Authors: Anna DeStefano
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary, #Clandestine
She made herself grab the handset.
It was time to face the music. She dialed the number she’d been given, while fishing in the table’s drawer with her free hand. She snagged a hair band and, the connection ringing as she tucked the phone between her chin and shoulder, she wrapped her hair into a high ponytail, her sliced-up thumb throbbing beneath Cole’s bandage.
“Code,” a bland voice asked at the other end of the line.
“This is Shaw Cassidy,” she said. “I don’t have a code, but—”
“Is there an emergency?” the voice asked.
But I think I’m finally losing it
, she mentally added while she waited.
And, oh, by the way, I’ve broken the one rule you gave me and babbled to my neighbor. He’s moving in to help me…
She had to say something to her Marshals Service handler.
She had no idea if she were really in danger, and now she’d involved an outsider in her bizarre little drama. That alone needed to be reported to the inspector, who might or might not consider it cause enough for actually interacting with her in some meaningful way. Or, coming clean about the night’s developments might mean she’d be yanked away from High Lake before sunup, which Dawson had warned her would be the consequence of breaking the rules. Though how he proposed to make her leave, she wasn’t exactly certain. Surely she could refuse to go.
She walked to the French doors that opened onto the second-story balcony. Hours earlier, she’d run from this place, screaming at shadows. Now…memory or no memory, stalker or no stalker, was she ready to give up on the life she’d hoped would return to her here?
She pulled back the sheer panels covering the frosty panes of glass. The moon winked at her through shifting trees. The property’s currently leafless, skeletal pecan grove had made for an ominous vista every other time she’d stared at it in the middle of the night. It was almost morning now, and the early light sparkling off the restless, bare trees calmed her. The entire bedroom, as she looked around it again, felt more like home than it had before.
After the events of the last few hours, she should be more terrified than ever. Instead, she suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of decamping to some other location where she’d have even less of a chance to regain who she was. She wanted back some peace, some control. And yes, a part of her wanted this forgotten place to mean something to her, even if it was giving her the creeps. If nothing else, she wanted her grandmother’s home to be where she got to the bottom of her fears, not where she decided to give in to them.
Your mind’s telling you you’re in danger
, Cole had said.
Listen to your instincts. Trust me to help you figure out the rest of this.
“Ms. Cassidy,” Chief Inspector Rick Dawson greeted her in his clipped, masculine voice. “Is there a problem?”
The man’s impersonal demeanor had always made
seem as if it would be a giant leap up the charisma scale. But he’d made it clear that if she did finally recall anything of significance, or if there were ever a problem she couldn’t deal with on her own, he was to be her first and only contact.
Instead, tonight, when her reality had become too terrifying to endure alone, she’d run to someone else.
She let the curtain drop back into place. “I…I had another dream,” she said. “About the night I was injured.”
“Have you remembered more?” He was chewing gum, the watery sound of it making her stomach roil even more.
“Maybe.” She thought of Cole but stopped short of mentioning him.
She couldn’t seem to go more than a few seconds without the man popping into her mind. It was crazy, but each time he spoke in that deep timbre of his or looked at her with a directness that made her dizzy or,
, touched her, he became the homecoming this creaking old place hadn’t been until she’d woken with him watching over her.
“I’m not sure what’s real,” she said to Dawson, “and what isn’t. But…”
“You had another dream.” He sighed, his annoyance plain. “Ms. Cassidy, if there’s no emergency, I have other more pressing matters to attend to.”
Matters, no doubt, where his witnesses weren’t clingy head cases. “I was wondering if there was any other reason why you moved me up here from Atlanta,” she blurted out, “besides hoping I’d find it easier to remember my life. I mean, am I being protected in some way or being kept this isolated for some other reason? Is there a known threat, beyond whatever happened to me the night I was shot?”
The connection crackled over his silence. Shaw’s eyes narrowed. Why the hell hadn’t she already confronted this insufferable man with that very question?
Cole was right. It was time to trust her instincts, more than she did her panic and the half truths she’d started to suspect were being spouted to her by officers who couldn’t care less whether she got better.
“Your only concern is to remember as much as you can, as quickly as possible.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Telling you more about your situation could jeopardize your recovery.”
“And that sounds like a cop-out.” The bite in her tone made her sound like a bitch, and she liked it. She felt her connection strengthening to the CEO lurking inside her, a woman who’d never have taken
for an answer from an inspector who was supposed to be looking out for her. “I’m asking you directly. Is my life in jeopardy?”
“Is there any particular reason why you’re wondering, besides your dream?”
She should tell him. About everything. Including Cole, who technically could be behind all of it, no matter how good she felt when he was near.
“Being alone out here in the dead of winter,” she settled for saying, “is spooky.”
“It’s what your doctors think is best.”
“Only my doctors?”
Dawson wasn’t telling her everything. She had a feeling Dawson never had. And for the first time, she was certain that it wasn’t entirely for her own good.
So, in addition to recklessly accepting the help of a neighbor she didn’t remember who was returning any minute, she was feeling increasingly less inclined to trust the federal officer who’d supposedly been appointed to watch out for her.
“You know as much about your case as I can tell you,” Dawson said. “I’m sorry. But until you remember more on your own, it’s best to keep you in the dark about the rest.”
And the hits just kept coming.
Shaw looked out the French doors again, pulling aside the insubstantial material obstructing her view. Cole was approaching the front of the house. Waning moonlight caressed the size and masculine grace of him, and the familiarity of how he moved. She was relieved to see him coming back. But should she be?
How much could she really depend on either of these men?
Still, Cole wasn’t hiding from her, hours away in the city. Or fobbing her off with excuses. He actually seemed to want to deal with what was happening, all the disconnected bits of it. She suspected that kind of charge-through-the-storm approach came as second nature to him. As it did to her, at least for tonight. She’d be crazy not to take him up on his friendly offer, even if at the moment she wasn’t feeling particularly friendly toward anything. It would be a mistake not to trust him, certainly more than she trusted Dawson.
The doorbell rang.
“Ms. Cassidy?” Dawson said.
“Fine,” she replied, already walking out the bedroom toward the stairs. For the first time since her attack, she felt stronger, more in control. Tonight, she was taking her recovery firmly into her own hands. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
She punched off the connection. She smoothed at the wrinkles in her sweat suit with her free hand and headed downstairs, moving faster with each step.
Before she could talk herself into calling Atlanta back and pressing the panic button.
she just lied. didn’t tell me about you being there,
read Rick Dawson’s text to Cole on his satellite cell.
you better know what you’re doing.
Cole had thoroughly cased the outside of the mansion, finding no signs of forced entry or suspicious activity, then jogged to his cabin to pack the equipment he’d need. He’d been on the phone with Dawson, insisting that his presence in the Victorian would not only shelter Shaw better against possible threat, but would also spark more of her memories. Dawson had broken away to take Shaw’s call, muttering that the task force’s tolerance for her lack of progress was slipping precariously close to nonexistent.
But Cole would remain on assignment, Dawson had decided, as long as Cole kept dodging her questions about his background and the reasons he was helping her. And on the condition that he produce something promising by his next check-in.
Cole was on record as not liking how the Bureau and the Marshals Service were mishandling Shaw’s case. Now he’d just inserted himself into her recovery process and committed to moving it along at a faster clip—offering to do the task force’s dirty work for them. It was an irony Dawson had enjoyed pointing out. Cole’s history with their suspect was an asset he’d just agreed to turn to the government’s advantage.
And he had the reputation for mercilessly doing just that, whenever the job required it. Whomever the job involved. His effectiveness on cover assignments and zero-failure rate were unparalleled. Cole didn’t do over-involved. Ever. Dawson was accepting at face value that he wouldn’t over-empathize with a former lover’s dire circumstances. For now, only Cole knew better. He’d already stepped over a line with Shaw that he hadn’t with any other suspect.
This was going to get personal.
Hell, it already had.
But he would turn the recklessness of his actions tonight to his advantage. Somehow, he’d get both Shaw and the Justice Department what they needed. Everyone would win. All Cole had to do was stow the personal crap that had bubbled up when he’d held Shaw in the kitchen. For her sake as well as this assignment’s, he’d focus on his job, and only his job, going forward.
He rang the doorbell again, checking his watch. He had twenty-four hours to compile better evidence. Dawson had said indictments were pending from Justice. If Shaw didn’t remember more, soon, her next destination was a formal interrogation where the best officers in Homeland Security would apply increasingly aggressive techniques, either forcing her mind to spill the secrets it was keeping or, if things went south, lock them away forever.
The front porch lights flared on. The curtain shielding the door’s stained glass insets was pulled aside. Shaw’s pale, beautiful features were revealed.
“It’s okay,” he said, making himself believe what he was saying so she would.
The curtain fell back. The deadbolt released, and she opened up to him, a portable phone in her hand.
“Who are you talking to at the butt crack of dawn?” he asked, something anyone in his right mind would question.
Her gaze tracked past him to the fringes of sunlight softening the dark sky to a slate gray. Then she was studying him again, more carefully than before.
“I called the power company.” She stared at the phone, as if she’d just realized she was still carrying it, lying with a nonchalance a teenage Shaw wouldn’t have been capable of. “I wanted to check on power fluctuations in the area. I still think the lights went out earlier.”
She’d grown up to become the CEO of a
500 corporation. Before that, she’d found the grit to survive the gauntlet that had been her family’s home life. That inner strength was something she could easily use to forge an emotional distance between them that would make his job impossible. Like lying through her teeth.
“And?” he asked, wondering how far she’d take her ruse.
“And what?” She returned his stare impassively.
“You called to reassure yourself that you can trust what you’re seeing and feeling and thinking, more than you trust your fears and your memories. What did he say?”
“Who?” She stepped back, leaving Cole room to slip by, which he took full advantage of.
“The man you spoke to at the power company.” He shut the door and reset the deadbolt with a
that echoed through the shadowy foyer.
Shaw flinched, her lower lip trapped between her teeth, which, perversely, made him want to kiss her in the same spot. She shrugged her shoulders, a simulated gesture of defeat, and brushed past him.
“It was a recording,” she said. “They’ll call back if I leave my name and number.”
She pivoted, halfway across the airy entry room. Her hair was up in a rubber band. The sweat suit she’d changed into had seen better days. But she’d chosen his absolute favorite shade for a woman to wear—a delicate, fragile pink.
She appeared irritated and wary at the same time. She was even more agitated than when he’d left her, though more pissed now than frightened. She should have looked plain. Prickly. Unappealing. Instead, she was the softest, most feminine thing he’d ever seen. He found himself wanting to smooth his hands over every inch of her and cling to her curves along with the soft fabric of her clothes.
This was all about the job for him.
“That would have been a pretty stupid thing to do,” she said, her irritation visibly ticking up another notch. “If someone is looking to threaten me, it would be stupid to give a total stranger my name and the location of a house that’s supposed to be vacant and boarded up. Do I seem like a stupid woman, Mr. Marinos?”