LISSA'S elbow hit the floor with a thump, waking her and making her wince. She groaned, but as soon as the sound was out of her mouth, she clamped her hand over her lips.
What if he heard?
A shiver raked her body, but the reaction had more to do with her terror than the cold. She blinked, clearing away the blur of sleep. It was dark, very dark, except for the slash of light at the bottom of the door to the closet where she was hiding. She couldn't believe she'd fallen asleep, but even in her fright exhaustion had finally taken its toll.
The slash of light at the bottom of the door!
She realized it must be after dawn. Around midnight she'd scrambled into the deserted D'Amour mansion through a loose board nailed over a window. She'd been sure the man following her hadn't seen where she'd entered, but just to be safe, she'd hidden in this upstairs closet, barely breathing. For hours. Then she'd fallen into a fitful sleep.
Her whole body ached and felt cramped. It was so cold. Of course, being December, that shouldn't be a surprise. Still, Elissa wasn't accustomed to sleeping in closets in abandoned, unheated mansions. Stiff from the cold and the cramped position she'd been curled in, she shifted her wristwatch into the light stream. Seven o'clock! She couldn't believe it.
What a lousy way to begin a birthday. First the flat tire, then, when she'd realized the flat
her spare, and started to walk home, there had been movement in the brush. A
A big man. Something had glinted in the light of the full moon as he'd skulked from bush to bushâa wristwatch? A belt buckle? The blade of an ax? Her survival instincts had gone into high gear, especially after the unsigned letter she received last week. Threatening and scary. The police had taken a report and said they'd look into it. Even so, the sergeant had tried to reassure her, explaining it was most likely a prank, nothing to be worried about.
Well, she'd like to know what they'd think now, after she'd been forced to huddle in a closet all night. She stood, swallowing to bolster her courage, assuring herself that not even a certified nutcase would hang around in subfreezing temperatures all night. Taking a deep breath she cracked open the door and peered into the bare room. Cobwebs, dust motes and the smell of must were her only companions. Sunlight streamed in the dingy arched windows, the brightness of the day strengthening her resolve. Stalkers belonged to the night, didn't they?
As she emerged from the closet, the creak of the door sent a tingle of apprehension along her spine, but she controlled her reaction. “Elissa, are you a man or are you a mouse?” she muttered, then shook her head, her lips quirking. “Okay, so you're neither. Just
As soundlessly as she could, in a mansion that seemed to squawk and groan with every step, as if it were a cantankerous old grump, she made her way down the grand staircase and along the dark hall to the den. After peering out of the window through which she'd eatered, she determined that no large men with hatchets were lurking nearby. With a prayer on her lips, she slipped outside, not the easiest thing to do in her tweed suit's slender skirt.
From her vantage point at the side of the house, she could see her old sedan, a hundred yards down the road, but she couldn't see the front of the mansion. She hugged herself, watching her breath frost the air. What was she to do? Getting back to her inn and to a telephone was high on her listâjust below staying alive. The trip would be cut in half if she took the shortcut through the woods. With a determined nod, she pivoted toward the back of the manor.
As she rounded the comer, a massive male figure loomed. “Oh, my Lord!” she cried.
He was still here!
Reacting on instinct, the self-defense course she'd taken flashed through her mind. She clawed at the stranger's face and shot her knee up, finding her target. “Take that you pervert!” she yelled.
The intruder groaned then doubled over, and she knew she'd debilitated him enough to make her escape. She lurched away, scrambling into the woods. Stumbling and tripping along the rocky path, she cursed her unsuitable pumps. Her lungs burned with the cold, her brain whirring as she cast around in her memory. Who was that man? She only got a glimpse of him, but he seemed too well dressed to have been slinking around in the woods all night. And, unless he'd taken an advanced course in personal hygiene, he didn't resemble any of her down-and-out law clients. She had a feeling she would have remembered those extraordinary eyesâthe color of silver lightningâeven squinting in pain and shock.
As she reached the back steps of her inn, she paused to get her breath. Sucking in gasps of stinging air, she decided it didn't matter if she recalled him or not. He had to be someone from her time as a Kansas City lawyer. She'd only practiced for four years, and that seemed like an eternity ago. But apparently she wasn't forgotten. Somebody with a very big grudge remembered her.
She hugged herself, stifling another shiver and exhaled a frosty cloud. The most important thing at the moment was, she'd gotten away. Sinking to the lowest step, she pushed a shaky hand through her fiery curls. She was baffled. Had this man blamed her for losing his case and for his being sent to prison? Or was he possibly the relative of some victim who felt that her defense had set a guilty man free? If that were the case, then why had he waited years after she'd given up the practice of law to come after her? Her move from Kansas City had been no secret. Whoever he was, she hoped a knee to the groin was enough to make him change his mind about coming after her.
Unfortunately she had her doubts. “Who are you, mister?” she mused in a winded exhale. “What do you want with me?”
Elissa felt better with the attention of the two young patrolmen who had answered her call. They'd checked around the D'Amour mansion and searched the woods between the estate and her inn. They'd even taken her tire into town and gotten it patched and returned her car to her. She loved small towns. You wouldn't catch a Kansas City cop doing that.
The two officers promised to increase their patrols in the area and took down her sketchy description of the man she'd kneed that morning. One of the cops, built like a professional football player, startled her by asking her out to dinner. She was working on a nice way to decline and still get her extra night patrol when the front door of the inn opened.
She looked up to see at a towering man backlit by afternoon brightness. Dressed in an impeccable suit he seemed to completely block her door. He was handsome, his chiseled features marred only by three scratches along his jaw. When he met her gaze, she saw a flash of silver lighting in his eyes, and she screamed.
Plucking up the letter opener from the reception desk, she brandished it in his direction. “That's the pervert who attacked me this morning! Get him!”
At that moment a second man slipped inside the door. Elissa recognized him as a detective in the Branson police department. A wiry man with ginger freckles on his balding skull, his name had something to do with food, but she couldn't remember what. She stilled with her weapon thrust forward, making her look like Teddy Roosevelt pointing out the whites of his enemy's eyes.
The tall pervert seemed to register having met her before, too, and those amazing eyes narrowed. “You,” he growled.
“Don't just stand there,” she shouted, scanning the frozen cops and the detective who stood beside her stalker.
him. Throw him to the ground and cuff him.
He attacked me!”
The tall stranger scowled at her. “I attacked you?”
He took an ominous step toward her, and her ability to move returned. She waved the letter opener menacingly, adding some ad-libbed footwork, as if she were one of the Three Musketeers. “You certainly did attack me!” She eyed the cops with a pleading expression. “He's dangerous, I tell you?”
“Me?” The stranger's lips curled in a mocking smile. “Who was the one who ended up in a heap on the ground?”
The cop who had asked her to dinner took a step toward the tall man, but the detective waved him off.
“Why isn't anybody arresting that psychopath? Don't let him come near me!”
The scowling stranger touched his damaged cheek. “Miss, I wouldn't come near you unless you were declawed and your feet were glued to the floor.”
“Elissa,” the detective broke in, moving forward and extending his hand. “I'm Sergeant Jerry Hamm.”
“I remember you, Sergeant.” She tried to smile but her emotions were too wrought up for pleasantries. “And your wife. Minny, I think?”
“Right.” The sergeant had a quiet, oval face, his features almost delicate. He smiled encouragingly, showing off small, straight teeth. When she didn't relinquish her letter opener to take his hand, he dropped his arm to his side. “Anyway, this is Alex D'Amour. He owns the mansion, er, next to your property.”
Elissa had a protest on the tip of her tongue, but the sergeant's words stopped her. Her mouth worked for several seconds before she could speak. “Thisâthis man
the D'Amour mansion?”
Sergeant Hamm nodded. “I'm afraid we're here with bad news.”
She frowned, her gaze shifting from the sergeant to the tall, immaculately dressed interloper with her fingernail marks on his face. “Then you didn't follow me last night when my car broke down, and stalk me outside the mansion all night, and when I came out you didn't try to...” Her question died away as she watched a dark brow lift in incredulity.
Looking at him now, dressed as if he spent more time in boardrooms than insane asylums, the idea that he was her stalker was starting to seem a little crazy. Okay, maybe a
crazy. Perhaps she hadn't been stalked after all. Certainly not by this man. Her mind spun with anxiety and confusion. Was she merely overwrought because of the ominous letter, seeing things that weren't really there?
Doubt settled in her stomach as if it were a hot rock. She could see in the cops' expressions that, with her wild accusations that Mr. D'Amour was her stalker, they'd concluded she was nothing but a flighty female, crying wolf. She had to face the possibility that they might be right.
Trying to regain some of her pride, she straightened her spine. “Well,” she said warily, refusing to totally relinquish her suspicions, “justâjust because you dress well doesn't mean you wouldn't stalk me.”
He inhaled, nostrils flaring in obvious exasperation. “That's generous of you, Miss Crosby. But no thanks.”
When he moved toward her, she backed away wielding the letter opener again. “What are you doing?”
He lifted a leather briefcase and laid it on the oak reception desk that separated them. Flicking the latches, he opened it. “As Sergeant Hamm said, I'm bringing bad news.”
She eyed him with mistrust, recalling the sergeant had said something like that. Unfortunately she'd been too preoccupied with making an idiot of herself for his words to register. “Bad news?”
He retrieved a file folder and tossed it onto the desktop in front of her. “I recently discovered I'm the heir to the D'Amour mansion, Miss Crosby.” He lifted his gaze to meet hers again, dark lashes framing those stunning eyes. His expression was no longer angry, but hardly pleasant. “I also own this inn.”
She heard the words but they didn't make sense. She stared at him, bewildered. “What?”
He tapped the folder with one long, tanned finger. “I've brought evidence.”
She shook her head, running both hands through her hair as she tried to clear her brain. “Butâno. I don't understand. I bought this inn from the caretaker. He'd been left the property in the D'Amour's will.”
“I'm sorry, Miss Crosby,” Sergeant Hamm said. “I know this is a blow to you, but the man who sold you the inn is a con artist. Extremely good. Fortunately he's in jail now, in Texas, for a similar crime.” He indicated the folder before her. “Mr. D'Amour brought you a copy of his arrest record. The jerk fooled a lot of people over the years with scams like this. He found a likely property. Had all the right papers. At least they look right enough to convince the probate court and the title company.” He shrugged sloping shoulders. “I'm sorry to be the one to have to tell you.”
She stared at the sergeant, her mind numb.
“I understand you're a lawyer so I suggest you read these documents,” Mr. D'Amour said. “Once you do, everything will be clear.”
When he withdrew his hand from the desk her gaze traveled sluggishly to the yellow folder then rocketed to those silver eyes. “No,” she whispered. “There's been some mistake.”
He pursed his lips, his brows knitting. Without response, he shook his head.
“I'm so sorry, Elissa,” Jerry Hamm said, again, looking contrite. She'd met him and his wife several times at Branson functions, and liked him. She supposed he had to be there, to make it official, and she could tell he was far from pleased with the assignment. The sadness in his brown eyes frightened her more than anything this arrogant stranger had said.