He wants nothing more than for her to leave.
But the fire between them is as strong as the past that haunts them.
Annie Freemont grew up on the road, immersed in the romance of rare things, cultivating an eye for artifacts and a spirit for bargaining. It's a freewheeling life she loves and plans to continue--until her dad is diagnosed with dementia. His illness forces them to return to Moonhill, their ancestral home on the coast of Maine--and to the family they left behind fifteen years ago, after Annie's mother died in a suspicious accident.
Once at Moonhill, Annie is shocked when her aunt separates her from her father. The next time Annie sees him, he's a bizarre, violent shadow of his former self. Confused, she turns to an unlikely ally for support--Chase, the dangerously seductive young groundskeeper. With his dark good looks and powerful presence, Chase has an air of mystery that Annie is irresistibly drawn to. But she also senses that behind his penetrating eyes are secrets she can't even begin to imagine. Secrets that hold the key to the past, to Annie's own longings--and to all of their futures. Now, to unlock them, she'll have to face her greatest fears and embrace her legacy…
The Dark Heart Series
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A Hold On Me
A Dark Heart Novel
By Pat Esden
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Patricia A. R. Esden
All rights reserved.
There are things darker than night, darker than the souls
of wicked men or a woman of unchained passions.
Believe me, for I have known them well.
— Josette Savoy Abrams
Beach Rose House, Bar Harbor, Maine
Most people went to church to save their souls, but not Dad and I. We went there to see the priest about treasure.
It was a cold day in February and the church was an abandoned stone chapel on a back road near our home in Vermont. With its gloomy stained-glass windows and carvings of gargoyles under its sagging eaves, the chapel was exactly the kind of place where antique pickers like Dad and me could find the weird treasures and the gothic furniture our customers loved to buy. And, as luck would have it, the bishop had given the local priest permission to sell the entire contents as he saw fit.
The priest glanced once more at the grungy pews and the statue of St. Anthony with its chipped fingers and peeling paint. "Now that you've seen everything, are you still interested?"
Dad gave my shoulder a squeeze. "What do you think, Annie?"
"Ah —" I let my voice crack as if my jitteriness were nerves instead of excitement, then I met the priest's eyes. "One price for everything, right?"
"For all the contents. That doesn't include anything that's part of the structure. No windows, attached light fixtures, doors, none of those sorts of things." His tone left no room for debate.
Dad looked down, scratching his elbow while I took a scrap of paper and a pen from the turned-up sleeve of my bulky sweater. I jotted down the offer he and I had covertly agreed on when the priest had turned away for a moment, then handed it to the priest.
The priest's brow furrowed as he studied the paper. He ran a finger under his collar, cleared his throat, and finally glanced at Dad. "Perhaps you should look at this before we agree?"
Dad waved off his suggestion. "This was her idea. The offer is hers to make."
"All right, then," the priest said. "We have a deal."
I counted out a thin stack of hundreds and gave them to him. In turn, he passed Dad the church keys, all neatly labeled. The truth was, he wasn't the sort of person who would have ever believed a twenty-year-old girl with ripped jeans and a stud in her nose could know the first thing about valuing antiques — as Dad and I had hoped.
"Sorry I can't stay and help," he said, "but I have to get back to St. Mary's in time for Mass. When you're finished taking what you want, leave the keys in the box outside the door. I hope you find enough to make this worth your effort."
"I hope so too," Dad said, without cracking a smile. But, as soon as the priest went out the front door, he did a little victory dance and gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Perfectly played. If I'd given him an offer that low, he'd have thought I was up to something for sure."
Every inch of me tingled with anticipation. "So, where do you want to begin?" I asked.
Dad jangled the keys. "It appears the priest neglected to give us one very specific key. The one to the only room he didn't take us into or even mention. I don't know about you, but that makes me curious."
"The sacristy?" I said.
"That would be the one. Did you notice how he fidgeted with his collar, too?"
"I figured he thought everything was junk — that he was nervous I'd offered too much and that you'd back out."
"That's possible. But don't ever underestimate your opponent. There could be something else behind his uneasiness. Perhaps he hid something in the sacristy, something of value he hoped the diocese would forget. Priests are men, after all. They come in all shades of honesty, like the rest of us." He stroked his chin, a sure sign that he was about to launch into one of his home-brewed tales. "You remember the story about my wicked great-uncle Harmon and the Canary Island sirens? He always claimed to be a spiritual man, forthright and faithful to his wife...."
I loved listening to Dad's crazy stories. But, as he began an abridged version of a tale that easily could have gone on for an hour, the word faithful sent my mind veering in a different direction — to me and Taj and a matinee of Romeo and Juliet, to his practiced fingers slipping under my skirt, up my inner thighs. The rush of desire. His words hot and moist against my neck: "Oh, baby, c'mon. I want you so bad."
Men come in all shades of honesty for sure.
Shoving Taj from my mind, I smiled at Dad and cut him off. "I'm going to run out to the car and get the tool bag."
"Don't forget the thermos and flask," he called after me. Dad most always kept a thermos filled with coffee in our '68 Mercedes. He loved his cup of joe and it had become our tradition to toast successful deals by lacing a cup with a bit of brandy from his flask.
When I returned from the car, I found Dad crouched in front of the sacristy door, studying the keyhole. I set the flask and thermos on a pew, got the screwdriver and stiff wire he used for picking locks out of the tool bag, and gave them to him.
As I watched him work, sunlight crept in through the stained-glass window behind us, smearing the back of his old leather flight jacket with purple and blue. He glanced over his shoulder at me, the colored light now bruising his face. His eyes glistened with excitement. "What do you think we'll find inside — hidden treasure or a glorified broom closet?"
I hugged myself against a sudden chill. Either way the sacristy was bound to be windowless and dark, as black as a cellar or the space under a bed, black like death. I forced a smile. "Treasure," I said, because I really did hope we'd find something valuable.
"Well, we'll soon know for sure." Dad turned back to his work.
He pivoted the screwdriver and the lock clicked. Throwing me a triumphant grin, he reached for the latch, readying to open the door —
Suddenly, a thin, man-shaped shadow appeared on the wall next to the door, slithered toward Dad, and vanished.
I whirled around.
"What the heck?" I said, scouring the pews and aisles to make sure the priest hadn't returned. But there was no one in the church besides us. No one who could have caused the shadow. I turned back toward Dad. "I could have sworn — "
My voice died in my throat.
Dad was staring at me in a way I'd never seen him do before, his eyes dark and vacant.
I took a step back. "Dad?"
His tongue grazed his lips as if he was lost in thought.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
He didn't say a word. He just kept staring at me.
Trembling, I lowered my gaze to avoid his deadpan eyes. Dad's expression was exactly how he described the faces of the sleepwalkers in the creepiest of all the stories he'd ever made up. But this wasn't one of his tales. This was real. And I didn't have the faintest idea what I should do.
My stomach twitched from nerves as I made myself glance up. I couldn't just pretend nothing was wrong. I had to do something.
To my surprise, he appeared normal. The familiar sparkle had returned to his eyes, and he was grinning.
He chuckled. "What's wrong with you? You look like you've seen the Devil."
Totally baffled by his transformations, I could only gape.
He shrugged halfheartedly like he was done trying to figure out what was going on with me, then cocked his head at the sacristy door. "Be a good girl and lend me that flashlight of yours, so we can see what we've got in here."
"Uh — sure." My voice stuttered a little as I fished my flashlight out of my jeans hip pocket and handed it to him.
He gave me a quick wink, then opened the door and headed into the sacristy.
As I watched him disappear into the pitch-black room, I shook my head. What was I thinking? Slithering shadows. Sleepwalkers. That was ridiculous. There was nothing wrong with Dad. It was me. Me and my childish fear of the dark. Plus, I was overtired and had stupidly got myself worked up about Taj again. I hadn't eaten all day and had drunk way too many coffees; enough to keep me awake for a week. No wonder I was imagining things.
Giving myself a mental shake, I inched closer to the door.
Dad's voice echoed out. "Broken cups and napkins." He laughed. "Not even enough for a bad garage sale."
I blew out a relieved breath.
There was definitely nothing wrong with Dad.CHAPTER 2
Though some myths exaggerate, they all sprout from a kernel of truth. Many — as an enlightened scholar soon comes to realize — are remarkably correct.
— Dr. Rupert Bancroft Walpole, A Comparative Study of History and Folklore
I'd driven all afternoon, across Vermont, into New Hampshire, and up the seacoast of Maine. Fog as well as darkness was closing in. My eyes ached from staring at the road too long and my stomach grumbled, but at least Dad had finally settled down.
I glanced in the rearview mirror to where he huddled on the backseat, staring blankly out the window. I now knew for certain that at least part of what I'd seen in the abandoned church wasn't imaginary. The vacant expression on Dad's face had a name: dementia.
For months, I'd made excuses for his forgetfulness and lapses into confusion, for his ever increasingly bizarre behavior. But then his lawyer discovered the situation and to my horror a judge turned down my petition for custody and placed Dad in the care of his older sister, Kate. At the time, Dad's lawyer, the judge, the doctor who evaluated Dad ... everyone involved in the custody thing had ignored my opinions like I was twelve instead of twenty. That had pissed me off, but I wasn't naíve enough to think my age alone had made the judge favor Kate. I suspected the real reason was money and power, the old boy network. I also suspected the major player behind me losing wasn't Kate. It was my grandfather.
The bitter tang of nausea climbed up my throat and settled on my tongue. As long as I could remember, Dad had hated his family, hated them so much he refused to talk about them. Well, except when he made them characters in his wild stories or talked about how he was certain they'd lied about some aspect of my mother's death.
I turned my attention back to the road. Ahead, streetlights and scattered houses appeared. The village of Port St. Claire, I assumed. A mini-mart materialized out of the fog, its lights haloed in misty gray. A woman in a yellow rain slicker dashed inside the store. A guy was pumping gas.
As I passed a snack bar, I rolled down my window. The rush of cool air brought with it the scent of fried food, pine trees, a hint of the ocean. In the distance a foghorn sounded.
I sighed under my breath.
It was true: I didn't like or trust Dad's family any more than he did. But I did wish I remembered something from the time I lived here in Maine with them. To be perfectly honest, I wished I remembered them, too. It wasn't surprising that I didn't. I'd been barely five years old when my mother died and Dad fled the family estate with me in tow. But I did know two things for certain. I trusted Dad's opinion of people — and every mile we traveled brought us closer to the one place he'd sworn to never return to.
Switching the headlights to low beam, I squinted through the mist, struggling to read the road signs as Port St. Claire's streetlights and stores, and even the faint glow of its harbor disappeared, replaced by the blurred outline of trees and guardrails. After a few more miles, the mist consumed even them, leaving nothing ahead except a narrow tunnel of haze and darkness.
Finally, I spotted the turn I was looking for and pulled the Mercedes into a private drive.
A gate loomed out of the fog, blocking the way. Spear-shaped finials glistened across its top. Wrought iron scrollwork spelled out the name: Moonhill.
Swallowing hard, I brought the car to a stop. My chest tightened and every ounce of confidence I'd built up drained away. Oh my God. We were here.
I squared my shoulders and sat up as tall as I could. I couldn't lose my nerve now. I had to stay strong. Everything was going to be all right. The doctor who evaluated Dad in Vermont suspected he had Korsakoff's dementia. Most often it was caused by alcoholism or malnutrition, which didn't make sense in Dad's case; the only condition Dad had was a slightly weakened heart. But having Korsakoff's did mean that with the help of the specialist Kate had hired, Dad was likely to improve. Once that happened, he could get out from under Kate's custody, we could get out of here, and I could go back to working toward my ultimate career.
I wanted to be a certified fine art appraiser. Dad always said a person could make a good living appraising and buying art and antiques for collectors. It was something I liked and I already had a lot more knowledge and experience in the field than most young dealers. Last fall, I'd started working toward my certification by taking online classes. I'd even applied to Sotheby's summer program, to take their Arts of Asia class in London. I'd gotten accepted, too. But then, Dad began acting strange, so I'd had to withdraw. Once things went back to normal, the first thing I was going to do was reapply for that program. A summer on my own in London would be amazing. And Dad needed to get used to the idea that I wouldn't be working full-time and living with him forever.
The rustling sound of Dad stirring to life came from the backseat.
"Well, now," he said, a little louder than necessary. "This looks like a place that'll be packed to the gills with antiques, and I'm talking about the good stuff."
My gaze flicked from the gate to the rearview mirror. "I'm sure it is. But we're not here to buy anything. We're guests."
He snorted. "Not buy anything? We'll see about that." His voice filled with disgust. "Who are you, anyway?"
My fingernails dug into the steering wheel's leather cover as frustration crashed through me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, holding it for a second before I released it.
"I'm Annie, your daughter," I reminded him for the zillionth time.
He flumped into his seat. "Like I believe that."
Gritting my teeth, I resisted the urge to argue with him and instead clicked the windshield wipers on and peered through the misted glass.
Just beyond the gate, the headlight beams trapped the outline of a stone cottage. The blue glow of a television throbbed in one window. Someone was obviously home, maybe a security guard or groundskeeper. They might not like coming out this late at night, but opening the gate was probably their job.
I honked the horn, then swiveled around to see why Dad was so quiet.
With his index finger, he was drawing jagged designs on the steamed-up window.
A loud creak made me turn back. Up ahead, a guy with the build and swagger of a Navy SEAL was shoving the gate open. As chilly as it was, I was surprised to see he had on a sleeveless T and no shoes. Maybe he'd been working out or something.
He waved for me to drive through and I eased on the gas.
As I approached him, he nodded. He didn't look much older than me, twenty-three or four at the most. His dark hair was cropped short, his face clean-shaven. My first impression was that he came from some kind of Mediterranean heritage, Greek or maybe Turkish. But it was impossible to guess in the dark and fog.
I tapped on the brakes and put on a smile. "Thanks," I said through my open window.
But the guy wasn't listening to me or even admiring our classic car. He was glaring at the window Dad had drawn on.
Dad shook his fist. "Vermin!" he shouted at the guy.
Heat flooded my face and I tromped on the gas, not waiting for the guy to reply. As the car lurched forward, the headlight beams slashed through the darkness, throwing shadows all around us.
Once the cottage was out of sight, I glanced back at Dad. I wanted to yell at him for being so rude, but instead I gritted my teeth and swallowed my anger. It wasn't right for me to lose my temper or be embarrassed by his behavior. He'd never lost his cool with me. Not even when I'd driven the Mercedes over a box of expensive porcelain at an auction — or when I'd thrown up during the private Vatican tour because I'd partied a bit too much the night before. It wasn't his fault he was sick. Besides, it didn't matter what people thought of him. We weren't here to make friends.
Excerpted from A Hold On Me by Pat Esden. Copyright © 2016 Patricia A. R. Esden. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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