Authors: Jenna Mills
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
The broken cry shattered the silence of the night. He awoke abruptly, heart hammering, adrenaline surging. Disoriented, he sat upright on the sofa and blinked against the grainy dryness of his eyes, tried to focus. The cabin was dark, shadows blurring detail. Nothing moved save for the orgylike frenzy of snowflakes outside the window.
A dream, he told himself. Just another nightmare. They were stronger here in the cabin, where memories crowded in from every direction like ghosts in a desecrated cemetery.
He was a fool to keep coming back.
“D-don’t kill him!”
This time there was no mistake. He was on his feet in a heartbeat, running across the cold wood floor toward the hallway. She didn’t belong here.
But the snowstorm had turned vicious, rendering the roads too treacherous for driving.
“S-stay away! Stay away from me!”
The pain in the voice he’d never forgotten, despite the passing of six long years’ pierced deep.
“Don’t touch me…”
He reached the closed door at a dead run, knew it was locked before he tried the knob. He pulled back, then rammed his body against the wood, crashed inside the room.
The sight greeting him almost sent him to his knees. The need to protect, to comfort, reared up from somewhere dark and forgotten and sent him toward the bed, where she fought the tangled sheets, lost in a nightmare he knew too well.
He reached the bed and pulled her to his body, holding her against his chest. “It’s just a dream,” he assured roughly, running his hands along her back. She was thinner than he remembered. And she was trembling. “Just a dream.”
Her arms twined around his waist, her soft palms stinging like ice against his bare back. “S-so real,” she murmured as he held her, rocked her. “Just like before.”
“It’s this place,” he reasoned, trying to ignore the feel of her soft breasts pressed against his chest. “Too many memories.”
He pulled back to look at her and felt something deep inside splinter. Her sable hair was tangled, her devastated eyes an impossible shade of arctic blue, her skin like ice, the coral of her lips practically translucent. His threadbare black and blue flannel shirt had slipped over one shoulder, baring the curve he’d once loved to skim his mouth along.
A long time ago.
In the years since then, he’d lived without her. He hadn’t touched her, seen her, talked to her for six long years. She’d come to him only during the long, dark hours of the night, when his defenses lay in tatters and desire made him weak.
He’d always felt things intensely, passionately. He’d never been able to walk away from a fight. Or from her.
Except when she told him to go, to never come back.
Clenching his jaw, he reached for the comforter and draped it around her shoulders. “You should be fine now. I’ll be in the other room if you need me.”
She reached for him, curled cool fingers around his wrist. “Don’t go.”
He went very still. “You don’t know what—”
“I want to be warm again,” she said, lifting her eyes to his They were huge, dark. “Is that so very wrong?”
A hard sound broke from his throat. In some hazy corner of his mind, he knew it was a mistake even as he reached for her. It was like throwing a lit match into a pile of dried leaves and expecting nothing to happen.
too much emotion burned inside him. Too much need. That had always been the problem. He’d never been able to care about nasty things like consequences.
She didn’t seem to care, either. She reached for him, pulled him to her.
“You’re real,” she murmured against his chest. “I never thought…”
Her words trickled off, but he didn’t need to hear them. He knew. God help him, he knew. And he could no more stop touching her, wanting her, than he could change the past. Make it better. Write a new ending.
“Neither did I,” he said hoarsely.
Outside, the temperature hovered just below freezing, but inside, the fire licking at the grate crackled and sizzled, filling the cabin with the scent of burning pine and times long past But never forgotten. Memories hovered everywhere, slipping around him and slicing through him, seducing even as they destroyed. The joy and the desperation, the smiles and the laughter, the tears. The cold, hard truth.
Against his chest he felt the moisture, and knew that she was remembering, too. He pulled back to wipe the silent tears away, but instead of swiping a thumb beneath her eyes, he put his mouth there. Very gently, he kissed away her pain, though he could do nothing about the emotion stinging his own eyes. He could only skim his mouth along her cheekbone, the line of her jaw, finally finding her lips.
The onslaught of sensation stabbed deep. She tasted of regret and longing, tomorrows that never came. Of hope and possibility, dreams that never died. She tasted of the hot chocolate he’d made shortly before
The first she’d given him in almost nine years.
Now her mouth moved against his with the same hunger, the same urgency, that drove him. And when at last she pulled back and lifted her eyes, he saw the glaze of mindless passion that had haunted him for a seeming eternity.
“I … forgot,” she whispered.
He pushed up on one arm. “Forgot what?”
“What it’s like when you touch me, how everything else just … fades to the background.”
He told himself to quit touching her. Walk away, close the door. And again, he wished he was a different man, the kind who couldn’t be lured into stepping off the side of a cliff.
“It’s been so long…” Her voice was soft, distant. Almost pained. “Did you forget, too?”
Yes was the smart answer.
“Then help me remember,” she murmured, tugging him toward her. “Help me remember what I’ve forgotten.”
That was all it took. He returned his mouth to hers, and she came alive in his arms, touching him, running her hands along his body like a benediction of cool spring water. Everywhere she touched, he burned. Wanting to touch her, too, all of her, he lifted a hand to the buttons, but his fingers were too big, too impatient. He pulled the fabric, sent the buttons popping.
And then there she was. Through the flickering light of the fire, he drank in the sight of her sprawled against the flannel sheets. Her skin was flawless, almost shimmering. Her breasts could make a grown man weep.
And her smile. Dear God, her smile. He
forgotten. It had been the only way to stay sane.
“Are you sure?” he somehow managed to ask.
She answered not with words, but by skimming a hand down his chest, along his abdomen to his waistband. There she tugged.
On a low groan, he kicked off the ratty sweatpants. He told himself to go slow, to linger and savor, but the second the scrap of pink silk no longer separated them, she curled her legs around his and restlessly tilted her hips. And restraint shattered. He heard her name tear from his throat as he pushed inside, pushed home, nearly blinded by the rush of heat and pleasure. She was tight, almost virginal. But he knew this wasn’t her first time. He’d taken care of that nine years before. And then the marriage—
“Hurt her, and I’ll kill you.”
Six years hadn’t lessened the punch of the vow he’d made to his cousin that starkly cold January morning, nor the emotion behind it, but as she twisted in his arms, murder was the last thing on his mind. He destroyed the memory, refusing to grant power to the past. It was over. Done. Meaningless. She was here now, gazing up at him with untold longing in the blue of her eyes. That was all that mattered.
Need took over, the raw, soul shattering kind that could send a strong man to an early grave. It burned and seared, demanded. He wanted to take away the pain, the sorrow. To prove once and for all that fire didn’t always burn.
Past and present collided, melded, their bodies remembering what time couldn’t fully erase. They moved together as one. She cried out when he brought her to the edge, a distorted gasp from deep within her throat. He answered, twining his fingers with hers and tumbling over after her.
Stranded there in the mountains, surrounded by a forest of the tallest, most beautiful old-growth pines in all of Oregon, the real world seemed a distant entity, a faraway place that didn’t matter, couldn’t harm.
* * *
In the hazy light of early morning, he awoke alone.
She was gone. He didn’t need to leave the bed to know that. She’d been gone a long, long time. Years. Many of them. A snowstorm and a nightmare couldn’t change that.
On a low oath, he ripped the tangled covers from his body and surged to his feet, crossed the braided rug to stand at the window. The ending never changed, not in real life, not in his dreams. No matter how hot the fire raged, in the end, only ashes remained. And no matter how beautiful the snowfall that had temporarily transformed the mountainside into a winter wonderland, it always, always faded into a cold, relentless drizzle.
A snow globe sat on the small pine table beside the bed, the foolishly romantic one he’d bought her so long ago, the one that contained a cabin nestled in the mountains.
“It’s … beautiful.”
“I thought you might like it.”
She smiled. “What happened to fairy tales don’t come true?”
“Maybe I was wrong.”
Like hell he’d been wrong.
In one fluid motion he picked up the dome and hurled it across the room, taking obscene satisfaction in the way it smashed against the wall and fell to the floor, shattered just like all those pretenses he abhorred.
“Never again,” he vowed in a voice shaking with an emotion he refused to call hurt. “Never the hell again.”
Six weeks later
he upper hand felt good.
With insulting detachment, Lance St. Croix studied the sunlight glinting through the cathedral window in a violent wash of light. Shadows stretched languidly across the white carpet of the opulent living room, one threatening, the other nearing the massive fireplace in retreat.
“You’ll never get away with this,” he warned with deliberate dismissal. “Not after what you’ve done.”
The one who’d accused
of having a God complex laughed, not yet sensing the trap. “You can’t just use people and discard them at will. Life doesn’t work that way.”
“Get off your high horse,” he said with a cutting smile. “The shadow of innocence doesn’t touch you any more than it touches me. Have you forgotten I know what you did?”
A glitter moved into blue eyes that invited trust and hid betrayal. “If my secret comes out, so will yours.”
No, it wouldn’t. He’d make damn sure of that, just like he made damn sure of everything else. Every action had an equal and opposite reaction, no matter how innocent, how misguided, the intentions.
“People will be hurt,” he pointed out, changing tactics.
“You should have thought about that before!” the misguided one muttered with all the foolishness of the doomed. “It’s too late now.”
The shadows against the carpet blurred, the sudden absence of the sunlight leaving only an indistinguishable mass of darkness. It was impossible to discern predator from prey.
“Please,” Lance added, playing the emotional card he’d fashioned into an art form during long years of marriage. “Just listen to me. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was careless, I let emotion take over. Trust me, it’ll never happen again.”
“Cut the innocent act!” his betrayer shouted, shattering the illusion of calm. “I’m not falling for it again. You knew exactly what you were doing, and I have the evidence to prove it. Soon, everybody in Portland will know what a gutless coward you are.”
He attacked without thinking, swift, necessarily brutal. There was only a second to react. One second to grab the shiny fire poker before the violent impact of flesh to flesh. The ensuing scream was hideous, the blow shocking, the contrast of red on white horrifying.
The end came obscenely fast.
* * *
Dylan St. Croix was nearing the Portland art district when the scratchy report came across the police scanner.
Ten forty-nine at 1467 Lakeview Road confirmed. Requesting backup.
Everything inside him roared violently in protest. Blindly, he changed lanes and whipped his Bronco around, fighting the gnarled rush hour traffic like a living beast. His heart pounded as he slammed his foot down on the gas pedal and tore down crowded streets. Red lights meant nothing. Time seemed to crawl.
1467 Lakeview Road.
He knew that address. Knew only one person lived there. One woman.
He knew that code.
Something dark and primal tore through him.
he thought savagely.
He clenched the steering wheel as tightly as he could, determined not to let his hands shake. But he could do nothing about the adrenaline pooling in his gut like poison.
Never was supposed to last longer than six weeks.
Questions battered him, but the scanner granted few answers. Crime scene technicians had been dispatched. The coroner. Possible homicide.
Dylan swerved off the highway and zipped through a Yield sign. And then he was there, the posh Portland neighborhood greeting him like a sleepy still life. He blinked hard, not sure how half an hour had raced by in the space of a heartbeat. He hardly remembered leaving downtown.
With no regard for the sanctity of the quiet community, he swerved around a slow-moving minivan, turned sharply onto Lakeview, then accelerated toward the house two blocks down. Against a crimson-streaked sky, pines towered high and the sun sank low, working in unison to obscure his view. Squinting, he barely saw the police cars that blocked his progress.
He jerked the Bronco to a stop against the curb and threw open the door. Then, God help him, he ran. Men and women and children blocked the sidewalk, crying and wringing their hands, staring. Dylan pushed past them, until he reached the line of yellow police tape. Then he stopped cold.
The fading light of early evening cast long shadows across the wooded lawn, while a tulip-lined walkway meandered toward the wide porch. Golden light spilled from the cathedral-style front door and arched windows. Bushy baskets of impatiens and petunias swayed in the breeze.
So this was where she lived, he thought morosely.
Perfect, was Dylan’s first thought. Tranquil. Deceptively serene. Just like her. Except for the garishly flashing lights of the four squad cars. The two ambulances blocking the street. The cops swarming the yard like a freshly kicked anthill.
This was where she lived, he thought again. This was where she’d died.
His vision blurred, as an unwanted pain sliced through him. He should feel nothing, he knew. Not anymore. But he’d never learned how. He felt everything. Intensely. Always had. He called it passion. She’d called it out of control.
Shoving aside the memory, he forced his long legs to move up the driveway. Steady. Measured. He was a strong man. He’d seen a lot of ugliness in his life—crime scenes were nothing new to him. He’d visited many. He’d even caused a few.
But the cheerful flowers drove home the reality that this time was different.
This time was personal.
“You don’t want to go in there, son.”
Dylan glanced over his shoulder to see Detective Paul Zito break from a cluster of patrolmen and cut across the lawn. Dylan’s work as a private investigator brought him in contact with the homicide veteran often enough that the two had formed an unlikely friendship.
On the third Tuesday of every month, they met by the river at Shady’s for beer and cards. Nothing rattled Detective Paul Zito. Nothing fazed him. Dylan couldn’t remember a single time when the irreverent cop had looked the least bit uneasy. Certainly not stricken.
Dylan’s heart rate accelerated. Dread twisted through him. And for a moment, he wanted to turn and walk away. Walk far. Like she had. He wanted to get back in his car and drive, get on with his life. He wanted to pretend the only woman who’d ever crawled under his skin didn’t lie dead inside.
But that was the coward’s way out, and while Dylan had been called many names in his thirty-two years, coward wasn’t one of them.
“Trust me,” Dylan said when Zito joined him on the tulip-infested walkway. “This has nothing to do with what I want.”
The homicide veteran frowned. “Technically, I can bar your sorry ass from taking another step. This is a crime scene. You have no right to be here.”
“I’m family. That gives me every right.”
“So that’s what you’re calling it these days?”
He ignored Zito, stared at the front door. It hung open, allowing light to spill like blood from a starkly white foyer. A wide staircase swept toward the second level. She was in there. He wondered where. If she’d suffered. If she’d known.
A primal emotion he didn’t understand bled through the indifference he struggled to erect. The last time he’d seen her—Christ, he didn’t want to think about that night. Until the scanner report, he’d done a damn fine job of blotting it from his mind. But now he had to wonder. If he’d known it was to be their last, would he have done things differently?
He didn’t want to think about that, either.
Needing to do something, anything, he stooped and snapped off a bloodred tulip. Indifferent, he reminded himself. Objective.
At the sight of his cousin’s white Ferrari parked in the street, his gut clenched. He could only imagine how Lance must feel, the shock and the grief. Lance and Bethany had long since gone their separate ways, but once, he’d pledged to love her forever.
“Where’s Lance? Is he inside?”
“In the living room.”
Dylan pushed past Zito. “How’s he holding up? Is he okay—”
“Christ, Dylan. I thought you knew.”
The tone, more than the actual words, stopped him cold. He’d heard that tone before, the sunny day eighteen years ago when the police chief had shown up on his grandfather’s doorstep.
“I’m sorry, Sebastian. I don’t
want to be standing here any more than you want me to, but I didn’t want you to hear from strangers. There’s been a terrible accident…”
Adrenaline spewed nastily, prompting Dylan to turn toward Zito. The white porch rail and neatly trimmed hedges blurred, but the grim-faced detective looked carved of stone.
“Knew what?” Dylan bit out.
“There was some kind of struggle,” Zito said. “Someone took a fire poker to the side of his head. He probably never even knew what hit him.”
“Never knew what hit him?”
His friend frowned. “Looks like the end came pretty damn fast.”
Horror slammed in, hard. Shock numbed the pain. Lance. His smooth, invincible cousin. The St. Croix prince. Dead. Just like so many St. Croixs before him.
“The ex called 911,” Zito added. “She was pretty incoherent.”
The point-blank statement jolted Dylan back from the whirring vortex like a frayed lifeline. “B-Bethany?”
“The first officers on the scene found her in the living room wearing a torn nightgown.”
“Found the body … or so she says.” Zito glanced at a small notebook in his hands and shook his head. “Story’s got more holes than the ozone layer.”
Dylan swore softly. For the past forty minutes, images of Bethany hurt and bleeding, dead, had tortured him. Now…
Jagged emotion cut in from all directions, but Dylan didn’t miss Zito’s insinuation.
“You think she did it?”
“It’s her house, her fire poker, her ex. The blood was on her hands.” Zito shrugged, shook his head. “I count my blessings when Pam was done with me, she was content to sign a few damn papers. Don’t know why people have to complicate a good divorce with murder.”
Blood on her hands.
The image formed before he could block it, turning everything inside him stone cold. Disbelief surged. Too well, he knew how misleading Bethany’s porcelain-figurine exterior could be. Intimately, he knew there was nothing she couldn’t accomplish, if she put her mind to it. Hell, she’d cut him out of her life with the ruthless precision of a heart surgeon. But murder?
“Where is she?” He needed to see her, to—
Zito flipped his notebook shut. “Out back, by the pool.”
“Is she … hurt?”
“A nasty blow on the side of her head, but no concussion.”
Dark spots clouded Dylan’s vision. “Someone
“Maybe. Or maybe she hit herself.”
Revulsion knocked up against disbelief. He’d heard worse, a young woman slashing her throat with a steak knife to cover the fact she’d killed her lover, but Bethany…
“I want to talk to her.”
“This is a crime scene. I can’t have you contaminating—”
damn it! I want her.”
Zito cocked an eyebrow.
“You’ve already taken her statement,” Dylan reminded, fighting a pounding urgency he didn’t understand. “What do you think I’m going to do? Tell her how to change her story?”
Zito’s dry smile said just that. “Stranger things have happened.”
“Ten minutes, Zito. You can listen to every word. Just let me see her.” He had to. God, he had to. He didn’t know why, just knew that he needed to look into those languid blue eyes and see if he saw a murderer looking back at him.
Zito sighed, motioning for Dylan to follow him around the wide porch. “Five minutes.”
The side of the house boasted a wall of windows, giving Dylan a distorted view into Bethany’s world. The thick, beveled glass denied detail, but not impression. Everywhere he looked, shades of white glared back at him—flooring, furniture, art.
Near the back of the house, French doors hung open, revealing another room, where a sheet lay draped over a form near the fireplace. Three uniformed cops stood around talking, while two technicians examined the fire poker. A photographer busily recorded the scene.
“No matter how hard it is, boys, we go on. From now on, I’ll be more like a father, than a grandfather. And you’ll be more like brothers than cousins.”
“But you’re not my father!” eleven-year-old Dylan raged. “And he’s not my brother! We don’t
even like each other.”
“Then you’ll just have to pretend, won’t
“It’s the St. Croix way,” thirteen-year-old Lance added, earning his grandfather’s approving smile. “It’s not so bad once you get used to it.”