Authors: Sheri WhiteFeather
The older woman rubbed her arms, then glanced at the coffee service that sat on a hand-carved table. “Would you like a cup?” she asked Susan.
“No, thanks. I had coffee with Ethan this morning.”
That made Lily smile. “I'm glad you rediscovered him.”
She thought about the way he'd held her. “Me, too.”
Just then Ryan entered the room, looking even more tired than before. Feeble, uncoordinated. But proud, so incredibly proud. He struggled to control his impaired speech. “If you ladies don't mind, I'm going to lie down for a while.”
Lily walked over to her husband. “Of course we don't mind.”
Susan should have glanced away, giving the older couple a stolen moment of privacy, but she watched them, her heart thumping in her chest. Ryan touched his wife's cheek, and she covered his unsteady hand with hers. A man and a woman who'd been in love since they were teenagers, who'd rediscovered each other years later.
Like Susan and Ethan.
No, she told herself. She wasn't in love with Ethan, and he wasn't in love with her. It wasn't the same.
When Ryan departed, Lily stood in the middle of the room, looking far too alone. She hugged herself, rumpling a cotton blouse. A pleated skirt flowed to her ankles and a pair of nonfringed moccasins made a simple, soft-spoken statement.
Susan approached her, taking her hand, holding it gently. When Lily was young, she didn't think she deserved Ryan. A poor Indian girl and a rich Texas heir. They'd come a long way, Susan thought.
“Don't start missing him,” she told Lily. “Not now, not while he's still part of our lives.”
“I'm trying to be strong.”
“You are strong.” Susan turned to face her, still holding her hand, still lending support. “You're everything he needs.”
Lily smiled through watery eyes, stifling her tears, refusing to cry. “Let's go outside. We can look through the photo albums I was working on before Emmett showed up.”
Susan followed Lily into the courtyard, where a glass table held a stack of leather-bound albums. Loose photos, some with aged and yellowed edges, were secured in a plastic container, the lid held tight. “Did you show Emmett pictures of our family?”
“Goodness, no.” Lily pulled out a chair. “He doesn't seem interested in our personal affairs. That man is strictly business.”
“It's strange, though, knowing he's related to the Fortunes. Of course that's what started this mess. His brother wanting a piece of the pie.”
“Jason wanted the whole pie.” Lily sat down, inviting Susan to do the same. “Emmett is nothing like him.”
A moment later they paged through the first album. Lily treated each photograph with reverence, even those that presented images of Ryan's first wife.
Ryan's second wife was another matter. There were no pictures of her, at least not in Lily's care. But the second Mrs. Fortune, who'd met with a violent demise, had used Ryan for his money, and Lily, of all people, had been accused of murdering her.
But that seemed like a lifetime ago, Susan thought. A storm Ryan and Lily had weathered.
“I want to show you something.” Lily reached for another album and opened it to the last page.
Susan gazed at the picture of a young boy with blond hair and blues eyes. He smiled for the camera, yet somehow he seemed lost.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“Ricky Faraday.” Lily touched the picture, almost as though she meant to smooth his hair, to brush a lock that fell onto his forehead. “He's ten years old, and he's Cameron Fortune's son.”
Susan took a closer look at the picture. “Cameron? Ryan's brother?”
“Ricky was born after Cameron died, but Ryan kept it a secret. His mother, Linda Faraday, was in the car with Cameron when he crashed it. But she didn't die. She went into a temporary coma, then a semi-conscious state later.”
“While she was pregnant with Ricky?”
Lily nodded. “She recovered, but it's been a long, hard road. At first she was in a nursing home, and now she's in a rehabilitation facility. She's able to visit Ricky, and he visits her, but their relationship is strained. They barely know each other.”
“Where does Ricky live?” Susan asked. “Who takes care of him?”
“Ryan found a foster home for Ricky a long time ago, with an elderly couple who treat him like a grandson.” She glanced up. “I've gotten close to Linda and Ricky, too. I've had the opportunity to spend some time with them. But it breaks my heart to see them so distant from each other.”
Susan touched the boy's picture. “Time is supposed to heal all wounds.”
“I hope so,” Lily whispered. “But you can't tell anyone about this. I only told you because you're a psychologist. And becauseâ”
“You needed to talk about it?”
Susan assured her that she wouldn't repeat any of it. That she would keep the secret.
“What does Linda look like?” she asked, wondering about the woman who'd given birth to Cameron's son.
“She's stunning,” came the instant reply. “Long blond hair, striking features. But she's fragile, too. Someone a man, a good man,” Lily added with a slight pause, “would want to protect.”
Emmett checked into the Corner Inn and walked across the street to what he considered a nameless, faceless diner. He entered the greasy-spoon establishment and looked around. He'd been in places like this all over the map. Red vinyl booths and a counter near the cash register that displayed day-old pies in clear, plastic cases.
He took a seat at the counter, and a down-home waitress handed him a menu and offered him coffee, which he accepted with a none-too-friendly nod. Emmett wasn't in the mood for small-town chatter.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a fair-haired boy eating lunch with his family. But it was the family that gave him pause. An older couple, probably the kid's grandparents, sat on either side of him, hap
pily sandwiching the boy. The youngster didn't seem to mind. If anything, he appeared comfortable with the gray-haired duo. It was the blonde seated across from him who made the child frown.
A woman, Emmett noticed. His mother? His older sister? Emmett couldn't tell. All he could see was the back of her head and a long, flowing mane of golden hair.
Turning away, Emmett scanned his menu. He had enough childhood memories locked away in his own troubled mind. He didn't need to concern himself with someone else's family.
Nothing could be as bad as claiming a killer, as having a man like Jason for a brother.
The waitress returned, and he ordered a burger and fries. The kid at the corner booth had been eating the same meal. Emmett cursed his curiosity and took a quick glance in that direction. The older couple seemed a bit too chipper, as if they were trying to make everything all right. But the boy's expression faltered every time he looked across the table at the blonde.
Who was she? Emmett wondered. And why did she make an innocent child struggle with his emotions?
She had pretty hair, that much Emmett could attest to. Which was a stupid, superficial thought, he told himself. An observance that didn't deserve merit.
By the time his food arrived, Emmett filled his empty belly and ignored the other patrons in the restaurant, including the boy and the blonde.
They didn't factor into his life. Or the reason he'd come to Red Rock. Catching a killer was his only agenda.
And he wouldn't rest until it was done.
usan couldn't sleep. She squinted at the digital clock beside her bed and wondered if Ethan was still awake. Should she take a chance and call?
She couldn't explain her restlessness, the feeling that something was wrong. Then again, a lot of things were wrong. Ryan was dying, and Lily was trying to hold on to every ounce of strength she had.
As for herself, she wanted to make everything better for both of them, to erase the pain in their lives.
But she couldn't. Not completely.
Wavering with temptation, she picked up the portable phone from its cradle and held the device in her hand.
her heart said.
And say what?
her mind asked.
She glanced at the clock again, and Chocolate stirred beside her, too sleepy to open his eyes.
Having Ethan's dog close by should be enough. But it wasn't. She wanted to hear Ethan's voice. She wanted him to soothe her discontented soul.
The phone grew warm in her hand, and she loosened her grip, trying to remember the number she'd written in her day planner.
Finally, she gave up and opened the top drawer for her little black book.
The connotation made her smile, then frown, then sigh. Seventeen years ago, her number had been scribbled in a lot of little black books. And on a few bathroom walls, too.
She dialed the digits that would connect her to Ethan, listening to each tone beep in her ear. When his phone started to ring, her nerves danced on the hot-tin roof of her heart.
“Hello,” he answered, but he didn't sound groggy. If anything, he sounded overly awake.
She wondered if he was having trouble sleeping, too. “It's me.”
“Susan? Is everything all right?”
“I'm just a little restless.” She paused and snuggled into bed, nudging Chocolate, who didn't budge an inch. “I needed to hear a friendly voice.”
“Then I'm all yours.”
All six gorgeous feet of him, she thought. “What were you doing before I called?”
“Watching cable TV, but there's nothing on.”
“What channel?” she asked, expecting him to say
Animal Planet. Every time she watched it, she thought of him.
“Playboy,” he said.
She blinked, kicked out her legs and caught her toes on the blanket. “What?”
“The Playboy Channel. That's what I was watching.”
He subscribed to that? “I thought you said nothing was on?”
“It was boring. It seemed like nothing.”
“Liar,” she challenged, and made him laugh.
“Okay, so it was sexy. But talking to you is better.”
Oh, he was good, she thought. Practiced in the art of seduction. Or was it deception? At this point she couldn't be sure. “Did you turn it off?”
“No.” He lowered his voice. “I just turned down the sound.”
“So you can still see it?”
She imagined him angling his head, gazing at naked women on the screen. Or maybe he was viewing naked couples. Soft porn or whatever the Playboy Channel promoted.
“Tell me what your room looks like,” he said.
When her mouth went dry, she moistened her lips. “Which room? The one in San Francisco or the one I'm staying in here?”
“Where you're at now. I want to picture the bed. I want to imagine you in it.”
Uh-oh. She should have known better than to call a man after midnight. Especially a hunky Texan who admitted that he wanted to sleep with her.
“What color are the sheets?” he pressed.
“And the blanket?”
“What's that? Pink?”
“Yes, but it's sort of an icy pink. Like nail polish or lipstick.”
“Mmm.” He made a moaning sound. “So it's a girlie room?”
“It's the same one I had when I lived here. It was always sort of girlie. A female guest room, I guess.” She pictured him in the hunting cabin, stretched out on the sofa bed, talking to her and watching naughty TV. A hot-blooded male in a primal environment.
“I wish you were here,” he said. “Or I was there.”
“Me, too,” she admitted, knowing they were playing a dangerous game. The next time they saw each other, this conversation would float between them like a dream. “But this is crazy. We're crazy.”
His voice turned raw. “I know.”
Susan wondered if he was aroused, hard and thick against his jeans or whatever he was wearing.
She wasn't about to ask. “Maybe we should hang up.”
“I don't want to. Do you?”
“No.” She couldn't bear to lose him, to sever the tie. Not yet. “Why don't we change the subject? Think of something safe to say.”
She racked her brain, then laid eyes on Chocolate. “Your dog snores. And he sleeps with his butt in the air.”
Ethan went silent, then chuckled under his breath. A
moment later a rustling sound came from his end of the line, as if he were moving, reaching for the remote to turn off the TV. “I forgot that damn mutt was there.”
She smiled, grateful that she'd just blown his fantasy. And better yet, abolished the Playboy instigator. “Do you want to talk to him?”
“Funny girl. Do you want to talk to the dogs that are sleeping with me?”
A laugh bubbled from her throat. “I guess that makes us even.” He'd just blown her fantasy, too. “Maybe they should talk to each other.”
“Maybe.” He took a deep breath and released it into the receiver. “Are you feeling better?”
She nodded, then realized he couldn't see her. “Yes. I'm not so restless anymore. I think I'll be able to sleep tonight.”
“Good. I like being your friend, Susan.”
Her heart nearly squeezed its way through the phone. “That means a lot to me, Ethan.”
“Then close your eyes, and I'll stay here until you fall asleep.”
“Okay,” she whispered, knowing it was the perfect way to spend the night with him, to rest in his phantom arms.
Ryan remained as still as a corpse, afraid he would disturb Lily. He'd been awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, at make-believe patterns on the walls.
He turned to look at his wife. Like a bat in an underground cave, he could see her in the dark because his eyes had adjusted to the absence of light.
She looked so pretty, with her hair fanned across a
pillow and her nightgown clinging to her body like a 3:00 a.m. rain.
Ryan didn't want to leave her. He didn't want to die.
When his breath clogged his lungs, he sat up, his body stiff from the rigid motion, from remaining still for so long. He flexed his legs, trying to regain use of his limbs.
Having a tumor was a bitch.
Desperate for some air, he reached for the clothes he'd deliberately left on a chair and grabbed his boots, tiptoeing, a bit sideways, to the sitting area and heading for the door.
Lily sighed in her sleep, and he hoped that she was dreaming. A good dream. Something heavenly.
He got dressed in the hall, then took care of his pajamas. As quietly as possible, he rumpled them into a ball and tossed them back into the room, where they landed in the sitting area like the ghosts that haunted Topper. Ryan smiled to himself, remembering those screwball comedies. Cary Grant classics, filmed even before he was born.
Being a ghost wouldn't be so bad, he decided. Not if life imitated art. But he knew it didn't. He wouldn't return from the dead to star in a madcap movie.
Once he was gone, it was over. Finished. He would never see Lily again.
With his heart twisting in his chest, he picked up the phone in the kitchen and called the main security line, letting them know he was going for a walk.
The officer didn't question his motives, but this wasn't the first time he'd strolled the grounds at this hour. Ryan was becoming a regular night owl.
But hey, rich folks were known for being eccentric.
At least Lily never found out. He always returned before she awakened, before she could worry about her husband's insomnia.
After he ended the call, he left through the back door and went outside, anxious to absorb the land that had become his legacy.
The Double Crown Ranch.
He spotted a security vehicle that was parked beside the perimeter of the backyard and waved to the guard who was manning it. He received a wave in return, realizing all of the officers on duty had been informed through their communication system that the old man was playing vampire again.
A rancher. A humanitarian. A ghoul of the night.
It struck Ryan as funny. But it struck him as sad, too.
He wondered if his father would be waiting for him in the afterlife, if Kingston Fortune would lead him into the white light.
And what about Cameron, his older brother? The ultracharming, drinking, gambling party boy who'd left a comatose woman and an unborn child behind? Ryan wasn't sure if he wanted to see Cameron again, even if Linda and Ricky had survived the pain Cam had put them through.
Ryan had done right by Linda and her son, but he was still worried about them, wishing he could find a young, noble man to look after them when he was gone.
But that was what he wanted for all of the women in his family. Gallant knights, dragon slayers who loved them.
The way he loved Lily.
Ryan kept walking, away from the prying eyes of the security guard and into the night. He needed to be alone, to think, to reminisce.
He didn't want his dragon slayer days to be over, even if his legs were getting weak, even if the darkness threatened to swallow him.
And then it did. Within the blink of an eye, someone grabbed him from behind, covering his mouth and making it impossible to breathe.
“Susan?” Ethan said her name, whispering into the phone. Had she fallen asleep? Drifted into a sensuous slumber?
She didn't respond, but he didn't have the strength to hang up on her.
Beautiful Susan. The girl of his boyhood dreams.
He took the phone into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, where the light poured over the cracker-box room like a message from God.
He frowned and grabbed a beer, hoping the Creator didn't mind. One of his mixed-breed mutts trailed after him, then barked, asking to go outside.
Still cradling the phone, he walked to the front door and opened it, where the dog took off, anxious to pee.
Ethan looked into the darkness. The world was still, the night waxed by a three-quarter moon. He couldn't see the main house where Susan was. The hunting cabin was miles away.
He pulled on the beer and imagined holding her, losing himself in her luxurious scent. It was crazy to get
so wrapped up in a woman, to feel this way, but he couldn't help it.
Restless, he sat on his front porch and counted the stars. “There's thirteen,” he said into the phone, to the girl who slept on the other line.
Was that unlucky?
Did that mean that something was wrong?
Shrugging away the superstition, he told himself to relax. Susan was safe. She was right there, next to him, connected through telephone wires.
If he listened hard enough, he could hear her soft, feminine breathing. Nothing was wrong, he insisted. No late-night mishaps. No prowlers. No bad guys. No witches soaring across the moon.
Nothing but the sleep that eluded him.
Emmett flipped on the light and jerked out of bed. He looked around his motel room, but no one was there. Only the nightmares that plagued him, like demons seeping into his pores, making him sweat.
He walked over to the sliding-glass door and opened it, stepping onto the balcony, breathing in the night air.
A breeze caressed his face and he glanced across the street at the diner. It was closed, the security lights dim and morguelike.
Death in a small town.
He ran his hand through his hair and cursed his brother. He could feel Jason. Here. There. Everywhere.
A killer, he thought. Just waiting to strike.
Was that instinct or paranoia? he asked himself.
Emmett hadn't been on a hunt in a very long time.
And he'd never hunted his own. Was he too damn close to the situation? Was he chasing shadows? Or was this the real deal?
He returned to the motel room and glanced at the bedside clock. Four-fifteen in the morning was a hell of a time to have doubts. But even so, he couldn't go back to sleep, not on his first night in Texas.
Because Emmett suspected that Jason knew right where he was.
Lily awakened in the dark and reached for Ryan, but his spot beside her was empty. Concerned, she turned on the lamp and battled with an ominous feeling.
But when didn't she?
Blowing out the breath in her lungs, she climbed out of bed and checked the adjoining bathroom, but Ryan wasn't there. As she entered the sitting area, she discovered his pajamas strewn across the floor.
Deciding to search the rest of the house, Lily walked down the hall and saw that Susan's light was on. Was everyone awake at this hour? Curious, she peeked into the young woman's room. Susan was asleep with the phone pressed to her ear. Unusual as it was, the scenario gave Lily comfort. She suspected that Ethan was on the other end, keeping Susan company while she drifted in and out of girlish dreams.
Lily continued looking for Ryan, but she couldn't find him anywhere. Not even in the garage, where men often disappeared. And since none of their vehicles were missing, he hadn't left the ranch. Not unless someone drove him to his desired destination. But who? And where?
Confused, she picked up the phone in the kitchen, a different line from the one in Susan's room, and dialed security, asking if they'd seen her husband.
And much to her surprise, the guard on phone duty explained that Ryan went for a walk in the backyard, something he'd done several times this week.
“He's headed back to the house,” the man said. “We've been keeping an eye on him. From afar,” he added. “We never let him get out of sight for too long, but Mr. Fortune doesn't like us to disturb him at night.”