A paranormal romance novel
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Sarah MacMillan fell in love with the old house the moment she saw it...but she uncovers more than she ever expected to find.
© Patricia Crossley. Nothing may be copied from these pages without the permission of the author
A past love which ended in murder, brings together a disillusioned woman and a steel hearted Mountie. Sarah MacMillan seeks honesty and truth in her
work and in her life and finds what she needs: the family's ancestral home just begging to be renovated with love and furnished with precious antiques.
Let's skip the reviews and go to the Prologue and first chapter.
New review in August 2002
This was a wonderful story. The ghostly interaction certainly brought goosebumps to my skin, not threatening in nature it could perhaps be more accurately described an echo from the past and I found it all the more effective as a result. The main characters both present and past were equally engaging. Initially Pierre and Sarah are both wary and distrustful of the opposite sex, though for different reasons, so it is fitting that it should be a love story from the past which brings them together.
BELOVED STRANGER was truly an emotional rollercoaster: it was sad, uplifting, eerie, threaded throughout with romance and finished off with a happy ending. Patricia Crossley once again demonstrates her ability to write with confidence both in a historical and a contemporary setting
ParaNormal Romance Reviews © Copyright 2002
by Barbara Small Posted
August 7, 2002
New review in May 2002
BELOVED STRANGER is a
fascinating reincarnation romance that never slows
down until the final page is written as the audience is hooked into
to know how the plot ends. The story line is loaded with action that
New Review: Fascinating -- Recommended
In 1838 Captain George Macmillan steps into an animal trap while he hikes through deep snow in the Canadian wilderness. When someone finds him, rather than his savior, the man proves to be his nemesis. Now in modern times, George's descendant dreams of bitter cold and biting cold, suffering leg cramps, little suspecting her link to the past.
Sarah Macmillan bought the isolated house an hour out of Toronto in hopes that the quiet will bring healing. She fled her previous position with an antique dealer/interior designer that seemed to have connections to money laundering. She also wants to forget the ex-boyfriend who had concealed his drug dealing before fleeing to a Caribbean paradise despite his continued sending of postcards. Unfortunately, these nefarious connections combined with the purchase of the house that had been the home base for drug dealing bikers has brought her, unknowingly, under a cloud of suspicion.
Pierre Martin convinces Sarah to rent him a cabin, ostensibly, so that he might escape the city for the remainder of the summer. He's actually working undercover. He's there to determine if Sarah is associated with any of the criminal activity to which she's circumstantially connected. Pierre has a vendetta, seeking retribution for the loss of family members to drug dealers. He's prepared to do anything, lie, cheat or steal for the investigation. He's not prepared, however, the feeling of deja vu that he and Sarah share as they are drawn inexorably together.
A paranormal being, the Sentinel harbors old enmities and old rages, and is determined to keep Sarah and Pierre apart . . . the hero and heroine are richly complex plot, resulting in a fascinating read that keeps the pages turning. The narrative moves quickly, plunging these characters into nightmares and danger. Recommended.
Cindy Penn Senior Editor: WordWeaving http://www.wordweaving.com
**** (4 Stars)
Reviewed by Debbie Pollart
Romance Reviews Today
Road to Romance:
Jeanne Allen for KnowBetter.com
Patricia Crossley has a marvelous way of building a story. Words flow naturally, dialogue is
witty, intriguing mysteries develop about Sarah's ancestor and about Sarah and Pierre's chances
for a future together. What is George trying to communicate to Sarah? Why will Sarah knowing
this information place her life in danger?
BELOVED STRANGER intertwines a mystery of a past tragedy with the paranormal. The story concentrates on the two main characters, . . . The story draws you in and keeps you fascinated, intrigued and just a bit spooked to the last page. ***Three stars Susan Mobley, Romantic Times, May 2001
READ THE PROLOGUE AND FIRST CHAPTER OF BELOVED STRANGER, A PARANORMAL ROMANCE available from NovelBooksInc, May 2002
Beyond the sheltered harbor lay the Atlantic, gateway to strange lands that men said would one day be discovered. The summer blue of the water had settled like sediment to the ocean floor and the choppy waves had taken on shades of gray, mottled with white foam, a reflection of the forbidding heavens. On the horizon, sea and sky appeared to curve together in a colossal dark wave which, if real, would have rushed ashore with enough force to sweep over the tiny hamlets miles to the east.
A luminous red glow behind the clouds was all that remained of the setting sun and the girl paused at the foot of the slop, shivering in the cool air. The sky had turned color too, curdling to a faded, bitter green. A fine mist floated like pale water over the meadows, drifting, eddying, blurring the trees, turning them into illusory shapes that loomed against the somber clouds. Beyond the meadow the hills were purplish in the dimming light, their bases obscured by the rising mist so that only their peaks were visible. All about this austere landscape lay an unremitting silence, as if the world had stopped. No insect chirped, no bird sang, no long grass whispered with the passing of the breeze.
The girl pulled her shawl closer round her body and set her feet to climb the grassy slope, panting from the exertion and the weight of the child in her belly. She had followed the path through these fields almost every day of her life since she had been able to walk and her step was sure unfaltering as the trail dipped and curved down into the dell. The fog was denser on this lower ground. She shook off the feeling of foreboding that enveloped her
She sensed the grouping of women around the lines of standing stones before she saw them. The lines of the ancient stones marched away from her like regiments of soldiers frozen in battle. Some said they were to commemorate the slain in forgotten wars, some said they had been placed by the Devil himself to count the souls he had won in this place. The priest forbade the people to go near them, saying they were the relics of an old, pagan religion where believers worshipped demons. A murky red mist of fear churned across the sea of her soul, a cold, boiling fog rising from the darkest heart of her like the mist that rolled in from the ocean. It spread through her mind, clouding her thoughts, increasing her confusion, and with greater confusion came greater terror.
One of the women stepped forward. She was naked, save for a mask that concealed her features. Lianne had expected an old crone, but this woman was young, her breasts firm and high, her belly smooth and gently rounded. Her hair hung long down her back to below her waist. When she spoke her voice was calm and soothing. "Welcome my child. I and my sisters bid you welcome."
She took Lianne’s hand in strong, warm fingers. A wave of peace and confidence immediately pulsed from the woman into the depths of Lianne’s soul. Unexpected laughter bubbled in her throat. How foolish she had been a short while before when crossing the meadows. There had been no reason to feel apprehensive. The foreboding had been irrational, provoked by her pregnancy and the change in the weather. She had always been sensitive to bad weather. She laughed aloud.
The other women moved to surround her. All were naked and some were indeed old, their gray locks falling onto shriveled breasts. "Now," said their leader. "We know why you have come. Remove your clothes and we will tell you how to join our sisterhood. Then we will grant your wish."
The ceremony had lasted most of the night. Afterwards, filled with new confidence and hope Lianne sped back to the village to the house of her husband, the father of her precious child.
She entered their bedchamber to find him still sleeping, one arm flung over his handsome face, the other hanging over the edge of the bed. She slipped off her gown and slid in beside him. He murmured and stirred, one hand going instinctively to the curve of her belly. She lay still in the half light, letting the warmth of his strong young body seep into her. She had not slept, but felt no need of rest.
The future of her son and of his descendants was assured. The women of the stones had given her a guardian, a sentinel to watch over her and her lineage for ever. Whenever danger threatened, he would step in and use whatever means he had to in order to protect the interests of the family. There had been a price, of course, but one well worth paying. She smiled to herself and placed her hand over her husband’s. She felt the child stir in her womb. When he was old enough, he would learn the secret and pass it to his children. Her husband’s family were merchants, adventurers and would spread over the world, known and unknown. What she had done this night would keep them safe and prosperous for ever.
Captain George MacMillan of the Queen's Volunteer Cavalry in Upper Canada pushed through the cold, dark woods, heard the snap as the metal teeth closed on his ankle and fell hard. The weight of his body, muffled and padded against the cold, broke the icy crust on the packed snow, jarring the breath from his lungs. His leg flamed with the shards of pain that shot down to his toes and up into his abdomen. He realized with terrible certainty that the small drift of snow had been enough to conceal the leg trap.
His first instinct was to hide, his training strong enough to tell him to withdraw, reassess, make a rational decision. He dragged himself a few feet, straining his arms and shoulders, the wounded leg and the metal trap a dead weight behind him. The needle-like branches of the leafless undergrowth clawed at his face and greatcoat as he crawled. He paused, panting from pain and effort, and propped his shoulders against a tree.
He could feel the trickle of warm blood as it seeped into his left boot, then cooled and congealed in the bitter cold. The trap must be removed. He would not allow himself to think of what a doctor would find, or what would likely have to be done to mend the mutilated bone and sinew. He would lose his leg; he would be a cripple for Isabelle, not the strong, powerful man she waited for. Tears of pain and anger froze on his cheeks.
Suddenly, he sensed a change in the force of the wind on his face. He raised his gloved hand to brush the snow from his eyes and peered carefully into the swirl of flakes. Gradually he made out a formless bulk against the bare skeleton branches of the maples. The shape moved slowly towards him, and he knew it to be a man. Someone out in this hellish storm! Someone who would help him to warmth and shelter and medical attention! The man moved closer and stood before him. He could see little, for his rescuer was muffled in a dark wrap of some kind, a knitted tuque pulled low down over his forehead to the brow, a scarf across the lower face. Only the eyes were visible, glittering black and cold in the faint, reflected light from the snow.
"Who is it?" George MacMillan gasped. "Help me--the trap." He propped himself more firmly against a tree and gestured with his free hand.
The stranger stood and stared impassively.
"Help me," George begged again. He knew no one would refuse to help in these conditions. Even enemies shared a basic humanity.
The newcomer stepped forward, and the injured man prepared to reach for the broad shoulder to support himself while his rescuer pried the steel jaws from his leg. He tensed, ready for the pain as hands grasped his leg, ready for the wrench as he pulled at the teeth . . .ready for his rescuer to raise the whole thing from the ground. With relief, he felt strong hands on his shoulders. Now the unknown rescuer would lift him, carry him to safety, to a warm house, to a doctor. Instead, he felt the tug on his arms as the silent stranger dragged him back the way he had come, retracing his hard won path deeper into the bush.
"No . . . please." The words were swallowed in a wail of despair. At the end of the few yards the chain allowed, the stranger paused and came to stand over him. George lay, helpless, looking up at him like a trapped animal.
The man pulled down the thick scarf from his mouth and grinned.
"You!" George gasped.
The man's smile grew broader. "Bad luck, Capitaine," he said, his accent strong. "I did not expect my trap to catch such a prize tonight. One way or the other, I would ‘ave killed you when you came for little step-maman. This is better than I planned. Non, non," he said as George scrabbled for his gun. "I will take that."
He easily brushed aside the grasping hands and removed the flintlock. "The storm is good for two days. You and she will meet in heaven--or in hell! Adieu." He turned and faded into the swirling whiteness.
George MacMillan lay back to meet the cold pain of death . . . "Isabelle," he whispered. "Wait for me. I shall come. Wait . . ."
The plunger made a disgusting sucking noise as Sarah pulled it free. The sudden release of pressure sent a jet of cold water over the edge of the kitchen sink, splashing the front of her shirt and jeans. So much for her insistence there was nothing seriously wrong with the plumbing system! Now reality stared her in the face.
"Go on, go on," she muttered. As the water disappeared, she could see the dollar signs swirling in the eddy in the sink.
She leaned forward, supporting herself for a moment on the edge of the counter and then ran a hand through her hair and wiped her face on the back of her arm. So if she couldn’t have a shower, she’d go down to the lake for a swim. That would solve her immediate problem, but not the one of the cracked pipes full of roots that she suspected lurked under the house like a sea monster. The murky depths down below threatened to drain away the carefully constructed pieces of her dream. Furiously, she bit her lip and blinked hard, blocking the angry tears that threatened. She most certainly hadn't bitten off more than she could chew. No way.
She would use some of her diminishing bank account to fix this drain, then check the classifieds for a second hand computer that was recent and fast for Michael. She knew him--he'd be grateful, even if the system wasn’t new.
She sighed as she watched the sink slowly empty itself. It meant she'd have to wait a while longer before she could buy any more pieces of furniture, but there was always a way to do things on your own. She rolled her shoulders to release the tension. She was tired and irritable, frustrated by the nasty surprises that the old house seemed to delight in throwing her way. "You won’t win," she whispered. "I love you, house, scars and all. I’ve got plans for you. I’ll make you beautiful again."
She put the plunger in the sink one more time to give a last, determined thrust. Just listen to me, talking to the house as if it were a person. So what if it might have figured in my family history? It was still a house, only wood and stone and I can fix it. I just have to stay focused.
The chime of the doorbell sounded over the gurgle of the water. "Now what?" She shouldered the plunger and marched towards the front of the house to deal with the interruption. The outline through the glass door gave little away and she wasn’t expecting anyone.
She wiped her hand first on her grubby jeans and opened the door. It was very quiet outside; the only sound a faint rustle in the tall trees. A man stood on the threshold. She blinked in surprise as she scanned the cropped blond hair, the athletic build and the amazing amber eyes. Those eyes flickered to the plunger she carried over her shoulder like a weapon and his hand made a small movement to his side. Maybe her appearance was a bit startling. Gently, she lowered the dripping implement to the floor.
"If I believed in angels," she said, "I'd hope that you’re a plumber."
"Sorry to disappoint you." The man shrugged, gave her a disarming smile and pulled out a wallet from his back pocket. "Afraid I’m not an angel or a plumber. You are Ms. MacMillan?"
"The name’s Pierre Martin," he said. "I was talking to Martha Gagnon at the real estate office. She said you might have a cabin for rent for what's left of the summer." He held out a business card.
Sarah took a second look at him, casting her mind back to the earlier phone conversation with Martha. So this was the man Martha called about, the one who’d talked about her, asked about a rental. Some nerve to come by so brazenly after she’d told Martha to pass on the message that there was no way she wanted to rent one of the cabins. Or, more likely, Martha had succumbed to the charm of the smile and hadn't been as definite as she should have been. Well, here was one female who was immune to his appeal.
"Is there a problem?" he said before she could reply, gesturing towards the plunger. "Something an ordinary mortal might be able to fix?"
Somewhere on the way here he must have taken off the expensive-looking tie Martha had mentioned and opened the top button of his shirt. The skin of his neck and upper chest looked warm and smooth. He carried his jacket by the loop over one shoulder and his rolled up sleeves showed strong forearms. She was suddenly conscious of her tousled hair and wet blouse.
"No, no problem now. Excuse me." She stepped forward to place the plunger on the verandah outside the door, forcing him to move back a step. Shadows from the tall elms flickered over him. The irritation she’d felt with the blocked drain transferred itself to this well-dressed man. He wanted to be let into her ordered existence, placing her at a disadvantage. She wanted to get rid of this intruder, wanted to retreat to the safety of her old house, get on with her work. Better to tell him in no uncertain terms, so there was no misunderstanding.
"I’m sorry, but Martha was mistaken," she said. "The cabin's not for rent. My brother will be moving into it as soon as the work’s finished." She ignored the business card. He tucked it back into his pocket without comment and smiled again, a smile that echoed in her heart. Why did she feel she knew him from somewhere? Knew him very intimately? Intimacy with a man was the last thing she wanted or planned for right now.
She composed her face into a careful mask, fearful that smiles would lighten the atmosphere, indicate he was welcome.
"I work for a large firm in Toronto," he said, apparently unaware of the negative vibes she was trying to send. He leaned easily against the doorframe. She noticed the muscles move and tense in his shoulders under the silky white shirt and took a step back as he came close enough to her that she caught the aroma of a woodsy aftershave. He might look great, but he didn’t listen too well.
"Thought maybe I could rent for a couple of months," he was saying, "see if I could do the commute to Toronto easily enough. I still have a few days of vacation coming too. Hard to breathe in the city in the summer."
He looked into Sarah's eyes. "I could help you out a bit, if you let me have the cabin," he said. "Get it ready for your brother. I'm pretty good with a hammer and saw, not to mention the heavy stuff." His eyes flickered over her and down to the plunger sitting between them. "I could take a look at that for you." Without waiting for a reply, he reached for the plunger.
Sarah’s first instinct was to grab it and hold on, but a ludicrous picture of a struggle on the verandah over a long-handled rubber bathroom accessory flashed through her mind. She stayed where she was and casually put an arm across the doorway. Of course, he could push right past her if he wanted.
As she stood on guard, it flashed through her mind that the top of her head would tuck nicely in the inviting spot beneath his jaw. She pulled her wandering thoughts together. What kind of woman was she to entertain such ideas about a complete stranger? It was time to be extremely firm.
"No need. I’ve fixed it. Unless you’ve a back hoe and a few lengths of pipe tucked away somewhere?" She smiled sweetly at him. Now who looked ridiculous holding a wet plunger?
"Je regrette," he said with a shake of his head. "Sorry, those aren’t in my baggage."
The pants of his suit were cut perfectly from a light grey summer weight linen and silk that must have cost more than the average weekly wage. Although he looked casual, relaxed, she noted the watchfulness in his eyes, the way he was balanced on both feet as if ready to meet any surprise move.
He grinned cheerfully and put the plunger down. She’d known the corners of his eyes would crinkle in just that way, just as she knew that when he made love, they would go dark and smoky, like the golden glow of the sun through mist. She blinked. What on earth was the matter with her? Was the isolation and the work getting to her, promoting unwanted erotic fantasies? His eyes held hers and she felt them burn into her. Surely he couldn't read her mind? Her cheeks felt hot with embarrassment and she moved back, intending to close the door. She needed to get back to work, take her mind off daydreams about attractive and unwelcome strangers.
"Martha said you’re constructing a ramp for your brother’s cabin." He filled the doorway again. She held the door half open, still hesitant. Did she really want to close it on his face? The corners of his eyes crinkled again and Sarah's heart gave another tiny lurch.
"She said he’s disabled," he continued. "I’m sorry to hear that." Sarah heard the note of sympathy in his voice. Martha had said too much by far. What didn’t Pierre Martin know about her and her house?
"Sounds tailor-made for someone like me," he continued. "I'll pay you two weeks in advance and work on the ramp on the weekend." He raised one eyebrow. "Deal?"
She thought of the plumbing, the ramp for Michael’s cabin, the computer he yearned for. She could see Michael's face if the computer was all set up in the cabin when he arrived. No question but she could use the money and the help. She frowned. She'd like to think this sexy stranger with his golden eyes and rippling muscles wasn't wanted or needed. Independence and self-sufficiency were important to her. On the other hand, Michael would come home all the sooner if Pierre Martin built the ramp for the wheelchair.
In that case, Mr. Martin would just work himself out of a place to stay. And her friend Jan was due to arrive tomorrow. She wouldn’t be alone with him, there would be someone else with her in the house. The cabin lay far enough away tucked down by the lake so she wouldn’t ever see him. Maybe it made sense to take the offer.
Sarah nodded. She would see how serious he was. Mentally she doubled what she thought was reasonable and added a hundred. "Six hundred a week." She paused for a protest. None came, although she noticed with satisfaction a blink that could have been shock. "I'll get the key."
Sarah led Pierre Martin in silence down the narrow path under the overarching trees to the lake. She tried to tell herself she’d made a good decision, but she still had to fight her misgivings all the way.
"It's very simple," she said. "Just the basics. And I'll want a damage deposit," she added.
The lake lay still and glassy, the water reflecting the last rays of the sun. A ripple here and there betrayed the presence of a fish feeding as the air cooled. The trees on the far shore already formed a dark backdrop to the log cabin caught in the golden glow of the late afternoon. Only the crunch of their footsteps on the gravel disturbed the stillness. The scents of warm earth and cedar drifted in the air.
The door of the cabin needed a hefty push to open. "Hmm," he said, running his hand over the jamb. "I’ll see to that."
Sarah pointed to the side. "That’s where I need to put the ramp."
He nodded and scanned all three rooms, a small smile of satisfaction on his lips. "No problem," he repeated. "It's perfect. Just what I want."
He ran his hand over the back of a chair. "Forgive me for asking, but does your brother plan to make his home here?"
"Yes. As soon as I have a place for him, he can come home."
He nodded. "It’s hard to be alone."
She glanced at him sharply, wondering what prompted the remark, but chose not to pursue it. "We’ll work together," she said. "He has an accounting degree. I’ll deal in antiques and he’ll run the business side."
"Sounds ideal." He hesitated. "What happened to him?" he asked softly.
"A motorcycle accident." She bit her lip. "He won’t walk again."
He shook his head. "I can see why you need the ramp. What about handrails? They might help. I could do that too."
She glanced at him quickly. "If there’s time." She didn’t need him to show understanding, to try to get closer to her. This must remain a business arrangement.
Quickly, she moved to the bedroom window, and pretended to check that the screen was securely in place. She turned as Pierre came through the doorway, ducking his head. She had a sudden impression that she had seen him before in just such a setting, his hair blending with the golden color of the log walls, the side of his face highlighted from the sun slanting through the small windows. Warmth radiated from him, like gentle fingers on her skin, as if every nerve end had become extra sensitive, ready for him to touch her.
This was bizarre.
Pierre leaned easily in the doorway. "I'll need to get some money."
"I don’t carry that kind of cash on me."
"Well, you won't get any here. There's no bank, not even an ATM in Harrison Corners." Even she thought her voice had a slyly triumphant ring to it.
This man made her uneasy, defensive. Better to settle this as soon as possible and get on with her work. The furniture she refinished with such care was honest and plain. Craftsmanship with no veneer. Solid through and through. She’d been tricked into playing a part in dishonesty and she wanted no more of it. That part of her life was over and she and Michael would start afresh. She frowned again. She didn't know this man, had never seen him before to her knowledge. Maybe he’d been a client, glimpsed across the showroom at some point, remembered subconsciously enough to trigger this sensation of déjà vu. That wasn't necessarily a good recommendation.
"Will you take a check?" Her expression must have given him the answer, for he added, "I have to go back tonight. I'll see to everything."
As she walked back with him to the house, the secret hope that he wouldn't return vied with her desire to furnish Michael with what he wanted, continue with the work on the house, start up her business. She sensed that Pierre would be trouble, that he'd disturb her peaceful cocoon. She breathed in the scents of the warm summer air, letting the peacefulness work its usual magic, thankful for what she had and what she was building.
"What are you doing here?" His voice broke into her thoughts.
"I’m making a home and starting my own antique business."
"It's just so …" he gestured around him, "…lonely. Beautiful, but--"
"Some of us," she said crisply, "don't need the trappings of so-called civilization. I've got everything my brother and I will need."
"You're young and very attractive. The way you're restoring your house shows real talent. You shouldn't be buried out here. Maybe I can help with some contacts in town. Let me know who you've worked for--"
She stopped on the path and turned to face him. Her jaw was tense with the irritation that bubbled to the surface.
"Mr. Martin, you’ve persuaded me to rent you the cabin. I did it because Martha’s a good friend and she seems to think it would be a good idea and because …" she hesitated, looking for the right words to finish her thought.
A faint breeze from the water ruffled his hair. His body was outlined against the lake that glimmered through a gap in the trees. He stood still, watching her. With his blond hair and amber eyes, he was a symphony of earth colors; naked, he would blend like a cat with the desert. His eyes were on her face and she felt her lips tingle as his gaze swept over her. She could have taken one step, stretched out a hand and caressed his shoulder.
She took a breath and turned away again, to break the spell. She'd be damned if she would tell him everything or let him see what bizarre effect he produced on her. He needn't know what a windfall his money would be.
"You also promised to do some unskilled work for me," she said. "That's all. I don't choose to share my private life as well as my property. If you still want the cabin, pick up the key tomorrow--with the money--and references of course." There, she had been business-like and sensible, tempering her impulsive decision.
She strode one step in front of him without another word until they reached the roadway. The red flag was up on the mailbox. Sarah knew Pierre’s eyes were on her as she reached in and took out a large manila envelope. She smiled at the sight of the return address, tucked the envelope under her arm and stuck out her hand.
"Goodbye, Mr. Martin."
She touched hands with him, turned and hurried into the house. Marching into the kitchen, she muttered under her breath. Of all the nerve. Who did he think he was, giving his opinion about her life choices without knowing anything about her? What an opinionated, insufferable--…
She reached the sink, now mercifully empty, and wrenched the water faucet open. It needed a new washer. Later. She poured a glass of water and threw in a handful of ice cubes from the fridge. Right now she needed a word with Martha.
She picked up the phone, thickly covered with a decoration of multicolored fingerprints. So, okay, she'd forgotten the gloves a few times. Making a mess of your phone wasn’t a federal offense. She sat down and dialed Martha’s number.
"Thanks a lot." she said when Martha answered, and told her quickly the gist of the encounter with Pierre Martin. Martha apologized of course.
"I didn’t know he would come by anyway, and I did tell him you weren’t interested," Martha insisted.
"There’s one other thing," Sarah said.
"He didn't say anything more about a wife, although he told you she would join him."
"Well, maybe he didn’t exactly say . . ."
Sarah sighed. She should have known. Martha heard what she wanted to hear and a handsome man could empty her head of rational thought. Sarah hooked the phone under her chin and ran a broken thumbnail under the nails of her left hand to remove a few more traces of paint. "Did he really ask for me?"
"No-o-o. He just knew about the house. He's quite something. Reminds me of Mel, only blonder--"
"Mel?" Sarah frowned. Was she supposed to know a member of Martha's extended family?
"Gibson," Martha supplied on a sigh. "Did you see him in his latest?"
Sarah had no time for movie fantasy and unattainable screen idols. "He might not come back," she said to Martha.
"At six hundred a week plus work and a damage deposit, you may be right," Martha answered. "Either he has more money than sense, plus a very thick skin, or there's a special reason for him to be here."
"Just as long as he stays down by the cabin and out of my hair. By the way, Gramps sent the copies of names and dates from the family bible I told you about. They came in the mail today. I'll take a look at them as soon as I can."
She hung up the phone, picked up a black plastic garbage bag and began to sort through some of the mess from the floor. Was she overreacting to the seclusion of her house and the possibility of a threat from a stranger?
She slowly tied the top of the bag. "This is what I want," she said aloud as if convincing an unseen listener. "I want to be alone, to make a life for Michael. I want to forget Clayburn and Moss, antique dealers and decorators, I want to forget Justin Quinn and-- as for Pierre Martin," she finished defiantly as she tied a vicious knot, "I don't trust him." Was Martha right? Did he have some hidden agenda? Had he hinted at a wife just to gain Martha’s confidence? If that was so, he was a liar and she detested liars.
Pierre took the longer way back to his car. He needed to stretch his legs and put his thoughts in order. A breeze had sprung up and now a soft, summer rain moistened the dust in the lane. It fell in big, solid drops that made isolated wet patches on the dry, yellow earth. He lifted his face to the sky to let the water cool his skin. He needed something to tone him down. Why was this proving so difficult? How could he have said anything so stupid? "You're young and very attractive . . ."
The words had slipped out without even passing through his mind. He could have bitten his tongue off as soon as he spoke. No wonder she’d looked at him with shock in those big blue eyes under the mop of curls. He’d seen the way her hands clenched around the bunch of keys. And she’d reacted as any sensible woman would react to such a remark from a virtual stranger--with scorn. She’d brushed him off. Now she'd be wary of him, make it that much harder for him to get closer. Damn.
It bothered him he could blurt out such blunt questions. Was he losing his touch? He’d done all right so far. Of course he’d been aware of her hostility. She thought he was an over achieving executive, intent on getting his own way and his horizons bounded by fast cars and expense accounts.
His thoughts came back to the first sight of her in the doorway. God, she'd given him a jolt when she jerked open the door with that damned plunger over her shoulder. Made him reach for his non-existent holster.
Far worse was the electric stab to his heart when she looked at him. It surprised him with its intensity and made him catch his breath. Couldn’t afford to give in to any of that stuff. He pushed out of his mind the memory of the sensual pull he’d felt around her and as he’d followed her down to that rustic cabin. He didn't often find lust interfering with work. Often? How about never? Sarah was work. She was business, not pleasure. She was not his type with her paint stains and broken nails. From what she said, she’d opted out of the rat race. Not his style at all.
Had she found anything in the old house? Did she know its history? Was she a plant? Or an innocent dupe?
The answers to the questions about Sarah MacMillan could be important. The sooner he looked into things, determined what was what, the sooner he could be out of this peripheral assignment and back to his real job.
The rain fell heavier now, shrouding the trees with a damp mist, making his shirt cling to him, plastering it to his back and shoulders. He slipped on his jacket. The BMW waited close by. He didn't use it much except for the job. He would have preferred something smaller, more inconspicuous, but they’d said no, the Beemer had a better image. He gave an impatient grunt. One of these days, maybe he'd be his own man again. One of these days the compulsion would be gone, he'd say "Enough" and start to live his own life like ordinary people. After this job, maybe he would take some leave, reassess his goals . . .
He felt for the keys in his pocket. At the moment he was even glad of his damp shirt. The discomfort would hopefully be enough to take his mind off Sarah--off the line of her hips in those disgraceful jeans, the swell of her breast where her shirt fell open, the way the damp material clung to her skin, the way she ran her hand through her hair as if surprised at finding it so short.
He jabbed the keys in the ignition and gunned the motor, taking off in a spurt of gravel. Damn! He’d better get his thoughts in order before he had to give his report!
His restless mind began to plan the meeting he must attend in the role of the successful security consultant, trusted by the company, a little devious, to be sure, but wasn't that what business was all about?
The traffic wasn't too bad heading into the city. Mid July and everyone was off at the lake, or renewing family ties somewhere else on the planet. At one time all the names of people and places in and around the city had been Scots, French or English with a fair sprinkling of German. Now the area was a modern Babel of languages and backgrounds. Pierre liked the ethnic diversity that each new wave of immigrants brought. What he didn't like was the criminal element that grew bolder and more evil as beleaguered police forces tried to cope with the demands of a city that threatened to burst at the seams.
He played his role in the planning meeting. Then he headed for home.
The message light glowed red on the answering machine when he walked into the living room. Only his real boss and his sister, Nora, had the unlisted number. He punched the play button as he peeled off his shirt.
"Pierre, call me when you get in," Nora said. Her voice sounded stronger, more confident. "I'll make dinner for seven." He glanced at his watch--still time to shower and change.
Although the water in the pipes now drained away with a satisfying slurp and gurgle, thanks to her efforts with the trusty plunger, Sarah decided not to risk another flood by using the shower and walked down to the lake for a swim. The sun had gone and rain clouds gathered overhead. There'd been a sprinkling earlier soon after Pierre Martin left and she fervently hoped for more to cool the air, but not enough to cause an overflow in the primitive drainage system again.
The silky lake water flowed over her skin as she lay back and watched the details around her disappear in the half-light. They still called her property the MacMillan House around here. Still talked about the disappearance of George MacMillan. She hadn’t known that when she first found it. Then Martha had told her all the stories. George had vanished one winter, abandoned his wife and child with no word. It was intriguing to wonder what had happened to him--to wonder if he’d been an ancestor of her own family.
Sarah recalled Martha’s fantasies about the mystery with a smile. She came out of the water and wrapped herself in a big towel and rubbed at her short hair. She liked to think that her beloved house might have been built by her own ancestor. The place had enjoyed a checkered history through the years, most recently as a haven for bikers bikers who appeared to indulge in drugs and sex on a twenty-four hour basis. That was over, she thought as she ran her fingers through her hair and slipped on her sandals. There was a certain satisfaction in seeing things come full circle, a MacMillan in old house again, someone to restore it to the way it was, love it and care for it.
She trudged back from the lake, refreshed and pleasantly tired. She was looking forward to checking the copies of the family history her grandfather had sent.
In the den, Pierre kept a computer and all the files he could take out of the police building. There was precious little else. Nora had taken Hercule Poirot, Sue's Siamese cat. He wanted no creature who might depend on him, wanted no reason to distract his mind from the pursuit that occupied his every waking hour. What pursuit? It was vengeance pure and simple, retribution for what they’d taken from him. If he couldn't be trusted to look after his own, at least he could make life miserable for those whose cold greed destroyed the young and the beautiful.
He paced unseeing through the austere living room into the bedroom. The bed was neatly made, covers folded over with military precision. Out of habit, he smoothed a corner. He shucked his clothes and hung his suit carefully next to the other three. Tomorrow he'd take it to be pressed. He’d never owned four suits before. They went with the Beemer and the rest of the role he was playing. He took out jeans and a polo shirt and headed for the shower.
Glad of the chance to stretch his legs, he walked the six blocks to Nora's apartment, his jacket slung over his shoulder. The pavement threw back the stored heat of the day; there had been no rain here. A breeze from Lake Ontario stirred the air, and it felt cooler on his skin by the time he reached his sister’s apartment.
He found Nora in the kitchen, and Hercule on top of a tall cupboard. The Siamese greeted him loudly with the usual accusatory howl and jumped down when Pierre walked through the door. He wound himself around Pierre's legs, still mewing. Pierre put the bottle of wine on the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room and bent to scoop up the squirming bundle.
"Okay, okay," he said, burying his face in the chocolate- and cream- colored fur. Hercule lashed his tail with delight and switched to a high-powered purr.
Pierre boosted Hercule up onto his shoulder and turned to his sister. "Bonjour, ma soeur." He took her hand. "Everything OK?"
Nora smiled. He scanned her appearance, taking note. She didn’t look too bad. Thin, of course, no make up, a shapeless housedress. But her eyes were alert, her skin had a better tone. She must be staying off those damned pills.
She leaned around Hercule to kiss him on the cheek. "I'm fine," she said. "Five days." He knew she meant the tranquillizers. He patted her comfortingly on the shoulder.
"Good for you." He followed her into the living room. She must have cleaned up the apartment with the extra energy that came as the medication left her system. It looked more like the place he used to know when his nephew Kevin was around. He put Hercule down on the padded arm of the couch and turned back to the counter where he’d left his brown bag.
Nora spoke to his back. "I took fresh flowers." His hands were still on the counter top. He stood motionless and waited. He heard her swallow in the long silence.
"For Kevin and Sue," she continued in the same low voice.
He squeezed his eyes shut to erase the picture of the graves, to shut out the pain, and hunched his shoulders.
He felt Nora behind him, her hands on his arms.
"They were white roses," she whispered. "With just a tinge of pink."
He turned to his sister and took her in his arms, feeling her shake with the sobs she could no longer hold in.
She took a deep breath and pushed away a little. "Have you got them yet?"
He wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb. "Almost," he said. "Just a bit more and we'll have the whole ring. Then the lawyers will take over." He shouldn't tell her even that much, but who would Nora confide in?
She made a sound of disgust in her throat.
"I know," he said, "but that's the system. I'll do the best I can, for Sue and for Kevin."
And for Nora, he added to himself. She was all he had left now. He would never have anyone else, because he’d shown he couldn't be trusted to keep safe those he loved. So he would look after Nora the best he could and be strong for both of them. He took a breath and turned back to the counter, pulling out the bottle of Chianti with a flourish.
"Your favorite," he said. "Hope you've made pasta." He could smell the rich tomato sauce, redolent of herbs and garlic. His stomach growled in anticipation, making him realize how long it was since he'd eaten.
"And for you," he said to the cat, "a gourmet treat." He flourished a tiny can of cat food.
"Pierre," Nora protested, "that stuff costs a fortune and it spoils him for the regular cans."
"Everyone deserves to be spoiled once in a while," he answered, busy with the can opener. Who else is there for me to spoil? he thought as he spooned out the meat and gravy. A cat and a grieving sister and my job. That's all there is.
End of Chapter 1
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