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Years ago there had been no bridge to the island, and it had slept in haunted isolation. Now two lanes of concrete spanned the sound, carrying Sarah Wainwright quickly from the Georgia coast to St. James Island. Too quickly. She wasn't ready.
Perspiration slickened her hands against the steering wheel. She couldn't stop, couldn't pull off, couldn't turn around. The bridge funneled her inexorably to the one place in the world she didn't want to be. The entire past year hadn't been enough time to prepare herself for what awaited her on St. James.
The island appeared, a green, insubstantial smudge against a clear May sky, and Sarah's stomach lurched. St. James — home to an uneasy, volatile mixture of local Gullah fishermen and the rich incomers who'd turned one end of the island into a private enclave for the wealthy and powerful.
St. James had been Sarah's home, too, for six short months. Then betrayal and tragedy sent her fleeing back to her native Boston.
Fleeing unsuccessfully. She'd discovered, since the anniversary of Miles's death in April, that she couldn't outrun grief. It hung, persistent, on her heels, hampering her every step, demanding her constant attention. Demanding that she face it here, on St. James. Her stomach gave another protesting spasm as the car wheels rolled off the bridge and onto the island.
Live oaks, shrouded with Spanish moss, canopied the road. Sarah shivered in spite of the heat. Haunted.
I don't believe in ghosts, Heavenly Father, but no other word fits.
St. James was haunted by its own past, and now haunted by her past, too, and that of the husband who'd died here — died in an apparent lovers' tryst with his employer's wife.
The lobby of the St. James Inn was shuttered and cool, its only inhabitant the manager, leaning on his desk. Sarah caught the expression of shock mingled with avid curiosity that crossed his face at the sight of her, quickly replaced by his professional welcoming smile.
"Dr. Wainwright. This is a pleasant surprise. We weren't expecting you." He glanced nervously at the desk computer and patted his thinning hair. "Were we?"
"No, you weren't." She'd known instinctively it would be a mistake to announce her coming.
She smiled, wishing she remembered the man's name. It would give her a fraction more leverage. Obviously he remembered hers. The island had probably talked of little else for months.
"I'm sure you can find a room for me." The inn mainly housed overflow guests from the big houses, and they both knew May wasn't the high season.
"Why...um..." He punched a few keys on his computer, clearly hoping for inspiration. Sarah knew exactly what he was thinking. What would Trent Donner want him to do?
"Does — does Mr. Donner know you're coming?"
Nobody on St. James, conceivably nobody in Georgia, crossed Trent Donner with impunity. Sarah's stomach lurched again. Sooner or later she'd have to face him. Was she a coward for hoping it would be later?
She managed a cool smile. "I thought I'd surprise him. I'll go out to Land's End tomorrow."
Maybe it was the casual mention of the Donner estate. Something eased in the manager's face. "Why don't we give you the suite you had the last time you were here?"
A lady never shows her feelings in public.
Her grandmother's maxim, drilled into Sarah from birth, stiffened her spine and kept a smile frozen on her face. Knowing what he must, how could the man assume she'd want the suite she'd shared with Miles when they'd first arrived on the island?
"That will be fine."
She tried to put herself on autopilot to get through the next few minutes. Fill out the registration card, exchange comments about the weather. Follow the bellman, tip him, don't think about staying here with Miles when they'd first arrived on the island.
Finally the door closed behind him, and she was alone in the quiet room with its cool white shutters, bamboo furniture and four-poster bed. Staying here was no worse than staying in any other room. No place on the island would be free of memories.
That was why she'd fled, wasn't it? And that was why she'd come back.
Her parents hadn't seemed surprised at Sarah's abrupt decision to return to the place of Miles's death. Duty loomed large in six generations of New England virtue, and they clearly felt Sarah had left duty unresolved, racing home the day after Miles's death, hiding from reporters, evading even her friends.
But then, her parents had never believed Miles Wainwright could be guilty of betraying both his marriage and his employer by having an affair with his employer's wife. Or by dying with her. Not Miles Wainwright, descendant of his own six generations' worth of Puritan values.
She hadn't believed it either, in spite of overwhelming evidence that Miles had, indeed, had an affair with Lynette Donner and died with her in a gas heater accident at the cottage where they'd met. She hadn't believed, couldn't believe, what Lynette's husband so obviously did.
For weeks, maybe months, Sarah's mind had winced every time it came too close to the thought of Miles and Lynette together. If she didn't think about it, it didn't happen.
Over time, the anguish and grief receded to a dull, hollow ache, only flaring painfully when unexpectedly jostled, like a deep wound beginning to skin over with tender, fragile flesh. Work had helped. She'd taken on emergency room duty at the hospital, grateful for the killing schedule that let her fall into bed, exhausted enough to sleep, every night.
Eventually she could actually look at the possibility of Miles's betrayal for more than a moment at a time. Look at it, assess it, bring reason to bear.
And find that she still, more than a year after the fact, didn't believe it. Miles — loyal, upright Miles — was not a man who'd betray his marriage and his employer. He wasn't.
To the weight of her faith in Miles, Sarah added faith in her own perceptions. I couldn't not have known that Miles was deceiving me, could I, Lord? If her perceptions were that skewed, the earth was no longer solid under her feet.
So she'd come back to St. James. Everyone — Lynette's husband, the police, the coroner — everyone was wrong. Whatever Miles had been doing at Cat Isle that day with Lynette, he wasn't having an affair. Somewhere on St. James there were answers, and this time she wouldn't run away. This time she wouldn't leave until she found them.
A knock shattered the stillness. The manager, having forgotten something in his nervous haste? She smoothed her linen slacks, wrinkled from travel, and opened the door. And confronted Trent Donner, filling the doorway with well over six feet of fury, all of it radiating directly at her.
"What are you doing here?" He surged inside on the words. Sarah stumbled back a step or two, heart hammering against her ribs. Trying to keep him out would be as futile as trying to stop the tide.
"The manager called you," she stated flatly.
She should have known he would do that. She should have been prepared, instead of standing here with her mouth dry from shock. She'd forgotten the aura of power Trent brought with him into a room, as if everyone and everything rotated around him.
"Of course." Trent dismissed the man with a negligent gesture.
Sarah found her temper at the unconscious arrogance of the man. Good. One always needed an edge in dealing with Trent Donner, and anger seemed to be the only edge she had.
"Why shouldn't I be here?" Answer a question with a question. Catch your breath. Slow your pounding heart.
"I'd think that would be obvious." Trent's voice was hard, incisive, with an edge of mockery. He took a swift step forward, and the afternoon sun crossed his face, lighting the harsh angles of cheekbone and jaw.
Sarah drew in a breath. The last time she'd seen him, it had been across two motionless bodies and the wreckage of too many lives. His normally impassive face had been etched with pain, grief and a kind of hopeless rage.
Now the lines seemed permanently engraved, turning the strong planes of his face into a marble mask. Only his clear gray eyes were alive, blazing with feeling. With fury. Her heart jolted, sickeningly. She was trapped by his presence.
Sarah heard a faint waver in her voice, stopped and swallowed. She could face drug overdoses and multiple fatalities in the E.R. She could face him.
"I'm sorry if my being here upsets you, but I do have ties here." She forced herself to meet his fierce gaze calmly. "My husband died here."
"I hardly need a reminder of that." His voice, normally deep, roughened and deepened still further. Shared pain flicked past the anger Sarah held like a shield, catching her on the raw.
That elemental pain must be the only thing they shared. She wanted, suddenly, to comfort him, and knew in the same instant that she was the one person who never could.
Perhaps he saw her wince, perhaps he only heard the revelation in his own voice. He paused, another feeling quarreling with the anger.
"I'm sorry." He brushed a strand of black hair from his forehead with a swift, economical movement, and she saw that his hair was touched now with white at both temples. The year had aged him, as it had her. "I've never had much in the way of manners." His mouth twitched in what might have been a smile. "I'm forgetting myself. How are you, Sarah?"
The reluctant concern in his voice disarmed her, touching something that seemed to reverberate to the timbre of his voice.
"I'm...all right. I went back to work. That helped."
"At Boston General?"
She nodded, vaguely surprised that he remembered the name of the hospital where she'd interned before she'd moved south and married Miles. But Trent had always had an encyclopedic memory, as well as an unerring ability to rearrange odd pieces in unexpected ways. That gift that had fascinated Miles's more prosaic intelligence.
"How is Melissa?" His daughter would be twelve now, a crucial age for a girl. How had she coped with the tragedy?
Trent's face tightened, if marble conceivably could. He'd never looked his nearly forty years, until bitterness and grief etched their mark on him. "She's all right."
The shortness of his answer told Sarah Melissa was not all right, and fresh pain gripped her heart. Poor child. She'd had problems enough before tragedy had shattered all their worlds.
Well, little though she'd wanted to see Trent today, he'd given her the opportunity to get on with what she had to do. "I'd like to see her..."
"No!" Trent's eyes blazed, and her heart lurched into over-drive. She'd always felt something wild lurked under that expensively tailored gray business suit, and now it seemed about to surface.
"Trent, just hear me out." What could she say that would make him listen?
"I don't want you anywhere near my daughter." A muscle twitched at the corner of his mouth and was ruthlessly stilled.
"I don't want you anywhere on St. James at all."
The momentary truce was over, the brief span of shared emotion banished. Sarah stopped attempting to control her anger. When Trent had been Miles's employer, she'd had to be polite to him. That constraint didn't exist anymore.
"Or anywhere in Georgia? I'm not sure my whereabouts is your concern."
"It is when it affects me. When it affects my daughter." The words shot at her like bullets. His hands knotted into fists and then unwound with what appeared a superhuman effort.
"Don't you think I'm affected by being here?" Hurt edged her voice. "I had to come."
He shook his head, as if to clear it. "I know you're as much a victim of what happened as we are." He clearly tried hard for a reasonable tone. "I'm sorry for you. But your being here will only stir up things that are better left buried."
"Better for whom? Not better for me!" If only she could make him see. "Don't you understand? I've spent a year trying to bury the past. It can't be done. I can't leave it alone until I know what really happened."
For the space of a heartbeat the words hung in silence between them. Then Trent made a sudden, violent motion that sent Sarah back a step.
"Is that what this is all about?" His hands shot out to grasp her wrists, and he looked as if he'd rather have them around her throat. "You want to dig it all up again, make us relive it. For what? So you can satisfy that strict Puritan conscience of yours? That's it, isn't it? You have to prove to yourself that you're not to blame."
"No!" Sarah felt her pulse pound against the warm hard grip of his hands. He was too close. She was suffocating, as if his pain and anger drew all the air out of the room. "This isn't for me. This is for Miles. I don't believe it. I've tried, and I can't believe it."
"Try harder." Eyes blazing, he thrust his hard face toward her. "It happened."
Sarah had a sudden vivid image of a wolf, eyes gleaming, closing on its prey. People said Trent Donner never forgot and never forgave. She could believe it.