Safe In His Arms Christine Scott Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR SCANDAL'S DAUGHTER?Was it fate that led beautiful Jessie Pierce into Samuel Connors' embrace? Surely only fate could have drawn her to the man with whom she shared a secret for which neither had the key…. For buried somewhere in the missing memory of Jessie's first five years was the answer to who had killed her mother and framed Samuel's father for the crime.Now a specter from the past was trying to ravage the promise of their future, as Jessie found herself the target of a killer. And though Samuel had sworn to protect her, their lives and their newfound love were both at mortal risk…. “Tell me about yourself,” Samuel said, breaking the strained silence. He met her surprised gaze without wavering. “You want me to help you uncover your past. I know who you were when you used to live on this island. I’d like to know who you are now, the person you’ve become.” Jessie bit her lip, considering her answer. How much did she want to tell him? That she was haunted by dreams she couldn’t explain? That she’d never been able to make a relationship last because she wouldn’t allow herself to trust anyone? That she’d come to the island in search of a past, because she was desperate to save herself from a dismal future? No, she couldn’t tell him the truth. No matter how much she might want to confide in him, she wasn’t ready to reveal that much about herself to anyone. Dear Reader, This is a very special month here at Intimate Moments. We’re celebrating the publication of our 1000th novel, and what a book it is! Angel Meets the Badman is the latest from award-winning and bestselling Maggie Shayne, and it’s part of her ongoing miniseries, THE TEXAS BRAND. It’s a page-turner par excellence, so take it home, sit back and prepare to be enthralled. Ruth Langan’s back, and Intimate Moments has got her. This month this historical romance star continues to win contemporary readers’ hearts with The Wildes of Wyoming— Hazard, the latest in her wonderful contemporary miniseries about the three Wilde brothers. Paula Detmer Riggs returns to MATERNITY ROW, the site of so many births—and so many happy endings—with Daddy by Choice. And look for the connected MATERNITY ROW short story, “Family by Fate,” in our new Mother’s Day collection, A Bouquet of Babies. Merline Lovelace brings readers another of the MEN OF THE BAR H in The Harder They Fall—and you’re definitely going to fall for hero Evan Henderson. Cinderella and the Spy is the latest from Sally Tyler Hayes, an author with a real knack for mixing romance and suspense in just the right proportions. And finally, there’s Safe in His Arms, a wonderful amnesia story from Christine Scott. Enjoy them all, and we’ll see you again next month, when you can once again find some of the best and most exciting romance reading around, right here in Silhouette Intimate Moments. Yours, Leslie J. Wainger Executive Senior Editor Safe in His Arms Christine Scott www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To my mother-in-law, Dutch. Thank you for your wonderful son, and for being such a loyal supporter of my work. CHRISTINE SCOTT grew up in Illinois but currently lives in St. Louis, Missouri. A former teacher, she now writes full-time. When she isn’t writing romances, she spends her time caring for her husband and three children. In between car pools, baseball games and dance lessons, Christine always finds time to pick up a good book and read about…love. She loves to hear from readers. Write to her at Box 283, Grover, MO 63040-0283. Contents Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Epilogue Prologue Voices. Loud, angry voices woke her. Confused and uncertain, Jessie Pierce climbed out of bed. Stumbling, following a night-darkened, long and unfamiliar hallway, she hurried toward the sound of shouting. Her movements were clumsy, her feet leaden, as though she was walking in slow motion. She was disoriented, uncertain where she was headed. Her heart raced, fluttering in her chest like a butterfly’s wings. The angry voices grew louder. Emotion distorted their timbre, making it hard for her to identify them. A beam of light sliced through the inky night, blinding her, paralyzing her with fear…. A shape emerged from the shadows. A shape large and frightening, coming closer, closer… Her heart leaping in her chest, she stumbled back, one step, two, until she couldn’t go any farther…. And then there was nothing but darkness. All-encompassing darkness. With a start Jessie’s eyes flew open. She was trembling. Her teeth were chattering—the only sound in the stillness of the night. Her lungs burned in her chest, and she realized she was holding her breath. Releasing the pent-up breath with a whoosh, she gulped in cooling drafts of air and desperately tried to still her shaking limbs. Perspiration drenched her body. Her silky nightgown clung to her slender body like a second skin. The light from the bathroom cut through the darkness, reassuring her. She glanced from one shadowy corner to the next—nothing appeared out of place. Straining her ears, she heard no angry voices. No sound at all. All was well. Or was it? Feeling foolish, she realized she’d been dreaming once again. A dream as familiar as life itself, as unwanted as uninvited guests who had overstayed their welcome. A lump of emotion caught painfully in her throat. She swallowed hard, trying to ease an overwhelming sense of dread, of loss. Jessie closed her eyes, fighting the fear that gripped her. When would she ever be free of the dream’s tenacious hold upon her? At one time she’d sought professional help for the recurring nightmare. But the doctors had no answer, no cure for what ailed her. The thought chilled her, sending a long shiver down her spine. Opening her eyes, she noted the early hour on her bedside clock. It was only four in the morning, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again. Tossing the blankets aside, she scrambled out of bed and reached for her robe. She tied its satiny belt securely around her waist, stepped into a pair of house slippers and hurried from her bedroom. Muted light coming from a small table lamp lit the hallway leading to the living room. In her world there was never complete darkness. Since she was a child, Jessie had feared the night and what it might bring. As an adult she was embarrassed to admit to anyone that she’d been unable to overcome the weakness. Snapping on the light over her desk, Jessie stared at the drawing she’d been working on before she’d gone to bed. It was a dark and mysterious illustration, one of many she’d been commissioned to draw for a children’s book. The book was a quixotic tale of one young boy’s quest to slay dragons. A tale of good overcoming evil, a tale of strength and courage. One that she found herself envying. Goodness only knew, she had her own dragons to slay. Jessie shivered, the memory of her nightmare still too fresh. It pained her to admit that she hadn’t the courage to face the monster of her own dreams. Pushing the disturbing thought from her mind, she picked up one of the illustrations. Known for her eye for detail and her talent for bringing a story to life, she’d become quite successful as an illustrator at a relatively young age. It was a job that allowed her to work out of her apartment in Atlanta, letting her set her own hours. It also kept her isolated from others. Which she desired most. The truth was, she found more comfort in her art than she did with people. Jessie sighed. Her mother, bless her heart, worried about her solitary life. Since her father’s death one year ago, her mother seemed even more determined to push Jessie out into the world. She needed to make more friends, her mother often chided her, to open her heart to new relationships, to fall in love so that she wouldn’t ever have to be alone. Jessie didn’t try to argue. She knew her mother’s intentions were good, though misguided. What her mother didn’t understand was that Jessie wanted it all. A husband, a family…someone to love, someone who would love her. She didn’t want to live her life alone. But a solitary life was all she could handle. Opening up her heart, trusting others just wasn’t as easy as it might seem. For Jessie it was impossible. Just a few days ago, on their last visit together, her mother had seemed inordinately preoccupied with Jessie’s welfare, obsessing on her need for a secure future. Jessie had tried to laugh off the concern, telling her that, with a mother like her living nearby, she had all the love and security one person could handle. She remembered the worried expression that had flitted across her mother’s face at her flippant response. Jessie pushed the disturbing image from her mind, picking up a charcoal pencil. Trying not to notice the trembling of her hand, she forced herself to work on the illustration. Purposefully she cleared her mind and focused her attention on the drawing, not stopping until she was finished. Later, her fingers stiff with overuse, she laid her pencil down on the desktop and sighed with relief, satisfied with what she’d accomplished. Flexing her fingers, stretching the kinks from her muscles, she glanced outside the apartment’s large picture window and was surprised to see the early rays of dawn filtering through the cloud-laden sky. She must have been working for over an hour, though it had only seemed like minutes. The phone rang, jarring her out of her reverie. Startled by the early-morning call, she snatched the receiver from its cradle, anxious to still its insistent peal. “Hello?” “Jessie?” It was Eugenia, her mother’s housekeeper. More than a housekeeper, she was her mother’s loyal friend, a valued member of the family. The pain shadowing Eugenia’s voice sent an arrow of dread darting through Jessie’s heart. “Eugenia, what is it?” Jessie demanded. “What’s wrong?” “It’s your mother,” Eugenia said carefully, regret lacing her tone. “She’s gone, Jessie.” “Gone? I don’t understand. Gone where?” A strained silence followed. “No, you can’t mean—” Jessie’s voice broke beneath the heavy weight of disbelief. “She can’t be—” “I’m so sorry, darling. The best we can figure, it happened early this morning. She went to sleep last night and never woke up. The doctor thinks it was her heart. It…it just gave out on her.” Early this morning Jessie’s dream…she’d been awakened by an unbearable sense of dread, of loss. Her first thoughts had been of her mother. Surely it had been merely a coincidence. Or had it? Jessie closed her eyes against the hot sting of tears. Coincidence or not, her mother’s worst fear had just been realized. For the first time in her life, she was truly, completely alone. Chapter 1 “I don’t understand.” Jessie pointed to the documents spilling out onto the shiny surface of the lawyer’s mahogany desktop. “What are you trying to tell me?” The lawyer for her parents’ estate shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His round glasses reflected the light of the desk lamp as he looked to Eugenia for guidance. Eugenia refused to meet his gaze. Instead, she sat stiffly in her chair, her faded-blue eyes, moist with tears, trained on the handkerchief clenched in her trembling hand. Sighing, the lawyer began, “Miss Pierce, I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you—” “I…I told Louise that you needed to know the truth,” Eugenia interrupted, her voice sounding strange, thick with emotion. “But she wouldn’t…she couldn’t bring herself to tell you.” Jessie stared at the older woman in disbelief. “Then it’s true?” “I—I’m afraid so, darling. Louise and Malcom Pierce weren’t your real parents. They adopted you when you were five years old.” The admission struck with a stunning blow. Jessie couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. Her life, everything she’d believed to be true had been built on a lie. “Why—” Her voice broke beneath the weight of tension. She forced herself to continue. “Why didn’t they tell me?” Eugenia hesitated, glancing at the lawyer. He shrugged, looking lost, discomfited by the personal turn of the meeting. Finally she said, “I don’t know all the details. But I suppose they were trying to protect you.” “From what? Being adopted isn’t a crime.” Jessie noted that the pitch of her voice rose as she spoke. But she couldn’t seem to help herself. In the three days since her mother’s death, she’d been under an enormous strain. Grief had all but overwhelmed her. Now she had to deal with the fact that the parents she had believed to be hers weren’t really hers, after all. “Adoption isn’t the social stigma it might have once been. What’s the point of hiding something like this?” Eugenia shook her head. “It wasn’t like that. Malcom and Louise didn’t care what others thought. Their only concern was for you.” From the stack of papers Jessie picked up a birth certificate naming her as Jessica Pierce, daughter of Evelyn and Jonathan Pierce. Her hand shook as she read the document stating that she was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Not in Atlanta, where she’d lived all of her life. An unwanted anger built inside her. She felt betrayed by those who were supposed to have loved her most. “I don’t understand any of this. My name on my birth certificate…it’s the same as the one I have now.” “It would be, wouldn’t it?” Eugenia said quietly. “Since Malcom and Louise were already your aunt and uncle.” “My aunt and uncle?” She stared at the other woman, her incredulity growing. Eugenia released an unsteady breath, suddenly looking older than her sixty years. “Darling, Malcom’s younger brother was your birth father.” If she thought she’d been surprised before, nothing compared to the shock of that single statement. Tears welled in Jessie’s eyes. She blinked hard, fighting the flow. Now, more than ever, she needed a clear head, not one clouded with emotion. “I still don’t understand. Why didn’t they just tell me the truth?” “Jessie, I’m sorry.” Eugenia started to reach out to her, then stopped. Looking uncertain, she let her hand fall helplessly onto her lap. “I know how upsetting this is…. I’m handling it so badly.” Numbly Jessie shook her head. “It’s not your fault.” “I…I just wish I knew more what to tell you,” she said. “All I can remember is that your birth father died before you were born. And your mother died when you were only five. When Malcom brought you home, you were terribly traumatized. Both he and Louise were beside themselves, at a loss how to help you—” “The nightmares,” Jessie said, her voice trembling. “Yes, they were horrible. Every night for months you woke up screaming, so frightened. And then the dreams came less often. It was as though you’d put whatever had caused them out of your mind. You even forgot about your mother. I truly believe Malcom and Louise were too afraid to do anything to upset the peace that you’d found.” Not so peaceful, Jessie admitted silently. The nightmares still haunted her, the latest occurring only days before. Aloud, she murmured, “My parents were always too protective.” “They loved you, Jessie. They tried to be the best parents they could.” “I know they did,” Jessie said. The tears she’d fought so hard escaped. They filled her eyes, blurring her vision. She blinked, and a single drop trickled down her cheek. “Now what am I supposed to do?” “Get on with your life,” Eugenia said, her voice firm yet gentle. Finally she allowed herself to reach for Jessie. She placed a hand on her arm, warming her with a reassuring touch. “Forget about the past.” “How can I?” Jessie almost laughed at the thought. “I don’t even know who I really am. For God’s sake, how could I have forgotten my own mother…or the first five years of my life?” “Perhaps there’s a reason for that, Jessie,” Eugenia said, her voice quiet, the warning unmistakable. Silence filled the lawyer’s office. The lawyer cleared his throat, cutting through the sudden tension. Adjusting the knot of his tie, he said, “There’s still the matter of the house on Prudence Island, in South Carolina. A place called Gull’s Cottage.” Jessie frowned in confusion. “Gull’s Cottage?” “It’s yours,” the lawyer said, holding up the property deed for her inspection. Jessie stared at the document and wondered what other secrets awaited her. Wearily Eugenia murmured, “Why Malcom wouldn’t sell the house, I never understood. Once he told me he couldn’t. That it was your legacy.” “My legacy?” Eugenia looked at her, regret shining in her eyes. “Gull’s Cottage belonged to your birth mother. It’s the house where you lived before she died.” A fist of tension gripped Jessie’s chest, making it difficult to breathe. She couldn’t think, couldn’t respond. “Miss Pierce,” the lawyer said, oblivious to her growing panic. “The taxes have been paid, and the house has been well maintained over the years. All that is left for you to do is decide whether or not you’d like to keep it.” Shaking her head, Jessie said, “None of this is making any sense.” “I know, dear. It’s been a long and trying year,” Eugenia said, her tone soothing. “Perhaps now would be a good time to take a vacation. Why don’t you go to Europe or the Caribbean? Somewhere that you can forget all about this and put it behind you.” As tempting as the thought might be, Jessie knew in her heart she couldn’t run away. No matter where she went, what she chose to do, she could not alter the past. Nor could she allow it to rule her future. “It seems to me I’ve been hiding from my past for too long already. I need to find out the truth…I need to know who I really am.” Alarm creased Eugenia’s round face. “Darling, I’m not sure if that’s such a good idea.” “I’m not sure, either,” Jessie admitted. “But it’s something I must do. There are too many questions and not enough answers.” “Then, why don’t you let someone else handle this problem?” the lawyer suggested. “We could hire a private investigator, a professional to check into your background.” “No.” Jessie shook her head. “This is something I have to do on my own.” Eugenia gave an exasperated sigh. “Jessie, why must you be so stubborn? You don’t always have to be independent.” Jessie brushed a tear from her cheek, smiling despite herself. “Now you’re starting to sound like my mother. Next you’ll be telling me that the only way I’ll be happy is to find a man to settle down with and raise lots of babies.” “Lord help me, that’s one argument I won’t be a part of. I’ve been a bystander once too often in the clashes you two had over your differences of opinion on men and marriage.” Jessie’s smile faltered at the memory. Her mother had wanted her to find roots—a husband to love, a home where she could settle down. She’d never understood why a woman of Jessie’s age hadn’t been able to make a relationship last. Why she hadn’t been able to find that perfect man, her soul mate. Neither did Jessie. When it came to trusting anyone, especially a man, something always held her back. She’d been unable to make that final commitment. Perhaps there was a reason for her wariness. A reason that was hidden in her past. “I don’t know how to explain it. But I’ve lost five years of my life, Eugenia. It feels as though there’s a hole, as though something important is missing.” She picked up the deed to Gull’s Cottage. “Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for on Prudence Island.” “And what if you don’t?” Eugenia asked, her silvery brows furrowed with concern. “Surely I won’t be any worse for trying,” she said, feigning a confidence she did not feel. The truth was, she had no idea what might await her on Prudence Island. All she knew was that something strong and impossible to resist drew her to the house that was her legacy. Right or wrong, she was going to Gull’s Cottage. The thick stands of loblolly pine trees that stood sentinel over the length of the narrow, two-lane road gradually gave way to the graceful stretches of moss-covered live oaks. Sunlight broke through the trees, dappling her arms, warming her skin. With the top down on her BMW convertible, Jessie knew she was getting close to the coastline. A salty sea breeze peppered the sweet, magnolia-scented air. An unexpected thrill of excitement buzzed in her chest. For the first time in the month since Louise’s death, Jessie had no responsibilities. No lawyers to meet, no estate to settle. She’d even finished the illustrations on the book she’d been commissioned to draw. There was nothing to stand in the way of her quest for the truth. Before the summer’s end, she fully intended to find the answers to her past. Then, perhaps, she could get on with her future. Her future…Jessie’s heart thumped with an unwanted bout of trepidation. It wasn’t her financial well-being that worried her. Her adoptive father had been a doctor. Through shrewd investments, he’d been a wealthy man. Now, with both of her parents gone, Jessie had inherited more money than she knew how to spend. Even after seeing to Eugenia’s retirement, her future was financially secure. But she would trade it all, every penny of her estate, just to have her parents back. Not to be alone. Pain, sharp and unwanted, jigsawed through her heart, bringing tears to her eyes. She blinked hard, fighting the emotion. Oh, how she missed her mother, more than ever. She had been her best friend, her confidante. There was no one else to turn to, no one to lean on, no one who could explain her confusing past. No one to make life worth living. Impatiently Jessie ran a hand through her short, dark hair, trying to shake off the blue funk that threatened. If her mood sank any lower, she chided herself, she’d be stuck in the muck and mire of self-pity. She refused to allow herself to become maudlin. She’d shed enough tears this past month. It was time to stop feeling sorry for herself. The narrow road curved unexpectedly. She tapped on the brakes, taking the bend fast but still maintaining perfect control. Glancing in her rearview mirror, breathing a quiet sigh of relief, she didn’t notice the beat-up, red pickup truck looming in front of her until it was almost too late. She slammed on the brakes, causing her seat belt to bite into her shoulder. But it wasn’t enough. Her car still skidded toward a certain collision. Somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind the will to survive resurfaced with a vengeance. She jerked the wheel sharply to the right, aiming for the side of the road, narrowly missing the slow-moving truck by inches. Her BMW bumped off the pavement, hitting the shoulder with a loud thump. The back end of her car spun out behind her. Crushed seashells crunched beneath the tires. Thick clouds of dust rose up around her, nearly choking her. Before the car finally settled to a wobbly stop, she heard the pop-pop, then the slow hiss of two tires going flat. Coughing, covering her mouth to keep from swallowing any more dust, Jessie thanked the powers that be for saving her life. And then the tremors set in. Blaming the reaction on delayed shock, her hands shook so badly she barely managed to slip the car out of gear and turn off the engine. Even before the dust settled, she threw open the car door and scrambled outside, feeling the need for the anchoring strength of solid ground. Her legs nearly buckled beneath her as she tried to stand. She leaned both arms against the door, giving herself a moment to calm her jittery nerves. A thick coat of dust covered her black sleeveless turtleneck and her white jeans. She didn’t even have the strength to brush the grit away. “Are you all right?” Jessie whipped around, startled by the deep, male voice. She tore her sunglasses from the bridge of her nose and squinted at the man approaching her. The driver of the pickup truck, no doubt. Perhaps it was just a trick of the hazy sunlight, or perhaps it was just that—considering the circumstances—she was feeling a bit more vulnerable than usual, but he appeared larger than life, towering over her. “I—I’m fine,” she stammered. “You took a bad skid,” he said, narrowing his pale blue eyes as he scanned her body from head to toe. Jessie fought the urge to fidget beneath his assessing gaze. “Really, I’m okay. There’s no need to worry,” she said, struggling to collect her scattered aplomb, wondering what it was about him that had set her body tingling and her mind racing with awareness. He stood an inch or two over six feet and was a hard-muscled, tawny-haired and powerful male. But she knew it wasn’t only his size that drew her attention. There was something about the man, something that stirred recognition deep inside her. She hesitated. Then, frowning, she asked, “Do I know you? You look so familiar.” For just a second, irritation flickered in his eyes. Then quickly he hid the emotion behind a polite smile. “No, I don’t think so. I have that sort of face. So common, everyone thinks they’ve met me before.” Common wasn’t the word she would use to describe the way he looked. Handsome, rugged, unforgettable, those were terms that came to mind as she studied him closely. Realizing she was staring, she averted her eyes. What was wrong with her? No matter how good-looking he might be, it wasn’t like her to ogle a man. Especially when the man was a complete stranger. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I could have sworn—” “It looks like your car’s the one that suffered most of the damage,” he said, abruptly changing the subject. Not giving her a chance to answer, he strode past her, close enough that they brushed arms. She felt the heat of his body singe her bare skin. Sucking in a surprised breath, she inhaled the earthy, male scent of sweat and hard work. Jessie swallowed the lump in her throat, trying to ignore the sensations stirring in the pit of her stomach. What was happening to her? Never before had she experienced such a quick and intense awareness of a man. The stranger glanced at her sharply, telling her he, too, had been affected by their brief contact. But he had the good grace not to comment. Instead, he focused his attention on her BMW’s flat tires. He gave the first tire a kick for good measure, then hunkered down on bent knee for a closer look at the second. Chewing nervously on her lower lip, Jessie tried not to notice the way his faded jeans hugged the taut muscles of his thighs. “The rim’s bent on this tire. It’ll have to be replaced. Where are you headed?” He’d been quiet for so long, the sound of his deep voice startled her. She glanced over her shoulder, making sure no one else was there, that the question was directed at her. Then, feeling foolish, the heat of embarrassment rising on her cheeks, she said, “I’m on my way to Prudence Island.” His gaze slid from the BMW to her long legs encased in a pair of designer jeans, his lingering look one of pure male appreciation. “Are you staying at one of the resorts?” “No, I’m not a tourist,” she said, her flush deepening beneath the heat of his gaze. She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to make the distinction. After all, this was her first trip to Prudence Island. Her stay hopefully would be brief, since she had no desire to keep the house on a permanent basis. To all intents and purposes, she was a tourist. “I own a house on the island.” Slowly he rose to his feet, a frown furrowing his brow. “I’ve lived on Prudence Island all of my life. I’m sure I would remember if I’d seen you before.” It was a statement of fact. One that did not offend her. Instinctively she knew it wasn’t a matter of disbelief on his part. Rather, he merely seemed curious. “That’s because I’ve only recently inherited a cottage on the island. Though it’s been in my family for quite some time.” “Which cottage is that?” he asked, his tone still polite, friendly, encouraging her to answer. “Gull’s Cottage.” His reaction was immediate. He flinched as though he’d been struck. She heard the sharp inhalation of his breath. His face paled beneath his tanned skin, his eyes widening in surprise. He looked stunned by the news. In a strained, almost harsh voice, he demanded, “What’s your name?” “M-my name?” He stared at her, not saying another word, his lips pressed in a firm, unrelenting line. “It’s Jessie, Jessie Pierce. Why do you want—” He didn’t wait for her to finish. Turning on his heel, he strode toward his truck. Jessie stared at him in disbelief as he climbed into the cab and slammed the door behind him. When he gunned the motor to life, a hot flush of anger melted her frozen limbs. Her Good Samaritan was abandoning her. “W-wait,” she called out, following after him. “Where are you going? My car…I’ve only got one spare tire. You can’t just leave me here.” Glancing at her briefly, he forced his gaze to the road before him. His face stony with suppressed anger, he said, “I’ll send out a tow truck, as soon as I get to town. That’s all I can promise.” With that he threw the truck into gear and peeled away from the shoulder, sending up a spray of crushed shell and dust in his wake. Jessie waved a hand in front of her face, trying to clear the air as she stood at the side of the road, unable to believe what had just happened. One minute the handsome stranger had seemed polite, friendly, ready to help; the next, he’d become cool, distant. He had abandoned her. Growling her frustration, she stamped a foot in a useless show of self-righteous indignation. For his sake, as well her own, it had better be the last time she ever laid eyes on— Dammit, she didn’t even know the man’s name. Well, hell! Whoever he might be, he’d just better stay out of her way from now on. Samuel Conners glanced out the side mirror of his truck at the woman standing alone on the shoulder of the road. An arrow of guilt pierced his heart when he saw how vulnerable she appeared. Tiny and petite, she couldn’t have stood taller than five-three, or weighed much more than a hundred pounds. He almost smiled when she stamped her foot in a show of anger. But he didn’t. Instead, despite the sultry heat of the day, he shivered. And he knew that the coldness that had enveloped him had nothing to do with the weather. It had to do with a chilling memory from the past. Jessie Pierce, all grown up and beautiful… What was she doing here? Why had she come back after all these years? Why couldn’t she have just stayed wherever she’d gone? If she had, he could have kept the past where it belonged…buried deep inside of him. Her image disappeared as he rounded a corner. Taking the curve too fast, his tires squealed in protest. His load shifted in the bed, slamming against the side of the truck. Belatedly Samuel slowed to a more manageable speed. Jessie had almost recognized him. After all these years, she’d seen his face and wondered if they’d met. It would be only a matter of time before she figured out the rest. Samuel’s muscles tensed reflexively. His knuckles were white as his grip tightened on the steering wheel. Prudence Island wasn’t very large, but it was big enough for two people to steer clear of each other if they really wanted. For her sake, as well his own, he had no intention of ever crossing paths with Jessie Pierce again. Chapter 2 “How long will it take to repair the tires?” After waiting over an hour for the tow truck to arrive, plus enduring a long and bumpy ride over the bridge to Prudence Island, Jessie was impatient to get to Gull’s Cottage before dark. The mechanic lifted the brim of his baseball cap and scratched his head as he studied the BMW. “Well, it’ll take me a while to get the tires off. Then I’ll have to see if they can be fixed. If they can’t, I’ll have to find new ones to put on and—” “Could you just give me a rough estimate?” she cut in, her patience wearing thin. “Probably an hour, maybe a little longer,” he said with a shrug, seeming in no rush to get started. “Great,” Jessie said, sighing, as she glanced at her wristwatch. The sun would be setting by the time she arrived at the cottage. Thanks to the handsome stranger who’d abandoned her along the side of the road without a word of explanation, she’d wasted precious time. She should be miffed at the man and rightfully so. After all, it was his slow driving that had caused her near wreck in the first place. Then he’d had the nerve to leave her stranded. Most disconcerting of all, she didn’t have a name on whom to pin the blame. While he’d insisted that she identify herself, he’d never bothered to return the favor. Somehow that omission of common courtesy seemed an even worse offense than his unexplained abandonment, striking a blow to her feminine self-esteem. It was as though she were unimportant, as though she didn’t matter to him. No, Jessie told herself, with an uneasy frown, that wasn’t true. The stranger cared. In fact, he’d cared a great deal who she was. She doubted if she would ever forget the look in his eyes when she’d told him her name—that stunned, almost devastated look—and she couldn’t begin to understand its cause. “There’s a coffee shop around the corner. And the beach isn’t too far, if you’d like to take a walk while you’re waiting,” the mechanic said, drawing her out of her thoughts. Jessie considered the possibilities. “Is there a grocery store nearby?” “Right down the street,” he said, pointing to a weathered wood building a block away. “It’s just a local store, nothing fancy. But it’s got everything a person might need.” “Thanks, I’ll be back when I’m finished.” As long as she was waiting, she might as well kill time by doing something constructive. It had been hours since she’d had a meal. She would be hungry by the time she got to the cottage. Grabbing her purse from the back seat of the BMW, she headed for the store. A rush of cool air met her at the door of the building, evoking a sigh of delight from Jessie. After sitting outside in the hot sun, the air-conditioning was a welcome relief. The building was older, nothing more than one large room. The wood-planked floor was worn smooth with age. But the store was clean, and the shelves appeared well stocked. Grabbing a basket, she made her way down the narrow aisles. There was a handful of shoppers in the store. Since the store wasn’t close to any of the resorts, Jessie assumed them to be locals. Their curious stares at her appearance gave credence to her suspicions. More than curiosity, Jessie corrected herself, their reactions were out-and-out odd. A woman at the dairy section nearly dropped a carton of eggs when she looked up and saw Jessie standing beside her. An older man rammed his cart into a display of stacked canned goods as he watched her pass him by. For the first time in her life, Jessie actually felt paranoid. First she’d been slighted by one of the island’s citizens on the highway. Now, for apparently no other reason than her being new to town, she was being ogled like a mermaid in a fishbowl by her fellow shoppers. What was wrong with the people in this town? Unnerved by the unexpected attention, she concentrated on composing a mental shopping list. Deciding it best to buy only enough supplies for a couple of days, she picked up a small carton of milk, fresh fruit and bread. For dinner she bought chicken, a potato for baking and greens for a salad. Satisfied, she went to the front counter to check out. An older woman, with coarse, steel-gray hair and sharp, green eyes, rang up her groceries. The task was accomplished in a strained silence, until the woman narrowed her gaze and barked out a sharp demand. “Where are you from, young lady? You’re lookin’ awful familiar.” The question sounded more like an accusation. Jessie’s eyes widened in surprise. Flustered, she blurted out a stilted response. “Atlanta…I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.” “Humph—I coulda sworn I’d seen you before,” the woman said, her skepticism obvious. Then, with a dismissive shrug, she continued, “So, you’re a tourist, eh? The resorts are on the other side of the island. What brings you clear over here?” “My car. I, uh, sort of had an accident. It’s being repaired.” The woman tsked loudly. “That’s too bad. Not a good way to start a vacation. Some of the hotels have shuttle services. You might be able to get someone to pick you up while you’re waiting.” “Well, actually, I’m not staying at any of the resorts.” “That right?” The woman raised one graying brow. “Where are you staying?” Remembering the stranger on the highway and his reaction when she told him of her new residence, she hesitated. Another customer, a middle-aged, blond-haired woman, stepped up beside her, waiting her turn in line. Feeling uncomfortable, wishing the conversation to be over, Jessie murmured quietly, “Gull’s Cottage.” She might as well have shouted her answer. Their reactions couldn’t have been any more extreme. Both women appeared shocked by the news. They exchanged quick glances, their expressions guarded. The blonde standing beside her was the first to recover. She gave a nervous laugh. “I didn’t know Gull’s Cottage was for rent this summer.” “It’s not,” Jessie said, still trying to understand the reason for their reactions. “I own it.” The gray-haired woman blinked, not bothering to hide her disbelief. “You bought Gull’s Cottage?” “No, I inherited it. It was my mother’s.” Silence followed her announcement. The words hung in the air like a dark and ominous cloud. The gray-haired woman stared at her. Finally she said, “I thought I recognized you. You’re Eve Pierce’s daughter…little Jessie.” “Y-yes, I am. But how—” “Lord, help us,” the blonde murmured beside her. Her face paled; she looked as though she’d seen a ghost. The gray-haired woman stared mutely. Jessie glanced from one woman to the other, confusion building inside her. “I’m sorry. Should I know you?” “No, you wouldn’t,” the gray-haired woman said finally, her searching eyes never leaving Jessie’s face. “You were too young, just a little thing when it all happened.” Jessie’s confusion turned to unease. “When what happened?” “Don’t you know, honey?” the blonde piped in. She shook her head. “Know what?” “About your mother,” the blonde said, her tone matter-of fact, as though she assumed Jessie had a clue as to what she was talking about. “You mean, about Eve Pierce? I…I know she died here on the island…” Jessie hesitated. Just how much did she really want to tell these women? Was it wise to admit how little she knew of her past? But finding out about her mother and understanding her past was the reason she was here. Taking a chance, she drew in a breath and admitted, “The truth is, I was adopted when I was five. I really don’t have any memory of my birth mother.” “Oh, honey, that’s too bad,” the blonde said. “Then you don’t know about Gull’s Cottage. About the way Eve was—” “Sarah,” the gray-haired woman said sharply. Disapproval laced her tone. “We’ve kept this young woman long enough. There’s no need to fill her head with gossip.” Looking contrite, the blonde glanced away, refusing to meet Jessie’s gaze. What was going on here? What was it they weren’t telling her? Stiffly the gray-haired woman handed her the bag of groceries. “That’ll be $18.50.” Her hands shook as Jessie fumbled in her purse for the money. She wanted to demand that they finish telling her about her mother. But her instincts were telling her not to ask…that whatever they had to say, it was bound to be bad news. After the day she’d already had, she wasn’t sure if she was ready to hear it. Chiding herself for being such a coward, she handed the money to the gray-haired woman, mumbled a quick thank-you, then fled the store. The sun was beginning to set by the time Jessie pulled her car into the lane leading to Gull’s Cottage, her new home for the summer. Still shaken by her encounter at the grocery store, she pushed the troubling events from her mind, focusing her attention instead on the narrow, rutted lane. It looked as though it had been a long time since anyone had traveled this way. From what she’d learned, she would be the first to stay in the house in nearly twenty-five years. She couldn’t help but wonder what kind of condition the cottage might be in. If the lane were any indication, she expected the worst. The lot was pie shaped, with the widest part of the slice at the entrance. The tip was at the end of the lane, where she assumed the property emptied out onto the beach. In between, there was a thick tangle of towering oaks, palmettos and untamed underbrush. The dense mixture cast the grounds into a premature darkness, giving the property a haunted, eerie feel. Jessie shook off her discomfort, telling herself her unease was nothing more than the wearing effects of a growing headache and an empty stomach. Both of which would be taken care of once she’d unpacked her bags and had settled in for the night. The trees thinned and the waning sunlight peeked through, relieving her anxiety. The reprieve was brief, however. Within moments the house came into view. Jessie blinked once, twice, unable to believe her eyes. She checked her map, making sure she had the right address. But there was no question. This was Gull’s Cottage. Cottage…a misnomer for sure. It was the most beautiful beach house she’d ever seen. A large, one-story home, painted white, with a high, slanting roof and a wraparound porch. There were floor-to-ceiling windows on the sides she could see. The view of the ocean must be breathtaking, she thought. It was much more than she’d expected. Obviously, over the years, someone had taken a great deal of care of the house. She wondered what other surprises awaited her. Jessie parked the car in the circle drive, as close to the house as she could. As the sun began to sink into the horizon, she felt an urgency to hurry and unpack, to go inside where it was safe. Frowning, she turned off the ignition and stepped out of the car, wondering where these feeling were coming from. Her only true fear was that of complete darkness. But she had ample time before the sun made its final descent. For now, there was plenty of lingering light in the dusky sky. So why was she suddenly so unnerved? She grabbed the groceries from the front seat. Forcing herself not to hurry, she strode up the uneven brick walkway to the front porch. Unlocking the door, she let herself in. The rooms, dark and thick with shadows, set her nerves even further on edge. Groping for a light switch, she said a quick prayer of thanks when the entryway emerged from the shadows, glowing warmly beneath the overhead light. Before leaving home, she’d checked to make sure the utilities were in service. The lawyer for her parents’ estate had assured her that the cottage was being looked after by a caretaker, that its power and water were hooked up and that someone came in monthly to clean. The heels of her sandals tapped against bare wood as she walked slowly through the house, her footsteps echoing loudly in the quiet rooms. The floors were golden, heart of pine planks. Even a thin coating of dust couldn’t hide the richness of their patina. Sheets covered most of the furnishings, giving the place a ghostly ambiance. As she continued to explore, she was struck by an uneasy feeling of dåj? vu. It was as though she’d been there before…which she had, she reminded herself. After all, she was supposed to have spent the first five years of her life in this house. The thought sent an unexpected shiver of apprehension down her spine. Forcing herself to continue, she made her way to the back of the house, turning on more lights as she went. When the wooden floor gave way to a burnt-red flagstone, she knew she’d stepped into the kitchen. She felt along the side of the wall until she found the electrical switch. A pair of twin lights over a large center island came to life. The cabinets were carved of oak, the countertops a snowy white ceramic. Though yellowed with age, a delicate floral-print paper covered the walls. The room appeared cozy and inviting. She glanced outside. Even in the growing darkness that pressed against the windows, the view of the ocean was amazing. But the beauty of the room didn’t matter, once she stepped farther into the kitchen. Without warning, the room spun beneath her feet. A fist of anxiety squeezed her chest, making it impossible to draw a breath of air. Her heart pounded so quickly, so hard against her rib cage, she was afraid it was going to explode. Suddenly her head felt light, as though it was floating. The room slowly darkened. Dropping the groceries, she reached out, flailing her arms for something, anything to support herself…because in another minute she was sure she was going to faint. Somehow, through the sheer strength of willpower, she made it to the glass-paned door that led outside. Struggling with the lock, she stumbled out onto the porch that overlooked the beach. There was no furniture, nothing to collapse onto. Instead, she headed for the railing, leaning her weight against it for support. Gulping in deep breaths of air, she willed her racing heart to slow. Never in her life had she experienced such a blind sense of fear. What in the world could have provoked such a panic attack? Too overwhelmed to consider the possibilities, she closed her eyes and slowly slid downward, until she felt the solid wooden deck beneath her. How long she sat there, listening to the pounding of the surf against the shore, she wasn’t sure. By the time she felt strong enough to open her eyes, the night had gotten a firm foothold in the sky. Compared to the pounding fear that had gripped her earlier, the momentary flutter of apprehension at the unexpected darkness seemed insignificant. Besides, it wasn’t completely black outside. There were stars twinkling overhead. And a full moon glowed in the night sky. The air had grown colder, also. She was shivering—from the chill or from shock, she wasn’t sure which. But her heartbeat was steady, and her breathing had returned to normal. The soothing night air had worked its magic. She felt calm enough to go back inside. Pushing herself onto unsteady feet, she walked slowly to the door. Her hand on the doorknob, she hesitated. Once again her heart jackhammered in her chest, telling her she wasn’t in complete control. Unexpected anger surged deep inside her. All day long she’d backed down from one challenge after another. First she’d allowed the man on the highway to take advantage of her helplessness. Then, the women in the store. Because of her own timidity, she’d passed up an opportunity to find out more about her birth mother. She’d had enough of playing the part of a wilted Southern flower. Forcing herself to face her fear, she threw open the door and stepped inside. While she didn’t suffer another panic attack, she wasn’t comfortable, either. Her appetite had fled, right along with her composure. It had been a long day, she told herself. Perhaps the best thing would be to unpack her groceries and suitcases, then call it an early night. Right now all she wanted was a hot shower and a soft bed. Then she’d try to forget about what promised to be one of the worst days of her life. “She’s dead,” a deep, male voice called out. “No, she can’t be,” Samuel growled, refusing to accept the verdict. Stubbornly he turned the ignition one more time. Once again his attempt to start the engine of his shrimp boat was met with complete silence. In the pilot house, he slammed his fist against the steering wheel. The sun was just a promise in the sky and already this morning he’d overslept his alarm clock, nor had he had time for his morning cup of coffee, and now the engine wasn’t working. Dammit, what else could go wrong today? “Give it up, Samuel.” A thin, wiry man clambered out of the hold, hoisting himself onto the deck. Scratching his salt-and-pepper beard, he shook his head in disgust. “The engine’s busted. Looks like we won’t be trawling for shrimp anytime soon.” “Thanks, Jacob. Tell me something I don’t know,” Samuel said sharply. Jacob held up both hands in surrender. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only doing my job.” Samuel sighed. There was no use alienating one of the few men on his crew he could always count on. Jacob was loyal and hardworking. More than that, he was a friend. In a town where memories were long and acceptance was short, friendships were hard to come by. Jacob didn’t deserve any unnecessary grief dumped on his shoulders. “Sorry,” Samuel said. “Ignore me. I’m just in a bad mood.” Jacob eyed him curiously. Self-consciously Samuel rubbed a hand along the stubble of his unshaved beard. Maybe he could have taken a little more time combing his hair, too. But all the primping in the world wouldn’t hide the dark circles under his eyes. Finally Jacob said, “Looks like you could have caught a few more zees last night.” “Nothing a little coffee can’t fix,” Samuel growled. “I can take a hint.” Jacob chuckled as he headed for the crew’s quarters. “I’ll fix us a pot of java before we tackle the engine.” “Thanks,” Samuel called after him. Rising to his feet, he pushed himself from the pilothouse and stood outside on the empty deck. The boat swayed beneath his weight. Above him the heavy iron outriggers creaked in the morning breeze. Their raised arms formed a black vee, pointing toward the heavens. He lifted his face and let the growing sunlight warm the chill from his heart. He blamed all of his troubles on Jessie Pierce. Ever since he’d bumped into her yesterday, nothing seemed to be going right. As much as he hated to admit it, he hadn’t been able to keep his mind on anything but her. Last night, when he’d tried to shut his eyes and sleep, her image had haunted him. It was as though she were there with him in his bedroom. Her hair black and shiny. Her dark-blue eyes glittering with an inner light. Her skin so creamy and smooth he’d wanted to brush his fingers along it. Even the thought of her full red lips, curving slightly, as though she were ready to laugh at his foolish infatuation, only fanned the heat of his ill-advised fascination. Samuel blew out a breath, releasing some of the pent-up tension building inside him. What was wrong with him? He had more important things to consider than his beguilement with a woman. Not just any woman, he reminded himself sternly, but Jessie Pierce, of all people. He had to focus on his future. If he wanted to make the mortgage payments on his boat, he couldn’t afford to lose another day’s work. He had to get the engine fixed—now. With a sigh he turned toward the hold, ready to tackle the engine. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught an approaching jogger on the beach. At this time of day, there was always an occasional walker or jogger passing by. Summertime on the island brought the tourists out of the woodwork. They all seemed fascinated by the sight of shrimp boats, thinking of them as a novelty, not as a man’s work, his lifeblood. But this time there was something about the way the jogger moved—with a delicate, sure-footed grace—that held his attention. As she neared, he saw the dark hair and slender body in a red T-shirt and white shorts and knew it was the woman of his dreams. Earlier he’d wondered if his day could get any worse. He’d just gotten his answer. Jessie Pierce was headed his way. Crossing paths with the woman who’d had such a devastating effect on his life twice in as many days was more than a man’s patience could bear. He felt an unwarranted anger stirring deep inside him. She had no business being here. No business invading his private sanctuary. This was his part of the island. Her pace slowed as she neared the docks. Raising a hand against the brightening sun, she scanned the pier, her gaze traveling from one boat to the next. Her expression was rapt, curious. The tension in Samuel’s gut increased, tightening like a string on a bow, as her gaze closed in on him. He told himself to turn away before it was too late. But like a man caught in the path of an out-of-control vehicle, he couldn’t move. All he could do was stand there and let it happen. Her gaze faltered then stopped as she locked onto his face. Her lips parted; whether she was surprised or about to say something, he wasn’t sure. Either way, her expression altered, the bloom fading from her eyes. Closing her mouth with a click, she stood staring at him, frozen by the chill of his gaze. Slowly Samuel felt a tide of heat rise up inside him. A heat that had nothing to do with the sun or the warm summer morning. Heat that was born not only of an undeniable sensual awareness for the woman standing before him, but also of humiliation and anger…the very emotions he’d tried to put behind him all these years. That, and the hot frustration of knowing there wasn’t a damned thing that he could do to stop the past from coming back to haunt him, once again. Heavy footfalls sounded on the floor of the deck as Jacob neared. “Here’s your coffee, Samuel.” Startled, Samuel glanced at the approaching man. In his hand, Jacob held two steaming mugs of coffee. Murmuring his thanks, Samuel accepted the offering. By the time he turned his gaze back to the beach, Jessie was gone. He stepped forward, moving starboard on the deck. It took him only a moment to single her out among the passersby. Spotting the red T-shirt and the white shorts, he watched as she disappeared from sight. Jacob stood beside him, following the direction of his gaze. He whistled his approval. “Not bad for a tourist.” “She isn’t a tourist,” Samuel said without thinking, a lingering burr of irritation getting the better of his judgment. Jacob glanced at him curiously. “You know her?” “We ran into each other yesterday,” he said with a shrug, trying his best to sound nonchalant. Jacob grinned. “Well, now I understand your sleepless night. I wouldn’t have been able to get a wink, either, not with such a pretty young thing on my mind.” “It’s not what you think,” Samuel said quickly, hiding his embarrassment behind a sip of coffee. He winced as the hot liquid scalded his tongue. Muttering a curse beneath his breath, he blamed Jessie for yet another of his tribulations. Jacob’s chin jutted upward and out. “Now, how do you know what I’m thinking?” “Years of experience,” Samuel said, with a sigh. Forcing a smile, he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Come on, Jacob. We’ve got better things to do than to argue about a woman. Let’s get back to work.” Reluctantly Jacob nodded. With one last glance at the beach, Samuel turned his back on Jessie’s disturbing image and headed for the familiar safety of the hold. Chapter 3 Never before had she felt such animosity directed at her from another person. Reeling from the impact of the exchange, Jessie could think of nothing but putting as much distance between her and the man on the dock as possible. In her haste she almost stumbled on a large shell half-buried in the sand. She caught herself as she tried vainly to concentrate on the strip of beach before her. She’d sensed his presence even before she’d spotted him. There’d been a prickling of awareness, a buzz of anticipation in her chest, telling her that someone near was watching her. She’d recognized him immediately. There weren’t many men blessed with that devastating combination of sun-streaked hair, pale blue eyes, high cheekbones and strong jawline. Jessie couldn’t believe her own foolishness. She’d been on the brink of saying hello, of letting bygones be bygones. And then she’d caught the look in his eye. That look of pure, unadulterated hatred. What had she done to deserve his disdain? He didn’t even know her. Frustration churned inside her. She pushed herself, running faster, faster, willing the image of the man on the dock to fade from her mind. Her feet pounded the beach. Wet, hard-packed sand slid beneath her tennis shoes. The salty air whipped her skin, stinging her eyes. At least, that’s the reason she allowed herself for the tears blurring her vision. All she wanted to do was to go back to the cottage, where she could hole up and wallow in privacy. Breathless, her heart racing, she slowed to a walk when she finally came to the boardwalk that crossed the dunes to Gull’s Cottage. Sea oats waved in the light breeze. A squirrel darted across the walkway, startling her. Pressing a hand to her breast, she laughed at her own skittishness. Stepping back, she watched the reckless rodent scramble up a nearby oak tree. Once he’d disappeared beneath a thick canopy of leaves, she turned around and nearly collided with a woman blocking her path on the walkway. Jessie gasped, her heart leapfrogging into her throat. She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Instead, she stood rooted to the spot with fear, staring into the face of the other woman. She looked to be in her midfifties. She was short and squat. Her hair was brown and straight, cut in an unflattering pageboy. Her face was wide and square. She wore round glasses that glittered in the sunlight as she studied Jessie’s face. When she spoke, her words were brisk and to the point, “So, you’ve come back, Jessie Pierce.” “How did you know—” The words caught in her throat. The woman smiled, seeming amused by Jessie’s flustered confusion. “Thelma from the grocery store called me this morning.” She nodded toward the wood and stone house a few yards down the beach. “I’m your neighbor. The name’s Dora Hawkins. I’ve been the caretaker of your house for over twenty years. Last night I noticed your lights on. Surprised me—I almost came over to check it out for myself. It’s been a long time since anyone’s stayed at Gull’s Cottage.” “Yes, well…I’ve been living in Atlanta,” Jessie said, finally recovering her voice. Dora took a moment to digest the news, then said, “I also heard you couldn’t remember anything about your mother, about Eve.” Bad news traveled fast on the island, Jessie mused to herself. Sighing, she said, “No, I can’t. As a matter of fact, there’s not much about the first five years of my life that I can remember.” “Nothing at all?” Dora asked, studying her curiously. Jessie fought the urge to fidget beneath the woman’s scrutiny. She felt like a schoolgirl about to be caught in a lie. The troubling memory of last night’s panic attack flickered in her mind. Until she understood the cause of her fear, she could not share this information with anyone. She shook her head. “No, nothing at all.” Abruptly Dora changed the subject. “How long are you staying?” The conversation felt more like an interrogation. Jessie bit back another sigh at the woman’s tenacity. In the polite world where she’d been raised, Dora Hawkins would have been labeled as an eccentric. Which was a nice way of saying the woman was odd. Harmless undoubtedly, but still a kook. Striving to be patient, Jessie said, “I’m not sure. Maybe for the summer. I need to get things settled here…decide what to do with the house.” “So, you’re thinking of selling.” Jessie shrugged. “Possibly. I live and work in Atlanta. There’s not much point in my keeping a house here on Prudence Island.” “Probably for the best,” Dora said with a sniff. She cast a glance at Gull’s Cottage. “The house is full of bad memories. No need for you to become mired down by them.” Uncomfortable with the conversation, Jessie searched for a quick way for it to end. She forced a smile. “I’d invite you inside for some coffee, but I forgot to buy any at the store yesterday.” “No matter, I’ve got work to do,” Dora said, not seeming offended by Jessie’s dismissal. With a nod goodbye, she turned, the rubber heels of her shoes scraping against the wooden walkway. Then, with an abruptness Jessie was fast becoming accustomed to, she stopped, wheeling around to look at her. “How does it feel to be back in Gull’s Cottage?” “I—I’m not sure,” Jessie said once again, taken aback by the woman’s brusqueness. “It’s quiet, a little spooky. I guess it’ll take a while for me to get comfortable.” The woman humphed. “I’m not so sure about that, considering…” Jessie frowned. This was the second time in as many days that someone had alluded to something that had happened in the house. After her panic attack of last night, she couldn’t allow another opportunity to answer the questions of her past to pass her by. “Considering what?” Dora hesitated, seeming uncertain for the first time since their conversation began. Finally, looking Jessie straight in the eye, she dropped her bombshell. “Considering the fact that your mother was murdered in Gull’s Cottage.” Your mother was murdered in Gull’s Cottage. The words echoed hollowly in her mind as Jessie shifted her car into gear and stomped on the gas pedal, taking the rutted lane leading from the house much too fast. Somehow, after her conversation with Dora Hawkins, she’d found the strength to return to Gull’s Cottage, despite her instincts telling her to run…to run from the cottage, from the island, to run all the way back to Atlanta to her home where she belonged. Home. Was there really such a place? It was as though her entire life had been built on quicksand. Everything that she’d thought was safe and solid was slipping away, crumbling beneath her feet. When she’d set out on this quest to learn of her past, she’d never imagined just what she might uncover. Eugenia, her only remaining link with her parents, had told her there’d been some sort of scandal surrounding her birth mother’s death. She’d thought it had to do with Eve being so young. Never in her wildest dreams had she believed she would stumble onto a murder. The air felt close, pressing in around her. Jessie inhaled deeply of the salty scent. She’d been on Prudence Island for only two days. It seemed like a lifetime. Now she understood the curious glances, the troubled reactions of the townspeople. Her mother had been murdered on their quiet island. In a community of this size, it must have caused quite a sensation. No wonder they weren’t sure what to make of her presence. But it still didn’t explain the hatred she’d seen in the eyes of one of their residents—the stranger on the highway, the man on the docks. Why would her return evoke such a strong reaction from him? The bottom of her car scraped the ground as she hit a deep rut. She slowed the car to a more manageable speed, forcing the troubling thoughts from her mind. She only hoped that she’d made the right choice. Despite the shock, she’d decided to stay. Now more than ever she had to find out the truth. Her mother had been murdered…and she had no recollection of any of it happening. She was left with nothing but the dreams that haunted her and a crippling inability to trust others. She needed to know why. Turning onto the main road, she drove the short distance into town, slowing when she came to Main Street. She parked her car in a public lot near the city hall, then she strode across the town’s square to the brick building housing the library. Even in a small town there had to be a local newspaper, Jessie reasoned. Her best bet of researching her mother’s murder was to check out the back issues. She climbed the steps to the entrance and pulled open the heavy wooden door. The library was small compared to the ones in Atlanta. But it held the same quiet hush, the same musty odor of old books. Her tennis shoes squeaked against the tile floor, unnerving her as she made her way to the front desk. A young red-haired woman, looking to be close to her own age, greeted her with a smile. “Good morning. You’re up early.” Despite the emotions churning in her stomach, Jessie managed a smile in return. At last, a friendly face. Someone who was too young to remember the scandal that had rocked the community nearly twenty-five years ago. “I need to do some research on a project. I was wondering if you had any back issues of the local newspaper.” “We certainly do,” the librarian said proudly. “All the papers have been transferred onto microfilm. What year were you looking for?” Jessie hesitated, uncertain how far back to look. Deciding to be safe rather than sorry, she said, “Would it be possible to get a five-year span, say between twenty and twenty-five years ago?” “That’s a lot of research.” “It’s a big project.” The librarian laughed. “Let’s get you started.” After directing Jessie to the right machine, she showed her how it worked. “Normally we have a thirty-minute use limit. But since it’s a quiet day, and no one else is here yet, I don’t think we have to worry. Take your time.” “Thanks,” she said. As soon as the clicking of the librarian’s heels against the tile floor faded in the distance, Jessie loaded the first of the cartridges. Minutes passed slowly. Her head began to throb. Her eyes burned as the articles flew past in a blur. And still there was nothing in the newspapers about the murder. Then, just as she was about to give up, a headline jumped out at her…Local Woman Murdered On Island. Jessie stared at the picture of the woman who had been her mother. Her hair was long, past her shoulders, and dark, like Jessie’s. But her features were finer, her bone structure more slender. There was a delicateness about the woman, a fragility, that Jessie had never possessed. Once over the initial shock, Jessie forced herself to read the accompanying article. It was a gold mine of information. Not only did it tell of her mother’s death, but it also gave her a valuable insight into her mother’s life. She was an artist, Jessie discovered—something they had in common. While Jessie chose a more commercial outlet for her talent, her mother apparently had been making a name for herself as a painter in the art world. A former resident of Charleston, she’d moved to Prudence Island shortly after the death of her husband, Jonathan Pierce. She had resided in Gull’s Cottage with her daughter, Jessica. The account of the murder was sketchy, yet, at the same time, shockingly blunt. Schooling her emotions, Jessie scanned the description. Her mother was killed by a blow to the head in the early evening hours of May twenty-first. Her body was discovered by a Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Broward, who’d gone to the cottage after calls by a concerned friend went unanswered. Mrs. Pierce’s five-year-old daughter was found unharmed in the house. How much of the crime she had witnessed was unknown. Attempts to question her were unsuccessful. For a long moment Jessie stared at the screen, forgetting to breathe. Her stomach roiled in protest. A bitter taste rose in her throat. She was afraid she might be sick. Only now did she realize that the uneasy feeling of dåj? vu, the terror that she’d felt entering Gull’s Cottage last night, had roots in reality. She’d been in the house when her mother had been murdered. No one knew how much she’d seen. The panic attack…was it triggered by a forgotten memory? Had she actually witnessed her mother’s murder? Or was her fear merely the result of the trauma that she’d surely suffered at the loss of her only parent? Frustrated, she realized there were still too many questions and not enough answers. She still didn’t know who had killed her mother. Her hands shook as she forced herself to continue her search, reading account after account of the progress of the investigation into her mother’s death. Until finally, a headline with an accompanying grainy photo leaped out at her…Local Man Charged In The Murder Of Evelyn Pierce. With that single headline, the world dropped out beneath Jessie’s feet. It was as though time had stopped. He hadn’t changed at all in nearly twenty-five years. Her hands shook as she reached to press her fingers against the grainy picture on the screen. She didn’t know how it was possible, but she’d met the man who was accused of murdering her mother…yesterday on the highway, this morning on the docks…the stranger, the man with the hatred burning in his eyes. Now she had a name to go with the face…Samuel Conners. Slowly, reason returned. No, it was impossible. The man in the newspaper, if he were still alive, would have to be nearly sixty years old. The man she’d met yesterday was in his early thirties. They couldn’t be one in the same. But the resemblance was uncanny. The two men must be related—perhaps a father or an uncle. Still feeling numb with the shock, Jessie scanned the rest of the articles. Her search turned up more information regarding the trial and the conviction of the man accused of murdering her mother. Once she’d finished, she copied the articles she had found. Gathering up the cartridges, she returned to the front desk. The librarian smiled as she approached. “That was quick.” When she took a closer look at Jessie’s face, her smile faltered. “Are you all right?” “Yes, I’m fine,” Jessie said, unable to stop the trembling in her voice. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Would you happen to have a phone book?” “Sure, it’s right here.” She reached behind the desk, pulling out a thin yellow book. Her gaze lingered on Jessie’s face. “Are you sure everything’s all right?” “Positive,” Jessie said, forcing a quick smile. Her hands shook as she riffled through the pages, belying her claim. Aware of the other woman’s hovering presence, she quickly flipped through the book until she came to the Cs. Running her finger down the column, she froze when she found the name she sought. There was a listing under the name of Samuel Conners. She stared at the book, her suspicions confirmed. Fumbling in her purse for a pen and paper, she scribbled down the phone number and address. Thanking the librarian, she stumbled out of the building and into the brilliant sunlight. For a long moment she stood looking out at the town’s square. A thick carpet of green grass covered the courtyard. Beds of pink begonias bordered the sidewalk. A flag whipped the air, dancing in a steady breeze. Everything seemed so normal. Yet, her entire world had been turned upside down. A gray-haired couple walking hand in hand passed her by, studying her curiously, reminding her that she hadn’t moved. She descended the stone steps. The truth was that little by little she was uncovering a mystery. But the more she learned, the more uneasy she became. As she strode across the square, she recounted her meeting yesterday on the highway with Samuel Conners. He’d seemed polite, almost friendly and ready to help her…until she’d told him that she was staying at Gull’s Cottage. When she’d told him her name, he’d left abruptly, abandoning her without a word of explanation. On shaking legs she crossed the street to the parking lot, ignoring the glances of passersby. At first she’d attributed Samuel’s actions to rudeness. Now she believed recognition had played a role in his behavior. It would certainly explain his reaction to her identity—he’d been shocked. Distractedly she unlocked the door of her car. Climbing inside, she started the engine and pulled out of the lot, not exactly sure where she was going. Then, as though the car had a mind of its own, she found herself searching the island for the address listed in the phone book. Eventually she found Samuel’s house on the outskirts of town, near the docks. She slowed her car to a stop, her curiosity getting the better of her. It was an older home, but well taken care of. It was painted a creamy yellow, with dark-green shutters. Bright, multi-colored flowers spilled out of the window boxes lining the front of the house. A rustic brick walkway led to the door. The familiar red truck parked in the driveway surprised her. It was still early, barely twelve o’clock, the workday only half over. There were no other signs of life. No car, no swing set, no bicycles, nothing to indicate anyone else was around. She wondered if he lived alone. Suddenly the front door swung open, and Samuel Conners stepped outside. He stood on the front porch, glancing at the street. When he spotted her car, a stormy expression crossed his handsome face. Before she realized what was happening, he strode angrily toward her car, making short work of the distance between them. His face dark with fury, he placed both hands on the frame of her window, blocking her escape. With a harshness that sent a chill down her spine, he snarled, “What the hell do you want, Jessie Pierce? Why did you have to come back to Prudence Island?” Samuel had had enough. One chance encounter was unavoidable. He’d even believed that twice was a mere coincidence. But three times in less than twenty-four hours was more than any man could accept. The woman was following him…and he was determined to find out why. Jessie stared at him, her mouth dropping open. She looked scared, rightfully so. He supposed he appeared a little wild and dangerous. He certainly felt on the verge of losing control. But he would never hurt a woman…. Not that she would know that. Samuel’s gaze remained hard, unwavering. Just what did she know? That was the million-dollar question, wasn’t it? Everyone from the sheriff to the prosecutor to the defense attorneys had wanted to know exactly what young Jessie had seen the night her mother had died. But no one had been able to discover the answer. Unwanted memories flashed in his mind. He’d been ten years old when it had all happened. She couldn’t have been more than four or five. Too shocked and upset, in the end, for anyone to press for her testimony. Protected by her family’s wealth and standing in the community, she had disappeared from Prudence Island, leaving unanswered questions and more pain than she could have imagined. Now she was back. “What are you doing here?” he demanded, as the bitterness of his past threatened to overwhelm him. “I found the article,” she whispered, her voice so quiet he could barely hear her. She had the scared, petrified look of a cornered animal. Shrinking back against the seat, she leaned away from him, away from his anger. “The newspaper, the picture of the man who murdered my mother. I know it couldn’t have been you, but it was your name, your picture….” The words fell like a blow against his chest, knocking the breath from his lungs. Samuel bore the name and the face of his father. It had been his burden in life. He stepped away from the car, feeling sickened by this unwanted invasion from the past. Resignation stole the heat from his anger. Still unable to accept the final verdict, he backed away from the car. “Samuel Conners was my father. He was a kind, gentle man. He couldn’t have done anything so vile, so brutal. He died for a crime he didn’t commit.” He pointed a finger at Jessie, not caring that his hand shook. Or that his voice was nearly choked by a lump of overwhelming emotion. “If anyone should know that, it’s you, Jessie Pierce.” With that he turned on his heel and strode back to the blessed sanctuary of his house. Chapter 4 My father…a kind, gentle man…he couldn’t have done anything so vile, so brutal. Samuel’s final words played over and over in her mind, as Jessie slammed the BMW into gear and sped away from his house. Her tires squealed in protest at her rough handling, spewing out dirt and crushed shell. Within seconds the house disappeared behind a cloud of dust and debris. His father. Of course. She should have known he’d been the man in the newspaper article. Who else could have borne such a striking resemblance to this man than his own father? He died for a crime he didn’t commit. If anyone should know that, it’s you, Jessie Pierce. She gripped the steering wheel tightly, trying to still her trembling hands. The look on Samuel’s face, the adamancy of his tone—he actually believed she knew his father to be innocent. That she’d allowed a wrongfully convicted man to die in prison. No wonder he held such animosity toward her. Golden rays of the midday sun glinted off the road, turning the pavement up ahead into a shimmering mirage. Yet she felt none of its comforting warmth. Jessie drew in a shaky breath. She felt chilled by the elusive memories of her past. Too soon she spotted the lane leading to her cottage. She slowed the car, carefully making her way over the deep ruts. Even at high noon the towering, moss-covered live oaks and the thick underbrush cast huge shadows, choking out any filtering light. The house, despite its brilliant coat of white paint, wore an ominous pall. Unable to face the darkness that surrounded the house, Jessie parked her car in the driveway and walked the short distance to the beach. A few feet past the boardwalk, her strength gave out. She sat down hard on a cushion of soft, warm sand, her muscles shaking with relief. Blindly she stared at the undulating waves of the ocean. Her mind still reeling, she forced herself to go over the events of her disturbing encounter with Samuel. He had said that his father had died for a crime he did not commit. Which meant Samuel believed someone else had murdered Eve Pierce. Or did it? Mixed in with the anger and the bitterness, Jessie had seen another emotion shadowing Samuel’s eyes. An emotion so raw and painful, it had hurt for her to witness it. An emotion so intense, she had wanted to reach out and ease his suffering. There had been a guilty uncertainty in his gaze. Despite his protests to the contrary, Samuel was not completely sure of his father’s innocence. Jessie’s breath caught painfully in her throat. More than anything else, her own reaction toward Samuel’s anguish had disturbed her. Caring didn’t come easy for her. Her protective instincts usually kept her aloof from others and their problems. Better to live an isolated life, she reminded herself, than to risk the pain of caring too much. Especially not for a stranger, a man whose father may very well have murdered her own mother. That is, if the newspaper accounts of her mother’s death had been accurate. She frowned. Could they have been wrong? Could the person who murdered her mother still be at large? Jessie shuddered at the possibility that such a devastating mistake could have been made. Slowly she became aware of her surroundings. The foaming waves of the ocean formed a jigsaw pattern against the beach. The air was heavy with the scent of salt and the live fish of the sea. In the distance a mother and child laughed in delight as the winds carried their kite high into the sky. Everything seemed so normal, so peaceful. It felt odd that the lives of others went unaffected while her life had undergone such a complete and staggering change. Her mother had been murdered in Gull’s Cottage. That much she knew for sure. The truth of whether or not she’d been a witness to the horrible crime was still buried deep inside her. According to the newspaper’s account, Samuel’s father was found guilty of the murder. But the little voice in the back of her mind told her that something wasn’t quite right with the story. That there was more to the events of the past that hadn’t yet been revealed. Unfortunately Samuel’s father was dead, as was her mother. Did that mean the secret behind her mother’s death would forever be buried? She closed her eyes against the emotions roiling inside her. In Atlanta she’d learned to cope with her fears by distancing herself from her own emotions. Though her adoptive mother had constantly tried to bring her out of her shell, Jessie had stood firm in her belief that if she didn’t allow herself to feel, to get close to others, then she would never be hurt. In her own way she had become an island. Until she’d returned to Gull’s Cottage, she’d never realized how fragile her world had become, how successful she’d been at denying the truth. Clearly, the emotional problems of her adulthood were tied to the one traumatic event of her childhood—the event that she’d tried so hard to suppress—her mother’s death. Drawing in a steadying breath, Jessie slowly opened her eyes. She hadn’t been the only one whose life had been changed by that violent act. Samuel had been deeply affected by his father’s conviction of guilt. Through the actions of their parents, her past and Samuel’s were irrevocably connected. He was the key to the answers she sought. No one else would know as much about his own father as he did. Whether she liked it or not, the path to the truth passed through Samuel Conners. The next morning Jessie steeled herself for what lay ahead. She’d risen early, even before the sun. Now, with the dawn stretching ribbons of purple and pink throughout the lightening sky, she walked along the beach, heading for the one place where she knew she would find Samuel. The docks brimmed with activity as she approached. Crews of fishermen called out to one another, laughing, joking as they prepared for their morning’s work. Boats rocked against their moorings, the water slapping against their hulls. Gulls screamed overhead, as though impatient for their chance at scraps from the morning catch. Despite the crush of activity, her appearance didn’t go unnoticed. As she passed, she received curious glances from the sea of primarily male workers, some more blatant in their show of appreciation than others. Her step faltered, her face flushing with embarrassment, as catcalls followed her down the wooden dock. Quickening her step, she hurried to Samuel’s shrimp boat. The Marianna stood silent, oblivious to the frenetic activity of the surrounding fishermen. So quiet, in fact, that Jessie wondered if anyone was aboard. She hesitated, biting her lower lip as she studied the white boat with its blue trim, debating the wisdom of calling out and attracting any more unwanted attention. Just as she was about to turn around and head back to Gull’s Cottage in defeat, a familiar blond-haired figure emerged from the shadows of the hold. Samuel’s powerful body dwarfed the boat as he stepped onto the deck. Like a magnet drawn to steel, his gaze flew to her. In stunned silence, he stared at her. She froze, held by the force of his gaze. Dressed in a grease-stained T-shirt and faded jeans, he wore a harried expression on his face. The wind stroked his sun-streaked hair, blowing it across his forehead. Absently, rubbing his hands with a dingy white cloth, his gaze slid up and down the length of her body. Jessie fought the urge to squirm beneath the touch of his assessing glance. Even without the censure that she saw reflected in his eyes, she felt out of place in her pristine white jeans, her black-and-white-striped shirt and her unscuffed tennis shoes. He didn’t need to tell her what they both already knew. That she didn’t belong here. Jessie was the first to break the silent standoff. Gathering her courage, she cleared her throat, then said, “I need to talk to you.” For one terrible moment she thought he might turn and walk away, ignoring her and her request. Instead, he slowly shook his head. “I don’t think that’d be a good idea,” he said, his tone a low warning. Aware of the other nearby fishermen stopping to watch them, Jessie braced herself against the undisguised hostility in his stance and the anger which corded his muscles. Sternly she told herself she could not let him intimidate her. Lifting her chin, feigning a confidence she did not feel, she said, “Is that because you’re too scared to talk to me?” For the first time since she’d met him, Samuel actually smiled, seeming amused by the question. He drew himself up to his full six-foot-plus height and stepped forward, closing the distance between them. In a cool voice that sent a chill down her spine, he said, “I’m not the one who should be frightened.” Jessie’s heart pounded against her breast. She fought the urge to turn and run. Despite the challenging look in his eyes, she sensed that his threat was harmless. That, no matter how daunting an image he tried to project, Samuel would never hurt her. Taking a gamble on her instincts being correct, she stood her ground and refused to budge. Slowly his smile faded. Releasing an impatient breath, he stepped down from the boat and landed with a thud on the dock in front of her. For a long, resolve-stealing moment, he stood within inches of touching her. Close enough that she felt the heat of his sun-kissed skin. So close that she grew lost in the pale blueness of his eyes. Dizzied by his overwhelming presence, she was tempted to rest a hand against the anchoring strength of his wide shoulders. “I don’t have time to waste on chitchat,” he said finally, his curt tone snapping her out of her trance. He jabbed a finger in the direction of his boat. “Right now I’ve got to take a test run with my repaired motor. If you want to talk to me, it’ll have to be out on the ocean.” Without another word, he stepped away from her and began loosening the thick lines of rope that moored the boat, leaving her to deal with a confusing rush of emotions. He wanted her to turn and run. She’d heard the challenge in his voice. He was letting the decision to stay or go fall squarely on her shoulders, gambling on the chance that she’d be too scared to actually take him up on the offer. If she were smart she would run as fast as her feet could carry her. Knowing how much he must resent her, she told herself, she would be a fool to go anywhere alone with him. Once they were on the ocean, there would be no one to protect her from his anger. Despite what reason might be telling her, Jessie felt as though she could trust the man standing before her. As illogical as it might sound, deep in her heart she believed that nothing bad would happen to her as long as she was with him. Besides, she was tired of running away. Tired of crawling into her protective shell of isolation at the first sign of trouble. Never opening herself up to what the world had to offer, good or bad, had proved a very lonely way to live. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. 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