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Help me, Mommy. Please! Help me!
The cries drifted into Raina's consciousness, weaving their way through vivid dreams: Africa. A young boy who wasn't Joseph, but who could have been. Hot sun. Desperate thirst. Fear.
And that cry!
Help me, Mommy! Please! Help me! She jerked awake, her heart thundering so loudly, she thought she was still hearing the cries. She was still hearing the cries. Wasn't she?
She scrambled out of bed, the sheets and blanket dropping onto the f loor, her f lannel pajamas tangled around her waist and legs. Wind rattled the windows, the darkness beyond the single-pane glass complete. She cocked her head to the side, heard the house creaking, ice pattering on the roof. Other than that, there was nothing. Her hand shook as she brushed bangs from her forehead and tried to take a few deep breaths. Tried, but her lungs wouldn't fill.
"Calm down!" she muttered. "It was just a dream, and you're still waking up from it."
It wasn't as if she hadn't had the dream many times in the six months since she'd returned from the mission trip, and it wasn't as if she hadn't learned how to deal with it.
She paced to the window then back to the bed, inhaling, exhaling, forcing herself to relax.
She'd spent the past thirty hours wondering how the young boy who'd given her a drink of water and unlocked her cage was faring. Was it any wonder that she'd had such a vivid nightmare? After fighting red tape and bureaucracy, petitioning, begging, pleading and pulling every string she could think of, Raina had finally managed to get him to the United States on a medical visa. He'd stepped onto U.S. soil the previous morning. The flight from L.A. to Atlanta had gone off without a hitch, but the flight from Atlanta to D.C. had been canceled.
Good thing Raina had hired an escort to bring Samuel to the United States. One she trusted implicitly. Stella Silverstone worked for HEART, the hostage rescue team that had risked everything to save her and the rest of the mission team. Stella had been brusque and to the point when she'd called to tell Raina about the delay. They were stuck in Atlanta, their flight canceled because of the storms. Samuel was fine. Stella would call again when they got a flight out.
That had been more than twelve hours ago.
Raina hadn't heard a word since. She was worried about Samuel. His leg had been amputated above the knee, and he'd suffered reoccurring infections in the stump. He'd been hospitalized for a few weeks before his trip to the United States, and the doctors hadn't been hopeful for his recovery. No wonder Raina was having nightmares.
"But now you're awake, so do something productive instead of standing around panicking." Her words echoed in the room she'd once shared with Matt. Like everything else since the accident that had taken her husband and son, the room seemed to be nothing more than a shadow of its former self. Wedding pictures hung crooked on the wall. Family photos lined the dresser, their frames covered with dust. The pretty yellow bedspread that had been a wedding gift was faded to a muted ivory.
Destiny had tried to get her to redecorate, but Raina hadn't seen the point, so she'd ignored her best friend's suggestions. Now that Matt was gone, the room was just a place to sleep. Half the time, she lay on the couch, watching TV until she finally drifted off.
Matt wasn't around to gently shake her shoulder and laugh while she grumbled about not wanting to get up. He wasn't there to usher her into their room and nuzzle her neck while she pulled down the covers.
It had been years, and she should be used to that, but she wasn't.
She left the room that suddenly seemed too full of memories, and walked down the short hall into the great room. That had been Matt's name for it. It was really nothing more than an oversize living room that had been created when the former owner had combined a formal living and dining area. Matt had lots of big ideas, lots of beautiful ways of looking at the ordinary. She missed his optimistic perspective, but she'd been trying to move on, to create something for herself that didn't include all the dreams that had died when Matt and Joseph had been taken away from her.
She pulled back the curtains and stared out into the tiny front yard. The property butted up against a dirt road that deadended a half mile to the west. A century ago, the area had been dotted with farms and orchards, the nearby town of Middletown, Maryland, a bustling community of businessmen and farmers. The Great Depression had hit it hard, but it had rebounded in the 1980s when yuppies willing to take on a long commute had moved there from the Baltimore and Washington suburbs. Farther west, though, where farms had once been the livelihood of the town, abandoned properties and fallow acreage had proven a deterrent to the area's revital-ization. Matt had seen it as a blessing, but that was the way he'd always been. Focused on the positive. Willing to work hard to make dreams a reality. He'd seen the old farmhouse and twenty acres of overgrown orchards as an answer to prayer.
Raina had gone along for the ride. Just as she always had, because she'd loved Matt, and she'd wanted what he'd wanted. Now, of course, she was stuck on twenty acres in the middle of nowhere. No close neighbors to visit on the weekends or children playing basketball or hockey on the street. Just Larry, and he stuck close to his house and his property.
Something moved in the early-morning darkness, and she leaned closer to the glass. Probably just a deer. This far out, she saw plenty of them. There were coyotes, too. An occasional bear that wandered in from the deep woodland and hill country. The thing crossed the yard, heading toward Larry's property. No streetlights illuminated the shape, but she was sure it was a biped. Too small to be a bear. A man?
She flicked on the outside light. The shadow darted across the street, disappearing into heavy shrub.
She hoped not. Two days ago, he'd been outside barefoot, walking up the road. She'd spotted him on her way home from work at the medical clinic. He'd said he'd been heading to his mailbox at the head of their road, but that hadn't explained the bare feet in fifty-degree weather.
She grabbed the phone and dialed his number, knowing that he wouldn't answer. He never did. That was the thing about Larry. He wanted to be left alone, but if he was outside, he could freeze to death before anyone ever realized he was in trouble.
She yanked on jeans, pulled a coat over her flannel nightie and shoved her feet into boots.
The flashlight was still where Matt had always left ittucked on the top shelf of the closet with a first-aid kit, a box of candles and matches and a stack of blankets. If Matt had been an outdoorsman, she might have a shotgun to take, too, but he'd been more of an academic, country living more a dream than a reality he'd been prepared to deal with.
She'd been the practical one in their relationship, the one who thought of things like bears and bobcats, who'd built the chicken coop that now stood empty. She'd taught Matt how to camp, fish and even hunt. Not that they'd ever been successful at any of those things. Matt's idea of camping was staying in a hotel near hiking trails, and his vision of hunting had never included actually shooting anything.
She smiled at the memories, touching the bear spray she kept in her coat pocket. Better safe than sorry. It was cold for early November, the temperature well below freezing, ice coating the grass and trees. It took five long strides to cross the front yard, the wind snatching her breath and chilling her cheeks. Across the street, Larry McDermott's house stood shadowy and dark. Shrouded by overgrown trees and a hedge that had probably been planted in the 1950s, it was a Gothic monstrosity that looked as worn and mean as its seventy-year-old owner.
Not mean, she could almost hear Matt whisper. Lonely.
Maybe. In the years since Matt's and Joseph's deaths, Raina had tried to be kind to her neighbor. For Matt's sake, she'd baked him bread, invited him for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She'd shoveled his driveway after snowstorms and checked in on him when she hadn't seen him for a few days. No matter what she did, he never seemed to warm up to her.
She walked to the edge of his property and made her way along his driveway. Her flashlight beam bounced over cracks in the pavement and illuminated the three stairs that led to Larry's front door. She jiggled the doorknob, knocked twice, wondering if Larry would hear if he were asleep. Her fingers were freezing, but she wanted to check the back door, too. She swept the flashlight across the front yard, her pulse jumping as it passed over what looked like footprints in the icy grass. Instead of thick ice, a thin layer of slush coated the grass there. She scanned the area, found another set of prints near the edge of the house.
"Larry!" she screamed, her voice carried away by the wind. "Larry! Are you out here?" She rounded the side of the house, following the footprints to a gate that banged against the fence with every gust of wind.
"Larry!" She tried one last time, her flashlight tracking footprints to the edge of the woods that separated Larry's yard from the church his grandfather had pas-tored. The church Matt had pastored for five years before his death. Their home away from home. The only church Joseph had ever known. She knew the path that cut through the woods so well she wouldn't have needed her flashlight to follow it. She used it anyway, making sure that the footprints didn't veer off into the woods.
Larry couldn't be too far ahead.
If it was Larry.
She glanced back, could see nothing but white-crusted trees.
She walked another half mile. She'd reach the church parking lot soon, and then what would she do? The place was closed for the night. She was already near frozen. She'd be all the way frozen by the time she walked to the church.
This was a stupid idea. A colossally stupid one. She needed to go back to the house and call the police. If Larry was out in the cold, they'd find him. The problem was, she couldn't stand the thought of her crotchety old neighbor freezing to death while she cowered in her house. She couldn't stomach the idea of one more person dying because she hadn't been able to offer the help he needed.
"Larry!" she shrieked, her words seeming to echo through the woods. The trees grew sparser as she neared the church, and she flashed her lights toward the end of the trail, hoping to catch sight of the older man. Suddenly, a figure stepped out from behind a tree. Not stooped and old like Larry. Tall and lean. Her light flashed on thick ski pants. It glanced off a heavy black parka, landed straight on a black ski mask and glittering eyes that could have been any color.
"Who are you?" she said, her voice wobbling. "What are you doing out here?"
"Go home!" he hissed, pulling something from his pocket.
No. Not something. A handgun. He lifted it, pointed it straight at her head.
"Go!" he repeated, shifting the barrel a fraction of an inch and pulling the trigger.
The night exploded, a bullet whizzing past her head and slamming into a tree. She dodged to the left, dashing into trees as another bullet slammed into the ground behind her.
She tumbled down a small hill, pushed through a thicket. Behind her, branches cracked and feet slapped against frozen earth. He was following her!
She didn't know where she was, where she was heading. She knew only that she had to run. If she didn't, the death she'd avoided in Africa was going to find her.
"This wasn't one of your better ideas, Stel," Jackson Miller muttered as he maneuvered the SUV along an icy dirt road that led to Raina Lowery's house.
"Shh!" Stella responded. "You're going to wake the kid."
"Avoiding the comment doesn't negate it," he replied without lowering his voice. "Besides, Samuel slept through your rendition of 'Take Me Home, Country Roads.' I think he can probably sleep through anything."
"You could be right. My mom once told me that my voice could wake the dead."
"Did she also tell you that driving down icy country roads in the middle of the night could turn you into one of the dead?"
Stella laughed. "My mother was all about the thrill. She would have loved this, and you would have loved her. She was crazier than I am."
He doubted it. Stella had a reputation at HEARThard-core, tough, determined and absolutely fearless. A former army nurse, she handled stress well, and in the four years he'd known her, she'd never caved under pressure. "Most of the time, I like your kind of crazy, Stella, but the next time you want to go for a country ride in the middle of an ice storm, call my brother."
The silence that ensued told Jackson everything he needed to know. Stella and Chance hadn't worked things out.
He hadn't expected them to. They were both as stubborn as mules. The fact that they'd dated at all still surprised him. The fact that his brother, a consummate bachelor, had bought an engagement ring had shocked him. Stella and Chance's breakup four weeks ago? Not surprising at all.
"I didn't call you," Stella finally said. "I stopped by your place. I wouldn't have done that if Samuel hadn't had to use the bathroom."
"Sure. Go ahead and blame it on the kid who's asleep in the backseat," he responded, and Stella laughed again.
"Okay. So I didn't want to come all the way out to Podunk Town alone. Country roads are creepy."
"You've been to some of the most dangerous cities in the world, and you think this is creepy?"
"Every ghost story I've ever heard has taken place on a country r"
Someone darted out of the woods, and Jackson slammed on the brakes. The tires lost traction, and the SUV spun. Jackson managed to turn into the spin, get the vehicle back under control. It coasted to a stop an inch from a giant oak tree.
"What was that?" Stella yelled into the sudden stillness.
"A person." He unbuckled his seat belt, praying for all he was worth that he hadn't hit whoever it was.
"Where'd he go?"
A woman appeared beside the car. Hair cropped short and plastered to her head, black coat hanging open to reveal what looked like a flannel pajama top. Jeans. Plastic rain boots. A face that was so familiar his breath caught.