Authors: Kara Braden
“Rice or potatoes?”
Startled, Ian looked back and saw her in the kitchen archway. His eyes immediately went to the pistol holstered at her left hip. “Either.”
She let out an amused huff. “You're an awfully easy houseguest,” she said and went back into the kitchen.
He stared after her, wondering if she was flirting or simply in a good mood. She'd been tense around Magsâa tension he had read as possible jealousyâbut now she seemed relaxed and comfortable. She'd certainly been staring at him earlier; she hadn't bristled when he'd returned the admiration, either, though he'd tried to be subtle about it.
The laptop beeped with a download complete notification. Ian turned the chair back around and muted the volume. He didn't want to call attention to the video until he knew exactly what it was. Then he double-clicked it to launch his video player.
After a few seconds of black, the footage turned grainy, showing a poorly illuminated, unfamiliar green and white flag. The curved writing looked Arabic. Ian leaned forward, hiding the laptop screen from the kitchen, just in case Cecily tried to sneak up on him again.
The flag disappeared, replaced by a shot of several insurgents in motley brown camouflage, their faces masked behind checkered black and white scarves. They stood behind a line of three uniformed soldiers, all of them hooded and on their knees, hands behind their backs. His heart skipped as his mind leaped ahead to a conclusion that he wanted to deny.
The insurgents shouted and gestured with their guns. Then another man stepped into the scene, pointing back at the three bound prisoners. His mouth moved under the scarf that hid everything but his eyes. He didn't need the volume to understand that he was delivering an ultimatum: comply or the prisoners would die.
Then the man stepped aside and gestured. In unison, three of the other soldiers reached down to pull the hoods from their prisoners, revealing the bloody bruised faces of two men and one all-too-familiar woman: Cecily Knight.
For the next three days, Ian tried to push the video out of his mind, to deny it even existed, but it was too wrapped up in the mystery of Cecily Knight's current life. It was fundamental to her, a shattered bridge between who she was now and whoever she might have been in the past.
Standing outside, wrapped up in his coat and the black jeans he'd worn the previous day, he looked up at an alien night sky full of stars and thought about Cecily. Polite, mild-tempered, isolated. Utterly skilled at surviving and even thriving in a solitary environment that would drive most people madâIan included, if not for the mystery of unraveling exactly who she was. And, more importantly, how she'd survived.
Late that first night, he'd run down his laptop's battery watching the video. It was just over two minutes long, and her face was only visible for under a minute, but Ian had studied her as thoroughly as he'd studied any piece of evidence for one of his cases. Comparing Cecily's posture and behavior in the video to his all-too-precise memory of the scar on her shoulder, he assumed she'd been denied proper medical treatment. In the video, he'd seen signs of other woundsâblood in her hair and low on the right side of her uniform.
He couldn't identify the terrorists' country of origin or their political or religious affiliation by accent alone. Even searching for the flag had turned into a dead end. The group might have been new or broken off an established organization. Maybe taking three soldiers hostage had been their opening foray, one that Preston's company had shut down before the terrorists had ever really gotten started.
He had no doubt that
was how Preston had come to know of Cecily Knight. This video was what had put her name on Preston's desk. And she had made it clear that Ian was here now as a favor to Preston.
What favor could be so great that a woman like Cecilyâa woman who treasured her privacy and isolationâwould accept a houseguest not for a few days but for a few
? Nothing short of a life saved.
Preston must have sent his security troops in to rescue the hostages, including Cecily.
But why wasn't she broken? Why wasn't she tearing herself apart from the inside, after all she'd endured? Living here in the wild, without a support system in place, she shouldn't have survived a year, especially not in a house full of guns. At the very least, she should have fallen prey to alcohol or tranquilizers, but so far he had yet to find more than a single bottle of whiskey, mostly untouched, and no drugs stronger than aspirin.
He paced through the yard, looking up at the sky, but the stars held no answers. There were tens of thousands of them, far more than he'd ever seen in the Virginia countryside where he'd grown up. The sky was washed with shades of pale blue and silver where the stars blended their light into radiant bands. He found himself drawn to it each night after dinner and coffee.
He listened as the rhythmic clatter of her typing, attenuated by the thick window, stopped. A moment later, the door creaked open. “Everything all right?” she asked, right on schedule. Twenty minutes in the cold, and she automatically grew concerned for him, but she never actually came out from under the shelter of the porch.
Only when she did her before-bed walk-around did she actually leave the doorstep to circle around the house. Ian had watched her moving through the darkness with certain, quiet footsteps as she checked the perimeter of the house, the shed where she kept the vehicles, and the fuel tanks some distance away. Not once on those checks did she look at the stars, though. Had she become blasÃ© living here? How could she be so indifferent to a sight so remarkable and compelling that it even captivated him?
For the past two nights, Ian had let the query draw him back inside. Now, though, he stood his ground and kept looking up at the sky. “It's beautiful here.”
Instead of taking the bait, she stayed by the door. “It is,” she agreed.
He glanced back, noting how she seemed to stand to attention. Her shoulders were held stiffly squared, her chin upright. Her hands still hung casually at her sides, but the right was curled, fingertips just touching the holster she always wore or kept close at hand.
“Do you know the constellations?” Ian asked. The logical response would be for her to come out beside him so she could accurately point out groupings of stars.
“Got a book here somewhere. I'll find it,” she said, disappearing back inside. So much for luring her out.
“Damn,” Ian muttered and turned to follow.
For as long as Cecily could remember, she'd had an active imagination. She'd grown up on Tolkien's stories, from
to the esoteric
. She'd read all of Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet, not just
, and everything by Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin. Her most memorable birthday gift was the compiled Lord of the Rings saga, a single leather-bound volume with gold leaf and pages of foldout maps that were long since lost, having spent years taped to her bedroom walls.
Now, though, the images in her head had gone stagnant and dark, the musical Elvish language degenerating into harsh Arabic tones, clipped and bloody. She pressed her hands against her eyes, elbows braced to either side of her typewriter, and tried to see through the sandstorm to the tall blue-green forest with its golden wood tree houses in the world she'd created. She was off her timeline. She should have had a first draft finished already. Soon, the emails from her agent would start coming.
Finally, she ripped the sheet out of the typewriter and tipped it toward the oil lantern. She only had to read a few lines before she sighed in frustration and threw it into the discard basket below the desk. So much for story focus.
Of course, there was the
story, the one her agent didn't know about, the one she'd started not with the intent of sharing but to exorcise her demons one word at a time. That one came all too easily to her, as though the more her world of childhood fantasy slipped away, the more the nightmare took its place. But she wasn't ready. Not yet. One page a month, maybe twoâthat was the most she could handle.
She thought about Ian's beautiful blue eyes and how he'd reacted to the sight of her scars.
Before she even realized she was moving, she was up out of her chair and crossing to the bedroom. He looked up abruptly but didn't follow. He had a book in his lap, one of the books taken from the bookshelves that lined almost every available wall of the cabin.
She entered the eight-digit combination to the gun safe and swung open the door. The tiny halogen light mounted in the top of the safe came on, casting a harsh white glow over oiled metal and matte black composite and softer wood stocks. She got out the .22, an old, lovingly tended Remington, and slung it over her shoulder. The ammunition was dirt cheap and stocked in quantity in Pinelake, which made it perfect for target shooting.
Rather than going back into the living room, she cut through the bathroom, not ready to answer any questions he might ask. She put on the patched, threadbare jacket that she kept in the kitchen. She didn't bother with gloves, though she knew her fingers would go stiff, then burn with the cold, and finally go numb if she stayed out long enough.
It was a couple of hours until midnight, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Cecily walked out back, keeping her head down, and went to the airstrip. It made a convenient target range for everything but the sniper rifle. At the far end of the runway, she'd hung scrap metal plates from tree branches. She put the box of ammunition down on the edge of the gravel and crouched, not looking up at the sky as she dropped the magazine into her palm. It only held ten shots, which would force her to take a breath every few seconds while she reloaded.
When she pressed the first bullet into the magazine, her hands shook.
Her internal dissonance had to be caused by having Ian there in the house, a living, breathing presence where before there had only been silence. It didn't help that he was fucking gorgeous, with those eyes and that voice and that strange sense of calm intensity. He didn't fill the air with meaningless conversation; he was content to sit in silence, but he always watched whatever she was doing, wherever she went.
Even now, she kept an ear out for the creak of the back door. She wondered how long it would take between the first shot and when she heard the squeak of hinges. Probably only a few seconds.
She pushed the magazine home and rose, snugging the rifle to her right shoulder. The old wound still ached, especially in the cold; she wouldn't be able to fire too many rounds from a higher-power rifle, but the .22 she could fire all night.
The scope wasn't very powerful, but that didn't matter. She could barely see her target area, much less an actual target, so she looked in the right direction and brought the rifle up into her line of sight, waiting a few seconds while she tried to distinguish anything. It was pointlessâwithout moonlight, even the infinite stars overhead weren't enough to light up her targetâso she eased her finger against the trigger, changing pressure in slight increments until she heard the sharp report of the firing pin striking. A .22 sounded more like silverware dropped on a tile floor than the
of a higher-caliber round, and the recoil was too slight for her to detect.
She squeezed off two more rounds before she heard the back door slam open, wood striking wood more loudly than the echo of the fourth round. That one hit a target, judging by the faint, distant
she heard from the far end of the runway.
“Cecily?” Ian shouted.
“Clear!” she called back, raising the rifle's muzzle. Then, realizing he might not understand, she added, “It's safe. I'm on the runway to your left.”
As she listened to his boots crunch across the late-autumn grass, blades made brittle by the cold, she crouched down, balanced on the balls of her feet, and dropped out the magazine. She felt for the box of ammunition and loaded four rounds to replace the ones she'd fired. Her fingers were already stiff, fighting the spring pressure, but her head felt clearer. When she wasn't firing at a living targetâand when no one was shooting back at herâshe found shooting to be relaxing.
“Are you all right? Did something happen?” he asked as he stopped beside her. In the starlight, he was a tall silhouette wrapped in a dramatic coat. She could just make out the pale face above the dark wool but couldn't pick out the details of his fine bone structure or beautiful eyes.
Just as well. She didn't need to torture herself with what she couldn't have.
“It's fine. I have some targets at the far end,” she said, gesturing down the runway.
He turned to look into the darkness. “Can you even see them?” he asked skeptically.
“Not even a little.” She looked up at him and impulsively asked, “Want to give it a try?”
His laugh was sudden and unguarded and did more to lift her spirits than the target shooting had. “I'm not the soldier in the family.”
“It's a .22, not a grenade launcher.” Cecily turned, holding the rifle out. “Ever fired one of these?”
“Once or twice,” he answered with forced casualness.
“Uh-huh. Safety's behind the trigger.” She set the weapon in his hands, covering them with her own, directing his fingers to each part of the weapon by feel. His skin was warm under her cold fingers, but he didn't pull away. “You've got ten shots. The bolt will work automatically. On the last shot, it'll stay open.” Gently, she pressed the rifle up and circled around behind Ian's right shoulder. The wool coat was soft under her hands. “Snug it up in the hollow of your shoulder, but don't worry about recoil. You won't feel it.”
“Easy enough,” he murmured.
“Oh, did you want me to find safety glasses or ear protection?” she offered. She had some in the gun safe for when she went hunting.
“All right. You're clear to fire, as long as you stay aimed down the runway. I own the property, and anyone on it is trespassing.”
“I'll help hide the bodies,” he offered lightly, shifting his stance. That was all the warning Cecily needed to step back, and a moment later she heard him fire the first round. As the echo died out, he brought his head back up. “There's really no point in aiming, is there?”
“Want me to dig out the night-vision gear?” she offered.
Ian laughed, a warm sound that slithered through her, coiling itself contentedly in her chest. “Another time.”
Cecily's abrupt departure hadn't caught Ian by surprise. Her typing had become more and more erratic as the hours passed, until the pauses between words stretched out into nearly a full minute each. The first surprise had been when he'd listened to her open the gun safe, and he actually wondered if he'd need to stop a suicide until he dismissed the thought as foolish. She wasn't depressedâ
, yes, and angry, but not depressed. For someone who lived in the most boring back-end of nowhere, she was incredibly strong.
As soon as she'd left, Ian had checked the page Cecily had discarded from her typewriter. It was more of the same fantasy writing but lacked the vivid imagery of the other pages. He went back to his book, dismissing her behavior as a symptom of a bad night, until he'd heard the first gunshot.
Adrenaline slammed into his veins. He snatched up his coat and ran to her without even thinking, caught up in the fear that he'd assessed the situation wrongly. He had the terrible mental image of Cecily lying dead in the yard, starlight turning her blood to shadowy, liquid black, and he'd never been so glad to be wrong.