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She'd made a dreadful mistake. The minute the headlights of her car swept over the house, Faith realized it deep down in her heart.
Truth be told, she had made a whole string of mistakes, including the one she prayed wouldn't prove to be the most costly. When she'd left the house earlier, she had forgotten to turn any lights on. Now night had fallen and nothing but a dark silhouette loomed before her. Just the thought of what might be waiting outside the safety of the car made her heartbeat go ballistic.
Please, Lord protect me.
Faith clutched the steering wheel tight in an attempt to steady her trembling hands as she peered out the windshield. Nothing seemed out of place, but then again, it was pitch-black out. There were no streetlights this far from town, and dense clouds obscured the moon and stars. While the car's headlights illuminated most of the side of the house and a portion of the front, it didn't quite reach the door.
Foolish, foolish, foolish. She couldn't believe she'd acted so foolishly.
At the time, she hadn't thought about anything but getting away for a little while. The walls had been closing in on her, and she knew if she didn't find a way to clear her head, she would end up throwing everything she owned into the back of her car and running for her life once again.
Driving along the breathtaking stretch of Maine coastline while the setting sun painted the waters a kaleidoscope of colors helped put things into perspective. There was something about the neverending cycle of the tide as it rolled against the rocky shoreline and then out to sea again that gave her a sense of peace. It reminded her that it didn't matter what she went through in her life, or how scary or insurmountable her fears seemed, God was in control.
Most days, she could control the doubts. Today hadn't been one of them. All because of the call. The reason she'd moved to Hope Island, a small town of a little more than ten thousand in population located at the southernmost tip of the Maine coastline. She had been running from him.
This move was supposed to be different. Faith had banked all her future happiness on it working this time. The call had proved her wrong. She had lost track of the number of times she'd uprooted her life just to get away from him. It had become second nature whenever she felt threatened. Today, when the call came in and the tiniest bit of hope she still clung to evaporated, she had definitely felt threatened.
At twenty-eight, Faith had given up two years of her life to this thing. She'd changed her name, her looks, shut herself off from the world as much as humanly possible, and yet each time he found her again.
She glanced up at the house and shivered at the possible dangers lying in wait inside.
Funny how something could appear so different when you were seeing it through the eyes of fear. Just a little more than a month earlier, she'd fallen in love with the old, two-story Cape Cod and rented it on the spot. Now, she could imagine him hiding in the enormous country kitchen, or lurking in the shadowy hallway.
Faith cracked the car's window and listened. Above the surging ocean waves beyond the house, nothing sounded unusual.
Yet something wasn't right. By now, Ollie would have recognized the sound of her vehicle and started barking like crazy.
She blew out a sigh. She couldn't stay out here all night. Maybe the call had truly been a wrong number this time.
Faith killed the engine, got out and hurried up the steps. She barely had time to put the key into the door when she heard it. Footsteps coming quickly up the stairs behind her. A shaft of light from a flashlight bounced off the porch and up the side of the house. Utterly unnerved, the hand holding her keys jarred away from her and the keys flew from her fingers.
"No." The word slipped from her tremulous lips.
She turned toward the light and the beam temporarily blinded her.
Faith had rehearsed this moment dozens of times in her head and yet the reality of it didn't feel anything like what she'd practiced.
Without the keys, the car would be useless, which left only one option. She'd need to make it to the back of the house. There were a handful of houses scattered along the stretch of beach behind her place. If she could reach one of them, hopefully someone would help her.
Faith raced toward the steps located off the side of the porch and away from the figure with the light.
There were threeno, foursteps leading down to the grassy yard. The fence separating her small backyard from the beach would be some fifteen feet behind the house. She'd carefully counted off each step her first day here.
She vaguely detected a deep male voice calling out to her when her right foot cleared the final step. She didn't dare look back. Her breath came in labored gasps as she rushed in the direction that she gauged the gate to be. Just a few more feet. Almost there.
His heavy footsteps echoed along the porch behind her. He was following her.
"Stop. I have your dog."
At first, her mind didn't register what he said. Every single thought focused on escaping. She bolted toward the beach, but she could hear her pursuer steadily gaining on her.
Faith reached for the latch on the gate when a strong hand clamped down on her shoulder. The momentum of his body slamming into hers sent them both sprawling along the dew-covered grass. It took a few seconds to drag air into her lungs and then she was kicking and punching him, fighting with everything she had, but her strength was no match for his.
"No!" she screamed as loud as she could, hoping someone would hear and come to her aid.
The stranger moved to a kneeling position, caught her flailing hands together in one of his, and brought them up over her head. "Stop that. I'm not going to hurt you." When she finally stopped struggling, he let her go and got to his feet.
"See? I mean you no harm," he said. Faith opened her eyes and stared at him for the first time. From her position lying flat on her back, he seemed incredibly tall.
She ignored the hand he held out to her. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"I told you, I have your dog."
"What are you talking about? My dog is inside my house. How can you have him?" She sat up slowly, rubbing her wrists where he'd held them. In the darkness, she couldn't tell much from his expression.
"Well, his name tag says he's Ollie and that he lives here."
He knew her dog's name. While her brain struggled to make sense of it, barking coming from the front porch seemed to confirm his story. Yet Ollie was scared of his shadow. He would never willingly go to a stranger.
"Ollie, it's okay, boy. Come here." The little Pug bounded around the corner of the house and into her arms.
"Satisfied?" The stranger sounded amused. Faith got to her feet and put some distance between them, an impossible habit to break no matter how hard she tried. Another gift from him.
Although she couldn't remember a single thing about the actual attack that had taken place in Austin, she knew it had been brutal. When the EMTs brought her to the hospital, the doctor who treated her told her it had been so violent her mind had simply wiped away all traces of the incident as a coping mechanism. In spite of all her doctor's reassurances, her memory of the attack and what her life had been like before it remained locked away in her head.
She knew her attacker had murdered two people that night. Her friend Rachel Jennings and Rachel's father, Carl, had paid the ultimate price with their lives. Faith had given up a lot to this nightmare as well. She had nothing left to give except for her life and he seemed determined to take that from her as well.
She brushed off her jeans while Ollie wriggled in her arms and licked her nose. She could only imagine what this man must be thinking after their hot-pursuit chase. "Yes. I'm sorry. I thought " She stopped, realizing she couldn't possibly tell him the truth. Most normal people would probably think she was the crazy one, and at this point, she was beginning to wonder if she was. She shook her head. "Never mind. Where did you find him?"
"Sitting on my back deck barking at the door and demanding to be let in. I guess he mistook my house for yours. He doesn't appear to see too well at night. I stopped by earlier, but no one was home. I took the dog for a walk on the beach and saw your car lights."
She smiled at his description of Ollie. At almost fourteen years old, a lot of things didn't quite work the way they used to. Ollie's poor eyesight was one of his latest ailments.
"Well, thank you for bringing him back. I don't know how he got out." Faith headed back toward her house with Ollie's rescuer falling into step beside her, careful to keep some space between them. He'd caught the way she reacted when he got too close.
"I'll help you find your keys. My name is JT Wyatt, by the way." He held out his hand and she hesitated only a second before accepting it.
JT stepped up onto the porch and retrieved his flashlight from where he'd dropped it.
It took only a second to locate the keys beneath the porch swing. "Can you hold this for a second?" He handed her the light and got down on his knees to recover the keys. She caught a glimpse of faded jeans and a dark, long-sleeved turtleneck. The casual way he dressed didn't quite fit with her first impression of him. She hadn't pegged him as a local. More the corporate vacation type.
The light illuminated golden highlights scattered throughout his chestnut hair, which he wore swept back away from his face. A single strand fell across his forehead, dispelling the notion that he might have walked off the cover of some slick magazine.
"Here you go," JT said as he got to his feet. She realized her first assessment of him had been correct. He was tallwell over six feet. She had to tip her head back just to look him in the eyes. They were a magnificent shade of blue that reminded her of the sky on a summer day.
Faith tamped down her wayward thoughts. "Thank you."
He grinned at her. "No problem. I'm just glad I was home when Ollie showed up. I'd hate to think of him roaming around the beach on his own. October nights here can get pretty cold."
When JT handed her the keys, his fingers brushed against hers, sending an unwelcome jolt of awareness surging through her, and she instinctively took a step back. His gaze narrowed just a fraction as he watched her, no doubt witnessing all her anxiety. Faith turned away and unlocked the door while praying he wouldn't ask the questions she'd seen in his eyes.
"Looks like you have a secret admirer."
Immediately her heart leaped to her throat and she turned back to him. "Excuse me?"
JT pointed the flashlight at something just beyond the door. "Someone left you flowers."
A dozen red roses had been deliberately placed on the porch railing.
Faith struggled not to fall apart. In spite of what she'd hoped, she realized the call earlier hadn't been an accident. He wanted her to find the roses when she returned, but she had been too scared and intent on escaping her would-be attacker to see them right away.
This was his subtle little reminder he could find her wherever she went. He enjoyed toying with her. The way a cat toyed with a mouse before devouring it.
"I take it you weren't expecting those." JT continued to watch her expression carefully.
He took the flashlight and went over to examine the flowers. Nothing unusual about the dozen red roses in a cut-glass vase except for their purpose. They were part of his deadly game.
"They were purchased at the local florist here on the island. There's a card attached." JT held it out to her.
She closed her eyes and tried to capture the faintest memory. There had once been a time when she'd loved red roses. Something had changed. The memory disappeared before she could grasp it. Had it been real?
When she opened her eyes, she realized JT still held the note. She couldn't bring herself to take it from him. Read the words aloud. Relive the terror again. When she shook her head, he placed the note back in its holder. "You should probably get them inside anyway. They'll be ruined by morning."
She shook off her uneasiness with difficulty. "Yes, you're right. Thank you." Faith took the roses from him even though she couldn't bear the sight of them. She'd throw them in the trash as soon as JT left.
"If you'd like, I could come inside and take a look around. Just to ease your mind."
Her hand stilled on the door. She hesitated. She didn't know what to trust anymore, including her own judgment. She should refuse JT's offer outright. Thank him for his kindness and send him on his way.
"That's very kind of you, but I don't think so."
When he stepped closer, her back hit the door and he stopped. "You're obviously frightened. I can check things out to make sure nothing's out of place and then I'll be on my way. If you want, you can wait out here until I'm finished. I promise I don't have any ulterior motives," JT added with a hint of a smile.
She knew she was being ridiculous. He only wanted to help. After all, he'd taken the time to bring Ollie home when the dog had wandered onto his back deck. JT seemed genuinely concerned about her well-being, and at some point in her life she needed to learn to trust someone if she wanted to live long enough to discover her attacker's identity.
Through every single one of the moves, she'd prayed for God's help. At times, it seemed as if He wasn't in the answering mood when it came to her prayers. At one of the church services she'd attended once, she remembered the pastor saying that God didn't always choose to answer prayers in the way we would like Him to, but He always answered them in the best way for us. Had God sent a total stranger into her life as an answer to her prayer?
Trust Me. The words echoed through her thoughts. Trust was a hard thing for Faith to give freely, but she needed to try.
"Okay," she said at last. "Thank you. I'd really like that." She stepped aside and let JT pass through.