Raven’s Peak, North Georgia
Nine months later
“I didn’t kill my wife.” Sheriff Miles Monahue leaned back in his desk chair in an effort to rein in his volatile emotions. “Like I told the police when I reported Caitlin missing three weeks ago, I have no idea where she is or what happened to her.”
FBI agent Reilly Brown’s accusing look spoke volumes. “Take off your sunglasses, Sheriff.” Brown folded his arms on Monahue’s desk and pierced him with a stare as icy as the North Georgia winter wind outside. “I like to look at a man’s eyes when I’m talking to him.”
Monahue whipped off his Ray-Bans, struggling to bank his temper as he met the agent’s gaze head-on. He’d always had dangerous impulses, but lately he’d barely been able to restrain himself from acting on them. He half attributed his springboard reactions to the stress of his wife’s disappearance.
But the emptiness had been in his soul a long damn time. And lately, he’d developed severe headaches and a sensitivity to light. The doctor said it was stress, that he needed to lighten up. Release his emotions in a healthy way.
Hell, the man didn’t know what he was talking about. Besides, without the shades, he felt exposed, raw. As if someone might see inside his soul and glimpse the darkness. The bitter boy he’d turned into after he’d witnessed his parents’ murder at age ten. The fact that he’d been a suspect in their deaths.
Or the soft spot he’d had for Caitlin. His hand automatically strummed over his pocket where he still carried the charm bracelet he’d bought for her the night he’d proposed–two tiny silver hearts melded together, just as he’d thought theirs had.
What a damn fool he was for believing such nonsense. “Do you have new evidence? A lead?” Miles asked. God knows he wanted some news. Some closure.
“I’m the interrogator here.” Agent Brown’s chair squeaked as he shifted his weight. “You’re the suspect. You answer the questions.”
Miles gritted his teeth. “Dammit, tell me. Have you found her body?”
Brown’s eyebrows rose. “Then she is dead?”
“You’re twisting my words.” Miles bit back a curse. He had no idea if Caitlin were dead or alive. After that last fight, she’d stormed out of their three-week marriage. A few short days after they’d been married, he’d realized his wife wasn’t the woman she presented before the I do’s. Or the passionate, love-struck woman she’d led him to believe.
She’d been mysterious. Had been hiding something. And when he’d questioned her about her past, her family, she’d clammed up.
For all he knew, she’d faked her death and would let him fry for murder. But where had she gone?
Brown didn’t want to hear his suppositions. He’d only think Monahue was making excuses. “You’re interrogating me again,” he finally replied, “so that makes me wonder if you’ve found something new.”
Brown twisted his mouth into a frown. “Nothing I can reveal.”
Miles stood abruptly, his chair hitting the floor. “Then get the hell out. I’m sick of your runaround. If you find her, call me. Or if she contacts me, I’ll let you know.”
Brown pushed up from the desk, his boots clacking on the wooden surface. He paused in the doorway, pinned him with a warning look. “Don’t go anywhere without informing me.”
Miles glared at the man’s back as he stalked out, then he slammed the desk so hard his stapler flew onto the floor with a clatter. Frustration clawed at him. Even though he and Caitlin had only been married three weeks, their wedding triggered by a drunken night of raw, passionate sex, he’d exhausted every imaginable lead hunting for her.
Of course, the police suspected him. He was the husband. And the last time he’d seen Caitlin, they had fought publicly. She’d shouted that she didn’t want to be married to him. That it had been a mistake.
He’d agreed. He knew nothing about love. Family. Commitment. But his pride had smarted and he’d spouted off in anger.
Where was she?
Off in Tahiti with a lover? Sipping margaritas and laughing at the mess she’d left behind? Or had she met with foul play?
Guilt assaulted him as the gruesome possibilities flitted into his mind. Caitlin, dead at the hands of a madman. Or maybe she’d been kidnapped and was being tortured and was still alive.
If so, every day that passed meant there was less chance of finding her.
He grabbed his keys and headed to his car. He had to get out of the office. Drive someplace and be alone.
Freezing rain and sleet pelted him as he jogged to his Pathfinder, cold air blasting him as he climbed inside and started the engine. He blew on his hands to warm them, hit the gas pedal and soared from the parking lot, gravel churning beneath his tires, sludge and mud spewing. Storm clouds darkened the sky, the sleet creating a steady staccato rhythm as it pinged off the hood and windshield. He flipped on the defroster, grateful for the noise that drowned out his turbulent thoughts as he drove through the small town of Raven’s Peak. He tried to focus on the road and his surroundings as he made his nightly rounds, but the nightmares hovered in his mind, tormenting him. After Caitlin had left, the evening blurred. He’d had a headache, then added liquor on top of it. He must have blacked out. Then the nightmares had started. Nightmares that went back to his childhood.
The rugged edges of the mountain peaks and towering hardwoods rose in front of him like ice statues standing guard to the secrets within their massive walls. The canyon below had once been green and lush, sprinkled with wild-flowers and honeysuckle, a haven for the sun as it fought over the jagged gorges. Now, it looked like a brown crater resting at the underbelly of the mountains, like a dark cavern below ground where shadows walked at night, a home for the demons who rested in their evil lairs.
He couldn’t shake the interrogation with Brown from his mind, or the sense that something sinister had happened to his wife. Hell, he did have his dark side, but he hadn’t killed Caitlin.
And not a second had gone by that he wasn’t plagued with worry about her. The first few days, he’d beaten the streets searching for her, for any clue as to where she might have been, had used all his resources and questioned everyone in Raven’s Peak, where he’d first met her at a local honky-tonk, the Steel Toe. But he’d found nothing but questions.
His hands tightened around the steering wheel. The defroster worked overtime to clear the fog from the storm outside, the gears grinding as the tires clutched at black ice. Day by day, he’d assured himself that Caitlin had probably just run off and left him. She was tough. Formidable. She’d obviously decided she’d married him on a whim, that commitment wasn’t her style, and ditched him before the ink on their marriage certificate could set permanently.
Still, he’d blamed himself. It was his fault she had left. He hadn’t known how to be a husband. She’d needed something he didn’t know how to give.
He’d almost convinced himself he believed that she was coming back, that at least she was alive. Almost…
But the fact that neither he nor the feds had actually turned up any leads on her whereabouts kept his doubts and fears alive.
Streetlights illuminated the town square. Most of the storeowners had long gone for the evening and the citizens were tucked safely in their homes within the city limits, the wooded hills and valleys of the mountains. A safe, small Southern town.
Until he’d brought Caitlin here and she’d disappeared. Now, he wondered if there might be a murderer among them.
Squinting through the sleet, Monahue searched the shadows of the town park for vagrants or unwanteds, then drove past the high school to check for trouble-seeking teenagers, but the street and parking lot were quiet.
The storm grew in intensity as he headed up the mountainside to the house he’d rented, the wind bowing branches on the bare trees that comprised the sloping foothills. Winter had set in to stay, and the holidays were just around the corner, a time for friends and family.
He had neither. In fact, Raven’s Peak looked as desolate and empty as Miles felt inside.
He’d find out the truth about everything. If Caitlin had been hurt or killed because of him, he’d get revenge on the person responsible.And if she were alive, well, he’d at least exonerate himself, keep his job and move on with his life.
Either way, he’d never get seriously involved with another woman again.
Nighthawk Island Savannah, Georgia
SHADOWS FLICKERED around the sterile hospital room, the scent of antiseptic and alcohol nauseating. Rain pounded the roof, the monotonous drone echoing the beat of her heart. Despair threatened to steal her energy, so she forced herself to channel her courage into the will to survive. But she was so confused, she didn’t remember her own name. Did she have family somewhere looking for her? A boyfriend, husband?
The two names bled together in her mind as if they were one and the same person. Maybe they were. Sometimes the doctor called her Nora. Other times, the nurse had whispered “Good night, Caitlin,” to her in the darkness.
“Here you go, sugar, this should help you sleep.” Donna, a robust nurse who usually worked nights, handed her a small paper cup holding a pill, then poured her a glass of water from the plastic hospital pitcher.
She cradled the capsule beneath her tongue, took a sip of water and pretended to swallow it. The bitter taste assaulted her senses, her struggle not to let it dissolve warring with the craving for something to sweep her away from the nightmare she’d been living the past few days. Or had it been weeks?
She’d lost all sense of time.
Donna patted her hand in approval, then ambled her bulk to the window and adjusted the shades, drowning out the dwindling light that had tried to cut its way through the fog. “Let me know if you need anything else, dear.”
She nodded, a show of obedience earning her another sympathetic smile. Then the nurse bustled by, humming Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” beneath her breath as she exited.
She spit the pill into her hand, her socked feet slipping on the cold linoleum as she ran to the potted plant by the window. Hands trembling, she dug a hole in the potting soil and stuffed the capsule below the surface, then packed the dirt tightly over it. The screech of the lock turning on the door, shutting her in, brought a fresh wave of panic.
She didn’t belong here.
Not in this mental ward or research hospital, whatever it was. Worse, she couldn’t remember how she’d ended up hospitalized. But she’d heard the nurses talking, whispering about the Coastal Island Research Park on Catcall Island, and the more restricted facility on Nighthawk Island. The place was dark, had secrets. The doctors were conducting strange experiments, ones nobody wanted to talk about.
So why was she locked inside?
She wasn’t crazy. She hadn’t willingly committed herself for experiments or treatment. She hadn’t experienced delusions or heard voices until they’d pumped her full of narcotics. Then the voices had started, the strange terrifying dreams, the cries in the night from down the hall.
Cries from other patients…her own…
She had to escape. Get help.
She had a sister somewhere. She felt it, a connection of some kind. But where was she? And why hadn’t she come looking for her?