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Wednesday, January 10, 2001
New Orleans, Louisiana
Anna sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in a cold sweat, Timmy's name, her screams, reverberating off the walls of her bedroom.
With a squeak of terror, she dragged the blankets to her chin. She looked wildly around her. When she'd drifted off, her bedside light had been onshe always slept with a light on. Yet her bedroom was dark. The shadows in the corners mocked her, deep and black. What did those shadows hold for her? What could they hide? Who?
Kurt. He was coming for her. To finish what he'd begun twenty-three years ago. To punish her for escaping. For spoiling his plans.
"Ready or not, here I come."
With a cry, Anna scrambled out of bed. She ran from the bedroom to the bathroom, located down the hallway. She raced to the commode, flipped up the seat, bent and threw up. She heaved until she was empty, until she had nothing left to expel but memories.
She yanked off a length of toilet tissue, wiped her mouth, then dropped the tissue into the commode and flushed. Her right hand hurt. It burned, as if Kurt had just done it. Severed her pinkie finger to send to her parents as a warning.
But he hadn't just done it, she reminded herself. It had happened a lifetime ago. She'd been a child, still Harlow Anastasia Grail, little Hollywood princess.
A lifetime ago. A whole other identity ago.
Turning, Anna crossed to the sink and turned on the faucet. Bending, she splashed the icy-cold water on her face, struggling to shake off the nightmare.
She was safe. In her own apartment. Except for her parents, she'd cut all ties to her past. None of her friends or business associates knew who she was. Not even her publisher or literary agent. She was Anna North now. She had been Anna North for twelve years.
Even if Kurt came looking for her, he wouldn't be able to find her.
Anna muttered an oath and flipped off the water. She snatched the hand towel from the ring and dried her face. Kurt wasn't going to come looking for her. Twenty-three years had passed, for heaven's sake. The FBI had been certain the man she'd known as Kurt posed no further threat to her. They believed he had slipped over the border into Mexico. The discovery of Monica's body in the border town of Baja, California, six days after Harlow's escape had supported that belief.
Disgusted with herself, she tossed the hand towel onto the counter. When was she going to get over this? How many years had to pass before she could sleep without a light on? Before nightmares no longer awakened her, night after night?
If only Kurt had been apprehended. She would be able to forget then. She would be able to go on without worrying, without wondering if he thought of her. Her escape had upset the ransom pickup. Did he curse her for spoiling that? Did he wait for the day he would make her pay for spoiling his opportunity at wealth?
She looked at herself in the mirror, expression fierce. She couldn't control her nightmares, but she could control everything else in her life. She would not spend her daysor nightsdodging shadows.
Anna stalked back to her bedroom, grabbed a pair of shorts from her bureau drawer and slipped them on under her nightshirt. If she couldn't sleep, she might as well work. A new story idea had been kicking around the back of her brain and now seemed as good a time as any to start it. But first, she decided, coffee.
She made her way to the kitchen, passing her office a desk tucked into a corner of the living roomas she did. She flipped on the computer then moved on, past the front door. Out of habit she stopped to check the dead bolt.
As her fingers closed over the lock, someone pounded on the door. With a small cry, Anna jumped back. "Anna! It's Bill"
"Are you all right?"
Bill Friends and Dalton Ramsey, her neighbors and best friends. Thank goodness.
Hands shaking, she unlocked the door and eased it open. The pair stood in the hallway, expressions anxious. From down the hall she heard the yipping of Judy and Boo, the couple's Heinz 57 mini-mutts. "What in the world
you scared the life out of me."
"We heard you screa"
"I heard you scream," Bill corrected. "I was on my way back in from"
"He came and got me." Dalton held up a marble book-end, a miniature of Michelangelo's David. "I brought this. Just in case."
Anna brought a hand to her chest, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She could picture fifty-something, mild-mannered Dalton winging a chunk of marble at an intruder. "Just in case of what? That my library needed tidying?"
Bill chuckled; Dalton looked irritated. He sniffed. "For protection, of course."
Against the intruder who would have made his escape by the time her friends had gathered their wits about them, selected a weapon and made their way to her door. Thank goodness she had never actually needed saving.
She bit back a laugh. "And I appreciate your concern." She swung the door wider. "Come on in, I'll make coffee to go with the beignets."
"Beignets?" Dalton repeated innocently. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Anna wagged a finger at him. "Nice try, but I smell them. Your punishment for coming to my aid is having to share."
New Orleans's version of a doughnut, beignets were fried squares of dough, liberally dusted with powdered sugar. Like everything New Orleans, they were both decadent and addictive.
And definitely not for those, like Dalton, who professed to be watching their weight.
"He made me do it," Dalton said as they stepped into the apartment. He looked accusingly at Bill. "You know I'd never suggest such indulgences at two in the morning."
"Right." Bill rolled his eyes. "And whose figure suggests a tendency toward.indulgences?"
The other man looked at Anna for support. Bill was ten years Dalton's junior, trim and athletic. "It's not fair. He eats everything and never gains weight. Me, I eat one little thing and"
"One little thing? Hah! Ask him about the Fig Newtons and barbeque chips?"
"I was having a bad day. I needed a little pick-me-up. So sue me."
Anna linked her arms through her friends' and nudged them toward the kitchen, the adverse effects of her nightmare melting away. The two men never failed to make her laugh. Nor did it ever cease to amaze her that they were a couple. They reminded her of a peacock and a penguin. Bill was outspoken and often outrageous, Dalton a prim businessman whose meticulous manner tended toward fussiness. Yet as different as they were, they had been together for ten years.
"I don't care who's guilty of the idea," she said as they reached the kitchen. "I'm just grateful for it. A 2:00 a.m. beignet-binge is just what I needed."
Truth was, it was their friendship she was grateful for. She'd met the pair her second week in New Orleans. She had answered an ad for a job at a French Quarter florist shop. Although she hadn't had any experience, she'd always had a flair for arranging and had been in need of a job that would allow her the timeand en-ergyto pursue her dream of being a novelist.
Dalton had turned out to be the owner of the shop; they had hit it off immediately. He had understood her dreams and applauded her for having the guts to pursue them. And unlike the other potential employers she had interviewed with, he had been comfortable with her need to think of her position at The Perfect Rose as a job, not a career.
Dalton had introduced her to Bill and the two men had taken her under their wing. They'd alerted her to an upcoming vacancy in the French Quarter apartment building they not only lived in, but that Dalton owned, and had given her recommendations for everything from dry cleaners to restaurants and hairstylists. As Anna had come to know them better, she had allowed them to take a real interest in her writing: it had been Bill and Dalton who had cheered her up after every rejection and Bill and Dalton who had cheered her on with each success.
She loved them both and would face the devil himself to keep them safe. They, she believed, would do the same for her.
The devil himself. Kurt.
As if reading her mind, Dalton turned to her, aghast. "Good Lord, Anna. We never even asked, are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Anna poured milk into a saucepan and set it on the stove to heat. She retrieved three mugs from a cabinet and a tray of frozen coffee cubes from the freezer. "It was just a bad dream."
Bill helped her out, dropping a cube of the frozen cold-brewed coffee concentrate into each mug. "Not another one? " He gave her a quick hug. "Poor Anna."
"It's those sick stories you write," Dalton offered, artfully arranging the beignets on a plate. "They're giving you nightmares."
"Sick stories? Thanks, Dalton."
"Dark, then," Dalton amended. "Twisted. Scary. Better?"
"Much, thank you." She poured the steaming milk into the mugs, then handed each man his café au lait.
They carried the pastries and coffee to her small, bistro-style table, sat and dug in. Dalton was right. Her novelsthrillershad been described by reviewers with just such adjectives. Also by ones like compelling and gripping. If only she could sell enough copies to make a living writing them.
Nobody was holding her back but herself. That's what her agent said.
"Such a nice, normal-seeming lady." Bill lowered his voice to a horror-flick drawl. "Where do her stories come from? Experience? Extracurricular activities? What gothic horrors lurk behind her guileless green eyes?"
Anna pretended to laugh. Bill couldn't know how close to the truth his playful teasing had come. She had been witness to the darkest depths of the human spirit. She knew from firsthand experience the human animal's capacity for evil.
That knowledge stole her peace of mind and sometimes, like tonight, her sleep as well. It also fueled her imagination, pouring out of her in dark, twisted tales that pitted good against evil.
"Didn't you know?" she asked, keeping her tone light. "All my research is hands-on. So please, don't look in the trunk of my car, and be sure to lock your door at night." She lowered her voice. "If you know what's good for you."
For a split second, the men simply stared at her. Then they laughed. Dalton spoke first. "Very funny, Anna. Especially since that gay couple gets whacked in your new story idea."
"Speaking of," Bill murmured, brushing at the sprinkling of powdered sugar on the table in front of him, "have you heard anything on the new proposal yet?"
"Not yet, but it's only been a couple weeks. You know how slow publishing can be."
Bill snorted in disgust. He worked in advertising and public relations, most of the time he was going ninety-to-nothing, hair on fire. "They wouldn't last two minutes in my business. Crash and burn, big time."
Anna agreed, then yawned. She brought a hand to her mouth, yawning again.
Dalton glanced at his watch. "Good Lord, look at the time! I had no idea it was so" He turned toward her, expression horrified. "Heavens, Anna! I forgot to tell you. You got another letter from your little fan. The one who lives across Lake Pontchartrain, in Mandeville. It came today to The Perfect Rose."
For a split second Anna didn't know who Dalton was referring to, then she remembered. A few weeks ago she'd received a fan letter from an eleven-year-old local girl named Minnie. It had come through Anna's agent, in a packet with several others.
Though Anna had been disturbed by the thought that her adult novels had been read by a child, she had been charmed by the letter. Anna had been reminded of the girl she had been before the kidnapping, one who had seen the world as a beautiful place filled with smiling faces.
Minnie had promised that if Anna wrote her back she would be her biggest fan forever. She had drawn hearts and daisies over the back of the envelope and printed the letters S.W.A.K.
Sealed with a kiss.
Anna had been so captivated, she had answered the letter personally.
Dalton dug the envelope out of the pocket of his sweat-suit jacket and held it out. Anna frowned. "You brought it with you? "
Bill rolled his eyes. "He grabbed it right after he selected David from his weapon collection. It was all I could do to stop him from baking muffins."
Dalton sniffed, expression hurt. "I was trying to help. Next time I won't."
"Don't you pay any attention to Bill," Anna murmured, taking the letter and sending Bill a warning glance. "You know what a tease he is. I appreciate you thinking of me."
Bill motioned to the envelope. Like the previous one, the girl had decorated it with hearts, daisies and a big S.W.A.K. "It came directly to The Perfect Rose, Anna. Not through your agent."
"Directly to The Perfect" Anna realized her mistake and for a heartbeat of time, couldn't breathe. In her zeal to answer the child, she had forgotten caution. She had grabbed a piece of The Perfect Rose's stationery, dashed off a response and dropped it in the mail.
How could she have been so stupid? So careless?
"Open it," Bill urged. "You know you're curious."
She was curious. She loved to hear that a reader enjoyed one of her stories. It was satisfying in a way nothing else in her life was. But a part of her was repelled, too, by this physical connection to strangers, by the knowledge that through her work strangers had an opening into her head and heart.
Her work provided them a way into her life.
She eased the envelope open, slid out the letter and began to read. Bill and Dalton read with her, each peering over a shoulder.
Dear Miss North,
I was so excited when I received your letter! You're my very favorite author in the whole worldhonest! My Kitty thinks you're the best, too. She's gold and white with blue eyes. She's my best friend. Our favorite foods are pizza and Chee-tos, but he doesn't let us have them very often. Once, I sneaked a bag and me and Tabitha ate the whole thing. My favorite group is the Backstreet Boys and when he lets me out, I watch Dawson's Creek.
I'm so glad you're going to be my friend. It gets lonely here sometimes. I felt bad though, about what you said about me being too young to read your books. I suppose you're right. And if you don't want me to read them, I won't. I promise. He doesn't know I read them anyway and would be very angry if he found out.
He frightens me sometimes.