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Authors: Maggie Shayne

Darker Than Midnight (39 page)

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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He tried to tell himself he was jumping to conclusions, even as he gunned the ATV, pushing it to the top speeds he could without flipping it. And as he got closer, he saw the eerie yellow glow in the night sky. “God, no,” he muttered, though the sound of his plea was swallowed by the roar of the machine. “Not again.”

He came around a corner, and the nightmare became real. Like a blow to the chest, it hit him all at once. The house, his house—her house—was going up in flames.

“Cassandra!” He cried her name over and over, even as he brought the four-wheeler to a cockeyed stop on the lawn and
shut it off. He was off it and lunging toward the house when he nearly tripped over a body lying on the grass. He stopped himself and bent over it. “Dr. Jackson! Benjamin!”

He shook Cassandra's father, patting his face until the man opened his eyes and stared, blinking and apparently confused. “I know you didn't do it,” he said. “I'm sorry.”

“That doesn't matter now. Where's Cassandra? And…” River looked around as another thought assailed him. “And your wife? Where's Mariah?”

The man's face became a mask of horror, and he struggled up to his feet. “God, they must still be inside!” He started forward.

River gripped him. “Wait. Listen—”

Ben listened, and heard, River thought, what he did. The sound of a dog barking, barely audible beyond the crackling and roar of the flames. “This way,” River said, racing around to the rear of the house, with the older man following close behind. From the back lawn, River stared up at the bedroom windows, and then he saw Rex—standing with his paws on the glass, barking furiously.

“Good boy. Good boy, I'm coming, Rex.” He spun to Ben. “We need a phone. Someone needs to call for help.”

“Yes. There's a phone in my car.”

“Go for it. I can get up there. I know how.” With that, River hurried to the house's back door, braced one foot on the railing beside the steps and clambered up onto its miniature roof, then stood, inching his way to the far edge.

From there, he could reach the bedroom window, the bottom of it. He made a fist, smashed the glass, curled his hand around the inside of the frame. He jumped, holding on for all he was worth, and managed to get a second handhold. And then he strained every muscle in his body to pull himself up,
over the windowsill, glass scratching and tearing his skin all the way. But he did it. He got inside.

Smoke was filling the bedroom by now. “Cassandra!” he shouted.

Rex barked, and River managed to see the dog, crouching on the floor over something. Moving closer, River dropped to his knees, then crawled the rest of the way.

Cassandra's mother lay on the floor, overcome by smoke.

He wasted no time, but immediately slung her over his shoulder and carried her back to the window. And just as he was wondering how the hell he was going to get her out without risking them both, Benjamin appeared there, on the roof that covered the back steps. How the hell a sixty-year-old man had managed to climb up was beyond River.

“Give her to me,” Ben shouted. “Give her to me and go find Cassie!”

“You'll never reach her from there.”

“Lower her down, River. Lower her down, and swing her toward me. I can get her, I can!”

River nodded, seeing no choice but to try. Even if he had to drop Mariah to the ground from there, he didn't think she would be seriously injured. He lowered her to the floor, quickly dragged a blanket from the bed to drape over the windowsill. Then he picked her up again and eased her out through the opening, lowering her body, holding her by her wrists. Carefully he swung her toward her husband.

On the third try, Ben caught her, snapping his arms around her waist. He fell onto his knees on the porch roof, but somehow, didn't fall off.

“Can you get her down?” River called.

“Yes. Yes, I've got her. Go find Cassie!”

River left the older man to it, and turned back into the room.

Rex was at the door, barking, though his bark was grow
ing hoarse. River approached the door on hands and knees. He opened it, and crawled into the hallway with Rex at his side. “Find her, boy. Find Cassandra!”

The smoke was worse out here. The heat was suffocating, and River wasn't sure he could go on, but Rex had no such doubts. River took strength from the dog's fearlessness, and made his way down the smoke-filled hall.

His gut instinct was to search every room, but Rex made a beeline for the stairs and down them to the ground floor. River followed.

Walls of flame leaped up around them on the first floor, but the dog rushed on, picking his way through. River lost sight of Rex once, moving far slower on all fours than his dog was, but Rex quickly backtracked, licked River's face, barked twice and moved forward again.

Again, River followed. And then he found her. She was sprawled over a coffee table, face up, arched and splayed like a sacrificial offering. River wrapped his arms around her waist and tugged her to the floor. “Cassandra! Cassandra, wake up!” He smacked her cheeks, then turned and pulled her onto his back. Holding her wrists at his throat with one hand, and still kneeling, he began working his way toward a door, a window, anything.

Halfway there, he tripped over something—no, some
one.

Victoria.

She lifted her head, dragged herself up onto her knees and lashed out at him with a clawed hand, her nails raking his skin.

River jerked backward from the attack, letting Cassandra slide to the floor. “What the hell are you doing?”

Victoria was sooty, bruised, her hair in tangles—as if she'd been in a fight. Her face was a twisted grimace of insanity. “You're not taking her out of here.”

“You set this fire, didn't you? And the last one, too? It wasn't Ethan at all.”

She raised her arms in front of her, and River was startled to see a gun pointed at him.

“I blamed Ethan, and it was you,” he said. “All the time, it was you.” He put a hand to his mouth and coughed harshly. “We have to get out of here, Vicki. If we don't we'll both die.”

“Ethan's dead,” she whispered. “What do I have to live for?”

“If Ethan's dead, it's because of you, not me. And certainly not Cassandra.”

“She was sleeping with him. Just like that whore you married. God, River, are you so blind you can't see it?”

River lowered his head. “You're right about Steph. She was sleeping with him. But not Cassandra. Never Cassandra.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I know. That's all. I just know.” He looked beyond her. There was a clear path to the front door. He just needed to get past her.

Vicki looked up suddenly. “Did you hear that?”

He hadn't heard anything but the roaring fire. Then Rex lunged out of the smoke and hit her from one side with the full force of his body. He hadn't forgotten his training. He took her down hard, his jaws clamping on the wrist of her gun hand and not letting go, even when the gun went off. River lunged for the weapon, ignoring the shrieking madwoman. He got to his feet and scooped Cassandra up again. “Come on, Rex. Stand down and come!”

Rex released the woman, who cringed on the floor, sobbing and clutching her bleeding wrist. River stumbled, wheezing and choking, to the door. He got it open and staggered outside.

“There he is! He's got her!” someone yelled.

There were lights, emergency vehicles all around, and the
firefighters were pumping water onto the house. Ben Jackson surged forward, gathering Cassandra from River's arms, and handing her off to the paramedic who'd run up on his heels. Then Ben clasped River's shoulder. “Come on, son. Get away from the house, it's not safe.”

Frankie shouted for Rex, and he ran to her, and to safety. “Check on my dog, Ben,” River said. “I have to go back in. Victoria Melrose is still in there.”

“River—don't—”

“I have to. I know right where she is, I can get her out.”

And with that, River turned and ran back into the burning house.

CHAPTER 24

J
ax opened her eyes to chaos.

She was lying on the ground outside the burning house, with men bending over her, one of them holding an oxygen mask to her face. But she struggled to sit up, in spite of them, only to see River racing back into what looked like the jaws of hell.

She ripped the mask from her face, gripping the shoulder of a nearby firefighter to pull herself to her feet.

“Stay down, Lieuten—”

“Let go of me!” She jerked free of the restraining hands and managed two steps forward before she found her path blocked. Her mother stood on wobbly legs, a blanket around her shoulders. Her father was beside her, holding Mariah upright. Beth was there, and Joshua, looking torn. He'd be the last guy to stop her from going after River. He understood. Dawn was there, too, but she wasn't looking at Jax. She was staring back toward the house, where firefighters pumped torrents onto the front of the place, trying to give River a way back out. Trying to get inside, to go after him.

“Why did he go back in there?” Jax cried. “God, why?”

“He said Victoria was inside,” Benjamin said, speaking slowly, turning his gaze back toward the house. “Said he knew right where she was. He ran back in there before I could stop him.”

Dawn turned from the fire to face Jax. “Victoria's already dead.”

Frowning at the girl, Jax asked, “How can you know that?”

“I just do.”

She turned to the house again. They all did. And moments dragged like hours. “He's not coming back out,” Jax whispered. “Dad, he's not coming back out.”

“I think he's still alive, though,” Dawn said.

“This isn't going to happen,” Ben Jackson said slowly. “Not again. Not this time.” He turned and started toward the house.

Jax lurched forward and grabbed him. “What are you—”

“I'm just going around back. Maybe he got out that way. Wait here, hon. Take care of your mother.”

And then he ran off like a man half his age. He spoke to firefighters as he moved around the house. Jax heard them telling him to stay a safe distance back, heard him telling the men the same thing he'd told her. And it was only when he was out of sight that it hit her what he had meant by what he'd said.

This isn't going to happen. Not again.

He was talking about Dunkirk. He was talking about an innocent man paying the ultimate price for something he didn't do. The way River might, if he were to die in that fire.

“He's going in after him,” she whispered.

“What?” Beth asked.

“He's going inside. He's going—Dad, wait!” Jax ran around the burning house, as the heat seared her skin. She followed the path her father had taken, knowing the others were on her heels. “Dad! Dad, don't do this!”

But when she reached the back door, it stood open, flames licking around the frame, and her father was nowhere in sight.

She lurched toward the door, and her mother gripped her hard. “Let him be, Cassie.”

“Mom, don't—”

“Don't you understand? He has to—”

Before she even finished, Benjamin appeared in the back doorway, River at his side, their arms locked around one another's shoulders, their feet dragging. They stumbled down the back steps, landing on the ground. Josh and Bryan raced to them, each gripping one man and helping him to his feet, supporting them as they walked away from the smoke and heat.

When they were a safe distance from the fire, the men stopped. Jax ran to River, wrapped her arms around him. “You're all right.”

He hugged her hard. “I wouldn't have been, if not for your dad.” River turned toward Ben. Jax did, too, just in time to see him clutching his chest and sinking to his knees.

Jax dropped to the ground beside him, turning to shout, “Bryan, run around front. Get some paramedics out here.”

“On it,” he said, racing out of sight.

“Dad?” Jax asked, clutching her father. “Dad, tell me what you're feeling.”

“Redeemed,” he whispered.

“What?”

“I love you, Cassie. But I need you to back off now, give me a minute with your mother.”

She didn't like his color. Didn't like the short, shallow way he was breathing. But from the look on his face, he wasn't panicking, so maybe it wasn't as bad as she feared. Maybe this was just minor. A little angina or the effects of the smoke, or something.

River put his arm around her shoulders and drew her back a few steps, and Mariah sank to the ground beside Ben. She held him in her arms, his head resting against her neck, and they spoke in whispers. Beth and Josh stood a few feet away, arm in arm.

Dawn sat on the ground near a pine tree, tears streaming down her face.

Within a minute, Bryan came racing back, paramedics keeping pace beside him with their heavy boxes of medical gear.

“Ma'am,” one said to Mariah. “Ma'am, please, we need you to move aside so we can help him.”

Mariah looked up from where she sat on the ground, and she smiled weakly through tears. Gently, she eased Ben backward, until he was lying down. And Jax caught her breath when she saw that her father's eyes were closed.

“He's gone,” Mariah whispered, as she got to her feet. Her knees buckled, and River quickly caught her in the solid embrace of his arms, held her upright, helped her walk a few steps away to give the medics room to work.

One of the medics said he wasn't getting a pulse. They started CPR.

Jax took a trembling step backward, alone, her eyes wide and fixed on the scene in front of her, and then a warm hand closed around hers. She looked up, expecting to see River, except that he was still holding her mother, speaking softly to her, and this hand was small and tender.

Dawn.

“It's okay,” Dawn said softly. “He's okay.”

“He's not, Dawn. Look at him, he's not okay.”

Dawn stepped in front of her, blocking her view of her father's body on the ground, jerking with the frantic efforts of the paramedics. “I
am
looking at him,” Dawn said. “He's not there, where you're looking. He's right here, standing next to you. And your sister's with him. Carrie. God, she's so pretty.”

Jax felt her eyes widen. “Dawnie, what are you—”

“I can see them,” she said. “I could see Stephanie Corbett. She led me to you and River in the cabin. And she told me your house was on fire before I ever got here.” Dawn shrugged. “I can't explain it all now, Jax. I don't know if I even understand it myself. But when my father died, just before he passed, he took my hand. And I
felt
it. Whatever it was he had, he—he gave it to me.”

“Dawn?”

“God, this is all like some kind of nightmare flashback,” Dawn said softly. “Remember? When it was
my
father lying there on the ground? Remember, Jax?”

“I remember.”

Dawn nodded, lifted her other hand, as if to take someone else's—but there was no one there. “Your father says he took a life a long time ago. He says that he's been in hell ever since, knowing he could never make it right. But tonight, he thinks maybe he did. He saved an innocent life. Restored the balance. He's more at peace than he's been since that day in the courtroom when he shot Jeffrey Allen Dunkirk.”

The medics were electrocuting her father now. Jax moved slightly to the side so she could keep watch. Dawn wasn't making any sense—but she was saying things she couldn't possibly know about. Beth hadn't known. No one besides Jax and her own mother had known about her father's past.

“He's with Carrie,” Dawn said. “She says she loves you. And your father says River is a good man—a keeper, he says.”

The medics were getting no response. They were still trying, but her father wasn't reacting. And then an ambulance trundled over the lawn, and they were loading him into it.

“I want to ride along,” Mariah said.

Jax turned to see River help her mother into the ambulance, as attentive and gentle with her as she'd ever seen him be with anyone. He watched it drive out of sight, then joined Jax where she stood holding Dawn's hand.

“I'm so sorry,” he whispered, sliding his arm around Jax, holding her close to his side.

“It wasn't your fault,” Dawn said. “You were part of a bigger plan. All this happened for a reason. And Dr. Jackson is okay now. He really is, I wish you could see how he looks.
Like a thousand pounds has been lifted from his shoulders. He's okay.” She met Jax's eyes. “They all are.”

* * *

Three days later, Beth and Josh had gone to Dr. Benjamin Jackson's funeral. The inn was empty of everyone, except for Bryan. And the dead. And Dawn desperately needed for them to go, too. All of them.

Bryan wasn't touching her. Normally at a time like this he would have pulled her into his arms, but he knew that things had changed between them. He knew it—he just didn't understand why. He couldn't possibly understand.

“Everything's going to be okay, you know,” he told her. They stood near the front door. They were supposed to be heading over to join Beth and Josh at the cemetery soon. But Dawn wasn't going.

She wanted to ask Bryan how everything was supposed to be okay when
she
was no longer okay. But she knew he couldn't answer that. No one could.

“Could you…just go on without me, Bry? I'm not feeling so great. I think I'll lie down for a while.”

“I'll stay then.”

She turned away from him, unable to meet his eyes and lie to him. “To be honest, everyone's been hovering lately—since the fire—and it's starting to get to me. I need some time to myself.”

He gripped her shoulders and spun her around to face him. “Dawn, will you talk to me? You've locked yourself away behind a freaking brick wall and I don't know how to knock it down.”

“You
can't
knock it down.” Trembling, she lifted a hand, brushed it through his hair. “I've just…I've got some things I need to work through. That's all.”

“I could help—if you'd only let me.”

Smiling softly, she leaned closer, brushed her lips over his.
When he closed his arms around her and kissed her passionately, she didn't stop him. She even kissed him back. When he lifted his head, he said, “I love you, Dawn. You know that, don't you?”

“I know. I just…need some time.”

He closed his eyes, lowered his head, sighed. “Okay. Whatever you need. Just…just come to me when you're ready. I'll always be there for you. Always.”

She nodded, and held his eyes for so long she almost thought he understood just what a long wait that might be. And then he finally turned and left.

Dawn waited until she was sure he was gone. Then she hurried up the stairs to her room and grabbed the duffel bag and the backpack that held everything she needed. She paused for just a moment to stare at the ghosts, the silent ghosts hovering everywhere. Not the same ones she knew. This was a whole new batch, strangers to her, all of them reaching out to her, trying to speak to her.

And closer to her than any of them stood Mordecai. Her father.

She met his eyes, shook her head. “I don't want this anymore. I had to help Jax, but now it's over.”

“It's your calling, Sunny. Dawn. You have to work to do.”

“No. I'm through with it.”

“You saved your friend's life.”

“And now it's over.”

“How can you refuse me? I'm a part of you. You can't run away from who you are,” her father promised her.

“We'll see just how far I
can
run away,” she said. She slammed her bedroom door on him, and hurried down the stairs. She tugged the envelopes from her bag. One had Beth's name on the front, the other, Bryan's. There was a third, addressed to her adoptive parents, Julie and Sean, but that would have to be mailed. She left the two envelopes on the coffee
table, and then she went outside to her Jeep. Tossing her bags into the back, she got into the driver's seat, started the engine, shifted into gear and drove away.

* * *

He's okay. They all are.

Jax thought of those words of Dawn's when she stood at the graveside, in the prettiest cemetery she'd ever seen. Her mother stood between Jax and River, clinging to them both, leaning on them. Her heart was broken, and yet, incredibly, she was at peace.

Jax wasn't surprised. She'd seen Dawn talking with her mother several times since the fire. She didn't know if Dawn's “gift” was for real or not. She only knew it had helped her get through losing her father. It had helped her in a way not much else could have, she thought. And she wasn't certain whether Dawn had told anyone else what was going on or not.

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
2.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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