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It came in the night, whispering into her dreams. Silent stars, hazy moonlight, a winding road. Sudden, blinding light.
Rolling, tumbling, terror. And then silence.
Smoke danced at the edges of memory as flames writhed serpentlike through cracked glass and crumbled metal, hissing and whirling in the timeless dance of death.
Adam! She reached for his hand, wanting to pull him from the car and from the dreamwhole and alive. Safe. But her questing hand met empty space and hot flame, her body flinching with the pain and the horror of it.
Sirens blared in the distance, their throbbing pulse a heartbeat ebbing and flowing with the growing flames. She turned toward the door, trying to push aside hot, bent metal, and saw a shadow beyond the shattered glass; a dark figure leaning toward the window, staring in. Dark eyes that seemed to glow in the growing flames.
Help me! She tried to scream the words, but they caught in her throat. And the shadow remained still and silent, watching as the car burned and she burned with it.
* * *
The shrill ring of an alarm clock sounded over the roar of flames, spearing into Chloe Davidson's consciousness and pulling her from the nightmare. For a moment there was nothing but the dream. No past. No present. No truth except hot flames and searing pain. But the flames weren't real, the pain a fading memory. Reality was what?
Chloe scrambled to anchor herself in the present before she fell back into the foggy world of unknowns she'd lived in during the weeks following the accident.
"Saturday. Lakeview, Virginia. The Morran wedding. Flowers. Decorations." She listed each item as it came to mind, grabbing towels from the tiny closet beside the bathroom door, pulling clothes from her dresser. Black pants. Pink shirt. Blooming Baskets' uniform. Her new job. Her new life. A normality she still didn't quite believe in.
The phone rang before she could get in the shower, the muted sound drawing her from the well-lit bedroom and into the dark living room beyond.
"Hello?" She pressed the receiver to her ear as she flicked on lamps and the overhead light, her heart still racing, her throbbing leg an insistent reminder of the nightmare she'd survived.
"Chloe. Opal, here."
At the sound of her friend and boss's voice, Chloe relaxed, leaning her hip against the sofa and forcing the dream and the memories to the back of her mind. "You've only been gone a day and you're already checking in?"
"Checking in? I wasn't planning to do that until tonight. This is business. We've got a problem. Jenna's gone into labor."
Opal's only other full-time employee, Jenna Monroe, was eight months pregnant and glowing with it. At least she had been when Chloe had seen her the previous day. "She's not due for another four weeks."
"Maybe not, but the baby has decided to make an appearance. You're going to have to handle the setup for the Morran wedding on your own until I can get there."
"I'll call Mary Alice"
"Mary Alice is going to have to stay at the store. We can't afford to close for the day and between the two of you, she's the better floral designer."
"It doesn't take much to be better than me." Chloe's dry comment fell on deaf ears, Opal's voice continuing on, giving directions and listing jobs that needed to be done before the wedding guests arrived at the church.
"So, that's it. Any questions?"
"No. But you do realize I've only been working at Blooming Baskets for five days, right?"
"Are you saying you can't do this?"
"I'm saying I'll try, but I can't guarantee the results."
"No need to guarantee anything. I've already left Baltimore. I'll be in Lakeview at least an hour before the wedding. We'll finish the job together."
"If I haven't ruined everything by then."
"What's to ruin? We're talking flowers, ribbons and bows." Opal paused, and Chloe could imagine her raking a hand through salt and pepper curls, her strong face set in an impatient frown. "Look, I have faith in your ability to handle this. Why don't you try to have some, too?"
The phone clicked as Opal disconnected, and Chloe set the receiver down.
Faith? Maybe she'd had it oncein herself and her abilities, in those she cared about. But that was before the accident, before Adam's death. Before his betrayal. Before everything had changed.
Now she wasn't even sure she knew what the word meant. It didn't take long to shower and change, to grab her keys and make her way out of her one-bedroom apartment and into the dark hallway of the aging Victorian she lived in.
Outside it was still dark, brisk fall air dancing through the grass and rustling the dying leaves of the bushes that flanked the front porch. Chloe scanned the shadowy yard, the trees that stretched spindly arms toward the heavens, the inky water of Smith Mountain Lake. There seemed a breathless quality to the morning, a watchful waiting that crawled along Chloe's nerves and made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. A million eyes could be watching from the woods beside the house, a hundred men could be sliding silently toward the car and she'd never know it, never see it until it was too late.
Cold sweat broke out on her brow, her hand shaking as she got in the car and shoved the keys into the ignition.
"You are not going to have a panic attack about this." She hissed the words as she drove up the long driveway and turned onto the road, refusing to think about what she was doing, refusing to dwell on the darkness that pressed against the car windows. Soon dawn would come, burning away the night and her memories. For now, she'd just have to deal with both.
Forty minutes later, Chloe arrived at Grace Christian Church, the pink Blooming Baskets van she'd picked up at the shop loaded with decorations and floral arrangements. It was just before seven. The wedding was scheduled for noon. Guests would arrive a little before then. That meant she had four hours to get ready for what Opal and Jenna had called the biggest event to take place in Lakeview in a decade. And Chloe was the one setting up for it.
She would have laughed if she weren't so sure she was about to fail. Miserably.
Cold crisp air stung her cheeks as she stepped to the back of the van and pulled open the double doors. The sick-eningly sweet funeral-parlor stench nearly made her gag as she dragged the first box out.
"Need a hand?"
The voice was deep, masculine and so unexpected Chloe jumped, the box of wrought iron candelabras dropping from her hands. She whirled toward the sound, but could see nothing but the deep gray shadows of trees and foliage. "Thank you, but I'm fine."
"You sure? Looks like you've got a full van there." A figure emerged from the trees, a deeper shadow among many others, but moving closer.
"I can manage." As she spoke, she dug in her jacket pocket, her fist closing around the small canister of pepper spray she carried. She didn't know who this guy was, but if he got much closer he was going to get a face full of pain.
"I'm sure you can, but Opal won't be happy if I let you. She just ordered me out of bed and over here to help. So here I am. Ready to lend a hand. Or two." His voice was amiable, his stride unhurried. Chloe released her hold on the spray.
"Opal shouldn't have bothered you, Mr ?"
"Ben Avery. And it wasn't a bother."
She knew the name, had heard plenty about the handsome widower who pastored Grace Christian Church. Opal's description of the man's single-and-available status had led Chloe to believe he was Opal's contemporary. Late fifties or early sixties.
In the dim morning light, he looked closer to thirty and not like any pastor Chloe had ever seen, his hair just a little too long, his leather jacket more biker than preacher.
"Bother or not, I'm sure you have other things to do with your time, Pastor Avery."
"I can't think of any offhand.And call me Ben. Everyone else does." He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners, the scent of pine needles and soap drifting on the air as he leaned forward and grabbed the box she'd dropped.
Chloe thought about arguing, but insisting she do the job herself would only waste time she didn't have. She shrugged. "Then I guess I'll accept your help and say thanks."
"You might want to hold off on the thanks until we see how many flower arrangements I manage to massacre."
"You're not the only one who may massacre a few. I know as much about flowers as the average person knows about nuclear physics."
He laughed, the sound shivering along Chloe's nerves and bringing her senses to life. "Opal did mention that you're a new hire."
"Should I ask what else she mentioned?"
"You can, but that was about all she said. That and, 'It'll be on your head, Ben Avery, if Chloe decides to quit because of the pressure she's under today.'"
"That sounds just like her. The rat."
"She is, but she's a well-meaning rat."
"Very true." Chloe pulled out another box. "And I really could use the help. This is a big job."
"Then I guess we'd better get moving. Between the two of us we should be able to get most of the setup done before Opal arrives." Ben pushed open the church door, waiting as Chloe moved more slowly across the parking lot.
"Ladies first." He gestured for her to step inside, but Chloe hesitated.
She hated the dark. Hated the thought of what might be lurking in it. The inside of the church was definitely dark, the inky blackness lit by one tiny pinpoint of light flashing from the ceiling. She knew it must be a smoke detector, but her mind spiraled into the darkness, carried her back to the accident, to the shadowy figure standing outside the window of the car, to the eyes that had seemed to glow red, searing into her soul and promising a slow, torturous death.
She swayed, her heart racing so fast she was sure she was going to pass out.
"Hey, are you okay?" Ben wrapped a hand around her arm, anchoring her in place, his warmth chasing away some of the fear that shivered through her.
"I'm fine." Of course she wasn't fine. Not by a long shot. But her terror was only a feeling, the danger imagined.
She took a deep breath, stepped into the room, the darkness enveloping her as the door clicked shut. Chloe forced herself to concentrate on the moment, on the soft pad of Ben's shoes as he moved across the floor, the scent of pine needles and soap that drifted on the air around him.
Finally, overhead lights flicked on, illuminating a wide hallway. Hardwood floors, creamy walls, bulletin boards filled with announcements and pictures. The homey warmth of it drew her in and welcomed her.
Chloe turned, facing Ben, seeing him clearly for the first time, her heart leaping as she looked into the most vividly blue eyes she'd ever seen. Deep sapphire, they burned into hers, glowing with life, with energy, with an interest that made Chloe step back, the box clutched close, a flimsy barrier between herself and the man who'd done what no other had in the past yearmade her want to keep looking, made her want to know more, made her wish she were the woman she'd been before Adam's death.
His gaze touched her face, the scar on her neck, the mottled flesh of her hand, but he didn't comment or ask the questions so many people felt they had the right to. "The sanctuary is through here. Let's bring these in. Then I'll make some coffee before we get the rest from the van."
Chloe followed silently, surprised by her response to Ben and not happy about it. She'd made too many mistakes with Adam, had too many regrets. There wasn't room for anything else. Or anyone.
"Where do you want these?" Ben's question pulled her from her thoughts and she glanced around the large room. Rows of pews, their dark wood gleaming in the overhead light, flanked a middle aisle. A few stairs led to a pulpit and a choir loft, a small door to one side of them closed tight.
"On the first pew will be fine. I'll start there and work my way back." She avoided looking in Ben's direction as she spoke, preferring to tell herself she'd imagined the bright blue of his eyes, the warm interest there. He was a pastor, after all, and she was a woman who had no interest in men.
"Am I making you nervous?"
Startled, Chloe glanced up, found herself pulled into his gaze again.
"No." At least not much. "Why do you ask?"
"Sometimes my job makes people uncomfortable." He smiled, his sandy hair and strong, handsome face giving him a boy-next-door appearance that seemed at odds with the intensity in his eyes.