this apprehensive, unsure creature. She had to find a way to make it stop. Whoever she’d been, this was
who she planned to remain from now on.
She flung a pillow across the room and ran her hands through the honey-blond hair that was curling into her eyes. She caught herself smoothing her fingers over the side of her face, brushing her temple and the gunshot’s lingering scar. It would heal completely, the doctors had promised. The rest of her would, too—if she could find a way to relax and stop trying to force her memories to return. Relaxing, evidently, was something else she didn’t do terribly well.
She pushed herself off the enormous bed. Her legs shook, forcing her to cling to the carved mahogany post beside her. Smooth swirls of inlaid botanicals teased her fingertips. The same floral motif adorned the four bedposts, the headboard, and the bed’s foot rails. Nature’s glory had been captured along the embroidered hem of the coverlet. On the walls, faded paper offered glimpses of wood nymphs and tree sprites peeking around bushes.
She sighed. This luxurious room had been her sanctuary ever since the hospital released her and the U.S. Justice Department had convinced her to convalesce at this lonely hilltop estate. She wondered if this room had once been a childhood haven. Very little of anything in the mansion made her feel safe now. A part of her had started to wonder if it ever truly had.
Her slippers on, her chenille robe wrapped warmly around her, she scooped up Esmeralda and confronted the closed bedroom door. Gritting her teeth, she yanked it open. She escaped into the hallway without incident and flipped the switch to light the chandelier at the top of the split-landing stairwell. From there, staircases led to both the front and back of the house.
She headed down to the middle landing’s picture window, ignoring the way her knees wanted to wobble. By daylight, the window was a wall of brilliant glass, flaunting an unrestricted view of the steep hill that rose gently from the surrounding woods. But in these hours just past midnight, the world beyond became an abyss of ominous black.
The chandelier’s glare had turned the window’s beveled panes into an eerie sort of mirror. In its reflection, Shaw appeared no more substantial than a ghost. Her skin was too pale. Her brown eyes too haunted. Her hair was just long enough for a man to grab…
Without warning, she was struck by the mercurial memory of being dragged from the closet.
She pounced on a set of switches that fired the first-story lights to life. Esme meowed, then struggled from Shaw’s grasp and scampered down the back staircase, presumably to find somewhere less unsettling to sleep for the rest of the night.
This was stupid. Shaw was perfectly safe at the top of High Lake Mountain. No one in the small Georgia town below even knew she had returned for the first time since her father’s funeral ten years ago.
“So knock it off,” she ordered herself.
She headed down the front stairs. At the moment, the visual disarray of the chintz furniture in the parlor was more than her nerves could handle. A tin of hot chocolate awaited her in the kitchen. An old-fashioned sugar high was what she needed to obliterate the gooseflesh still rippling across her arms.
The butler’s door leading into the kitchen gleamed with the oil she’d polished into it. It opened at her touch with a worn, disgruntled creak, swinging wide to reveal an unwelcome sea of darkness yawning before her. She’d turned the light off earlier, convincing herself that this time she’d sleep until dawn. That she wouldn’t be coming back down as she was now, scared and needing her path illuminated like a trembling child longing for a night-light.
She stretched out her hand as she inched toward the oak table that dominated the room. A lifetime seemed to pass. The Victorian settled around her in a cacophony of creaks and groans, as if it were somehow going out of its way to spook her.
Her fingers curled around the chain dangling from its overhead fixture. A quick yank doused the room in a sepia-tinged hue.
She glanced around, feeling more foolish by the second. No unearthly creatures and certainly no deadly men lurked in the corners or under the table or beyond the door that swooshed shut behind her. She might not remember the family who’d once lived here with her, all of them now dead and gone. But her grandmother’s house wasn’t a threat to her.
No one was really after her, Chief Inspector Dawson had explained when the U.S. Marshals Service decreed Shaw wasn’t to be assigned a witness security team. Most likely, her shooting had been a random act of violence. In case there was more to it, and due largely to her highly visible position as CEO of Cassidy Global Research, Dawson had extended her the courtesy of having his Atlanta Federal Marshals’ office keep a long-distance eye on her recovery. But formal WITSEC protection was for people whose lives were in immediate danger because of something they’d witnessed. Not for head cases like Shaw.
Dawson had told her that, besides her injury, there’d been no evidence of a shooting at her crime scene or of the meeting and the men in her nightmare. Until she could give the authorities a reason to investigate further, she needed to calm the hell down. He’d said it in slightly more diplomatic terms as he’d driven her up here. But the gist was the same. If she wanted protection, she had to remember enough for the authorities to build a solid case and make an arrest.
She forced herself to take her first full breath since waking. The kitchen never failed to soothe her nerves. Over the last three weeks, she’d spent countless hours there, cooking and thinking, trying to remember something of her life. Anything at all. Unlike the grander decor of the rest of the house, the kitchen and its adjacent storage room had remained utilitarian workspaces that spoke of a simpler, more humble beginning she’d like to think she’d once admired.
She plucked milk from the sixties-era Frigidaire and told herself to get a grip as she poured the liquid into a copper saucepan. She set the pan on the gas stove to boil and found the container of cocoa in the oak cabinet above the range top. The sugar was in the crock beside the burner. The drawer to her right held a mismatched collection of stainless and silver-plated utensils, castoffs of various patterns. She rummaged carelessly through the silverware that she would meticulously re-sort in the morning. Her fingers curled around a spoon with a rose-patterned handle that made her smile.
She took her teacup and saucer from the dish rack, then stirred the warming milk with a wooden spoon. Her nightly routine began to work its magic. The muscles in her shoulders unclenched to a mere ache. Her erratic thoughts cleared. The compulsion to run eased, returning to her the confidence and composure she’d apparently been legendary for as she’d navigated the unforgiving complexities of her career.
She had to get a hold of herself. She was the only person who could mend her mind’s confusion, doing the daily yoga and Pilates the doctors agreed she could continue to practice, and grounding herself more to the reality of this house by poring over photo albums and sifting through closets and drawers and cupboards. After she figured out her personal life, she’d find a way to reconnect to her professional identity. If she was patient, she’d been promised, it would all come back in time.
A crash beyond the kitchen’s door jolted her from her thoughts. The wooden spoon rattled from her fingers to the stovetop. She whirled toward the dining room.
“Esme?” She raised a hand to cover her heart.
She was scaring herself senseless for nothing. She was going stir-crazy, that was all. She’d simply been alone for too long. The unexplained rattles and noises and sometimes even voices she kept thinking she heard were merely symptoms of cabin fever.
The house answered her with silence, except for the soft hum of the refrigerator. She took an uncertain step forward, determined to conquer her fear. No one had broken into the house, she told herself firmly. No one was ever there. There was no threat, except from her own panic. All she had to do was turn on the dining room lights, and there’d be no one lurking around the next corner, waiting to attack her.
She reached for the door.
the faceless, scratchy-voiced man whispered from her nightmare.
She clenched her hands into fists, digging her nails into her palms.
“Don’t be such a child,” she said out loud. “Stop this.”
Fear and the amnesia it fed had stolen everything from her. She had no recollection of the four high-tech research centers she was said to oversee. Or how she’d come to be the sole living heir to an estate that included not only this mountain house near the North Carolina border, once used by her family as a summer retreat, but also a loft in Atlanta and homes on several other continents. And to add insult to injury, no one had yet been allowed to tell her more. Doctor’s orders.
She wanted her life back, damn it. She smoothed her hand against the dining room door and braced herself to push it open. She could do this. She had to.
Sudden darkness swallowed the kitchen.
Her thoughts were immediately swamped with the panicked claustrophobia of being trapped in a closet, waiting to be discovered.
“No.” She blinked, willing the lights to come back on. Her imagination was merely playing tricks on her, anticipating the worst.
But regardless of how many times she tried to force the room into focus, there was nothing to see. Someone had killed the power for real. Her nightmare was coming true. It was waiting for her in the very next room.
She backed away.
Fell over one of the kitchen chairs.
Landed hard on her backside.
“No one’s there,” she insisted. “The electricity’s gone out. That’s all.”
Something else crashed in the dining room, followed by the distinct sound of a man’s footsteps, inching closer. She covered her mouth with her hand. She scrambled backward on the floor, her nightgown and robe twisting around her legs. Disjointed dream memories swirled through her mind. She lurched to her feet. She felt her way along the wall, blindly heading for the storage room and its back door to the outside world.