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Her stalker was back.
Heart pounding, breath strangling in her chest, Erin Brady darted through the crowd of tourists on the wharf in Shadow Cove, Maine.
She felt him. "Where?" she whispered through clenched teeth, her gaze sweeping the blur of faces as she ran. It could be anyone. The teenager leaning against the fence. The old man squinting into the sun. The harried housewife trying to corral a small child.
"God, where do I go?" she muttered, not expecting an answer. All she could do was run.
The air was cold with the bite of fall. The sun was setting, spreading sheets of gold and crimson across the surface of the ocean that stretched out behind her and lapped eagerly at the pylons below the boardwalk. The sun-faded boards beneath her feet groaned and creaked with the ocean's movement, and sounded like ghosts, keening a warning.
No warning necessary, Erin thought wildly, the heels of her boots clacking against the wood planks as she ran. She knew she was being followed. Again. She felt the power of someone's stare burrowing into her back even as she bolted for the safety she knew she wouldn't find.
A fisherman eased back on his pole and took a step backward that had Erin clipping into his shoulder as she ran. He shouted after her, but she could only lift one hand in apology and yell, "I'm sorry. Sorry." No time. No time to be polite. No time to worry about pissing off the locals. No time for anything but finding somewhere to hide. To get out of sight.
The bucolic fishing village was packed with tourists there to see the autumn foliage. Quaintly decorated shop fronts strived to look as they might have two hundred years ago.Cobblestones paved the main street and every door was propped open, the better to induce spontaneous shopping.
Erin had been in town for a week, looking for a place to escape the crowded, suddenly terrifying streets of New York. Raised in California, she'd lived in Manhattan for years. Erin was more at home with the big-city vibe, but over the last few weeks things had changed.
Let's face it, she thought, things had changed five years ago. On her twenty-fifth birthday, she'd received a letter from the birth mother she'd never known, warning Erin that on her thirtieth birthday, her biological father was going to find her, steal her psychic abilities and then kill her.
Now, with only three weeks left before she turned the big three-O, life was getting scary. Especially since the day someone had shoved her off a curb in Brooklyn and into the path of an oncoming bus. Erin had survived that, thanks to a quick-moving good Samaritan. But since that day, she'd felt eyes watching her. Following her every movement.
She'd thought she would be safe tucked away in a tiny village just a half hour from the Canadian border.
Clearly, she had been wrong.
She slapped her right hand onto a light post and used it to swing herself around the corner in her blind run. The instant her hand touched the cold, black metal though, her mind filled with the images of everyone who had touched it before her.
Visions raced through her mind so quickly, she could barely separate one from the other. Old men, young women, boys carving their initials into the black paint, drunks leaning into the pole, a young couple nestled against it, lips locked in a hungry kiss"she saw them all in a rapid progression despite trying to close them all out.
Not now, she thought wildly, doing her best to close down the psychic images flooding her mind. Normally, she could deal with the burst of visions erupting in her mind at the simplest touch of an object. She'd learned to pause, let the pictures rise up and fade away in their own time. Today, she couldn't afford to be distracted. Not even for an instant.
She shook her head, stumbled, waved her arms to steady herself and then raced down the cobblestone street. Erin darted in and out of the crowds as she passed one shop after another. Which one? Where should she go? Where would she be safe?
Then one shop seemed to stand out from all the others. Soft blue paint, gray shutters and a gleaming front window with gold-leaf paint proclaiming The Ancient Sea. Her boots slid, then grabbed the cobblestones as she ducked inside. Her instincts had prompted her to choose this shop above all the others and she was in no shape to argue with them. Besides, all that mattered was that she get off the street, out of sight, before whoever had been watching her on the wharf could find her again.
A bell over the door pealed as she stepped on the welcome mat and the old woman behind the counter gave her a blank stare and a brief nod of greeting. Erin couldn't blame the woman for not being delighted to see her. She must look half crazed. God knew that's how she felt. Breathless, terrified, lost.
Where the hell could she go?
What was she supposed to do? "Welcome," the woman said, but the single word didn't hold much warmth. "If I can help you find something, please ask."
Sure, Erin thought frantically, tossing one glance over her shoulder at the wide window overlooking the street, help me find the reason someone's suddenly out to get me.
Swallowing hard, she wandered blindly down the cluttered aisle and let her gaze slide over the shelves and display cases of antiques. There was a nautical theme to every item in the store"hence, she thought, the name of the shop. Careful not to touch anything, lest she plunge herself into another series of psychic visions, Erin wandered to the back of the store, keeping her head down and her shoulders slumped in a vain attempt to disappear.
Normally, she tended to avoid antique shops. With her kind of "gift," antiques were overwhelming. Too many memories. Too many energy imprints left behind by sometimes generations of previous owners. But today, for some reason, she'd chosen this store out of all the others to hide in.
The air in the shop smelled of lavender and chicken soup. An odd combination, but somehow comforting. Steadying her heartbeat took a minute or two of concentration, but she forced herself to breathe deeply, slowly. Panic, her closest companion these days, crouched in the pit of her stomach and snarled, but Erin wouldn't give into it. Wouldn't fall apart. Not here. Not now. She couldn't afford to. She had to think. Had to figure out a way to handle the sudden upheaval that had become her life.
Only three weeks ago, she'd been the head chef in DelVeccio's, a small, but trendy restaurant in the Village. She'd built her reputation on creativity and excellence and the restaurant was just beginning to get noticed. Then one day, it all went to hell.
The bell over the shop door rang again and Erin stopped dead, half-hidden behind a display case filled with scrimshaw carvings and colorful glass balls that had once festooned fishing nets. She peeked around the edge of a bust of the Ancient Mariner, carved from driftwood and polished to a high gleam and released a breath when she saw two elderly women, chattering brightly, enter the shop.
Okay, whoever was following her, she was pretty sure it wasn't those two. No way could they have kept up with her. Not the way she'd been sprinting down Main Street. Since no one else came into the shop after the women, maybe she'd lost her stalker.
But if she had, it wouldn't be for long. Not in a town this size. "Idiot," Erin muttered, turning to the far shelf at the back of the store. "If you couldn't stay lost in Manhattan, what made you think you could do it here?"
"I beg your pardon," the shopkeeper asked, appearing beside her, "were you speaking to me?"
"No, sorry," Erin said and forced a smile she was fairly sure looked as ghastly as she felt. "Just thinking out loud."
"I see." The woman, in her seventies, was dressed in a long, flowing red caftan over black slacks and her snow-white hair was done up in an elaborate French twist at the back of her head. Her blue eyes studied Erin for a long moment, then she asked, "I noticed you were looking at the scrimshaw. Is there something I can show you?"
"Um, no, thanks. I'm really just browsing." And hiding from whoever was outside that door. It probably wasn't safe to stay in one place too long, either, but she couldn't seem to make herself walk through that front door. She had to stay here. But for how long?
"Fine. But please be careful around the antiquities," she said and quietly moved away to offer assistance to the two elderly women arguing over a teak tea chest.
Erin sighed and glanced around at the shelves full of merchandise. She wondered if the woman would mind if she just stayed here in the shop, hidden away for a month or two. But as soon as she thought it, Erin knew hiding wasn't the answer. Whoever was following her would find her again. And if she stayed in this shop, she'd be trapped.
But wasn't she trapped already? She hadn't been safe at home and running hadn't helped the situation any. What she needed were some answers.Answers that made sense. Answers about the birth mother who'd reached out from who knew where to set into motion dangers Erin had no idea how to fight.
She stepped away from the wide front window and moved deeper into the shadows toward the back of the shop. Up near the cash register, the three women were chattering, their voices a steady stream of noise that both comforted and annoyed.
Moving beyond the reach of sunlight, Erin stepped into the shadowy corner where the less impressive antiques were shelved haphazardly. Cracking leather tobacco pouches were crowded alongside mortar and pestles. Wooden cups and bowls were stacked in uneven towers and a pewter platter lay gleaming dully in the dim, overhead light.