| SECRET KEEPER
Stars glittered across the vast wasteland spreading in front of her, blurred by the rain pouring down her face and into her eyes.
No, she thought, struggling for lucidity. Not stars. Couldn't be stars. Not on the ground. Water. Must be water.
Water. Water everywhere….
A large, dark shape loomed ahead, slumbering in the downpour. No lights there, she thought bleakly. Just a hulking black nothing that should have been her salvation.
Marsh. The name came to her fuzzy brain, clawing for a foothold. General Marsh. Get General Marsh. General Marsh can help.
But General Marsh wasn't home.
She stumbled forward, coming to a stop only when she crashed sideways into the rough clapboard siding of the dark, silent house.
Maybe they were sleeping.
Her eyes drifted shut. Sleep. She needed sleep.
Some remnant of purpose slithered like a serpent deep inside her, jerking her back to unwanted consciousness. Her head throbbed in protest, but she pushed to her feet and weaved across the soggy ground to the front of the house.
The porch was wide but low slung, accessible by a couple of stumbling steps upward. She landed with a half tumble and caught herself on the old cane-bottomed rocker sitting by the front wall. Somehow avoiding an ungainly slump to the floor, she banged three times on the door. Cheek pressed against the solid wood, she listened for any sounds of movement from inside. She heard nothing.
Tears burned her aching eyes, but she blinked them back, telling herself it was only the rain. Harlowes didn't cry.
She banged her hand against the door again with a sobbing gasp. No answer.
She shoved away from the door, swaying toward the porch stairs. As she gripped the slick railing, the world seemed to twirl around her for a moment. Somehow, she made it safely to the bottom step.
But she didn't see the flagstone hidden in the rain-washed gloom.
Her toe caught the edge of the stone and she pitched forward. She tried to catch herself but her hand slipped on the wet grass and she hit hard, headfirst, on another flat stone.
Pain arced through her with a shower of bright sparkles. She pressed her hand to the side of her forehead and felt warm liquid mingling with the cold rain.
In the low light gleaming off the water, she saw rivulets of darkness spreading over her pale fingers. As she stared at the confusing sight, another drop of blackness splashed onto her palm. She had to wipe it off.
She dug her hands in the pockets of her jeans. The left side was empty, but in the right, she felt something thin and silky stuffed down into the bottom. She pulled it free and found herself holding a scarf.
It belonged to her mother. What was she doing with her mother's scarf?
She wiped her hand on it and pushed unsteadily to her feet, turning a full circle, taking in the unfamiliar world. There was water behind her. A house in front of her.
Why was she at the lake? Why was she standing in the rain?
A cottony sensation filled her head, as if the contents of her skull were too large to be contained. She shook her head and the world started to spiral around her again.
Okay. No more shaking her head. She started toward the steps but stopped at the base, staring at the dark facade.
Nobody's home, she thought.
She wasn't sure how she knew it, but she did.
From somewhere not too far away came a noise. A car door, opening and closing. Footsteps crunching on a gravel drive. Even through the drumbeat of rain, the sound seemed clear and ominous.
Someone was near.
She staggered away from the house, away from the lake. The woods thickened behind the lake house, rising toward the lowering clouds overhead. She was in the mountains.
An image of another house filled her mind. A sprawling pine cabin in the middle of the north Georgia mountains, where her parents were waiting.
She had to get there. They needed her.
Why did they need her?
Water slid into her eyes. She wiped it away, blinking at the blurry world around her. She had to get up the mountain.
Heading for the tree line, she stumbled as her feet caught in the underbrush. She caught herself on the trunk of a nearby pine, the rough bark scraping her palms, and somehow remained upright. But only for a few seconds. The next time the tangled vines of the forest floor ensnared her feet, she went down hard, landing on a bed of pine straw and mud.
She stared at the sideways world and saw only an alien landscape, full of mysteries and monsters. She closed her eyes, shutting everything out.
Slowly, blessedly, the world went away.
HE WASN'T GOING TO CHECK the back door. The damned cat didn't belong to him. It was just a stray cat that hung around the house looking for scraps. Yeah, it came inside pretty regularly these days, but it had lived out in the rain for God knew how long before showing up on the back doorstep. The cat could surely handle a little September rainstorm.
Wade Cooper sank deeper in his recliner and tried to focus on the well-worn Dick Francis novel he'd been attempting to read for the past hour, ever since he got home from a long day at the office. But the moan of the wind in the trees outside conspired with the rattle of rain on his roof to draw his attention to the back door.
Ah, hell. It wouldn't hurt to take a quick look to see if the scruffy old tom was shivering on the back porch.
Rain blew in when he opened the door, a fine, cool mist reminding him fall had arrived, with winter just around the corner. A couple of years ago, Gossamer Ridge had seen near-record amounts of snowfall for an area that rarely saw the cold white stuff, and forecasters were hinting that another bad winter could be on the way.
Maybe he could coax the cat to stay inside more when the weather got cooler. Maybe feed him twice a day instead of once, and get him some toys to play with—
He stopped himself midthought.
He's not your cat. He probably has a home and just mooches from everybody else in the area.
Nobody else in the neighborhood had claimed him, but who would? The wiry tom was missing the tip of his left ear and he had extra toes on each foot. Plus, he ate like a horse and stole everything he could get his mouth around. Unfortunately, he'd decided that Wade deserved to be the recipient of his purloined bounty, which meant once a week, Wade took a basket full of the cat's haul around the neighborhood so people could reclaim the stolen socks, shoes, lawn tools and, on one humiliating occasion, a pair of women's thong underwear.
"Ernie?" he called to the darkness, peering through the rainy gloom.
There was no movement outside in response.
The hum of his cell phone vibrating on the coffee table gave him something else to think about. He shut out the rain and grabbed the phone. His brother Jesse's name stared back at him on the display. "Hey, Jesse."
"Just got in from Georgia. No luck." His brother sounded tired. Cooper Security had recently joined the hunt for Air Force General Emmett Harlowe, his wife, Cathy, and their grown daughter, Annie, who'd disappeared almost three weeks earlier from their vacation cabin in the north Georgia mountains near Dahlonega. Jesse had spent the last three days in north Georgia, following up the dwindling leads.
"The Harlowes couldn't have disappeared into thin air." Wade sank into his chair again, grimacing at the twinge in his bum knee. "Their cabin wasn't that isolated, was it?"
"It's pretty far off the beaten track," Jesse admitted. "Nearest cabin is over a mile away. The last time anyone remembered seeing any of them was August nineteenth. That's several days before they were reported missing."
"No surveillance cameras in the area?" Wade asked. "The police have checked every place in a fifty-mile radius."
"Have you tried talking to General Marsh again?" Jesse's grim silence was an answer in itself. When he finally spoke, it was in a low growl. "He won't take my calls."
"Surely he'll take Evie's."
"I don't want to put her in the middle between the company and her father," Jesse said firmly. "I hired her for her accounting skills, not her relationship to Rita. And definitely not because of her father."
Wade thought his brother was being overly sensitive, given his tumultuous past relationship with Marsh's eldest daughter, Rita, but he knew better than to push him. Jesse had his own way of doing things, and arguing made him dig his heels in that much more firmly. "I could try calling him myself," he suggested.
"Do you think it would get you anywhere?"
Wade doubted it. He might not have the baggage of a failed engagement with Rita the way Jesse did, but it wasn't likely the general would talk to him, either. The family lived less than a quarter mile away, along the lakeshore, but they were hardly friendly neighbors.
Still, there were lives at stake, the missing Harlowes included. It was worth a try. "I won't know until I give it a go," he answered Jesse's question.
"Well, don't try it tonight," Jesse warned. "The general's one of those early to bed, early to rise types. And New York's an hour ahead."
"Oh, right. I didn't mention that. Evie said the general and his wife are in New York City with Rita. Trousseau shopping."
Ouch. "Rita's getting married?"
"Yeah. Some N.Y.U. professor she met when he was doing lectures at Emory. They hit it off and now she's gotten a job as a history lecturer at some high-priced private prep school in Manhattan."
Jesse hid it well, but Wade knew his brother still had some unhealed scars from his broken engagement to Rita Marsh, even though the relationship had ended years ago. Wade supposed Rita's upcoming marriage might make a few of those old scars bleed again.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.