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Bailey Williams froze, the page from her novel half-turned and candlelight dancing across the words. The book slipped from her hands. Instead of retrieving it, she pulled the blanket tighter across her shoulders. What was that sound?
The raging storm outside had already toppled some large tree branches into the yard. Power had gone out more than three hours ago, and the nighttimedeep and blindinghad fallen in the blink of an eye.
She was supposed to leave today, but there'd been no boats coming or going from Smuggler's Cove. So she was stuck here, in this huge old house, on a creepy island in the middle of a subtropical storm.
Could things get any worse?
She squeezed her eyes shut as she remembered the events of the past several days. Events that included losing one of the best employers she'd ever had. That involved losing the job she'd held for the past eight months. That comprised the prospect of starting over again. Going somewhere new. Finding another job.
Mr. Carter had died a week ago today. She'd stuck around, trying to get his affairs in order. She'd planned his funeral, cleaned his house and prepared food for guests who'd come into town.
She felt like the only family the man had, yet she wasn't family. She was simply Mr. Carter's nurse, someone who helped on occasion with meals and housework and offered a listening ear. She mourned the man as if she'd been his daughter. In a way, the man had come to feel like a second father.
Another crash sounded, and her lungs tightened. What was that? Had the wind sent something toppling into the house? Had one of the shutters come loose?
She tugged the blanket even tighter around her shoulders. The October day had already been frigid before the power had gone out, the heat along with it. She'd tried to start a fire but had been unsuccessful.
Reaching into the drawer of the table beside the padded chair in her bedroom, she grabbed a flashlight. She flicked the switch to the on position. The light waned, blinked, flickered, but finally shone brightly.
Thank goodness. At least that was working in her favor.
As soon as the thought entered her mind, the flashlight went black, the room along with it. A draft must have whispered extinction orders across the candle that burned on the table beside her chair. Two lights in two secondsit was a double whammy of darkness.
Bailey hit the flashlight against her palm. Tapped the top of the light. Shook the batteries back and forth.
The sweet beacon of illumination wouldn't come back on.
Perfect. She frowned.
She was going to have to check out the sound, whether she wanted to or not. She couldn't simply stay in her old bedroom, huddled on the big, comfy chair until the storm passed. For more than one reason. Buckets of rain could be flooding into the house. The bay could have climbed the shores, reaching the porch, in which case she'd need to evacuate. For all she knew, this whole island could be in danger of washing away. The place seemed like little more than a sandbar anyway. Or what if lightning struck nearby, started a fire even? There were so many things that could go wrong, so many reasons not to stay in her room hiding.
Her throat constricted as she stepped into the dark hallway that snaked through the east wing of the estate. She thought her eyes would have adjusted to the darkness by now, but not even a hint of light reached the interior of the house, especially not right here.
In broad daylight, the place was spooky. On a stormy night, it was terrifying.
She first thought about going downstairs. But the idea caused hazy fear to engulf her, making her feel lightheaded and unsteady. She changed course and hurried in the opposite direction, away from the massive staircase that led to the front door and instead toward the door at the end of the hallway.
She passed one closed door. Two. Three.
Each one made her tense, made worst-case scenarios flash through her mind like a broken reel from a horror flick. Images of people hiding. Madmen lurking. Danger awaiting.
Her walk turned into a run. She reached the end of the hallway, her destination. Her hands trembled on the doorknob, but finally she managed to twist it.
The moment she threw open the door, purple light flashed from the alcove upstairs. Her heart raced.
Lightning. Just lightning.
No figures lurked in the shadows.
Maybe she shouldn't have been reading that mystery novel earlier. The story had put too many spooky ideas into her head.
Before she could second-guess herself, her fingers gripped the iron handles of the spiral staircase that twisted upward to the widow's walk. Bailey would have a bird'seye view from there of anything going on outside. Floods. Fires. Downed trees.
She rushed up the steps at a dizzying pace until she reached the enclosed landing up top. The stretch was narrow with windows on each side. There was only one bench and a lonely spider plant. She usually liked to come up here alone, especially when she needed to think. Right now, it would serve as a lookout.
Still clutching the blanket around her shoulders, she took her first step.
The only time she could catch a glimpse of anything in the darkness was when lightning lit the sky. The first strike showed her the Chesapeake Bay. Angry waves roiled there, charging forward before beating against the sandy beaches of the island. The second strike showed her several massive tree branches that now littered the yard.
Where had that crash come from earlier? Had a window broken from the gale-force gusts outside? Had a tree fallen onto the garage? Blown the pier away?
Speaking of which, maybe being up here wasn't the best idea. Not with this storm raging. All she needed was for the wind to make a projectile of one of those live oak trees lining the walk leading to the front door. She'd be a goner, and it would be her own doing.
Thunder shook the cool, water-dimpled windowpanes. As Bailey stood there, the glass rattled as the deep sound rumbled and rumbled some more. The growl reached all the way to her bones.
When lightning flashed again, something beside the house caught her eye. Her heart leaped into her throat with enough force to jostle her entire body.
She stepped closer to the glass and wiped away some of the fog there. She couldn't have seen that correctly. Her eyes were playing tricks on her.
She blinked, waiting and holding her breath to get a glimpse of the back of the house again.
The next time the sky lit, Bailey saw him. A man stood at the back door, his fists pounding against the wood. She didn't have to hear the knocks to know they were forceful, almost angry.
He was trying to get inside, she realized.
Desperate to get inside, for that matter.
The only reason someone would want to get in here was to start trouble. Mr. Carter had said some cryptic things in his final days. He'd spoken of someone coming here and destroying people. He'd urged Bailey to protect his things.
She'd thought Mr. Carter had been delusional. But what if there was more to his words? What if in his last moments he'd finally spoken the truth? Though a pleasant and friendly man, he'd been so private, so selective in what he shared.
With the force of a bolt of electricity, Bailey realized that she had to get down from here before the man at the back door saw her.
Just as she took a step back, the man lifted his head.
Looked right at her.
Even with the distance between them, Bailey felt the anger in the man's gaze.
A black cloak fell outside again, and the man disappeared.
The next instance, the sky filled with light again. Just in time for her to see the stranger kick the door open.
Bailey had to hide, she realized. Now. It was only a matter of time before the intruder found her.
Ed Carter saw the figure on the widow's walk. For a momentand just a momenthe thought he'd seen a ghost. Not that he believed in ghosts. But the woman had looked so eerie, especially with the blanket around her shoulders and the sullen look on her face.
Then he realized an intruder was lurking in the house.
In his dad's house.
Could she be the same person who'd killed his father? That was his best guess. Maybe she'd stuck around, using some kind of alias as she tried to stake claim to his father's fortune. Money made people do crazy things, like declaring to be long-lost relatives. For all he knew, his father had gotten remarriedto the wrong woman. As crazy as that sounded, it was the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario was that his father had brought classified information here. Information that people wanted. The wrong people wanted and would do anything to get their hands on.
Ed intended to put an end to all of this. Now.
Ed knew the truth. Despite his father's congestive heart failure, he had not died of natural causes, and Ed would prove it.
He forgot about formalities and about trying to preserve his dad's house. All thoughts of coming home and paying respects to his dad, of both mourning and celebrating his dad's life, disappeared.
With expert training, he kicked the door. Wood splintered from the hinges, revealing the inside of the house. His years in the CIA had taught him a few things.
More than he would have liked sometimes.
He stared at the blackness oozing from the interior. It was thick, almost as though the darkness was a material thing.
He reached for the light switch. The electricity was out. Of course.
A storm like this could literally wipe out the whole island and send it toppling into the bay. Not to mention what it could do for the power grid of the small, isolated community.
As if to confirm his theory, lightning slashed the sky behind him, followed by a loud rumble of thunder. This storm was a beast.
He'd barely made it to the island in time. The pilot he'd hired was an expert. The storm came on faster than anticipated, and they'd landed just before the squall unleashed at full force. If his pilot hadn't been so experienced, the plane would have probably crashed in the high winds and massive downpour.
Ed had waited inside the tiny, two-room airport for a break in the weather before traveling the island roads, which were only accessible by golf cart or bike. A man at the airport had informed him that the bridge leading to his father's estate was treacherous with the rising tide.
But after a couple of hours of waiting, Ed had decided to take his chances. Alvin, the town chauffeur, had agreed to give him a ride to the bridge in a covered golf cart and bring Ed's luggage for him later. Meanwhile, his pilot chose to camp out at the airport so he could leave as soon as the storm passed.
Once Ed had waded through the water and reached the house, he'd discovered that his key to his dad's place no longer worked.
In the storm, the place looked even creepier than Ed remembered. It was a Georgian-style mansion with towers on the sides and a widow's walk stretching across the roof. A shipping captain had built the place after staking claim to a good portion of land on the island nearly a century ago.
As the eerily silent house surrounded him, Ed remembered the figure on the widow's walk. He didn't have any time to waste.
He shook some water off himself and reached under his coat to retrieve his handgun, turning on the penlight on top so he'd have some light. In his line of work, one could never be too careful.
Moving slowly, carefully, he stepped deeper into the house.
He scanned the kitchen. There was no sign of movement. He doubted the woman would have been able to get from the widow's walk down here in that short amount of time.
Where had she gone? Had she hidden? Tried to escape?
He wasn't sure. But he was going to find out.
Locating the woman in a house this massive, with so many twists and turns and back hallways, would be difficult. He'd start by going to the second level, and then he'd travel toward the staircase leading toward the widow's walk.
He walked slowly, daring any of the wooden steps to creak and announce his presence. If he'd learned one thing through the years, it was how to be quiet and stealthy, how to be light on his feet and disappear into the shadows.
He reached the hallway and headed to the right. A long line of doors waited there, each a potential trap. He kept his gun drawn and his steps steady. He reached the first door and pushed it open.
An empty bedroom stared back at him.
He did the same at the next two doors.
At the fourth door, he paused when he saw the edge of a blanket on the floor.
He turned and spotted a woman behind the door. The woman. With a lamp above her head, poised like a baseball bat.
"I don't think so," she mumbled, starting to swing.
In one swift motion, he slid his gun back into the holster and grabbed her armjust in time to stop her from crashing the ceramic base on his head. He squeezed her wrist until the lamp shattered onto the floor. The woman gasped, her eyes widening with surprise and fear. He still didn't let go of her. No telling what she would try next.
"Are you crazy?" He kept his voice low and serious, refusing to break his gaze. If anything, he knew how to handle himself in tense situations.
The woman, at one moment frozen, suddenly came to life. She struggled against him, twisting, turning and trying to get away.
"Get your hands off me!" she growled.
She was a fighter. He'd give her credit for having spunk.
But he did this for a living.
Based on the way she flailed, this woman was no trained assassin. She probably hadn't even taken any self-defense classes, for that matter. But who was she? As far as he knew, this place was supposed to be empty. Of course, he'd been out of touch for the past several months, on an assignment that required deep cover.
The woman still tried to jerk away from him.
"Calm down," he muttered.
"Don't tell me to calm down!"
He pinned both of her arms behind her back and restrained her until she stopped struggling. Her eyes didn't lose their fight, though.
He locked gazes with her. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
She tried to jerk away one more time. "I should be asking you the same thing."
Ed sighed, waiting for her to wear herself out. "I'm not in the mood for guessing games, so why don't you answer my question?"
"Why don't you let me go? Then maybe we can talk."
He wanted to really see her eyes, wanted to see if there was truth or deceit in their depths when she answered. It was a calculated risk he needed to take. He released her hand and pulled out his gun in one swift motion.
"Back up to the wall," he ordered. "Slowly. Don't make any sudden moves or you'll regret it."
She slowly turned, took two steps back and stood stiffly against the flowered wallpaper.
He shined the light atop his gun on the woman, wanting to get a good look at her. She was on the taller side. Slim. Had long hair, light brown and straight, that fell halfway down her back. He couldn't tell what color her eyes wereprobably brown, he guessedbut they were big with thick lashes.
He'd been deceived by more than one pretty woman in his day, enough that he was now immune to batting eyelashes and sweet smiles.
"Start talking." With mild amusement, he added, "Please."