To hear this excerpt narrated by the author on SoundCloud, click here.
From Chapter 1
Someone was in the house. My eyes shot open. I strained to hear the noise repeat, but I couldn’t hear a thing over the pounding of my heart.
The bedside clock projected the time on the ceiling: 2:55 a.m. I kept absolutely still and concentrated on my breathing. Damn! I thought I’d gotten over this, weeks ago. My nerves were now officially fried.
I pushed aside the covers. Living alone meant it was up to me to check the cottage for intruders. Sweat trickled down between my shoulder blades as I tiptoed the perimeter of the bedroom then slid into the hall.
My search of the small cottage revealed nothing out of place. The doors and windows remained locked—just as I’d left them when I went to bed. Was l losing my mind?
The covers were still warm when I crawled back into bed and curled into a ball on my side, holding my knees tight to stop the shakes. I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to push away the fear. God, I hated this feeling.
Tonight was just like the previous times. I could have sworn I’d heard footsteps out on the deck or shuffling up on the roof, yet not once had there been any evidence. Not a single footprint in the dew; not a single finger smudge on a windowsill.
The lack of evidence suggested my imagination was playing tricks on me. I didn’t want to believe it, but maybe a little paranoia was normal when you’d been shot. I just needed more time to adjust. Besides, this cottage had always been my sanctuary, and I’d be damned if I was going to let fear, imaginary or not, drive me from it. This cottage was my home.
Tomorrow I had an appointment with Emery. This time, even if I had to beg, I would convince him to prescribe sleeping pills. A couple weeks of undisturbed sleep would fix me up and then I’d be back to my usual upbeat, glass-half-full, self.
The next day, at my eleven o’clock appointment, I learned that Emery wasn’t quite as convinced as I was about the whole sleeping pill solution.
“It’s a bad idea, Emelynn.” He frowned over the top of his ebony-framed glasses and released the blood pressure cuff with a rip of Velcro. “I’m not surprised you’re feeling somewhat vulnerable and anxious, but sleeping pills aren’t going to fix that.”
He walked over to the small wooden desk and scribbled a note on a scratch pad then turned to lean back against the desk. Emery was tall and fit. He kept his blond hair short and the only thing that gave away his fifty-plus age was the greying at his temples, which you had to look closely to notice.
Emery Coulter was my doctor, but he was much more than that. He was my friend and confidant and he’d saved my life—twice. For that alone I would always be grateful, but that wasn’t what made him so special to me. It was because I’d come to think of him as my stand-in dad.
My father died in a plane crash when I was twelve years old and though ten years had passed, I still missed him. Dad had also been a doctor. His name was Brian Edison Taylor. He was forty-two when he died, so he and Emery would have been about the same age. They also shared a similarity in their casual manner and confident styles. I could talk to Emery about absolutely anything and I liked to think that if Dad were alive today, we would have the same kind of relationship.
“We’d be further ahead if we addressed the underlying cause of your anxiety instead of masking the symptoms with drugs.” Emery, as usual, was maddeningly logical, but I’d already heard this particular speech.
“That’s what you said last time, Emery. All I want is to sleep through the night. Is that really too much to ask?”
“The pills will help you sleep, Em, but as soon as you quit taking them—if you don’t become dependent on them and if you can actually quit taking them, you’ll be right back to hearing noises in the night.” He crossed his arms over his chest. That was never a good sign.
“Well then, what would you suggest I do?” I huffed in exasperation.
“Last time we talked about this, your new fitness regimen was helping. What happened? You’re still working with Malcolm aren’t you?”
Malcolm Perreault was the personal trainer I’d hired after Emery cajoled me into it. Well, actually, that wasn’t the entire truth. In the early days of my recovery, I started having these late night wake-up calls. Emery, working from the theory that an exhausted body rested better, suggested a fitness regimen.
At the time, it was hard for me to disagree. I was physically weakened from the damage the bullet had inflicted, and still reeling from the naïveté that led to my involvement in a situation I was ill-prepared for. What on earth possessed me to think I could come out on the winning side of a physical confrontation, let alone one that involved guns?
“Yes, of course. Malcolm’s great. We’re up to 8K now. It gets easier every time, but it’s still a challenge.” I chuckled to myself thinking of my first runs with Malcolm. Between my calf cramps and side stitches, he must have thought he’d taken on an albatross. “Poor Malcolm.”
“Don’t feel sorry for Malcolm—that’s what you pay him for. Besides, trainers like Malcolm run that distance just to pick up the newspaper.”
Malcolm Perreault was almost six feet of flawless, dark skin melted over smooth muscle. I’d met him at the local YMCA after paying drop-in fees at half a dozen gyms in my search for a trainer. He was a refreshing change from the others I’d met, most of whom were thick-necked, Lycra-clad, muscle-bound men and women full of themselves and self-congratulation. Malcolm was different. Within moments of our introduction, I knew I’d found my man. Well, not my man in that sense, though he could easily be a contender if I ever got into that frame of mind again.
Emery finally uncrossed his arms, but that put him back to staring at me over his glasses. “What’s changed to set off your anxiety? Why the uptick in cold sweats in the night?”
“I have no idea. When it’s happening, all I can think is that someone’s trying to get into the house. It’s terrifying, but by the time I’m able to think straight, the noises are gone and I never find any evidence that someone’s been lurking. I can’t keep doing this.”
Emery walked behind the desk and pulled a phone book out of the drawer. He flipped to the back and ripped out a page. “Home Alarms.” He pointed to the column of ads he’d handed me. “Maybe it’s time you invest in a security system. It’ll take the guesswork out of these noises you hear in the night.”
“This is your solution?” I said, underwhelmed, as I looked at the flimsy sheet of yellow paper. He was the only one I knew who used the phone book rather than the Internet.
I considered his idea for a nanosecond before I started ticking off counterpoints. “Sleeping pills are quicker … less complicated … smaller,” I said, touching my third finger, though that last one was a stretch.
Emery just shook his head and smirked. I knew that look well enough now to know he wasn’t about to give in. “A sleeping pill won’t scare away intruders or alert the police,” he said, having a good chuckle at my stubborn stance. “Ah, come on—being a victim doesn’t suit you, Em. Take the reins and get back out in front. Let’s give the non-chemical approach a shot first and if that doesn’t work, then we’ll talk about alternatives.”
Emery bent to put the phone book back in the drawer, but changed his mind and set it aside. He twisted his mouth and flipped through the drawer’s contents. “That’s odd,” he said, puzzled.
“I could have sworn I brought your chart down here this morning, but it seems to have grown legs and walked away.” He replaced the phone book and came around in front of the desk again. “If only they made a pill that could cure absent-mindedness.”
I stared at him and blinked, just once. “Surely you’re not suggesting chemical intervention?” I said, barely hiding my amusement. Emery arched an eyebrow. My bid for sleeping pills was lost.
Maybe a home alarm was a good suggestion. As his idea settled in my mind, I allowed it some merit. “I suppose I could look into a security system. Hey, I wonder if Cheney could recommend a company?” I brightened at the thought.
Cheney Meyer was the twenty-five year old mechanic who’d resurrected my father’s old red convertible. I’d discovered the abandoned MGB in the garage when I returned here to our family’s cottage on the west coast a few months ago. Cheney and his dad, Jack, restored it so it spewed exhaust like the day it came out of the factory. Cheney had contacts. He’d know someone in the security business.
“I bet he could,” Emery said. “Lie back.”
This was our Tuesday routine. First he took my temperature. Then he checked my eyes and reflexes. Next he took my blood pressure. The last step was checking the bullet wounds. The paper crackled under me as I lay back on the red vinyl exam table and hiked my shirt. The bullet hole that caused such terrible pain just seven weeks ago was now a dime-sized shiny pink circle of skin. The exit wound wasn’t as pretty, but it was on my back so I didn’t have to look at it. He examined the wounds with gentle fingers, palpating all around them. We did the, does this hurt; how about that, routine and then he pulled my shirt back down and I sat up.
“The night sweats, the sudden waking—they’re typical symptoms of anxiety,” Emery said. “You’ve been through a lot these past few weeks, physically and emotionally. You need to process it.” Emery pushed his glasses up into his hair. “Let’s give it more time. If your symptoms persist, we’ll discuss it again, but my preference will still be to try behaviour modification therapy before chemical intervention.”
I frowned at him. My preference was still the quick fix of pharmaceuticals.
“But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Your work with Malcolm has already helped your body. I can hear it in your breathing and see it in your muscle tone. The home alarm will put your mind at ease and don’t forget about Eden. She’s already told you to call her, day or night. She knows what you’re dealing with and she wants to help. Besides, she’s one of us—she has discreet down to a fine art.”
Emery was right about Eden. She started off as one of my teachers, but the intensity of our time together had turned our bond into a close friendship. Eden Effrome was four years my senior and five foot nothing to my five foot seven. Her spiky red hair looked nothing like my long, curly mop, and her eyes were bright blue, whereas mine were green. The physical differences made it impossible to mistake us for real sisters, but she’s exactly who I’d pick for my sister if I could. I hopped down from the exam table and straightened my clothes.
“Do you think Jackson was telling the truth?” I asked. “You know—about the military or organized crime, knowing about us? Looking for us?” Jackson Delaney’s integrity had been obliterated in the wake of a deception by him that left us questioning if anything he’d told us could be trusted.
“Honestly—I don’t know. We’re all asking the same questions. Everyone with contacts has put feelers out searching for more information. I just hope we’re not stirring up a hornet’s nest with all the speculation. Just a few days ago, one of my contacts had his computer hacked. His first thought was that someone was on to him. It’s worrisome.”
“Everyone’s feeling the pressure,” I said, gathering my things. I walked out of the small exam room into the empty waiting area. Emery’s home office was in a converted garage attached to his Victorian-era home in an old-money neighbourhood. The stately old house filled out nearly every square metre of a large city lot. It was a beautiful home with a small back garden. Emery and I had shared numerous mugs of coffee and pots of tea in the kitchen, and it was upstairs in one of the bedrooms where I’d recovered after the shooting.
Emery put his arm around my shoulder and walked me to the door. “Don’t wait too long to look into an alarm. The sooner we address the anxiety, the faster you’ll get over it. And call Eden,” he said as he opened the door for me. “Are we still on for Thursday?”
I sighed heavily. “Yes, of course.” I stepped into the bright August sunshine. Tuesdays were physical checkup days but Thursdays were when the real work happened. On Thursdays we challenged my gift, the source of so much pain and angst. The gift was the secret we all kept, but only three people knew that mine was different. That difference would cost me my life if my secret got out.