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Around the small California town where Pippa Cochran has fled to escape an abusive boyfriend, Seth Wyatt is ...
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Around the small California town where Pippa Cochran has fled to escape an abusive boyfriend, Seth Wyatt is called the Grim Reaper--and not just because he's a bestselling author of horror novels. He's an imposing presence, battling more inner demons than even an indefatigable woman like Pippa cares to handle. Yet, while in his employ, she can't resist the emotional pull of his damaged son or the chance to hide in the fortress he calls a home.
Then Pippa's amazing gifts begin to alter their world in ways none of them could have imagined. But something soon goes wrong. Dangerous "accidents" occur, threatening to destroy the tremulous new love that Pippa and Seth have dared to discover. . . .
Pippa heard Abigail's voice through a fog of disbelief. She recognized her supervisor's compassionate expression, but the words weren't sinking in.
"I fought against it every step of the way," Abigail continued. "You're a good worker; we have no complaints at all. We'll give you excellent references, call other hospitals in the chain if you wish to relocate,
anything you ask. It's just that we're downsizing like everyone else in the business today, keeping our margins intact, and the administrative staff is the first to go. We can't cut back on essential care."
The words pounded against Pippa's skull. Any time someone said it hurt them as much as it hurt her, she knew they lied. Nothing would ever hurt as much as the blows that always followed. She just couldn't believe the blows came from this direction. She'd worked at the hospital for ten years. It had been her mainstay through her mother's illness. Her friends were here. Her family. The support network she needed for survival. How could they strip away her life and call it something so inexplicable as
Especially now. They knew how her life had fallen apart this past year.
How could they take away the one certainty she possessed? She had awards hanging on her office wall. She had letters of appreciation. Even those grim vultures in the administrative offices smiled at her when they passed her in the halls. She felt accepted here, wanted, needed. Her job was all she had left.
Abigail fell silent and awaited Pippa's response. What could she say?
Quaking inside, Pippa stood up. To her horror, tears burned her eyes. She wouldn't go out weeping and wailing. She wouldn't. Her mother had taught her to keep a stiff upper lip. Chin up. Persevere. Don't let anyone get you down.
She wanted to throw up.
Scraping the chair back, she avoided Abigail's gaze as she nodded and mumbled something about finishing the Carlson case, then turned to make her escape.
"Pippa, I'm sorry." Abigail sounded as shaken as Pippa felt. "I know you've just lost your mother. If there had been any other way ..."
Pippa waved a careless hand, keeping her face averted. "I've needed to get away anyway. I'll see you later."
Practically running, she fled the room. Despite all her efforts to contain them, tears streamed down her face, and she hurried into the closest ladies' room, the public one where the staff wouldn't go. She didn't want anyone seeing her like this, not Pollyanna Pippa. She'd always had an uplifting phrase, a word of encouragement when things looked blackest.
She'd always managed a smile no matter how much the stress piled up.
People relied on her when the going got tough.
She locked the stall door, yanked off a length of toilet paper, and rubbed at the tears, cursing the fact that her purse and Kleenex were back at her desk. Panic welled inside her; she wished she could think straight, but she could only wipe at her running nose. She had to get control, her mother would say. But her mother was dead.
That returned the tears in cascades. She hadn't cried like this since the doctor first diagnosed her mother's inoperable cancer. She hadn't cried like this at the funeral. After that initial burst of tears over the shock of the diagnosis, she'd cheerfully made her mother's last years as peaceful as could be. She'd rejoiced that she'd worked at a hospital where she could learn the names of all the top physicians, knew the very best,
most modern treatments. Her mother had lived comfortably for years, and Pippa had thrived on knowing she had helped.
Her brother, Mitchell, hadn't been able to contribute much. He lived too far away and had a family to support. He'd flown in occasionally for a weekend, but he really didn't have the resources to do that often, or to help financially. And her sister, Barbara, was the same. She'd called frequently, sent cards, and wished she could get away to help, but she had small children at home. They'd both married and moved away to big cities long ago, leaving Pippa, the youngest, at home. Pippa hadn't complained.
She'd only felt grateful that she hadn't been otherwise attached when the doctor diagnosed the cancer. Mitchell and Barbara had been grateful to her. She'd felt needed, important, a part of everyone's lives.
Then her mother had died.
Now, she had no one who needed her, nothing to go home for. Mitchell and Barbara had their spouses and children and in-laws. They didn't need Pippa's help. She had denied the emptiness, the pain of loss, for months,
and now that Abigail had ripped her open, she couldn't stop crying. She sobbed at the nothingness her life had become as much as for the loss of her mother.
She was thirty years old, with no job, no family, and no future. She was a useless piece of furniture ready for the garage sale. She didn't understand it. She'd done everything right, done everything she was supposed to do. She'd been a dutiful daughter, a hardworking employee, a good, churchgoing, responsible citizen. What had gone wrong?
She couldn't even think about the worst of it. She wouldn't think of Billy. She didn't need terror on top of tears. She needed to get control,
march back to her desk, finish up the case she was working on, pack up her things, and go, without looking back. She couldn't handle the farewells and the tears and the pity. She wouldn't tell anyone. She would just leave. She could do that. She could lift her chin, straighten her backbone, and do what had to be done. Her mother had taught her that. She wouldn't lose a lifetime of lessons over a stupid job.
Blowing her nose, Pippa unlocked the stall door.
She could find another job. She was good. She knew she was good. She didn't have a family to support, so she could look around and be choosy.
The house was paid for. The insurance was paid up. She'd never drawn unemployment, but she supposed she was entitled now. That should take care of the utilities and groceries. Her mother's illness had drained every last drop of savings, so she couldn't fall back on any nest egg, but she would survive. She had set aside part of her checks these last months since the funeral, hoping to buy a new car, but she could get along with the old one for a while longer.
She would just keep looking at the positive side of things. All clouds had silver linings.
Washing her face, she dried it with a rough paper towel and glared at the mirror. The red-rimmed eyes didn't help. Chubby cherub cheeks had given everyone the impression that she was as cheerful as her nickname, and she'd always done her best to live up to everyone's expectations. But she didn't feel like Pollyanna right now. Her mouse-brown hair escaped the clamp she'd yanked it into this morning. She really should get it cut, but Billy liked it long. It was a damned nuisance. She resolved to make a hair appointment tomorrow.
The day had no end. The phone rang incessantly, making it impossible to finish the Carlson case. Word had apparently leaked, and she endured the well-meaning consolations of people she'd thought of as family these past years. The worry on the faces of others not yet informed if their positions would get the ax hurt more than anything. So many of them were the sole support for their families. Pippa congratulated herself on not having children. In this uncertain world, how could one take care of them?
Clinging to that note of thanksgiving, she finally finished the Carlson case, closed the file, ignored the ringing phone, and grabbed her old high-school overcoat.
Icy sleet hit her face as soon as she walked out the door. It was April,
dammit! Would spring never get here? Did the whole world weep with her,
then? Well, it could just stop right now. She wasn't weeping anymore. She was getting angry. Furious. She'd worked her damned butt off for ten years, and for what? For a lousy note of gratitude and a polite reference?
The car door was stuck, of course. She'd run out of de-icer after that last storm and hadn't bothered to restock, foolishly thinking spring was just around the corner. Curse and drat it. This was Kentucky, for heaven's sake. Surely God knew they didn't have winter here.
She checked two of the other three doors. The back passenger door hadn't worked in years, so there was no use in trying that. The original shiny brown of the aging Escort had faded until she could no longer distinguish dirt from paint. Rust corroded both rear fenders. She had often contemplated shoving the car into the river, but it got her to the hospital and back. She hadn't needed more.
Kicking the driver-side door and adding another dent, Pippa loosened some of the ice.
The sleet slashed down heavier, obscuring much of the parking lot in the dusky grayness of late evening. She'd left early, so she didn't hear any of the cheerful chatter of staff departing for the day.
A shadow emerged from the murky veil, startling her. She yanked the door harder, this time in panic.
The voice accompanying the shadow failed to provide reassurance.
"I've got my car here, Phillippa. I'll take you home."
Once, she had looked on that masculine reliability as reassuring. She had gratefully accepted his help all those times the car had broken down, the plumbing froze, or her mother took a turn for the worse. But the price she paid for that reassurance was way too high. Shivering, as much from fear as cold, Pippa jerked on the door again.
"Go away, Billy, I'm fine. I'll take my own car home." She knew she taunted trouble speaking to him that way. He hated it when she did that.
She knew what happened when she did things he hated. But right now, the anger and frustration inside her begged for the fight that would follow.
Maybe somewhere in her subconscious, she thought she deserved it. She'd taken enough psychology classes to know the complexities of the human psyche.
She wished she had a can of Mace in her purse.
"I've been waiting for you, Phillippa. You're off early. We need to talk.
Let's go over to Shoney's and get something to eat."
He took her elbow, using his greater strength as a lever, forcing her away from the car. In his blue police uniform, he seemed taller and broader than most men. Wildly, Pippa imagined people thinking he was arresting her as he tugged her away like that.
"Let me go, Billy, or I'll scream." She jammed her elbow backward,
striking his midsection, but there was nothing soft about Billy. He grunted but didn't loosen his grip.
"Don't, Phillippa. Don't make me mad. I want to make things up to you. I didn't mean to hurt you. You know that. I love you. I just want to take care of you and make you happy. We'll talk, and you'll see. Things will change. We can get married now. Everything will be all right."
Sometimes, Pippa wondered if he was in his right mind. Didn't policemen undergo some kind of psychological exam before acceptance? She stamped on his toe as hard as she could, but he wore steel-reinforced boots and probably didn't even notice.
"Billy, I've told you, it just won't work. I don't love you. I don't want to marry you. And I don't want to go to dinner with you. I've had a really rotten day and I want to go home. Alone. Do you understand anything I'm saying at all?"
Once, she'd believed his warm reassurances, his words of love and commitment. She'd planned their dream home, the number of children they would have, the loving partnership they would share. She'd longed for it with all her heart, given him everything he asked for and more, relying on him for everything. Stupid. Stupid, stupid. She would never let that happen again.
"I hear you, Phillippa, but you're not listening. I'm going to change.
You're the woman I love, and I'm not letting you go. You're mine. We both know it. Now, come along and stop this foolishness. You can't even get in your car."
She knew this was where it would start, just as soon as he started calling her "his." Without bothering to reason any further, she screamed. She opened her mouth and let fly every frustration, every ounce of rage, every instance of self-pity, desperation, and destroyed trust she'd suffered today and every day before that. She screamed and kicked and pounded and bit until he hauled her like a howling whirlwind across the parking lot.
She aimed for his testicles when he adjusted his grip.
He let her go, then backhanded her so hard she stumbled and hit the pavement. Pain shot through Pippa's elbow as it connected with the blacktop. Her hip slammed into a concrete separator. She tried scrambling away, knowing what would follow, but his steel-toed boot caught her leg.
She kept screaming. She'd warned Billy she would report him. She'd threatened to get a court order and humiliate him in front of the entire force. He'd stayed away this past week. She'd thought herself safe.
Even as he leaned over to grab her by her hair--the long hair that he'd ordered her not to cut--a voice shouted from somewhere beyond the veil of sleet and blood and panic.
"Let her alone, you bastard! Let her alone, or I'll shoot!"
Henry. Thank God for Henry. Pippa whimpered with relief. As a night security guard, Henry looked harmless. She'd offered him plenty of cups of coffee those nights she'd stayed late. They'd exchanged pleasantries as she checked out in the evenings. He must be in his sixties, no bigger than herself, and hunched with arthritis, but he had a gun. She prayed Billy hadn't gone beyond caring. Billy carried a gun, too.
"Pippa, can you stand up? We're here. Just back away from him. Henry's got him covered."
Tears welled in her eyes once more. Quickly, Pippa backed away from Billy's dangerous feet, pushing herself up with her hands, letting other hands grab her and heave her up. She didn't know how many of them were there. She didn't care. Shaking, she kept backing away, letting the people swarming out of the building surround her, protect her, separate her from Billy and his rage. Her friends had come to her rescue. She still had friends. Weeping at the knowledge, she allowed them to lead her away.
Her scrapes and bruises neatly cleaned and bandaged, her spirits temporarily mended by hugs and reassurances, Pippa finally arrived home,
only to discover the front door unlocked.
She never forgot to lock the door. Her chest tightened in the familiar sensation of fear. Mentally, she knew Billy couldn't be here. She'd called the police this time. She had witnesses. Surely he was behind bars now.
Emotionally, Pippa still felt Billy's blows. Her hand shook as she pushed open the door.
It took only one step inside before her knees crumpled under her. On the floor, she covered her mouth with her hands to hold back her cries.
He'd shredded her cozy nest into straw. Family photographs lay in tatters,
ripped from the walls, glass and frames shattered. As if a tornado had swept through, the old furniture had been overturned and flung against walls, damaging plaster and delicate bric-a-brac.
Picking herself up, stumbling across the debris to the phone, Pippa nearly fell over the kitchen table before she looked down. In shock and horror,
she stared at Clio Kitty lying in a pool of blood.
It was one straw too many.
Pippa threw up.