Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
“You took the cocoa off the burner first?” He crossed to the stove.
“No, I…” Shaw stared at the pan that had been set neatly aside. The burner was turned off. Her forehead wrinkled. “I left it heating when something crashed in the dining room.”
“What crashed?” He shoved open the swinging door to the dining room.
Everything seemed to be where it should be. He tested the wall switch. The crystal chandelier burst into shimmering glory. He checked the carpet for footprints. It was muddy outside. Someone might have tracked in dirt or leaves.
“There’s no sign that anyone’s been here but you,” he said. Which would be seen as another strike against her when he reported her nocturnal activity.
Shaw peeked over his shoulder, then whirled around to stare into the storage room connected to the kitchen. The soft, lavender-colored robe she wore swirled around her like a formal gown, resettling with a sigh along the soft curves of her body. “I crawled into the back room. It was pitch black, but the footsteps were behind me there, too. I think…”
She rubbed at her scar again.
“Are you certain that’s what happened?” He steered her toward the storage room. As far as he’d seen, the lights hadn’t gone out at all. So at least a portion of what she’d experienced had occurred solely in her mind.
She accepted his touch more easily this time. Her trust left Cole battling a compulsion to tell her everything he knew about how much legal trouble she was in. But even if the parameters of his assignment had allowed him to do so—which they didn’t—the doctors didn’t want the details of her situation, or her memories, forced onto her.
And the guarded place inside Cole that a younger Shaw had trampled warned him not to identify any more personally with her situation than he already had.
“You heard more footsteps?” he prompted when she didn’t respond. “The lights were out. You crawled in here. Then what?”
She shook her head. “A gunshot?”
She looked up at him. Her expression begged him to believe her. Staring into the room’s shadows, she curled slender fingers around his wrist. Her gaze turned toward the outside door. Her body tensed as if she might run.
He flicked on the lights and squinted into the glare. The fuse box was set into the wall beside shelves that dominated the tiny room. Crossing to it, Shaw in tow, he gave the unit a thorough appraisal, checking for signs of tampering that he didn’t find. He realized his thumb was rubbing circles across Shaw’s soft palm, making soothing sweeps that he was taking as much comfort from at the moment as she was.
The only legitimate thing she seemed to have to fear was the dissociation that was making Swiss cheese out of her mind. Which meant he needed to secure the house, then disappear from her life again. Only he was no longer certain of his ability to let her go.
“There’s nothing wrong with the lights, is there?” she asked bleakly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Her sweet features were hardening with self doubt, and he couldn’t stand it.
“There was never anything wrong with them. You’re telling me that I was wandering around in the middle of the night, scared out of my mind, and there was nothing wrong. Except that now I’m managing to frighten myself when I’m awake, too, even more than when I’m having nightmares.”
She paced the few feet to the other side of the room. She kept her back to him, her gaze on the floor.
“Don’t face facts?” she asked, her dispassionate tone betraying the analytical, just-the-facts scientist lurking within her. “Don’t admit that what startles me most in my dreams, the only things I can remember clearly once I’m awake, are the blast of a gunshot and trying to stop a man with no face from killing me? And, oh yeah, there’s evidently a fire now. And my mind’s decided to project a phantom attacker into my waking world.” She lifted her gaze to stare out the open door. “After this, how am I supposed to know what’s fact and what’s not? How do I trust anything, when every sound in the night freaks me out? Nothing happened this time, either, but according to you I panicked and ran anyway. And none of it was real.”
She swallowed. Then she turned to face Cole. Her chin came up.
“How do you know my name?” she demanded like the queen she’d been raised to be. “Tell me who you are, damn it.”
Her show of courage and the delicate curves of her heart-shaped face, the honey-colored hair floating around the shoulders of her soft, pale nightclothes, were mesmerizing. He wanted to tell her he’d been watching over her ever since she came back, the same as he’d protected her every long-ago summer of their youth. That there was something still inside him willing to stand between her and whatever harm she encountered. Especially after she mentioned fire being a new facet of her dream.
definitely fell under the heading of new information. Someone would need to investigate further what it meant to her case. Currently, that someone would seem to be the task-force agent on site. Him.
Suddenly, Shaw flinched. She brushed him aside to get a better look at the wall past his shoulder. He watched incredulously as she traced her finger over a bullet hole. A bullet hole he’d overlooked because he’d been too damn caught up in her emotional breakdown to properly do his job.
“You did this,” she whispered, her voice shaking with the same near-hysteria as when she’d first woken up. “You scared me to death and shot at me, then you brought me in here, for some sick reason, to convince me it never happened.” Suspicion clouded her features. “You actually had me believing you just wanted to help. You almost got me to trust you. Tell me who the hell you are, damn it, and why you’re screwing with my mind!”
Shaw still didn’t even know this guy’s name. Who walked around a secluded house in the middle of the night with someone who refused to tell her his name? Just because she liked his eyes and his voice and touch and nearness had made her feel secure for a few lonely minutes…
She felt her tenuous hold on sanity slip a notch further. She’d let him lead her around her house as if he belonged there. Had he brought her to the kitchen to toy with her some more? To flaunt how he’d terrified her in her own home, lie to her face, get her to believe him, and then…
She’d been freezing since she’d awoken in the parlor. But now her body felt as if it were on fire, especially where this stranger had touched her. Because he didn’t feel like a stranger, regardless of how just the sight of him made her heart want to beat its way out of her chest.
He ignored her tirade and scowled at the ugly hole a bullet had made in the wall.
If he’d really meant her harm, why hadn’t he finished her off when he found her in the woods? Instead, he’d taken care of her until she woke. He’d been trying to reassure her ever since. And in the process, he’d managed to look drop-dead gorgeous and perfectly at ease amidst her grandmother’s ultra-feminine world.
As if this were exactly where he belonged.
A soft meow announced Esme’s appearance through the back door. She scampered toward Shaw, her tail twitching in irritation. The cat must have followed her outside when she’d run. Thank God her pet hadn’t been shut out in the confusion. Halfway across the room, the Siamese spotted their intimidating visitor for the first time. She froze and crouched, ears back, her slanted eyes assessing her unexpected adversary. Then she sniffed, edged closer, and without dropping a beat began to rub shamelessly against the black denim of the man’s jeans.
The little hussy.
Shaw tried to remember a single time since her return to High Lake when the aloof creature had showed her half as much unsolicited affection. Irritation sifted through her.
“Who are you?” she asked the man for the umpteenth time. “Why are you doing this?”
He was fingering the bullet hole, as if he could tell something about it by touch alone. He took his time looking away, reaching down to scratch under Esme’s chin, and only then confronted Shaw.
“Doing what?” he asked.
It was a fair question, even though he’d never gotten around to answering any of hers. What exactly
she accusing him of? Trying to shoot her, then forcing her to discover evidence of his crime?
“Being so smug and pleased with yourself that you make me want to smack you?” she groused. “Charming my fickle cat into liking you, when I want to throw you both out on your tails?”
He smiled at her scowl, then chuckled. He stepped toward her. His grin fizzled when she edged closer to the same door she’d run through earlier. She snatched up her Siamese and cuddled Esme close. The charm on the cat’s collar jingled, drawing his attention. He reached up to finger the gold trinket, his jaw hardening. His friendly expression cooled to a guarded mask. The transformation left her desperate to hear him laugh again.
“You never were the nervous type, Shaw.” His arm dropped to his side. “I figured playing it loose and easy might help you settle down a bit. Evidently nothing’s going to do that until I leave you be.”
He brushed by her, heading toward the outer door.
“Don’t go!” she said to his back, the surprising words flying from her mouth.
He stopped and turned around, and she was suddenly able to take her next breath. Was she so desperate not to be alone for one more second of crazy, that she’d latch onto a complete stranger to distract herself?
trust this man.
The certainty of it drew her a step closer to him. She stopped an arm’s length away and set Esme down, painfully aware as she did of her disheveled appearance…and of how carefully he’d gone out of his way to act as if he hadn’t noticed. He’d simply talked her into calmly facing her fears instead of running again.
She offered her hand to shake. “Can we start over? I’m Shaw Cassidy. You say we knew each other as children?”
His dubious expression said he didn’t trust her sudden shift in mood. “You don’t remember me? Not at all?”
“No.” But if she
remember the feel of someone, the comfort of a voice and a touch, if she could dream her idea of a perfect protector into life, this guy would definitely fit the bill.
“Okay.” He took her hand, the controlled strength of his grip making her shiver. “My name’s Cole Marinos. We grew up together. We haven’t seen each other since… Not for years.”
She grappled to remember the name. His face. Anything about him or their past together. All she came up with was the same hazy sense of familiarity that had led her to ask him to stay.
“I can assure you,” he said, “I’m not a threat to your safety. I’m taking a few weeks of vacation from work, and my family’s cabin is on your property. It was deeded to my dad’s estate when yours died. I didn’t realize there was anyone living up here again. Your scream woke me up, and I wanted to make sure everything was all right. I’m usually the kind to keep to myself. I certainly wouldn’t be chasing you around your grandmother’s house at night, shooting up the place.”
If he were any other man, his slight southern drawl might have softened him. This man—Cole—gave off too formidable a vibe for that. But there was honor there, too, rolling off him in waves. And there
a past between them…one that felt as familiar as he did. Even if she couldn’t remember it, she could feel the connection through his touch and his words and the assurance that made her feel she was safe with him.
An image of flames seared her mind, of her surrounded by them, screaming…
She yanked her hand away.
“You can trust me, Shaw.” His eyes flicked to the neat little hole the bullet had made in the wall. “Let me make some coffee while you tell me what’s going on. It’s not like either one of us is going to sleep again anytime soon.”
How ungrateful could she be? This guy was accepting her irrational fears at face value and offering to help sort things out. And she hadn’t even thanked him.
“I’m sorry.” She gulped at the detestable tears that refused to recede. “I’m so sorry to be disturbing your vacation like this. It’s just…” Where did she begin? She had no idea how much of her situation was safe to tell him. But he was right. There was no way she was getting back to sleep. And being alone with her thoughts until dawn was an unbearable proposition. “You’re being very understanding, staying as long as you have. Thank you.”
“I haven’t done all that much. But if it makes you feel any better, I don’t think that bullet hole is fresh.”
“But…” She glanced at the mark. “I’ve never seen it before.”
He examined the damage more closely. He pulled a small, dark cylinder from his jeans’ pocket and clicked a switch on its barrel. It turned out to be a penlight, like something Shaw imagined a Boy Scout might carry, which he used to examine the hole once more. “Do you come in here a lot?”
Not at all, actually. To Shaw, the room appeared to be a long-term storage area full of tools and old boards and other things she didn’t feel at all connected to. So she’d focused her near-obsessive cleaning efforts on the clutter elsewhere.
“Then it’s possible,” he said, “this happened years ago.”
“Who would have had a reason to shoot off a gun in my grandmother’s house?”
“Who would have a reason to shoot at you tonight?”
She shook her head. She wanted to keep shaking it, violently, until the answers she didn’t have jostled free.
He rubbed his thumb along the blemish in the plaster. “The edges aren’t rough. I’m not sure what that means, but I’m guessing over time things tend to smooth themselves out.”
Something deep inside her quivered at his statement. Would time really help her make sense of her upside-down world? It had already been three weeks. She realized how close she was to giving up on her mind ever getting better. She shoved aside the unappealing thought. She wasn’t a quitter. Not before the attack, and not now. That much she knew for certain.
She should call the number Inspector Dawson had given her in case of emergencies. But she’d feel like a fool, as she had every other time she hadn’t been able to produce proof to back up her paranoia. She didn’t want to go there tonight. For a few moments, she wanted to believe she really was as safe as she felt each time this friend she couldn’t remember touched her.
“I’ll…I’ll make the coffee,” she said to Cole. “If you wouldn’t mind—” He was a childhood pal, right? A neighbor whom her sensitive feline had taken to without hesitation, who was doing the best he could to comfort a nervous woman in the middle of the night. “Would you mind checking the rest of the doors in the house to make certain they’re locked? I know I’m being ridiculous, but sometimes I swear it feels like someone’s watching my every move.”
Cole’s gaze narrowed on her.
He clicked off his penlight. “What makes you say that?” he asked, seeming to believe her without question.
She worried her bottom lip between her teeth. “It’s just a feeling, but my feelings are all I have left of my old life. That kind of nothingness tends to make a girl pay attention to the least little things.”
“What’s going on, Shaw? Why are you up here alone, terrified of your own shadow and thinking someone’s trying to kill you? Why don’t you recognize me?”
She wrapped her arms around her waist, making the decision that she was done keeping everything to herself, hang what her doctors and Dawson thought was best for her. All their helpful recommendations had achieved so far was her making herself even more of a candidate for a straightjacket. It was time to experiment with alternative solutions, even if it meant breaking the rules.
“Why? Because someone
try to kill me.” She lifted her bangs to show Cole her scar. “Only I can’t tell you who, any more than I can remember you. Or myself and my cat. Or this house, the beautiful mountains around us, my life before here, or even my grandmother, who was supposedly like a mother to me until she died. The only thing that feels real is the irrational belief that if something doesn’t come back to me soon, whoever did this to me is going to try to kill me again. And this time I’m going to die.”
Cole warred with the conflicting impulses either to pull Shaw close once more, or to hit the road.
The scope of his assignment was shifting precariously, even if the rest of his team didn’t know it yet. As unexpected as his confrontation with Shaw in the woods had been, it was already producing some enticing results. If she kept trusting him, and if he got over his aversion to being back in this damn house and applied himself to calming and soothing her the way his instincts still screamed for him to, they might accomplish together what she hadn’t been able to on her own.
Would his presence be the catalyst that would finally get her to remember, without an interrogator resorting to forcing her, as the Bureau intended to do?
She was still too lost to her nightmares. She didn’t recognize him. Yet she was remembering fire, which meant that some things must be coming back to her, if still subconsciously. And she’d asked him to stay. Dawson wouldn’t be thrilled. There was still the chance that Cole could further damage her memory. Then again, his presence might trigger her to recall everything the government needed in order to hand down the first indictments in the Cassidy Global investigation. Hopefully not directed at Shaw.
From the task force’s standpoint, it would be seen as progress if someone actually had taken a shot at her tonight. Possibly from long range or with a silencer, because she hadn’t mentioned hearing gunfire. The bad news was, Cole couldn’t be certain what had truly happened. She might have imagined the whole damn episode. He didn’t have the right equipment in the cabin for a detailed site incursion analysis. And his orders were clear: if confronted, no one was to know his true purpose for being on High Lake.
It would take a forensics team to determine if it were even possible to isolate the trajectory of the bullet when it pierced the wall. Or how someone might actually have bypassed his obstacle course of sensors spanning the grounds, to come within a hair’s breadth of hurting or killing Shaw. But until those things could be determined, for all Cole knew, the hole
come from a hunter, months, possibly years ago.
“I’ll check the doors and windows,” he agreed, “and meet you down here.”
He’d double and triple-check them. While he did, he’d use the secure satellite phone he’d brought with him to call in the possible attack, own up to his breach of protocol, and get the all clear to move forward, ensuring that his ass would remain stuck in the mansion for the foreseeable future.
With a nod toward Shaw and her exotic-looking pet, he shut and securely locked the back door and struck off toward the front of the house. He cased the first floor, all while double-checking the portable device he’d brought with him which was remotely linked to his equipment at the cabin. With it, he confirmed there’d been no unexplained activity in the woods surrounding the house since he’d carried her home. Mounting the back steps two at a time, he stopped at the landing halfway to the second floor and placed the call he couldn’t put off any longer.
He’d learned the key to career longevity was to own up to any rule-breaking from the start. Then each deviation he successfully executed became perceived as a calculated risk instead of carelessness. Delivering the desired outcome however he had to was then perceived as resourcefulness rather than a screwup that had somehow managed not to hit the skids.