Northern California, Highway 17
“It’s the next car . . . she’s coming in the next car, a black Mercedes coupe, an S500, traveling south, just as we planned.”
Crouching low in the underbrush, with fog creeping over the wet earth, he strained to hear the anxious voice crackling through the static of his two-way radio. “I thought she drove a Porsche.”
“She’s driving a Mercedes,” the voice snapped angrily. “You’ve got about ninety seconds.”
“Got it.” Eyes narrowed, he focused all his attention on the twisting road that cut through the canyons and hills in this part of California. Sure enough, through the mist and darkness, he heard the soft purr of a finely tuned engine. The car was, indeed, climbing. Getting nearer.
She was getting nearer.
His heart hammered. He remembered the scent of her skin. The look in her eyes. The depth of her betrayal.
She deserved this, the self-righteous bitch. He only wished she could know that he was the instrument of her death.
Adrenalin surged through his blood.
“Don’t blow this. It’s our only chance,” he was instructed.
“I know, I know.”
“It’s worth a hundred grand.”
A lot more than that, he thought but didn’t say it. A helluva lot more. “I’ll take care of it.” He snapped the walkie-talkie off, slammed down the antenna and stuffed the headset into a deep pocket of his jacket. Sweat prickled his scalp and ran down his neck, though it was barely forty degrees in this stretch of woods. Slipping his ski mask over a face already painted black, he jogged through a carpet of wet leaves, his old army boots still sturdy, his camouflage suit a perfect cover in the mist-shrouded night.
Branches slapped his face. The air was dank and thick with the smell of wet earth and something else: his own fear. That he would fail. That somehow she would survive. That she would end up laughing at him.
No way. No fucking way.
Somewhere nearby an owl hooted, barely distinct over the pounding of his heart. And a rumble of low gears and a heavy engine . . . not that of the Mercedes. Coming from the other direction. The saliva dried in his mouth.
Steady, he reminded himself as he emerged from the woods at the designated bend in the road. He hoped to God that the truck was a few miles away and hurried across the wet pavement with the stealth of a SWAT team member. He checked his watch. Thirty seconds. The damned car sounded close. He gritted his teeth; saw a flash of headlights through the fog and trees.
Come on, bitch, just come on.
Louder, from the south, the truck — a semi from the sound of it — was gaining speed. Shit.
Crouching low on the narrow road, he positioned himself between the sharp S curves. Concentrating hard, he heard the whine of the coupe’s tires singing on the wet pavement. Hurry, he silently urged, his eyes narrowing. You can beat the truck. You have to.
The car sounded closer.
He glanced at his watch again, the illuminated dial counting off his heartbeats. Everything was going as planned except for the truck. A few more seconds . . . He licked his lips in anticipation.
Brakes whined in the night. Too close. Too damned close. He swung his head southward, toward the oncoming roar. There was a catch in the eighteen-wheeler’s engine as the driver shifted into a lower gear. So close . . . so damned close.
Every muscle tightened as he listened. He couldn’t risk a witness. Sweat ran down his spine.
He could abort. There was still time.
But when would he get another chance?
A hundred grand. And just the beginning.
Besides, she deserves this . . . and it fucking fell into your lap.
The truck’s engine growled loudly, reverberating through the forest of Sequoia and oak. An eighteen-wheeler hurtling down the steep grade.
In the opposite direction, the Mercedes, if his information was right, was purring ever-upward, the driver innocently unaware that she was about to die.
His breath came in short gasps. Slow down. Think of it as an exercise — just as you did years ago when you were with the special unit. You can do this. A few more seconds and you’re home free. His heart was a drum; his hands soaked in sweat beneath his tight-fitting gloves.
Twin beams rounded the curve from downhill. The truck’s brakes squealed from uphill. Now! He sprang, stood in the middle of the southbound lane. The sleek car accelerated, caught him in its headlights and swiftly he lifted the cover on his belt, exposing the mirrors he’d fastened to his torso.
The driver slammed on her brakes.
With a squeal, the Mercedes’ tires locked. The car swerved to the right, hit the gravel on the shoulder and spun. He caught a glimpse of the driver, a horrified expression on her beautiful face as she screamed and desperately cranked on the wheel. There was another person — someone in the passenger seat beside her. Shit! She was supposed to be alone. He’d been assured she would be alone!
He jumped into the northbound lane. Avoided being hit by a speeding German-crafted fender by inches. Stumbled. Fell. The mirrors on his belt cracked. Glass splintered. Glittered in the headlights’ glare. Hell. No time to do anything about it. Gasping, he was on his feet. Running. Toward the timberland.
Get out of here.
The semi rounded the corner, pinned him in its huge headlights, flooding the wet pavement with near blinding light. He jumped and caught sight of the driver’s panicked face. He was bearded, a big bear of a man, yelling over the scream of brakes. Eighteen thick tires screeched, burning rubber. The cab twisted, the truck jack knifed.
Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh shit! Run, you bastard!
Rolling over the guardrail, he launched his body into the protective cover of oak and redwood. He landed hard, his ankle twisted, the joint popping painfully, but he couldn’t stop. Not now. His heart pumped furiously. Sweat poured down his face beneath the mask. From the corner of his eye he saw the Mercedes scraping along the guardrail on the far side of the road. Sparks flew. With an agonizing shriek, polished steel sheared.
He catapulted down the hill and heard the groan of metal rending as the car hit the weakened spot in the guard rail, then broke through, barreling through the trees.
But the truck, the damned truck was out of control, careening down the hillside.
He was running now, his ankle screaming in pain, his lungs on fire. The semi blasted down the hill. Tires locked. Metal shrieked. The entire forest shook as the big truck slashed through the guardrail, following his path, an angry metal behemoth chasing after him, tons of twisted metal chewing through the brush. His heart thundered, his legs pumped faster. The semi roared.
Run, run! His ankle hurt like hell, his lungs were about to burst.
He rolled, raced, ignored the agony of shredding tendons, while zigzagging through the trees. Where the hell was it? His Jeep. Where? Desperately he tried to avoid the path of the jack knifed death trap. He dived head first over a fallen log, then scrambled to his feet as berry vines clawed at his clothing. He hoped to hell he could get to the Jeep in time, start the damn thing and put some distance between himself and the wreckage.
The ground shuddered.
His feet flew out from under him, and he landed face-first on the ground.
In a blinding flash, a fireball shot upward from the trees, billowing bright red and orange. Night was suddenly day.
Tortured screams, horrid, agonizing sounds that would haunt him forever, pierced the night as the truck exploded and sparks showered the forest, raining down to singe his hair, ski mask and jacket. Smoke, smelling of diesel and charred rubber spewed through the forest. For a second he thought he’d die.
God knew he deserved it.
Then he saw it. As if delivered from hell. In the fiery illumination he caught sight of his Jeep, blood-red flames reflected in its tinted windows. Parked just where he’d left it on the abandoned logging road.
Lurching to his feet, he unzipped his pocket, fumbled for his keys. He reached the rig and yanked open the door. He’d made it. Almost. Smoke clogged his throat as he threw himself into the Jeep’s interior. He was shaking, his ankle throbbing as he twisted on the ignition and the engine caught. The forest was bathed in eerie light. He kept the ski mask on as a precaution and slammed the door shut.
Ramming the Jeep into first, he gunned the engine. Tires spun in the muddy tracks. “Come on, come on!” The Jeep lurched forward. Shimmied. Mud flew.
Shit, he needed a cigarette. Bad.
Finally the damned tires caught. He glanced into the rearview mirror and glimpsed the aftermath, fire and smoke billowing upward in the misty night.
She’s dead. You killed her. Sent her black soul straight to hell.
And she fucking deserved it!
He snapped on the radio. Through the speakers, throbbing over the whine of the Jeep’s engine, Jim Morrison’s voice rocked out familiar lyrics.
“Come on baby, light my fire . . .”
Yeah, well, never again. The bitch wasn’t ever going to light anyone’s fire again.
She couldn’t see, couldn’t speak, couldn’t . . . oh, God, she couldn’t move her hand. She tried to open her eyes, but her eyelids wouldn’t budge. They weighed a ton and seemed glued shut over eyes that burned with a blinding, hideous pain,
Mrs. Cahill? There was a touch, someone’s cool fingers on the back of her hand. “Mrs. Cahill, can you hear me?” The voice, kind and female, sounded as if it was carried from a great distance . . . far away, from a spot on the other side of the pain. Me? I’m Mrs. Cahill? That sounded wrong, but she didn’t know why.
“Your husband’s here to see you.”
My husband? But I don’t have . . . oh, God, what’s happening to me? Am I going crazy?
The fingers were removed and there was a heavy feminine sigh. “I’m sorry, she’s still not responding.”
“She’s been in this hospital nearly six weeks.” A man’s voice. Clipped. Hard. Demanding. “Six weeks for Christ’s sake, and she’s shown no signs of recovery.”
“Of course she has. She’s breathing on her own, I’ve noticed eye movement behind her lids, she’s coughed and attempted to yawn, all good signs, indications that the brain stem isn’t damaged —”
Oh, God, they were talking about brain damage!
“Then why won’t she wake up?” he demanded.
“I don’t know.”
“Shit.” His voice was lower.
“Give her time,” the woman said softly. “We can’t be certain, of course, but there’s even a chance that she can hear us now.”
Yes, yes, I can hear you, but my name isn’t Mrs. Cahill, I’m not married and I’m dying from this pain. For God’s sake, someone help me! If this is a hospital, surely you have codeine or morphine or . . . or even an aspirin. The fog closed in around her and she wanted to give in to it, to feel nothing again.
“Marla? It’s Alex.” His deep baritone voice was much closer. Louder. As if he were standing only inches from her. She felt a new pressure upon her arm as he touched her, and she wanted to let him know she could hear him, but she couldn’t move, not at all. The smell of cologne assailed her, and she instinctively sensed it was expensive. But how would she know? The fingertips on her skin were smooth, soft . . . Alex’s hands. Her husband’s hands.
Oh, God, why couldn’t she remember?
She tried to recall his face, the color of his hair, the width of his shoulders, the size of his shoes, any little trait, but failed. His voice brought back no images. There was a faint smell of smoke that clung to him as his sleeve brushed her wrist and she felt the scratch of wool from his jacket, but that was it.
“Honey, please wake up. I miss you, the children —” His voice cracked, emotion strangling him.
No! There was just no way she had kids and didn’t know it. Or was there? That was the kind of thing a woman, even a woman lying drugged and half-comatose in a hospital bed would immediately realize. Certainly her intuition, the female animal in her would sense that she was a mother. Trapped motionless in this blackness she knew nothing. If only she could open her eyes . . . and yet the cozying warmth of unconsciousness was so seductive . . . Soon she would remember . . . It was just a matter of time . . .
Cold horror crept up her spine as she realized she couldn’t conjure up one single instant in the years that were her life. It was as if she had never existed.
This is a nightmare. That’s the only explanation.
“Marla, please, come back to me. To us,” Alex whispered gruffly, and deep in her heart she wished she felt something, one smidgen of emotion for this faceless stranger claiming to be her life partner. His smooth fingers linked through hers and she felt pressure on the back of her hand, the pull of an IV needle stuck into her arm. Dear God, this was pathetic, a scene from a schmaltzy World War II movie. “Cissy misses you and little James . . .” Again his voice cracked, and she tried to drag up some tiny thread of tenderness from her subconscious, a tiny bit of love for this man she couldn’t see and didn’t remember. The void that was her past gave her no hint as to what Alex Cahill looked like, what he did for a living, or how he made love to her . . . surely she would remember that. And what about her children? Cissy? James? No images of cherubic toddlers with runny noses and flushed cheeks or gangly adolescents fighting the ravages of acne flashed through her mind, but then she was sinking. Maybe they’d finally put something in her IV as she felt herself detaching from her body . . . floating away . . . She had to focus.
“How long?” he asked, dragging his hand away from hers. “How long is this going to last?”
“No one can tell you that. These things take time,” the nurse replied and her voice sounded far away, as if through a tunnel. “Comas sometimes last only a few hours or . . . well, sometimes a lot longer. Days. weeks. No one can predict. It could be even longer —”
“Don’t even go there,” he said, cutting her off. “That’s not going to happen. She will come around.” His voice was like steel. He was a man used to giving orders. “Marla?” He must’ve turned to face the bed again as his voice was louder once more. Impatient. “For Christ’s sake, can’t you hear me?”
With every ounce of effort, she tried to move. Couldn’t. It was as if she were strapped down, weighted to the mattress with its crisp, uncomfortable sheets. She could not even raise one finger, and yet it didn’t matter . . .
“I want to talk to the doctor.” Alex was forceful. His words clipped. “I don’t see any reason why she can’t be taken home and cared for there. I’ll hire all the people she needs. Nurses. Aides. Attendants. Whatever. We’ve got more than enough room for round the clock, live-in help in the house.”
There was a long pause and she sensed unspoken disapproval on the nurse’s part . . . well, she assumed the woman was a nurse . . . as she struggled to force her eyes open, to move a part of her body to indicate that she could hear through the pain.
“I’ll let Dr. Robertson know that you want to see him,” the nurse said, her voice no longer coddling and patient. Now she was firm. Professional. “I’m not sure he’s in the hospital now, but I’ll see that he gets the message.”
Marla drifted off again, lost seconds, maybe minutes. Her sluggish consciousness discerned voices again, voices that interrupted her sleep.
“I think Mrs. Cahill should rest now,” the nurse was saying.
“We’ll leave in just a minute.” Another voice. Elderly. Refined. It floated in on footsteps that were clipped and solid, at odds with the age of the woman’s voice. “We’re family and I’d like a few moments alone with my son and daughter-in-law.”
“Fine. But please, for Mrs. Cahill’s sake, make it brief.”
“We will dear,” the older woman agreed and Marla felt the touch of cool, dry skin on the back of her hand. “Come on, Marla, wake up. Cissy and Little James, they miss you, they need you.” A deep chuckle. “Though I hate to admit it, Nana isn’t quite the same as their mother.”
Nana? Grandma? Mother-in-law?
There was a rustle of clothing, the sound of soft soles padding across the floor and a door opening as, presumably, the nurse left.
“Sometimes I wonder if she’ll ever wake up,” Alex grumbled. “God, I need a cigarette.”
“Just be patient, son. Marla was in a horrible accident, and then suffered through the surgeries. She’s healing.” God, why couldn’t she remember? There was another long, serious sigh and a kindly pat of fingers on the back of her hand. A waft of perfume . . . a scent she recognized but couldn’t name.
Why was she in the hospital? What kind of accident were they talking about? Marla tried to concentrate, to think, but the effort brought only an ache that throbbed through her head.
“I just hope there won’t be much disfigurement,” the old woman said again.
What? Disfigurement? Oh, please, no. Disfigurement? For a second she was jolted out of her haze. Her throat already parched, nearly closed in fear and her stomach felt as if it had been twisted and tied with rubber bands. She tried to remember what she looked like, but it didn’t matter . . . Her heart was racing with dread. Certainly someone somewhere watching her monitors could see that she was aware, that she was responding, but no loud footsteps pounded outside the door, no urgent voice yelled, “She’s stirring. Look, she’s waking up!”
“She had the best doctors in the state. She . . . she might not look like what we expect, but she’ll be fine, beautiful.” Alex sounded as if he was trying to convince himself.
“She always was. You know, Alexander,” the woman who called herself Nana said, “sometimes a woman’s beauty can be a curse.”
An uncomfortable laugh from this man who was her husband. “I don’t think she’d agree.”
“No, of course not. But she hasn’t lived long enough to understand.”
“I just wonder what she’ll remember when she wakes up.”
“Hopefully, everything,” the woman said but there was an underlying tension to her words, a pronounced trepidation.
“Yes, well, time will tell.”
“We’re just lucky she wasn’t killed in the accident.”
There was the tiniest bit of hesitation before her husband replied, “Damned lucky. She should have never been driving in the first place. Hell, she’d just been released from the hospital.”
Another hospital? It was all getting fuzzy again, the words garbled. Had she heard it right?
“There are so many questions,” her mother-in-law whispered.
Yes, so many, but I’m too tired to think of them right now . . . so very tired.
* * *
Whistling sharply to his three-legged dog, Nick Cahill cut the engine of the Notorious and threw a line around a blackened post on the dock where he moored his fishing boat. “Come on, Tough Guy, let’s go home,” he called over his shoulder as the boat undulated with the tide of this backwater Oregon bay. Rain drizzled from a leaden sky and the wind picked up, lashing at his face. Whitecaps swirled and danced in counterpoint to the seagulls wheeling and crying overhead. The distinctive odors of diesel, rotting wood and brine mingled in the wintry air of Oregon in November.
Hiking the collar of his jacket around his neck, Nick grabbed his bucket of live crabs and stepped onto the pier just as his dog shot past in a black-and-white streak. A shepherd mix of indecipherable lineage, Tough Guy hurled his body onto the slippery planks and paws clicking, scrambled up the stairs to the parking lot on the bluff. Nick followed more slowly, past sagging posts covered with barnacles and strangled by seaweed.
“There’s somebody here ta see ya,” grunted Ole Olsen, the old coot in the window of the bait shop located at the landing. He jerked his chin toward the top of the stairs but didn’t meet Nick’s eyes, just kept working at tying a fly, as he always did.
“To see me?” Nick asked. No one, in all the five years he’d been in these parts, had ever dropped by the marina looking for him.
“Ye-up. That’s what he said.” Seated on his stool, surrounded by lures and coolers holding bait and Royal Crown Cola, Ole was a fixture at the marina. A burned-out stub of a cigar was forever plugged into one corner of his mouth, a ring of red hair turning gray surrounded his bald pate, and folds of skin hid his eyes more effectively than the magnifying glasses perched on the end of his nose. “Told him you’d be out a while, but he wanted to wait.” He clipped off a piece of thread with his teeth, turned over a bit of orange fuzz covering a hook that looked suspiciously as if it would soon resemble a salmon fly. “Figured if he wanted to, I couldn’t stop him.”
“Never gave his name. But you’ll spot him.” Ole finally looked up, focusing over the half glasses. Through the open window, his face framed by racks of cigarettes, tide tables and dozens of the colorful flies he’d tied himself, he added, “He ain’t from around here. I could tell that right off.”
Nick’s shoulders tightened. “Thanks.”
“Enny time,” Ole said, nodding curtly just as Tough Guy gave a sharp bark.
Nick mounted the stairs and walked across a gravel lot where trucks and trailers and campers were parked with haphazard abandon. In the midst of them, looking like the proverbial diamond sparkling in a pail of gravel, a silver jaguar was parked, engine purring, California plates announcing an intruder from the south. The motor died suddenly. The driver’s door swung open and a tall man in a business suit, polished wingtips and raincoat emerged.
Alex Cahill in the flesh.
Great. Just . . . great.
He picked one helluva day to show up.
“About time,” Alex said as if he’d been waiting for hours. “I thought maybe you’d died out there.” He hitched his jaw west toward the sea.
“Not so lucky this time.”
“Maybe next time.”
Alex’s intense eyes, more gray than blue, flashed. “So you’re still an irreverent bastard.”
“I keep workin’ at it.” Nick didn’t bother to smile. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
“Shit, Nick, that’s all you’ve ever done.”
In a heartbeat Nick decided his mother must’ve died. For no other reason would Alex be inconvenienced enough to wear out some of the tread on his three-hundred-dollar tires. But the thought was hard to believe. Eugenia Haversmith Cahill was the toughest woman who’d ever trod across this planet on four-inch heels. Nope. He changed his mind. His mother couldn’t be dead. Eugenia would outlive both her sons, himself included.
He kept walking to his truck and slung his bucket into the bed with his toolbox and spare tire. Around the parking lot, a once-painted fence and fir trees contorted by years of battering wind and rain formed a frail barricade that separated the marina from a boarded-up antiques shop that hadn’t been in business in the five years Nick had lived in Devil’s Cove.
Alex jammed his hands deep into the pockets of a coat that probably sported a fancy designer label, not that Nick would know. Or care. But something was up.
“Look, Nick, I came here because I need your help.”
“You need my help?” he repeated with a skeptical grin. “Maybe I should be flattered.”
“This is serious.”
“I suspect that.”
Son off a bitch. Beneath the rawhide of his jacket, Nick’s shoulders hunched. No matter what, he wasn’t going to be sucked in.
Not by Marla.
Not ever again.
“She’s been in an accident.”
His gut clenched. “What kind of accident?” Nick’s jaw was so tight it ached. He’d never trusted his older brother. And for good reason. For as long as Nick could remember, Alex Cahill had bowed at the alter of the dollar, genuflected whenever he heard a NASDAQ quote and paid fervent homage to the patron saints of San Francisco, the elite who were so often referred to as “old money.” That went double for his beautiful, social-climbing wife, Marla.
His brother was nothing but a bitter reminder of Nick’s own dalliance with the Almighty Buck. And with Marla.
“It’s bad, Nick —” Alex said, kicking at a pebble with the toe of his polished wingtip.
“But she’s alive.” He needed to know that much.
“Barely. In a coma. She . . . well, she might not make it.”
Nick’s stomach clenched even harder. “Then why are you here? Shouldn’t you be with her?”
“Yes. I have been. But . . . I didn’t know how else to reach you. You don’t return my calls and . . . well . . .”
“I’m not all that into e-mail.”
“That’s one of the problems.”
“Just one.” Nick leaned against the Dodge’s muddy fender, telling himself not to be taken in. His brother was nothing if not a smooth-talking bastard, a man who could with a seemingly sincere and even smile, firm handshake and just the right amount of eye contact, talk a life jacket off a drowning man. Older than Nick by three years, Alex was polished, refined and Stanford educated. His graduate work, where he’d learned the ins and outs of the law, had been accomplished at Harvard.
Nick hadn’t bothered. “What happened?” he asked, trying to remain calm.
“Car accident.” To Alex’s credit he paled beneath his tan. Reaching into his jacket, he found a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Nick, who shook his head though he’d love to feel smoke curl through his lungs, could use the buzz of nicotine.
Alex flicked his lighter and drew deep. “Marla was driving another woman’s car. Over six weeks ago now. In the mountains near Santa Cruz, a miserable stretch of road. The woman who owned the Mercedes, Pamela Delacroix, was with her.” There was a long pause. A heavy, smoky sigh. Just the right amount of hesitation to indicate more bad news. Nick steeled himself as a Jeep with a dirty ragtop sped into the parking lot, bouncing through the puddles before sliding to a stop near the railing. Two loud men in their twenties climbed out and opened the back to haul out rods, reels and a cooler. They clomped noisily down the stairs.
“Go on,” Nick said to his brother.
“Unfortunately Pam didn’t make it.”
A coldness swept over Nick. “Jesus.”
“Killed instantly. There was another vehicle involved, a semi going the opposite direction. Long-haul truck driver. Charles Biggs. He’d been at the wheel sixteen hours and there’s talk that he might have been on speed, meth or something. Who knows? The police aren’t talking. The trucker might’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. No one knows for certain. Except Biggs and he’s in the burn ward. Burns over sixty percent of his body, internal damage as well. It’s a miracle he’s holding on, but no one expects him to make it.”
Nick wiped the rain from his face and looked out to sea. “But Marla survived.”
“If you can call it that.”
“Son of a bitch.” Now Nick wanted a smoke. He shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets and warned himself not to believe his brother. Being older and smarter, Alex had taken delight when they were children to play him for a naive fool. There had always been a price to pay. Today, he suspected, was no different. “So the guy fell asleep and the truck wandered into Marla’s lane?”
“That’s just one theory.” Alex took a drag on his Marlboro. “The police and insurance companies are looking into it. Had the highway shut down. The vehicles never hit each other, at least that’s what they think. The Mercedes ended up off one side of the road, the semi further down the hill on the opposite side. Both vehicles broke through the guardrail, both ended up smashed into trees, but the truck exploded before the driver could bail out of the cab.”
“Damn,” Nick muttered under his breath. “Poor bastard.”
Alex snorted his agreement. “There’ve been detectives all over the place, asking questions of everybody, waiting for Marla to wake up and tell her side of the story.” He scowled darkly at the waters lapping in the bay. “She could be charged with negligent homicide, I suppose, if she was the one who crossed the center line. I . . . I haven’t gotten into the legalities of it all. Not yet. This . . . it’s . . . well, it’s been a nightmare. Hard on everyone.”
That, Nick believed. If the situation hadn’t been grim, Alex would never have made the trip. Hell. Rainwater ran down his face as he opened the cab door and reached inside, found the remains of a six pack of Henry’s, ripped one from its plastic collar and tossed it to Alex, then popped the tab of a second for himself.
“If Marla does pull through —”
“If, Alex? If? She’s the strongest, most determined woman I know. She’ll make it. For Christ sakes, don’t put her in the grave yet. She’s your damned wife!”
A beat. Unspoken accusations. Memories that had no right to be recalled — seductive, erotic and searing with hot intensity. Nick’s throat turned to dust. The wind slapped his face. He drank a long gulp while Tough Guy whined at his feet. But his thoughts had already turned the dark corner he’d avoided for years, the narrow path that led straight to his brother’s wife. Forbidden images came into play, taboo pictures of a gorgeous woman with a lilting laugh and mischief in her eyes. He heard the gentle lap of the water against the dock below and the traffic on the highway, the dull roar of the sea pounding the coast on the other side of the jetty, the call of the seagulls, yet nothing was as loud as the thudding of his own heart.
Nick nodded to his brother, encouraging Alex to continue. Another pull from his can as he tried and failed to push Marla from his head as rain dripped off his nose. He thought about suggesting they sit in the pickup’s cab but didn’t.
“If she makes it, there’s a chance she won’t remember anything or that portions of memory will be lost. I don’t really understand the whole amnesia thing, but it’s weird. Eerie.” Alex smoked in the rain and seemed unaware that he was getting drenched. His brown hair was plastered to his head, his Italian leather shoes soaking up Oregon rainwater from the puddle collecting at his feet. “God, Nick, you should see her. Or maybe not.” Alex’s voice actually quavered and he hesitated for a second, sucking so hard on his Marlboro that the tip glowed red in the gloom. “You wouldn’t recognize her. I didn’t and I’ve lived with her for nearly fifteen years. Jesus.” He shot a plume of smoke from one side of his mouth, popped the can of his beer and took a long swallow. “She was so beautiful . . . well, you remember . . .” Alex’s voice cracked as if in deep pain.
Nick didn’t believe him and, sipping his beer, tried to push aside the image of a woman who had nearly destroyed his life. He stared toward the suspension bridge that spanned the narrow neck of the bay and allowed traffic to rush along the rugged Oregon coastline, compliments of Highway 101, but in his mind’s eye, he saw Marla . . . gorgeous, full of fun and laughter Marla. “Aside from the memory loss, will she be okay?”
“You mean other than the fact that she won’t look the same?”
“It will to her.”
Nick snorted. “You can afford plastic surgery. I’m talking about damage that would make it so that she couldn’t function.”
“We don’t know.”
“And she will regain her memory eventually?”
Alex lifted a shoulder and glanced toward the sea. “I hope so.”
For a split second, a mere heartbeat, Nick felt a tiny prick of pity for his brother’s wife.
“Time will tell.”
“So they say.”
“But she’ll be changed.”
“Too bad,” he said sarcastically as he studied the water-saturated gravel and the muddy pools beginning to run in rivulets toward the cliff.
Nick took one last swallow from his beer, crushed the can in his fist and tossed the crumpled empty can into the back of his truck. Marla’s image slipped on illicit wings into his mind again. Alex wasn’t exaggerating. Marla Amhurst Cahill was a gorgeous woman. Seductive. Naughty. Sexy as hell. With silky skin that was hot beneath a man’s fingers and a come-hither smile that put Marilyn Monroe to shame. She had a way of getting into a man’s blood and lingering. For years. Maybe forever.
Nick turned sharply. “Cut to the chase, Alex. Why are you telling me all of this?”
“Because you’re family. My only brother —”
“I thought you’d want to know.”
“There’s more to it.” Nick was certain of it. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have driven all this way and taken six damned weeks to do it.”
Alex nodded slowly, the corners of his mouth pulled into a thoughtful frown. “She’s . . . she can’t talk, her jaw’s wired shut and she hasn’t woken, but she has moaned and tried to say a few words.” He took a deep, bracing breath. “The only one we understood was ‘Nicholas.’”
“Give me a break.” The breeze slapped Nick’s face and he was angry.
“She needs you.”
“She’s never needed anyone.”
“We thought —”
“Mother and I and well, we ran it past the doctors, too. We thought you might break through to her.”
“You and mother,” Nick growled. “Hell.”
“It’s worth a try.”
Nick glanced to the waterfront where vessels clustered near the docks looked dismal, small sailboats with skeletal masts stretching upward like dozens of bony fingers in stiff supplication to an unheeding heaven. The thought of seeing Marla again stuck in his craw.
And burrowed deep in his mind.
Alex tossed his cigarette onto the gravel where it sizzled and smoldered near an ancient Buick’s balding tire. “There’s something else.”
“More?” Here it comes, Nick thought uneasily, and felt as if he’d been duped into allowing the family noose to slip over his head.
“I need a favor.”
“Another one? Besides visiting Marla?”
“That’s not a favor. That’s an obligation.”
Nick shrugged. Wasn’t about to argue. “Shoot.”
“It’s the business . . . what with the accident, I’m having trouble concentrating, spending all of my time at the hospital with Marla. When I’m not there, I have to deal with the kids.”
“Kids? Plural?” Nick repeated.
“Oh, maybe you didn’t know. Marla had a baby a few days before the accident. In fact, it happened the day she was released from the hospital.” Alex paused, reached into his coat pocket for a handkerchief and mopped his face. “The baby’s fine, thank God. Little James is doing as well as can be expected without his mother.” Alex’s voice held a touch of pride and something else . . . trepidation? What was all that about?
Nick scratched the stubble covering his chin, the tip of a finger sliding over his scar, a war wound that he’d received at the age of eleven, compliments of Alex, and he sensed that there was a lot more to this story — stark omissions over which his brother had so easily slid. “The baby wasn’t with her?”
“No, thank God. Now he’s home, with a nanny. As for Cissy, she’s a teenager now and oh, well, you know how they are. She’s pretty wrapped up in herself these days.” Alex added quickly, “She’s upset that her mother’s still in the hospital, of course, worried, but . . .” He shrugged, and an expression of calm acceptance shrouded his patrician features. “Sometimes I think she’s more concerned over whether she’ll be asked to the winter dance than whether her mother will survive. It’s all an act, I know. Cissy’s worried in her own way, but it’s the same way she’s always dealt with Marla.”
“This just gets better and better,” Nick muttered.
“Doesn’t it?” Alex snorted, then sniffed and swiped his hair from his face.
“I’m surprised Marla had another baby — I didn’t think she was too into kids.”
“She did grow up,” Alex said, casting him a look.
But Nick found it odd that she would have another child so many years after the first. She was just too damned self-centered. Stubborn. Egocentric. A goddamned princess. He sniffed, looked down at his boat and thought that half an hour ago his only problem had been dealing with a lingering headache, the result of becoming too friendly with a bottle of Cutty Sark the night before. But this . . . shit. Nick squinted at the clouds rolling on the horizon.
Alex cleared his throat. “So, look, Nick, the deal is that right now I need your help.”
“What kind of help?” Nick asked suspiciously. The rough hemp of the Cahill family noose tightened around his neck as rain drizzled from the sky.
“You’re a troubleshooter for corporations.”
“I was, once upon a time.”
“You still are.”
“No more. That was a while back, Alex. I’ve done a lot of things since. Now, I fish. Or try to.”
Scowling, Alex swept a glance around the weathered marina, then to the bucket in the bed of Nick’s truck. Alex didn’t seem convinced. “A few years ago you brought several corporations back from the brink of failure and now, well, believe it or not, I could use that kind of expertise. Cherise and Monty aren’t happy that they’ve been cut out of the corporation. They seem to think that since they’re Cahills they should have a piece of the pie.”
“Cherise and Monty. Great.” Things had a way of going from bad to worse. It seemed to go with being a Cahill. He leaned against the truck and Tough Guy sat at his feet, looking up, expecting a pat on the head. Nick obliged.
“Yeah, well, all that mess with Uncle Fenton and his kids was supposed to have been cleared up long before I came on board,” Alex said. “Dad dealt with his brother, but Fenton’s kids seem to have forgotten that. At least Cherise has. She’s the one squawking. Probably because of that damned husband of hers. A preacher. Christ. This is all ancient history. Ancient fucking history. Or it should be.”
“Dad handled Fenton the way he dealt with everyone,” Nick said, remembering the tyrant who had been their father. Samuel Jonathan Cahill had been a blue-nosed bastard if ever there had been one. “His way. Period.”
“It doesn’t matter. The point is Fenton was paid for his share of the corporation years ago. End of story. Cherise and Monty can bloody well take care of themselves. I’ve got enough problems of my own.”
Nick had heard this argument all his life. He was tired of it, but couldn’t help playing devil’s advocate, especially where his brother was concerned. “You really can’t blame them for being ticked off. They both thought they’d become millionaires, but their damned father pissed everything away.”
“I don’t blame them for anything. In fact, I don’t give a shit about either one of them. Monty hasn’t worked a day in his life and Charise hasn’t done much more except collect ex-husbands and turn into a religious nutcase. I’ve tried with her, even found this last one — a preacher, no less — a job. Shit, what a disaster that became.” Alex swatted the air. “Doesn’t matter. I wish Cherise and Montgomery would both just pull a disappearing act. Permanently.” He finished his beer in one disgusted swallow, then wiped his mouth. “Christ, what a couple of leeches. Blood-sucking leeches.” Alex stepped out of the puddle and leaned against the Dodge’s dented fender. “And if they feel slighted, well, as they say, ‘them’s the breaks.’” There wasn’t a smidgen of pity in Alex’s voice. “But it’s too damned cold and wet to stand out here discussing them. They’re just minor irritations.”
“They probably don’t think so.”
“Tough. Besides, they’re not the reason I came up here.”
“Partly.” He met Nick’s gaze.
“So now we’re down to it, aren’t we?” Nick said as the wind shifted, whistling across the parking lot.
“Yeah, that’s right. We are.” Alex’s voice was dead-earnest. All business. “Cahill Limited needs a shot in the arm.”
“Or the head.”
“I’m not joking.” Tiny white grooves bracketed Alex’s mouth, and for a split second he actually looked desperate. “And it wouldn’t hurt you to show a little family solidarity. We could use it. Mother. Me. The kids. Marla.”
The noose was suddenly so tight he couldn’t breathe. Tough Guy scratched at the running board of the pickup and Nick threw open the door so that the wet shepherd could hop inside. But the decision had already been made. Both he and Alex knew it. “I’d have to find someone to take care of the dog and my cabin.”
“I’ll pay for any inconvenience —”
“This isn’t about money, okay?” Nick climbed into the cab, shoved Tough Guy to his spot near the passenger door and jabbed his keys into the ignition. Knowing he was making a mistake he’d regret for the rest of his days, he said, “I’ll be there, okay?” Angry with himself and his fierce, misguided sense of loyalty, Nick added, “I’ll look over your damned books, make nice-nice with Mother and I’ll visit Marla, but you don’t owe me a dime. Got it? I’m coming to San Francisco out of the goodness of my heart, and I’ll leave when I want to. This isn’t an open-ended deal where I stay on indefinitely.”
“The goodness of your heart, now there’s an interesting concept,” Alex said, skipping over Nick’s concerns.
“Isn’t it?” Nick grabbed the door handle. Wind and rain lashed the cab. “That’s my best offer, Alex. My only offer. I’ll be there within the week. Take it or leave it.” Pumping the accelerator, Nick turned on the ignition and didn’t wait for an answer. The Dodge’s engine coughed, sputtered, then caught.
Cross with the world in general and himself in particular, Nick slammed the door shut and flipped on the wipers. Nothing his brother could say would make any difference one way or another.
Like it or not, he was on his way to San Francisco.
“Hell,” he ground out as the wipers slapped away the rain and he threw his pickup into reverse. Gravel sprayed and, on the bench seat beside him, Tough Guy nearly lost his balance.
“Sorry,” Nick growled as he jerked the truck into first and glowered through the foggy windshield. Alex stood in the puddle-strewn lot, his wool coat catching in the breeze, his expression as dour as an undertaker’s. Nick snapped on the wheezing defroster, then flipped the stations of the radio, but he heard only static.
He thought of Marla, and his gut tightened. He still wanted her. After fifteen years. Fifteen damned years. There had been more than a dozen women in his life since then, but none of them, not one woman had left the deep impressions, the scars upon his soul that she had. His gaze narrowed on his reflection in the rearview mirror. Harsh blue eyes glared back at him. “You’re a fool, Cahill,” he growled under his breath. “A goddamned fool.”,What you don’t know……can kill you…