Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
She was a fool, a weak, clueless fool. But she couldn’t control her panic.
Kill the bitch…
the night whispered.
Shaw clawed at the back door’s stubborn deadbolt until it gave way, then forced herself to stop. A glimmer of sanity kept her from running into the freezing, moonlit darkness. If she really were in danger, heaven only knew what waited for her outside the mansion’s protection. And there was suddenly nothing but silence behind her, no movement whatsoever.
She tried to believe this was just like all the other times when she’d freaked herself out and then realized how ridiculous she’d been. She was running from phantoms. She tensed to turn back, to confront her paranoia. And heard footsteps again. Closer than before. Behind her.
Coming for her
. And there she stood, paralyzed, trapped between the shadows beyond her family’s home and the nightmare crowding closer within.
A hand clenched in her hair. A gun pressed into her temple. When it fired, the deafening roar of the blast shattered her reality all over again.
Cole stared out the window toward the Cassidy mansion, a house he knew as intimately as the faded scars on his back. A trail of light had spread through the place, the same as on each of the other twenty-one nights since he’d returned to High Lake, Georgia. He’d tracked its progress until it had flooded the Victorian’s first floor, then its kitchen.
His own family’s excuse for a homestead was a shack in comparison to the manor house. But the cabin had been all his drunk of a father could maintain, sitting amidst acres of north Georgia woods that belonged to someone else. Cole’s dad had once been the caretaker for the Cassidy property. Among other things, he’d tended the currently leafless pecan grove that the January moon was now illuminating, setting a moody backdrop for the mansion and the lake beyond.
As a very young boy, Cole had earned two dollars a bushel from Old Man Cassidy, collecting the nuts that fell from those trees. And he’d loved every second of the chore. Almost as passionately as he’d resented returning to this place now.
He’d kept up the cabin, once his dad finally killed himself with alcoholism and liver disease. It had become a safe house to land in sporadically between the various federal task forces Cole rotated through. Technically, he worked for the FBI. But almost from the start of his ten years with the Bureau, his tendency to circumvent regulations and his reputation for closing impossible cases had led him to specialize. He’d become the closest a federal officer could get to a free agent. He was on near-continuous loan from the Bureau doing undercover work for state and local law enforcement, infiltrating gangs and organized-crime syndicates, collecting evidence and turning marks for federal stings.
Ten years of living on the edge had left a slew of enemies in his wake. His High Lake cabin was an off-the-grid stronghold during rare patches of downtime. Ramshackle-looking on the outside, inside he had everything he needed to protect himself from nearly every type of threat. Every threat, that was, except for his present responsibility to keep an eye on the woman who had once again taken up residence in the Cassidy place.
It didn’t matter that the Victorian estate house had seen better days since Cole first left the mountain as an angry young man. The mansion was still as impressive as when he’d stared across this same stretch of woods as a boy. And it continued to represent his very first lesson in how twisted life could become when you bought into dreams as if they were real.
After Matthew Cassidy’s death, Cole had made his way back whenever he could, only because Matthew’s heir, the estate’s new owner, had never once returned herself. An insignificant bit of intel had assured him each time that he’d have the mountain entirely to himself.
Now his first—hell, his
—dream, the only woman he’d ever loved, was back on High Lake Mountain to torment him. And it was his job to keep track of her every move.
Six months ago, he’d pushed as hard as he’d dared to take part in this investigation—in an advisory capacity, consulting from afar as an expert on the principal suspect. Because he’d flat-out refused to believe Shaw was guilty of the charges being drawn up against her. That day at the hospital, when Federal Marshals Service Chief Inspector Rick Dawson had proposed this new assignment, Cole could have declined. Instead, a glutton for punishment, he was a newly minted special deputy marshal, responsible for being Shaw’s High Lake watchdog. He’d accepted the detail, because any other agent would have considered ensuring her security here less of a priority than collecting additional evidence that she was guilty of treason.
In the Bureau’s eyes, this was a light babysitting detail. One that was going nowhere. But regardless, Cole had been farmed out to Dawson. He was to monitor the isolated environment Shaw had been restricted to in her house, with orders to intervene only if someone other than the marshal who delivered her groceries every five days approached from the surrounding acreage. Cole’s own network of electronic sensors, installed on the property years ago to ensure his personal safety, gave him a leg up. He could detect anything that moved beyond the house’s perimeter. But just as important to the U.S. government, Cole could be certain that Shaw herself didn’t leave the premises or contact anyone the task force hadn’t vetted.
Being certain was Cole’s forte. So was cutting emotional ties, once a place or person had ceased to be useful to him. He was an ace at it, thanks to Shaw.
After losing her and the future they’d promised each other, he’d ruthlessly hammered away at an uncompromising world until he’d put himself through college and been recruited into the Bureau. He’d built a career out of becoming whomever he had to be next in order to get away clean from whatever he was leaving behind.
Except now, he was once again playing the part of
. And being back in the heart of Rabun County and Shaw’s messed-up life wasn’t sitting any better now than it had when he’d bolted from the mountain fifteen years ago.
Curvy, leggy, drop-dead-gorgeous Shaw Cassidy.
His shared childhood with her had helped land him a spot on Dawson’s team and this assignment, which he would carry out as flawlessly as he had all the others he’d taken on in his career. He certainly wasn’t going to let what he and Shaw had once been to each other get in his way. He’d convinced everyone who mattered that he felt no lingering attachment to the Cassidy family. He’d come damn close to convincing himself. Which had been easier to do months ago, when he’d thought this would remain a long-distance, hands-off exercise. That had all changed the moment he’d been ordered to Atlanta.
Sure, he couldn’t stop staring at the mansion, but he was simply being thorough. No way was he angling for a reason to slip closer to a woman who was officially off-limits. She wasn’t supposed to know she was being watched or that a federal task force team had Cassidy Global under investigation. He might nap during the day so he could track Shaw’s slow progression through the Victorian each night. But only because it was his job to report if her routine or behavior patterns changed significantly, possibly indicating that she was remembering more than she was letting on. The task force and the U.S. Attorney needed to know who was selling top-secret government research developed at Cassidy Global, and Shaw’s shooting was the closest they’d come yet to a breakthrough in the case.
Meanwhile, she continued to behave exactly as she had since regaining consciousness in the hospital. She was terrified. She was sleep-deprived. She was running on adrenaline and determination—and away from the memory of whatever had damaged her mind.
Staring up the hill, Cole caught a hint of movement in the night. He squinted out the window, searching for the blip that had appeared at the edge of his vision. It had only been a blur, backlit by the Victorian’s homey glow. But for a second there’d been something out there.
Something that was now gone.
He flicked off the single lamp he’d left on in the cabin and reached for his infrared binoculars, blinking into the darkness, giving his vision time to adjust and refocus. Without looking at the gauge, he tweaked the scope’s range, then brought the device to his eyes. He scanned the dense forest between his house and the mansion, looking for whatever had caught his eye.
His laptop on the kitchen’s butcher-block table remained silent. The perimeter hadn’t been breached. Yet. But the razor-sharp instincts that had kept him alive during his years undercover knew differently.
He retrained his focus onto the Victorian. The nocs’ sensors corrected for the light streaming across the backyard from the mansion’s kitchen, adjusting instantly. Through the open door to the storage room, he caught a glimpse inside. Nothing moving. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Sensors blared from his receiver across the room.
Someone was out there, all right, the movement heading away from the mansion. Shaw? He was suddenly certain the blur he’d seen had been her fleeing into the night. He scanned the woods for long hair and a willowy athlete’s body. A graceful, strong woman any unsuspecting man would die to protect. A woman on the edge of losing her sanity for good.
Where had she gone? What the hell was she doing? He caught another rush of movement and tightened his scope. There!
Shaw stopped in a terrified rush on the path through the woods that led to his cabin, her frightened expression making Cole’s stomach clench. Then she stumbled and sprawled to the ground, her curling hair flying madly around her.
Her scream split the winter night.
Shaw couldn’t shut out the sound of footsteps heading toward her through the dark forest. The faceless man who’d shot her was coming closer. He was no specter. He was real, he’d found out where she was, and he was coming to finish the job of killing her. She couldn’t just lie here and wait for that to happen!
She scrambled to her hands and knees from the pile of dried leaves she’d landed in. She shoved her hair out of her face, but still couldn’t see. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. Sick to death of the crippling fear that each nightmare brought, she could only careen deeper into the freezing night, away from the danger that no one else believed existed.
Or was she running closer to it?
Or maybe she was finally, completely losing her mind.
Because it felt oddly as if she were racing
something now. The same something a silent part of her had sensed had been out there all along. Or someone. A very obstinate someone she couldn’t remember. A dangerous someone who’d once made her want and need and believe—emotions she instinctively knew she’d fought her entire adult life to banish. Yet a part of her still wanted to trust in them, in him, as she once had.
Lord, she’d completely lost it.
Her hair caught, a man’s fingers clenching, grabbing her from behind. She wrenched away…from the branches of a tree. She swatted at the clinging limbs, disgusted with herself.
“Stop it!” Off balance, she started to run again. “Whoever you are,” she yelled at the faceless man, feeling closer to giving up than she ever had before. “Stop screwing around with me. End this, or leave me the hell alone!”
Only night creatures answered her. There were mysterious sounds to the left as she stumbled forward. To the right. In front of her. A sense of being stalked, watched, shivered up her spine. She checked behind her. Tripped again. Cried out. She closed her eyes, too tired to brace herself as the forest floor raced toward her.
Then her world was tilting, lifting, her body mashing against something solid that was far warmer than the cold, hard ground. Her hands flattened against a wall of muscle. She was being held, she realized, her feet floating above the earth. Her cheek rested against a massive male shoulder. His breath rushed over her as if he’d been running, too.
The man with the gun had caught her.
. It was finally over.
She struggled within his grip, kicking and hitting and fighting—no matter that she’d thought of quitting just a few moments ago. She was determined to get away now, though she was exhausted and no longer certain if she was awake or dreaming. As she fought him, she forced her eyes to open and peer into the face above her.
She froze, at an instant, instinctive loss.
His features were both familiar and foreign. Tempting and terrifying. The man who’d caught her was a total stranger. And yet, her soul seemed to recognize his as she stared into his cool blue eyes.
She took in the rugged lines of his too-handsome face and the surprising softness of sinfully curved lips that made her long for his kiss. She found herself wanting to hold on instead of fighting harder for freedom. Every instinct told her to trust this intimidating stranger. It was the most terrifying moment she’d experienced since waking in the hospital and realizing her memory was a complete blank.
“Stay with me,” he said, blowing her reality apart.
Stay with me…
something in her broken memory echoed. Something she couldn’t grasp.
Shaking her head, struggling once more against his hold, she felt her mind shredding itself all over again.
“No,” she whispered. Then her world dissolved into images of flames and gunshots and certain death.
Cole lifted Shaw’s slight weight and slipped his arm beneath her knees.
“Please,” she whispered, semiconscious. “We have to get out of here. Please don’t leave me again…”
He cradled her head into the crook of his neck. Those were the same words she’d kept repeating at the hospital. Frowning, he struck off toward the Cassidy mansion.
Her terror before she’d fainted had tunneled deep, laying claim to places inside Cole that he’d turned his back on long ago. There was the memory of when they’d been kids and had become lost together in these same woods, caught in a freak snowstorm. And when, as a teenager, he’d stubbornly lingered in the Cassidys’ barn amidst the growling flames that he’d later been accused of igniting. He’d refused to leave without her then, too. He’d ignored the fire scorching his skin until he’d made sure Shaw was clear. Now, after he’d intended to stay away forever, she was in his arms once more.
He was exactly where he’d promised himself he hadn’t wanted to be. Holding her, his body instinctively craving hers, his arms pulling her just a touch closer, then closer still.
He’d always been reckless where Shaw was concerned. Too reckless. From the start, she’d been a forbidden addiction he hadn’t been smart enough to resist. She’d insisted on seeing the good in him. She’d believed that they could make it together, ignoring whatever her controlling father and entitled, abusive brother tried to do to end their relationship. Right up until Cole had needed her faith in him the most. Then in his darkest moment, she had destroyed him.
He swallowed at the memory. What would getting too close to Shaw cost him this time?
He closed his eyes and stopped walking. He let the night’s biting chill clear his mind of everything but the parameters of his assignment—to secure the calm environment her doctors said she needed to regain her memory. He’d catch hell when he reported that he’d broken protocol, even if it had been to get her safely back to the mansion. If he ruined the government’s chances to harvest the information the U.S. Attorney needed from Shaw, his professional ass was grass.