Authors: Maggie Shayne
She nodded. “If the bleeding starts againâ”
“I'll cinch it up tighter. Don't worry. We're gonna need to clean the car. If they checkâ”
“They're not going to have a reason in the world to suspect me, River. No one's going to check my car. Unless you keep talking until the cops get here and spot it.”
She started to straighten, but River caught her head in his hands, pulled her close and pressed a kiss to her mouth.
When he let her go again, he said, “Thanks for having my back.”
“Yeah. Just get the hell out of here, will you?”
He nodded. She backed out of the car and closed his door, watched as he pulled it into motion and headed down the dirt road, away from the main one. He probably knew a shortcut or alternate route that would avoid the cops.
Hell, the cops.
She turned and ran back the way she had come, scanning the roadside until she spotted a limb she could reach without leaving tracks in the snow, one drooping from a pine tree. She snapped it off, and kept running, back to where she'd found
River lying, and then she took her time, did her best to wipe out the marks her knees had made, and a few of her footprints in the snow, while leaving one set of her own, and all of River's pretty much alone. It was tough, in the dark, but her eyes had adjusted by now. She thought she was seeing everything. She heard sirens, and knew she'd run out of time.
She turned and walked through the snow back to the paved part of the driveway, tossing the branch under the first tree she saw, then hauled out her shield, and kept the gun tucked out of sight. As soon as the cars came howling into the drive, she held up her ID, letting their headlights catch it in their glare.
The cars stopped, officers got out, several coming toward her at once.
“Jackson,” she said. “Up from Syracuse, New York.”
“Ryder,” the cop in the lead said, extending a hand. “What have you got?”
She shook his hand, wondering belatedly whether she had blood on hers. She didn't think so. “Dr. Melrose and I walked in on an intruder at approximatelyâ” she glanced at her watch “â21:45. He was in the denâfirst floor, rear of the house. He fled, exiting through that door thereâ” she pointed as she spoke. “Crossed the back lawn. Melrose had a freaking firearm. Took a shot at him as he fled.” She shook her head.
“He have a license for it?” Ryder asked.
“I have no doubt. But using it was unnecessary. I disarmed him, sent him to the house to call you all, and headed out here to investigate.”
“He hit the prowler?”
She nodded, then led them straight to the bloodstained snow where River had been lying, and pointed. Ryder pulled out a flashlight and aimed its beam at the snow. “He went down, here, for a minute. Maybe two. Then took off again,” Jax explained. “I've searched the area. No sign of him. I think he's long gone.”
Ryder nodded, turned to his men. “Fan out, search the
area.” Then he returned his attention to her again, his light moving with his eyes, until she shielded her own. “You've got a little blood on you.”
She followed the light, saw the blood on her blouse, swallowed hard. “I didn't have a light. Had to get pretty close to that spot to see if it was blood. I'm surprised I didn't smear more on me than that.”
He nodded. “Okay. You get a look at the perp? See if he had a car somewhere?”
She shook her head. “No. It was too dark and then he was gone. I didn't hear any vehicle, though. My guess is he's still on foot.” Better to keep them here, searching the area, and give River plenty of time to get safely away.
Ethan was hurrying from the house now, down the driveway to where she stood. “Thank God,” he said, taking in the entire situation with a swift glance. “Did you find him?”
“Not yet,” Ryder said.
“He's hit, though.”
Ethan blinked as if he'd been stunned by Jax's words. He met her eyes and it was clear he knew he had just shot his best friend. “I didn't meanâ” he began.
“No one ever does,” she snapped. “Listen, I need to get my ass home, and I've got no wheels here.”
“I can drive youâ” Ethan began.
“We need to get a statement from you, Dr. Melrose.”
“Of course.” He looked at Jax again. “You can take my car. I have the SUV, anyway.”
She nodded. “Walk me back? They can wait five minutes for that statement.”
He frowned, but nodded, and she started back toward the house. She remained several steps ahead of him, so that he had to run to catch up, and even then she kept her brisk pace unchanged. “So why'd you do it, Ethan?”
“We both know your burglar had to be River.” She stopped abruptly, turned and stared him in the eye. “So tell me, why did you shoot the man you keep telling me was the best friend you ever had? The man you were close to tears about earlier? Why did you try to shoot him in the back, Ethan?”
He frowned deeply, and for a moment she thought he would deny that was what he had done, but he didn't. He faced her. “I didn't think,” he blurted. “Jesus, you don't know what went through me after I pulled that trigger and realized it might be River running from the house. I justâI just reacted, that's all.”
“You shoot at fleeing prowlers so often it's become a reflex action, huh?”
“Don't make it sound like that, Jax. If it had hit me sooner that it might be River I never would haveâ”
“Might be River? Ethan, you know damn well it was River. You just told me no more than two hours ago you were certain River was the one who'd broken into your office today. So who else would break into your home a few hours later? Who else could it have possibly been?”
“I'm a lousy shot!” he exclaimed. “I probably wouldn't even have hit him if you hadn't slammed into me like that.”
“Yeah, or maybe you'd have killed him.”
He spun away from her, let his head fall forward as if his neck had turned to water, and pushed his hands through his hair. “Did you see him? Is he all right?”
“If I'd seen him, he'd be on his way to a hospital, and in custody,” she said, and she didn't even feel guilty about the bald-faced lie. It was getting easier and easier to lie for River. “But there is a pretty good size patch of bloodstained snow over there,” she stated, and when he turned, looking horrified, she nodded toward where River had fallen. “So we know you at least wounded him. Nice job, Ethan. That's the work of a true friend, right there.”
“I told you, I wasn't thinking. God, I would never deliberately shoot River.”
“Wouldn't you?” she asked. “Because you know, it occurs to me that someone seems to want him dead. Someone hired that goon at the hospital, pulled strings to get him in there despite his record. Maybe even delayed the mandatory background check. River told you he'd been attacked and I'm beginning to think that wasn't a delusion, after all. And now you've shot him for no good reason whatsoever.”
Ethan was silent for a long moment, studying her.
“Makes you wonder,” she said. “You got the keys or what?”
He nodded, tugged them from a pocket and slapped them into her hand. “I'm not the one trying to kill River, Jax. I swear to you. I'm not. I thought I aimed low and to the left. I really did. I just wanted him to stop running, end this insanity once and for all.”
She studied his eyes, watching for signs of deception. It occurred to her that the bullet had been low and to the left, just not far enough. Then again, he wasn't an experienced marksman. And she
knocked him off balance.
She pursed her lips, sighed and lowered her head. “I'm sorry if I was rough on you. I just had to be sure.”
“And now you are?”
She lifted her head again, put a smile on her face. “More than I was. Thanks for the loaner. I'll take good care of it and get it right back to you, okay?”
He nodded. “Before all thisâI mean, it didn't end well, Jax, but I enjoyed having dinner with you.” He reached out as he said it, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
She covered his hand with hers. “Me, too,” she said. “Maybe next time we can invite Victoria along. I'd really like to meet her.”
He stiffened just a little at the reminder of his wife. Jax knew he hadn't asked her out with the intent of hitting on her.
It had been about the case, about River. She believed that. But that had changed, just for a moment, just now. Whether he'd intended it or notâshe'd felt it.
* * *
Dawn woke from a sound sleep to see the woman standing at the foot of her bed, staring at her.
She sat up fast, startled. “What theâ” But then the fear faded, because the woman was the same one she'd been seeing for days now. Maybe the shock was wearing off. She didn't look at all menacing. Just rather lost, and maybe frightened. Dawn softened her voice, squared her shoulders. She was tired of ignoring them and demanding they go away. It wasn't working, anyway. Maybe she should try to find out what the hell they wanted from her.
Swallowing her fear, she forced words to her lips, but they came out shaky. “Who are you?”
The woman didn't speak. She just stood there, staring.
God, what was the point of her showing up all the time if she wasn't going to say anything? “You want something from me, right?”
The woman nodded. The movement revealed the scarred and sooty side of her face, and it almost made Dawn change her mind about trying to communicate. Goose bumps rose on her skin and not just from the deathly chill. She was scared.
“Well, if you want something, you're going have to tell me what it is.”
The woman opened her mouth and moved her lips, though Dawn couldn't hear a word. She flung back her covers and got out of bed, but didn't move any closer. Something inside was stirring. She wanted to know what the woman was trying so hard to say.
“I'm sorry, I can't hear you.” She touched her own ears and shook her head in case the woman couldn't hear her, either. Dawn shivered a little as the woman seemed to grow more ag
itated. Her eyes widened, the veins in her neck standing out as she moved her mouth more urgently, spewing forth a stream of words that were soundless, and yet emphatic.
Dawn could almost hear them now, whispers reaching her, but nothing more. She stepped closer, forgetting her fear for an instant as she stretched out a hand. “Calm down. Take it easy. It'll be all right, justâ”
She stopped speaking then, because she had lowered her hand to the woman's shoulder, a gesture of comfort, and when her eyes shifted to her hand so she could correct her aim, she saw itâshe
itâmove right through the woman.
Of course it did. It wasn't a surprise, it was justâ¦surreal. And disorienting. It made her stomach heave and her head spin. Her body turned to ice in the instant before the woman simply opened her mouth as wide as she could and screamed. And even though Dawn didn't hear the scream with her ears, she
it. It reverberated through every part of her body. She felt it in her chest and in her teeth, the way you felt the music at a Godsmack concertâwould feel it even if you were stone-deaf. It went on and on, until she thought her head would split, and she pressed her hands to her ears and closed her eyes in self-defense.
It stopped. The sensation stopped all at once. She lifted her head, opened her eyes, lowered her hands.
The woman was gone.
Dawn sank onto the bed, blinking her wide eyes and trying to keep her heart from pounding a hole through her chest. “I don't want this,” she whispered. “God, I don't want this. If I refuse it, it has to go away, doesn't it? It has to stop. If I just refuse to help them they'll stop coming. So I won't.” She lifted her head, looked around the room at the emptiness. “I won't help you, do you hear me? I won't. I
ax pulled the Mercedes into the driveway beside her own car, and even remembered to hit the lock button on the key ring when she got out and hurried around the luxury vehicle. She slowed her pace as she reached her Taurus, leaning over and peering through the driver's side window.
River was there, slumped over the steering wheel. Hell. The feeling of fear that hit her like a tidal wave almost put her on her knees. And maybe that was when she knew that all her talk about casual sex, and him not meaning a thing to her, was bullshit.
She opened the door and gripped him by the nape. “Hey. Come on, wake up. Talk to me, River.”
His eyes fluttered, but didn't stay open. He was still alive. Thank God.
“Come on.” She smacked his cheek. “Come on, you've got to shove over, at least. Lemme in the damn car.”
Again his eyes opened, and he lifted his head this time. She knew he understood her, because he braced his good leg on the floor and pushed himself over the console and into the passenger side. His entire face contorted with pain. Jax leaned in, tried to help him move. He got everything over except his legs. She saw that the belt he'd used as a tourniquet had loos
ened, and fresh blood gleamed from his jeans, which were already soaked in it.
She helped him ease his good leg over, and then lifted the wounded one and slid herself into the seat. Then she lowered the injured leg onto her lap. “Just leave it,” she said, twisting the key, pulling the door closed. “Keeping it elevated is a good idea, don't you think?”
“Mmm.” He leaned back on the door. She hit the lock button so he wouldn't fall out. “No hospital,” he muttered, eyes closed, lips barely parting enough to let vowels escape between consonants.
“Just one,” she said. “But don't worry. You'll be the only human patient in the place.”
He frowned, but then his brows relaxed. “You're taking me to the vet.”
She felt the car move when something hit it in the side, and she jumped, but it was only Rex standing with his paws on her window. “How did he get out?”
“He was throwing such a fit when he heard me pull in,” River said.
She looked at him, realized the house key was on the ring with her car key. “If you got that far, River, why on earth didn't you just wait for me inside?”
He took a breath, as if talking was a real effort. “Didn't want to get blood all over the house.”
He hadn't been being neat, but careful. She got out, mindful of River's leg, and opened the back door. Rex leaped inside and sat up on the back seat as if he were a well-raised child. Jax closed the door and returned to her former spot, then backed the car out and headed toward the Blackberry-Pinedale Animal Hospital.
As she drove, she picked up her cell phone and punched in her dad's number. When he answered, she said, “Hi, Dad.
Listen, I'm on my way to the clinic. Can you meet me there? It's an emergency.”
“Oh, no,” her father said. “Is it Rex orâ?”
“No, it's the other stray. Wound to the leg,” she said, cutting him off. She didn't think anyone was monitoring her calls, but it paid to be careful. “He's lost a lot of blood. I'll be there in ten minutes, Dad.”
“I'll be ready and waiting, hon. Try not to worry. You putting pressure on the wound?”
“Yeah, and I have it elevated.”
“Put the heat on in the car. Keep him warm. I'll see you in ten minutes.”
She nodded and hit the cutoff button, then cranked up the heat. “Hang in there, River. You're going to be okay.”
He didn't answer, and when she looked at him, she realized he'd lost consciousness. Damn. Rex leaned over the seat and licked River's face, whining a little. Jax pressed down harder on the accelerator.
When she pulled up to the door of the clinic and got out, her father came hurrying toward the car. “I'll help you get him in,” he said.
“That's good, 'cause I'm gonna need it.”
Her father opened the back door and Rex jumped out and bunted him in the thigh, demanding a pat on the head. “I thought you said it wasn't Rex.”
She nodded toward River, who lay slumped in the car.
Her father swore. Her father
“He's been shot, Dad. I can't take him to a hospital, or he'll end up in custody, and if that happens he'll be dead.”
Her father looked her in the eye. “If I'm caught treating a human being, honey, Iâ”
“I know, Dad. I know it's asking a lot. But his life depends on it. If not I wouldn't even ask.”
He leaned into the car, looked at the blood-soaked jeans, then backed out and nodded. “Let's get him inside.”
* * *
When River opened his eyes, there was a dog licking his face. He blinked the room into focus. Orange walls, textured paint, white cabinets. He was lying on a table with a sheet over him, and he didn't think he had any pants on.
He felt weak as he lifted the sheet and his head at the same time. No, he definitely didn't have any pants on. Shorts. A T-shirt, and a thick bandage around his thigh.
“Easy, River. You're going to be all right. Dad got the bullet out.”
He lifted his brows, turned to see Jax standing on one side of his makeshift bed, her father on the other. “Thank you, Ben. I don't imagine this was without risk for you, was it?”
Ben smiled, shrugged. “Only if I get caught. If anyone asks, it was Rex here who had the surgery. He came home from the woods with a bullet in his leg. Probably a hunter with a lousy aim. Who knows? I fixed him up, and set him up with some prophylactic antibiotics.” He picked up a fat brown bottle and shook it. “Stop the others. These are stronger. One every eight hours for ten days. Rex.”
River nodded slowly. “I don't know how I'm ever going to manage payback for this one, Doc.”
“Your dog's shots are all up-to-date now, too,” Dr. Jackson said. “I figured as long as he was here.” He looked at the dog, then at his daughter. “Get him licensed, for heaven's sake.”
“Rex or River?”
River groaned at the bad joke.
Ben only sighed. “Stay off the leg for a while. I don't have any crutches here, naturally.”
“Naturally,” River said.
“But you can pick up a pair at any drugstore. You'll need them or at least a cane, just for a few days.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Jax said.
Ben nodded, hugged his daughter, then said, “Let's get you home, River.”
“I'm all for that.” He started to get up, but both Jax and her father hurried to either side of him, each pulling one of his arms around their shoulders. They barely let him support an ounce of his own weight as they helped him to the back door, and through it to where the car waited.
He got into the back seat, leg extended. The dog got to ride in the front, sitting up on the passenger seat, looking as if he thought he'd just been promoted to human.
Cassandra's father hurried back inside. Lights went off one by one as the car rolled away, leaving the clinic.
* * *
Later that night, Jax had River installed on the sofa, a cup of tea on the coffee table beside him, a lamp glowing nearby. He was propped up on pillows, with his leg elevated, and his best friend's appointment book open in front of him, and as he perused the entries, he began to see a pattern.
Cassandra walked in with a steaming bowl of soup. The woman seemed to think soup was good for just about everything. Not that he minded. Soup
good. Especially hers. She tended to dress it up with sprinkles of grated cheese, extra seasonings and croutons.
“Look at this,” he said, as she set the soup on the table. “Most of these are dates when Stephanie had her appointments with Ethan. Some I knew about, some I didn't. This one was on my birthday.”
“Does it note the time of day for any of them?” Jax took the book from him, looked at the dates.
“Two. It was always two. That's how I remember. Tuesdays and Thursdays at two was her schedule for her therapy.
But that's not what it says in Ethan's date book. Look at his notations for those same datesâthat same time.”
“Harrington, 2:00 p.m.,” she read. Then she flipped pages, and found the next date. “Same thing hereâ¦and here.” She looked up from the date book. “What or who is Harrington?”
“I don't know.”
“Well, we can start in the phone book. Check that name in all the local towns, see if we find any clues.”
He nodded. “Good idea. You have phone books?”
“Are you kidding? My mother thinks of everything.” She continued flipping through the date book, stopping at the back cover, pulling out a small card that had been tucked into the flap there. “But we don't need them.” She handed him the card.
He read it. “Harrington Inn: Vermont's Most Romantic Hideaway.”
It hit him like a sledgehammer. He thought he sucked in a sharp breath, and then he had to try to suck in another, because for a moment he wasn't getting any air.
“We don't know anything for sure,” Cassandra said. “Not yet.”
But he did. He felt it right down in his gut. Ethan didn't have any file, any medical records on Stephanie, even though he did on every other patient. Which meant she had never
a patient. All her appointment dates had been spent at that inn. With him.
River closed his eyes against the rush of pain.
And then Jax touched him and he breathed again.
* * *
Jax made herself a bowl of soup, sat beside River to eat it while they watched a little late-night TV, which she'd turned on to distract him from the thoughts that must be torturing him. It was looking more and more as if his wife had betrayed him with his best friend. God, he must be in hell.
“So it's decided then,” Jax said. They'd finished eating, and
she'd carried the bowls into the kitchen and rinsed them. When she came back, he'd turned the television off. He needed to sleep. “We visit the Harrington in the morning.”
“We?” he asked. “You don't have to go into the station in the morning?”
“It's Saturday. Frankie told me to take weekends off.” She smiled, remembering. “As I recall, her exact words were, âBest take the weekends off for now, girl. You accept this job, they'll probably be the last ones you ever have to yourself.'”
Jax looked at River, still smiling, but he wasn't. His eyes had turned serious. “If they find out you've been helping me, accepting the job might not even be an option anymore.”
“Then it was never meant to be,” she said, but she kept her eyes averted. She was growing fond of this stupid little town. And that dumb-ass little police department.
“I know you want the job, Cassandra,” River said softly. “You don't have to pretend you don't care.”
“It's not important. Not in the scheme of things. I can get a job anywhere.” She met his eyes, but she wasn't fooling him. They both knew it was a lie. “You've only got one life, River, and we can't blow our shot at saving it just to pad my chances at landing a job.”
“Even if it is your dream job?”
She sent him a look. “Stop it.”
“I'm really sorry, you know. I never meant to drag you into any of this.”
“You didn't drag me anywhere. Except out of a frozen pond.”
He sighed and shifted position on the sofa. “I wish I could undo it.”
“What? Pulling me out of the pond?” She set a throw pillow on the coffee table. Then she crouched on the floor and slid her hands around his calf, lifted his leg and rested it on the pillow.
“Getting you involved in my mess. It's dangerous, Cassandra, and if anything happens to youâ”
“Nothing's going to happen to me.”
“I'd leave if I thought it would help.”
“I wouldn't let you.”
“You wouldn't stop me.” He held her eyes. His were so intense they almost made her squirm. She didn't like that kind of intensity in a man's eyesânot when they were looking at her. It wasn't good. She told herself that. But herself wasn't listening. She felt warm all over when he looked at her that way. And she wanted him. Every time she got close to this man, she wanted him.
“But at this point,” he added, “I think it's too late. I think whoever burned that storage unit and broke in here the other night knows you're helping me. And that puts you at risk.”
She shrugged. “So you're not gonna leave because you want to stick around and play the hero? Look out for me?”
He made a face. “Yeah, I know. You're more likely to do that for me than I am for you, but a guy has to have his delusions.”
She nodded. “How's the leg?”
“Hurts like hell. But I'll be all right.”