Authors: Julie Garwood
Tags: #Adult, #Thriller, #Romantic Suspense, #Action Adventure Mystery & Detective
The anxiety was growing even stronger, and with it came the horrific yet familiar terror. Then his skin began to burn and itch, and he frantically scratched his arms and legs as he jumped up and paced around the kitchen island. What was happening to him?
He realized he was running and forced himself to stop. Looking down, he saw the long, jagged scratches. There were bloody streaks on his arms and legs, some cuts so deep, blood dripped on the floor. He was close to exploding. He tore at his hair and whimpered, but the terror was taunting him now.
Then, like a blinding light, the epiphany came. He suddenly realized he no longer had control over his own body. He couldn’t even make himself breathe.
With startling clarity he saw and understood. Someone else was breathing for him.
He awakened the following morning curled up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor. Had he fainted? He thought maybe he had. He staggered to his feet and braced his hands on the island to steady himself. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths and slowly straightened. He spotted the scissors on top of the folded newspaper. Had he placed them there? He couldn’t remember. He put the scissors back in the drawer where they belonged and picked up the newspaper to throw it into the recycle bin in the garage. He saw the clipping from the newspaper then. Both the article and the photo of the smiling woman were there in the center of his table, waiting for him. He knew who had placed them there. And he knew why.
The demon wanted her.
He buried his face in his hands and wept.
He knew that he must find another way to placate the beast. Physical activity seemed to help. He went to the gym and began to work out like a man obsessed. One of his favorite routines was to put on boxing gloves and pound the bag as hard as he could for as long as he could. He would lose track of time and stop only when he couldn’t raise his arms without suffering unbearable pain.
For days he’d kept his body in the state of perpetual exhaustion. Then, even that wasn’t enough.
Time was running out. The demon was consuming him. Ironically, it was his wife who gave him the idea. One evening, while she kept him company as he did the dishes, she suggested that he should have a night out. A night, she insisted, when he could enjoy himself and have some fun with his friends.
He put up quite an argument. There were already too many nights when he had to be away from her because of pressing commitments at work. And what about all the time he left to go running or to work out at the gym? Surely that was enough alone time.
She was more stubborn than he was and wouldn’t stop cajoling. He finally agreed, only to make her happy.
And so, tonight would be his first night out. He could already feel the adrenaline pumping. He was as nervous and excited as he had been when he had gone on his first date.
Before leaving home, he told Nina he would be heading into the city after work to meet some friends at Sully’s, a popular bar and grill, but she wasn’t to worry; if he had more than one drink, he wouldn’t drive home. He’d take a cab.
All of it was a lie.
No, he wasn’t going to the city to relax. He was going there to hunt.
Regan Madison had spent three miserable days and nights surrounded by sleazebags. They seemed to be everywhere—in the airports, at the hotel, and on the streets of Rome as well. A sleazebag, as she defined him, was a lecherous but rich old man with a mistress less than half his age hanging on his arm.
Regan had never really paid any attention to such couples before her stepfather, Emerson, married Cindy, his child bride. Regan understood the appeal. Cindy had the body of a stripper. She also had the IQ of plywood. And that made her perfect for him.
Fortunately for Regan, the deliriously happy and definitely dysfunctional couple stayed on in Rome while she flew home to Chicago. Exhausted from her long flight, she went to bed early and slept a full eight hours thinking that tomorrow would be a better day.
She was wrong about that.
She awakened at six o’clock the following morning feeling as though a thousand rubber bands were wrapped around her left knee, cutting off her circulation. She had banged it on her dresser the night before and hadn’t taken the time to ice it. The pain was nearly unbearable. Throwing her covers back, she sat up and rubbed her knee until the throbbing subsided.
Her bad knee was the result of an injury in a charity baseball game. She had been playing first base, doing a creditable job too, until she pivoted the wrong way and tore her meniscal cartilage. The orthopedic surgeon she’d consulted advised surgery and assured her she’d be back in action in just a few days, but Regan kept putting the procedure off.
She swung her feet off the bed and leaned forward to stand, cautiously putting her weight on the sore knee. Then, as if she weren’t miserable enough, she started sneezing, and her eyes began to water.
Regan had a love/hate relationship with her hometown. She loved the galleries and the museums, thought the shopping was every bit as wonderful as it was in New York—an opinion her two best friends, Sophie and Cordelia, vehemently disagreed with—and she believed that at least eighty percent of the inhabitants were good, decent, law-abiding citizens. Most smiled when she passed them on the street; some even said hello. Like the majority of Midwesterners, they were friendly and polite, but not intrusive.
They were hardy souls, even though they loved to complain about the weather, especially in the winter months when the wind really did feel like knives slicing through your back or chest, depending on whether you were walking away from Lake Michigan or toward it.
For Regan, however, spring was a real nuisance. She suffered from allergies, and each spring, while ragweed and mold flourished, she turned into a walking pharmacy. Yet, she refused to let it slow her down. On the days when the air was heavy or the pollen count was sky high, she stuffed packets of tissues, aspirin, antihistamines, decongestants, and eyedrops into her purse and kept on going.
She had a full day scheduled and knew she should get cracking, but all she wanted to do was crawl under the soft down comforter in her soft warm bed. It was so good to be home.
Home for Regan was a suite at The Hamilton, one of the five-star hotels owned and operated by her family. It was located in the fashionable Water Tower district of Chicago and boasted a reputation for elegance, sophistication, and comfort. For the time being, she was satisfied with her living arrangements.
She had everything she needed at the hotel. The corporate offices were there, and so her work was conveniently an elevator ride away. Besides, she had known most of the staff her entire life and thought of them as family.
As much as she wanted to go back to bed, she didn’t give in to the urge. Shoving her hair out of her eyes, she staggered into the bathroom, washed her face and brushed her teeth, then put on her workout clothes, clipped her hair in a ponytail, and took the elevator up to the eighteenth floor to do two miles on the new, indoor track. She wasn’t about to let a little bout of hay fever or any aches and pains in her knee set her back. Two miles every day, no matter what.
By seven-thirty she was back in her room and had showered, dressed, and eaten her standard breakfast of wheat toast, grapefruit, and hot tea.
Regan had just sat down at the desk in the parlor suite to go over her notes when the phone rang.
Cordelia was calling to check in. “How was Rome?”
“Was your stepfather there?”
“Yes, he was.”
“So how could the trip have been okay? Come on, Regan. You’re talking to me, Cordie.” Regan sighed. “It was awful,” she admitted. “Just awful.”
“I take it stepdaddy had his new bride with him?”
“Oh, yes, she was there.”
“Is she still hanging out of everything Escada?”
Regan smiled. Cordie did have a way of making the most horrid situations amusing. She knew what her friend was doing—trying to lighten the mood. It worked too. “Not Escada,” she corrected.
“Versace. And yes, she’s still spilling out of everything Versace.” Cordie snorted. “I can just picture it. Were your brothers there?”
“Aiden was, of course. The hotel in Rome was his pet project, and he was his usually serious self. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile in years. Guess that goes with being the oldest.”
“What about Spencer and Walker?”
“Spencer had to stay in Melbourne. Some last-minute problems developed with the design for the new hotel. Walker was there, but only for the reception. He wanted to rest up before the race.”
“So did you speak to him?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Good for you. You’ve finally forgiven him then, haven’t you?”
“I guess I have. He was only doing what he thought was right. Time has given me some perspective, as you predicted, so go ahead and gloat. Besides, I’d feel terrible if he used up all of his lives before I let him know I’d forgiven him. He wrecked another car last month,” she added.
“And walked away without a scratch on him, right?”
“I’m glad you aren’t mad at him anymore.”
“I just wish he wouldn’t jump the gun the way he does. He’s so impulsive. I have a couple of dates with a man, and he’s hiring people to investigate him.”
“Excuse me. You had more than a couple of dates with Dennis.”
“At least you didn’t let him break your heart. I know for a fact you didn’t love him.”
“How did you know?”
“When you broke up, you didn’t shed a tear. Face it, Regan, you cry at Puppy Chow commercials. If you didn’t cry over Dennis, your heart wasn’t really in it. And just for the record, I’m thrilled you dumped him. He was all wrong for you.”
“At the time I didn’t think he was all wrong. I thought he was close to perfect. We had so much in common. He loved the theater, the ballet, and the opera, and he didn’t mind attending all those fund-raisers. I thought we had the same values—”
“But that wasn’t the real Dennis, was it? He was after your money, Regan, and you’ve got too much going for you to put up with that nonsense.”
“You aren’t going to give me another pep talk about how pretty and smart I am, are you?”
“No, I don’t have time to do the pep talk now. I’ve got to get back to the lab before one of my students blows it up. I’m calling to make sure you got home okay and to ask if you want to have dinner tonight. I’m starting my grapefruit diet tomorrow.”
“I wish I could, but I’m swamped with work. I’m going to be playing catch-up for a week,” she said.
“Okay, then plan on Friday, and I’ll start the diet on Saturday. We both need to have some fun,” Cordie protested. “Last week was awful for me. Monday one of the kids dropped a box of supplies, and every one of the new beakers broke. Then Tuesday I found out my budget for next year has been cut in half. In half,” she stressed. “Oh, and on Wednesday Sophie called and asked me to do an errand for her, and that turned out to be pretty awful too.”
“What was the errand?”
“She made me go to the police station to check on something.”
“You’ll have to wait to hear the gory details. Sophie made me promise not to say anything. She wants to explain it to you.”
“She’s cooking up another scheme, isn’t she?”
“Maybe,” she answered. “Uh-oh. One of my students is frantically waving to me. Gotta go.” She hung up before Regan could say good-bye. Five minutes later Sophie called. She didn’t waste time on pleasantries.
“I need a favor. A big one.”
“Rome was fine. Thank you for asking. What kind of favor?”
“Say yes first.”
Regan laughed. “I haven’t fallen for that ploy since kindergarten.”
“Then meet me for lunch. Not today,” she hurried to add. “I know you’re probably swamped with work, and I’ve got two meetings back to back I can’t miss. Maybe we could do it tomorrow or the day after. I’ll need a couple of hours.”
“A couple of hours for lunch?”
“Lunch and a favor,” she corrected. “We could meet at The Palms at twelve-thirty on Friday.
Cordie’s through at noon, and she could join us. Can you do Friday?”
“I’m not sure I—”
“I really need your help.”
She sounded pitiful. Regan knew it was deliberate manipulation, but she decided to let her get away with it.
“If it’s that important…,” she began.
“Okay, I’ll make it work.”
“I knew I could count on you. Oh, by the way, I checked with Henry to make sure your calendar was clear next weekend, and I told him to pencil me in.”
“For the entire weekend? Sophie, what’s going on?”
“I’ll explain it to you at lunch, and you’ll have a whole week to think about it.”
“I loved the picture in the newspaper. Your hair looked great.”
“Sophie, I want to know—”
“I’ve got to get going. I’ll see you Friday at twelve-thirty at The Palms.” Regan wanted to argue, but it was pointless since Sophie had already hung up the phone. She checked the time, then grabbed her PDA and rushed out the door. Paul Greenfield, a senior staff member and a dear friend, was waiting in the lobby. Regan had known Paul since she was a teenager.
She’d worked as his intern during the summer months of her junior year in high school, and for those three months she’d been madly in love with him. Paul had known about her infatuation—she’d been ridiculously obvious about what her mother called a bad crush—but he was very sweet about it. Married now with four children of his own who ran him ragged, he always had a ready smile for her. Paul’s hair was graying at the temples and he wore bottle-thick glasses, but Regan still thought he was extremely handsome. He was holding what looked like a five-hundred-page printout in his arms.
“Good morning, Paul. Looks like you’ve got your hands full.”
“Good morning,” he replied. “Actually, these are for you.”
“Oh?” she took a step back.
He grinned. “Sorry, but about an hour ago I got an e-mail from your brother Aiden.”
“Yes?” she asked when he hesitated.
“He was wondering why he hasn’t heard from you.”