Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
Still, maybe seeing him again had done the trick. Had everything come rushing back to her as she’d stared, dazed, into his unshaven, unsmiling face? Would she wake and accuse him of the same unthinkable crime she had when they were teenagers?
God, he hoped so.
He’d agreed to be exactly where he was, on an assignment he was now certain he shouldn’t have accepted. If Shaw still hating him was what it took to get her off the federal prosecutor’s radar so Cole could get the hell away from High Lake Mountain, then bring it on.
In the forest’s dense darkness, a lone man stood watching the disgustingly poignant scene unfold. He pulled off his night-vision goggles and ran a hand over his grotesquely scarred face.
He was so close to having what he wanted. Closer with every passing night. His sources from the hospital said Shaw’s amnesia was most likely temporary, as long as additional shock and trauma didn’t increase her dissociation from reality. But encountering more upheaval before she was better, they said, might make her condition permanent. It was a delightfully ominous possibility that he was more than happy to orchestrate into reality. Except now the interfering fed who’d been assigned to watch over her had exceeded his orders and intervened. Hell, Marinos was carrying the woman back to the house, where he’d no doubt comfort her and investigate her latest panic attack with his legendary thoroughness.
The son of a bitch. He was even more obstinate now than he’d been as a teenager. Defiant. Inexhaustible. And he was already personally involved beyond the strict professionalism that had secured his role in Shaw’s exile. It wasn’t an entirely unexpected complication. But what to do about it? The man repositioned his goggles so he could better observe the result of his latest efforts to unhinge Shaw’s mind.
Marinos’s interference didn’t necessarily spell disaster for his carefully laid plans. The idiot had let himself be pulled back into the bitch’s life. Mr. Strictly Professional was on his way to becoming a loose cannon his supervisors wouldn’t leave unchecked for long.
Which meant time was running shorter than anticipated. On the other hand, several interesting new options were presenting themselves.
If things were handled properly, the damage Marinos’s intervention could do to Shaw’s fragile mental state would allow for any number of useful possibilities. The witless agent could become the catalyst for even greater destruction.
And much more pain.
Flames didn’t belong in Shaw’s dream.
But she could feel their heat on the other side of the closet door, the sound of deadly fire roaring over the angry voices in the conference room. An orange glow flickered, an unholy illumination. Tendrils of acrid smoke surrounded her.
Flames had once nearly killed her, she suddenly recalled, her mind burning with the terrifying memories. She’d been a child and believed she could call for help and someone would actually come. The same someone to whom she’d run in the woods tonight, who’d once been her whole world and promised never to leave her. If only she could remember who he was…
“I’m here,” she whispered.
Breaking her silence meant certain death, but he wouldn’t let the dangerous men hurt her. He’d make the killer and the gun and the deadly fire go away. She pressed her palms to the door. She forced her mind to focus. What did the new dream images mean?
The door was yanked open. An inferno engulfed the room beyond.
“We have to get out of here!” she exclaimed. Strong arms enfolded her. “We have to run.” She struggled in the man’s grasp. “We can’t stay.”
“Stay with me,” he murmured. “Trust me, Shaw.”
From her past, she saw his hard body silhouetted against fire. The image and his voice were so familiar she clung to them and to his embrace, stunned by her first taste since the shooting of anything that felt completely real.
“Trust me,” he said again, his touch becoming a lifeline. “Let me help you process what’s happening, and then get you out of this place.”
Let him help her? She didn’t want help processing anything. She just wanted her life back.
Suddenly the hands restraining her were no longer his. A cruel fist closed in her hair.
“Sorry, Shaw…” It was the killer’s damaged voice, not her protector’s.
“I won’t let you do this!” she shouted. “I won’t let you destroy everything!”
She struggled against the faceless man as flames licked at her skin. And this time, he let her go. He let her crawl away…
Until her back was pressed to…dainty chintz cushions, the details of her dream once more slipping beyond her grasp…
Shaw woke with a start, her hand wrapped around her throat, trapping the soundless denial within. She was outside the nightmare, she realized. She wasn’t in her bedroom. This time, she was in her grandmother’s parlor, staring at a stranger seated across the couch from her. He wore a black T-shirt, black jeans, and black boots. Gazing into the brilliant blue of his emotionless eyes, she found herself wondering how many layers of darkness a man like that might be hiding beneath his calm, non-threatening demeanor.
“Stay with me this time,” he said. “Don’t faint again. It’s going to be okay. Trust me.”
Her breath caught. His words, his calming tone, were straight from what little of her nightmare she could recall.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked. His deep voice was a perfect match for the rough angles and plains of his unshaven face. He was starkly, frankly male, striking in both size and in the intense way he was studying her.
“No…,” she said. “I don’t know who anyone is anymore.”
What was he doing there? How had she gotten to the parlor? She grappled for the truth, but her thoughts were chaos, the same as every other time she woke with her dreams still too close. Once more, she didn’t know what or whom to believe, including her own instincts or anything she saw with her own eyes. And now someone was watching while she battled for her sanity.
“What happened?” she asked, feeling the thrum of fresh panic race through her bloodstream.
“You were running in the woods. You were pretty out of it. I found you and brought you here.”
The woods? Just three weeks out from her being shot, her doctors still didn’t believe she was well enough to leave the house. Not on her own. Her mind wasn’t ready for her to interact with anything or anyone beyond the controlled environment she’d agreed to remain in when she’d been released to the manor.
wasn’t ready for it. What on earth had she been doing in the woods?
Then it flooded back—her terrified dash through the night. Why had she been running away? What had spooked her this time?
The stranger was holding her hand. She wrenched free of his grasp. A confusing shock surged through her at the loss of contact, an overwhelming sense of regret. He’d said he’d carried her. She could remember being held in the forest, feeling…terrified by the sight of him. Now it was almost a relief, waking to find him sitting beside her. That couldn’t be right. How could that be right?
She scooted farther away, deeper into the cushions. He let her go, his hard features more soothing to her nerves, less threatening, the longer she stared at him. Or maybe it was the shaggy, dark hair that lovingly framed his face. It softened him, if that were even possible for someone with such a forceful presence. It made her want to run her fingers through the thickness of it and feel it brush against her skin.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” Compassion filled his cool blue gaze, tempting her to believe him. “You can trust me.”
His eyes. There was something so familiar about his eyes. Something that convinced her he wasn’t the killer who still haunted her sleeping mind.
“Who are you?” she demanded, reminding herself that she could still very much be in danger. She shoved away her body’s reaction to him as more snippets from her last disjointed nightmare rolled from his lips. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay. What were you doing, running around in the dark this time of night?”
She looked up to the stained glass chandelier that glowed a cheery rainbow of color down on them.
“The lights went out in the kitchen,” she said, “and I was scared.”
“I brought you in through the front.” He nodded toward the enormous mahogany door. It led to a porch encircling the entire first floor. “The lights seem fine in this part of the house.”
“The front door was open?”
Beyond the man, she could see that it was ajar. The outer screen was all that stood between the parlor and the brittle night air.
She kept her windows locked. Inspector Dawson had given the central alarm system a once-over when she moved in, and it was always on. Even though she’d been assured it was still operational and that she was perfectly safe moving into a home the locals continued to think was vacant, she was obsessive about checking the alarm’s control panel before going to bed each night. She kept every window and entrance securely locked.
“How did you get in here?” she asked.
“You should keep things better secured, as far away from town as you are.”
“I…I do.” He hadn’t answered her, she noted. She sat straighter. “Someone… Someone was here. He was stalking me. Upstairs, then in the dining room and kitchen. And you’re the only person besides me who’s stepped foot in this house in nearly a month.”
She tensed, waiting for a sign, some signal from her damaged brain telling her whether she was sitting inches away from a person she could trust…or from the very threat she’d run from. The man raised one of his too-dark brows and gently took her hand again, helping her to her feet.
And for the life of her, she couldn’t resist him. It felt as if she were slipping backward in time. As if they’d already shared a moment like this, many moments like this. Yet she’d swear to her grave that, as compelling and dead sexy as his features were, they’d never met.
“Who are you?” she demanded again, telling herself to be terrified of this man but finding it impossible to let go of his hand…or of the feeling of security flooding her in response to his presence.
“You mean, am I the source of whatever’s scaring you?” he asked, daring her to deny what she’d been thinking. When her lips parted wordlessly, he said, “Let’s go see.”
Cole shouldn’t have touched Shaw again. He shouldn’t still be here at all. Her unconscious mind had begged for his help, asked him not to leave her. But awake, Shaw clearly found his presence anything but reassuring.
He was already at risk of being pulled from the mountain simply for making contact with her—a suspect who was a hair’s breadth away from being indicted on felony charges for espionage and treason. What was he thinking? Once he’d made sure she was awake and unharmed, and when she hadn’t recognized him, he should have backed out of the house and left her alone to heal.
Except healing wouldn’t begin to resolve the rest of her problems, not unless she could remember what he needed her to so he could clear her name.
Someone was trafficking in Cassidy Global’s DOD intelligence secrets, selling them to unfriendly governments, mostly in the Middle East. Too many people believed that
was Shaw Cassidy. From the start, Cole had insisted she be treated as a witness in need of protection. In reality, she was at the top of an FBI watch list. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had spent the last six months, via a task force armed with both Bureau agents and Justice Department officers, building a case against Cassidy Global. All that had protected Shaw from indictment so far was that there was no hard evidence of her involvement, no direct links between Cassidy’s CEO and the top-secret research material cropping up on the intelligence black market.
At first, the leaks had pertained to state-of-the-art web and Internet coding, advanced fiber optics, and the latest discoveries in nanotechnology. None of which was handled at Shaw’s nuclear research offices in Atlanta. Then, three months ago, the Iranians had gotten their hands on schematics almost identical to Cassidy’s groundbreaking designs for the semiconductors, transistors, and other high-speed elements used in nuclear instrumentation. That jump in technology, if not checked, would accelerate Iran’s march toward developing nuclear weapons. The research had come from one of Shaw’s pet projects.
From then on, the direction of the task force’s efforts had shifted firmly toward her. Her late-night attack at her office had solidified suspicions that she was up to no good.
The conference room where she’d been found bleeding from a superficial head wound had been wiped clean by the time security arrived. There’d been no forensic evidence of the shooting or of the meeting she said she’d overheard. There’d been only Shaw, holding the bag for everything, looking as if some under-the-table transaction had gone bad, and she’d been left for dead while her lowlife associates cleaned up after themselves and disappeared.
Cole didn’t buy it.
Shaw’s exile to High Lake was Rick Dawson’s show, set in place because of the slim chance that she might turn out to be merely a high-profile witness in need of protection by the Federal Marshals Office. So far, the task-force leader was going through the motions of giving Shaw a chance to clear herself. Yet every power-that-be involved with the situation saw her as a traitor who was being given a temporary reprieve while legal grounds could be secured to pry the details of her latest clandestine activities from her impaired memory.
The wolves were circling. And Cole, the only person who fully believed in her innocence, was sitting front-row-center, powerless and watching the hammer come down.
shouldn’t be in this house, leading her away from her grandmother’s overly decorated parlor. But she’d woken dangerously disconnected and paranoid, just as she had at the hospital. She was still seeing more of her nightmare world than she was their reality. No way he could leave her alone, not until he was certain she’d merely spooked herself, and that no one had in fact broken into the mansion.
He’d checked the place’s dated security system while he waited for her to regain consciousness. Something had shorted it out. He couldn’t find any obvious signs of tampering. But it was still an argument for reconnoitering the place as soon as he got the chance. Before he reported her latest episode to Atlanta, he needed to see for himself what had happened. With Shaw along for the ride, he needed to investigate where it had occurred. Presumably somewhere near the kitchen, the last place where the lights had flickered on after she’d left her bedroom.
Except there were still shadows swirling in her soft brown eyes. She was terrified, which made him wish he could slay every dragon for her until her fear went away. The fairy-tale image was laughable, but he was an honest enough man to admit that it was partly why he’d stayed, even if he was leaving himself open to an interpersonal dynamic that had nearly destroyed him as a teenager. Not that she remembered him at all. Which was as it should be. She had enough shit to dig herself out of without their past adding more trouble to the mix.
But, good intentions be damned, Cole couldn’t stop himself from holding tight to her hand as they walked deeper into the house. When he steered her down the well-lit hallway toward the kitchen, she tried to pull back. He kept his grip firm on her hand, and on his instinct to shelter her from what had to be done. He needed answers that would make Rick Dawson see her late-night sprint as something other than an attempt to escape the task force’s clutches.
“What are you doing?” she demanded as he drew her forward.
“Finding out what scared you, and showing you it wasn’t me.”
“Why? Who are you? Why are you here?”
The tremor in her voice gentled his touch, but he didn’t let her go. “Let’s stick with one question at a time, shall we?”
The thing about dealing with skittish suspects and witnesses was that they tended to want to be reassured, no matter how hard they fought attempts to help them face what was scaring them. Cole ushered her through the dining room and the swinging door into the mansion’s dated kitchen. A frosted shade covered the overhead light that dimly illuminated the room. It cast shadows across the storage area beyond and its open door to the outside world.
“The lights went out…” Shaw said haltingly. She raised a hand and rubbed the scar on her right temple, looking even more confused as she glanced about. “I know they did. I was heating cocoa, and I heard footsteps…” She pointed toward the dining room. “When I turned to see who it was, the lights went out.”