Read an Excerpt
It began with a familiar headache, which grew steadily worse as Scarlett drove north to Vermont. She pulled over, swallowed painkillers and kept driving, but ten miles from her brother's house, before the painkillers could kick in, her vision began to blur as if her eyes were windowpanes and there was water running down the glass.
She almost stopped driving at that point, but by the time she'd found a place to pull over, the water seemed to have stopped running and she could see clearly again. Things didn't feel quite right. On top of the pain, her brain felt foggy and disconnected. But she was less than ten minutes from Andy's, so it seemed best to keep on going. After all, she'd had these spells before.
The symptoms had been milder those other times, though. Self-diagnosis followed by several tests to rule out more serious options had settled on migraine. The spells always passed before they cost her any significant time at work.
And before they forced her to question the way she was living her life.
Today, the real trouble hit two miles from her destination, and this time there was no warning. The whole world just keeled over like a ship run aground, except she knew the problem wasn't with the world, it was inside her head. Even though she was wearing chunky sunglasses with dark lenses, the daylight felt so bright that it blinded her, and her senses were scrambled and out of her control.
No question about waiting for a safe place to pull over now.
The safe place had to be right here, because another five seconds at the wheel and she would crash. She couldn't see, could barely move She just managed to brake hard, bring the car to a halt and kill the engine, a couple of hundred yards from the Radford town boundary, and she could only hope she was on the shoulder not the road.
Then she rolled the window down and sat.
Fought the dizziness and pain.
Waited, with her hands gripping the top of the steering wheel and her forehead pressed hard against it, for the moment when she would feel well enough to leave the car, or find the phone that lay in her purse.
But the moment didn't happen. If she tried to open her eyes, all she saw was painful, blinding brightness. If she moved an inch, the world tilted and rolled. She groped for her purse, but it was out of reach on the floor of the passenger seat where it must have slid when she'd braked so suddenly.
She lost track of time, although it must have been fifteen minutes or more. It felt like forever, a terrifying, featureless landscape of unraveling minutes in which all she could do was to stay motionless, keep breathing and think about what had brought her to this point. Andy had been right in his older-brother concern about her stress levels and working hours, and his insistence that she listened to Dad too much. This trip to Vermont was meant to signal a shift in her priorities, but her body was telling her that it had come too late.
Cars went past. She heard the whoosh of the air and the hum of their engines. No one slowed or stopped. Maybe they thought she was taking a phone call or checking an address. The painkillers she'd taken earlier began to work and the dizziness eased a little. She thought again about trying to reach for the purse.
But before she could make the move, she heard the sound of tires popping on gravel, the rumble and surge of an automatic transmission shifting gears and the slam of a car door.
Even her hearing had gone haywire, because she couldn't tell which direction any of it was coming from. Behind her? Far side of the road? She didn't know whether to call out or stay silent.
She heard footsteps crunching on the gravel shoulder. They stopped beside her open car window. A man cleared his throat. "Everything okay here, ma'am?" The voice was gravelly and slow and faintly threatening. Again, she didn't know what to do. Wish it would go away, or ask it for help?
"Um, yes, just resting my eyes," she lied, to buy a little time. Maybe in a few seconds she could summon the ability to open her eyes and move enough to look at him, see what kind of a man he was, whether he looked as if she could trust him.
She tried it, letting a slit of vision appear between her lids, but the light and blurring hit with merciless speed and she couldn't see a thing.
There was a pause. The voice stayed silent, but the feet didn't move. Then the man spoke again, deliberate and slow. "I'm a Vermont state trooper, ma'am. You're going to need to look at me, and show me your driver's license."
The woman with her head and arms on the steering wheel didn't move, in response to Daniel's request.
He couldn't see her face at all, couldn't tell how old or young she was, or what she looked like. Dark hair with gleaming golden lights fell around her head and onto the wheel, as effective as a deliberate disguise. He could see the frame of her dark glasses, but on a summer afternoon those were hardly a sinister attempt at concealing her identity.
She seemed a little on the thin side, the knobs of her backbone visible through a stretchy cream-colored top, as well as the faintest outline of a light blue bra. Below that, she wore a filmy patterned skirt.
She was in her twenties or thirties, he decided. The skin on her hands was smooth and soft. Her nails were neat and clean and bare of polish. The clothing looked clean and summery and of good quality, suited to the late-model car she was driving and the warm July afternoon. A chunky purse lay on the floor in front of the passenger seat, and a bottle of water had rolled against the seat back.
Nothing out of place, except for the fact that she didn't move.
He assessed the situation. She could be on the point of passing out from drink or drugs. She could be mentally ill. She could be working some kind of a scam, luring passing motorists to stop and offer help, at which point her accomplices would appear out of the undergrowth for a gunpoint robbery. Daniel had been a hospital security guard in New York City for three years, then a police officer in New York and a state trooper here in Vermont for a total of five. He'd seen all of these scenarios and worse.
"Are you ill, ma'am?" he asked, after weighing the wording of the question in his mind.
"Yes, a migraine. A bad one."
"I'd like to show you my ID."
"My vision is blurred, and I'm having a dizzy spell. I can't see."
"In that case, I'm going to have you feel the insignia on my shirtsleeve. It's a double chevron. I want you to know that I'm an officer of the law." Leaning down to the open car window, he kept his eyes on the screen of shrubby trees beyond the shoulder of the road, waited for the sound of slurringeither real or fakedin her voice.
She reached up, found his shirtsleeve and felt the raised weave of the insignia, rubbing neat fingers across the fabric, brushing his bare upper arm with the heel of her hand just below the hem of the short sleeve. The touch was accidental, yet oddly personal. "Okay. Thanks," she said. "I do believe you."
"Do you need medical attention, ma'am?"
"Yes." If she was faking, then she was good at it. If she was impaired by substance abuse, it didn't show.
"I'll call the ambulance," he said.
"No, that's not necessary. Not an ambulance."
First indication of something not quite right. He went on high alert. If the "dizzy spell" was bad enough that she really couldn't move, then why didn't she want an ambulance?
But she was speaking again. "Call my brother."
"He's a doctor. Andy McKinley. He lives just a couple of miles from here. He'll come get me."
Daniel knew Andy quite well. Doctors and law enforcement officers tended to know each other in a rural community like Radford. There was a connection between hospital emergency rooms and crime, and he and Dr. McKinley had been involved in various incidents together. Andy was a good guy. Understood the police angle. Went the extra mile. Didn't let any ego get in his way. Daniel would almost call him a friend.
He didn't let on to this woman right away that the name was familiar, however. In his experience, personal information was best handled on a need-to-know basis, and he considered that most people needed to know very little about him.
Some peoplework colleagues, and his sister, Paula, for examplesaid that this showed in the way he talked, and the way he often paused before he talked, but he didn't care and he wasn't prompted to change.
Andy's sister would learn of his connection with her brother soon enough. No sense wasting time or words over it now. "Andy McKinley," he echoed, giving nothing away. "Can you give me his number?"
Obediently Scarlett reeled off the digits of Andy's cell phone, then heard a moment later, "Andy? It's Daniel Porter, here."
The name ambushed Scarlett from out of the past. She couldn't take it in, couldn't react. Danielthat other Danielhad grown up in Vermont, somewhere near here. Indirectly, two steps removed, that Daniel Porter was the reason she was here, now, although he wouldn't know it, and she hadn't thought of the Vermont connection herself in years. Hadn't thought about Daniel at all, except for the maddening fact that he wouldn't stay out of her dreams.
But now he was here.
Because it had to be the same man.
She couldn't know for sure, since the blurred vision meant she couldn't look at him and his voice wasn't enough to go on, but it had to be him. This man had said he was an officer of the law, she'd felt the insignia on his shirt and she knew that a law enforcement career had always been Daniel's goal.
It had to be him.
She waited for a whole slew of possible emotions to wash over heranger, regret, embarrassment, self-doubt and lossbut none of them came. She was simply too shocked.
"I have your sister here," he said into the phone, "pulled over on Route 47, just coming in to town." He listened for a moment, then said carefully, "No, nothing like that. She's been taken ill, and she's hoping you'll be able to come get her." He listened again. "A dizzy spell, she says."
"Put him on," Scarlett managed, on a croak.
She felt the hard, cool shape of a cell phone pressed against her cheek, and the softer touch of a masculine hand. Daniel Porter's hand. She scrabbled for the phone, managed to take hold of it and the hand went away. She made another attempt to open her eyes but the bright light whirled in a sickening way and twelve steering wheels danced like dervishes right in front of her.
Don't try it, Scarlett, just breathe. "Andy?" she got out, after a moment.
"Scarlett, you sound terrible. What's the problem?"
"Migraine. Vision problems and dizziness. I had to pull over. I need you to come."
"I can't," Andy said blankly. "Not right now."
Before she could stop herself, she let out a stricken sound.
"I have a patient under local anesthesia, and four moles to take off her back. I practically had the scalpel in my hand when you called. After that, okay? Immediately after."
This time, she couldn't keep back a moan. His voice had made her feel as if help was at hand, and now it had been snatched away.
"I'm sorry," her brother said. "I can't blow off a patient."
"I know." Scarlett wouldn't have done it, either. She rounded her lips and blew out a careful breath, gaining enough control to tell him, "You're right."
"Listen, Daniel is a good guy. Straight down the line. A state trooper."
"Yes, so he said." Andy hadn't met Daniel, six years ago, even though, indirectly, he'd moved to Vermont because of Daniel's influence. He had no idea that Daniel and Scarlett had briefly been involved. Almost no one knew that. Their whole relationship had vanished into the past without trace.
"He'll call an ambulance for you. He'll wait with you till it comes."
"I don't need an ambulance. It's just a migraine. I've had these spells before."
"Like you're having now?"
"Never this bad."
"So the hospital"
"Don't make me go to the hospital." She was so overdosed on hospitals. She'd been working ninety hours a week in one for years. She was the smartest one in the family, Dad always said, but somehow that didn't seem like the best end of the deal when her skin always smelled like chemicals and she only ever saw the sky through tinted glass. "I just want to be lying flat in a dark room."
"Put Daniel back on and I'll ask him if he can drive you to my place."
"My car "
"He'll drive your car off the road, park it somewhere safe. One of our office staff can drive it home for you later."
"Home to your place."
"Home to my place, it's no problem, it's not far. Put Daniel on."
Blindly she held out the phone, gripping the wheel with her free hand to minimize the movement. "My brother wants to talk."
A hand took the phone. "Sure," said the gravelly voice. Daniel had been twenty-four years old when she'd known him, to her twenty-six. He must be thirty, now. His voice had deepened, matured, but he was as measured and careful with his words as he'd always been.
"Yes, I can do that," he said to Andy after a moment. "Give me the address." He listened. "Yeah, no problem. I had court, this morning, in White River Junction. Was on my way back, done for the day. It's no trouble."
"Thank you," she said weakly, after she heard him put away the phone.
"No problem," he repeated. "We'll get you home, Charlotte."
Charlotte Andy must have said her name, only Daniel had heard it wrong. He didn't know who she was. The thought came with a wash of relief. Maybe he wouldn't even remember.
No, he had to remember. He'd brought her up here, six years ago, had given her a passionate, romantic weekend in a gorgeous bed-and-breakfast, and then she'd dumped him two weeks lateror they'd dumped each other, she wasn't even surebecause
Well, just because.