|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.49(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Myles palmed the bowl of his wine glass and stared into the midnight sky. This hour always made him tense, as if life was balanced on a cusp between ignorance and knowing. Prologue, Murder, My Love--From the Files of Myles Daemon, P.I.
Lightning bolts chased each other across the night sky, silhouetting the baggy thunderheads and filling the air with scorched ozone. Wind-driven, needle-sharp rain drenched Brie's hair and face. The light jacket, that two hours ago had fended off cool night breezes in Los Angeles, clung to her arms like a cold second skin. Muck seeped around the edges of her strappy pink sandals and squished between her bare toes.
Yet she hardly felt the chill or flinched at the crack of thunder. Brie teetered on the bank of a flooded creek bed and stared with morbid fascination into the roiling water illuminated by her dimming headlights. Blind intuition had compelled her to slam on the brakes scant yards before she and her car plunged into the swollen creek. The wild current could have easily battered them both against the rocks and she'd have drowned.
Just like in the dream.
Brie shivered with a new cold that pushed up from her soul. She might have escaped physical drowning, but the terrible lifelike dream still dragged her down with the weight of impending doom. The same intuition that saved her warned she hadn't cheated Fate, only received a preview of the future as it might unfold.
The Universe is open to change, Aunt Sophie was fond of telling her. You have more free will than you realize, Little Moon Child, if you only listen to the whisperings ofyour soul.
"I did listen, Sophie," Brie muttered through chattering teeth. "I listened and drove right into my nightmare."
Brie hugged herself for warmth and comfort. If only she had read the road map more carefully and paid more attention to the exits off the highway. How many of those seedy hotels had she passed by when the first, fat raindrops fell on her windshield half an hour ago? Anyone who lived in Southern California knew summer monsoon rains sometimes struck with unexpected ferocity in the semiarid foothills.
And once she'd gotten turned around why had she blindly headed for that bright, flickering light in the distance? It might have been nothing but scrub grass set ablaze by the lightning and then doused by the downpour.
But reason had never had anything to do with this flight back to New Mexico and Aunt Sophie. Brie had let fear of the unalterable past and panic over a vision of a possible future drive her into this present danger.
Suddenly, the rush of water seemed louder. The crack of thunder deeper. The pelt of rain on her face more violent. Behind her the car lights dimmed, brightened, and dimmed again. The battery was giving out, either from stress or soddenness or both. As another deep chill wrenched her upright, Brie shook off her paralysis. She had to think. She had to...
"Get the hell away from the bank!"
The shout, angry and male and close, scared the remaining air from her lungs. Preoccupied with her escape from doom she hadn't felt the approach of another human. Clearly not all wildlife out here in the middle of nowhere slithered or walked on all fours. Brie spun toward a source of approaching lamplight and put the water to her back. Never a wise strategy according to Darien, her dear friend and feng shui mentor.
The move proved Darien right. The leather soles of her sandals hydroplaned on the sodden dirt. Brie went down hard on her left hip and arm. But the scrape of rock against her palms and knees felt as nothing compared to the constriction in her chest when she realized her whole body was sliding toward the raging creek.
Clawing at the stony ground only spackled her face with fetid earth. Her fingertips barely penetrated a half-inch before hitting rock-hard clay. The creek bank sloughed her off like it did the downpour, and the slippage became a slide toward the waiting abyss. The stuff of her nightmares.
A scream tore from her throat, a hoarse and pitiful sound against the continual explosions of thunder and the keening of the wind. She tried to scramble forward, but the thrashing of her legs only drew her down. The arch of her foot scraped rock then skimmed the cold, gushing water. Instinctively Brie held her breath.
A large, strong hand clamped her right arm just above the elbow. The sudden yank upward almost wrenched muscle from bone. Brie's shins dragged along the rocky ground for a second before she flipped around and landed on her backside.
The stranger hunkered down to eye level. But with the hood of a black rain slicker writhing in the wind around his face, she only glimpsed fierce eyes, thick rain-clumped eyelashes, and a teeth-barring snarl. "What the hell are you doing way out here on a night like this? Are you crazy?"
Winded, Brie squinted into the harsh light of the hurricane lamp he held high in his free hand. Some soul-deep, dark emotion fueled a different kind of storm, a turmoil that rolled off this man and assaulted her psyche. A painful sadness, harsh and bitter and old, penetrated the carefully constructed barriers of her unconscious mind and called out to her. In his grasp Brie glimpsed leashed anger and whorls of danger.
The man's touch and his powerful psychic intrusion had suddenly become as treacherous to her soul as the floodwaters were to her body. Brie yanked against his hold. "Let me go!"
Instantly he did so and sat back on his heels. "No, problem! And you're welcome!" he shouted over the storm.
Despite the concession Brie scuttled backward beyond his reach, as if that alone could repel his stark emotional tug on her soul. Rocks clawed at the hem of her jacket and snagged the silk skirt of her sundress. Her breath came hard and heavy as she tried to shout above the weather. "I ... I didn't mean to sound ungrateful or rude. I..."
She almost admitted her fear, but that wasn't wise. Brie swiped at a clump of hair that clung to her wet cheek and retrenched. "I'm not familiar with the highway this side of the mountains. I made a wrong turn, that's all. Perhaps you could point the way out of this canyon."
The electrical bolts overhead cast his features in natural strobe light. Brie thought he frowned, then smiled without humor as he perused her legs and hiked up skirt in a way that made her already skittish insides cramp with tension. "A city girl, huh?"
She resisted giving him a taste of her city-girl survival skills. "Los Angeles," she called out. "And I know how to take care of myself."
"Yeah, I bet you do." He rocked backward and balanced a moment before hefting to his feet with an easy male grace. "Thanks for the warning." Then he waved in the direction of her car. "U-turn and go back up the way you came. Make a left at the fork of the road and drive five more miles. You can get back on the main highway from there. Just move away from the bank fast before the creek floats you back to some Los Angeles storm drain."
As he loomed over her, his face all but obliterated by the snapping slicker hood, Brie realized her heart pounded with a reaction other than fear. For some reason her heart hurt for him!
Brie cast aside her confusion and gave the water a quick look. The stranger had a point. Foamy spray already licked at the edge that had given way under her slight weight.
She had to get up. She couldn't appear helpless. If nothing else she had to actively defend herself against his overwhelming tow on her psyche. Brie dug in her heels and tried to roll to her side for balance. Once again the leather-soled sandals betrayed her on the wet rock and slimy clay. Her right hip and hand took the full force of the jarring this time. Her palm was so raw from abrasions she flinched and fell back on her elbow.
Pain shot up her arm and straight into her neck and shoulders. Worse, she twisted her right leg and felt a disheartening "pop" in her knee. If she was lucky--very, very, very lucky--the joint wouldn't start to swell until she could get to a motel that had an ice-vending machine.
The stranger loomed over her, backlit by the storm, waiting. For what, she wondered.
Yet Brie knew the answer before she finished the thought. Raw intuition told her this man offered only his help. He hadn't imposed himself on her. He'd even given way when she'd pushed him back, though he was strong enough to do otherwise.
Still that was little enough evidence with which to judge a man. A strange man. With scowling dark eyes and a quelling way of taking stock of a woman. Not to mention the surge of strong, bitter emotion that had compelled her to let down her guard and let him inside her head. Better be safe than sorry.
As quickly as the blinding rain, muck, and her strained joint permitted, Brie tucked both legs beneath her, braced her palms on the ground and scrambled to her feet. Her body quavered. It took a moment to test the sturdiness of her knee. It ached, but held her weight. Brie dusted the chips of stone and goo from her hands and sidestepped away from the bank. "Sorry if I inconvenienced you," she yelled into the storm. "I'll be on my way. Thanks."
Her headlights flickered and died.
The stranger swung his lamp toward the darkened car and then back toward Brie and the creek. "You think?" he called out.
His sarcasm made her feel all the more vulnerable. Brie put up her hand, fending him off and saying farewell at the same moment. "I'll call for help on my cell phone."
"It works in these foothills?"
Well, no it didn't, come to think of it. She'd found out that much when she tried to call Darien just before she made a wrong turn into wilderness hell. "All right, fine! Then ... then maybe you would call someone for me. I'll go back to my car and wait."
"The storm cut power and phone lines," he answered. Then he waved the lamp to his left. "My cabin is just up this path if you want to wait out the storm there."
There wasn't a hint of warmth or welcome in his voice. He made the offer out of duty. Ironically, Brie trusted his reluctance.
Yet she still felt the aftershocks of his psychic assault and hesitated. Perhaps she hesitated a few moments too long.
The stranger stood still for another couple of lightning strobes then shrugged. "Suit yourself." He turned on his heel and started up a gentle slope into the dark, taking the steady light of the hurricane lamp with him.
In the midst of the storm, Brie swore she heard, or at least felt, silence. Even her heart didn't seem to beat as she watched the violent dark swallow the stranger first, then start to dim the beacon of light.
Brie didn't feel the air fill her lungs or consciously open her mouth. "Wait!"
The lamp swung around. At least the stranger heeded her call.
Wasting no more time, Brie dashed back to her darkened car as fast as she dared on her injured knee and fumbled with the rain-slicked driver's side handle to yank open the door. First she retrieved her keys and then grabbed the roll bag stuffed with her belongings from the front passenger's seat.
All the while the stranger didn't move from his place on the pathway. Brie slogged her way through mire that made her skid and turned her ankle twice before she got close enough to make out the details of the tall, sturdy man holding the only illumination besides lightning for miles around.
"A woman's got to have her makeup, right, Miss L.A.?"
Desperate to get out of the rain and away from the creek, Brie ignored his snideness and trudged past him. In the near distance she could just barely discern the outline of a cabin dark as the stormy night around her.
Dark as the psychic energy of the man who lit her steps from behind.
Brie rode a gust of wet wind across the knotty wood threshold and into the small cabin. She ground to an awkward stop and stood dripping rainwater off the sleeves of her jacket and the hem of her thin sundress. Heat from snapping flames in a stone hearth across the room embraced her chilled body. The burning wood gave the air a warm, homey smell, though the fire did little to illuminate the dark wood plank floor and walls. The soft glow did, however, reflect well off the glassy eyes of several wall-mounted trophy animal heads staring down at her from all sides.
Clutching her roll bag to her chest, Brie peered up at the posed, lifeless heads and could almost hear Darien murmur, Bad feng shui. Very, very bad feng shui.
Behind her the door slammed shut. Forgetting about her twisted right knee, Brie started and spun in place. The joint sent out only a small lick of pain. Brie sighed in relief for that much good fortune, as the cabin's owner pushed away from the door he'd closed with the force of his broad shoulder. With deliberation, he set the lantern on a table by the door and snapped his arms impatiently, sending a shower of water into the room and onto her.
Brie back stepped, whether to avoid the spray or keep her distance from the surly man she wasn't sure. Either way, it was time to establish some kind of defensive social link. "I apologize for being such an imposition," she said. "But I must have seen your lights before the electricity went out, so I just headed this way. Thanks for coming out to help me."
Having made the overture Brie waited for him to turn around. She could always tell much by looking straight into a person's eyes.
With his back still to her the man stiffened. "What was I supposed to do? I saw those headlights of yours bounce down the road. Thought you'd end up on my front porch." He slipped back his hood, glanced over his shoulder without really looking at her, and started to shrug out of his slicker. "How is it you didn't realize five miles back you were on the wrong road?"
The accusation in his voice frustrated her attempts at civility. Still, she had to try. She was stuck with this man's hospitality--or lack thereof--until the power and telephones came back on. "I told you. I took a wrong turn. Then in the downpour I could barely see the side of the road to make a turn even if I knew what direction I was going. My tires started to skid on the wet gravel and dirt."
For a moment, Brie actually felt as if her car had swerved out of control, gone airborne, and then plummeted downward. Her stomach dropped, and she had to hiccup a breath to halt the roller coaster ride in her imagination. She squelched a shudder that had nothing to do with her sopped clothing.
He didn't respond as he paced two steps to a row of pegs near the door and carefully hung up his wet slicker. Brie admired the way his long-fingered, wide hands accomplish the task without fuss. Amazingly, the brush with disaster hadn't shut down her ability to appreciate a man on some basic level, and even pushed the images of the persistent waking dream temporarily to the back of her mind.
In shadow, with his back to her, this dark-souled stranger did cut an imposing figure. He probably wasn't quite six-foot, but a faded green T-shirt outlined solid shoulders and torso and exposed strong forearms. Generic blue jeans fit snug over lean hips and legs. For some reason Brie was surprised to see this surly cabin-dweller wore thick soled, heavy leather black shoes that were the choice de jour for Los Angeles males who wanted to appear in style but still ruggedly masculine. On this man, those sturdy, rugged "hip" shoes looked anything but pretentious.
Brie realized she'd spent far too much time admiring the stranger from behind and too little time trying to figure out a way to establish some neutral ground. "I guess I was lucky I didn't drive off the road and into a ravine."
"No, you almost drove off the road into Milagro Creek."
His censure raised her hackles again fast. The least he could do was graciously accept her thanks. Brie decided to make one last try to be friendly. "Milagro. Doesn't that mean 'miracle' in Spanish? Maybe there was some magic at work tonight after all."
He finally turned. Flickering hearth light cast the spare angles of his face with the same harshness as his manner and voice. A thick ruff of short-cropped, medium brown hair added to the almost military composure of his expression. Even so, the unflattering shadow couldn't disguise the natural appeal of his well-defined features. If he could break a smile, he might even be handsome.
Instead, his narrowed green eyes threw out sparks of challenge. "I never have believed in magic. And miracles seemed to pass me by. Let's just say I was in the right place at the right time to save your tail tonight."
The angry grumble jarred her, but not as much as the soul-deep sadness that had begun to roll off him again and seep into her awareness. He squinted, perhaps to see her better since she was backlit by the hearth fire. But as he emerged from the shadows, he made no effort at even a meager social introduction.
Brie steadied herself and took the initiative. Thrusting out her hand she lifted her chin. "Then thank you for saving my tail. My name is Brienne Quaid."
He ignored her hand. "Name's Cal Porter." He nodded at her roll bag. "Hope you have a change of clothes in there."
Brie snapped her hand back and clutched the bag tighter. "Along with my makeup?"
For a moment he smirked, the sort of expression that fueled her irritation. But after he came a step closer to Brie his features froze, and his green eyes searched her face in a way that made her feel as if she were a bug in the sights of an entomologist.
Had she stumbled into the lair of a mass murderer? Brie took another step backward. Her right knee twinged a protest, but she didn't flinch. "Mr. Porter?"
He blinked. For a second he looked perplexed, but shook it off. "I mean you need to dry off. Your teeth are chattering."
Then he trudged past her toward the hearth. At the fire he grabbed an iron poker and started to prod a flame. "Bathroom's that way." He tipped his head to the right, indicating one of two plank and mortar doors, but kept his gaze steady on the fire. "Take the lantern. I have a couple flashlights in the kitchen. I'll have some coffee ready when you come out."
Until Cal Porter mentioned it, Brie didn't realize her teeth really were chattering. And her knee had begun to throb in earnest. She sidled to the table by the door and grabbed the lantern per his instructions. "Thank you, Mister Porter, but if it's all the same, I'll take just a cup of hot water. I prefer herbal tea."
He swung his head around to look back at her. "All I have is leaded coffee. Don't have too many tea parties out here."
Brie smiled as sweetly as she could, given the circumstances, and patted her roll bag. "No problem. I carry my own supply. A cup of hot water will do."
"Fine. Hot water it is."
But he was staring at her again in that odd, half-stunned way that sent shivers down Brie's spine. That's when she heard a trill of feminine amusement. Brie cocked her head.
"What is it?"
Cal Porter's gruff demand broke her concentration. When Brie looked back to the fire, she discovered he'd set down the poker and stood facing her, legs apart.
She stifled a chill that came from inside and listened hard. But all she heard now was the rattle of the wind and rainfall on the windows, the dying rumble of a storm almost spent, and the pop of kindling in the fireplace.
"I thought..." she started to say, then shook her head. "It's ridiculous. I thought I heard a woman's laughter."
Cal Porter's handsome face went suddenly dark as the violent night sky. "You're right. That's ridiculous." He jerked his head once again toward the bathroom before turning back to the fire. "Your hot water will be ready in five minutes. You better move."
Though she didn't want to appear intimidated by the command in his voice, Brie did move, and she moved fast. Once behind the bathroom door she could finally shut out the dark psychic energy rolling off Cal Porter's person.
Now if she could only figure a way to stay locked in the bathroom until she could leave.