Authors: Jenna Mills
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
She told herself the insinuation didn’t hurt.
He moved so fast she had no time to prepare, no time to twist away before his hand snagged hers. “You come in here and put your hands all over me,” he said with a slow squeeze, “look at me with those goddamn lost eyes….”
Shock dulled her to the pain. “Jack, no—”
“What am I supposed to do now?” The question was ragged almost, but with it he stood and tugged her closer. “What is it you want? This?” His mouth was against hers. His lips warm, soft. Moving.
He pulled back enough for their eyes to meet. “Then what? We go to bed? Find out what would happen if we really were strangers?”
She tried to escape, but somehow he’d backed her against the counter. He held her there, kept her hands in his. “Is that how it works? You want me so blinded by what you do to me that I can’t think straight?”
that was the smart thing to do. But something in Jack’s voice, the broken edge, the pain—
pulsed through her.
“That suddenly the rules become yours….” In that moment, with his body to hers, she knew that he was finally seeing her, the woman she’d become, not the girl she’d been. “That I forget that someone went after you last night—that someone wants to
She swallowed, tried to breathe. Think.
“Forget about your book.” He went on in that same dark magic voice, the one that made everything blur, shift. “That someone wants to stop you? Is that what you want?”
“No.” It was barely a whisper.
” The question sounded torn from him. “What the hell is it you want me to do?”
The answer sliced deep. She wanted him to quit pushing her away. To quit shutting himself off. To quit holding on so tight.
She wanted him to let go—and she wanted to be the one to show him that he would not fall.
“What if I said yes?” She grabbed the gauntlet he’d thrown down and tossed it back at him. “What if I said I do want to be strangers…to see what would happen?”
His eyes darkened. “So that’s what this is about. Why you didn’t lock your door last night? Because you want to pretend you’re not the girl who gets off on shoving hot pokers at me? That folks don’t say it was my daddy who killed your daddy? That he didn’t work for Marcel Lambert? That he wasn’t just a plant—a spy?”
“You want to pretend we didn’t get drunk, that everything didn’t spin out of control—”
“No,” she whispered, but even as she said the word, she had to wonder. “That’s not what this is about.” It would be easier that way, she knew, if they could erase all those messy ties that bound them together. “I just want you to see me—”
“I see you,” he drawled with a glitter to his eyes. “But you also need to trust that I know what I’m doing here. I know who I am, who you are.” He lifted a hand to her face, let it fall without touching. “Men like me…we don’t make love to women like you. We—”
“Men like you?” It was her turn to stop him. “Just what kind of man do you want me to think you are?”
He released her so fast she sagged against the counter. “Russ is around back,” he said, crossing the brightly lit kitchen. At the back door, he jabbed his finger against four keys on the security pad. “If you even think about doing something foolish—”
She squared her shoulders, even as the ache wound deep. “You’ll know.”
Then he was gone, pushing open the door and striding into the early afternoon, leaving her acutely aware of the line she’d tried to cross—and the question he’d refused to answer.
What kind of man do you want me to think you are?
Around him the land of his childhood closed in, trees that had stood for generations lying like forgotten pickup-sticks, while cypress knees and aboveground roots created a maze of land mines. Still he ran, and still he tested himself, closing his eyes, relying on instinct to keep him from falling on his face.
It was the same instinct he’d ignored that hot day outside of Kirkuk when he’d seen a group of small children and approached them with water and chocolate bars.
Two steps ahead Beauregard raced along. Jack could hear him breathing, could hear the dog’s paws come down on the decaying leaves. “Datta, boy,” he praised, slipping into the dialect of his youth. And with the words he kicked it up a notch.
He’d missed this. While in the Middle East, surrounded by desert and sky, he’d missed the lush land of his birth. He’d missed the trees and the green, the water. He’d sometimes wandered out at night while the wind howled and the sand lashed his face—
Throwing his head back, he looked up through the dense, shifting canopy of leaves, and felt everything inside of him tighten.
She didn’t belong here, damn it. Time had moved forward. She was part of the past, a reminder of a lifetime that had died long ago.
As a kid, he’d learned everything had a place. Shoes went under the bed, dirty clothes in the hamper, albums on the shelf. Schoolbooks went on the desk his grandfather had made for him. If he left anything out of place…
I don’t have time for this, boy! How many times do I have to tell you to keep your things away from my work?
Jack stumbled against a protruding root and staggered forward. Everything had a place. Gabe was his friend. Camille was his wild child sister….
He ignored the protest of his thigh and ran harder, pushing off with his left foot to hurdle a fallen pine.
Nothing fit in a tidy place anymore. Everything he’d ever worked toward, everything he’d ever wanted…
Had blown up in his face.
And Camille…she didn’t belong here, damn it. She belonged to his past, the same as his father and Susan, his career. Camille didn’t belong here, now, with her lies and her secrets, her hidden agendas, tearing through his life like the hurricane that was her namesake. He didn’t want to look at her and see those goddamn freckles, to remember.
To realize how far he would go to make sure…
He crushed the thought, demolished it, knew too damn good and well what happened when a man let go, and need took over.
I just want you to see me.
He did. He saw her.
That was the problem.
By all accounts, Gator Savoie was a drifter. The town drunk. No one knows where he came from—or where he went. If he committed murder, if he stole—or if he crossed the wrong man.
His friendship with Troy Fontenot was as unlikely as a hurricane in May. Troy was a learned man, a history professor. He loved his wife and children, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke. He only had one vice…one obsession.
Gator had many. A high school dropout, he liked his whiskey and his Marlboro cigarettes, his women—even after he married and became a father. Of course, some say the child came first….
Camille frowned—Jack may have been conceived before his parents married, but he’d never come first.
They made an odd pair, but Troy was always collecting strays, and Gator was no different. Soon Gator was as knee-deep in Troy’s obsession as if he’d been breathing it his whole life….
Thirty minutes had passed since Jack and Beauregard took off for the woods. They’d been running…The temptation to go to the porch was strong, but she kept writing.
Some say Gator was on Lambert’s payroll. That his job was to befriend Troy, keep an eye on him. That he was the one in the study that night, that he was the one who’d killed his so-called friend, chased the man’s daughter into the swamp….
That was the angle Camille’s editor wanted to play—friend versus friend. Scandal. Betrayal. But Camille had refused. Friend versus friend was not the story of her father’s death. Greed was. Deception.
He walked into a bar the night after Troy died. When he walked out, he was never seen again. His truck remained in the parking lot. His closet was full, his bank account untouched. Either Gator Savoie was running—or he was dead.
The sound of the door slamming broke the thought. Camille looked up as heavy footsteps sounded, found Jack emerging from the kitchen. Sunlight glistened off the sheen on his flesh—his tank top and shorts were damp. In his hand he held a glass of water. And in his eyes she saw…
Nothing. Not familiarity. Not warmth. Not the slow gleam of seduction. Just the blank look of a man who knew how to wash it all white.
He’d been gone over an hour. His shoes were dirty. There was a trickle of blood along his forearm. His hand was at his thigh.
Camille flicked her gaze back to her notes while Jack crossed the room behind her. His footsteps told her he walked down the hall. The sound of a door closing told her he did not want her to follow.
The sound of water running through the pipes told her he was in the shower.
She blinked and tried to focus, but the image taunted her. Of Jack. Standing in the old porcelain bathtub, with his head bent under the spray. His eyes would be closed. Water would sluice down his shoulders and his stomach, his hips, his legs….
Shoving the image aside, Camille glanced out the window, where Beauregard danced beneath an old pecan tree. She watched for a few seconds before reaching for the pictures she’d taken the day before. Her father’s map. She’d studied the photos deep into the night, long after she’d closed the door to Jack. And with the light of dawn, as she’d let herself start to free-write, the memory had come. Of the trip she’d taken with her father two weeks before his death—to a barrier island.
Isle Dernier, it was called. Last Island. And Camille would bet her life that there’d been far more to the excursion than her father had let on.
She heard the screech first, a distorted noise from the bathroom as if Jack had ripped open the shower curtain.
The thud shattered that illusion.
verything inside Camille stopped. She dropped the picture and stood, turned toward the hallway. “Jack?”
From behind the closed door the water ran—but Jack did not respond.
The slow crawl of dread made no sense. Her voice was soft. He hadn’t heard. That was all.
But she made her way toward the door anyway, leaving behind the wash of sunlight and stepping into the shadows. “Jack?”
Her heart slammed. And something cold and dark lodged in her throat. She told herself not to run, that she was being ridiculous. But her feet started moving—and she ran. “Jack!”
The closed door loomed. “Answer me!” she shouted, lunging for the little glass knob.
She sensed the movement too late. She tried to twist, but he was already there, closing in on her and yanking her against his chest. “Don’t try anything stupid, sweet girl, and no one gets hurt.”
The words, the voice, stabbed. She stiffened against the tall man’s grip, tried to think. “Jack—”
“Took something that doesn’t belong to him,” the man said. “And now you’re going to give it back.”
The water pounded from inside the small bathroom, steady. Constant. “What did you do to him? You have to let me—”
“I don’t have to let you do anything,” he said in that same awful raspy voice, the one that had haunted her nightmares for too many years. And to prove his words, he shifted a hand against her back, and she felt the gun. “But
Inside she started to shake. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you do,” Marcel Lambert said. “I’m talking about your daddy’s map…the one you came home to find.”
Her breath caught. Lambert claimed the stained glass had been destroyed the night her father died. That Troy Fontenot had planned to double-cross him, sell him out.
If that were true, there was no need for the map.
Excitement tangled with dread. She’d been right all along. Her father
been trying to tell her something.
“I don’t have it,” she snapped at Lambert. “Jack does—it’s at the station.”
“No,” he said slowly. “It’s not.”
“Brought the file home with him.”
Jack hadn’t said a word. And now he lay on the other side of the closed door, in the shower. The water was running.
“What did you do to him?” she demanded again, and this time she twisted.
The memory almost sent her to her knees.
Those eyes…Dark and magnetic, they gleamed at her from two small holes in the ski mask. And his mouth—she remembered that mouth, the way it had moved as if in slow motion. Calling her name—ordering her to stop.
But she hadn’t stopped. She’d run, and she’d run, out into the night, the storm, as fast as she could.
“The map,” he said now, standing there so tall and unyielding, a coward to the bone. “And then we’ll worry about Jacques.”
She looked down at the 9mm in his gloved hand, then up at his dead flat eyes. “You won’t use that.”
“Is that a chance you want to take?”
“It’s not me taking chances. You’re the one awaiting trial. I’m a public figure. It’s no secret I’m here researching a book. If I turn up dead—”
This time the laugh was darkly pleased. “That’s where you’re wrong, sweet girl. I’m not awaiting trial.”
The words slammed into her. But she pushed them aside, knew they were a lie. There were no more players in this game. Everyone else was already dead.
She wrenched from Lambert and lunged for the door, grabbed the knob and turned. He caught her as the door flung open. “Damn it, girl—”
Everything flashed, turned white except for the sight of the man sprawled naked in the bathtub, the flimsy plastic curtain pulled down around him. “Jack!”
Lambert yanked her back before she could take a second step. “There’s only one way you can help him!” he snarled, dragging her from the bathroom.
She fought him, rammed her elbow into his gut and stomped her foot down on his, went for his forearm with her teeth. “You bastard! I’m—”
“Going to help Jacques, yes, I know.” His voice was cold, bland. “Just give me what I want, and then you can have what you want.”
She stilled, sucked in a sharp breath.
“You can’t stop me, sweet girl. No one can. Not Jacques or the deputy posted at the end of the drive, not that lazy old dog—”
Earlier he’d been barking, agitated. Now there was only silence. “No…”
Lambert held her tighter. “Pretty quiet, isn’t it?”
Horror surged. Denial pierced. But with it came a twist of reality: this man had killed before.
“Now be a good girl and find me that map.”
Twenty years of grief and injustice closed in on her. She turned slowly, felt the gun jab into her back. Lambert matched her step for step. The truth skirted close behind. For too long she’d been running, letting this man dictate her every move. Her life. That he would come to her here, now, this way.
He would not win.
At the closed door across the hall she put her hand to the knob and pushed inside, instinctively stopped.
The big bed dominated the spacious room. A simple black comforter covered the king mattress, three pillows lined up along the top. There was nothing else, no throw pillows, no sign a woman had ever shared this room. The furniture was big and dark, simple. There was nothing on top of the chest of drawers, no pictures or pocket change or wallet, not a watch or a ring, his gun—
The small chest beside his bed wasn’t much different. A brass lamp sat in the center, with a digital clock beside the bed—and a book propped open on top. Secret Sins.
“What are you waiting for, Cami-girl?”
Inside, everything tightened. Disgust rushed in. Knowing what had to be done, she moved toward the bed and went down on her knees in front of the nightstand. She didn’t touch the book, though, didn’t check to see what chapter he’d been reading. She knew what was in the book. She knew the horrors she’d written about. She knew the pain. The tragedy.
With hands she refused to let shake, she pulled open the top drawer and found a stack of paperbacks. Not fiction, though. Nonfiction, books about seizing the moment and the meaning of life, books with big questions and few answers. There was a pad of paper and a pen—but nothing else. No map, and no gun.
The bottom drawer contained much the same.
“Under the bed,” Lambert instructed.
She did as he said, went down to look under the mattress—but saw only an old pair of athletic shoes and a well-chewed dog toy.
Between the mattresses failed to yield anything, either.
With the gun jabbed between her ribs, she stood and moved toward the dresser, resisted the temptation to spin. And fight. Maybe she could take him. Maybe she couldn’t. She knew self-defense. She’d been trained. She knew—
Jack sprawled, unconscious, naked in the bathtub.
The top drawer held socks. The next drawer held…boxers. It was an odd time to smile, but her mouth curved.
Big tough Jacques Savoie was a boxer man. She put her hands to the soft cotton and ignored the sensation, focused on looking for the map.
The third drawer held T-shirts; the fourth held shorts. The fifth…
She went down on her knees and reached for the photograph. Slowly she lifted it. In the shadows of Jack’s bedroom, Camille looked down at the photo she’d found in the bottom drawer of his dresser, a photo discolored by time, the image faded. But the smiles touched her anyway.
“Jack,” she whispered without voice, running her finger first along his image, then Gabe’s, then her own.
“Hurry it up,” Lambert commanded, but Camille couldn’t move. Could only touch the long-ago image of her and Jack and Gabe just returned from a crawfishing expedition, their clothes dirty, her braids tattered, their smiles forever frozen.
Much as he was now frozen inside.
But he’d kept the picture tucked safely in the bottom of his dresser….
With an ache in her chest, she returned the photo and shut the drawer, turned back toward the bed. It was instinct that had her returning to the nightstand and reaching for the book he’d left open. Instinct that had her flipping through the pages—and finding the folded paper stashed in the back.
“Open it,” Lambert instructed, but she was already unfolding the edges. “Sweet Mary.” He inhaled when her father’s handwriting came into view, the intricately drawn map Troy and Gator had created decades before.
The same map she’d photographed alongside the road.
“Finally…” Lambert snatched the map and jabbed the gun against her back. “Get up.”
“The closet. Now.”
Dark possibilities hammered through her.
“You have what you want. Now just go—”
“And let you come after me? I don’t think so,” he snarled with another jab of the gun. He took her by the arm and shoved her toward the closet. “Get inside.”
Her throat tightened. She wanted to spin and fight, to drive a knee into his groin and take him down. But Jack lay unconscious….
Biting down on her lip, she walked into the closet and allowed Lambert to take her arms and pull them behind her back, bind her wrists together.
She let the grim images razor through her. She’d been young then, scared and hurt, easily manipulated. But she was a woman now, and the rules were her own.
Through the vertigo of memory she felt him step back, heard the door close. Then darkness. She listened while he dragged a chair across the floor, heard him shove it against the door handle. Then…nothing.
Seconds dragged into minutes. She listened, waited. Lambert thought he was in control. He thought she was the child she’d been all those years ago, when he’d tracked her to Florida.
Lambert was wrong.
She counted to fifty, waited until she heard the echo of the door closing. Then she spun and rammed her shoulder against the door. “Jack!”
Determination drove her. With her hands behind her back she reached for the knob and turned it, ignored the throb of pain while shoving with her shoulder. Over, and over. “Jack!”
Russ waited at the end of the drive. Lambert would have come through the woods. If she could get to the phone—
The door gave way and she spilled into the bedroom, went down hard against the bare floor. The impact of bone against wood jolted, but she scrambled to her feet and ran for the bathroom.
The door still hung open. The water still ran. And Jack…Jack still lay beneath the white shower curtain.
“Jack!” she shouted, and then, twisting her hands against the bindings, she ran.
His name echoed through the storm, soft, agitated. He spun toward it, looked for her. But everywhere he turned, shadows stretched and spilled, darkened. And the rain kept falling. Not warm anymore. But cold. Relentless.
“God,” she whispered. “Please.”
The violence of the storm lashed at him, pulled, but he strained against it and fought, worked to crack open an eye. If he could see her—
The rain stopped.
“Hang on,” she murmured. “Just hang on and I’ll get help.”
Cold air rushed his body. He recoiled against it, twisted—and felt her. The warmth washed through him, soft and silken, draped over him. He forced open his eyes and blinked, brought her into focus. With blond hair scraggling against her face, she leaned over him, stared through eyes damp and worried. “Jack?”
The shadows shifted, turned into a gossamer fog. He blinked, tried to bring her into focus. “Cami?”
“You’re okay,” she whispered, and God help him, he would have sworn her voice broke on the words. Cami’s voice, the one that had been so tough and strong and defiant. “Everything’s going to be okay. Just—”
He reached for her, took her by the arms—realized she was as wet as he was. And fully clothed.
With a hard slam of adrenaline he twisted and saw the tub, felt the porcelain beneath his back.
“What the hell—” he started to say, but then she was leaning closer, pressing the softness of her body to his.
“Easy,” she said. “You’re hurt—”
He jerked beneath her and tried to sit but only succeeded in bringing her fully onto his lap. It all started to come back to him, the wooziness and the disorientation. The shower had started to spin. He’d reached for the curtain, had just wanted to close his eyes….
“Son of a bitch!” He reached for her and put his hands to her body, urged her close. “I have to get you out of here before—”
The wince stopped him. He pulled back, realized he was too late. “Sweet God.” She was leaning over him, trying to warm him, but she hadn’t touched him. Not with her hands. Her arms were behind her back at an unnatural angle….
Swearing softly, he slid his hands against her damp shirt and found the gaudy tie his secretary had given him for Christmas wrapped around Camille’s wrists. “Goddamn it.”
He’d been drugged. He’d gone down like a freaking baby, left Camille alone and vulnerable.
He brought his hands to her wrists and worked at the insidious knot, acutely aware of the thready rhythm of her heart pulsing against his chest. “He got to you. He—”
“No, Jack. I’m fine. I—”
He pulled back and brought his hands to her face. “Tell me,” he said, shoving all those hard, broken edges down deep, refusing to let them puncture his voice. “Tell me what he did to you.”
Because someone was so freaking going to pay.
But Camille kept looking at him through those wide, amazing eyes—the same way she’d looked at him when he’d found her after she’d witnessed her father’s death. She’d been wet then, too. Shaking. But she wasn’t shaking now. She was…completely calm.
“Nothing,” she said. “He didn’t do anything to me. It wasn’t me he wanted.”
Everything slowed, clicked viciously. She was wet, but fully clothed. She wasn’t hurt. There was no blood. He was the one who’d been incapacitated. Which meant—“The map.”
Her eyes darkened, and he had his answer.
He didn’t want to let go, didn’t want to stop touching. But he couldn’t let her kneel there in the shower with her hands tied behind her back. “Son of a bitch,” he hissed, and the words were quiet, but lethal.