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Centuries ago, the love they shared ended in tragedy. Together again and unaware of their past life, can Lainey Hughes and Gage Stuart claim the love that’s rightfully theirs?
Seattle newspaper reporter Lainey Hughes is desperate to find her mother who has disappeared into the Tacere Brethren, a doomsday cult sequestered somewhere along the Pacific coast. When an informant is killed passing Lainey information about the cult’s sinister plans for perfection of the human race, she teams up with Gage Stuart, a jaded cop whose young son is also trapped inside the cult. Certain that a horrific sacrifice is only days away, yet unable to convince the local authorities of the threat, Lainey and Gage race up the coast in a kayak searching for the deserted island where their loved ones are being held. The weather is fierce . . . the animals are wild . . . and time is running out.
With lives on the line and love within reach, can two wounded souls get it right this time?
Wickaninnish Territory, 1782
Bright Eyes peered around the corner of the long house to where the strangers circled the fire with her grandfather. Smoke spiralled into the air, carrying away the words they spoke.
Impatiently, she gathered her thoughts and focused on the power as her shaman grandfather had taught. She could listen in on their conversation, if only she concentrated.
With eyes shut and head bowed, she banished all thought and sank to that spot deep within where the embers always glowed, where the great god Quahootze always waited. After a time of drinking in the spirit of the Great One, she drew down the raven, one of her totem animals, and she sent it to within two paces of the men.
“You must promise,” her grandfather said, “that she will be well cared for by your people, the Nootkas.”
“This I promise,” a deep voice replied.
Who was speaking? Bright Eyes wanted to look around the corner again but did not dare. To do so would break her hold on the raven and lose the words she needed to hear. In stillness and silence she listened.
“She is young, my granddaughter, only a woman-child, though she is wise beyond her moons.” Her grandfather’s voice was unusually deep, as though he was having trouble talking. “And I will not let her go to you, Satsokis, not unless you vow to honor all that she is.”
“You have my word,” Satsokis replied.
Satsokis! Who had not heard of the vibrant young warrior who lived in Friendly Cove? It was said he had slain the great moowatch single-handedly. The womenfolk whispered that he had killed the bear with his strong, good looks.
“She is wise in the ways of our people, the Wickaninnish,” her grandfather continued, “and I have trained her myself to draw down the power of Quahootze.”
“A female child trained to harness the power?” Another voice questioned her grandfather.
The old man sighed. “She was most suited,” he explained, “and most willing.”
There was a long silence. Bright Eyes looked around the corner again. The men huddled, yet one stood. Satsokis! He was almost as tall as the long house where her people slept. A tiny shiver snaked its way down her back. She knew the North Island people were different, but he was especially so. His hair was thick and loose about his shoulders; his eyes were dark and searching as they skimmed over the forest.
Bright Eyes pulled back and gave herself an angry shake. She had almost lost her raven in the foolishness of looking at him.
“We must think on this,” a strange voice was saying. “Power remains with shamans only, and shamans are always male.”
Her grandfather coughed. “My time draws near,” he said. “And my vision quest tells me Bright Eyes and Satsokis are to be together.”
Awareness came swiftly. She trembled and lost all hold on the raven. Her beloved grandfather was ready to join the great Quahootze in the sky. Rocking back on the heels of her moccasins, Bright Eyes surveyed the long house, her home for fifteen summers and fifteen winters. Her home, she had assumed, for all the summer moons and winter moons left to her. But it was not to be. Her heart center told her so.
She smoothed her glossy black hair and stood. If her grandfather could leave this special place with such dignity, she too could accept her fate. And if her grandfather decreed that fate to be Satsokis, she must prepare herself. With one last breath for courage, she left the shelter of the long house and walked toward the men.
Satsokis, he of the searching eyes, saw her first.
As she stared back, her raven returned, whispering urgently of her destiny.
She raised her palm to Satsokis in a gesture of friendship. “I am Bright Eyes,” she said.
His palm came up; he touched his hand to hers. “And I am Satsokis.” His strong, clear voice filled the clearing. Yes, just as the oophelth rose and set each day, Satsokis was her man. Through the eyes of her raven, she could see the future. He would be passionate but stubborn, demanding but true.
But the raven screeched, clawed her shoulder, filled her with foreboding. Their way would not be easy. Their time together might be blessedly long or brutally short.
It was entirely up to her.
Because their destiny—their love—was completely in her hands.
Hands that had been changed forever with one touch from the great Nootka warrior.
Seattle, February 18
“Hey, Hughes, you going home this week?” Mark’s voice barrelled across the newsroom. “You’re going to fossilize in that damn chair.”
Lainey Hughes stared at the computer screen. She felt rubbed out by too much work, too little sleep, and a nagging headache that wouldn’t leave. “A few more lines and I’m out of here.” Her fingers danced furiously over the keyboard.
“Have some pizza,” her boss offered again. Mark was holding court in his office adjoining the newsroom.
“Better make it fast,” someone added. “Ed’s going in for round two.” There was a burst of laughter.
“I’ll pass.” The smell of greasy pepperoni was enough to roll her stomach. Tonight she was fixated on some leftover shrimp bisque waiting in her fridge. Not to mention a hot soak and a couple of extra-strength pain-killers.
“After confirmation of corruption within the ranks of Seattle’s finest,” she wrote, “it remains to be seen just how far-reaching the problem will be. At press time, the deputy chief and eight high-ranking officers had been suspended without pay. More suspensions are anticipated in Seattle’s police department over the coming days.”
The story was front-page big. And thanks to Lainey’s contacts in the police department, not to mention months of discreet probing, the Chronicle had broken the story first.
She keyed in the spell check, corrected a few words, and then typed “-30-.”
“Finished,” she yelled to Mark. Leaning back in the chair, she stretched her arms above her head and flexed her shoulder blades. She could almost smell her lavender-scented bath oil, almost taste that shrimp bisque.
Send it over,” he yelled back.
After forwarding the story to Mark, Lainey fastened the button on the waistband of her black crepe skirt, slipped on her heels, and began clearing her desk.
Mark walked over and gave the printout a shake. “Looks great, Hughes. I’m impressed.” His smile slipped as he took a long look at her. “You look like a goddamn shadow.”
“That’s what happens when I don’t sleep.” Tucking a few strands of pale blonde hair behind her ears, she tried to ignore the persistent throb behind her temple.
“Why don’t you join us for some chow? Didn’t your mother ever tell you, all work and no play makes Lainey a dull girl?”
“Something like that. Only in her words, I should fire my boss self and hire my free spirit self.” She shoved her cell phone into her briefcase and kicked the desk drawer with the toe of her grey sling-back. “But right now my boss and free spirit agree—I need to go home and sleep.”
“Sleep or no sleep, you should be proud of yourself,” Mark said. “It’s a damn good story.”
Lainey allowed herself a moment’s satisfaction. “Thanks.”
He tapped the printout with his nicotine-stained fingers. “Let me guess,” he said. “There’s a reason you went after this like a pit bull with a Chihuahua, isn’t there?”
Lainey closed her Rolodex. “I went after it because people need to know their police department is running a fencing operation on the side.” She shoved the small metal case into her desk. “Freedom of the press, remember?”
“Stop with that altruistic shit.” Mark’s grin was sly. “We both know the more front-page stories you have, the better.”
“I’m just doing my job.” When he was silent, she grinned wearily. “Okay, so it’ll look good in my portfolio.”
“Don’t know why you’re so hot on a job in Paris. Must be all those froggie legs and snails.”
She chuckled. “Actually, it’s the Brie and Beaujolais.”
Mark fiddled with the unlit cigarette in his hand. “By the way, this came for you in today’s mail.” He pulled a white envelope from the pocket of his plaid shirt and tossed it onto her desk. “I was going to review our plans for coverage of the Global Faith Congress at tonight’s chow down, but that can wait until next week. You crawl away home and get some sleep.”
He headed for the door, clearly desperate to get outside for a smoke break. Glimpsing his shirt haphazardly falling out of the back of his jeans, Lainey smiled. Mark Burns might be rough around the edges, but she couldn’t ask for a better boss. Nevertheless, international affairs beckoned. From Paris, preferably. Or maybe Rome.
Lainey picked up the envelope and turned it over. The loopy script was unmistakable. It was from her mother. About time. She hadn’t written in three months. If only her mother would use a cell phone, but there wasn’t a chance of that. Lainey sat back down, slipped off her heels, and slid one pink nail under the flap.
Worrying about her mother was a habit she’d worked hard to break. Yet in the last few weeks, her mom had popped to mind several times, always accompanied by a sense of unease. Lainey pulled out a single sheet of paper and began to read.
“My darling Elaine Mae.” Lainey frowned at the salutation. Her mother rarely used her given name. Dread uncoiled in her stomach.
“What I’m about to tell you will no doubt come as a terrible, terrible shock. Or perhaps not, since trouble and I are well acquainted. Nevertheless, here it is, and here I am. First of all, trust no one. No one at all, other than Frank and Flipper, and if Frank is to be believed, the latter is certainly one very capable man.”
She groaned out loud. Who was Frank? And what was a Flipper?
“Frank has managed to get out. If you haven’t heard from him already, you will soon. He will have my skin if he finds out I broke the rules and sent this to you. He’s always telling me my mouth will get me into trouble.”
She grinned slightly. Whoever Frank was, he knew her mother well.
“I don’t care. You need to know. The Tacere Brethren is not what it seemed. Osborne Flynn puts on a good front, but his plan for the selected ones is sick. It’s not just me in trouble this time. There are dozens of us. Even children.”
Trouble followed her mother like a faithful puppy. She’d been sued over her promotion for the Heavenly Healing Hotline, she’d gone bankrupt after investing in crystal chakra wisdom cards, and she’d sunk into a deep depression after finding out her guru, Yogananda Pramaranda, was a computer hacker from Broken Bow, Nebraska.
“We are prisoners, forced into seclusion at Infinity Bay. No contact with the world allowed. A few people had cell phones, but they took them away. Now Osborne is telling us no mail. All visitors are refused entry. So much chanting and so little sleep. Only kitchen duty keeps me sane. We go into town once a month, and I’m allowed to go to the Whale’s Tail, because I’m in charge of cooking and Kess sells Italian coffee. (Kess, at the Tail, sent this letter. I told her it was your birthday and you would be suspicious if you didn’t hear from me.)”
Lainey’s head throbbed. She took a deep, steadying breath and pushed the pain away. Chanting? Kitchen duty? Her mother couldn’t cook her way out of a package of instant macaroni. And she was allergic to dishrags.
“Frank has a plan. He’s a competent man—a scientist with a practical mind. Do what he says and all will be well. This is terribly serious, my darling. Osborne is rounding up boats to take us to Hidden Springs Cove. Once we get there, it’s only a matter of time until the end. If you cannot do it for me, do it for the children. They deserve to live. And if anything happens to me, darling, do not fret. I will be with Daddy and Paula. You are strong. You will be fine. Love, Mema.”
It sounded as if something really was wrong. And everything had been going so damn well.
She scanned the letter again. Her mother attracted trouble, yes, but she also exaggerated. Maybe there was a logical explanation for what was happening.
After rifling through her old Rolodex, she picked up the newsroom phone and began punching out the last number she’d written down for the Tacere Brethren.
“Hello. Hello!” Someone was on the other end. “Is this the Chronicle?”
Lainey’s finger froze. Only common courtesy stopped her from disconnecting and punching line two. “I’m sorry,” she said. “The newsroom is closed.”
“I need to reach Elaine Mae Hughes. It’s urgent.”
Her neck prickled. “Who is this?” she asked cautiously.
“Frank Minnard,” the man said. “It’s urgent that I speak to Ms. Hughes.”
She moistened her lips. “This is she.”
“I’m your mother’s friend . . . a member of the Tacere Brethren.”
A burst of laughter erupted from Mark’s office. Lainey frowned at the distraction, turned her back to the group, and cradled the receiver in the crook of her neck. “Yes, she’s spoken of you.”
“Good! Listen carefully. I think they’re on to me. I may not have much time.” His voice was high, strained.
“What are you talking about?”
He ignored the question. “There’s an envelope with your name on it at the front desk of the Harbor Light Inn. I wanted to get it to Flipper, but damned if I can find him.”
The prickles were crawling, one vertebrae at a time, down the length of her back. She stood up. “What’s going on? What do I need to know?”
“It’s all in the envelope. I’ve documented everything I could find. The rest is up to you. And to Flipper. He’ll find you.”
Lainey lunged for a pen and paper. “Who’s Flipper?” she demanded. “And where are you? We need to meet.”
“You can’t come here.” His voice grew sharper. “I’m sure they’re watching me. I have a plan, but I need to get up north to prove everything.”
“What’s the plan? Where up north?”
Frank ignored her questions. “The only thing that’s missing is the exact location of Hidden Springs Cove. It’s in one of two spots on the west coast. I’m heading up that way to find it. But you and Flipper have to get the others away from Infinity Bay before it’s too late.”
The man was making no sense. “We need to meet!” she said again. “Tonight. You pick the place. I’ll be th—”
“Minnnnnnoooooooooowwwwwww!” An angry voice bellowed in the background.
The man’s receiver slipped, crashing in Lainey’s ear as it fell. She gasped. Holy shit in a teapot!
“Minnow, you lying bastard.” The voice was closer now, rising through the phone line like a curse from the depths of hell. Heavy footsteps stomped across the floor and echoed through the receiver.
“Look, guys, wait a minute,” Minnard was pleading. She heard some thumps, what sounded like furniture crashing. By the sound of the pummelling, Frank Minnard was taking a brutal beating.
“You didn’t think Osborne would let you get away with this, did you?” It was another voice, just as angry, just as cold.
“It’s not what it looks like. I can explain.” Frank’s voice was muffled, as if he were talking through something. Like a hand. Or blood.
“We’re not interested in your excuses, prick. Do it, Johnny. Between the eyes.”
Two shots rang out.
“Dear Lord.” Horrified, Lainey didn’t realize she’d spoken out loud until someone answered her.
“Who’s there?” The voice from hell yelled in her ear, brought her to her senses.
She heard the second man speak in the background. “Shit, was he on the phone?”
Lainey smashed her shaking hand down, disconnecting the line. She’d just heard a shooting. And if the guy was any kind of a marksman at all, it was a fatal one.
Her stomach lurched. Bile rose into her throat. She had to help Frank Minnard. He might still be alive. She’d have to trace the call. See where it came from.
But the phone rang before she could pick up the receiver: line one, flashing and beeping. Had they hit redial? Should she pick up? Pretend to be a pizza joint? Before she could decide, voice mail kicked in. She glanced at the clock on the wall. One minute after six. The lines automatically switched over at six o’clock.
Her own voice spooled out. “You’ve reached Lainey Hughes in the Chronicle newsroom. Sorry I can’t take your call right now. If you want a call back, leave your name and number. You can also message me on Twitter or reach me by email at Lhughes@TheChronicle.com.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone and then she heard it: a thin, cold voice saying, “Did you get that, Johnny? Lainey Hughes at the Chronicle .”
And the line went dead.
Lainey stared at the clock on the wall. Blankly she watched the seconds ticking away. Ticktock. Ticktock. The hard drive in her mind was full. It was too much to absorb. She’d been overtired and overworked to begin with. Now she was overwhelmed, too.
Then adrenalin kicked in. There’d be time to think about what it all meant later. Right now, she had to help Frank Minnard. Maybe he was still alive!
Quickly she retrieved the number. Thirty seconds later, she’d cross-referenced it and had an address. He was at an apartment just across the street from Kerry Park, also known as the best free view in all of Seattle. It was one hell of a spot for a murder.
She dialed 911.
“There’s been a shooting at 816 Highland. I was on the phone with someone when I heard intruders and shots.”
“Hold the line, please.”
She heard the dispatcher calling out the code and confirming the address. Panic rising, she shrugged on her jacket and stuffed her Rolodex and her mother’s letter into her briefcase. So much for a hot bath and a night of mindless TV.
The dispatcher was back. “Your name, please?”
The name of the victim?”
“Did you know this man?” the woman asked.
No. Yes. Sort of. “Not . . . not really.”
“Okay, now this may be difficult for you, but I want you to go over everything you heard. Everything. No detail is too small, okay?”
“I can’t. Not now.” They knew who she was. That she’d been talking to Frank Minnard. She needed to leave. “You’ve got my name. Lainey Hughes. My number, too, from calling in. I work at the Chronicle. Call me tomorrow.”
“Ma’am, it’s important that we get these details as soon as we—”
“Just go. It’s 816 Highland.” She slammed down the phone and glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 6:04. Only three minutes since she’d heard those two shots. Two minutes since the voice from hell had yelled in her ear.
She ran down the stairs to the underground garage, her head pounding in time to her racing feet. Crap.
They knew where she worked.
Ned, the husky parking attendant, tipped his hat as Lainey rushed by. “Calling it a night, Miss Hughes?”
“Something like that.” She glanced nervously around the parking garage. They wouldn’t come looking for her. Would they?
She opened the door of her dilapidated blue Volvo, tossed her briefcase on the seat, slid behind the wheel, slammed the door, and locked it. Thank God Mark insisted everyone in the newsroom have an unlisted number and address. It wasn’t a lot of protection, but it was some. If they came looking for her, it would slow them down.
Not likely. There were lots of ways to track an unlisted number. She could do it herself in an hour or two; criminals could do it even faster.
She pulled into the rain-soaked street and flipped on the wipers. Her gaze darted back and forth between the rear view mirror and the front windshield. No one was following her, thank God.
Now all she had to do was get the envelope from the Harbor Light Inn and figure out what kind of mess her mother was in this time. That and avoid a couple of crazed killers. No problem.
Her stomach gave a nasty growl. So much for shrimp bisque and a hot bath.
Warm air hit Gage Stuart as soon as he opened his front door. Sweet Carolina! He’d left in such a hurry he’d forgotten to turn down the heat.
He liked to sleep cold. But after driving straight from Montana to Seattle, and battling whiteout conditions through the Snoqualmie Pass, he was so exhausted he could probably fall asleep in the middle of hell.
Which, by some definitions, he was about to do.
Gage nudged down the thermostat in the hall, slid Blaire’s care package into the empty fridge, and wove through an obstacle course of unpacked boxes, dirty laundry, and newspapers to the bedroom. Only after he cracked the window did he see the voice mail light on the bedside phone blinking red.
Maybe Minnard had gotten Keven out! He grabbed a Mars bar from the bag on the floor and pushed play.
“Hey, Gage, welcome home. I figured I’d better leave a message on your land line as well as your cell. There was snow called for the Snoqualmie. Hope you missed it.” Blaire’s voice was strong and even but it wasn’t the voice he wanted to hear. Disappointed, he flopped back onto the bed. “Don’t forget to put that chicken and cake in the fridge. Remember, Easter at my place. I’ll call Mom and see if she’ll come up from Florida. Thanks for the help over the weekend. Sorry your lead didn’t pan out.”
Amen to that. Gage had been all over the country searching for his son, Keven. The Montana lead had looked damned good too. At least he’d gotten a long weekend with his sister and her brood. He heard the click of a new message.
“Damn you, Flipper. Where the hell are you? It’s Wednesday, February 18, and I’ve been trying to get you for three days.”
Minnow! Gage shot into a sitting position. About bloody time.
“I hate leaving a message, but I don’t have any choice.” Minnow’s voice trembled with tension. “I had to fake an excuse to get out, and they’re suspicious.”
Gage frowned. Something was wrong.
“I’m being tailed and my cell phone’s tapped. It’s a new number: 425-291-3346. I’m heading north to find Hidden Springs Cove, but you’ve got to get them out fast. Keven is in real danger. So are dozens of others. This is bad, Flipper. Big-time bad.”
Where, Minnard? Where?
“I’ve called the force, but either they’ve had it up the ass with news of the Brethren or they’re out on something big. Nobody’s returning my calls. I’ve documented what I can and left it in an envelope at the Harbor Light Inn. I don’t know where the hell you are, so I’ve left it for Lainey Hughes. She’s good. Get in touch with her and she’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Who the hell was Lainey Hughes? There were five more messages from Minnow. But not one told him anything about the woman, and not one mentioned where Frank was, only where he was going. Hidden Springs Cove, wherever that was.
How was he supposed to get Keven out if he didn’t know where he was? The location must be in the envelope. Fury fuelled Gage’s fingers. He punched out Frank’s new cell number.
The phone rang. And rang. And rang.
When Minnard had gone underground, Gage had agreed not to call, not to try to trace him, nothing. Minnard had insisted on it; it was the only way he would agree to help. He didn’t want Gage storming in and blowing his cover. Instead, Minnard had been so secretive nobody knew where the Tacere Brethren was located.
Gage checked the time on his messages. The last call from Minnow had come in less than half an hour ago, which meant the envelope might still be at the Harbor Light Inn.
There for the taking. His taking if he was lucky.
He grabbed a handful of candy bars and headed for the door. He could make it there in twenty minutes. Fifteen if he really pushed it.
Thirteen minutes and forty-two seconds later, Gage walked into the Harbor Light Inn, Seattle’s newest and most upscale hotel. A glass marvel cleverly built into an abandoned pier, its lobby was a showstopping blend of postmodern art, chic white couches, and massive Chihuly glass chandeliers. The desk, a curved sweep of black marble, was across the room from the entrance. Gage strode toward it.
“My wife has an envelope waiting for her.” He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the desk. Two days of stubble and bags the size of Texas under his eyes. Combined with a black leather jacket about ready for Goodwill, he was not a pretty sight.
The desk manager frowned. His pretty assistant looked nervous.
Gage pretended not to notice. Instead, he turned and pointed across the lobby to a woman consoling a tired toddler. “Her name is Lainey Hughes. She’s got her hands full at the moment.” He gave the assistant a wide smile. Dark red lips smiled back.
The desk manager spoke. “Our policy is—”
“We’ve been overcharged.” Two older women with corkscrew curls blasted up to the desk and interrupted him.
“Yes,” echoed the other, impatiently tapping a fingernail on the counter. “We’ve been charged for an extra rollaway cot when we didn’t order one.”
The desk manager immediately jumped to attention and reached for the bill. Gage leaned close to the young girl, who still smiled across the desk at him. Gesturing vaguely toward the lobby he said, “My son’s tired. It’s been a real long day. I just want to pick up this envelope and get my kid to bed.” He winked. “Then help my wife relax.”
“Of course.” Pretty blue eyes heavily outlined in black flicked from the woman back to Gage. “It’s an envelope? For Lainey Hughes?”
“Yes. Left by Mr. Frank Minnard.”
The girl disappeared through a doorway. Resisting the urge to tell her to hurry up, Gage leaned an elbow on the desk and kept his eyes on the front door. All he needed was the mysterious Lainey Hughes showing up right about now.
The assistant emerged. “I can’t find anything for Lainey Hughes,” she said. “But I do have an envelope for Ms. Elaine Mae Hughes.” She held it up. “And it’s from Frank Minnard.”
Gage snatched it from the girl’s hand. “That’s the one. Thanks.” He gave her a quick, appreciative smile and then sauntered casually toward the woman and child. When they headed for the elevators, he followed. Once assured that the girl at the desk was busy with another customer, Gage veered off toward the front door.
And stopped cold.
Hurrying through the lobby to the front desk was a blonde with killer legs. Her face was vaguely familiar. So was the look on it: complete panic.
Lainey Hughes. His gut told him so.
Gage ducked into the bar and hid behind a potted palm. He watched her race to the front desk and speak with the assistant. Her head bobbed; frazzled loops of blonde hair tumbled down the back of her neck. When the assistant shook her head, the blonde gestured wildly with her hands and then turned to survey the lobby. Gage slid down and pulled the palm frond closer.
Who the hell was this woman? Was she undercover? Had Minnow involved someone else on the force?
Poking his head out seconds later, all Gage saw was a set of killer legs disappearing out the lobby doors.
He was right behind them.