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Authors: Cait London

With Her Last Breath

BOOK: With Her Last Breath
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Cait London
With Her Last Breath

Always for Lucia, my editor, who envisions my story before I actually write it. To the kind residents of Michigan, who helped me to research near their famed lighthouses. To the notable master wine makers in Michigan and Missouri, who were so kind to let me interview them.

Contents

Prologue

Maggie Chantel crouched just beyond the reach of the dog’s…

One

He ran from the past, from his guilt and his…

Two

Down on the street, a car honked and Maggie…

Three

Jerry flexed his biceps and studied them. “Yeah. He works…

Four

Maggie looked at the man sitting next to her. Nick…

Five

Maggie awoke to her own scream, her mind caught by…

Six

If he found Maggie Chantel, he would kill her.

Seven

“If you leave now, I’m leaving with you.” Maggie reached…

Eight

Maggie sucked in air and knocked on Nick’s back screen…

Nine

In flashes of heat and power, Nick’s anger ricocheted off…

Ten

“Do you have any idea what it does to a…

Eleven

Maggie awoke to her own scream. The nightmarish vision of…

Twelve

Seated in a car, parked in the small grove of…

Thirteen

Brent watched the mourners file into Alessandros Restaurant. The psychic…

Fourteen

“Stop pushing, Nick.”

Fifteen

From his vantage point in the old lighthouse, Nick watched…

Sixteen

Just down the street, Ed noted the kid in camouflage,…

Seventeen

“I don’t want you doing what you did for him.”

Eighteen

The waves washed over Maggie’s feet, sucking the sand beneath…

Nineteen

While Maggie fought Lake Michigan’s massive swells, steering the small…

Epilogue

By mid-September, Nick was exhausted. By working from before dawn…

M
aggie Chantel crouched just beyond the reach of the dog’s chain. Tethered to a stake, the young female Labrador braced her paws in the mud and snarled.

“He’s not going to destroy you the way he did my sister,” Maggie said quietly as she placed a plastic bowl in front of the dog. Black as the night, the dog showed white teeth, a warning growl low in her throat.

At eleven o’clock at night, the exclusive San Francisco suburb was quiet, draped in sheets of April rain. Maggie continued to talk quietly and poured dry dog food into the bowl—not too much, just a tentative offering. She eased it toward the young dog, who began to eat.

“My sister’s name was Glenda. She was beautiful, just like you. Her life was beautiful, too, and the same man who owns you killed her, in very slow ways. That’s why I’m taking you with me. I couldn’t help her, but just maybe—if you’ll let me—we can save you.”

Uncertain how the dog would react to her, Maggie waited until the plate was empty. Then she placed food in her hand,
and slowly extended it to the dog. “Friends, okay?”

Oh, Glenda, why?
she sighed to herself. Pale and sweet once more, her sister’s face flashed in front of Maggie. Overdose was listed as Glenda’s official cause of death, but Maggie knew that there was so much more—the enticement and the betrayal and the loss of her self-respect.

Ignoring the tears on her cheeks, Maggie held her hand steady as the dog nibbled on the food. As children, the sisters had always been close. Later, they had both married, and Glenda’s boys, Seth and Cody, had made her life almost perfect.

Then one man had insidiously poisoned Glenda’s life, luring her into an affair, which had destroyed her marriage and her self-respect.

And Maggie’s husband wouldn’t help; he didn’t want to offend his top business associate and investor and entrepreneur—the man who had ruined Glenda. As a final blow, her husband hadn’t believed that Maggie had been attacked in their home; he’d chosen a divorce from Maggie, rather than support her battle to avenge Glenda…

“I loved him, but that wasn’t enough,” she said aloud. “Ryan wanted me to apologize to the man who ruined her and who tried to rape me. I couldn’t do that.” Driven by hunger, the dog accepted more food, greedily now, and Maggie cautiously reached out a hand to pet him and the dog instantly stepped back, teeth bared and hackles raised.

She lowered her hand and thought about the many times she’d tried to reach out to her sister.

“I don’t blame you. I wish my sister would have fought more.”

While sheets of rain slid by her, Maggie settled in to make friends with the dog. As a personal physical trainer, Maggie heard many stories. One of them was that this high-priced hunting dog would not obey her master’s commands. She was terrified of guns, and when she had refused to retrieve in water, the man had been shamed in front of his elite hunting club. He’d vowed to break her.

Nothing could bring Glenda back, or paste the pieces of Maggie’s life together, and now she’d planned carefully.

The cold rain pounded at her, but she crouched, patiently feeding the dog, little by little, until she accepted the touch of Maggie’s hand. “Good girl. You’re coming with me, okay?”

 

Hours later, Maggie drove through the dawn. Everything she owned was packed in the back of the small white pickup truck. The dog was curled up, asleep on the passenger seat, covered by an old blanket. Maggie laid her hand on the dog’s head, absorbed her quick jolt of terror, and waited for the bite. Instead, with a tired sigh, the dog settled back into an exhausted sleep.

Maggie touched the small gold locket at her throat, a tiny reminder of the sister she couldn’t save or avenge. Instead, Maggie had lost everything—her job, her marriage, and her life. Her tears were dry now, just the sheer need to survive remained.

“So here we are. Be my friend, will you?” To still her fears, Maggie stroked the dog’s matted, dirty head. “So we’re off to scout our futures, together. And what’s a good name for you? Something brand-new, just for us?”

With another sigh, the dog moved closer on the pickup’s bench seat. She tentatively placed her muzzle on Maggie’s jeans-clad thigh. “We’ll be fine,” Maggie said quietly and prayed they would be.

ONE

ONE YEAR LATER

H
e ran from the past, from his guilt and his dead dreams. Yet they tangled in the late April air and caught him. Locked in his own private hell, Nick Alessandro ignored the brush bordering the jogging path and the highway running beside it. He didn’t see the happy patches of daffodils, bright yellow in the afternoon sun, or the signs meant to attract tourists. On the five-mile run from his home and vineyard to Lake Michigan’s small town of Blanchefleur, his lungs ached for air as he pushed himself to the limit, the gravel crunching beneath his running shoes.

Nick fought the nightmare of twelve years ago, the vision of his young bride sprawled on the pavement after a motorcycle accident. Alyssa, his lifetime sweetheart, his wife, his dreams. Alyssa was dead, and he could have prevented her death.

Guilt spiked, almost choking him.

The motorcycle was a toy he’d had to have.

Alyssa was a sweet necessity to his life, his heart, his soul.

The baby she had just told him about was gone, and so were his dreams.

How many times had he damned himself for that motorcycle? For not insisting that she wear a helmet?

The scar along his side and down his thigh reminded him every minute of how he had painfully crawled to her. He hadn’t felt the burn of his own torn flesh; terror had moved him across the pavement.

As her husband, he’d been the one to sign the legal papers to take Alyssa off life support. Nothing, not even the land he’d sold to pay for her medical expenses, could bring her back.

 

“Nice muscle formation.” As a personal trainer, Maggie appreciated the smooth flow of the muscles in the jogger’s butt, and from the back, the rest of him wasn’t bad either. His sweaty tank top clung, and with each stride, power surged beneath the skin from his powerful back, tapering to his waist—no love handles there, just man in smooth motion—a symphony of cords, muscle, and bone. He ran easily, sweat glistening on his dark skin, running shoes eating up the gravel path leading to Lake Michigan’s small tourist town.

She gauged the man to be about mid-thirties, and he was one sweet piece of male animal, moving easily despite his size. Those defined muscles said he weighed more than he looked, but Maggie’s expert trainer’s eye estimated him to be about two-twenty.

Seated beside her in the passenger seat, Scout watched the man, and the quiver of muscle beneath the Labrador’s thick black coat said she wanted the same freedom of late April’s crisp air and sun.

Maggie slowed her pickup truck just a bit to better appreciate the man’s bare shoulders and back, the tight butt in the worn loose shorts, and the defined muscles in his thighs and legs. She noted clinically that the brand-name shoes were expensive and worn and should be replaced.

Her appraisal was that of a dispassionate, assessing professional, not a woman. Maggie’s fingers tightened on her steering wheel. In trying to survive, she’d lost something—the ability to feel like a woman.

It had been almost two years since her divorce, even longer since she’d made love. Her interest in the man wasn’t sexual, she told herself. She was just a physical fitness professional appreciating a fine-looking male body. That was as far as it went—it would be a long time before she trusted anyone up close and personal.

When trusted friends, fearing for their own fortunes and welfare, turned from her, hadn’t listened or helped, the scars ran deep. Maggie’s husband’s defection had been the worst—he wouldn’t endanger his business by standing with her against the powerful man who had caused her sister’s ruin and death.

Maggie had recognized something of herself in how this man fought his body’s limits, pushing himself, focusing within where the shadows weren’t warmed by sunlight’s kiss.

More heavily built than a sleek competitive runner, the man was evidently prowling over the darkness in him, seeking and frustrated, and fighting the realities he’d found.

Maggie’s fingers tightened on her steering wheel. Once her engagement ring and wedding band would have caught the light, and now they were gone. But she’d also lost more than jewelry. She’d lost confidence in trusting the right people and in making the right choices. She’d lost a deep, intimate softness and a lifetime of dreaming about a husband, home, and family. After moving from town to town, trying to reclaim herself, she was bone-tired.

“I’m going to make it work right here, Scout. I’m going to build a clientele, then a business. I’m going to take my parents’ things out of storage and make a real home with a real kitchen, my own bathroom, and a nice big backyard for you. I’ve been running from reality for a year, taking part-time jobs, but it’s really time to settle in for whatever peace I can find. But I’m never forgetting Glenda. She’ll be with me always.”

Maggie had chosen the battlefield on which to fight her past—and her fear of water, putting all behind her, attempting to manufacture some happiness in her life.

Maggie intended to meet her fear of water—and conquer it—in the small Lake Michigan tourist community. She would attempt an everyday familiarity, a gradual sampling, to still her overwhelming fear of water—in short, she would face the beast in a very private battle.

After waging another furious, futile battle to avenge Glenda, Maggie had learned to hide her emotions, to share little.

But running beside her small truck, the man’s emotions slid stark and savage across his face. Whatever darkness stalking him nipped at her through the patches of sunlight and shadow.

A storm of shaggy black hair whipped around his darkly tanned face. In profile, the man’s face was hard—as if he’d known the depths of hell and it still gripped him. His skin ran taut over jutting bones and shadowy planes, slashing cheekbones and a jaw dark with stubble. His damp hair gleamed, curling at the ends, and sweat plastered against his cheek.

In motion, all gleaming sweaty skin over cords and powerful muscle, he could have been a broad-shouldered gladiator battling in an arena. Fighting his demons, he pushed himself to the limit, locked in a battle that only he could understand.

Side by side, Maggie’s pickup truck and the man glided through the patches of sunlight shafting through the trees. She recognized and understood his dark mood; they traveled together for that short space of time and distance, companions in darkness and light, seeking answers they could not find.

For just that few heartbeats, it was good to have someone to share her life, to understand the depth of her pain.

But life moved on, and she had to make a life and income for herself. This guy wouldn’t need her services to coach him into a land of target heart rates and no flab.

She passed the man, noted his six-foot plus height absently, and frowned slightly when his face, all planes and harsh edges beneath that sweaty dark skin, appeared in the rectangle of her rearview mirror.

He looked like a man you wouldn’t want to push, because he’d push back and hard.

Was he addicted to jogging? Possibly, but he was too focused, and that came from looking within, digging at yourself for answers. Maggie knew too well how a person could punish his body when he was fighting his emotions…

Maggie’s professional, detatched survey took in the man: neck and shoulders strongly developed, pecs taut and leading to a washboard stomach, good thighs and calf development. His body was defined, rougher, edgier, than that of a man who spent hours in a gym, using exercise equipment. Add that to his primitive, warlike expression, and you had the look of a fighter.

Raw, tough power summed up his total appearance. Or maybe she felt just that tug of sexual attraction, because in her mind, for just another heartbeat, she fantasized about stopping the pickup and hauling him off into the brush for a fast stress, slick sweat and skin reliever. Just a mindless, momentary release before they cruised their separate ways…something, someone physical to pit herself against instead of nightmares and daylight regrets.

In reality, she knew that she wasn’t made that way, not good girl Maggie Chantel, the virgin bride, now divorced ex-wife with thin finances.

Now, running with Scout and extreme exercise helped relieve Maggie’s daytime physical tension, but the nights still brought a kaleidoscope of frustrating, painful scenes from the past. Early on, she had decided not to take her sister’s path—drugs to dull her mind.

Instead, Maggie trusted her collection of good luck charms—and herself.

She pulled onto the small main street of the picturesque town, and her pickup did the cobblestone-bump routine.

For an instant she almost felt the need to say goodbye to her troubled companion of the shadows and sunshine and wish him luck. Then she forgot him as she focused on taking the next step of her long town-to-town journey. It had to end
in this town, and she prayed that she would be able to get what she needed…

In the sunlight, Blanchefleur nestled in the shallow valley, Lake Michigan spreading a blue line beyond the homes that seemed stacked on the hills. The town was bright and clean, and birds flitted among the trees, not yet full with leaves, lining the streets.

A boy on a motorcycle soared from behind Maggie and passed her, cutting in a bit too close, a reminder that she was the visitor, not him.

Blanchefleur’s streets were lined with two-story 1900-era buildings, labeled by an arty collection of shop signs meant to attract tourists. Restaurants and shops gave way to side streets fingering off into residences. As she drove closer, Lake Michigan was pure blue silk blending into the clear sky, expensive homes studding the hills. Past the beach grass and the thin fencing to hold the sand, a concrete pier shot like a spear into the blue water. It ended with a red lighthouse, one of many along the Michigan coast. The small red building propped against the lighthouse added to the picture.

Guided by concrete sea walls on either side of the entrance, a large channel fingered inward from the lake; it ended with a harbor clustered with boats and ships and docks. A tiny drawbridge raised to allow the tall sailboat masts poking at the sky, and a charter fishing boat motored smoothly into the harbor, trolling lines already sloping into the water like silver threads. A small aluminum boat followed in the gentle wake. The two men in it were bundled against the cold, trolling lines in place.

Maggie had chosen this lakeshore town, not only to face her fear of water, but because many of the year-round residents were retired wealthy, and in summer, the streets would be filled with tourists. She hoped to snare more than a few of them as clients. Now, a young woman fast-walked behind her baby’s stroller and an elderly couple, arm-in-arm, paused to look at a window display of pottery.

Maggie pushed up her sunglasses, found the mirrored reflection of the contoured silvery surfaces, shielding her eyes. Who was she really?

She’d had a high school sweetheart, gone to college with him, and married him. They’d begun
Ryan’s
dream of a physical fitness gym, and she’d designed her life around his.

Now, at thirty-one and divorced, the physical fitness business was what Maggie knew.

Scout’s black nose did that twitching I-smell-people-food thing; her pink tongue dangled from her mouth and her black eyes pinned Maggie.

“You are absolutely ruthless. You know I’m running on a few dollars and change. If I can eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a month, you can eat dry dog food. Me, a health professional, whose body is a magnet to fat. It’s supposed to be the off-season here and rooms are cheaper, but you’re a real problem. Not all hotels will allow pets, but hey, we’ve slept in the pickup before, right? We do seem to share the same eau de dog.”

Scout spotted Lake Michigan and went into her soft whine, eye-pinning, panting, I’m-so-hot water-dog mode.

“Okay, okay. It’s forty-five degrees, you know. Not exactly tropical. You can play along the shoreline and that’s all.” Tired from the long drive from lower Missouri and needing time to walk and stretch her muscles, Maggie followed the street likely to lead to the lake. The street swung downhill, running parallel to the channel, and she drove slowly down it, leaving the town. With Lake Michigan ahead of her and the channel running alongside the road, Maggie eased onto paved parking lot.

An elderly man sat on a park bench, considering the boats that passed in the channel. Evidently a tourist site, a manicured park and concrete walk led from the town down to the sandy beach and too much water.

The blue expanse of glittering waves, the white seagulls bobbing on the surface, took away Maggie’s breath, and terror chilled her body. In the bright cold sunlight, she remem
bered her sister bobbing like a cork in her life jacket. Glenda had been terrified, but no more than twelve-year-old Maggie. Somehow, their mother had saved them both from that sudden summer squall, dragging them to the upended family sailboat.

From that moment on, it was only the three of them…

Maggie shivered beneath her sweatsuit. She’d never forget Glenda’s terror and the sight of their father drowning—his hand, still reaching out to Maggie, then sliding beneath the waves.

Her mind pulled her back to another time. Her family had gone sailing, laughing and enjoying the day. Then a sudden squall had changed everything, capsizing the boat…

She forced herself to step onto the sand, to ignore the sink of it beneath her shoes, and made her way to the sprawling beach.

She released Scout to run on the beach and slowly walked across the sand, struggling against her fear of water. It seemed to always be there, ominously waiting for her…

Scout leaped into the water and began swimming happily away from shore. Locked in fear, Maggie screamed the dog’s name. “Scout!” She looked at the waves caressing the brown sand and panicked, her scream freezing in her throat; she couldn’t move and she couldn’t save Scout.

 

At the top of the street leaving Blanchefleur’s Main Street and leading to the lake, Nick Alessandro dragged air into his lungs. A short distance behind him was his family’s restaurant, and his brother’s pickup was parked along the sidewalk, in front of a small engine repair shop. The owner of a small boatyard, Dante was evidently inside on an errand.

BOOK: With Her Last Breath
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