Heart of the Hunter

Heart of the Hunter
BJ James
AUTHOR'S NOTE

Although Kiawah truly exists and is as lovely as I've said, perhaps even more so, no ruin lies on its shore. No legend is told of a foolish dreamer who built a castle for his forbidden love. But those who have been to Kiawah will know, and those yet to go will discover, that such a love affair could be much more than fantasy on this enchanting island.

Enjoy,
BJ

Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

One

H
e watched. From his quiet lair, his hard stare never wavering, he looked down on the shore.

Down at her.

In this hour after dawn, as gulls glided like shadows against the horizon and waves spilled a froth of gold over glittering sand, there was the woman.

Only the woman.

As the sun lifted above the tree line, the sky was alight with a waiting promise of the white, searing heat of a windless day. But for now, as first light turned the massive window where he stood to a luminous canvas, morning clung doggedly to a fragile cool.

Morning on the island, a collage of contrasts. As was the woman who walked in solitude.

The island was Kiawah, a sultry emerald adorning the coast of South Carolina.

The woman was Nicole Callison.

Callison.

He must not forget.

A wordless mutter ruffled a calm steeped in luxury, the low sound of tempered fury and regret echoed hollowly from cavernous heights. In his stark face, rigid lips thinned to a grim line, mirroring a struggle for discipline that could mean his life.

There was no place for anger in this, nor regret. He was the hunter; Nicole Callison his snare. He would do what he must with no recriminations.

None.

Keeping field glasses trained on her, he lifted his first cup of coffee for the day to his lips. Forgotten in singular concentration, it was tepid, as black and oily as diesel fuel. He barely noticed. He waited for the moment when she would turn, when he would see her face. The face of his quarry.

Glasses clenched hard in one hand, nails scoring pebbled leather, he turned in place, moving only as she moved, tracking her path to the ruin hunkered in the sand. As she began climbing slabs of stone stacked helter-skelter like fallen dominoes, he went utterly still. No effort was needed, now, to keep her in sight. Perhaps not ever, for he'd known her ultimate goal. A sheet of broken marble that rested at its pinnacle, the last crumbling vestige of a ballroom where a dreamer called Foley and a woman of mystery danced through the fury of a hurricane as it swept his gift of love away.

What the ancient storm consigned to the sea on that night, the shore had been a half century reclaiming. Now the ruin and its legend stood on shifting sands, an abiding testament of the pomp and grandeur of another time, of courage and frivolity and unmatched devotion. Scoffed at and revered by the islanders and history alike, Foley's castle became Folly's Castle, as it was left as nature would have it.

Folly or masterpiece, there was magnificence in the weather-beaten ruin gleaming dully in the sun. As there must have been in the woman bound to it by love. As there was in the woman who stood drinking in the sight of sea and sky as if there were no more perfect place.

Drawn by the light, defined by it, the line and curve of her body was etched against the backdrop of vast, glittering blue. She was small, five feet two, perhaps three. Beneath the fall of a faded T-shirt her hips were slim, her breasts shapely and free. Legs, clad in tattered shorts just visible beyond the hem of her shirt, were strong and tanned. From bare toes to the battered straw hat tugged low over her forehead, she was the complete beachcomber.

Too complete? he wondered. Through narrowed eyes he studied the subtle sophistication in her bearing, the casual dignity in every move and stride. Was she innocent, or consummate actress? Was there purpose in the role she played? A reason for her quiet existence among the revelers of the exclusive island community?

Why was she the span of a continent from her home, walking the Atlantic shore not the Pacific? What circumstances brought her to trade West for East?

Was she running? Hiding?

Waiting?

Waiting for what? For whom?

The cup he'd forgotten thudded to the table at his knee. Only half aware he'd set it aside, or that he'd caught his breath again, he watched as she faced the shore at last.

There was no elegance now, no sophistication, only the naturalness of a woman at ease with her world. With a sudden fling of her hand, her hat was spinning over the sand, the flamboyant scarf tied at its crown fluttering like the tail of a playful kite.

A shake of her head sent her close cropped hair flying and shimmering in the sun, as iridescent as the wing of a raven. He saw then, as he knew he would, as he had before, that her features had been sculpted kindly by time. Hollows and shadows of maturity made real a beauty that had been a covenant of youth. Her full lips were parted in laughter. Her nose was straight, unmarred by the scar at its bridge. Her eyes were green, sometimes gray or blue, their hue changing with the color she wore.

Today her shirt was red, fading to pink. Her eyes would be green, and were looking directly at him.

He knew it was illusion, a trick of the light. The house with the sun behind it would be no more than squares and angles in black relief against the sky. There was nothing to draw her attention to the sheets of glass that served as doors and windows for the multilevel house. Nothing that would betray him. She had no reason to suspect field glasses, carefully shielded from any telltale glare, tracked every minute detail of her morning ritual day after day. No reason to suspect this quiet routine was intimately familiar to an intruder who watched and waited.

An intruder who stared at her, lost in thoughts of another time, not truly seeing that her eyes were green, nor that the scar curved like a perfect half-moon at the bridge of her nose. For whom that which field glasses weren't powerful enough to discern, and photos from a dossier couldn't relate, memory provided.

This moment came each day, and always with the same effect. The measured beat of his heart thudded harder, his breath shuddered to a halt, and with a sense of déjà vu he stepped back into the past, staring into a face that time had turned to a soft, but perfect replica of another.

The face of Tony Callison, the man she'd worshiped. The man he had come here to kill, if he must.

“And now, Nicole?” The question shattered a pervasive silence. Hoarse from disuse, his voice echoed as before, a hollow sound ricocheting from towering ceilings and bare walls. “Do you worship your brother even now?”

White knuckled and grave, he moved the glasses from his eyes. He stared without seeing sea or shore or woman. His blinded sight turned inward, the coil of doubt he'd fought writhed down his spine. What if she did? What would he do if she knew what her brother had become and was a part of it? How would he deal with what must be done?

Would a split second of doubt cloud his perceptions? Would memory blunt his judgment?

“No!” Denial was fierce and low, more growl than word. Shaking aside an uncommon distraction, he turned from the window leaving the sea to break over the shore unwatched. Leaving Nicole Callison to wander in her solitude. He'd been a hunter too long for sentiment to interfere in his work. A hired gun did what was needed and walked away. This time would be no different.

Tossing the glasses on a chair, he crossed to a telephone. Stabbing out a number he waited for the gruff voice that would need no identification. One ring, two, a third was cut off in midring.

“I've seen enough.” He spoke without preamble, lifting his gaze to the window. All that was visible from this vantage was the horizon, where sea and sky blended into one. Listening to the voice on the telephone, he closed his eyes, imagining Nicole Callison sitting atop a tumbled castle by the sea. A siren, unaware, luring the hunted to the trap.

Taking the telephone with him, the coiled cord sliding over tile and carpet as he walked, he returned to the window. With his eyes still lifted to the horizon he nodded absently to reiterated instructions and cautions that needed no answer. When the voice with the hint of a Scots burr was finally silent, he nodded again. “I'll make contact today.”

Another rush of instruction crackled over the line. More abrupt cautions. When they were done, the intruder smiled one last time. “Yes, sir, I'll be careful.”

A flick of his thumb broke the connection. For a long while he watched the sea changing as the light changed, reflecting the mood of the day. When he looked again at the ruin, she was gone and the early morning had lost its innocence. The first of the promised heat was rising from the sand, marshaling its strength. Soon the temperature would soar, the air would turn sultry. But long before then, when countless sun worshipers dotted the beach with canvas chairs and gaudy umbrellas, she would be hard at work.

So would he.

The first sunbather appeared at the surf's edge as he turned away to make ready for his day. An hour later, when the heat was an inescapable truth, and the shore a milling kaleidoscope of half-naked bodies, he stepped from the geometric extravagance that was his temporary home.

There was no uncertainty in his cold gray eyes, no smile on his lips when he slipped into the roadster parked in his drive. In that rare, unguarded instant he bore little resemblance to the typical islander, the image he'd carefully cultivated among the island inhabitants for weeks.

He was Jeb Tanner, the intruder. The hunter.

No misgivings.

No regret.

* * *

The drive to Charleston was uneventful. The bridge spanning the Ashley river afforded a spectacular view, but he was familiar with the coastal city and, today, was unmindful of it. Driving purposefully, and as swiftly as city ordinance allowed, in a matter of minutes he arrived at the entrance of a narrow cul-de-sac. Small shops lined the way, each charming and in complete harmony with the historic atmosphere of the old seaport.

Nicole Callison Galleries lay at the end of the winding pathway.

With a bit of luck and good timing, he captured a newly vacated parking space in an unpaved lot. Sliding the powerful roadster into the narrow space, he was out of the car as the snarl of the engine died. Loose gravel crunched and scattered beneath his feet, roughing the leather of his shoes, but his step was deliberate and sure. The beginning was finally at hand and he was ready to have done with it.

As he passed them by, he squandered no glances on shop windows with ware displayed as works of art. He'd walked the street before. He'd passed them by before. Each time, as now, his attention was riveted on the shop that had only a door of dark wood and leaded glass. A massive door, the final barrier. And Jeb Tanner knew beyond question that when he stepped through it, neither his life nor Nicole Callison's would ever be the same.

At the doorstep, before the nameplate with the gallery hours listed in curling script, he paused. His thoughts drifted to the past as he pondered what he'd been, what a life immersed in secrecy and subterfuge had made of him. And what he would be when this was finished.

A look of irritation crossed his face. He was annoyed with himself, with his questioning. The time for questions was over. He'd come to do a job that must be done, no matter what harm might come to the woman.

The woman.
He'd struggled to think of her as no more than that. A warm body, a means to an end, and only incidentally female. She wasn't Nicky. The coltish young girl, who'd tagged along behind her brother and his friend like a lonely puppy, no longer existed.

None of them did, not as they were. The girl had grown into a beautiful woman. Her brother was a brutal murderer who killed as much for pleasure as for greed.

And he had come, bringing the skills he'd been years learning, to end a rampage of terror.

“Whatever the cost.”

The brass handle curved against the palm of his hand, bits of glass glinting like rainbows darkened in his shadow, wood swung silently on oiled hinges. A bell jangled a warning peal as he took the step that set into motion a plan months in the making. The door closed at his back and in the cool interior he saw her seated at a desk a little distance away.

The gallery lights were still down. A lamp at her desk spilled a wreath of light over her wrists and hands. For an instant, with her half-averted face bent toward the glowing circle, the years were swept away, and the polished woman was the guileless girl he'd known.

With a rustle, she laid one small canvas aside and another was taken up. He watched as her gaze moved over a mélange of color, recalling a memory of the unwavering concentration of a gifted student ahead of herself in time and place. An innocent, for all her astonishing intelligence, lost and a little confused and with only her brother to cling to.

“Don't stand there by the door rehearsing excuses I won't believe, come on in.”

Her voice calling out to him was low, the rich, lilting contralto of a mature woman. He heard the assurance, the throb of stifled laughter, and illusion faded.

“You thought I'd forgotten you, didn't you?” she continued. “I haven't, so stop dawdling and come tell me what you think of these.” Intent on the canvas in her hand she seemed unconcerned that her greeting had gone unanswered. “By the way—” her laughter became a chuckle “—good morning.”

Wondering who merited the affection he heard in her scolding, Jeb crossed to the desk. As fifteen years slipped firmly back into place, his step became a stalker's step. Light, quiet, undistinguished. The distance was short, a half pace behind her chair he stopped.

She didn't glance away from the simple paintings. “Ashley left these on the doorstep this morning. Before you say it, I know the display is set and including them means rearranging a whole wall. But he's finally agreed to trust us with something of his.” Laying a canvas aside, she took up another, tracing the rough edge thoughtfully, as if she would immerse herself in the sun-dappled sea drawn there. “When what he's done is as wonderful as this, how can we not?”

Jeb's cursory glance dismissed the paintings. Not because they weren't moving, or beautiful, but because he couldn't think of paintings now. Not when the woman who had fascinated and intrigued him for weeks was a touch away.

Only a touch.

With her back to him and her head bowed, her close-cropped hair fell in ringlets against the nape of her neck. Like an ebony fringe, it brushed the collar of the fawn colored jacket. Jeb wondered how it would feel to brush away cloth and ringlet and twine his hand about that fragile column. How satisfying to touch her, to capture the warmth of her flesh in his palm, taming the throb of her pulse beneath his fingertips? The need to unravel and understand every facet of this woman was so powerful his arm had lifted, his hand outstretched before he realized what he'd done. For an interminable time his fingers hovered an inch from the curve of her throat.

Other books

Once Beyond a Time by Ann Tatlock
The Doll by Taylor Stevens
The Golden Naginata by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt
Deception at Sable Hill by Shelley Gray
Wolf's-own: Koan by Carole Cummings
Interior Motives by Ginny Aiken