Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
“For hurting you?” Cole took her injured hand from where she was petting Esme, his thumb soothing as it brushed her palm.
“For destroying my life. Even though I wonder how much I could have liked that world and my job, if it’s this easy to banish them from my mind.”
She’d talked to countless doctors and government officials at the hospital, in interviews and consultations that had produced nothing of value and had left her shaking and drained. Petrified. But talking with Cole about what had happened, about her confusion and fear, felt safe. Cathartic. She could breathe easier than she’d been able to since waking in the hospital.
She’d managed to wrap her fingers around his, holding on so tightly her bandaged thumb throbbed.
“I try all day,” she told him, “every day, to remember who and what I am. Nothing happens until I’m asleep, and none of that makes sense once it’s over.” She let go and wiped at the corners of her eyes. “This entire situation is turning me into a stark raving lunatic. I can’t even make coffee without freaking myself out over nothing, because I clumsily grabbed a knife instead of a spoon.”
Cole seemed poised to say something—most likely that he had somewhere else to be besides listening to her ramble on. Instead, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and reached down for the drawer that lay turned on its side on the floor.
“I wouldn’t exactly call this nothing.” He fingered inside the drawer, in the slot where the spoons were stored, then tipped it her way. Light glinted off something wedged in the front corner of the divider.
She started. “Is that…?”
“A knife blade, broken off and jammed into the wrong slot in a place you were guaranteed to come into contact with.”
“But I made chocolate earlier, when I first woke up. That wasn’t there.”
“It’s wedged in pretty good, where you’d eventually brush against it, even if you were being careful. It was only a matter of time before you were cut.”
She found herself wishing the last few seconds would rewind, so she could return to feeling silly about overreacting. Panic choked her with the thought that somehow the faceless man from her dream might actually have set a trap designed to hurt her in a very personal way.
“I love my grandmother’s kitchen,” she said, feeling violated. “Every time I’m in this room I try to remember being here as a little girl, cooking and eating with her. Tonight especially, when I came downstairs earlier, I had my hands all over this drawer, searching for my favorite spoon. That blade couldn’t have been there then. Which means…”
“This is either a fascinating coincidence and that knife broke on its own, which is entirely possible…” Cole laid the drawer on the floor. His gaze cut to her, suddenly hot with fury. “Or you’re no more a raving lunatic than I am. How long have accidents like this been happening?”
“What are you saying?” She needed to hear it. She needed to hear him believe out loud the possibility that she suddenly didn’t want to accept.
“Maybe your doctors are right. You being alone up here in the middle of nowhere with no distractions might help you remember. Then again, it might be making you a sitting duck, if someone’s really trying to hurt you.”
There still wasn’t a credible enough threat for Cole to authorize a site team investigation, not when a crew swarming the place would further agitate a witness who was supposed to be kept calm.
Not that he gave a damn at the moment about what he could or couldn’t authorize.
Even if he hadn’t already committed to spending more time in the mansion, he’d be dug in now. His gut told him that the things happening to Shaw were anything but random, even if he couldn’t yet prove it. And he always listened to his gut.
“Stay here,” he said, retracing his steps to the storage room’s back door.
“Wait.” Shaw set down the cat and ran after him. She tripped on the threshold between the two rooms, stumbling into his arms. “Stay with me.”
His breath caught.
Every time they touched, her bright eyes and the fear she kept bravely fending off pulled him in deeper. His rising compulsion to protect her was quickly eclipsing his misgivings about staying. But being this close to her also felt as if someone were stabbing vicious holes into the part of his heart that remembered what they’d once been to each other.
When their childhood friendship had first progressed to puppy love, then in high school to the kind of combustible, unstoppable force that should have lasted a lifetime, he’d sworn he’d never let her go. It had taken her brother’s death and her subsequent betrayal of Cole to drive him away. He’d thought permanently. Now she was oblivious to the destruction they hadn’t saved each other from as teenagers. She’d thought the charm he’d given her when they’d been little more than kids was beautiful enough for a queen. She’d hung it around her beloved pet’s neck, so she’d have it with her daily.
She was undeniably the Shaw who’d once cared for him, making this assignment even more personal to Cole, and more painful, than it ever should have been. Despite the hurt and the years they’d lost, how could he
safeguard the only woman he’d ever loved? The federal justice system was planning to chew her to pieces. Even with memories of their long-dead affair ripping him apart inside, he had to do everything he could to stop that from happening.
“I’m not going far.” He pulled her arms from around him, catching her hands together between their nearly touching bodies.
He wanted to kiss them, which was ridiculous. He wanted to kiss
, which was dangerous. He needed to strengthen her trust in him, not finish scaring her to death. All while he was out-and-out lying to her. Not only about his presence on the mountain, but that all they’d ever been was friends. Both fabrications were exactly what she needed to hear to stay calm and focused on the work she had to do at High Lake. As soon as she learned the truth—on either count—she’d run as far and as fast from him as she could. But, as with all his undercover roles, his job was to play this one to perfection.
He made himself step away.
“I won’t be gone long,” he said. “I’m packing a bag, that’s all. Lock the door behind me. The rest of the place is secure, even though I think your alarm system is toast. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
“Packing?” She swallowed as if the word were caught in her throat.
“To stay with you.”
She was either relieved or terrified at the prospect of having him move in. Her eyes were still far too big for her delicate features. Her pulse was pounding visibly in her throat.
“Until we know what’s going on,” he clarified, “I’d feel better if you weren’t alone any more than you have to be. Do you think there’s somewhere here that I could sleep and stay out of your way?”
He waited for her to reveal the rest, that all she had to do was make a call to the same person he was about to check in with once he got to his place, and she could have a team of officers looking out for her instead of him.
She inhaled. Her head dropped. She was probably ticking off the pros and cons of saying more to either him or Dawson. Then she reached out to him. Her hand on his arm was the softest touch imaginable.
“You could be putting yourself in danger because of me,” she said. “What if it turns out there
something going on?”
Her concern crashed into him. With it came a tidal wave of memories, of a thousand more of her touches. Touches that had once been his whenever he’d needed them. He stared at her bandaged thumb, rage growing that someone might have dared to threaten a defenseless, already injured woman. Let alone Shaw, who was worried about taking advantage of a neighbor. Meanwhile, the government officers she trusted to protect her were lying through their teeth to her. Which, while technically legal, wasn’t right.
The uncharacteristic thought shocked him. Guilt was a wasted emotion when he was on assignment. He did and said whatever he had to for the job, and that’s just the way it was. But manipulating Shaw this way made him feel like slime.
“Let’s worry about you for a while.” He stepped away. Taking advantage of her still-healing mind, while her cat rubbed against his leg as if he were a long-lost friend, pricked deeper at his conscience. “We don’t know for sure there’s anything to worry about, so let’s not borrow trouble. It’s the middle of the night. We should try and get some sleep once I’m back. It’ll be hours before it would make sense to call the local authorities, if you decide you want to.”
“No.” She curled her arms around herself. “I’ll only sound like a paranoid twit. I assure you, I’ve had my fill of that for a while. Don’t call anyone. You’re right. There’s no real proof that anything’s happened, and—”
Her words hiccupped into silence as he moved close enough to tuck another curling lock of her hair behind her ear. He could smell whatever ultra-feminine soaps and lotions she’d last used. Images of roses and thunder and a winter storm swirled through his mind, strong and delicate and haunting, just like Shaw.
“It’s happening,” he said, forbidding himself from touching her again, or revealing more until he understood how far he could test her memories. “You’re not imagining the threat you’re feeling, even if it’s only coming from your mind. As long as you think you’re in danger, as long as you’ll let me, I’ll be here, Shaw. Listen to your instincts. Trust me to help you figure out the rest of this. Can you do that?”
He was driving her toward the decision he needed her to make, so he could sell his continued presence in the mansion to his task force. Which made him nothing more than the same using bastard he’d been on countless other assignments. But tonight, the tools of his trade made him want to howl at the moon.
“I do trust you.” She didn’t sound as if she particularly liked the realization. Her frown was so adorable he wanted to taste it. “God knows why, but I do.”
He nodded, inching away, wanting to be closer and refusing to give himself permission. “Lock up behind me. I’ll come back through the front entrance. If you hear anything or anyone else, wait for me before investigating.” It made his stomach turn, the thought of her unwittingly hurting herself again. “While I’m gone, think hard about every scrap of memory you have about your shooting. Until we know what you might be up against, I’m not sure what I can do. But I’ll stick as close to you as I can.”
Until we know more…
Shaw shivered at the sentiment she’d been hearing from federal officers since she’d first come to in the hospital. Now it was her neighbor, her old friend, telling her that she was the only one who could fix this for herself. The difference was, Cole had promised to come back.
She glanced at her electric clock on the table beside her bed. He’d been gone for ten minutes. She closed her eyes and ran her hands through Esme’s fur, her cat contentedly drifting back to sleep at the foot of the bed now that the evening’s entertainment was winding down. But whether or not Esmeralda was at Shaw’s side for the rest of the night, maybe for longer, Shaw would no longer feel alone in this.
I’ll stick as close to you as I can…
And as she thought of the sizzling warmth of him—his strong body, strong will, dark coloring, forceful determination, and those bright blue eyes—
seemed to be exactly where her subconscious wanted Cole Marinos to be.
“Stop it!” she chastised herself. “Stop romanticizing things into something they’re not. Be grateful for the company and make the most of it. Don’t screw this up, Shaw.”
When he came back, she wasn’t going to cling to him the way she had when he’d left. She was stronger than that. At least, she was determined to be.
She’d endured her solitary exile on High Lake so far, and she could continue to do so. She’d been told she was a hard-as-nails career woman—even if she didn’t feel much like one at the moment—with advanced degrees in both business and nuclear physics. With every ounce of energy she’d regained, she’d been searching this place for clues to her life, as thoroughly as she’d like to think she’d researched projects at Cassidy Global. Talking to Cole was merely another way for her to ease into her memories.
She was going to take him up on his offer, and then hope that borrowing his memories would conjure up some of her own. And she was going to keep her romantic notions to herself.
Her doctors said doing too much might trigger more panic attacks, like the ones she’d endured after the shooting. Well, she hadn’t done anything of consequence since she’d moved into this place, and she was having freak-outs anyway. How much more damage could spending time with her neighbor do? Hang her stress level.
She slammed closed the photo album she’d started flipping through when she’d first come upstairs. She dropped it back to the pile she’d stacked up beside the bed. It contained images from the years just before her brother, Sebastian, disappeared from her family’s pictorial history. The final few pages in the album held only one or two unsmiling photos of her and the disapproving man her father had evidently been. Then nothing.
She had no idea why she’d dug out that particular album tonight. But after cleaning up the silverware in the kitchen, she’d felt an almost frantic need to stare at pictures from what had evidently been some of her last days on High Lake Mountain.
She’d been told dispassionately by Dawson as he’d driven her here that her brother, just a few years older than she’d been, had died in his late teens. Her father had passed five years later, leaving her alone in the world, since her mother had died in childbirth the day Shaw was born. Dawson had suggested she try to focus on her High Lake memories first. It might be a way to ease into recalling more important things about now.
The flashes of insight she’d experienced since meeting her childhood friend, Cole, certainly seemed promising. And then there were the odd changes in her nightmare after running into him, the few bits she could remember. Had there been a fire of some kind up here? Would Cole know anything more about that than she did? She pressed a hand to her stomach. Just contemplating talking with him about it made her feel sick. Wondering how long it would take for him to come back, or if he might change his mind and
come back, made the queasiness worse.
She paced across her bedroom, then back, analyzing everything she didn’t know, going over every disconnected detail, grasping for clues. Despite her vow to get her emotions under control, her chest tightened with the same anxiety that had sent her fleeing into the woods earlier.
“Knock it off!” She whipped off her robe and nightgown, and tossed them onto the unmade bed beside a now-snoozing Esme. She stomped to her chest of drawers for underwear, then to the closet. “Find something to wear that doesn’t scream ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘please hold me’ before the poor man comes back.”
They’d been friends. He hadn’t said more, which meant there wasn’t any more to say. Why on earth did it suddenly feel as if she needed him beside her or she’d never get through this ordeal?
The problem was, every time Cole drew close or looked at her the way he kept studying her, as if he wanted to know every intimate thing she was thinking, it
like more. Just being with him, she’d sensed more of herself coming back. She kept feeling
, together, in an increasingly un-friends-like way. Her body even now was growing heavy with an awareness that had nothing to do with the last few hours, making her wonder what their friendship had once meant to her.
Was he being careful with her for some reason, not telling her some part of their history? Was he leery of getting any more involved with her than he already was? Or had it been garden-variety sympathy transforming his features as he’d stared at her until it felt as if she could fall into him, into them, and never want to come out?
Or maybe her mind was simply fabricating something else that didn’t exist.
She snatched her frumpiest sweats from a low shelf that ran beneath the rack where her professional wardrobe hung—conservative suits and dresses and separates in earth-tone palettes that made her sad each time she looked at them. They were the clothes of a career-obsessed, lonely woman, a woman she was fighting her way back to being. In contrast, the frayed drawstring pants and hooded sweatshirt she plucked from the shelf were a powdery, calm pink, the material worn soft by years of use.
The red set currently in the laundry pile had been her mainstay since moving in. Every morning, she wore them as she did yoga and Pilates and meditated. Which had been her practice for years, she’d been told. Since returning to High Lake, the mind-body connection of the rituals hadn’t really helped. But tonight, the pink sweats made her smile at the thought of wearing them the next time she worked out. She pulled them on and took a deep breath. Calmer, she walked back to the bedside table and the portable phone that sat in its base beneath a lamp.