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You Don't Want To Know
By Lisa Jackson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 Lisa Jackson LLC
All rights reserved.
"I'm serious, you can't tell a soul," a breathy voice whispered. "I could lose my job."
Ava Garrison opened a bleary eye. From her bed, she heard the sound of voices beyond the big wooden door that stood slightly ajar.
"She doesn't even know what's going on," another woman agreed. Her voice was deeper and gruffer than the first, and Ava thought she recognized it, a headache pounding behind her eyes as the nightmare retreated into her subconscious. The pain would recede, it always did, but for the first minutes after waking, she felt as if steel-shod horses were galloping through her brain.
Inhaling a deep breath, she blinked. The room was dark, the curtains pulled, the rumble of the ancient furnace forcing air through the registers, muting the conversation beyond the heavy oak door.
"Shhh ... she should be awake soon ..." Breathy Voice again. Ava tried to place it and thought it might belong to Demetria, Jewel-Anne's dour nursemaid. For a woman not yet thirty, tall, slim Demetria always wore a severe expression that matched her harsh hairstyle, dyed black and pulled back, restrained by a heavy clip at her nape. Her only concession to whimsy, it seemed, was the hint of a tattoo, an inky tendril that curled from beneath the clip to tease the back of her ear. The tattoo reminded Ava of a shy octopus, extending one questioning tentacle from beneath its hiding spot of thick dark hair and tortoiseshell clip.
"So what is it? What's going on with her?" the second voice demanded.
Oh, Lord, did it belong to Khloe? Ava felt a jab of betrayal; she knew they were talking about her, and Khloe had been her best friend while growing up here on this remote island. But that had been years ago, long before fresh-faced and happy-go-lucky Khloe had turned into the unhappy soul who couldn't for the life of her let go of a love that had died so swiftly.
More whispering ...
Of course. It was almost as if they wanted to have her overhear them, as if they were taunting her.
Ava caught only phrases that were as crippling as they were true.
"... slowly going out of her mind ..." Khloe again?
"Has been for years. Poor Mr. Garrison." Breathy Voice.
Poor Mr. Garrison? Seriously?
Khloe, if it were she, agreed. "How he's suffered."
Wyatt? Suffered? Really? The man who seemed intent on being absent, always away? The man she'd contemplated divorcing on more than one occasion? Ava doubted her husband had suffered one day of his life. She could barely restrain herself from shouting, but she wanted to hear what they were saying, what the gossip was that ran rampant through the wainscoted hallways of Neptune's Gate, this hundred-year-old house built and named by her great-great-grandfather.
"Well something should be done; they're richer than God!" one of them muttered, her words thin and reedy as she walked away.
"For God's sake, keep your voice down. Anyway, the family's making sure that she gets the best care that money can buy ..."
Ava's head was throbbing as she threw off the thick duvet and her bare feet hit the plush carpet that had been cast over hardwood. Fir ... it was fir planks ... she remembered, planed by the sawmill that once was the heart of Church Island, named without a drop of modesty by that same great-great-grandfather who had built this house. One step, two ... She started to lose her balance and grasped the tall bedpost.
"Everyone in the family ... they need answers ..."
"Don't we all?" A sly little snigger.
Please, God, that it wasn't Khloe.
"But we don't own any part of this damned island."
"Wouldn't that be something ... if we did, I mean." The voice sounded wistful as it retreated.
Ava took a step and a wave of nausea washed up her throat. She thought she might throw up as bile teased her tongue, but she bit down hard, took a deep breath, and fought the urge to vomit.
"She's crazy as a loon. But he won't leave her," one of them, she couldn't tell which, said, and the words were as crippling as they were true. She silently cursed her cloudy memory, her fractured brain.
Once, she'd been brilliant, at the top of her class, not only a stellar student but also a businesswoman with the acumen of ... of ... what?
Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to the doorway and peeked out. Sure enough, two women were stepping down the stairs, their bodies slowly disappearing. But neither one was Khloe, as Ava's mind had suggested. They were Virginia Zanders, Khloe's mother — a woman twice the size of her daughter and the cook for Neptune's Gate — and Graciela, a part-time maid, who, as if sensing Ava in the doorway, glanced over her shoulder and offered a smile as saccharine as the iced tea that Virginia poured on hot summer days. Half the size of her companion, Graciela was petite, with lustrous black hair knotted at the base of her skull. If she wanted to, Graciela could turn on a brilliant smile that could charm the coating off an M&M. Today, her smile was more like that of a Cheshire cat, as if she knew some deep, dark, and oh-so-private secret.
About her employer.
The hairs on the backs of Ava's arms lifted. Like a snake slithering along her vertebrae, cold seeped down her spine. Graciela's dark eyes seemed to glint with a secret knowledge before both she and Virginia were out of sight, their footsteps fading.
With a quick push, Ava slammed the door shut, then tried to lock it, but the dead bolt was missing, replaced by a matching faceplate to cover the hole left in the door. "God help me," she whispered, and drew in a long, calming breath as she leaned against the door.
Don't give in. Don't let them make you the victim. Fight back!
"Against what?" she asked the dark room; then angry with her plight and her attitude, she stalked to the windows. When had she become such a wimp? When? Hadn't she always been strong? Independent? A girl who raced her mare along the ridge over the sea, who climbed to the topmost spire of the mountain on this island, who swam naked in the icy, foaming waters of the Pacific where it poured and swirled into the bay? She'd surfed and rock climbed and ... and it all seemed like a thousand — no, make that a million — years ago!
Now she was trapped here, in this room, while all those faceless people were speaking in hushed tones and assuming she couldn't hear them, but she could; of course she could.
Sometimes she wondered if they knew she was awake, if they were taunting her on purpose. Perhaps their soft, condoling tones were all part of a great façade, a horrible, painful labyrinth from which there was no escape.
She trusted no one and then reminded herself that it was all part of her paranoia. Her sickness.
With pain shooting behind her eyes, she stumbled to the bed and fell onto the pillow-top mattress with its expensive sheets, waiting for the pain to abate. She tried to raise her head, but a headache with the power to make her tremble stopped her, and she had to bite down so that she didn't cry out.
No one should suffer like this. Weren't there painkillers for this sort of thing? Prescriptions to stave off migraines? Then again, she took a lot of pills and couldn't help but wonder if the pain slicing through her brain was because of the medication rather than in spite of it.
She didn't understand why they were all out to torment her, to make her feel as if she were crazy, but she was pretty damned sure they intended just that. All of them: the nurses, the doctors, the maid, the lawyers, and her husband — most certainly Wyatt.
Oh, God ... she did sound paranoid.
Maybe she was.
With extreme effort, she gathered her strength and eased off the bed again. She knew that eventually the stab in her brain would slowly dissipate. It always did. But when she first woke up, it was always a bitch.
With a hand on the bed to steady herself, she walked carefully to the window, pushed back the curtains, and opened the blinds.
The day was gray and grim, as it was on that day ... that horrid day when Noah ...
Don't go there!
It serves no purpose to relive the worst moments of your life.
Blinking, she forced her mind back to the present and stared through the watery, leaded-glass panes that looked out from the second floor of this once-elegant mansion. Autumn was seeping toward winter, she thought as she squinted, looking toward the dock where twilight was descending, fingers of fog sliding over the blackened pier.
It wasn't morning but nearing evening, she realized, though that seemed wrong. She'd been asleep for hours ... days?
Don't think about it; you're awake now.
Placing a hand against the cool panes, she took in more of her surroundings. At the water's edge, the boathouse had grayed over the years, the dock next to it listing toward the wind-ruffled waters of the bay. The tide was in, foamy waves splashing against the shore.
So like that day ...
Oh, sweet Jesus.
A chill, as cold as the depths of the sea, washed over her, a chill that was born from within.
Her heart clutched.
Her breath fogged on the window as she leaned close to the glass.
The back of her neck tightened in a familiar way; she knew what was coming.
Squinting, she stared at the end of the dock.
And there he was, her tiny son, teetering near the edge, a ghostly image in the fog.
"Noah," she whispered, suddenly terrified, her fingers sliding down the pane as panic surged within. "Oh, God, Noah!"
He's not there. It's your fractured mind playing tricks on you.
But she couldn't take the chance. What if this time, this one time, it really was her boy? He stood with his back to her, his little red hooded sweatshirt damp in the misting fog. Her heart squeezed. "Noah!" she screamed, beating on the glass. "Noah! Come back!"
Frantically she tried to open the window, but it seemed nailed shut. "Come on, come on!" she cried, trying to force open the sash, breaking her nails in the process. The damned window wouldn't budge. "Oh, God ..."
Propelled by fear, she yanked open the door and raced barefoot out of her room and down the hall to the back stairs, her feet slapping against the smooth wood of the steps. Down, down, down she ran, breathless, one hand on the rail. Noah, oh sweet, sweet baby. Noah!
She burst from the stairway into the kitchen, then through the back door off the kitchen, across the screened porch, and out to the sweeping grounds of the house and beyond.
Now she could run. Fast. Even though night was falling swiftly.
"Noah!" she yelled as she sped along the weed-choked pathways, past the deadened rosebushes and through the dripping ferns to the dock where darkness and fog had disguised the end of the pier. She was breathing hard, screaming her son's name, desperate to see him, to witness his little face turn around and look up at her, his wide, expectant eyes trusting ...
The dock was empty. Fog playing in the shadows of the water, seagulls crying hollowly in the distance.
"Noah!" she screamed, running over the slick boards. "Noah!"
She'd seen him! She had!
Oh, honey ... "Noah, where are you?" she said over a sob and the rush of the wind as she reached the end, the last board cutting into her feet. "Baby, it's Mama ..."
One last, wild search of the dock and boathouse told her he was gone. She didn't hesitate but jumped into the icy water, feeling the rush of frigid cold, tasting salt water as she splashed and flailed, frantically searching for her son in the dark depths. "Noah!" she yelled, coughing and sputtering as she surfaced. She dived back down into the black water again and again, searching the murky depths, desperately hoping for some glimpse of her son.
Please, God, let me find him. Help me save him! Do not let him die! He's an innocent. It's I who am the sinner. Oh, dear Jesus, please ...
Again and again, she dove, five times, six, seven, her nightgown billowing around her, her hair loosened from its rubber band, exhaustion overtaking her as she drifted farther and farther from the dock. As she surfaced slowly one more time, she was vaguely aware of a voice.
"Hey!" a man yelled. "Hey!"
She dove down again, her hair floating around her, her eyes open and burning in the salty water, her lungs so stretched she thought they might burst. Where is he? Noah, oh, God, baby ... She couldn't breathe, but she couldn't stop searching. Had to find her son. The world grew darker and colder, and Noah grew ever more distant.
Someone dived in next to her.
She felt strong arms surround her rib cage in a death grip. She was weak, about to pass out, when she was jerked upward, roughly dragged toward the surface, a ripple of air escaping her lungs.
As they broke through the water, she gasped, coughing and spewing as she found herself staring into the stern, uncompromising gaze of a total stranger.
"Are you out of your mind?" he demanded, slinging the water from his hair with a muscular twist. But before she could answer, he snarled, "Oh, hell!" and starting kicking hard, holding her tightly, dragging her to the shore. She'd drifted away from the dock, but his strokes, strong and sure, cut through the water and pulled them both to the sandy beach, where he deposited her in the waist-high water. "Come on!" he snapped. His arm steadied her as they slogged through the lapping water and up the sandy shoreline. Her teeth were chattering, and she was shivering head to toe, but she barely felt anything other than a deep-seated and painful grief. Swallowing against the pain, she tasted salt and finally roused herself enough to look at this man she'd never met before.
Or had she? There was something remotely familiar about him. Over six feet tall, in a wet, long-sleeved shirt and soaked jeans, he was rugged-looking, as if he'd spent most of his thirty-odd years outdoors.
"What the hell were you thinking?" he demanded, shaking the hair out of his eyes. "You could have drowned!" And then, as an afterthought, "Are you okay?"
Of course she was not okay. She was damned certain she would never be even remotely okay again.
"Let's get you inside." He was still holding on to her, and he helped her past a pair of boots thrown haphazardly on the grass, then up the overgrown sandy path toward the house.
"Who are you?" she asked.
He eyed her up and down. "Austin Dern." When she didn't respond, he said, "And you're Ava Garrison? You own this place?"
"Part of it." She tried to wring the cold salt water from her hair, but it was impossible.
"Most of it." His eyes narrowed on her as she shivered. "And you don't know who I am?"
"Not a clue." Even in her state of shock, the man irritated her.
He muttered something under his breath, then said, "Well, now, isn't that something? You hired me. Just last week." He was pushing her toward the house.
"Me?" Oh, God, how bad was her memory? Sometimes it seemed as thin and fragile as a cheesecloth. But not about this. Shaking her head, feeling the cold water drip down her back, she said, "I don't think so." She would have remembered him. She was sure of it.
"Actually it was your husband."
Oh. Wyatt. "I guess he forgot to tell me."
"Yeah?" His gaze skated over her bedraggled, freezing form, and for a second, she wondered just how sheer her sodden nightgown was.
"By the way, you're welcome." He didn't so much as crack a smile. Though darkness was settling over the island, she saw his features, set and grim. Deep-set eyes, their color undetermined in the coming night; square, beard-shadowed jaw; blade-thin lips; and a nose that wasn't quite straight. His hair was as dark as the night, somewhere between a deep brown and black. They trudged together toward the behemoth three-storied manor.
On the back porch, the screen door flew open, then banged shut behind a woman running from the house. "Ava? Oh, God, what happened?" Khloe demanded, her face a mask of concern as it caught in the porch light. She sprinted past the garden and jumped over a small hedge of boxwoods to grab Ava as the stranger released his grip on her body. "Oh my God, you're soaking wet!" Khloe was shaking her head, and her expression was caught somewhere between pity and fear. "What the hell were you doing ... oh, don't even say it. I know." She held Ava close and didn't seem to care that her jeans and sweater were soaking up the water from her friend's nightgown. "You have to stop this, Ava. You have to." Glancing up at the stranger, she added to Ava, "Come on, let's get you into the house." Then to Dern, "You too. Dear God, you're both soaked to the bone!"
Excerpted from You Don't Want To Know by Lisa Jackson. Copyright © 2012 Lisa Jackson LLC. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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