Authors: Darlene Gardner
An original publication
Is he reaching out from the grave to ask her to solve the mystery of his death? A romantic mystery with ghostly overtones.
Cara Donnelly is sure she's never visited the sleepy Florida town of Secret Sound. So why does the very name ring a haunting bell? Why does so much of the scenery look familiar? Most importantly, why does she see a little boy get hit by a car thirty years after the incident happened?
Cara wants to get out of town fast after experiencing the strange vision despite the connection she feels to police chief Gray DeBerg. The townspeople, including Gray, are not happy about Cara stirring up the pain of that tragic event.
But after Cara learns the boy was kidnapped shortly before the event and his kidnapper never found, she feels the boy is reaching out from the grave to beg her to solve the mystery of his death. If she runs from him and Gray, she fears she'll also be running from herself.
“Darlene Gardner creates characters with substance by giving them problems and heartaches and making it easier for the readers to understand them... [She] crafts magnificent romances. “
-- Fresh Fiction, June 2011
“Darlene Gardner continues to perfect the art of writing amazingly heartfelt romances.”
-- Noveltalk, May 2010
“Ms. Gardner writes fabulous, real-life characters readers can care about... [She] likes to create an intriguing family situation to see how characters react to it -- and each other."
-- Romance Reader at Heart, July 2007
“For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest
Other eBooks by Darlene Gardner
About the Author
SOUND OF SECRETS
Copyright © 2011 Darlene Gardner
Cover art by Paige Gardner
All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Darlene Gardner.
“For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest." — Luke 8:17
"Everyone is like a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody." — Mark Twain
While Cara Donnelly fought the feeling that she was returning to a place where she had never been, her gaze snagged on the majestic oak tree whose branches cast eerie shadows over a once-grand church.
Its limbs were bent like the arms of an octopus, just as Cara had known they would be. The tree had been there for so long that many of the branches intertwined while others beckoned like long, bony fingers.
Gripping the steering wheel, Cara swung her eyes to the other side of the road. The graveyard with the haphazard rows of granite tombstones came into view in less than a minute, with tall weeds and dying plants nearly obscuring some of the weathered markers. A lone grave in the middle of the cemetery, carefully tended and covered with a blanket of red blossoms, stuck out like a gaily dressed mourner at a funeral.
Cara's brain screamed that she shouldn't be on this lonely road. The fuel indicator showed her tank less than half full, but she should have waited to get gas until one of those highway symbols showed that an approaching exit had a service station.
She would have waited if she hadn’t seen a singular name on a road sign.
She couldn’t place where she’d heard the name of the town before, but it seeped inside her and resonated with haunting familiarity. Before Cara could reconsider, she’d abandoned the carefully constructed road-trip plan that was supposed to land her in Miami Beach by early evening.
The friends she was meeting at a beachfront hotel had been able to get away days earlier than Cara, which had prompted her to consider canceling the trip. Flying made her so nervous that she wouldn’t get on a plane, and she hadn’t relished the idea of making the twelve-hour drive from her South Carolina home town.
In the end, her need to get away eclipsed her reluctance to travel alone. She’d plotted most aspects of the trip in advance, even deciding which interstate exits to use for meals and bathroom breaks.
Then she’d seen the sign, impulsively swung her car off the exit ramp and headed east toward Secret Sound by this eerily familiar route.
The two-lane road cut a swath through a thicket of tall Australian pine trees. Cara imagined that the branches of soft needles gently swaying in the wind gestured for her to turn around, which was patently ridiculous.
So was the overwhelming sensation that she was returning to a familiar place, because Cara had never before been to Florida. It wasn't like her to imagine things, but the certainty that this wasn't the first time she had traveled this road grew with every passing second.
Cara had switched off the radio before veering from the interstate, and the silence was almost as creepy as her premonitions of what lay ahead.
When she spotted the cemetery, Cara's heart thumped as wildly as the sticks of a drummer in a rock band, making her chest tighten and ache. The fast-food chicken sandwich she'd eaten for lunch roiled greasily in her stomach.
She'd rolled down the windows, and the air blew freely through the car, but she couldn’t suck enough oxygen into her lungs. She realized that the rapid, shallow rasps she heard were her attempts to breathe.
Her hands, slick with sweat, slipped on the steering wheel. Two of her tires slid off the road, kicking up dust and gravel. Cara squeezed hard on the wheel and jerked the car back onto the pavement. A pickup truck traveling in the other direction swerved as it passed her, its horn blaring, the sound becoming less insistent as the truck grew smaller and smaller in her rearview mirror.
Although she knew it was crazy, she leaned forward in her seat, angling her body so she could peer upward through the windshield. She half expected the eagle that haunted her dreams to swoop out of the sky and pluck her from the open window of the car. But all she saw was the darkening gray of twilight.
It didn’t matter that the eagle wasn’t there. Her heart knocked insistently against her breastbone while her breathing grew even more shallow.
This couldn’t be happening now, not when she hadn’t had an anxiety attack in more than six months. She’d thought, hoped, that she’d finally conquered the shameful attacks she worked so hard to conceal from her friends and family.
She once again scanned the landscape that couldn’t be familiar, and her anxiety grew thicker than the palm trees lining the road. She gasped for air, more certain than ever that the swaying fronds were telling her to retreat.
Obeying, she eased her foot off the gas pedal while she looked for a place to turn around.Then she glanced down at the car's dashboard.
The red indicator light shone like a beacon, and she gradually became aware of the acrid smell of hot metal. How long, she wondered, had her car been trying to tell her something was wrong?
Attempting to swallow the lump of dread in her throat, Cara pressed the gas pedal down hard and headed for the service station that was just ahead on the right side of the road.
It came into view just as she had known it would, and her hands shook so violently she had difficulty maneuvering the vehicle into the parking lot.
How had she known a service station was here? How could she know anything about a place she had never been in a state that had been a distant temptation until yesterday? How could an obscure name on a traffic sign and even the encroaching darkness that cloaked the street seem familiar?
"Get a grip, Cara," she said aloud. She tried the breathing exercise she had used with some success over the years, gradually filling her lungs with fresh, clean air before slowly releasing her breath. She spoke the next sentence carefully, emphasizing each word. "You have never been here before."
Cara had barely unbuckled her seat belt and opened the car door before she doubted her proclamation. She hadn't pulled up to one of the gasoline pumps, but off to the side of the station, and her eyes swept the establishment.
Even though darkness had descended on the poorly lit station, everything about it looked familiar. There was a small office, a large garage and only two pumps, one of which had a car in front of it. This service station, obviously, hadn’t yet been swallowed by the wave of impersonal super stations sweeping the country.
It wasn't until Cara's eyes gravitated back to the street that she saw the child. Judging from his size, he couldn't have been more than five years old. She wasn't able to see his features clearly, but she could tell a shock of dark hair framed his face.
He was on the shoulder of the road, turned toward Cara, and she had a powerful sense that he expected something from her. Cara's desire to reach out to him was so strong that she extended her arm, but then the child turned and dashed across the street.
His movements weren't graceful, but herky jerky in the manner of a young child not yet in full control of his motor skills. He's running scared, Cara thought, although she wasn't sure how she knew that.
The glow of a distant streetlight silhouetted the child's shape for one interminable second, almost as though he were caught in a freeze frame of a horror movie.
Then the world spun into motion once more. Cara heard the onrushing car, and her eyes widened in horror as she anticipated the terrible moment when the two would collide.
She opened her mouth to scream a warning, but it was too late. The brakes squealed in agony, and then Cara recoiled from the sickening thud as the car slammed into the child's tiny body.
She couldn't be sure whether the child's scream or her own pierced the early evening tranquility as he went flying like a rag doll through the air.
Gray DeBerg's fingers eased on the nozzle of the gas pump as the woman's piercing scream split the air.
His eyes worked as well as the next guy’s so naturally he’d noticed her when she got out of the overheated car with the out-of-state plates. He’d seen the steam seeping out of the hood first, but the long legs she swung out of the car quickly overshadowed that image.
The rest of her presented a picture as appealing as her legs. He couldn’t make out her face from a distance, but he’d never been attracted to the reedy models who graced billboards and magazines, and he liked the way she filled out her clothes.
He’d taken a long look and then went back to filling up the gas tank of his unmarked police car. Both because it was part of his job and his nature, he normally would have offered assistance to a woman with car trouble. But this woman was at a service station, more in need of a mechanic than a cop.
He might have been able to convince himself of that if she hadn’t screamed.
She held herself rigidly, almost like a small child too afraid to move, and she stared transfixed at the road. Gray's eyes swung to the road, but he saw nothing. Not a car. Not a dog or cat crossing the street. Not even an oil slick.
Great. Just great. Whatever had her spooked was most definitely in her mind.
With a snort of impatience, Gray quickly surmised that she was an out-of-towner on a very bad trip. He guessed LSD was her drug of choice, because people reckless enough to ingest that poison experienced vivid hallucinations. From the sound of her scream, she thought she was looking at something horrendous.
Gray glanced at the service station office which doubled as a small convenience store and saw that the door was closed. Through the window he spotted Sam Peckenbush, the proprietor, talking on the phone with his back to the street.
Sam's had been the low bid on a contract to provide fuel for police-department vehicles. Even if Gray hadn’t suspected the woman was in possession of an illegal substance, he would have felt obligated to make sure she didn't scare away customers.
Resigned to no longer having time to go home and change his clothes before heading into town for his weekly poker game, Gray walked toward the woman. He was the town's police chief, and he'd long ago gotten used to being on duty even when he was off.
He wouldn’t be able to arrest her unless the drugs were in plain view, so Gray figured he’d have to settle for helping the woman help herself. He mentally ticked off the places — Secret Sound’s drug treatment referral center, the hospital that treated addicts, the psychiatric ward — that might be able to help.
A slight chance existed that her behavior stemmed from something other than drugs, but Gray seriously doubted it. He'd taken some college psychology courses before settling on the law, and whatever was wrong with the woman had nothing to do with reality. If she weren’t on a bad trip, chances are that she was stark, raving nuts.
When he was close enough, he reached out and touched her, hoping to jolt her back to reality.
The sensation of something warm and firm gripping Cara's arm was enough to stop her scream. She glanced down at the object on her arm, vaguely concluding that it was a man's hand, before she yanked her gaze back to the crumpled boy laying in the street.
Except he wasn't there.
Cara blinked once, then twice, but she couldn't deny the stark reality of the scene in front of her. The road was deserted except for an empty fast-food container that tumbled with the wind. There was no car. No tire rubber burned into the road. No stricken child.
But that's impossible
, her mind screamed, even as her eyes scanned the road. A moment ago, a small child had run to his doom. And now he was gone as if he had never been.
Except that she had seen him, heard him, felt for him.
A rich, distinctive voice disrupted her thoughts, and Cara remembered the hand on her arm. She tore her gaze from the lonely street, and tried to focus on the man. His khaki shirt was the same color as the one the little doomed boy had worn. She swallowed another scream.
"Is something wrong?"
Of course, she wanted to yell. A helpless child had been run over by a car!
Cara shook her head mutely. How could she explain what she had seen to a stranger who had every right to be suspicious of her? Especially when what she had seen was no longer there.
She tilted her head back to look up at him, and blinked hard when she encountered blue eyes she had seen before. Not the blue of a Caribbean sea or a child’s building block, but the dark, dangerous shade of the summer sky right before a storm.
But his eyes soothed instead of frightened because something in their depths told her he could offer shelter from the very storm he portended.
From somewhere she gathered the strength to fight off the anxiety attack that had gripped her. She drew in a long, slow breath and took her time releasing it.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" To her dismay, her voice trembled from the aftereffects of shock.
A corner of his mouth lifted in wry humor, and she found herself staring at it, wondering why she yearned to reach out with her fingertips to trace his lips and the line of his strong, square jaw.
"Believe me, lady, you make quite a first impression." His low-timbered voice was as commanding as his presence. She raised her eyes from the level of his mouth, and guessed that he was at least six feet two. He had a strong face, with a nose that might once have been broken, a broad forehead and well-shaped dark eyebrows that matched hair that was short in front but brushed his neck with soft, unkempt curls. Her eyes dipped below his chin, registered an impression of solid sinew and muscle, and she thought inanely that nothing short of a bulldozer could knock him over. "If we had met before, I’d remember."
Disappointment coursed through Cara. His eyes were drawn together so that an indentation appeared between his brows, his mouth was a pencil-straight line, and he was looking at her as though he'd never seen her before in his life.
She didn’t know why that should matter. If this man had approached her in a social setting, she would have made excuses to get away from him. He was too big, too imposing, too much the opposite of the type of man she felt comfortable with.
But she wanted him to look out of those familiar stormy blue-gray eyes and say that he’d felt the same crazy spark of recognition that she had.
Somewhere nearby a dog barked. Cara looked away from the man long enough to see a thick-necked pit bull the color of midnight straining against a fence that enclosed an automobile graveyard. Briefly she wondered if the dog were barking at them or the horror she had seen on the street.
"If you tell me what's wrong, I can help you," the man said, and Cara felt even more miserable and lost than she had a moment ago, because this man was unquestionably a stranger.
She turned away from the pit bull and back toward the man, belatedly realizing that his khaki shirt was part of a uniform that included brown slacks, a gun belt and a gold badge inscribed with the word "Chief." She closed her eyes briefly and cursed her bad luck.
"Nothing's wrong," Cara mumbled. She couldn't accept his offer, because doing so would mean telling him that she had seen something in the street that was no longer there. Could he arrest her for that? Especially if it hadn't been there in the first place?
"Then why were you screaming?"
The question was harsh and perfectly logical. Cara would have asked the same one had their positions been reversed. It dawned on her that he still held her arm, and she was drawn to his warmth. Then he removed it, and chilling reality hit Cara. The man seemed to be questioning not her, but her sanity. The upshot was that she didn't have a sane answer.
"I thought..." she began, and faltered when she saw the doubt that already cloaked the eyes that had seemed so familiar. It already mattered what he thought of her, and that couldn't be anything flattering. "I thought I saw something."
The man's eyebrows rose. He didn't look like any police chief she had ever seen. He was too young, for starters, probably no more than his mid-thirties. And, even though she wasn’t drawn to the overly masculine type, much too attractive. Even now, moments after the strangest, most traumatic moment of her life, Cara recognized his appeal even though she couldn't figure out why she recognized him.
"How could you have seen anything when there’s nobody here but me?"
Cara looked around almost frantically, taking in their surroundings. He was right. There wasn't anybody here but him. How could Cara, who prided herself on being sensible, argue with that indisputable fact? She cast about wildly for the first plausible explanation she could think of for her screams.
"A bat." She fought the unfamiliar cloud of confusion threatening to engulf her. "I saw a bat."
"A bat?" He screwed up his forehead so that a network of lines formed on his brow. He deliberately surveyed the sky around her, which was as free of bats as the street was of life. Or death. "I don’t see a bat."
"There was one here a minute ago. A great big one," Cara snapped, upset because he wasn’t even trying to use diplomacy. He didn’t believe her, and he didn’t care if she knew it.
"And I suppose you’re going to tell me that you always scream like that when you see a bat?"
He’d cocked a hand on his hip and made his eyes go wide. Normally, such blatant skepticism would have made her back down and admit everything, but the mocking light in his hypnotic eyes irked her.
"I don’t owe you any explanations." Cara opened the door of her little green Mazda and scrambled inside, intending to get away both from the vivid apparition that had appeared in the street and the incredulity on the man's face. "Thanks for your concern, but I need to be on my way."
She tried to close the car door, but the man placed a restraining hand on it. Instead of fear, hope leapt inside her. She leaned her upper body halfway outside the car and looked up at him expectantly. She wanted him to tell her that she hadn't been imagining things, that he too had seen the boy in the street, that he glimpsed the same familiarity in her eyes that she detected in his.
"You saw something, too, didn't you?" she asked, her voice slightly breathless.
"All I see," the man said, indicating the hood of her vehicle with a sweep of his hand, "is white steam seeping out of the hood of your car."
Instantly reminded of why she had pulled into the service station, Cara sprang out of the overheated car. Confusion and embarrassment mingled to make her cheeks as hot as the car engine. She couldn't drive off with steam pouring from her car, no matter how much she wanted to.
"It probably only needs a little water in the radiator."
"Lady, you sure do have a vivid imagination," he said dryly. "There's something more seriously wrong with your car than the water level in your radiator."
Irritation bubbled in Cara, because this wasn't supposed to happen. Her car wasn’t new, but she never missed a factory-authorized tune-up and had gotten it checked thoroughly before embarking on this trip. But she knew instinctively that the Secret Sound police chief wasn’t a man who made many mistakes.
"Whatever it is, with any luck it won't take too long to fix," Cara said.
He shrugged, and his eyes seemed to inspect her for defects. After the way she had acted, he couldn't know she was a sensible woman, able to deal with whatever problems confronted her. Except maybe the appearance of a boy who wasn't there, a little voice inside her head whispered.
"You okay?" the man asked, possibly because she was
standing rigidly beside her car. Her next step should be to seek help from the mechanic on duty, but she couldn't seem to move. She thought that concern, real and somehow urgent, had stamped out the wariness in his eyes. She had a wild urge to confide the strange things that had happened since she'd left the interstate.
"Are you okay?" he repeated.
She nodded even though she had never been less okay in her life. She hadn't even been this out of control a month ago when her much-loved parents had died within days of each other. They had been elderly and ailing, and the doctor had told her to prepare for their deaths. But how do you prepare to go out of your mind? And how do you tell a stranger who probably had the power to commit you to an asylum that it's happening?
"Listen," the man said and paused, and something she recognized burned in the depths of his eyes. "Is there someone I can call for you?"
"There’s no one." Cara’s voice caught at the realization that she didn’t have anybody in whom she could confide about the strange visions. Except, perhaps, the man standing in front of her. She bit her lip before she could say so, because that was lunacy.
"You've got to be joking?"
Frustration bubbled in Cara's voice when Sam Peckenbush returned to his office after a brief inspection of her car, but the service-station owner didn’t react. He had a thick, muscular build padded with too much fat, and Cara figured him to be in his mid-forties. His beefy cheeks made his small eyes appear like little more than slits, but he didn't look away from her when he spoke.
"I don't joke about business, lady." He slowly drew out each word. "Your water pump's shot, and if you try to drive that car without a new one, it's gonna burn up on you."
"So can you replace it?"
An atypical edge marred Cara’s voice. After everything else that had happened, how could a car she kept in perfect working condition have failed her?
He gnawed on a toothpick dangling from the side of his mouth and settled deeper into his worn chair. "Sure I can replace it," he drawled, "but not this late in the day."
"I don’t understand."
"You don't shop American." The toothpick moved along with his lips. With his surly curbside manner, she wondered how he survived in a job dealing with the public.
"You'll have to be more specific, because I still don't know what you mean," Cara said, even while a part of her supposed she should be thankful to Sam Peckenbush. A gnawing irritation had begun to replace the panic and confusion that had clouded her brain in the muggy darkness.
He leveled her with a slit-eyed stare. She resisted the urge to look away, refusing to let him see that he had managed to intimidate her.
"I carry a fair number of parts for American cars, but you're driving a foreign job. Since car-part places 'round here close early and I’m fixin’ to close myself, I won't be able to pick up a part for it until tomorrow morning. It'll be sometime tomorrow afternoon before it's fixed."
"Do you mean I'm stuck here?"
An inexplicable dread gripped Cara. Even if she hadn’t been looking forward to spending two weeks in Miami Beach on her first vacation in five years, she wouldn't choose to stay here a minute more than necessary.
The gas-station proprietor laughed, although Cara didn't see anything humorous about the situation. "I reckon you are."
Cara’s heartbeat accelerated, and she frantically searched for something, anything, to make the prospect of staying in Secret Sound more appealing. A mental image of the cop with the stormy eyes formed, but she was hardly likely to see him again. She wasn't sure why that added to her aches.
She swallowed, telling herself the car trouble would only delay her for one night. She could stand anything for one night. By tomorrow at this time, she’d nod with good humor while her less-responsible friends teased her about falling victim to car trouble.
"Can you recommend a good hotel?" Cara asked, even though he didn't seem like an authority on fine lodging. Judging from the dirt on the convenience-store floor and the grease stains on its owner’s clothes, he didn't place a high premium on cleanliness.
Still, she paid dutiful attention as he directed her to a hotel less than a mile away. Her next request was for a taxi. In answer, he picked up a telephone book and dumped it unceremoniously on the counter separating them.
The vision of the little broken boy flashed before her eyes, and she blinked it away, determined not to crumble in the face of adversity. She only wished she had more practice at it.
She was an only child, a late-in-life baby whose adoring parents made her life safe and comfortable. Her biggest disappointment had been her parents' refusal to let her leave home to go to college to study journalism. Even then, a secret part of her had been glad she could stay in her safe little cocoon. She’d gotten a two-year business degree at a commuter college, and eventually landed an undemanding job in the circulation department of a local magazine.
The demands of her life, in fact, had been virtually non-existent until both of her parents had fallen ill five years before. They'd needed around-the-clock care, but Cara had refused to put the people who had given her so much into a nursing home. She'd spent nights and weekends caring for them after the day nurse had gone home and developed a reputation for being competent, practical and level-headed.
So why, as she dialed the taxi company, did she keep seeing the car slam into the ill-fated child who hadn't been there?
Cara pressed her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes. Darn it! She had seen the child with eyes that had been checked barely a month before. She wasn't the sort of person who imagined things that didn't exist. Hadn't she been accused of being too much of a realist, because she considered the world in stark terms? She would never look at a cloud and imagine a snow-white leopard or sky-high palm tree. To Cara, clouds were clouds.
The phone made a sharp click when Cara replaced it on its cradle, and an idea jangled in her brain. If she had seen the child, maybe Peckenbush had seen him too. She swallowed, reluctant to expose herself to any more of his open rudeness but even more reluctant to walk away before she had answers.
She cleared her throat, feeling as though two frogs leaped out when she did so, and reminded herself that Peckenbush had no reason to question her sanity. Unlike the nosy cop, he hadn't heard her scream at nothing.
"Mr. Peckenbush," she began, and her voice broke, "did you see a little boy around here about the time I pulled up?"
He screwed up his forehead as though she had asked if a colony of rats had overrun the town's most exclusive neighborhood. For a full thirty seconds, he stared at her through half-closed eyes. By the time he answered, she was trembling.
"A little boy?" Suspicion dripped from every syllable. "What kinda little boy?"
Cara tried to put conviction into her voice. "A dark-haired little boy around four or five years old."
The brief confusion that crossed his face did nothing to buoy her courage, because she didn't think he was searching his memory for a face. He was wondering why Cara had asked the question.
"No little kid’s been here. We're a mile from town, so I don't see many kids unless they're in cars. Why you askin'?"
Instead of immediately replying, Cara gazed out the smudged window at the barren street. A few cars sped by, but their drivers were surely as oblivious to what had happened there as Sam Peckenbush.
"The cars go by fast," Cara said. "I suppose it's a good thing there aren't many children around. One of them might get hit."
He snorted, a rough, unpleasant noise that made her start. "Are you askin' about the kid that was hit in front of the station?"
Sweet, soothing relief surged through Cara, but it lasted but a fraction of a minute. The inescapable fact was that, although she hadn't witnessed something that had never happened, she had quite possibly seen something that had already happened.
"When did it happen?" Cara forgot her reluctance at questioning him. "Yesterday? The day before that?"
"Yesterday?" His thick eyebrows shot up, and he shook his head slowly. "The little boy I'm talking about ran in front of a car out there in front of the gas pumps something like thirty years ago."
Gray thought the woman still looked shaky when she walked out of Sam Peckenbush’s office. Her face was a pale oval against the darkening sky, and her steps were hesitant. She brushed her burnished brown hair out of her face, and her lips seemed to tremble.
Gray straightened from where he had been leaning against his car, and knew the exact instant she spotted him. Her posture stiffened, her shoulders squared and her chin raised. She waited where she stood outside Sam’s office while he walked toward her. Again, he had to fight a powerful urge to sweep her into his arms and tell her everything would be all right.
Even if he were inclined to give into his urge, which he wasn’t, he could tell by the steel in her voice that she wouldn’t let him. "I thought I made it perfectly clear I wasn’t going to the hospital with you."
"You did." Gray examined her. He no longer thought she was on drugs. Despite her pallor, her skin didn’t have the sallowness associated with users. Her eyes were alert rather than dulled from too many bad trips. "Seeing that we practice southern hospitality around here, I thought I’d give you a ride to a hotel."
Her chin raised another notch. "There’s no need for that. I already called a taxi."
"I’ll cancel it then," Gray said, but caught a flash of yellow out of the corner of his eye and knew it was too late. She walked past him toward the cab and asked the driver if he’d get the luggage out of her trunk.
"That’s okay, Eddie." Gray called the wiry, middle-aged driver by name when he got out of the cab. "I’ll help her with the luggage."
"Sure thing, chief," the cabbie said, giving him the big-toothed grin that was his trademark. "Wouldn’t mind at all if you did my job for me."
Gray felt, rather than saw, the woman sigh before she headed off in the direction of her Mazda. He followed, his eyes automatically dipping to the gentle sway of her hips and the bare smoothness of her long, shapely legs. His mouth went so dry that he longed for one of the beers waiting for him at the weekly poker game.
She popped open the trunk of her car, and he was surprised at how much she had stuffed into it. A striped beach chair and matching umbrella, which looked brand new, lay among paisley-print luggage that also appeared new. She pointed to one of the bigger bags.
"That’s the only one I’ll need for now."
Gray heaved the suitcase out of the trunk while he wondered where the woman had been headed and why she had stopped at Sam’s instead of a station nearer the interstate? He frowned, remembering her reaction when he’d pointed out the swirling steam around her car.
She hadn’t even realized how serious her car trouble was until he called it to her attention.
"Well, um, thanks," she said as he settled her suitcase into the trunk of Eddie’s cab. Her eyes met his, and something inside them reached out to him and gave a hard tug. She looked lost and, somehow, alone.
He swallowed to stop himself from asking her, once again, what was wrong. He wanted to help her, but he couldn’t force her to accept that help, especially when she wouldn’t even accept a ride to a hotel.
"It’s my pleasure, ma’am. I’m only sorry I wasn’t around sooner to protect you from that bat."
She gave him one last backward glance before getting into the cab. Gray sighed as the cab pulled away from the station, regretting his smart-aleck remark.
He had the absurd feeling he had failed her and had to stop himself from getting into his car and following. The smart thing would be to head in the opposite direction.
He didn’t know why he felt such a strong connection to a woman he’d never seen before in his life, but he couldn’t afford to get involved with her.
The point was moot anyway, he thought as he lowered himself into his car. She was a tourist, passing through town, and he wasn’t likely to see her again. He wasn’t about to analyze why that reality stung.
Cara got out of the taxi in front of the hotel Sam Peckenbush had recommended and paid the driver while she calculated how many hours she had until she could leave Secret Sound.
Her hands had finally stopped shaking and absolutely nothing had looked familiar since she’d left the service station, but the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach was as strong as ever. She had never been intuitive, but now she felt that something was about to happen.
She shuddered and hugged herself. She should have thought more carefully before setting out for Miami Beach. She probably would have if she hadn’t been so eager to get away from the grief that had seized her since her parents’ deaths.
She wasn’t the kind of person who should take a trip alone. For as long as she could remember, she’d gravitated toward people and things that were safe and predictable. Now she found herself in a town that was neither.
She took a deep breath, picked up her suitcase and surveyed the hotel in front of her. It had the gleam of a new building, with twin stories of rooms and whitewashed walls. She calculated that it couldn't be more than a few years old.
Pulling herself together, Cara walked toward the hotel and found herself wishing that she’d called off the taxi and accepted the ride from the stranger. Stranger. She supposed that was what he was, but he seemed so familiar. The difference was that looking into his eyes elicited warm comfort instead of the icy terror the other things in Secret Sound evoked.
She gave a short bark of laughter at the words she had associated with the big, tough-looking cop. Warm and comforting. Those adjectives didn’t accurately describe the most aggressively male specimen she’d ever seen.
Her laugh died, and she wrinkled her nose. If she were honest with herself, which she usually was, she’d admit that hot and sexually charged better described her reaction to the man.
An immediate sense of disloyalty swept through her. She thought of Richard Lansford waiting patiently at home in Sumter for her answer to his marriage proposal, as he’d been waiting since he issued it a year ago.
Richard was kind and sweet and malleable, the sort of man who’d never dispute her contention that she was screaming because a bat scared her.
A rush of cold air greeted her when she walked through the double doors leading to the hotel lobby. Cara stepped inside, hugged herself to ward off the chill and froze. The interior of the hotel, exuding old-world charm with its mahogany tables and Queen Anne furniture, was completely at odds with its impersonal exterior.
Cream-colored walls set off old-style furniture positioned on an Oriental rug with an intricate design. The registration desk, beautifully enhanced with wood inlays, matched the furniture. A vague tinkling filled the room, and Cara raised her eyes to the source. An elaborate crystal chandelier, the kind made in bygone eras, hung above the sitting area.
Cara stood gazing at the chandelier, knowing it wasn't the first time she had seen it, knowing this wasn't the first time she had stood in this lobby. An inexplicable dread, cooler than the air-conditioned air, swept over her.
"May I help you with something, dear?"
For the first time since entering the room, Cara noticed the hotel clerk behind the desk. She was middle-aged and bespectacled. Her head, covered with dark hair that was turning gray, was cocked to one side. Cara willed herself to put one foot in front of the other until she reached the desk.
"May I help you?" the woman repeated.
"Is there another hotel around here?" Cara cleared her hoarse throat, knowing she was behaving strangely.
The clerk's eyes narrowed behind her glasses, but her voice was polite. "I'm afraid we're the only game in town. There are a few hotels along the beach, but they're five or six miles from here." Cara didn't speak, so the clerk continued after a short pause. "I can assure you there's no finer place than the Hotel Edison. All the rooms are freshly painted and everything is sparkling new, from the furniture to the carpeting."
"I'm sure this is a very nice place," Cara said, realizing that she had seemed rude. With a determined effort, she pushed aside her dread. The cab driver had already left, and she was tired. Besides, the clerk said the hotel was new, so it couldn’t be familiar. She was overwrought, and her imagination had gone haywire. That's all. "Do you have a vacancy?"
"We certainly do." The woman's thin face crinkled into a genuine smile as she punched a few keys on the computer sitting atop the registration desk. "For how many nights?"
"That's too bad. Secret Sound is quite a nice place, if you don't like commotion. We're off the beaten path, which the town name tells you. The beaches are beautiful, and we're only about an hour from Palm Beach. Of course, the weather's grand even if it is early November."
Cara didn't reply, and the clerk pushed a registration card across the desk. After Cara filled it out, the woman bustled about the task of checking her into the hotel. Cara tried to stop her eyes, but once again they lifted to the chandelier.
At least one hundred separate crystals hung suspended from the main body of the chandelier. They moved slightly, kissing each other in mid-air and producing a sound reminiscent of the clink of champagne glasses. For a crazy second, Cara wondered if the ghost of the little boy were blowing on them. Then she heard the soft whir of an air-conditioning vent, saw that it was causing the crystals to dance, and felt silly.
"It's like having wind chimes."
Cara quickly brought her eyes back to the clerk. She was thin and so tall that Cara, who was of average height, had to look up at her. "Pardon me?"
"The chandelier. When its pieces tinkle like that, it sounds like wind chimes."
"I noticed." Making a concerted effort to calm her nerves, Cara tried for small talk. "It's hard to believe a piece like that is only a few years old."
The hotel clerk's eyebrows rose above her glasses. "A few years old? Oh, no, siree. That chandelier is older than I am."
"But you said the hotel was new," Cara said. In response, the hotel clerk put both hands on the registration desk and leaned forward. She looked as though she were about to confide a particularly juicy morsel of information.