Authors: Becky Barker
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
Keri knew what conclusion Lamanto would come to about the camp because she’d come to the same one. And it wasn’t good. Someone had to be putting a lot of money into the place and it probably wasn’t for altruist reasons. Homegrown terrorists. Groups waging war against American citizens, usually innocent people targeted for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She shuddered, remembering the devastation of past assaults.
“What now?” she asked Lamanto.
“I’d like to get a closer look at the camp, but it’ll have to wait until I’m stronger.”
“Did you not see those men with rifles?” she asked in exasperation. “I think I heard dogs too.”
He grimaced. “That doesn’t bode well for covert actions, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Keri sprinkled sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg over her apples and began making pastry for two pies. They both got lost in thought and then Lamanto returned to the previous subject.
“I told you what brought me to Thornsbury, but you never told me what brought you to the mountains.”
Her pulse accelerated at the thought of sharing so much of herself with him, of opening herself to disillusion. She hesitated, realizing how important his reaction would be. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. In two short days, she’d come to respect his opinion and trust his judgment. She cared what he thought and didn’t want to be disappointed. Except for family, the men in her life always disappointed her. And in this situation, even her family had let her down.
He urged her to confide in him. “It can’t be worse than terrorism.”
Were the two connected, she wondered. She had a growing suspicion they might be.
“You heard about the accident that killed my mother?”
He nodded and she felt the intensity of his gaze even though she kept hers on the pastry dough.
“I was in a coma for a couple weeks after the wreck. When I finally woke up, I had no memory of the details. I fell asleep in the car and woke up in the hospital. That’s all I told investigators.”
“Not then. Not ever, really,” she defended.
“But the details are slowly coming back to you?”
“Yes, just snatches over the past few months. My mother and I had come to the cabin a few hours ahead of Dad. He planned to follow after his shift. We both felt exhausted from traveling and getting the cabin aired, so we went down to the truck stop for a quick dinner. On the way back, I fell asleep and Mom missed the turnoff to our road.”
“Let me guess,” he put in, his tone going grim. “She took the road that leads to the militia camp.”
Keri nodded, her throat tightening as the memories flooded back. “I woke up when my mom screamed, realizing she’d veered off the road to avoid something. I still don’t know what, but I remember the screech of brakes and then a violent collision. I learned later that she’d plowed through a guard rail.”
“Didn’t your air bags deploy?”
“They did, nearly suffocating both of us. I remember Mom calling my name in a panic. I told her I was okay, and she warned me to sit still. The car was dangling precariously on the rail above a deep ravine.”
Keri swallowed hard as she recalled those last panicked minutes with her mom. Ignoring the tears gathering in her eyes, she continued. “The memories get hazier after that, but I distinctly remember the snick of her seat belt. She pounded on her airbag and tried to free us both.”
“Is that what caused you to go over the rail?”
“The accident report faulted the weak structure of the guard rail and the weight of our vehicle. Nobody else knows I’m starting to remember more details.”
“I remember the whir of my mom’s window being lowered and the relief in her voice when someone approached the car.”
“So whoever she swerved to avoid came to help?”
“Whoever she swerved to avoid, murdered her and tried to murder me.”
“Murdered? How? He pushed you over the rail?”
“All I remember is the relief in her voice as she greeted someone outside the car. It was pitch-dark. The shoulder harness had me pinned to the seat and the air bag was crushing me. Then the car started rocking, and we went over the embankment.”
“Did you share any of this with your dad?”
“You’re the first person I’ve told because everyone else changes the subject when I bring up the accident. I know they think they’re protecting me, but it drives me crazy.”
Keri shook her head and swiped the tears off her cheek. She turned her back on him, busying herself lighting the oven and collecting pie plates. He stayed quiet a minute, giving her time to regain control of her emotions. Then he grilled her with more questions.
“Your mom greeted someone by name?”
“I think so. It’s like a recurring nightmare. Every time I remember something, I feel like there’s more missing. I don’t know who she spoke to that night. I wish I did. I’d make damned sure he was brought to justice.”
“You said the car rolled down a ravine. How long were you there? Who found you?”
“My dad found us. He was on the way to the cabin and got a report of a car going over the guard rail. When he couldn’t find Mom and me, he called for emergency equipment and tracked us with the GPS.”
“He never found out who made the report?”
“It was too late to save your mom?”
Keri couldn’t speak for a minute. Her throat closed and she swallowed hard. The pain was too sharp and it hurt to breathe. She finished the pie shell and washed her hands then went to the bathroom and grabbed a handful of tissues. After wiping her eyes and blowing her nose, she answered his last question.
“Mom got thrown from the car.” She couldn’t bring herself to describe her mother’s injuries. “She’d unfastened her belt, probably to help me, and her airbag deflated more quickly than mine.”
“But you were trapped.”
She responded with a nod followed by a sob. Suddenly weak with emotion, she put hands on the table for support. He stood and gathered her against his chest with his good arm. She didn’t resist. His understanding and compassion touched her more deeply than she’d let anything touch her in a long while. Sharing the painful secret brought the whole nightmare into the open like a raw wound.
With her face pressed against his neck, she quietly wept for the first time since the accident. She missed her mom so desperately and guilt lay heavily on her heart. Could she have done more? Why hadn’t she driven and let her mom sleep? Who could hate or fear them enough to want them dead? Her mom had never deliberately hurt a soul. She’d been a kind, generous woman, so who would want to snuff out her life?
Lamanto whispered to her soothingly, not offering empty platitudes but unconditional support. Keri wondered if he’d be so tender if he knew how emotionally and physically scarred she’d become since the wreck. For the first time in her life, she wanted to hurt someone rather than heal them. If she knew who’d killed her mom, she’d beat them with her bare hands and stomp them into the ground.
Would the man holding her understand the desire for revenge? Would he think her depraved? Criminal minded? A nurse yet a hypocrite? She couldn’t let it matter, and she didn’t dare get too comfortable in his arms. As he gently rocked her, she forced herself to get a grip.
Slowly withdrawing from his hold, she wiped her eyes and nose again. Her voice sounded a little shaky. “Sorry for drooling all over you.”
He lifted her chin with his finger and stared into her eyes. “There’s no need to apologize. I’m thinking you’ve been holding all that hurt inside for a long time. Right?”
She managed a sniff of concession. “Maybe. Thanks for the shoulder to cry on.”
A teasing note entered his voice. “Isn’t there an ancient custom that says you saved one shoulder so the other one belongs to you?”
She gave him a watery, grateful smile. “You sure mangled the interpretation, but I appreciate the thought.”
“Besides,” he drawled in his playful, playboy tone, “I told you women always lose their heads in my arms.”
Keri groaned, gave him an admonishing glance and nudged him back into the chair. But his teasing eased her tension. He’d lightened the mood enough for her to feel comfortable again. A rare talent in a man—or anyone, for that matter.
“I’m never going to get these pies made if you don’t quit drilling me with questions.”
“Just one more.”
She gave him a long-suffering look. “What?”
“Does Russ the warrior plan to come after pie?”
“I didn’t invite him, but I guess that’s no guarantee.”
“Now that the weather has cleared, we’ll have to expect more visitors and cover any traces of my being here.”
“Dad will be sending someone to check on me. That’s a given,” she said on a sigh. “I won’t be able to keep everyone out of the cabin.”
“I can hide in the bathtub like I did earlier, but it’s not the best of plans.”
Keri agreed. Anyone who visited might want to use the bathroom before leaving again.
“Can you get the oven for me?” she asked, putting the pies on a cookie sheet. He opened the oven door, she slid in the pan and he closed it again. They didn’t say anything else while she tidied the kitchen.
When she’d finished, she looked him in the eyes, her expression intense. “I’m about to swear you in as an official member of the Merritt family, but you have to cross your heart and hope to die, promise on your life and give me your undying pledge that you’ll never tell another soul what I’m about to tell you.”
“Whew,” he whistled softly, “sounds heavy.”
“Do you swear?”
“Is it illegal or immoral?”
“Nope, just a family secret passed through several generations of Merritts.”
Lamanto rose and returned her steady gaze. “Okay, you have my promise.”
Keri nodded in acceptance. “Follow me.”
She led him into the bedroom and opened the door to a small closet. Other than a couple shirts, the clothing bar stood bare. A pair of scruffy boots sat on the bare hardwood floor. Keri knelt and reached into the closet, tugging on a loose, hidden board. With one strong pull, she lifted the whole floor, revealing a set of wooden steps.
He whistled again and knelt beside her. “A trap door.”
“It’s narrow, but the steps lead into a small chamber. Bomb shelters were all the rage when my great-grandfather built this place. There are survival supplies down there and lanterns, but that’s not the best part.”
“It gets better?” he asked with boyish enthusiasm.
“Follow me,” she told him. “A metal spring will close the door behind us once the floor is lowered back into place.”
Keri backed down the steps, swatting at spider webs until she found an oil lantern and lit it. He followed more slowly. Once he’d joined her, she shone the light around the small underground hideout.
“It’s a concrete bunker,” he said in awe.
She held up the lantern. It didn’t take much light to illuminate shelves loaded with bottled water, canned goods and medical supplies. The ten-by-ten-foot area housed a rollaway bed sheeted with plastic and a stack of plastic chairs. Dust and cobwebs covered all of it.
“I really should clean this while I’m here,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has checked it for years.”
Lamanto moved around the room, knocking down a few cobwebs and checking out the supplies. “What a great idea. Your great grandpa is a man after my heart.”
“There’s more,” she said, amused by his enthusiasm. She and Jack had shared the same wide-eyed fascination when their dad had shown it to them as grade-schoolers.
“There’s a tunnel leading into the woods.” Turning back to the stairs, she ducked under them and he followed. The walls narrowed into a tight passageway. “It’s about twenty yards long with another hidden trap door. Artificial turf covers the opening and lots of natural vegetation camouflages the turf.”
“Cool,” he said. “So you have a hideout with an escape hatch. Totally damned awesome.”
She took him through the tunnel with its gradual ascent. When they reached the narrow step at the end, she climbed up and tried to push the door open, but it wouldn’t budge.
“It hasn’t been opened for a very long time,” she explained.
“Let me have a go at it.”
They tried to trade positions in the tight confines. Keri held the lantern to her side. He shifted his bad arm and moved closer. Their actions managed to wedge her firmly against his chest with his good arm wrapped around her waist for support.
The solid contact of bodies stole their breath for a minute. Sexual energy pulsed between them. She inhaled deeply, but that brought her breasts tighter against the hardness of his chest. Her nipples tingled in arousal. Her legs got a little shaky as he tugged her closer. She stared into his eyes for a long moment, her pulse hitching when his gaze dropped to her mouth. She nervously flicked her tongue over her lips. He made a rough sound and then closed his eyes.
She took a cue from him, stepping down and breaking the contact so he could turn toward the door. With his good hand, he shoved first one side and then the other, prying the opening until they saw a glimmer of daylight. Once he’d loosened the turf, Keri stepped closer again. Her heart skipped a beat, but she ignored it.
After taking a good look outside the door and seeing nothing but dense foliage, they carefully lowered it again. She quickly took a step backward.
“There’s a dead bolt to the right side if you come in from the yard and want to lock out intruders.” She pointed toward the lock.
He grabbed it, slid it into locked position and then back out again. “It’s rusty but functional.”
“You’ve seen the propane tank in the back yard?” she asked him as they made their way back through the tunnel to the chamber.
“It looks like it’s surrounded by bushes, but the trap door is on the far side of it. It’s easy to find if you know where to look, even in the dark, but it’s not easily seen or identifiable.”
“Way cool,” he said with awe as he followed her up the narrow stairs to the closet trap door. “You have your own safe room. Not a bad idea with a family of law officers.”
“That’s the intention. That and protection from atomic bombs,” she said, unsure if anything could protect them from a nuclear attack. She pushed up the closet floor board, triggering the spring to open the door. Making a mental note to oil it, she turned and passed the lantern back to Lamanto. Once he’d replaced it, she gave him a hand as he climbed the steps.