WITH A MYSTERY MOUNTING, A MEDIEVAL FANTASY WAS FAST BECOMING ALL TOO REAL FOR AN UNLIKELY PAIR
Leo McKenzie was an American investigator tracking a hard-to-find woman through the English countryside. But trailing antiques agent Jennifer Rowan through an impassable blizzard only amounted to a concussion and a developing cold crush.
After finding haven for the detective in a centuries-old monastery, Jenny sought a silent monk who had the answer to recovering the priceless Warley Madonna. But when someone else got him to spill his guts firstliterallyeveryone stranded in the castle became a suspect. The two reckless Americans made an imperfect matchand with eyes the color of whiskey, the headstrong P.I. was dangerously close to intoxicating Jennifer. But with only each other to trust, the two strangers in an even stranger land would have to stop a killer who stalked the frozen hallways if they hoped to weather the storm.
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Who is he? How did he find me?
Needing answers, Jennifer hugged the shadows at the top of the stairs, her heart registering anxiety with rapid beats as she listened to the conversation in the lobby below.
"You're sure you can't give me her room number?" His voice was deep and mellow. That much Jennifer could tell, but nothing else about him. Although she had a limited view of the front desk and the young woman who stood on duty behind it, the man who had come in off the street wasn't in her line of sight. She would need to lean forward in order to glimpse him, but she feared even a slight movement would betray her presence.
The clerk, her thin face peppered with freckles beneath a cap of red hair, shook her head in regret. "Be worth my job if I was to go and tell you that, sir."
The woman had been far less careful when he'd approached the desk a moment ago with a confident "I'm here to see Jennifer Rowan. She is registered with you, right?"
He shouldn't have known that. Jennifer had told no one she planned to spend the night at this inn. But his bold assumption that she was here had won an admission from the clerk that, yes, Jennifer was a guest at the King's Head. The clerk hadn't bothered to ask him his name.
"Sure wouldn't want you to go and jeopardize your job—" he paused, moving in close to the desk in order to read the clerk's name tag "—Wendy."
Jennifer could see him now. Or at least enough of him to understand why the desk clerk wore a willing smile as he leaned toward her. From what Jennifer could tell at this angle, he was good-looking in a rugged sort of way. That deep voice was also persuasive, with a tone that was appealingly personal.
"But how about calling her room and letting her know someone is here to see her.You could do that much, couldn't you, Wendy?"
"I wouldn't say no to that, sir. Not that I'd have to, being as how Ms. Rowan isn't in her room. Went out a bit ago to buy herself a London paper. Real disappointed, she was, when I told her we only take the local paper here. Well, why would we need anything else when we have the telly?"
But Jennifer hadn't been willing to wait for a TV newscast, which wouldn't have provided her with enough details anyway. Only a London paper would have a full account of Guy's murder. She needed to know if there was any new development in the case, whether she was at imminent risk of being arrested.
As far as the desk clerk knew, Jennifer wasn't in the inn.Wendy had watched her go out the front door in search of a shop that carried the London papers. What the young woman didn't realize was that, once out on the street, Jennifer had feared she would be soaked within seconds. A hard rain had begun to fall. Wendy hadn't been at her post when Jennifer immediately returned to the inn to fetch her umbrella. If the tea mug now at the clerk's elbow was any indication, she must have been in the kitchen.
Umbrella in hand, Jennifer had been heading toward the street again when the stranger below had asked for her by name. Alarmed, she had shrunk back into the shadows where the hallway emerged at the top of the stairs. But she couldn't go on standing here. The dimness, presumably the result of a burned-out lightbulb in the fixture overhead, wasn't enough to conceal her if either of them happened to look up.
Frozen in place, Jennifer prayed he was satisfied by the clerk's explanation of her absence. That, whoever he was, he would leave the inn and go out on the street to look for her in the shops. But it didn't happen that way.
"You wouldn't have any objection if I waited here in the lobby for Ms. Rowan, would you, Wendy?" he asked the clerk.
"That's all right then, sir."
Trapped! What was she to do? He had already removed his coat, was running a strong hand through his wet hair. It was when he looked over his shoulder, probably to locate a comfortable chair in which to take up his vigil, that Jennifer seized the opportunity to make her escape from the stairway.
Backing slowly, silently away from the landing, hoping none of the old floorboards would announce her retreat with a sudden groan, she waited until the lobby was entirely swallowed from view before she turned and fled to her room.
Once inside, and with the door secured behind her, she went and sat on the edge of the four-poster. Only then did she realize she was trembling. It was imperative that she think rationally about her situation, come to some decision, and in order to do that, she had to calm herself.
The setting itself was certainly tranquil enough. An ancient inn, the stone-built King's Head featured wide hearths, leaded windows and low ceilings crossed by heavy oak beams. She gazed for a moment at one of those windows where the rain bubbled on the glass against a heavy, gray sky.
Though she managed to control her panic, her frustration was another matter. She had failed to learn the answers to the questions that continued to race through her mind.
He had asked for her by name. How was that possible when he was a stranger? Unless—
Had Guy's charwoman surfaced from her coma, told the police what she had witnessed? If so, then her information would be enough to make a strong case against Jennifer as Guy's killer. Was this man a detective who had somehow managed to track her here?
But if that was true, if he was official, then why hadn't he presented his ID to the desk clerk? Told her he was here on police business?
There was something else. Like Jennifer, he had an American accent. Puzzling, but she supposed he could be working with the London police. It wasn't unknown for American officers to be connected with English police departments.
In the end, there was only one certainty. Whoever this mystery man was, he was looking for her. That made him a potential danger to her. Because if he knew she was on the run, and why—
She had to leave. Had to get far away from him. Now. Never mind her plan to spend the night here in the inn and then go on to Warley Castle in the morning. Forget the late hour, the threat of the weather and a lonely road across unfamiliar terrain.
Jennifer was desperate enough to risk all of these in order to reach her destination without further delay. If she stood any chance at all of vindicating herself, then it was urgent that she get the answers she was hoping for before it was too late.
She threw the few things she had unpacked earlier back into her suitcase. Since she had already paid for a night's lodging in the inn, there was no problem about running out on any bill she owed. But there was the concern of the man down in the lobby who guarded the front door.
She couldn't use that route to slip away from him. A service staircase then? Surely there had to be one in a place this size. It was time to find out.
Suitcase and umbrella in hand, her purse hanging by its long strap from her shoulder, Jennifer crossed the room, unlocked the door and eased it back. She checked the hallway in both directions. It was silent, empty. There were few guests in the inn at this time of year. She met no one as she hurried along the passage.
An unnumbered door drew her to the end of the corridor at the back of the inn.When she tried it, she found herself looking down into the poorly lit well of the service staircase she was seeking.
Descending swiftly through the gloom, she arrived in another passage at the bottom. There were several doors along its narrow length. The nearest one had to be the kitchen because she could hear behind it what had to be the sounds of dinner underway.
Praying no one would emerge from that area to challenge her, Jennifer headed toward the door at the end of the passage. The window in it, framing the gray daylight beyond, told her it was a back entrance.
It had to be a fire exit, readily opened from the inside, because she had no trouble with the door when she reached it and let herself out of the inn. Not until she exhaled in relief did she realize how much she had needed to release her tension.
She found herself in a service yard at the rear of the building. Rain was pelting down on the cobbles. The air was cold, evidence that the temperature had dropped since her arrival in Heathside.
Raising her umbrella, Jennifer crossed the yard and made her way to the car park where she had left the little English Ford she had rented back in London.
She was shivering by the time she stowed her suitcase in the vehicle and settled herself behind the wheel. Nerves more than the cold, she thought.
Once she was underway, with the heater issuing a welcome warmth, she was able to ease her worst fear. Not that she could relax when she had to deal with every American driver's problem of keeping to the left while negotiating narrow streets that hadn't been designed to accommodate modern traffic. This, in addition to finding a route through the old town in a steady rainfall, kept her occupied.
Jennifer didn't pay any attention to the dark-colored SUV that slid out of an alley as she passed, swinging into the street behind her. It was just one more vehicle in the congestion.
MERCIFULLY, the traffic thinned once she left the center of town. She didn't need to consult the map. She had already committed to memory the route she needed. There was a fork in the road after she crossed a bridge. She chose the posted left branch, climbing a long hill out of the river valley in which Heathside was nestled.
Jennifer caught her breath when she crested the rise. The immediate contrast between the town that had dropped out of sight behind her and the largely unoccupied expanse of moorland that stretched away in front of her was both sudden and startling.
She found herself clutching the wheel as the little Ford was shaken by the blasts of wind that, uninterrupted by any forest or settlement, blew with ferocity over the high, open moors.
It was early March, the days still short. But even with the afternoon light beginning to ebb, hastened by the mass of racing clouds overhead, Jennifer was able to appreciate the panorama of the treeless swells that rolled off to the horizon in every direction.
The Yorkshire moors were desolate affairs in any season, but in winter like this, with the turf and heather brown and barren, they were especially bleak. But there was also a raw beauty in this wild landscape. Jennifer could see it in the broken stone walls that framed the slopes, in the becks that tumbled through the folds between the hills, and in the tough grass where the occasional, rough-coated sheep browsed.
The road was a minor one, with few travelers. That didn't worry her. Not until the rain turned into sleet, making the already wet pavement treacherous beneath her wheels.
It was then that Jennifer remembered the weather report she had heard on the car radio earlier today. A major storm was expected to blow in off the North Sea. With all that had happened back at the inn, she had forgotten about that forecast. But now, in all this remoteness, and with darkness approaching and the long road in front of her...
Turning on the radio, she tried to find a weather update. All she got was pop music.
She was so busy with the dial, while at the same time being careful how she drove, that she paid little attention to the vehicle behind her. There was no reason why another traveler shouldn't be out here. In fact, his headlights slicing through the gloom were a comfort. An assurance that, no matter how isolated the sodden terrain, she wasn't alone in this vastness.
Driven by the powerful wind, the sleet continued to sting the car, the wipers swishing across the glass working hard to keep the windshield clear. Just how bad was it going to get?
Jennifer worried about that as the winding road carried her across the endless tracts of vacant moorland. As the ice began to form on the road, she slowed her speed to avoid spinning into a ditch.
She couldn't say at what point she became concerned with the vehicle behind her. She had expected the driver to turn off on one of the side lanes at some point or that, growing impatient with her crawl, he would pass her. He did neither. And, though he kept a safe distance behind her, what had seemed a comfort began to feel like an unnerving pursuit.
Reckless or not, she tried several times to lose him by increasing her speed, but he wasn't to be shaken. That's when it struck her. He was deliberately following her.
Had he been there all along? As far back as Heathside? The light was too poor to identify his make. She had an impression of something large and dark-colored, maybe an SUV. Had an SUV tailed her out of town? There was something sinister about the possibility. "What do you want?" she muttered. "Who are you?"
But Jennifer could guess exactly who he was. The man back at the inn! If he'd grown tired of waiting for her in the lobby, or suspicious of her failure to return to the inn, and had gone out on the street to look for her and spotted her emerging from the car park...
It had to be him, which meant her flight from the inn had been for nothing. Unless...
The sleet had stopped falling. The stretch of road ahead of her looked free of any slick spots. Though it was probably useless of her to make the effort, Jennifer squeezed the pedal to the floor.
The little car leaped forward, charging down into a glen and up the slope beyond. The road curled around a bend where a terrace had been sliced out of the hillside to carry the route.
She glanced into her rearview mirror. His headlights were no longer behind her. Had it been that easy?
Slowing the car, Jennifer peered through her side window, checking the deep hollow below her. There was no sign of the SUV. He couldn't have just vanished.
Stopping the car, she backed up past a wall of gorse for a better view. That's when she saw the SUV. It had left the road and landed in a ditch with its nose angled down against an enormous boulder.
An accident. He'd had an accident!
The temptation to throw the gear into forward and race away into the gloom was very strong. But Jennifer couldn't bring herself to abandon him. What if he were injured, helpless?
Through the thickening twilight, she could just make out the door on the driver's side of the SUV. She sat there on the elevation with her engine idling, waiting for that door to open, hoping he would climb out. That he would be all right. But nothing stirred.