Authors: Elisabeth Naughton
OTHER BOOKS BY ELISABETH NAUGHTON
Aegis Security Series (Romantic Suspense)
Stolen Series (Romantic Suspense)
Against All Odds Series (Romantic Suspense)
Wait For Me
Hold On To Me
Melt For Me
Eternal Guardians Series (Paranormal Romance)
Firebrand Series (Paranormal Romance)
Bound to Seduction
Slave to Passion
Possessed by Desire
Bodyguards in Bed
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright ©
2016 Elisabeth Naughton
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
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Cover design by Michael Rehder
For Jane Droge,
a woman who truly knows the meaning of undying love.
Aunt Jane, your faith and sacrifice are an inspiration to us all.
Go after him.
Fear pushed her adrenaline up, made her pulse beat hard and fast in her veins. Seth had told her to go home. But she couldn’t. Not if he was in trouble. He might need her.
Her feet moved before she even realized what was happening. Crisp air filled her lungs as she rushed up the path and into the trees. She skipped over rocks and limbs, careful not to trip and hurt herself. Her breaths grew heavy and labored. By the time she spotted the cabin through the thick forest, she was covered in a thin layer of sweat.
She slowed her steps. Her pulse turned to a roar in her ears. Her fingers shook as she darted from one tree to the next, trying to stay out of sight, just in case. An eerie orange glow shone from the dirty windows of the run-down cabin. She squinted. Tried to see through the glass.
A crash sounded from inside, and she jumped. Darting behind a tree trunk, she trembled as she peered around the side and searched for Seth.
Please don’t be in there. Please don’t be in there . . .
Another crash echoed, and she jerked back. Wood cracked against wood. Fear gripped her throat like an icy hand. Some kind of fight was happening, but she couldn’t see who was involved, didn’t know what was happening. Knew she should run but couldn’t make her legs move.
The door clanged open. She watched in horror as two shadowy figures pulled another through the space and dragged him away from the cabin.
It was Seth. She knew his long legs and lean frame. Knew that mop of light-brown hair in the moonlight.
She couldn’t make out the voices, though. Didn’t know what they were saying. And they were moving away from her. Seth kicked out and screamed the bad words that Mommy got upset with her for repeating. Tears pricked her eyes. Something awful was happening. Something awful was happening to Seth.
Her stomach tightened with both fear and indecision. She had to help him. She had to save him. She couldn’t let them hurt him.
Her adrenaline surged. She pushed away from the tree trunk and darted through the forest, following the sound of Seth’s voice.
Please, please, please . . . Don’t hurt him. Don’t hurt my Seth . . .
Familiarity rushed through her. She’d been through this part of the woods before. Many times in the summer. Careful to stay off the path so they didn’t see or hear her, she listened for their voices and ran parallel to their movements. But before she even heard the water splash, she knew where they were headed.
The roar of the falls echoed ahead. Voices mingled with the rush of water. Seth always brought her swimming here when it was hot. The large pool at the base of the falls had always been a place of fun. But these voices weren’t having fun. They were angry. Shouting. Yelling. Water splashed again. Followed by Seth’s voice once more. Only this time it was frantic. Rushed.
Her heart lurched into her throat. Her legs ached, her lungs burned, but she didn’t stop. She found the large stream and sprinted along its edge until she reached the falls. Water sprayed in her face, but she swiped the droplets away and gripped the trunk of a small maple tree. The hillside dropped off, opening to the pool thirty feet below.
Voices hollered from somewhere close, but her gaze shot to the ripples fanning out from the middle of the pool and the boy holding a limp body under the water.
The boy pulled the body up out of the water. Dripping light-brown hair caught the moonlight. She squinted to see better. Prayed it wasn’t Seth. Gasped when she recognized the lifeless face staring up at the sky.
A blistering pain lanced her chest. “No! Seth!”
Gravel crunched, but she didn’t look to see what had made the sound. Couldn’t. Because all she could focus on was the boy holding Seth’s lifeless body by the shirtfront in the water. The boy who was now looking up at her with wide, guilt-ridden eyes.
Even though he was thirty feet below, even though she couldn’t see much more than shadows and the whites of his eyes, she knew who he was. She’d seen him in town. She’d heard all about the trouble he caused. She’d listened to her parents tell Seth to stay away from the boy.
But Seth hadn’t stayed away. And tonight the boy had caused more than just
trouble. Tonight he’d taken the only thing she’d ever loved, and in the process, he’d destroyed her entire world.
Eighteen years later . . .
It said a lot about a person’s state of mind when an igloo in the middle of the freezing Arctic looked more appealing than a warm, cozy house.
Samantha Parker flipped off the muted TV documentary she’d been watching with a frown, tossed the remote onto the bed, then balanced on the rickety ladder as she tried—again—to thread the curtain panels she’d bought onto the old rod. The fabric caught on a rusted part of the rod, so she pushed harder. A ripping sound echoed through the room just before the fabric slipped past the obstruction.
“Dammit.” Sam turned the rod in her hand so she could see where the fabric had torn. A small gash was visible on the front of the rod pocket.
This was par for the course for her evening and year. Rising to her toes, she mumbled, “Good enough,” and prayed the old ladder held her weight as she placed the rod on the hooks she’d installed earlier and tightened the screws to lock it in place. Climbing down, she scowled up at her work and stepped back.
Not even close to great, but good enough. The red panels matched the red swirls in the bedspread she’d ordered online and hid the crack in the plaster on the right side of the window. No one would be able to see the rip unless they looked closely, but at this point, she didn’t even care. She probably should have broken down and bought a new rod, but she didn’t want to sink any more money into this old house. Cosmetic updates. That was it. Since her mother’s death, all she cared about was making the place look halfway decent so she could pocket a few bucks when she sold it, then get the hell out of town.
She folded the ladder, leaned it against the wall, and climbed back onto her bed. Coming home to Hidden Falls was only supposed to be a temporary thing, but her weeks seemed to be spinning out of control, and the dip in the housing market wasn’t helping. She wanted out of this town. Aside from being too small, it was packed with locals who liked to gossip. But more than that, there were just too many bad memories lurking here for Samantha. Too many memories about her brother, her parents, and everything that had happened to rip her family apart.
Images of that cold dark night eighteen years before flickered through her mind. The eerie cabin in the mist, the whispering woods, the roar of the falls. But mostly the screams. So many screams they still woke her in the dead of night. A shiver raced down her spine, but she pushed the images away and forced herself not to think of the past. If she did she’d be sucked back into a vacuum of nightmares she didn’t want to relive. And she’d worked so hard to drag herself out of that abyss; she wouldn’t go back. She just needed to focus on work. Had to put more effort into selling this house. Only then could she leave this town once and for all and never look back.
The clock on the wall read eleven fifteen, but she wasn’t tired yet. Sighing as she relaxed into the mountain of pillows, she bypassed the stack of lab papers she should be grading in favor of her laptop.
Her four-year-old golden retriever, Grimly, whined and tucked his nose under her elbow before she could click the first key, then nudged her arm up.
“Cut that out, you idiot.” She shifted her arm away and scanned the links on her screen. “This will just take me a few minutes.”
She hadn’t taken Grimly for his walk today after school, and she knew he was antsy, but she’d stayed too late at work getting ready for tomorrow’s classes, then had come home and tried to do a few of those magical updates her realtor guaranteed would sell the house. Now, she was too interested in looking up the shrink her principal had announced would be observing classes at the high school tomorrow to worry about Grimly’s antics.
“Dr. McClane,” she said as she typed his name into the search field on her browser. He was probably some white-haired old fart who wore glasses and really bad tweed. That or super slimy in the way only a highly trained emotional manipulator could be. Sam had clocked more than her fair share of hours on a head doctor’s couch thanks to her brother’s death, and if there was one thing she’d learned over the years, it was that therapists held more power than any other doctor in the medical field. They could lift a person up or completely break them down, but more often than not, they messed with their patients’ minds until there was nothing left but self-doubt and paranoia.
Ignoring the unwanted memories that tried to sneak in again, she paged down and stared at a screen full of pictures. Some were taken in a classroom. Some were shot outside at what looked to be a youth camp. But most were filled with faces of kids from all different backgrounds.
Sam scrolled through the photos, reading captions, searching for the slick shrink, and finally stopped on a photo of two men, one old and scraggly, one young and clean-cut, both standing in front of a picnic table with a teenage boy between them.
“Oh, that has got to be him.” Sam focused in on the white-haired, wire-rimmed-glasses-wearing, I’ll-tell-you-how-it’s-gonna-be schmuck on the left and read the caption.
Her brow dropped. She looked back at the picture and read the caption again. “No flippin’ way.”
Dr. Ethan McClane was the man on the right. The young guy, not the wrinkled judge standing next to a kid he’d referred to Hanson House, a home for troubled teens, where—according to this—Dr. McClane often volunteered during his off hours.
Sure she had to be seeing things, Sam pulled up a new browser window and ran a more detailed search. This time only pictures of Dr. McClane came up, rather than any links to his practice. And yeah, the first picture had been right, but, whoa, it hadn’t done the guy justice. He was totally hot—early thirties, thick dark hair, olive skin, a body he obviously took care of, and a smile that could stop traffic.
He’s still a shrink, even if he is
Closing her laptop in disgust, Sam tossed it onto the bed and picked up her green pen and the stack of lab reports. So what if the guy was hot? He was still an unwanted shrink, and she wasn’t letting him anywhere near her student Thomas.
She scanned the first lab paper, rolled her eyes at the idiotic answer, and was just about to make a mark when a door downstairs slammed so hard the house shook.
Sam’s pulse jumped. Grimly growled and took off for the stairs. Sitting up slowly, she told herself the sound couldn’t have come from inside because she lived alone and always locked her doors, but . . .
It sure sounded as if it had come from inside.
Her heart rate picked up speed, and she set the stack of papers on the bed, then pushed to her feet. Barefoot and wearing only thin cotton pajamas, she stepped out into the hallway and peered down the railing to the entry below. Stacks of boxes sat pushed up against the walls, but she zeroed in on Grimly, standing on his hind legs, his front paws braced against the wooden front door, barking like a total loon.
Fear gave way to frustration, then the cold burn of anger. Not an inside door. Probably a car door outside. Those teenagers were messing with her again.
She hurried down the steps, fuming the whole way. First they’d TP’d her trees. Then they’d egged her windows. Last week they’d forked her front lawn, spelling out the word “LEAVE” in white plastic.
As the new teacher on the block, one who expected the students to actually
the work she assigned instead of simply goofing off in class, she’d clearly become the target of choice. But if they thought they could push her around, they had another think coming.
She reached the front hall, rounded the corner, and headed for the kitchen at the back of the house. Her purse, keys, and books were just where she’d left them on the counter when she’d come in from the garage. She crossed to them but didn’t see her cell phone, and when she checked her purse, it was missing. “Dammit.”
Grimly rushed into the room, barking so loudly Sam jumped, and the contents of her purse spilled across the counter. He skidded to a stop at the door that led to the garage, whined and growled, then took off for the front of the house once more, nearly knocking Sam over in the process.
“Dammit, Grimly.” Those miserable kids were still out there.
Marching into the office, she grabbed the cordless phone from her mother’s old desk and swung back for the front of the house. She sidestepped the half-packed boxes in the hallway, pushed Grimly away from the door where he was going ape shit, flipped the locks, yanked the door open, and yelled, “You don’t scare me! You think you’re tough? You’re cowards. Show yourselves, you little monsters!”
Grimly swept past her, knocking Sam off balance, his frantic barking filling the cool night air. Sam hit the doorjamb with her shoulder and grabbed on with her free hand to steady herself. Pain ricocheted down her arm as Grimly’s incessant barking rounded the house.
“Stupid dog.” He was going to get her killed with his reckless antics. She stepped out onto the porch.
Stupid dog . . .
Her feet slowed, and a space in Sam’s chest chilled, bringing everything to a stuttering stop. He
a stupid dog.
a stupid dog. And the last thing she wanted was for some juvenile delinquents to think he was dangerous.
Her heart rate shot up. She scanned the shadowed front yard. The lone street lamp to her left illuminated the empty dead-end road. An old oak, devoid of leaves, stood like a decrepit skeleton. Nothing moved at this hour—close to midnight on a Wednesday night.
Grimly’s barking grew louder and more frenetic from around the side of the house. Hustling down the rickety front porch steps, Sam ran after him, not even caring that the ground was damp and muddy or that she was barefoot. All she cared about was getting to her dog before those kids did. Breathing heavily, she finally reached the attached garage and spotted Grimly jumping up and down in front of the side door, barking wildly at the grimy window.
“Grimly.” Relieved he was all right, she slowed her steps. “Come back here right now.”
Grimly continued to bark. Frustrated, Sam crossed to stand behind the dog and reached for his collar. “I said
She yanked, but Grimly jerked back and barked even louder. Her hand flew free of his collar. Her foot slipped on the muddy grass. Somehow, she caught herself before she went down. Muttering curses at herself, her dog, at the entire situation, she stood upright, then stilled when she realized what held Grimly’s attention.
Red paint dripped like blood down the square window set in the top half of the door. Paint that spelled out the words, “TAKE THE HINT OR ELSE.”
Sam whipped around and looked across the open backyard and the dark hills beyond. Nothing moved there either. Only shadowed pine and Douglas fir as far as the eye could see. But the woods were a perfect place to hide, an even better place to wait, and she had no doubt the teenagers making her life hell were out there. Somewhere.
Anger came back, hot and urgent. Childish pranks were one thing, but this was vandalism, and she’d had enough.
She lifted the cordless still in her hand, punched in numbers, and pressed it to her ear. “Yes,” she said when the operator came on. “Chief Branson, please. This is Samantha Parker.”
The operator mumbled something about the chief being too busy to take personal calls, but Sam barely listened. Will was a close family friend. When she’d come home a few months ago to take care of her mother, he’d told her to call if she ever needed anything, and right now she needed him more than anyone else. He could track fingerprints. Fingerprints would nail the deviants. And this time she was absolutely pressing charges. She was way past playing nice.
She turned back to the door and looked past the dripping letters as she waited for Will to come on. Her car was parked in the center of the garage, undisturbed, exactly as she’d left it. But the used paintbrush and can of red paint sitting on the stool she’d left near her father’s old workbench were new.
Sam’s gaze shot back to the letters painted on the pane. Her heart pounded a staccato rhythm against her ribs. Slowly, she ran her finger over the letters.
Nothing but cool glass touched her skin.
Her throat closed. No longer caring about fingerprints, she reached for the door handle and turned.
It didn’t budge.
Sam’s heart rate spiked, and Will’s familiar voice over the line did little to stop the icy fingers of fear from rushing down her spine.
Because someone had been in her locked garage. Someone could be
her house right this very second.