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Authors: Christina Dodd

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BOOK: Into the Shadow
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Mingma backed away toward the entrance, paused and lingered, then slipped from the tent.

Karen gave a small, pleased smile. Getting rid of Mingma was the first step toward freedom. For the first time in two weeks Karen was alone. Now she could do what had to be done.

She needed her hiking boots. She needed clothes that fit and that she could hike in. Most of all, she needed her coat.

She hurried to his open clothing trunk. Kneeling on the Kashmiri rug, she sorted through his clothes.

And there it was. Her coat. She dug in the pockets, and as her fingers clutched the icon she closed her eyes in relief.

The Madonna was safe.

She pulled it out and sat there, holding the icon in her hand, looking into the Virgin Mary’s large, dark, sad eyes. As she did, the events of that day swam through her brain like a fevered dream. The discovery of the grave . . . the body of the child . . . those eyes, so much like Karen’s, sad, dutiful, and a startling blue-green . . . and the dissolution of the fragile body beneath Karen’s touch.

Then the thunder of the rockfall, Phil’s refusal to leave, Warlord’s appearance . . .

Every moment since had been out of her control. But what other course could she have taken? If Warlord hadn’t pulled her onto the motorcycle, she would have died. Now here she was, a captive to a man who both frightened and enthralled her.

She had never been religious—she’d had no chance, for her father had no patience with Bible-thumpers—but now, in a prayer that came from her heart, she pleaded, ‘‘Mary, please help me find the way home.’’

Home . . . She didn’t have a home. Her father’s dark mansion in Montana was decorated with antlers and brown leather, and although she’d been raised there, she was always on edge, looking over her shoulder, waiting for the next sharp criticism, the next impatient sneer.

So why had she begged the Madonna to help her go home?

‘‘What is that?’’ Warlord’s soft voice spoke behind her.

She gasped out loud—when had she become such a girl?—and brought the icon to her bosom, every instinct commanding that she protect the holy object. ‘‘I found it,’’ she said. Had he heard her?

‘‘Where did you find a Russian icon?’’ Warlord caught her wrist and brought the Madonna into the light. He appraised it with a glance. ‘‘The style looks as if it was painted early in the history of the Orthodox Church.’’

‘‘How do you know?’’

‘‘In Russia, before the Soviets—and during, sometimes—the icon was the heart of the family, venerated above all things. They’re the Gospel in paint, and kept in the beautiful corner, the
krasny ugol
, the red corner.’’

‘‘The red corner?’’ What was he talking about?

‘‘In the Russian culture, red means beautiful. ’’ He spoke with the calm certainty of an expert. ‘‘These icons, especially icons of the Virgin Mary, were considered miracles. Every pose, every color had meaning, and there are folk legends of evil and good fighting for possession of the icons.’’

‘‘What do the legends say?’’ More important, how did he know? She had lived through weeks of strange events, but this was perhaps the strangest, that this creature of mystery and shadow should converse with such knowledge about the Russian culture.

‘‘You know, the usual. The devil makes a deal with an evil man. To seal the pact the evil man offers to give the devil his family icon, a single piece of wood painted with four different images of the Madonna. But his mother refuses to let her son take the icons. So he kills her, washes his hands in her blood, and while he drinks to celebrate closing the deal, the devil divides the Madonnas and, in a flash of fire, hurls them to the four ends of the earth, where they are lost.’’ Warlord stared at the icon as if he recognized it. ‘‘Hmm. Lost for a millennium now.’’

She didn’t like the glib way he recited the story. She didn’t like the way he held her wrist. She didn’t like the gleam in his eyes.

‘‘May I see it?’’ he asked, but it was nothing more than a formality, for at the same time he scooped it away from her.

As soon as he grasped the icon, she heard a sizzling sound, smelled burning flesh.

He tossed the icon into her lap. He stepped back and stared. At her. At the icon. Then at his hands.

‘‘What happened?’’ Picking up the icon, she cradled it in her palms. It wasn’t hot, yet he acted as if it had scorched him.

Walking to the washbasin, he plunged his hands into the cool water. Still in that conversational tone, he said, ‘‘Those old legends are rife with superstitions.’’

She looked at the Madonna, and she suspected the truth. ‘‘What deal did the evil man make with the devil?’’

Warlord stood with his back to her and stared into the basin. ‘‘One that damned his descendants to hell.’’

‘‘Are you a descendant of that evil man?’’

‘‘You’re a woman of good sense. You don’t believe such a dumb story.’’

She’d seen the child, dead for a thousand years, open her eyes. She’d lived Warlord’s memories. She’d heard Warlord’s flesh sizzle when he’d held the icon. In a broken voice she said, ‘‘I don’t know what I believe.’’

‘‘It doesn’t matter, anyway.’’ He continued to stand with his hands in the water and his back to her. ‘‘I’m sending you away.’’

For a moment, his casual tone muted the impact of his words. Then she understood, and elation tore though her . . . followed by an inexplicable sense of loss. And why should she feel loss? This was the goal she’d wanted, demanded, struggled toward achieving. She could go home knowing she had never yielded to his sexual domination. Leaving now would allow her to keep her pride and integrity.

Yet still the loss was there.

And the fear, for she knew he would never let her go unless something was terribly, horribly wrong.

‘‘Why? What’s happened?’’ she asked.

‘‘My raiding has pissed off armies on both sides of the border, and they brought in an experienced mercenary troop to take me out and keep things under control. The Varinskis are well-known for their terror tactics. It’s too dangerous for you to stay.’’

He’d brought this on himself, then. All right. ‘‘I’ll need my boots and some clothes that fit me.’’

He turned to face her, and she was shocked to see him laughing. ‘‘Practical, prosaic Karen.’’ Reaching under the table, he found a key, handed it to her, and pointed. ‘‘In that trunk.’’

She rose. ‘‘I’ll get dressed.’’

He walked to the tent flap, lifted it, and listened. She could almost see him go on alert. ‘‘Hurry.’’

She didn’t need to be told twice. She stripped off the robe and got into the clothes with swift efficiency. When at first he helped, she tried to shove him away, but it soon became clear that he had no lascivious intentions. He worked to place weapons on her body. He strapped a Glock around her chest and a knife up her sleeve, and he loaded her backpack with rounds of ammo and dried rations. He filled a canteen with water and placed it on her belt, and gave her a multitool that matched the one she’d lost in the rock slide. He placed a compass and GPS in her pocket and, miracle of miracles, he hung her passport around her neck.

Her passport . . . she’d thought it lost in the rockfall. ‘‘Where did you get that?’’

‘‘I stole it from your tent many, many weeks ago.’’

‘‘You ass,’’ she mumbled, but right now she was grateful. Having her passport would expedite her trip home—and keep her from having to apply to her father for help.

As they worked, she knew he was listening to something outside. At first she heard nothing, the thick tapestries insulating her from the tumult outside. Slowly the clamor pierced the silence in the tent. The noise grew, growled, adding an edge to her haste.

When she had finished lacing her boots, he knelt in front of her. ‘‘Head for Kathmandu. Don’t stop walking for eighteen hours. Don’t trust anyone unless you’re in the American embassy, and even then, be wary.’’ He looked up, his eyes dark and serious. ‘‘No matter what— survive.’’

‘‘I will.’’

‘‘I know.’’ He went to the back of the tent and ripped the seam open.

Noise from the battle blasted into the tent. She heard screams, gunshots, growls of fury, and brutish war cries.

He flipped a section of the walk up and around, then laid it out across the gap. There was the bridge she’d sought when she escaped before. ‘‘Remember everything I told you.’’

‘‘I do.’’

‘‘When you get back to the States, can you do one more thing for me?’’

Call his mother, she supposed, and say reassuring stuff. ‘‘Sure. Anything.’’

Taking her face between his hands, he kissed her. Kissed her deeply, swiftly, with the intent to brand himself on her.

She didn’t want to, but she responded. She tasted him, knew him, absorbed him. And, yes, felt loss for a relationship and a man doomed from the start.

Pulling away, he looked into her eyes. ‘‘Somehow, someday, I will come for you. Watch for me.’’ He kissed her again. Turned away. Ran toward the front of the tent. Pushed the tent flap open. The last thing she saw was Warlord leaping off the platform and into the melee, a pistol blazing in each hand.

He wasn’t there to hear, but she answered anyway: ‘‘I’ll do anything but that.’’ Picking up her backpack, she walked across the bridge.

She didn’t look back.

Chapter Thirteen
Montana, five weeks later

K
aren stood in the doorway of her father’s study. The heavy burgundy curtains were closed. The walnut-paneled walls were dark. A new elk head hung above the cold fireplace.

Pen in hand, Jackson Sonnet sat at his desk in a pool of light, a short, broad-shouldered, gray-haired man, scowling as he read the papers before him.

‘‘Daddy?’’ Her voice broke a little.

He froze. Paused. Without looking up, without a note of welcome or relief or joy, he said, ‘‘It’s about time you got home.’’

Her breath caught on a bright shard of broken hope. Just this once, when he didn’t know if she was alive or dead, she’d hoped . . . She put down her bag.

It contained her passport, her wallet, enough clothes to last a couple of days . . . and the mangled remains of her slave bracelets. When she’d reached Timbuktu, she’d had a jeweler cut them off. He’d offered her a nice sum for the twenty-two-carat gold; she’d refused. Because she could get a better price somewhere else, she’d told herself. Because she might need the money . . . or because she wanted to cast the bracelets into the fires of Mount Doom, where they would return to the home of evil from whence they came.

She winced.

She might still be a little traumatized.

She advanced into the room. She wanted to fall on her father’s neck and weep out her agony, but she knew better. No matter that she’d vanished into the Himalayas; this was no different from all the other homecomings.

So she gave her report. ‘‘The mountain collapsed on the site. The rockfall filled the valley. The hotel can’t be built.’’

‘‘You took five weeks to get around to telling me that?’’ He looked up, his eyes the light, piercing blue that had always, always terrified her as a child.

She’d thought long and hard about what to say to her father. He wouldn’t care that she’d suffered humiliation; he would see only that she suffered no crippling injury. So she decided on the truth, or at least the least revealing, least mortifying version of the truth. ‘‘I was kidnapped and held captive.’’

‘‘By whom?’’

‘‘One of the warlords who populate the area.’’
The
Warlord . . . but she wasn’t going into that. She ran her tongue around the tender inner flesh of her mouth, and for a brief second tasted the memory of his blood. On the edge of her mind a nightmare hovered, ready to be replayed.

She wasn’t going to think about him. Ever.

‘‘Before or after the rockfall?’’

‘‘He saved me, then kept me.’’

Jackson slammed his chair back so hard it hit the far wall.

Karen flinched.

Jackson came to his feet, his heavy hands clenched into fists. His voice low with contempt, he asked, ‘‘Do you expect me to believe that?’’

‘‘Yes. Why not? What do you think happened?’’

‘‘You’ve been screwing around with this guy because he had a black leather coat and a motorcycle.’’

‘‘How did you know that?’’ How did he know
anything
about Warlord?

‘‘You ran away with him and when he was tired of you, you come to me with this cock-and -bull story—’’

Where was he getting his information, with enough truth in it to make her look bad? ‘‘Dad. I can’t believe you haven’t sent someone to take pictures of the hotel site.’’

‘‘I did,’’ he admitted.

‘‘Did you happen to notice the millions of tons of rock obliterating the base of the mountain? I didn’t fake that rockfall.’’ She was incredulous. ‘‘Not even you could be that paranoid.’’

Wrong thing to say. Definitely the wrong thing.

Jackson flushed an ugly red. His harsh voice rose. ‘‘Do you know how much that project cost me?’’

‘‘It almost cost you your daughter!’’

‘‘My daughter,’’ he sneered. ‘‘Is that what you think?’’

Then he looked surprised, as if someone else had spoken.

The silence in the room was profound, and she found herself listening to the rasp of her own breathing. ‘‘What do you mean?’’

‘‘Nothing,’’ he muttered.

‘‘You mean, I’m not . . . your daughter?’’

His gaze dropped, and he actually looked discomfited. ‘‘It doesn’t matter.’’

‘‘Of course.’’ Her hands hung loosely at her sides, but her brain was racing. ‘‘That explains everything. The indifference, the impatience, the constant withholding of affection and approval . . . I’m not
yours
.’’

‘‘What difference does it make? I’ve had the trouble of raising you. I’ve paid for your education. ’’ His brief moment of remorse faded; he was working himself into a temper.

‘‘Get mad.’’ For the first time, she understood him. ‘‘That’s the way you deal with everything that makes you look bad or feel uncomfortable.’’

‘‘What man wouldn’t get mad? A wife who’s out screwing while I work, and all I get out of it is a worthless child. If your mother had to leave me with a kid, why the hell did it have to be a girl?’’

Karen didn’t care about his condemnation. She had to find out. . . . ‘‘Who was my father?’’

‘‘My best friend. Who the hell else?’’

She could almost taste Jackson’s bitterness. ‘‘Who was your best friend?’’

‘‘Dan Nighthorse. That bastard Blackfoot Indian.’’

‘‘I remember him.’’ Barely. He was a shadowy figure hovering in the background of her mind; those early memories were mostly taken up with the recollection of her mother’s hands, her mother’s smile, her mother’s eyes . . . her mother’s death.

‘‘He was always skulking around here, in between taking tourists into the mountains to live off the land and see the beautiful scenery. She loved to climb, was an expert, wanted us to go up into the hills to commune with nature, like a couple of hippies. I’ve got no patience for that crap.’’

‘‘I know.’’ Jackson might build hotels that catered to trekkers, but unless he could hunt, unless an animal died by his hand, he wasn’t interested in camping.

‘‘She nagged me, and finally I told her to stop bothering me and go with him.’’ He looked up at the collection of antlers that lined his walls. ‘‘I can’t believe she fell for his pile of bull.’’

A horrifying thought struck her. ‘‘Did you kill them?’’

‘‘Your parents? No, I didn’t kill them, no matter how much they deserved it. I was working while they were out romping around in the wilderness, and a freak snowstorm set in. Your mother stepped off the goddamned cliff—’’

‘‘I know.’’ Karen’s nightmares had always been of falling.

‘‘Nighthorse broke his neck trying to rescue her, and she damned near froze before the Civil Air Patrol spotted her and brought her in. My father called me and told me to come home and say good-bye to my wife, and
he
informed me then what everybody else knew— that they’d been screwing around behind my back for years.’’

‘‘I remember Grandpa.’’ A tall, big-bellied, nasty man who abused his son, ignored her, and sent the housekeeper fleeing.

‘‘When I got to the hospital, they told me the internal bleeding couldn’t be stopped. Like I cared.’’ He stopped, cleared his throat. He was trembling with some great emotion.

Karen realized he suffered. From humiliation, she supposed.

‘‘Abigail wanted my promise to raise you as if you were my own.’’

‘‘You gave it to her?’’ Karen couldn’t imagine her father yielding to pressure, not even from a dying woman.

‘‘I gave it to her.’’ He sneered again, but this time he was facing the mirror. ‘‘My father said I was a fool, and I was. But I loved her. Bet you didn’t know that.’’

‘‘You . . . loved her?’’

‘‘God only knows why. She wasn’t good for anything. Couldn’t keep the house tended. Couldn’t keep the ranch going. She whined because I didn’t spend enough time with her. She bitched because I took my pleasures while I traveled. Then she cheated on me with my best friend.’’

‘‘Imagine that.’’ Everything inside Karen, all the parts that had been unsure, in wonder, seemed to grow strong. Her lungs breathed, her heart beat, her balance was so sure not even an earthquake could throw her off the earth. And all the emotional parts of her, the ones that held on to hope, fell away at the light that shone on her life. ‘‘What made you tell me this now? Why, when I’ve done nothing but work for you, try to please you, perform when no other can—why decide I betrayed you?’’

‘‘Phil told me.’’

‘‘Phil?’’ She tried to comprehend. ‘‘Phil Chronies?’’

‘‘Yes, that surprises you, doesn’t it?’’ Jackson surveyed her wide-eyed shock with grim satisfaction. ‘‘None other than Phil Chronies, the man who lost his arm in my service. The man you left to die.’’

‘‘Because he was too greedy to leave the gold—’’ Suddenly she realized what she was doing, and stopped short. She would
not
justify herself and her actions. Not to her father. Not when she’d just returned from the dead to find not relief, not welcome, but accusations. ‘‘How can you believe the worst guy in your whole organization without even asking me what happened?’’

‘‘You are your mother’s daughter, screwing around with some black-haired foreigner instead of working like you should.’’

She heard the echo of a bitterness so old it had started long ago. ‘‘Yes. I am my mother’s daughter. I’m loyal until the day when I realize that nothing I do can make you . . . approve of me.’’
Love me,
she meant, but he wouldn’t understand the term.

Warlord had done one thing for her. He had shown her a sort of love—warped, possessive, but given freely. Warlord had bound her with a rope, but now, as she looked at her father, she realized how tightly she’d been bound by his expectations.

Now she was released.

She took a step forward. ‘‘You’re a fool, Jackson Sonnet. I would have done anything for you. Anything. And you listened while Phil Chronies poured poison in your ear. You took his part against me.’’ She laughed briefly, and with a sense of freedom she’d never experienced before. ‘‘Thank you, Father, for making it possible for me to follow my dream.’’

He shook with baffled frustration. ‘‘What the hell are you talking about?’’

‘‘I’m out of here.’’ She looked down at her bag. She was wearing her coat. The icon was in her pocket.

Except for her picture of her mother, and she would pick that up on the way out, there was nothing she needed here. Nothing in this house she wanted.

‘‘I’m going to England. I’m visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’m going to Spain to visit every winery in the Rioja. I’m going to eat oranges and olives and tomatoes and bread. I’m going to make friends who know how to play. I’m going to bike, and swim in the Mediterranean, and bask in the sun.’’ She took a long breath, then released it . . . and all the tension of twenty-eight years spent bent and warped by Jackson Sonnet’s unending pressure.

He blasted her with all his usual subtlety. ‘‘That’s the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard.’’

‘‘It’s not a plan, Father. For the next year, I’m not
planning
a thing. I’m going to let the chips fall as they will.’’

‘‘How the hell do you think you’re going to pull this off?’’

‘‘Thanks to you, Father, and your stupid schedules that assured I’d never have time off, I’ve amassed a small fortune, and I can afford to take a year off.’’ Reflectively, she added, ‘‘Or two.’’

‘‘Are you insane? You’ve worked every day of your life. What makes you think you can spend time doing nothing but—’’

‘‘But what I want? What I’ve always wanted? I’m going to be civilized. I’m going to be a girl.’’ She tried to think of what would impress him with how serious she was. ‘‘I’m going to get a pedicure.’’

‘‘A pedicure?’’ He couldn’t have looked more outraged—or alarmed. ‘‘What the hell do you want a pedicure for?’’

‘‘I’ve only had one in my whole life—and I liked it. Now I’m going to have as many as I want.’’

‘‘You’re fired!’’

She thought about it. ‘‘No. I definitely think I quit first.’’ She bowed to him in mocking appreciation. ‘‘Good-bye, Father. Or should I call you Mr. Sonnet? Enjoy your time with Phil, and try to make yourself believe he’s telling you the truth.’’

The blood vessels that etched her father’s ruddy cheeks popped up like scarlet rivers on a map. ‘‘I can’t believe you’re giving up like this.’’

‘‘I’m not giving up. I’m finding myself.’’ Picking up her bag, she walked out the door.

She didn’t look back.

BOOK: Into the Shadow
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