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Five years later
Nicholas Sterling III stared at his reflection in the window a moment longer before yanking the rotting drapes closed.
There wasn't a single viable mirror in the cottage. He'd rendered each useless with black spray paint.
Useless like his life.
The occasional glimpse he caught of himself in a window reminded him of what he was.
Of what the villagers saw when they looked at him.
Of what she would see .
That was why he hadn't attempted to see Camille again since she'd regained consciousness in the hospital. As long as she'd remained in a coma he'd sat by her bed for hours each night after her family had gone home. Chief Swanson had ordered his deputies to leave Nicholas be when he appeared late at night to sit with her. Twenty-four-hour security outside Camille's hospital room had been necessary despite the fact that Raven's Cliff's troubles appeared to be over.
All but one.
Nicholas had not been able to take control of his family's estate as of yet. Beacon Manor sat empty now that the Monroe family had realized the property could not be legally sold to them. But to assume control of what was rightfully his, Nicholas would be forced to reveal his identity. So far only a select few knew who he was. Chief Swanson and one of his detectives, Andrei Lagios, and Camille. She had been in a coma until recently and represented no threat to Nicholas. The others aware of his true identity had agreed that Raven's Cliff needed time to recover before facing another shock. And the revelation that Nicholas Sterling III not only lived but was back in town would not be welcome news, particularly on the heels of suchdevastation. First the poisoned fish, then a thwarted terrorist attack, not to mention a serial killer. The village was weary of tragedy.
The citizens of Raven's Cliff had thought Nicholas dead since that night five years ago when he'd initiated this horrific chain of events. He closed his eyes and steadied himself. All that had happened the deaths, the damage to the village and the residents' livelihoodshad been his fault and his alone.
Nicholas had failed to carry out his one responsibility, and that careless mistake had caused so much misery.
Swanson continued to urge Nicholas to keep a low profile a bit longer. Raven's Cliff had a new mayor who was settling his constituents into a path toward recovery and a brighter future. Though it angered him on some level, Nicholas understood the chief's request. Causing more pain was not his intent.
Theodore Fisher, a lifetime resident and a man whose insanity had led him to poison the villagers with his concocted fish nutrient, had been stopped. As had the Seaside Strangler, Alexander Gibson, but not before he murdered four innocent victims. Rebecca Johnson had been his first victim. Nicholas shuddered as the tortured memories throttled him. That, too, was his fault. Had he been with Rebecca, the woman his family had chosen to be his wife, that night rather than selfishly indulging his own desires, she would not have been kidnapped and murdered.
Five years. A lifetime.
Even worse, Alexander Gibson had been Nicholas's identical twin. Ensuring the Sterling name was again synonymous with the devastation of Raven's Cliff. Nicholas and Alexander had been separated as small boys. Nicholas vaguely remembered playing with a boy who looked exactly like him, but as he'd grown up he had assumed that the identical playmate had been nothing more than his vivid imagination.
But he'd been wrong. Alexander had tried to drown Nicholas in the bathtub at the tender age of four. Nicholas's parents had sent him away. But Alexander had eventually learned the truth and returned to carry out his sick vengeance on the village and the people who had banished and abandoned him.
The Sterling family, particularly Nicholas, was undeniably responsible for the horrors that had plagued Raven's Cliff for so many years.
It was time to make full restitution.
Every additional day Nicholas was forced to wait tortured him. He plowed his hands through his hair and paced the floor. Five endless years.
He had to finish setting the past to right.
For those five years the world he had once known had thought him dead, a victim of the fire that had stolen his beloved grandfather's life. In truth, Nicholas had barely survived that night. He'd thrown himself from the blazing watch room of the lighthouse and crashed into the ocean far below. When he'd awakened on the rocks miles away he had suffered death a thousand times over. At first from the burns that had disfigured the left side of his face and torso, then later from the knowledge of what he had done.
He had devastated so many lives.
Death would have been so much easier. Yet, he had realized that he, ironically, was Raven's Cliff's only hope.
Salvation lies inside you
It was Nicholas's responsibility to restore the lighthouse and its lantern and to end once and for all the curse that had haunted Raven's Cliff for five years.
As a younger man he had scoffed at his grandfather's tales about the curse related to the lighthouse. Nicholas had refused to believe in such a ridiculous concept.
But he had been wrong.
That night, as he'd held his dead grandfather in his arms amid those lethal flames, a voice had warned him that if he died, Raven's Cliff would die as well.
Salvation lies inside you
Bracing his hands on the mantel, Nicholas stared into the flames of the small fireplace that warmed his run-down cottage as he recalled that night in detail. A line from the prayer his grandfather had recited to him every single night of his childhood had echoed through him before he'd taken that suicidal plunge into the ocean.
I pray the hollows my soul to keep.
As a child Nicholas had often giggled at his grandfather's parody of the well-known prayer.
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the hollows my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
He couldn't remember the final line, but every instinct told Nicholas that there was more to the old bedtime rhyme than he'd initially thought. Since his return to Raven's Cliff his instincts had prodded him to look to the past for answers to the present's troubles.
Despite the relief the villagers felt at having overcome the trials involving terrorists and a couple of lunatics with visions of grandeur, there would be more suffering to come. The troubles would not stop until Nicholas had done his part.
He must restore the lighthouse and the precious lantern it housed. It was the only way to lift the curse and ensure a safe and prosperous future for the village.
Not an easy task when he could not reclaim his home.
A pounding at the front door jerked him from the disturbing thoughts.
Tension rippled within his muscles. Who would dare to show up at his door at this time of night? No one came near the dilapidated cottage even in the light of day.
The few residents who had gotten a glimpse of him called him the beast. No one wanted to cross his path, much less pay a visit to his home.
Had Chief Swanson come with news of her?
A shiver of uncertainty trembled in Nicholas's limbs. She was far better off without him. Just as he had done to all those who had ever cared about him, he had damaged her life more than enough as it was.
And still, great diligence was required to keep his thoughts away from her.
The woman he had once loved with all his heart. At least with all the heart he had possessed. The fact that she knew he was still alive had been an accident.
Just another grave mistake in a life filled with far too many repeat blunders. One stormy night almost one year ago Nicholas had come upon her below the cliffs in that same place where they had last made love. He'd tried to hide but she'd seen him in the shadows. Once the initial shock had passed, they had argued fiercely. The heated fury had evolved into another kind of fire. They'd ended up making love right there in the sand as they had more than four years prior.
His traitorous body relished those forbidden memories.
Another round of frantic pounding echoed through his ramshackle home.
His brow furrowed with annoyance and no small amount of uncertainty. It was too late for Martha, his housekeeper, to have returned for any reason. Nicholas glanced at the clock. Half past eleven. She would be in bed by now.
It had to be Swanson.
And if it was, the news couldn't be good.
Had more evil struck?
Fear knotted in Nicholas's gut. Surely Camille's condition had not taken a turn for the worse. Two weeks ago she had regained consciousness and he had not returned to the hospital.
The night they had made love he had urged her to consider him dead as she had for more than four years. Her life would only be devastated further with him in it. She had let him know in no uncertain terms that she would be happy to do so. She wanted nothing to do with him.
Perhaps it had been the glimpse she'd gotten of him in the moonlight after they'd made love so savagely in the sand.
He'd seen the look of horror on her beautiful face. She'd tried to hide it, but failed. Not that he could blame her.
He was a beast.
And for a while he had hoped she intended to move on with her life. Then she'd disappeared and he'd blamed himself. One stolen moment with him had brought misfortune to her once more.
More banging on the door.
His visitor was not going away. He turned to the door. "Go away!" he commanded. If it was anyone but the chief, that should be sufficient cause to send them running.
The fear that had twisted his gut now morphed into outright terror.
It was her.
Before he could stop the automatic reaction he was at the door, preparing to open it.
When had she been released from the hospital?
What was she doing here?
Though the immediate dangers to Raven's Cliff and all who resided there had passed, evil still lurked close by. Nicholas could feel it deep in his bones.
Nothing would stop it except the full restoration of the lighthouse and its precious lantern.
And only he could make that happen.
"Nicholas, I will not go away!" Camille's voice reverberated through the closed door. "Let me in! Please."
The last word trembled from her.
Something was wrong.
Unable to ignore her urgent plea, he slid back the dead bolt and opened the door.
His heart stumbled at the sight of her. He'd forgotten it was raining outside. A violent storm had come and gone, leaving in its wake a persistent and cleansing rain. Camille stood on his stoop, her clothes soaked and clinging to her shivering body. For one moment his gaze was lost to her beauty. The wet clothing formed to her skin, accenting the curves his hands, even now, longed to caress. Fool.
"I need your help," she pleaded.
His eyes met hers, and the fear there launched a new terror inside him.
"Come inside." He stood back, opened the door wider.
She stepped over the threshold, her arms hugged tightly around herself.
That treacherous uncertainty plagued him even as he knew what he should do. "I'll get you a blanket."
She started to argue but he turned his back and walked away. In the hall, he rummaged in the linen closet for a towel and a blanket. His housekeeper's work was reliable. Despite the cottage's run-down condition she worked diligently to maintain a certain level of cleanliness and orderliness.
Nicholas was grateful she did so without question. She appeared not to care who he was or what he did, only that he paid her a good wage for a good day's work. For nearly five years that had been enough.
Bracing himself, he returned to where Camille waited. She looked pale and tired. Not well at all. Damp curls snuggled her soft cheeks, underscoring the dark circles beneath her eyes. His pulse reacted with worry and other emotions he fiercely wanted to deny.
"When were you released from the hospital?" He handed her the towel first.
She scrubbed at her face, then smoothed the terry cloth over her hair. "Two days ago."
The frown etched more deeply into his brow. "You're feeling better now?" She had teetered on the edge of death for days. He couldn't believe she'd awakened and walked out of the hospital as if death hadn't very nearly claimed her. "They determined what made you so ill?"