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Brody McClain hated storms.
The pounding rain and swirling wind off the Nantucket Sound were relentless, like the nightmares that had plagued him for five years.
Old anger resurfaced and burned in his gut.
With a shake of his head, he pushed the memories aside and focused his attention back on the small cottage. Concentrate.
Lightning streaked across the sky and reflected off the windowpanes of the dark house, making the dormer windows glow like large, luminous eyes.
Brody crouched behind the branches of an ancient rhododendron. The blood in his head thudded in tempo with the rapid beat of his heart. He gritted his teeth, forcing his breathing under control.
After a moment, his vision cleared and his eyes adjusted to the night. Drops of rain streamed down his back, plastering his cotton shirt to his skin. Should have grabbed a jacket, McClain.
From beyond the house, above the roar of the churning surf crashing against the cape, a seagull's high-pitched squawk protested the downpour.
I'm with you, buddy.
Blinding lightning pierced the midnight sky. More rumbling thunder nipped at its heels. Brody narrowed his gaze, staring at the large multipaned window near the front door, waiting impatiently for another flash to confirm what he thought he'd just seen.
Finally the light came. In that second of stunning brilliance he saw the silhouette.
Someone was in the house.
His fingers tightened around the grip of his Glock. He'd drawn his sidearm as he'd approached the house, heeding the familiar, gentle nudging he'd learned to respect. Only once had he ignored that inner signal.That mistake had cost him everything.
But that was then. Nowâ€¦ Brody moved soundlessly along the wraparound porch toward the back door. He tried the knob. Locked.
He pulled out a ring of keys and skimmed his finger along the flat surface of each, searching for the correct raised letter. He found the key marked with a K. He slipped it into the lock and opened the door.
A noise beyond the storm outside caught Kate Wheeler's attention. Just scraps of sound really, like a hinge in need of oil. The noise went perfectly with the eerie shadows that played along the covered furniture, making the white sheets appear ghostly. Musty staleness mingled with the salty scent of the Atlantic Ocean permeated the air.
She shivered in the darkness, her imagination wreaking havoc on her nerves with thoughts of some unknown assassin stalking her.
Outside, the wind howled across the Nantucket Sound, a forlorn noise that echoed through the house.
Fighting to keep her anxiety from turning into panic, Kate leaned against the wall.
Lord, I'm really scared. I need Your courage. She never should have come here tonight. She should have done the smart thing and waited for morning before coming to the house she hoped held answers to her husband's death. But patience wasn't one of her virtues.
Now she was stranded. The airport limousine service had disappeared long ago and the cell phone tucked in her purse was useless, the battery dead and the recharge cord forgotten at home. Given the circumstances of Paul's death, she should have been more cautious.
Ever since his funeral the previous month, she'd had the uneasy feeling someone was watching her.
The sensation followed her everywhere, the constant impression of eyes observing her every move, taking stock, waiting for the right moment to attack.
I told them you have it.
Paul's dire words rang in her head. If only she knew what "it" was.
Her condo in Los Angeles had been ransacked twice, which led her to believe that they"whoever they were"hadn't found the mysterious object. She hoped she'd find answers to her questions here in this small Massachusetts town, starting with this place"a house she'd known nothing about.
She glanced around as hurt burrowed in deep. How long had Paul owned this oceanfront cottage? Why had he bought a house when he'd refused to purchase one with her, his wife?
Once she would have expected the trappings of a normal marriage.
Paul's courtship had been the epitome of romance. They'd met at a Chamber of Commerce mixer. She'd been taken with his blond good looks and professional demeanor. He'd wooed her with candlelit dinners, roses at her door every Friday and touching love letters. She hadn't been able to resist his hard press. He'd represented stability and security: everything she longed for, everything that had been missing in her childhood.
But after the wedding, he'd changed. Even though he'd championed her career, urging her to advance rapidly through the ranks of the bank where she worked, he'd become distant at home. At first she'd attributed his withdrawal to difficulty adjusting to marriage.
As time wore on, she'd become more confused. She didn't know what she'd done to make him pull away. Throughout their four-year marriage, they'd been both physically and emotionally separated. The lack of love, respect and affection had cut her to her soul.
She'd tried everything to keep the marriage intact. She'd prayed every day. She'd sought professional help. But Paul had refused to go to counseling. He'd refused to talk to their pastor. He'd even stopped attending church. When people asked about him, she didn't know what to say. They'd become strangers living in the same apartment.
Now he was dead and she was left to clean up the mess. She pushed away from the wall. Though she'd never been afraid of the dark, the lack of electricity in the little seaside bungalow unnerved her. She moved to the rustic side table and finally located matches and a candle in the bottom drawer.
With shaky hands, Kate struck the match. Nothing. On her second try the little stick sputtered to life with a small burst of flame and she held the fire against the candle's wick. But if she'd thought the light would quell her uneasy feeling, she was mistaken. Beyond the circle of light, the glow flickered, deepening the shadows and adding to the spooky feel of the room.
The wind increased in tempo. A branch grated along a wall and a chill darted over Kate's flesh, raising goose bumps along her skin. A gust of air blew through the living room and the candle's flame careened crazily out of control before sputtering to a silent death. Inky darkness once again descended, enveloping her.
Suddenly, the familiar sense of being watched became acute, wrapping around Kate like greedy hands, stealing her breath. She shuddered. She glanced about the room, the blackness overwhelming, menacing.
Nothing's there. No one had been there for a month. She was safe here. She had to be.
Moving quickly toward the entryway where she'd left her suitcases and purse, Kate decided to find a bedroom where she could curl up beneath the blankets and wait for morning. Answers would be found in the daylight.
A flash of lightning exploded and threw the ebony night into stark relief. Her world appeared like a photo negative.
The harsh light illuminated the retreating figure of a man as he moved away from her through the kitchen.
A man with a gun.
The blood drained from her head. For a split second she wrestled with the sensation of dizziness. Her heart clutched before pounding in large, booming beats. The roar of blood rushing back to her brain flooded her ears, blocking out the sounds of the night.
He would see her if she moved to the front door. Her gaze darted in the direction of the bedrooms. If he found her there she'd be trapped. But what choice did she have? The bags slid from her slackened fingers to land soundlessly on the small area rug beneath her feet. Please, Lord, protect me. Because no one on earth would.
Then all was black again.
Once inside the cottage, Brody listened for any telltale sounds of the intruder, but the nocturnal noises beyond the walls of the house taunted his caution. Not wanting to announce his presence yet, he kept his flashlight attached to his belt.
Silently, he moved from the kitchen into the dining room. A large wooden table and several chairs made the area difficult to negotiate in the dark.
He breathed in. Beyond the musty, rank smell of disuse, an out-of-place scent drifted past his nostrils. The acrid smell of a burnt match.
On heightened alert, Brody moved forward, leading with his firearm. Once free of the dining room, he entered the living room. Another smell. A fragrance he recognized from his mother's garden"the sweet scent of lilacs.
Light flashed. A sharp, loud bang exploded into the stillness and ricocheted off the walls.
Brody dove for cover. His heart hammered in his chest. Adrenaline pumped through his veins and his nerves stretched taut. For a beat of time he was back in Boston, seeing the flare of gunfire, reliving the agony of betrayal.
The sounds of his own breath wiped the memory away. Thunder, you idiot. The storm was playing games with his mind.
Crawling to the wall, he pressed his throbbing hip and back against its cool surface. He took a deep, calming breath and focused on the one constant in his life, his job. He could never forget what he had to do.
Peering around the corner into the entryway, he caught sight of a dark shape. He froze, his heart picked up speed again. Though his vision was 20/20, the darkness made it difficult to see. Brody expelled a harsh breath. He had no choice. He had to get closer.
Lying prone and using his forearms to move his body forward, Brody crept across the threshold between the two rooms, over the cold hardwood floor toward the dark form. Three feet away, he released the breath he'd been holding.
Luggage. Black leather, two large and one small carry-on type. He frowned and moved closer. He nudged them. Full.
What was going on?
A fragment of noise came from down the hall, toward the bedrooms. He slowly rose and in a low crouch, proceeded into the gloom of the long hallway. He stopped to listen for more sound to direct his way. None came.
He paused at the first door he came to and listened for a moment. No noise. Still he braced himself, fisted his flashlight and turned the knob. The door swung open. Brody flipped on the flashlight. His gaze swept the room. Nothing beneath the bed. But the closetâ€¦
Out of habit, he glanced over his shoulder, making sure no one was behind him. He pressed his back into the wall, closed his hand over the closet doorknob and slowly turned.
Kate had to find a way out of the house.
She stood in the middle of the second bedroom. A bed, a dresser, a nightstand and a closet. There was nowhere to hide. Forget the closet. She couldn't take being in the small, confining space. Better to face her enemy and die in the open than wait meekly in what very well could be her coffin.
Chills slid over her body.
She didn't dare go back down the hall, so that left the window above the bed. Stepping up onto the mattress, she grasped the handle and pulled upward.
The window wouldn't budge. She tried the lock, but it refused to give. Using all of her strength, she managed to turn the lock, and yet the window still wouldn't move. Running a hand over the wood, she found the problem. The window had been nailed shut.
She gritted her teeth in frustration as she fought desperate panic. The logical part of her mind that had always ruled her life clamped down on the urgent impulse to dive head-first through the glass and hope she got away in one piece.
An idea formed in her mind. Something she'd seen in a movie or read in a book.
Lord, let this work in real life.
Kate snatched the brass bedside lamp, yanking the cord from the wall. Taking a deep breath, she raised her arm and threw the lamp with all her might at the window. Glass shattered in a shower of chunks and slivers, mostly landing in the dirt on the outside the house, some falling inward onto the bed.
She cringed at the noise, then jumped from the bed and ran across the room to press her body against the wall beside the hinges of the door bare seconds before it burst open. The doorknob connected with her hipbone and she bit her lip to stifle a cry.
In hypnotic terror, she watched as the broad back of a man appeared within her line of vision. Please, don't let him find me.
She squeezed farther into the corner. The man stopped in front of the open closet door, his head cocked to one side. He moved out of her view and she heard the barely perceptible creak of the mattress and a powerful beam of light lit the room. Kate closed her eyes and prayed her ruse had worked and he thought she'd escaped.
The light went out and she heard a soft thud. He'd stepped off the bed. A second later she heard him move toward the doorway. Tensing, she waited.