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A flat tire.
Tom Hawthorne slammed the door to his Toyota SUV, slammed it hard. Why the hell had he decided to take a shortcut instead of staying on the highway? It was the middle of the night, and he was stuck on this winding gravel road in a mountain valley. No other cars. Not a cabin in sight. Only the stars bore witness to his rage. "Son of a bitch."
Lately, things had been going wrong more often than right. He would have felt cursed if it wasn't for Angela.
The thought of her cooled his temper. He carried her image with him always, through the hell of the battlefield and the horror of working triage as a Marine Corps medic. Angela's sweet love made everything bearable.
As he opened the rear of the SUV, he took out his cell phone. Surprise, surprise, he actually got a signal.
She answered right away, as though she'd been waiting for his name to pop up on her caller ID. "Good evening, Mr. Hawthorne."
"Hello, Mrs. Hawthorne." Though they'd been married eight months, he still enjoyed claiming her as his wife. "I'm going to be later than I thought. I got a flat."
"Bummer. How was your night out with the boys?"
Boring as hell. "I'd rather be with you."
"But it's traditional for a Marine to blow off steam while he's home on leave."
One-handed, he hauled out the spare tire and the jack. If he'd still been a drinker, he might have had more fun on his night out with old buddies at a bar. The only alcohol Tom had consumed in the past year was a glass of champagne at their wedding. "The hour-and-a-half drive to the mountains was too long. And I lost twenty-seven bucks at pool. But you could make me feel a whole lot better, baby. What are you wearing?"
"Flannel pajamas." She laughed. "Are you fixing that tire or what?"
"Give me some incentive," he murmured. "Tell me about your sexy nightgown."
This was a game they'd played for years, and she was good at it. Her voice lowered to a purr. "I'm standing in front of the fireplace, and I'm warm all over. I have on a black, see-through nightie. It's short—so short that it doesn't even cover my bum if I bend over."
He closed his eyes, relishing a mental picture of Angela's slender waist and round butt. "Your hair?"
"Loose and tangled all the way down my back. Oh, and I have those highlights I've been wanting to get to perk up the brown."
"What kind of shoes?"
"High heels, of course. And silky black stockings. And a lacy garter belt."
"Baby, I can't wait to get home."
"Can't wait for you to be here." Her voice returned to a normal tone. "How long do you think it'll take?"
"It's after ten now. I'd say eleven-thirty." He set down the jack beside the flat.
"How's your buddy Max doing?" she asked. "Does he like being a daddy?"
"Looking at pictures of his baby was the best part of the night. I'm ready to start a family of our own." He looked up and saw headlights approaching. "Hey, there's somebody else on this godforsaken road."
"Maybe they can help you," she said.
"It's just a flat tire. I don't need help."
The other vehicle—a truck—jostled around a curve at an unsafe speed. He was an accident waiting to happen. Luckily, Tom had managed to pull onto the shoulder and had left his lights on. The other driver should be able to see him.
"When you get home," Angela said, "I'll make you some hot chocolate with whipped cream."
"Sounds nice." Damn, that truck was moving fast.
"I love you, honey."
The headlights blinded him. The truck was headed directly at him. What the hell?
The impact crushed him against the side of his SUV. His legs collapsed and he hit the gravel. The truck backed up. The engine revved. He was coming again. This was no accident.
Tom was a dead man. He knew it. He spoke his last words, "Love you, too."
Angela Hawthorne lay on her comforter, fully dressed, staring at the digital bedside clock as it clicked to that fateful time: 10:23.
A little over five years ago, her husband had been killed by a hit-and-run driver at exactly that moment. She'd heard the crash, heard his last words and then her phone went dead.
Her world stopped. Her breath caught in her throat. Oh, Tom. I miss you so much. She was poised at the edge of an abyss, wishing she could leap into ultimate forgetfulness and knowing that she never would lose her memories.
The moment passed.
A gust of wind splashed rain against the windowpanes. This was one of those summer electrical storms that started in the mountains and swept down to attack Denver with a fury. The distant thunder even sounded like artillery.
When she rose from the bed, she felt light-headed. She shook herself. Her eyes took a moment to focus as though she'd had too much to drink.
She slipped her feet into a pair of well-worn loafers and shuffled down the hall to her son's room. Benjamin Thomas Hawthorne, almost four years old, was her miracle baby.
After Tom's first tour of duty, he'd insisted that they create a stockpile of frozen embryos in case anything happened to him. She'd objected, mostly because she didn't want to acknowledge the possibility of her husband being wounded or, God forbid, killed. He'd soothed her fears and promised to come back to her, but his work as a medic meant he came into contact with a lot of disease. He hadn't wanted to take a chance on having his DNA damaged or becoming sterile.
Every single day, she was grateful for Tom's foresight. Less than a year after his death, she'd undergone the in vitro fertilization process. Nine months later, she gave birth to Tom's son .
As she opened the door to Benjy's room, the light from the hallway slanted across the foot of the big boy bed that had replaced his crib. He'd kicked off his covers and sprawled on his back on top of his dinosaur-patterned sheets. His honey-brown hair, a bit lighter than hers, curled around his ears.
His curtains—also dinosaurs—fluttered. His window was partially open, and the rain spattered across the sill.
She thought she'd closed all the windows when the rain started but she must have missed this one. As she pulled the window down and locked it, she noticed that the screen was loose. Something she'd have to repair in the morning.
After she tucked the comforter up to Benjy's chin, she kissed his forehead. He was an amazing kid, full of energy and incredibly bright. Everyone told her that she should start looking into preschools for gifted children.
Her fiancé was especially adamant on the subject of Benjy's education. She exhaled a sigh, wondering for the hundredth time if she was making a mistake by remarrying. No doubt, Dr. Neil Revere was a catch. At age thirty-six, he was ten years older than she was and well-established in his career as a virologist and professor at University Medical. He was wealthy, handsome, kindhearted and he loved Benjy. What more could she possibly want?
As she left Benjy's room and stepped into the hall, another bout of dizziness sapped her strength. She leaned against the wall. These nervous jitters had to stop. It was far too late for her to be having second thoughts about Neil. The wedding was Saturday. Three days from now.
When the phone rang, she jumped. Was she imagining this call in the night? Reliving the past?
She dashed into the front room and grabbed the phone, half expecting to hear Tom's voice. "Hello?"
"It's me, Shane. I wanted you to know that I'm running late."
Please don't tell me that you have a flat tire. "That's okay. I'm awake."
"No need for you to stay up. I'll get a motel room tonight and come over in the morning."
"You're staying here," she said firmly. Shane Gibson was Tom's cousin—the only family member who'd be attending her wedding. "I have the extra bedroom ready, and I made some of those macadamia nut cookies you like so much."
"You talked me into it," he said. "I won't be much longer. I can already see the lights of Denver."
When she set the phone on the coffee table, her heart was beating too fast. The erratic thump echoed inside her rib cage like a snare drum. She sank onto the sofa and concentrated on breathing slowly, in and out. Slowly, slowly. Her skin prickled with tension. A heat wave rose from her belly to her breasts to her throat to the top of her head. God, she was burning up. Sweating.
She'd felt this way before. Always at night. Always at the same time.
When she'd told Neil, he said her symptoms sounded like she was having a panic attack. He wanted her to see a psychiatrist, but she refused. She'd gone to a shrink after Tom's death and hated the process of talking and talking and never finding answers. As a mom and the half owner of a breakfast restaurant, she didn't have time to wallow in the past. Instead, she'd taken the mild sedative Neil prescribed for her. The pills usually worked. But not tonight.
Gradually, her pulse returned to normal. Leaning back against the sofa, she wiped the sheen of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. I'm fine. I've got to be fine. There were dozens of details she needed to handle before the wedding. Though it started as an intimate ceremony, the guest list had somehow expanded to nearly 150.
She'd be glad to have Shane here to help take care of Benjy. Shane and her husband had grown up together in a small town in Clear Creek County. Shane still lived in Silver Plume, where he was a deputy sheriff. Of all Tom's friends, Shane had been the most understanding. His was the shoulder she cried on.
And she had a secret agenda for Shane while he was in town. Eyes still closed, Angela smiled to herself. She planned to fix him up with the French woman who provided pastries for her restaurant. They were both tall with black hair and blue eyes. Obviously, made for each other.
Happy thoughts of matchmaking filled her mind, and she breathed more easily. Everything's going to be just fine. She dozed for a moment before a loud clap of thunder roused her. No sleeping allowed. She'd promised Shane that she'd be awake when he arrived.
Her legs were steady when she rose from the sofa, and she was pleased that her bout of nerves had passed. In the entry to the kitchen, her hand paused above the light switch. She saw a reflection in the window above the sink. A light? But that didn't make sense. That window faced the backyard. She squinted hard and focused on the dark beyond the glass panes.
She saw two lights, side by side. As she watched, they grew larger. Like the headlights on a truck. A ghostly truck. The lights bore down on her. Closer and closer. Coming right at her. They were going to crash through the window.
Reflexively, she threw up her hands.
When she looked again, the lights were gone.
A hallucination? No, it was too real. She knew what she'd seen. Without turning on the overhead light, she crept across the tile floor, leaned over the kitchen sink and peered into the yard. A flash of lightning illuminated the shrubs, the flowers and the peach tree. No headlights. No truck.
It must have been some kind of optical illusion—a trick of the light and rain.
She filled a plastic cup with water from the sink and took a sip.
A loud crash came from the hallway.
The cup fell from her hands and splashed water on the kitchen floor. The noise came from the direction of Benjy's bedroom. She remembered his open window with the loose screen. Someone could have climbed inside through that window.
She grabbed a butcher knife from the drawer by the sink, dashed down the hallway and flung open the door to her son's room. With no thought for her own safety, she charged inside. He wasn't in the bed. Frantic, she turned on the light. He was gone. Oh, God, no.
"Benjy?" Her voice quavered. "Where are you?"
Her heart thumped hard and heavy. She ran to his window. It was closed, exactly the way she'd left it.
The door to his closet was slightly ajar. Holding the knife in her right hand, she grasped the door handle with the left and pulled the door open.
With a huge grin, Benjy greeted her. "Mommy."
She placed the knife on his dresser and gathered him into her arms. She held him tightly against her breast— relieved that he was all right and terrified of the unknown danger that might still be in her house. Something had made that crash. She couldn't let down her guard, couldn't pretend that nothing had happened. "Why were you in the closet?"
"I don't know."
He didn't seem frightened. Wide awake and alert, but not scared. "Were you hiding?"
"I couldn't find my stegosaurus. I want him to sleep with me."
"Benjy, this is important. Was anyone in your room?"
"Mommy, what's wrong?"
She struggled to keep the tremor from her voice. "Everything's fine. We're going to be fine."
The doorbell rang. It had to be Shane. Please let it be Shane.
Benjy wriggled free from her grasp. She tried to grab him, but he dashed from his room and down the hall. Directly into danger? What if it wasn't Shane at the door?
She grabbed the knife and ran to the door behind her son. Loudly, she shouted, "Who's there?"
"It's Shane. I'm getting wet out here."
"Shane's here!" Benjy cried delightedly.
She flipped the lock and opened the door for the big, tall mountain man in his cowboy hat. She'd never been so glad to see anyone in her entire life.
After years as a deputy sheriff, Shane was accustomed to dealing with crises. He read terror in Angela's eyes. Something had thrown her into a panic, and she wasn't a woman who scared easily.
He ruffled Benjy's hair and pulled Angela into a one-armed hug. "What's the problem?"
Trembling, she whispered, "I think someone broke into the house."