Rain spattered against the windshield in immense, dripping blobs. Equally large drops danced into her headlights as Kendra Jennings squinted, straining to see if there were hazards on the road ahead.
"I must have been out of my mind," she muttered under her breath.
She'd been driving since midmorning, when she'd left Burlington, Vermont. Everything she cared about was in the five-year-old Intrepid with her, moving at a cautious thirty miles per hour along a desolate rural road in western Maine.
Even rotating her stiff shoulders failed to ease the building tension. She didn't dare release the steering wheel to rub her neck. Neither could she risk brushing back the one limp strand of cinnamon-colored hair that had worked its way down her high forehead. She tried blowing at it, but it settled back in the same spot, just at the edge of her peripheral vision.
Kendra fought the sensation that she was in a tunnel, the rain slanting toward her, yet sucking her in. It drummed loudly on the roof of the car and drowned out the mournful lament of a country singer. Kendra had chosen the radio station by default. It was the only one that seemed to come in here in the mountains.
Her hands began to ache next. When she'd stopped for supper, her palms had already been red from gripping the hard wheel too tightly. She'd hoped a break would relax her. Instead, she'd felt worse since leaving the small, homey diner. The beginning of a headache throbbed behind her temples.
Would it be better to continue, or find a place to turn around? She could head back to the nearest village. That quaint little white clapboard bed-and-breakfast place she'd spotted on her way through was starting to look better and better. The problem was finding a place to turn.
Kendra tried to concentrate on her driving, to fight the unexpected light-headedness stealing over her. It dulled the aches in her tired muscles, but it was numbing her reflexes as well. She couldn't let herself fall asleep at the wheel. If there wasn't a spot big enough to turn around in, she'd have to press on. She just hoped the house wouldn't turn out to be totally unsuitable. She didn't really want to face the long drive back to town, not even for clean sheets and a soft bed.
Surely Cousin Olive's place couldn't be much farther. Kendra felt as if she'd been driving forever, and had lost all sense of distance. The winding, roller-coaster roads and the need to drive slowly in the rain were confusing her, and with each passing minute she felt sleepier. She couldn't account for the sudden lassitude. Hadn't she forced down two cups of bitter coffee with her meal just so she would stay alert?
"Remind me of this trip the next time I decide to do something impulsive," she told the radio announcer.
A wry smile played across Kendra's lips. She appreciated the irony of her situation and was glad she could still laugh at herself. A sense of humor might keep her going when she finally saw her new home.
Anything might be waiting at the end of this journey. All Kendra knew was that she'd inherited a house in rural Maine and the five acres surrounding it from a previously unknown cousin, Olive Andrews. When the lawyers had first contacted her, in early January, she'd been convinced they had the wrong person.
Now it was the first Monday in May, and she was driving through an early evening downpour toward that inheritance. She planned to live there for at least six months no matter what shape the house was in. A week ago she wouldn't have believed it, but a week ago she hadn't dared dream there was life beyond her stagnant, unrewarding job as a junior-high school teacher.
This is going to work out, she told herself firmly, wishing she could recapture the excitement she'd experienced earlier in the day. That morning at the bank she'd felt more like nineteen than twenty-nine. She'd been off to a brave new life, shedding the old and dull like so much dead skin.
Quiet elation crept back, filling her with contentment. Yes, she'd been impulsive, but not foolish. Hugging her delicious secret to herself, she drove on. Not even her mother knew what had prompted her, less than twenty-four hours ago, to telephone Henry Damon and resign.
Forgetting Henry was one of her new goals. Their relationship had been over for months, and now the job was part of the past as well. The only thing she couldn't understand was why it had taken her so long to realize neither was right for her. She'd taught for more than eight years. For two of them, she and the principal of her small, private Vermont prep school had been lovers. They'd talked of marriage. Then, almost too late, Kendra had discovered that under Henry's handsome, intelligent, cultured exterior was an insensitive, self-centered, small-minded bigot.
Yawning, Kendra peered through the rain, looking for the last crossroads before her turn. The waitress at the diner had given her clear, concise directions, and a comment: "You wouldn't catch me living all alone out there." At the time, Kendra had laughed and said she was looking forward to the solitude. Now she wondered. Just how isolated was Cousin Olive's place? Kendra hadn't seen a house for at least two miles.
Ahead and to the right she saw the headlights of another car. Surely that was the intersection she'd been told to watch for. The turn she wanted would be a mile farther on. Yawning once more, Kendra automatically took her foot off the gas to slow the car and checked to make sure her seat belt was securely fastened. The rain continued to fall in torrents and the road felt slick under her tires.
Through damp, gray fields and dark, skeletal trees, Kendra's headlights picked out the other car. The vague shape seemed to lurk there, difficult to see clearly, waiting at the crossroads for her to pass.
Rule one of defensive driving: Never trust the other guy. Even as the thought flitted through her mind, the other vehicle lurched forward into the road. Kendra's booted foot hit the brake pedal but nothing happened. It was too wet. The car skidded, heading directly for a large maple tree and did not respond to her frantic efforts to steer away.
Kendra didn't have time to cry out. As tree limbs crashed against the windshield, the sound of scraping metal and wood echoed around her. She felt the car slam into the tree, then shudder and spin away. The dust and stink of the deploying air bag filled the air.
After what seemed an eternity, the car came to a sudden stop when the back end collided with a second solid object. Kendra's upper body bounced forward, only to be jerked back with bruising force by the seat belt. The air bag already lay puddled in her lap. It had inflated and deflated again so fast that she hadn't registered the impact of it against her body.
Shaking uncontrollably, she attempted to take stock of her situation. The car was, miraculously, still right-side up. It was pointing back the way she had come. She just sat there, trying to absorb what had happened, while the engine coughed and died. The radio issued only crackles and hisses, but the windshield wipers were still working, scraping with eerie precision over a long crack in the glass. With one trembling hand, Kendra reached out to turn them off.
It seemed to her that she was moving in slow motion. Concussion? She didn't remember being struck by anything, not even the air bag, but with each passing second she felt more and more light-headed and confused. She didn't have the strength to get out of the car.
Through the rain, she had a misty view of the other vehicle. Had she hit it? She didn't think so, but the only light came from its headlights and it was turned sideways in the middle of the road.
A door opened and the dome light illuminated its passengers. Teenaged boys, her numbed mind told her. Kendra had to fight back hysterical laughter. It was a bad dream. Her former students were coming after her.
She closed her eyes. Just for a moment, she promised herself, but she couldn't seem to make them open again.
When Kendra came to, she was lying on a hard, narrow bed. She was cold. Her clothes had been removed and replaced by a short cotton gown and a lightweight blanket.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and surveyed the room. Hospital, she thought, and wondered why that disappointed her. Daylight streamed in through a window curtained with tiers of dotted Swiss. Otherwise the bed, table, chair, and doors were exactly what she'd have expected to find in any medical facility.
Kendra's mind was still fuzzy, as if she'd slept too long, but her memories quickly began to return. In fits and starts, the way she'd recalled the one college fraternity party at which she'd had too much to drink, the accident came back to her. Bits were very clear. Other parts were impossibly blurry. Almost all the images puzzled her. She couldn't shake the feeling that something very peculiar had happened to her.
"Good, you're awake."
Startled, Kendra sat up too quickly and had to grip the sides of the bed until her head stopped spinning. The woman in hospital whites watched her from the doorway. She made no attempt to offer aid or comfort.
When she judged Kendra's dizziness had passed, she moved with silent authority into the small room. She was in her fifties, Kendra guessed, and in her youth had been beautiful.
"Where am I?" Kendra asked.
"You're in my clinic in Quaiapen, Maine. I'm Dr. Colleen Gray."
She checked Kendra's pulse and listened to her heart. After a pause during which she examined Kendra's pupils, she added "You're in good shape, considering."
"I hate to ask, but how long have I been here?"
"Overnight. It's Tuesday morning, Ms. Jennings."
"How do you know my name?"
"You had identification in your purse." Dr. Gray seemed surprised by the question.
Kendra touched her forehead with her fingertips and frowned. Of course they would look for some sort of I.D.
"Are you still dizzy?"
Experimentally, Kendra rotated her head. "No. My neck is a little stiff, but it was before the crash. I'd been driving all day. I just feel ... odd. Sort of ... hung over." The laugh that accompanied her words faded into a sputter of indignation as she saw the doctor's face turn to stone. "That's how I feel, not what I am!"
The protest was useless. Dr. Gray's opinion was clear in a voice gone taut with ill-concealed disapproval. "Deputy Moreau's been waiting to talk to you. He has a few questions about your accident."
"So do I. Did I hit my head?"
"No. Your body received very little damage. You were apparently quite relaxed by the time your car hit that tree."
"Ms. Jennings." The doctor cut her off with a raised hand and the stern, lecturing tone Kendra herself used when assigning a week's detention to a rebellious thirteen-year-old. "Let me offer you a word of free advice. Go easy on the pills. They say God looks after fools and drunkards, but next time you may not be so lucky. Next time you might hit another car instead of a tree."
Before Kendra could defend herself the doctor had gone. Her quiet footsteps made no sound in the corridor. After a moment, Kendra heard the murmur of voices in the distance.
Struggling out of the bed, she made her way to the bathroom where she dashed cold water on her face. She'd never felt so disoriented.
Revived, but still wondering what on earth was going on, Kendra carefully examined her face in the mirror. Did her pupils seem smaller than usual? It was hard to tell. She had faint shadows under her eyes, but they had been there for weeks, the result of overwork and stress. Her hair was a tangled mess.
Kendra ignored the snarls and struggled out of her short hospital gown, wincing at the contortions required to undo the two bows that held it together in the back. Then she twisted in front of the small, high mirror until she was able to examine her body.
There was a huge bruise on her left breast where the seat belt had caught her. That and a bruised knee, which had likely struck the steering wheel, appeared to be the worst of the damage.
She was not vain about her looks, but she was relieved to find she was still in one piece. She liked her body the way it was. Her breasts were high and firm and her waist trim. If her backside and stomach were not quite as small as they had been when she was eighteen, they were still in very good shape for someone who was nearly thirty, and her legs were as slim, shapely, and supple as ever.
Satisfied, Kendra slipped back into the hospital gown. She'd just retied the second bow when a memory overwhelmed her. She stood perfectly still as the details came back to her.
She'd thought she was floating, then realized she was being carried. Her arms had been draped limply around the stranger's neck, her head cradled against his broad chest. Slowly, she'd opened her eyes, but her vision had been blurry. She'd tried to focus on what was nearest--a strong, clean-shaven jaw and a mouth. Lips, full and delightfully sensuous, had swum before her.
In the distance she'd heard the wail of a siren. She'd wanted to lift her eyes, to see what features were above those fascinating lips, but she hadn't had the strength. She had wondered if she was badly hurt and if she was going to die.
Kendra shook her head. That was all there was.
She came out of the bathroom in a rush, forgetting that she might not find the room empty. When she caught sight of the man, and the gleaming silver badge on his chest, she drew in a startled breath. Heat rushed into her face as she remembered the short, thin cotton gown she wore.
Waves of confusion returned. Kendra's mind registered details, but couldn't seem to assimilate them. He must be the deputy Dr. Gray had spoken of. She saw the dark brown, long-sleeved uniform shirt and its contrasting tan tie. Low on his hips rode a thick leather belt loaded down with the tools of his trade--a portable radio, a flashlight, a can of Mace, a nightstick, and a service revolver.
All that was normal, expected. What disconcerted her was her profound awareness of the muscular male body underneath the uniform.
The enigmatic look she surprised in his eyes was gone before she could identify it, replaced by an expression that was carefully blank. She stared at the hard, angular planes of his face, taking in molasses-brown eyes flecked with gold and hair the color of mahogany. His nose had been broken at least once, but it added to the appeal of a strong chin and broad forehead.
"I'm Deputy Alex Moreau." His voice was a gruff baritone rumble.
Kendra felt her pulse flutter as she continued to stare at him. The room had grown alarmingly smaller since he had come into it, and when he took a step closer she instinctively moved back.
"I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Of course," she murmured. She had a few for him, too, if only she could make her heart stop hammering.
It was absurd to be so flustered. She felt almost afraid of him, and there was no cause. He was simply doing his job. If he was any good at it, he already knew the accident had not been her fault.
"Dr. Gray says you've been released." His voice sounded impersonal, even cold. "You came out of the accident without a scratch, but your car is another story. I doubt you'll ever drive it again."
"I'll have to rent one. My purse ... was my money??"
"We checked your valuables when you were admitted. You were carrying a great deal of cash. Ever hear of traveler's checks? They aren't a bad idea."
Looking up, she caught him watching her with narrowed eyes. Why did he seem so suspicious? Trying to keep her voice light, she thanked him for his advice. She did not tell him she'd deliberately rejected traveler's checks because they could be traced. She'd chosen to avoid leaving a paper trail.
"Where were you headed?" The question was issued as he sank into the room's one chair and flipped open a spiral notebook. Taking a pen from his breast pocket, he waited, apparently relaxed, the upper half of his body inclined slightly forward.
Mindful of the gown gaping open behind her, Kendra sidled toward the bed and caught the edge of the light blanket. Wrapping it securely around her, she risked a perch on the end farthest from him, carefully smoothing the pale green blanket ends over her knees.
She couldn't understand why he made her so nervous. He was a powerfully built man, and his presence dominated the small room, but he hadn't touched her, or accused her of anything. Why did she feel so threatened? Kendra tried to attribute her uneasiness to frayed nerves, a natural aftereffect of the car crash, but didn't quite convince herself.
Remarkably, her voice sounded self-possessed. All those years of teaching came to her rescue. "I was on my way to a house I recently inherited from my cousin, Olive Andrews. I got directions from the waitress at the Quaiapen Diner."
Alex Moreau avoided looking at her as he fired rapid questions in her direction. In short order he'd learned she was single, unemployed, knew no one in Quaiapen and did not want to phone her mother in Florida. He continued to elicit information and scribble notes until Kendra mentioned the other car. Then the pen stopped, and his unsettling eyes lifted. So did one skeptical brow. "There was no other car at the scene."
"It came right at me," she insisted. "When I tried to stop I skidded. The road was too wet. Maybe the other driver panicked and drove away."
"Can you describe this car?"
"Big. Dark. Black, I think." She spread her hands in a gesture of futility, momentarily forgetting her state of undress. The blanket slipped, opening to show an inch-wide strip from shoulder to thigh. "I was too busy getting away from it to worry about the make and model."
"You're saying someone tried to ram you?"
She heard the disbelief in his voice and saw a flicker of regret in the brown eyes as they slid up her long, bare legs. They rested, briefly, on the swell of her bosom, stopped at her lips as she nervously dampened them with the tip of her tongue, then swung away as she jerked the blanket closed and hugged it more tightly around her.
"I know it sounds absurd, but that's the way it happened. I don't know. Maybe the car skidded in my direction accidentally, but it was stopped when I approached the crossroads. I am a very good driver. I don't run off the road for no reason at all."
"The only skid marks at the scene were made by your tires, and I think there was a reason, Ms. Jennings." He took a small, ornately decorated pillbox from his pocket, rubbing one blunt thumb over the raised filigree on its top before he placed it on the edge of the bed nearest him. This was found in your purse when we looked through it for some ID. You want to tell me how many of these you took?"
Puzzled, she reached for the box. It still felt warm from his hand, reminding her that for all his professional reserve, Alex Moreau had an aura of tightly leashed virility about him. Kendra fought back a shiver as she closed her fingers over the box.