Read an Excerpt
She couldn t shake the feeling that she was being watched.
Emelina Stratton paused, her hand on the knob of the back door of the deserted beach house, and nervously swung the flashlight in an arc. It barely pierced the gathering fog. She had about ten feet of visibility, and even that would soon be gone. There was nothing to be seen in the writhing shadows that clung to the lonely stretch of beach.
It was only her all too-vivid imagination at work again, she told herself resolutely. Lively enough on an average day, her imagination was running wild under the present circumstances.
Getting a grip on herself, she tossed the long, heavy braid of chestnut hair back over one shoulder and tried the doorknob. Locked. Of course it would be locked. It had been too much to hope that Leighton would have been so careless as to leave the door conveniently open. She wiggled the knob fruitlessly for a few seconds and then gave up. It would have to be one of the windows. Would she dare to break one and pray that Leighton would assume it was only an act of vandalism by some young kids?
The sensation of being under observation returned again as Emelina started down the back steps. Once again she cast an uneasy glance around the dark, foggy beach.
Several yards away a light surf lapped almost gently at the rocky Oregon shoreline. Above the soft sound of the waves she could hear nothing alarming. But the unconscious response of her body to impending danger grew stronger, lifting the delicate hairs on the nape of her neck and sending small shivers along each nerve ending.
Nothing moved in the surrounding shadows. Emelina rubbed her hands along her arms. It was cold here at midnight on the Oregoncoast. The close-fitting black sweater she had worn wasn't nearly enough protection from the bite of the fog-shrouded air. Pity. It had looked exactly right for a commando mission.
Damn her imagination! It was a poor companion on a job like this. Perhaps professional burglars got along in their chosen profession precisely because they lacked the ability to dream up such vivid images of disaster! Emelina couldn't believe that anyone would attempt this sort of thing on a regular basis if he or she had to put up with all these nerve-wracking imaginings!
As she tested the window frame she told herself for the hundredth time that there was very little likelihood of anyone else's being around this quiet strip of beach at this hour. The fog was thickening by the minute, which should deter the average midnight stroller, even if there were any such living in the quiet little coastal village nearby. There were a couple of other houses behind Leighton's, all deserted at this time of year. There were also a few cottages up on the bluff overlooking the beach. They were inhabited. In fact, Emelina was living in one of them, herself, but as far as she could tell, everyone else was in bed for the night. "Early to bed, early to rise" seemed to be a local motto. They rolled the streets up early in town.
The window didn't budge an inch.
With the short exclamation of disgust, Emelina stepped back and swung around to search for a likely looking rock. She went utterly still at sight of the pair who had materialized out of the fog behind her.
"Oh, my God!" The words were a whisper of sound as she sucked in a sharp, frightened breath. Instinctively her startled gaze went first to the Doberman before shifting to its master.
The sleek black-and-tan dog didn't move. It sat quietly on its haunches, watching her intently. The small, sensitive ears were pricked alertly, and the unhuman, dark gaze never wavered.
Slowly, unwillingly, Emelina lifted her eyes to the dark, dangerous man who stood beside the dog. It struck Emelina in that moment that Julian Colter was as quietly lethal looking as his Doberman. It was the first time she had seen either of them at this range however, and up close the flashlight's beam revealed that the man radiated a more subtle element of menace than the beast. For in addition to the somehow graceful threat of power he seemed to share with the dog, Julian Colter wore an aura of command. He was clearly master of both the Doberman and himself.
"Good evening." The soft, gravelly voice drew Emelina's nerves taut. She felt as if she had just stepped into a Dracula film and was being introduced to the count, himself. "If you're looking for a place to spend the night, I can offer far better accommodations than you'll find in that deserted house."
I'll bet, Emelina thought grimly. Could she outrun him? She swallowed with difficulty. Even if that were a possibility, and she sincerely doubted it, common sense warned her that no one could outrun the Doberman. Did Colter recognize her? Had he seen her occasionally from a distance just as she'd seen him during the past week? What the hell was he doing down here on this beach at this hour?
"No." Emelina chewed on her very dry lower lip and tried again, jamming her free hand into the front pocket of her black denim jeans in an effort to hide the fact that it was trembling. "No, I wasn't looking for a place to sleep." Had he mistaken her for a passing hitchhiker looking for a convenient bed for the night? Good. Maybe he hadn't recognized her. "I I was just out for a walk."
"A walk." Julian Colter took a pace closer, ignoring the flashlight's glare. The Doberman followed. The gathering fog swirled around them both. "It's a rather unusual hour for a walk, isn't it?" he inquired with grave politeness.
In the harsh glow of the light she held in her hand Emelina could barely make out his features. But she could see enough to tell that his gaze was almost totally unreadable. "You seem to be out doing the same thing," she pointed out with bravado.
"Ah, yes," he agreed with a faint, very polite inclination of his head. A brief flash of white betrayed the smallest of amused smiles. "But, then, I have a reason to be out here on the beach at midnight."
"You you do?" Emelina gnawed on her lip. Had she unwittingly interrupted a dangerous rendezvous?
"Ummm. I was following you."
"What?" For an instant sheer outrage combined with Emelina's fear. "Following me! You had no right to do that! Following me! Whatever for?"
"Well, there isn't a whole lot to do in this village, as you may or may not have noticed," he murmured with mild apology. "You interest me."
"Good God! I'm not hanging around this godforsaken place for the sole purpose of providing you with a little entertainment!"
"I realize that. Which brings up the intriguing question of what you are doing around this place, doesn't it? Why don't you come back to the cottage with Xerxes and me and we'll talk about that little matter over a glass of brandy. It's getting chilly down here, don't you think?"
The dog got to his feet at the sound of his name and glanced up expectantly at his master. Emelina stared at both of them and thought again about running. "No," she whispered. "That's impossible. I have no wish to go to your place with you, Mr. Colter!"
The shark's smile came and went again. "I see you know my name. That gives you something of an advantage, I'm afraid. I don't know yours."
"Good," Emelina retorted unthinkingly.
He appeared mildly regretful. "Come along, night lady. I feel in the need of a few answers before I go to sleep."
He took a step closer and Emelina lost her nerve completely. In blind panic she turned and fled back along the beach. It was not the smartest move she could have made. The shoreline was rocky and uneven, and with the swirling fog she could barely see five feet in front of her.
But she ran, recklessly, heedlessly, as if Dracula and his pet werewolf were on her heels. Emelina didn't see any other choice in that moment except flight. She knew what the townspeople were saying about Julian Colter, and memory of their low-voiced speculation was more than enough to send her fleeing.
The werewolf caught up with her first. There had been no shouted warnings to stop, no sharp, menacing bark.
Neither man nor beast had wasted time and effort on such deterrents. They had both pursued silently, having no intention of allowing her to escape.
The Doberman appeared out of the fog at Emelina's side, running easily, his mouth open and laughing in the fitful moonlight. Emelina swung around and braced herself for the attack, her hands in front of her.
But the dog didn't attack. He came to a halt, too, sitting on his haunches and smiling up at her. Belatedly, Emelina realized that he thought it was all a game. He hadn't been ordered to attack. The Doberman had simply followed when she'd started running, enjoying the night race.
She was staring at the animal when its owner stepped out of the mist. If Julian Colter had been running, there was no evidence to document the fact. Even as Emelina dragged in a harsh breath she realized that the man looked no more strained than the dog.
"If you take him running like that very often, you'll have a friend for life." Colter smiled, indicating the Doberman. "He loves a good race." Then, before she could prepare herself, he reached out and took hold of Emelina's arm. "But it's not really a good night for running, is it? Let's go back to the cottage. Come on, Xerxes," he added, glancing down at the dog.
Emelina found herself going along as obediently, if not as willingly, as Xerxes. There really wasn't much choice. Strong fingers were locked around her upper arm now, not yet painful but full of the promise of unshakable will. Julian Colter was after some answers tonight, and now nothing was going to stand in his way.
Desperately Emelina tried to marshal her thoughts. She had to come up with a convincing tale or she was only going to dig the grave deeper than ever. Grave. What a horrible image. She gritted her teeth and cursed her own imagination again.
"Do you have a name, night lady?"
There was no point lying about it, she supposed. "Emelina. Emelina Stratton." The words came out sullenly, masking the fear she felt.
"Emelina. I like that. I'll call you Emmy. You don't have to be afraid of me, Emmy," he added surprisingly.
"I'm not. At least, no more than I would be afraid of any man who accosted me on the beach at midnight!" she exclaimed with a great depth of feeling.
Colter nodded understandingly as he guided her up the path to the bluff overlooking the beach. "I only want a few answers, Emmy."
"Why? What business is it of yours what I do at midnight?"
"I told you, you interest me. You arrive a week ago, all alone, and take a cottage that's not more than a short block from my own. It's the middle of winter, which is not a popular time for tourists in this part of the country. You spend your days keeping watch on that deserted beach house and then one night I see you making your way down the street toward the beach path. I find you about to commit an act of breaking and entering at midnight. I ask myself what anyone would hope to find worth stealing in that old place and I ask myself why a woman like you would come here in the middle of winter to carry out such an act. And I can't seem to come up with any answers. So Xerxes and I decided we'd just follow along tonight and ask you. Simple, hmmm?"
"Too simple. This is none of your business, Mr. Colter, I guarantee it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with you." Emelina shuddered as she thought about what she had overheard concerning this man.
Mafia, the waitress in the cafe had confided to the diner in the next booth only that morning as Emelina had sipped coffee. Probably hiding out while things cool down back East.
The waitress, Emelina knew, was not alone in her analysis. Syndicate type, the clerk at the grocery store had decided when the person in the checkout line ahead of Emelina had mentioned Colter's name. A high-level Mob boss who had found it convenient to take a winter vacation on the Oregon coast.
Whatever the truth, there was no doubt Julian Colter had managed to incite a great deal of speculation among the villagers. He kept to himself, was chillingly polite when he found it necessary to deal with a clerk or a salesperson in town, and went everywhere with the Doberman. Everyone knew Dobermans were savage beasts, trained for attack and bred for ferocity. As far as the townspeople were concerned, the dog was a fitting companion for the man.
Emelina risked a slanting, sideways glance at the man who walked by her side, holding her captive. It was true. There were certain similarities between man and dog. She shivered. She'd only seen Julian Colter from a distance until tonight. Now, the impression the villagers had formed was easy to understand. Emelina saw nothing to make her doubt their conclusions about his profession.
There was a harsh ruthlessness in the unhandsome profile. The hawklike nose and aggressive jawline were etched with power. The damp air had left the pelt of coal black hair looking darker than ever in the mist-refracted moonlight. There was iron at the temples, a gray that would be spreading more quickly through the black hair as the man neared forty.
Forty probably wasn't far off for him, Emelina decided uncharitably. If forced to name his age, she would have said thirty-eight or thirty-nine. She would also have said that, in terms of experience, Julian Colter was probably a good deal older. Judging by the grimly hewn lines at the edges of his mouth and the detached, cynical expression in his dark eyes, Colter had gained his experience the rough way.
The rest of him was hard and lean, but beneath the dark trousers and heavy leather jacket he wore, his body moved with a masculine grace that seemed to echo the dog's. Lethal, yet somehow beautiful in its own fashion. Emelina gnawed worriedly on her lip as they started up the path to the top of the bluff. Was he carrying a gun under that leather jacket? What was her best course of action now? Somehow she had to convince him that she was no threat to him.