Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
“This is Marinos,” he said when the connection completed. “We have a problem.”
“Code?” was the emotionless response that sounded the same on each of his daily check-ins.
Rattling off the series of numbers and letters that would confirm he was who he said he was, he walked the rest of the way up the stairs.
“Go,” the deep voice said.
“Attempt on principal.” Every window and door he checked was locked. Many of them looked as if they’d been painted shut for years. He found no indication that any of the entry points to the Cassidy mansion had been breached. “Location confirmed secure from the inside.”
A pause followed. “Repeat?”
“I’m inside the house, and there’s no evidence the perimeter’s been challenged. But I have identified a single bullet hole, advanced from a weapon fired on the grounds.”
The officer taking his report responded with another stretch of silence. Cole could only imagine the frenzy of activity his alert had set off in Atlanta.
“Repeating,” the voice finally replied. “Perimeter and principal secure. One shot fired toward target area. Breach of protocol. Marshal on the scene engaged with principal.”
“Advise that unless situation further escalates,” the voice said, “next contact at scheduled time.”
“Confirmed.” Cole flipped the cell shut and accepted that his subsequent check-in might not go as smoothly. If the task force thought the case was compromised, Dawson might very well decide to yank Shaw into formal custody.
Before that could happen, Cole had to help her remember more about her shooting, something that would buy her time. Even if it meant manipulating the hell out of her tenuous trust in him. And he had to find a way to do his job and keep her calm amidst the craziness of her here-and-now world, without reminding her of their disastrous history together. His hand clenched at the memory of discovering the gold charm hanging from her cat’s collar.
Touching it again had been like reaching for a ghost and discovering that what he’d thought was long dead had been given new life. Except Shaw didn’t remember him gifting her with it on her sixteenth birthday, or that it had once belonged to his mother. She didn’t remember anything about him, particularly not the violent, deadly way their relationship had ended. Basically, his babysitting assignment had just become a goatfuck. One he couldn’t walk away from no matter how loudly his instincts were clamoring for him to do so. Not yet.
The job of everyone from the Marshals Service to the Bureau would be made significantly easier if Shaw were taken into custody instead of merely stranded on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. The weak, circumstantial evidence that an unsub might possibly have her in his sights actually gave Cole hope. It was a stroke in favor of her innocence. But some of the concerned parties weren’t going to be happy that there might be more to Shaw’s situation than met the eye.
He couldn’t allow them to railroad her a step closer to prosecution. Not until he’d done everything he could to prove her innocence.
He turned to head downstairs.
A crash shattered the night, followed by a muffled cry that sent him racing down the steps, pulling his Glock from the shoulder holster he’d concealed beneath his T-shirt. He halted outside the kitchen’s closed door, just long enough to register the sound of a sharp inhale of pain on the other side.
He blew through the door in a forward lunge that became a tucked roll, rotating him up onto the balls of his feet. He stilled, resting in a perfectly balanced crouch. He leveled his weapon on the only moving target in the room.
Then pulled up. It was Shaw, trembling against the counter by the sink, holding her hand before her in an awkward way—a hand that was bleeding all over the place.
Alarm stabbed through him. His reflex was to go to her, assess her injury, soothe her. But the cold-as-ice agent within him scanned the scene first, left then right, his back pressed to the refrigerator to give him an optimum angle to take out anything stupid enough to challenge him. When he was satisfied there was no one else, he lowered the Glock and refocused on Shaw.
Blood had soaked through a kitchen towel she’d wrapped around her left hand. She was shaking so hard her teeth were chattering.
“You…” Her eyes were wide and as wild as an owl’s, her stare fixated on the weapon in his hand. “What are you doing with a gun?”
doing?” It grated when it shouldn’t matter, her mind’s insistence that she should fear him first and ask questions later. He returned his weapon to the holster that enabled him to carry his gun low and at his side, hidden beneath his T-shirt. He stepped toward her, ignoring how she shrank back as far as she could against the counter. He nodded toward her injury. “You’re bleeding like a stuck pig. I heard your cry of pain all the way upstairs. What the hell are
She glanced down at her hand.
“Oh.” She gave him a sheepish smile. “Sorry.”
Then she promptly fainted into his outstretched arms.
“Shaw…Shaw?” Calloused fingers tapped at her cheeks. “Darlin’, can you hear me? What the hell happened? Wake up and talk to me.”
There was another touch at Shaw’s wrist, feeling her pulse. Then pressure on her injured thumb that sent pain shooting up her arm, ripping her eyes open.
“Stop.” She gasped and tried to pull away. “Oh, God. Did I faint? Again? Give me a break!”
Cole had knelt beside where she’d slid to the floor in front of the sink. Her legs fought awkwardly, unsuccessfully, for the traction to stand and move away from him. She slipped on the silverware she’d spilled from the drawer after she’d searched for a teaspoon and somehow cut herself. Everything scattered in even more directions, until she relented and dropped back onto the floor.
Cole applied more pressure to the towel she’d wrapped around her hand.
“Ow!” she cried. “Don’t do that.”
“You’ve cut yourself.”
She’d felt weaker by the day since coming to this place. And she hated it. Especially each time she let herself think about giving up, the way she had earlier tonight when she’d run. She was supposed to be getting stronger, not squandering her chance to heal.
And then there was the matter of how all this nonsense must be making her look to her drop-dead-gorgeous neighbor.
“Just leave me alone,” she said, mortified by the fact that he’d thought it necessary to come to her rescue twice in as many hours. “Please. I’m going to be fine.”
“Let me see how deep it is.” He unwrapped her makeshift bandage. The tenderness of the gesture made her go soft deep inside, in the same place that had been terrified when he’d burst into the kitchen like an avenging warrior, wielding a gun. His head bent over her hand. His focus was locked onto her the same way it had been in the parlor.
And somehow, she found herself relaxing into his touch again, into an overwhelming rush of sensation and familiarity that spoke to her of a time before she’d forgotten everything important. When, according to him, she’d once known she could trust him. She’d sent him to check the house while she fiddled with the coffee, more to regain some distance between them than anything else. But as soon as he’d thought she’d needed him, Cole had come running back.
They’d been friends once, and she was unexpectedly dizzy with the rightness of his ease at being part of her midnight meltdown. As if some part of her she couldn’t recall was certain that this was absolutely where they both should be, this man settling on the floor beside her as he tried to take her pain away.
“Cole?” She cringed inwardly. She’d made his name sound fragile, as if she were a terrified girl instead of a grown woman.
“I know,” he said, looking up. “I’m scaring you. We can talk more in a minute. Let me see how badly you’re hurt, in case we need to get you to the hospital. Can you at least do that?”
The request sounded agreeable enough, yet the command underlying his tone left little room for argument. The current of connection running between them threatened to swamp Shaw all over again. The mysteries swirling in her mind made even less sense when she was with him. He was like the riddles in her nightmare, confusing her each time she looked too closely. And her latest enigma had come equipped with a firearm that he’d wielded with an ease that made her suspect he was intimately familiar with all manner of delivering deadly force.
But her choices were to trust him or to call Dawson so the inspector could drive up to check things out. She shuddered. Even if she needed professional medical treatment, she wasn’t certain at this point if she’d merit so much as a blip on the inspector’s radar. His likely conclusion would be that she’d been careless and clumsy. She’d panicked again for no reason. The last thing she could handle until she got her emotions under control was another condescending reminder that her neuroses were a pain in everyone else’s butt. And gun or no gun, Cole’s presence at least made her feel calmer.
He was waiting for her to decide if she wanted his help.
She gave him a hesitant nod. He pulled back the towel. They both winced. The diagonal slice across the pad of her thumb sullenly oozed blood. He prodded it with the corner of the towel, holding her wrist when she would have jerked away.
“Sorry.” He pressed the back of her hand to her lap, covering the cut with the towel, then with her other hand to apply pressure. “It doesn’t look too deep. If we wrap it tightly enough, I don’t think it’s going to need stitches.”
“Are you sure?”
“There’s only one way to find out. Keep putting pressure on it. I’ll grab supplies.”
He shoved aside the table knives and forks and spoons that had clattered to the hardwood after she’d dragged the drawer from its glider. He opened the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out the first-aid kit she’d discovered while cleaning.
“How did you know that was there?” she asked, his familiarity with her unfamiliar surroundings both disturbing and oddly reassuring.
As he resettled beside her on the floor, the impressive muscles in his upper torso and thighs bunched and rolled beneath his black T-shirt and faded jeans. Talk about disturbing. Did
about this guy have to attract her the way Esmeralda panted for catnip?
Her attention shifted to the bulge at his side near his waist, where he’d tucked his gun away. He caught the direction of her gaze and came up on one knee in front of her. From the plastic kit, he produced a packet of gauze and tore it open with his teeth.
“I grabbed my weapon when I heard you scream the first time,” he said, unwrapping the towel while he talked. “It was the middle of the night, and I was running from my home not sure what to expect. I’m sorry if I scared you, but you sounded terrified just now, and I was on the top floor, so—”
“So you thought you’d swoop into my kitchen like a one-man SWAT team? Who does that?”
He pressed a wad of gauze to her thumb and applied pressure.
“I know it hurts,” he said over her sharp inhale. “It’s the only way we’ll stop the bleeding.”
“And you know that how?” she asked through clenched teeth.
Actually, it didn’t hurt as badly anymore. Or maybe she didn’t notice as much because Cole was close again, the masculine strength of him easing her frazzled senses. As he worked on her hand, waves of brown hair were near enough for her to reach out and touch their silkiness. She didn’t, of course. But she ached to.
“The same way,” he said, “that I knew how to use the gun I pointed at you a few minutes ago, but never would have hurt you with.”
“You’re with the police?” She watched him root around the box for a second time. Anything, it seemed, was preferable to looking her in the eye.
He pulled out a small white packet and opened it the way he had the gauze. He plucked an antiseptic towelette from the wrapper and replaced the soiled gauze with the wipe and more careful pressure, making her hiss.
Really? That was all she was going to get?
He couldn’t have been more gentle about taking care of her, this man she suspected was a force to be reckoned with wherever he went. But parting with personal information obviously wasn’t his thing. Meanwhile, her addled mind was now obsessing over the clean, outdoorsy scent of him, as if that were all that mattered when it came to trusting the guy or not.
“Okay,” she said. She pointed to the first-aid kit he had gone back to sifting through. “Let’s talk about how you knew that was under my grandmother’s sink. Exactly how close were we when we were younger?”
He produced a butterfly bandage this time. “I’m more concerned about why you don’t remember me or, according to you, anything else.” He wrapped her thumb with an economical twist of his wrist. He looked up from his handiwork. “We knew each other from the time we were little kids until we were nearly out of high school. And I have to say, you’ve never been the type to freak at things that go bump in the night. Now you think someone’s trying to kill you?” A deep frown made his rugged features and cerulean eyes impossibly compelling. “Maybe we should go to the hospital. Did you hit your head either time you fell tonight?”
At his directness and obvious concern, Shaw felt moisture flood her eyes. She glanced at the cabinet, the sink, then at the beautiful silverware scattered on the floor around them. None of her grandmother’s things felt as though they belonged to her. None of it seemed remotely as real as the nearness, the warmth, of this man looking back at her. Which only made her want to cling to him, and she’d be damned if she’d give him another reason to pity her.
“No.” She fingered the scar at her temple. “I didn’t hit my head either time. Not that it matters. Nothing matters in the end. Not when you can’t even remember yourself.”
He stilled. He was obviously curious. Confused. But the compassion that quickly eclipsed both reactions was what finally made her tears fall.
“Anything?” he asked. “Before I went upstairs, you said you’d forgotten…”
“Everything.” She pulled her hand from his grasp and gestured toward her head. “I was…hurt, and nothing before that night will come back to me.”
He collected the trash from his work, then closed up the kit, letting her cry without making a fuss about it, or making her feel childish for her loss of control. “And something about the way you were injured is making you think someone is still after you?”
He reached for her face. His finger brushed across her temple, her scar, and her memories, leaving her shivering with the almost-there sensation that he might be the first memory she could reach for, grab onto, and not watch slip through her fingers.
“I…I was shot,” she whispered. She cleared her throat. “I dream about it, but I can never see his face, the man who did this to me. They wanted to kill me and he tried. Or maybe I’m imagining all of it, and my bruised brain is hiding what really happened. Hysterical amnesia, the doctors call it. I’m supposed to be here so I can relax enough to get something of my life back. I’m told I was here every summer growing up. I guess while you lived on the mountain, too, with your family? My doctors thought it would be a nonthreatening, familiar retreat.”
“And it’s not?”
“What I keep thinking I remember about the night I was hurt is so horrible. People wanting me dead…”
Cole stretched out one powerful, jeans-clad leg and snagged a chair with the toe of his boot, dragging it over from the table. He rose from the floor, lifting her with him as if she were light as a doll. She stiffened in his grasp.
“I can do it,” she said, not entirely sure why she was struggling out of his arms, when the amazing feel of his hard, muscular body supporting hers was enough to make her dizzy all over again.
But he let her go, easing her onto her feet while he remained beside her until she’d settled in the chair. He took its nearest companion, turning it around before straddling the seat and propping his arms on the back. Her cat made a return appearance. Esmeralda rubbed her dainty body against Cole’s calf, purring with delight.
Shaw shook her head in amazement, trying not to take it personally, given the nonchalance the animal had always shown her in comparison. “Who knew she was such a flirt,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Cole scooped up Esme and placed her in Shaw’s lap, where the Siamese curled up, content to gaze adoringly at her new conquest. It suddenly struck Shaw how similar Cole’s eye color was to her cat’s. Such a beautiful, brilliant blue. It had been one of the things she’d first loved about Esmeralda when she’d been told that the beautiful, if aloof, creature was her long-time pet.
Cole touched Esme’s gold charm, then withdrew his hand. The metal disk tinkled as it swung back and forth on the cat’s collar.
“Pretty,” he said, his gaze lifting to Shaw’s face. “It looks old.”
“I think it was my grandmother’s. I found it while ransacking the house for something that might jar my memory. It was so beautiful, I couldn’t just throw it back in a dusty drawer. I figured it was special enough for even my little queen to appreciate.” She hugged her purring companion close. “Esmeralda’s been wearing it ever since.”
Cole smiled, then his attention shifted to the floor between them. With a roll of his massive shoulders, he looked back up again, his expression solemn.
“Why would someone be trying to kill you?” he asked, as if what must have sounded like raging paranoia was the most logical thing in the world.
His easy acceptance sang through her. She found herself wanting to wrap Cole around her, close her eyes, and believe him into the reality of her forgotten life.
“I run an international corporation,” she explained instead, reminding herself firmly that he was just being neighborly. “We research various technologies, mostly top-secret stuff for the government. Maybe there’s some explanation there of who might want to hurt me.”
“You mean so they can get you out of the way to steal something?”
“Or I pissed someone off. A rival, maybe. But the authorities don’t think so. They can’t find evidence of any threats against me. I was mostly a loner, I’m told. There wasn’t much to my world but my work, and most of that was done in an isolated office building where I spent the majority of my time. The doctors won’t allow the authorities to share with me too many details of my life or my shooting. They don’t want to overstress my recovery. So I need to remember on my own.”
She stopped short of telling him about the Marshals Service keeping tabs on her. Her story already sounded ridiculous enough.
“I keep dreaming about that night. I know there’s something, someone, I should be remembering. But my recall shuts down when I wake up. I’m trying to take things slow up here. You know, while I exhaust myself cleaning everything in sight, until I’m so tired I think every bump in the night is an evil man out to get me.” She sighed. “If I can’t calm down and remember more, I might never know who’s responsible for this.”