Authors: Maureen A. Miller
The woman in this picture still had her youth, yet after all these years, the sadness in her pale gaze had never dissipated. Megan wondered if someone would look back at pictures of her someday and think the same thing.
“Okay, yes. I see similarities. The facial structure. Though her eyes are pale and your eyes are—” Megan swallowed when she looked into those cascades of color, “—are different. But you can see that they’re shaped the same. Almost an almond effect.”
“Different?” A scuff of a boot and the shift of a long leg had Jake resting his head back against the cinderblock wall, though still watching her. “What do you mean different?”
“But Gabrielle never had any more children. Supposedly she couldn’t.” She disregarded his question.
Jake frowned. “Says who?”
“Harriet. Who claims to have heard it directly from Gabrielle many years ago.”
“I don’t know.” He touched the face on the yellowed page and then snapped the book shut. “I just go by what I see, and the note of a woman I never met. If she was barren…” he ran a hand through hair that was still wet, and Megan noticed a furrow of frustration spike across his forehead, “…why did she send that letter?”
There was already enough mystery in Megan’s life. The last thing she needed was more unanswered questions. But the earnest way Jake clutched that book, like it was a link to a past he had not been privy to, tugged at her and she became caught up in his quest. Anything to soften that frown, to bring back the sexy grin that made her heart beat in triple time.
A year of seclusion—that was the only way to explain her reaction to this man.
“Well, let’s look around some more.”
Narrowed eyes stared her down. “Wait a minute.” Jake leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. “Did you just offer assistance?”
Self-conscious now, she hoisted to her feet and dusted off the rear of her jeans, uneasy when Jake’s eyes stayed glued to that region.
“We’re not doing anything else,” she observed.
Something in Jake’s brash gaze told Megan he had plenty of things in mind they could do to pass the time. She cocked her head and smirked. “Unless you’d rather try your luck with the car again.”
In a slow ascent, Jake rose. When he reached his full height he looked down with a frank perusal, an assessment that left Megan flushed over every inch of her body.
“I rather enjoyed that,” he said.
So did I, she thought
. So did I.
All they were able to produce in the next few hours was a Victory Cove High School yearbook dated 1973. Gabrielle Wakefield was there, horn-rimmed glasses and all, but no accolades were listed. No school participation was heralded. There was just a name and somber colorless eyes.
Stiff from his hunched position and the chronic coldness trapped in the cellar, Jake reached an arm behind his neck, trying to stretch out.
“So, what have we learned?” he managed over a yawn. “She was the only daughter of Jonathan and Estelle Wakefield, born into money from the Wakefield boating empire. She went to high school, but I can’t find any record of a college.”
Jake watched Megan rise on to her toes and stretch to reach the top shelf. He was tired, but not too tired to appreciate the long legs, and more fascinating, the determination.
“If Jonathan Wakefield is your grandfather, he and his family were pretty famous around here. I think they sold off Wakefield Boats over fifty years ago, if I’ve heard correctly. Actually, I once saw a Wakefield boat down in the harbor. They were like Chris-Craft boats—all polished wood. Class.”
Seeing Megan’s nose stuck in a book, Jake prompted, “Anything else?”
She swatted at a chain of cobwebs. “Not much more than that. But—” she waved a folded letter like a trump card, “—Gabrielle seems to have had a boyfriend.”
“Well, you make it sound like she was a leper. I would hope she had several.”
“No, no,” Megan defended, offering Jake the yellowed note. “The way the sources of Victory Cove told the tale, Gabrielle was alone her whole life—simply existing to do her mother’s bidding.”
If that were true it sounded like a miserable existence, he thought.
He took the letter, careful not to touch Megan’s fingers in the process. He was just liable to grab her hand and yank her against him.
“Okay, so—” He lost his train of thought as the words flowed before him.
Jake recognized the bold handwriting, somewhat neater than the letter he had received. This was the precise script of a young lady. Also recognizable was the heart that spilled into Gabrielle’s words. Here was a plea written to a man, a man who disappeared, a man she begged to return with fluid, grief-stricken sentences. What truly grabbed his attention, though, was the closing sentence,
They took him away. Don’t you go too.
It was a letter that apparently was never sent.
“Poor woman,” he whispered.
Megan dropped a stack of notebooks back on the shelf and flinched from the billow of dust. “They took him away…” Her words hung heavy in the tomblike basement.
“Yeah. So there was a man, and he could be my—” Now he was getting carried away.
Megan heard that slip of the tongue, and her eyes turned round with sympathy.
“That’s a possibility.”
“Albeit, a small one.”
“Yes.” She followed the motion of him tucking the letter into his shirt pocket and never once protested that it was personal property.
“One that we will check into, but not now. This is heavy stuff and you need to rest up on it. And I’m—” her hand smothered a yawn, “—I’m beat.”
That much was evident. Jake was concerned by the smudges of fatigue under her eyes,
and the fact that even after she smiled, the corners of her lips slipped down into a cheerless stripe.
But he was making progress. He was gaining ground on the doe that watched him with its dogged gaze. He felt that he had just been permitted a step closer to the graceful animal—that if he held his hand out, she might lean forward out of curiosity to touch him. If he was patient, maybe he could find out what Megan Summers was hiding.
Flouted bulbs did little to enhance the room. All they did was expose faded wallpaper, a floral pattern that had wilted into a smeared mixture of glue and paint. Despite Megan’s affirmation that she kept the linens clean, Jake sat on the edge of the sagging mattress, expecting the thin bedspread to disintegrate beneath his touch.
Rain battered a window behind yellow-stained curtains, a monotonous drone that he’d grown accustomed to. The rhythm of the downpour seemed intrinsic to the house as if on a perfectly sunny day it would still be heard.
The passion of his quest still pumped strong in his veins. He was certain he had found his birth mother, and the thirst for knowledge minimized the harsh surroundings. He stretched across the bed, propping a pillow that still retained the faint scent of detergent beneath his head. He grinned. Megan
indeed keep the sheets clean.
Thinking of her only two doors away staved off his need for sleep. What an enigmatic female she was, but eccentricity seemed to come hand in hand with being a resident of Victory Cove.
Megan had said she was a writer, but the image didn’t suit her. Perhaps he was too quick to label, but he considered writers true romantics at heart. In Megan he saw an analytical detachment that contradicted that impression.
Heck, what did he know
As if he had a romantic bone in his body
Jake tried to drag his thoughts away from Megan. He tried not to imagine her alone in bed, tangled in sheets, glorious dark hair fanned across the pillow as she listened to the rain just as he did. Instead, he focused on what he had learned about Gabrielle Wakefield.
Could she really be his mother?
Sara must be going crazy with curiosity. He had to call her tomorrow. It was impossible to use the cell phone here. If the bridge was still out, he would have to use Megan’s phone.
It irked Jake that he hoped the bridge would still be out.
Perhaps he had drifted off to sleep, but the primeval scream that beset Wakefield House launched Jake to his feet. Disoriented in the dark, it took a moment to get his bearings. With a predatory stillness, he waited for the sound to repeat.
There it was. A muffled yell, agonizing enough to give him chills and make him suspect Megan’s analogy that the wind was a female ghost, pleading for mercy. He hauled open the door and felt his way blindly through the jet-black hall. The very real scream that followed had Jake surging through the bleak chasm, reaching Megan’s room with little to go on but instinct.
Inside, the somber glow of a nightlight was enough to reveal Megan in the throes of a nightmare. Blankets twisted between legs that jerked and arms that pumped, as even in slumber she tried to flee. Her head tossed from side to side in denial until another moan of terror surfaced on her lips.
Afraid to touch her and become a physical part of her tormented dream, instead Jake reached Megan’s bedside and gently spoke her name.
When there was no response, he tried with more urgency. “Megan.”
She writhed and swatted at an unseen force, but did not react to the sound of her name.
“Megan.” Jake touched her.
The move was nimble and wholly unexpected. He didn’t know what had happened until he found himself staring down the thin barrel of a 9mm. White fingers wrapped around the handle and held the weapon with unerring precision at his chest.
“Whoa!” He jerked back. “Easy now, it’s just me.”
It seemed that declaration did little to ease the wild torture in her eyes.
“Look.” Oddly intrigued by this unforeseen attack, yet at the same time concerned for his safety, Jake took a deep breath. “If you’re trying to keep me out of your bed—” he inched back a step, “—it’s working.”
For a moment all that could be heard was Megan’s erratic breathing. The gun remained fixed on him as he felt perspiration bead on his forehead. The steely conviction in Megan’s eyes made him believe she could truly pull the trigger. She was no writer. She was a psycho.
With one wretched groan, she deflated. Her arm plummeted like a fallen branch and her finger relaxed. The automatic dropped with a thud on the hardwood floor as Jake jumped back, afraid of the recoil from the jarring fall. It wobbled and fell still, and only then did Jake look up to see that Megan’s once-defiant glance now vanished.
Quivers claimed her slim shoulders. There were no tears, no physical evidence other than that revealing tremble.
“Whoa, hey…” Confident that the gun was out of her range, Jake took a step and lowered himself onto the edge of the bed. He didn’t touch her, but Megan seemed heedless of his presence. Her head fell low and she twisted her hands in the tangle of sheets.
“It’s okay.” He dipped to look into her eyes, and even in the dim glow from the nightlight, the bleakness there wrenched at him. “It was just a nightmare, right?” Jake’s head snapped up. “Or did you hear something?”
Outside there was nothing but the steady drone of rain. Inside, the house offered up muffled conversation in hushed creaks and groans.
Megan shook her head. “No,” she whispered, “I didn’t hear anything.”
Jake bent over and wrapped his fingers around the 9mm and brought it up to rest on his thigh, staring at it as if it were a ray gun dropped from a spaceship. Again he looked at Megan. She was completely drained, collapsed against the headboard, staring blindly at the window.
Jake reached up and touched her cheek, but she did not respond—did not even flinch—she acted like she hadn’t felt him at all.
“Megan,” he whispered, “look at me.”
“Megan.” His voice softened. “Please look at me.”
Shadowed swirls of midnight engulfed him as if the Atlantic had surged toward shore and hauled him into its maelstrom. For a moment he was tempted to run—to out-swim the advancing waves, but even stronger was the urge to take Megan into his arms.
Jake’s touch dropped to her arm, and other than a slight jerk of the limb, she disregarded the contact.
“I’m going to do something right now that you may not like.” He paused, but Megan didn’t react. “You have to promise not to shoot me.”
It was impossible not to detect the tremor that charged through her body. Jake waited for Megan to respond, yet her bleak eyes continued to stare straight through him.
“Megan.” He leaned forward, closer, till he was lost in that heady scent of citrus. And then she was in his arms.
There was no greater source of adrenaline than standing on the forty-first story of a skyscraper with just a slim slip of scaffolding beneath your feet and the dynamic city below. At least, nothing compared to that until this moment. There was a similar triumph in feeling Megan submit to his touch. Her surrender as she surged into his arms and linked her wrists behind his neck caused an Olympic sense of victory.
She seemed desperate, burrowing her face into the crook of his collarbone. His arms tightened about her, so much so that he felt every tremble, every shudder against his chest as she hiccupped and then held her breath.
“Easy now,” Jake whispered into her hair. “Easy, it’s okay.” His lips brushed those silken strands and then dusted across her forehead.
Megan stilled in his embrace, but her face stayed lodged against his neck. He could feel soft puffs of air against his skin and liked to imagine that her lips touched him there.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked quietly, his palm flat on her back, moving slowly up and down.
Against his neck her head shook, and this time he was sure her lips touched his skin. Granted, it probably wasn’t intentional, but regardless, with her body draped across his lap and her arms wound around him, the effect she had on him was becoming quite evident.
It was dark. They were in bed, wrapped in an aura of citrus and rain. Jake wanted to tip her head back and taste her mouth. He wanted to kiss her till the fear fled her eyes.
Perhaps his voice had been too husky. It broke through to the woman in his arms, and she drew back.
It was the deep rustle of his voice that roused her. A timbre full of gravelly need. Megan didn’t want to leave this sanctuary, this haven of warm masculinity, where the sturdy beat of Jake’s heart kept her from losing herself to the nightmare.
Jake enveloped her in a way that made her feel protected. The comforting trek of his hand as it slipped down her spine, the soft whispers of assurance in her hair, the taste of his throat when her lips dusted across it.
That notion and the tone of his voice finally snapped the spell.
She pushed back and held Jake at shoulder length. With the window behind him, he made a formidable profile. There was very little backlight, but it was enough to eclipse his features, producing a daunting, faceless silhouette.
“Who are you?” She shot out of bed, eyeing the gun that rested on his thigh.
Jake followed the trek of her eyes. He lifted the weapon, turning it from side to side, inspecting it in slow motion. His gaze held hers as he offered up the heavy chunk of metal, which she snatched with shaky fingers.
“I’m Jake,” he said. “A thirty-five-year-old electrical engineer from Boston. A man who came here to find answers about his heritage.”
For a moment he sat there, assessing her with the fixed gaze of a jaguar. Megan trembled under that appraisal and sank down onto the redwood chair.
He crossed his arms. “Okay,” he began, “let’s try this approach. Who do you think I am?”
You were sent to kill me.
“I don’t know.” She wrenched her words in anguish.
Some of the tension slipped from Jake’s shoulders. She thought Jake was going to reach for her and nearly leaned forward in anticipation of that sweet shelter.
Instead, he shifted so that his head could be even with hers—so that he could look her in the eye.
“It’s none of my business, Megan. But to me, it’s obvious you’re hiding from something out here.”
“You’re right.” Panic gripped her voice. “It’s none of your business.”
Jake nodded in submission, and then reached out and turned on the bedside lantern. She flinched against the bright assault and blinked until he came back into view.
Why did he have to look like that? Dark and lean, with eyes that mirrored the glow of the antique lamp. He leaned even closer and she discovered that the gold was just an eclipse around large black pupils.
“Okay,” he whispered. “One last question. And for this one I need to see your eyes.”
Megan’s breath hitched. In that second, she heard every throbbing beat of Wakefield House. The cadence of the rain. The tempo of the wind. The pounding of her heart.
“Tell me.” He paused. “In all honesty, do you think I would hurt you?”
She was startled at how easy the answer came. “No.”
That response earned her a slight curve of his lips. Just that whisper of a smile that made her stomach tumble.
“I wish I could say the same thing,” he whispered.
Jake touched her now, placing his hand on her face. His thumb caressed her cheek while the rest of his fingers gently toyed with her hair.
“You’re going to hurt me,” he said in somber resolve.
“How in heaven’s name—” The smoky promise of passion in his eyes cut off her words.
“I wanted to kiss the hell out of you out there in the rain,” he whispered. “I wanted to—”
His hand retracted and rubbed over his face.
“You are afraid of something, Megan Summers, and I’m certainly not going to add to that.” The stern wrinkles at the corners of his eyes softened. “But damn, you tempt me.”
“Don’t—” Megan felt the panic well again. Only, this time her concern was for this stranger. The woman in her, the ghost of Margaret Simmons, screamed at her not to drag this man into her troubled world. “Don’t be tempted. I’m not a person you want to get involved with. It—it’s just not going to happen.”
He smiled. A sad smile. “I know it’s not going to happen.” Regret thickened Jake’s voice. He reached for her again, his fingers touching the back of her neck. She felt them trace the sensitive skin beneath her hair, and she quivered in response. He must have felt it because he smiled.
It was the last thing Megan saw before he kissed her.
This was just going to be a soft kiss to let Megan know that he was there for her. Even now, save for the hand he had around the back of her neck, Jake barely touched her. His mouth was brief with its perusal, frustratingly so to keep him in check. And yet, to his surprise she seemed to pursue him.
She leaned in to that kiss, one hand splayed across his thigh for support. Jake stifled his groan with another brief swipe of his mouth, but Megan was using her soft lips to coax his open. She wanted inside, and this time he couldn’t repress the rumble of need in his throat. Still, he managed to evade her. If he relented, he wouldn’t—couldn’t possibly stop at this kiss.
Megan was making tiny mewls of frustration now, her hand inching up his thigh as she
pursued him again. Jake recognized this burst of sensuality as a byproduct of fear, and didn’t think she necessarily wanted
as much as she needed escape. God help him, he wanted to offer her that, but when the morning came, where would that leave them?
His hand slipped from the realm of silky hair down to her shoulder, where he gently coaxed her back.
“Megan,” he whispered huskily.
Stark blue eyes blinked and her head jerked as if she just woke from a dream.
“Jake—I—” Her hand snapped from his thigh. “I—”
He wanted to swipe the confusion from her troubled face with a searing kiss.
“Easy, it’s okay.” He reached up and dusted long chocolate bangs away from her eyes.
“Nightmares. They’re a bitch aren’t they?”
For a moment Megan looked dumbfounded. Then she snorted, followed by a throaty laugh.
He thought she looked absolutely beautiful. The pleasant sound of her laughter was the perfect weapon to fend off the storm.
Never before had he paid attention to the sound of a woman’s laughter, or ever considered it melodic enough to alter weather patterns.
“Quite succinctly put,” Megan managed.
She sat back in the chair and drew a leg up, resting her chin on her knee and watching him. “I’m sorry about that. I don’t think I really knew what I was doing there.”
“Sure, go ahead, stroke my ego.”
Megan laughed quietly, and Jake liked to imagine that some of the tension eased from her body. She looked past his shoulder to the window matted with rain, noticing that the black of night had given way to a cool gray morning.
“Thank you, Jake.”
Jake cleared his throat, remembering the sensation of her hand inching up his thigh.
“I wish you could tell me about it.”
“The nightmare? It was nothing. Look at this place.” Her hand swept the shadows.
“Wouldn’t you have nightmares here?”
No, Megan, he thought. Glib prattle is not going to put me off. “That would bring me back to my original observation,” he said. “What are you hiding from that makes it necessary to live out here, so far from civilization?” He paused. “Megan, for God’s sake, why the gun?”
Megan hoisted herself from the chair and paced to the window, brushing aside the lace curtains. “I need privacy in order to write. And being so far from civilization means I need protection.”
Jake supposed that what bothered him the most was that she didn’t yell. She should have ranted and raved that it was none of his damned business. Her answer seemed too trite.
He rose and approached her. There was an obvious stiffening of her spine, but she let him fall in behind her. Jake touched both of her shoulders and with the slightest exertion he drew her back so that her body ran the length of his. Merged together, as innocent as the embrace may seem, he swore the heat melted away the icy pelts on the glass.
“Can I ask you something?”
A tiny bleat signaled her frustration at his relentless questions.
Jake continued, “If I can get out of here tomorrow—” He felt her tense, and hoped that it was the notion of him leaving that upset her. “If I can get out—will you come with me to visit Estelle?”
Before she could deny him, Jake hastened to add, “I wouldn’t even recognize the woman.
And let’s face it, I’m an outsider in this town—”
Megan let loose a short laugh. “And I’m not?”
Amazingly she leaned back into him. Perhaps fatigue caused the spontaneous gesture, regardless, his arms wrapped protectively around her.
“What do you think?”
Megan sighed and just for a moment touched the arms wrapped around her. Another gurgle of aggravation sounded in her throat and she pried herself from his grasp.
“Don’t look for something from me.”
Jake didn’t respond. He stared through the window at the slim band of light struggling to brighten a horizon weighed down by storm clouds.
“I’m not looking, Megan.” He breathed, misting the glass and obscuring the view. “I’m just here to find out about Estelle Wakefield and her daughter.”
Yeah, that’s what it started out as—but as of tonight, as of this embrace, Jake wasn’t sure that’s all he was looking for.
How the hell had he convinced her to go out in public?
Megan inched lower in the front seat of Jake’s Jeep, resting her head as far back as she could to mask herself within its frame. She studied his profile to see if he caught the motion, but the unshaven jaw was set grimly and his eyes were trained on the path. Strong hands wrapped around the steering wheel to control the vehicle as it bucked and finally climbed onto the main road.
Megan inched even lower.
Curse that fickle bridge for letting them through today.
She wanted to stay in her remote fortress. There would never be a place that she felt safe—not anymore, but at least in Wakefield House she had an advantage. Here, out in the open, her vulnerability made her feel like a lobster primed for the boiling pan.
Megan shifted her shoulders below the sightline of the door.
“If you want, you can lie across the backseat.”
A muscle pumped along Jake’s jaw. “A hat perhaps?” He didn’t take his eyes off the road. “Maybe one of those fake nose and glasses?”
Her cheeks infused with heat. “I happen to be tired. I was just getting into a comfortable position. Maybe take a quick nap.”
Jake looked at her now. On the surface there were the slight wrinkles of a smile at the corners of his eyes, but the gold flecks grew dark with concern.
“I guess contortionists can nap.”
She didn’t rise to the bait, so he continued, “I promise one quick trip to Candlelight Center and then we’ll head straight back.”
“I’m fine.” It irked her that he read her so well. “I don’t know what you’re making such a fuss about.”
Jake reached across the space between them and touched her hand. His wide palm engulfed hers as he squeezed gently. “Megan, if you don’t let go of that seat belt you’re going to lose all the circulation in your hand.”
Megan eased her death grip on the seat belt and tried to wriggle her fingers to get some of the numbness out. She scowled at Jake and he only chuckled.
His palm wound back around the steering wheel and Megan already missed its warmth. She reached for the seat belt again, but lowered her hands to grip the frame of the bucket seat so
that he wouldn’t notice.
“Agoraphobia, is that it?” he asked in a deep voice, any semblance of a grin gone.
“Afraid of public places?”
“Yeah, that’s it.” Her answer sounded a little too rushed, but Megan was finding it hard to breathe now.
To her surprise Jake pulled the Jeep over to a roadside vista, an elbow in the road that offered a view of rocky cliffs and the grand silhouette of the lighthouse.
“What?” She regarded him warily.
He shifted the vehicle into Park and turned toward her with eyes that mirrored the clouds.
“If you are really this uncomfortable, we’ll turn around.”
Suddenly, Megan felt childish. She had ventured into Victory Cove before and encountered nothing but hospitable citizens who regarded her with warmth and kindness.
But yes—she had worn a hat and sunglasses.
“Then what is it, Megan? Is it me?”
Yes. No. Why couldn’t she think?
Except for some bouts of paranoia and the deluge of nightmares, she had survived the past year with tenacity. Now, a soaking wet Jake shows up on her doorstep looking for his long-lost grandmother, and suddenly she has an epidemic of irrational tendencies.