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Safe Harbor: Chapter 13

JONAS came awake, fully alert. It had taken hours for him to drift off, too aware of Hannah beside him. Her sleep was fitful, her body moving constantly and her arms flailing as if defending herself. She cried once, breaking his heart. He lay in the darkness, stroking her hair and murmuring softly to her until she calmed. Now, he lay in the dark with the butt of his gun snug in his palm, his finger on the trigger, listening to her soft moans of distress, his stomach in knots.

Hannah, sweetheart, it’s just a bad dream, he assured her, but he pulled his arm from around her warm, soft body and sat up with deliberate slowness, careful not to make a sound. His instincts were kicking in hard and maybe it wasn’t a dream after all.

He put his hand over her mouth and leaned close to her. Stay quiet. Tell me what you feel.

Hannah’s eye, so blue in the daytime, appeared dark and fathomless at night. She frowned beneath his palm and then he felt her reaching, her mind expanding, searching… A gasp escaped. They’re here. We have to get downstairs now. There was urgency in her voice, in her mind, in the way she sat up and gripped his arm.

The doors to the balcony snapped closed without a sound, curtains flying at the rash.

Jonas scowled, annoyance rushing across his face. ‘That wasn’t necessary, Hannah. You could have accidentally made noise and alerted them that we’re aware of their presence.

Besides, I’m going out anyway to see who’s coming at us. You go downstairs and call 911.’

Hannah shook her head. ‘It wasn’t me, Jonas, the house has gone into protection mode.

We have to get downstairs right now.’ She was trembling.

Jonas helped her out of bed. They were both still wearing clothes, so he simply wrapped her sweater around her and ushered her toward the door. ‘I’ll take you down with your sisters, baby, but I have to get outside.’

Hannah slipped her hand into his. ‘No, you don’t understand. You can’t go outside.’

Jonas let her pull him out of the room and head down the hall in the dark. Below, in the living room as they came down the winding staircase, he could see candles flickering in a wide circle around the intricate mosaic on the floor in the entryway. A second circle enclosed the first, a wide pathway containing small dark smudges every so many inches.

Sarah reached out and hugged Hannah, drawing her into the center of the circle. Hannah kept possession of his hand, tugging until he stepped inside. The moment he did, Joley and Elle closed the circle behind them.

‘Sit, Jonas,’ Sarah said, pointing to a spot at the top of the mosaic.

‘Sweetheart, I have to go outside where I’m going to be the most help.’ He looked around the circle at the faces of the Drake sisters. In the candlelight, their beauty struck him, all different, all exotic. He could well believe they were ancient souls from a time long past with their hair down and their cool assessing eyes. Mostly what struck him was their lack of fear. Like Hannah, they were trembling, but it wasn’t because they were afraid of the men creeping toward their home through the trees and shrubbery.

‘The house will protect us now, Jonas,’ Sarah said. ‘You’ll have to stay inside.’

He hated it when their beliefs and rituals clashed with his territory. ‘The house didn’t protect you last year when the men after your fiancé broke in here and nearly killed you,’

he pointed out. ‘I’m not taking any chances. Call the sheriff and get me some backup.’

Hannah clung to him, refusing to let him go. ‘That was different, Jonas, we’d opened the house up to those men. We had the gates unlocked and the doors were welcoming. We put the house in protection mode when I came home from the hospital. Please sit down with us. You can’t go outside.’

Sarah shook her head. ‘In any case, the phone isn’t working. We’re on our own.’

‘More reason than ever for me to be outside where I can protect you.’

Joley caught his other arm and Libby reached out, shaking her head. Kate and Abbey moved in behind him. Then Elle put her hand on him and he felt it—the shuddering of the grounds and the sudden shifting in the house as if it was awakening. His stomach lurched in protest and his heart accelerated as adrenaline flooded his body.

‘What if Jackson comes? He always knows when you’re in danger, Elle.’ He was suddenly very much afraid he didn’t know what kind of power he was dealing with.

‘The house will judge their intent toward us, not toward anyone else,’ Sarah assured him,

‘and act accordingly.’

‘The house would never harm Jackson,’ Elle answered calmly.

He looked around at the somber faces and sighed. He couldn’t imagine a house protecting them, but he could protect them—all of them—even from inside if he had to. ‘Tell me you have a gun, Sarah.’

‘I have one as well,’ Joley said. ‘And yes, a permit to carry it, so don’t ask.’

Sarah seated herself in front of the mosaic and the sisters positioned themselves around the artfully crafted tiles. Jonas took his place between Hannah and Elle. Power swelled the moment the circle was complete and the floor continued to shift and move as if alive.

The sisters locked hands and began to sway, chanting softly, the words more felt than heard, echoing through his mind. The sound was melodic and sweet, rising above the silence of the night in a whisper of dramatic notes until he thought he could see them gleaming in the darkness.

On the floor in front of him, the mosaic began to swirl with vapor, smoke rose, or rather fog, as if a breeze had come to clear out the gray mist and leave the mosaic tiles comprehensible to those looking. To his astonishment, he could see the grounds surrounding the house, as if the tiles were a camera screen, broken into pieces, but providing a picture of the outside world. He could see the fog hanging thick above and around the house, protecting it from prying eyes, but the grounds appeared crystal clear in the mosaic tiles.

Something moved stealthily through the shrubbery, working to gain access to the house itself. Shadows moved and the figures of several men crept forward. They were dressed in black and gray, blending into the night, their facial features distorted as if they wore masks beneath the hoods. Gloves and boots with tucked-in pants, along with the way they moved and carried their weapons, that told Jonas they were under attack by professionals.

His heart jumped and he tried to let loose of Elle’s hand so he could reach for his gun again, but she held on to him tightly. He was sitting on his butt and it looked like at least five men were working their way through the brush to the house. What kind of lawman was he?

And then the bushes moved, roots erupting from the ground and lashing out like a whip with nine tails, sweeping fast toward one of the black-clad men. The lash struck him in the stomach hard, lifting him and sending him flying several feet to land sprawled out against the fence.

Jonas blinked and looked around at the circle of sober faces. Feminine. Soft. He thought of the Drakes as gentle and kind. Bringing harm to no one, yet none of them blinked or winced or looked away. The vibration beneath him continued and the wood creaked and groaned, alive and alert and waiting for the intruders to come too close.

The man who had been thrown climbed unsteadily to his feet, gripping the fence for leverage. He shouted and jerked his hand clear. Smoke rose from the wood where his glove had melted onto the fence. He hurried back up the slope, avoiding the brush where something had struck him, taking an alternate route that brought him into a grove of trees.

He moved with much more confidence once in the mixture of redwoods, oaks, pines and spruce.

Jonas was afraid to take his eyes from the man in the mosaic as he gained footing through the labyrinth of trees. The tension built in the room. The chanting swelled, the words evoking protection against evil, and behind them, in the second circle, shadows lengthened and grew, forming insubstantial, transparent figures of women dressed in garb from centuries gone by. The floating figures positioned themselves in a tight circle around the Drakes and Jonas, as if anyone would have to get through them to get to the inner circle.

Jonas leaned forward to see the mosaic better when the intruder began to scale a tall, thick tree. Branches swept outward, long curving boughs providing a ladder for the man to climb. One branch reached toward the balcony on the second story. Joley’s room. The man put his foot on the branch and began to ease across.

The tree shuddered, bark rippling. Needles shivered. The man stopped, looked around him apprehensively. There was a moment when Jonas counted his own heartbeats. One.

Two. The branch dipped down hard and fast. The intruder’s mouth opened wide with a scream as he clutched at several smaller branches to keep from falling. The thick limb rose fast, the smaller branches breaking, catapulting the intruder several feet into the air and over the bluff. He spun, arms and legs sprawled, like a windmill, before falling far below into the turbulent sea.

‘Holy hell, Hannah.’

‘I know, it takes getting used to.’ She leaned her body close to his, offering shelter, protection, without ever breaking the link with her sisters.

Sarah leaned down to blow on one of the dark candles in front of her, just outside the double circle. The light flickered bloodred and then was gone, sputtering into the wax.

Jonas turned his attention to two men scaling the walls of the house. At the same time two others were heading for the lower story. One of the two men scaling the building was extraordinarily strong and immediately outdistanced his partner as he went up the north side of the building next to the tower. He was using the corner to help propel himself upward. The mosaic glowed red-orange. Smoke puffed out from under each hand and foot until the man climbed faster and faster, finally leaping to gain the balcony. He stepped onto the solid surface and paused, bending over, breathing hard.

Around him, the wrought iron began to bend and reshape, the railing forming into what appeared to Jonas as an animal with a spiked tail and a spiraled horn. The man backed up, pulling out a gun, his gloves burned and still smoking from touching the side of the house. The animal reared up on hooves, rising above the intruder and then lowering its head. The man fired several rounds in rapid succession, but the animal pawed the ground and hurtled itself relentlessly forward. The intruder was fast, whipping to one side, grabbing the horn to give himself leverage in a desperate attempt to save his life. The tail struck, lashing around, piercing the man’s stomach and lifting him into the air before dropping him onto the balcony floor.

Beside him, Hannah let out a small sound of distress. Instinctively, Jonas started to let go of hands in order to comfort her, but Elle and Hannah held on tightly, shaking their heads. He frowned as he watched, in the mosaic, the balcony floor slide open and the body drop to the ground below.

At least he’d have a body to work with. Someone he could identify. The big man had moved in a way he was certain he’d seen before.

As he watched, the brush and trees swayed, leaves rustling, and across the ground, vines shot out, wrapped the body up tightly as if in a carpet, and then rolled it toward the edge of the bluff.

‘Stop!’ Jonas called out. ‘Make it stop. I need that body. What if I can’t recover it from the sea?’

The intruder slipped off the edge of the cliff and dropped into the churning water below.

Sarah leaned over and blew on the second candle. It sputtered, glowed red, and drips of wax beaded on the floor like bright blood spots before it flickered out.

The second climber had reached the balcony on the second floor over by the west-facing room—Elle’s. The same trail of smoking palm and foot prints led up the side of the house. He swung over the wrought iron railing and landed in a crouch. Almost at once the floor jiggled under his feet. He looked down and the solid flooring had turned to a gel-like substance. He began to sink into it. As he did, the gel thickened and lengthened, slowly but surely encasing his body. He fired his automatic, round after round, into the gel, but it kept forming around him. He tried to thrash his way free, but the house ate him, inch by inch, absorbing him into the gel until he was completely inside, surrounded by the balcony itself.

Jonas felt his stomach lurch. ‘This is an illusion, right? Tell me it’s an illusion, Hannah, because this is crazy.’ He clutched her hand tighter, suddenly afraid for all of them. If the house was alive, no one was safe. He wanted to grab all the women and get them out of there.

‘Part illusion, part real. They believe it, so it’s so,’ Elle said. ‘They came to kill us, Jonas.

The house is made up of the spirits of our ancestors. Did you think they would lie idly by while we were under attack?’

‘Cuz, yeah, didn’t everybody’s ancestors rise up and destroy enemies? ‘Fine then. Tell them to save me a body.’

The balcony lurched and spit the intruder out into the tops of the tree branches. The branches swayed and sent the body to the sea below. Jonas swore as Sarah blew out the next candle.

The two men entering through the ground floor were at the windows now. One was at the kitchen window and one on the other side of the living room. Every instinct Jonas had insisted he draw his gun, but Elle and Hannah held his hands tight, keeping him locked within the circle. The hairs on his arms stood up, and the room crackled with energy and power. The floor continued shifting and the walls seemed to undulate. Behind them, the transparent, filmy figures swayed and danced, their arms extended, their hands linked.

Jonas could barely make himself stay sitting in the circle when he knew any moment the two men would break through the windows. He heard a scream, abruptly closed off, and the sound of gunfire. He peered at the mosaic just in time to see cracks forming in the ground and earth opening up along the kitchen where the intruder tried to get to the bank of windows. Every step he took produced an ever-widening crack. There was nothing to shoot at, only the yawning abyss staring at him. He finally ceased trying to gain the house and began to backpedal carefully, placing his feet lightly on the ground as he retreated.

Jonas switched his gaze to the last man in the mosaic, then realized the window the man was trying to gain entry through was just straight ahead of him. He watched in a kind of fascinated horror as the intruder used the butt of his gun to hit the glass and shatter it.

Again he pulled at his hands, but Hannah and Elle hung on grimly.

All around him the chanting swelled, Harm no one, harm no one. What the hell did that mean? He was going to have to shoot the poor son of a bitch, but maybe that was a far better way to go than what the house of horrors had planned. This was a hell of a way for men to die, even if they deserved it. He still wasn’t certain if it was real or an illusion.

The window shattered with a crash of glass, breaking into jagged shards that exploded inward into the house, paused in midair, reversed and stood poised in the darkness. Jonas found he was holding his breath. The intruder stuck his gun through the frame, finger beginning to tighten when the sharp spears hurtled forward. Blood sprayed, the man screamed wildly, yanking his arm back outside even as his finger squeezed and bullets bit into the side of the house.

Around them, the smoky figures writhed and moaned, as if absorbing the shock of the bullets. The intruder screamed again and the sound of footsteps faded as he retreated.

Once again the ground shuddered and opened. The screams faded as the edges of the earth resealed. Jonas stared down into the mosaic and noted the other man had made it back to the fence, climbing over, leaving scorch marks behind.

‘I’m not going to say I can at least collect DNA samples,’ he muttered, ‘because every time I open my mouth, the evidence disappears.’

With a little sigh, he watched the droplets of blood absorb into the wood and the window reform. ‘I have to tell you, I’ve seen some freaky shit around you girls, but nothing like this. I have just one question. Have you told your fiancés about this? Because quite frankly it scares the hell out of me.’

‘You never have to be afraid, Jonas,’ Hannah assured. ‘The house judges intent.’

‘Hannah. Honey. Half the time my intent is to strangle you. And I don’t doubt whoever ends up with Joley or Elle will want to do worse than that.’

‘Hey!’ Elle objected and Joley punched his arm hard.

He glanced around at the wispy gray figures as they began to settle down, one by one merging into the shadows or the smudge marks on the floor. The tension in the room slowly eased and the shifting beneath them lessened. He shoved both hands through his hair. ‘They don’t just hang around all the time, do they? Because they’d definitely curb a man’s… appetite.’

Hannah’s lips twitched, a ghost of a smile spreading across her face. ‘Most of it was illusion, Jonas.’

‘Then how did four men just die? They did die, didn’t they, they weren’t an illusion?’

‘They’re dead,’ Sarah said.

‘So where are their bodies? I’m not going to find them in the ocean, am I? And even if I took the house apart, I’m not going to find DNA in the wood. You don’t find this just a little bit creepy?’

‘I find men who want to kill my sister creepy,’ Joley said firmly. ‘I had no idea you were such a baby, Jonas. I’ll bet you don’t go to scary movies.’

‘I don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that.’

Hannah wrapped her arms around him. ‘No, there’s nothing at all wrong with it. I don’t like scary movies either.’

He was grateful for her support when the rest of her sisters were looking at him with wicked intent. He brought Hannah’s fingers to his mouth. ‘I’m heading outside, baby, so get the house to calm down. I don’t want to get thrown into the ocean.’

Joley smirked at him. ‘It wouldn’t hurt for you to go swimming.’

‘Joley,’ Hannah warned, ‘stop teasing him. You’re perfectly safe outside.’

Sarah glanced at Hannah, eyes somber, shadows lurking. ‘But Hannah isn’t, is she? It isn’t over, is it, Jonas? They really are after her.’

‘They. Who the hell are they?’ Jonas asked. ‘That’s the burning question, and all of you are going to have to consider this is being done by someone with power. We mentioned it, but all of you said the same thing. No surges, nothing to follow, but what would make a perfectly normal couple attempt murder if not under some kind of compulsion?’

‘It isn’t Ilya Prakenskii,’ Hannah said. ‘And he’s the only one we know with that kind of power. I didn’t feel it. I know I didn’t. I would have automatically made a move to counter it.’

‘Then if not compulsion, you tell me. What would make someone do this?’

‘I don’t think the men attacking tonight were under compulsion,’ Kate said. ‘They might have been following orders, but there were no countermeasures taken against illusion and that would be the first thing we would have done if we were manipulating someone and they ran into trouble. If someone is directing them, and he knows how to manipulate energy, he would have aided them.’

The women all nodded. Jonas sighed and climbed to his feet, careful of the candles. ‘I’m going to take a look around outside.’

‘While we’re here,’ Libby said, ‘and there’s so much power to draw on, I’d like to do another healing session for Hannah.’

Hannah shook her head. ‘You’re already exhausted, Libby, all of you are.’

‘Look around you, honey,’ Libby suggested, ‘you can feel the energy. I’m feeling invigorated, not exhausted.’

Jonas moved out of the circle, shaking his head. ‘Invigorated’ wasn’t the word he’d use.

Creeped out. Skin crawling.

He didn’t even know what he was dealing with anymore—and at this point he didn’t want to know.

He stepped outside into the cool night air warily, hand on the butt of his gun, not that it would do any good if the house suddenly came alive and heaved him into the ocean. He’d always, always, thought of it as home. He had climbed the tree a dozen times, the one that had thrown one of the intruders into the ocean. He’d swung from the branches and leapt to the balcony. When his mother was in so much pain he couldn’t shut out the moans and cries, when things were particularly bad, he’d crawled through that same kitchen window and had taken refuge inside, listening to the Drakes’ laughter and silently praying he would be part of it someday.

He had wished for a family and now he had one—strange as they were. He had to find a way to keep them all safe. Originally, when he saw Hannah packing a bag, he’d thought it was a good thing, that he’d move her away from the others and narrow down the risk of someone else accidentally getting hurt, but after seeing what the house could do, he changed his mind. As long as she was inside, no one was going to get to her.

The fog was back, thick and gray and wet, surrounding the house and grounds and spreading across the highway, muffling sound and obscuring sight. Still, Jonas knew he wasn’t alone. He whistled softly, a short, one-two note, that cut through the night. He wasn’t in the least surprised when an answering whistle came back to him. He made his way down the slope until he saw Jackson.

‘Hell of a show,’ Jackson greeted him.

‘You saw that? I thought maybe I was hallucinating.’ Jonas wiped his brow again and shook his head. ‘Makes me wonder what I’m getting myself into.’

Jackson ‘s eyebrow went up slightly. ‘You got yourself into it a long time ago.’

‘True. Nasty thing, watching a house swallow a man and spit him back out.’

‘I’ve got to agree with you there.’ Jackson peered through the wisps of fog at the walls, where foot- and handprints were burned into the wood. ‘Do you suppose we can take that in as evidence? We could cut out the sections.’

Jonas snorted. ‘You can try taking a saw to that house, but personally, I’m not about to get anywhere near it with anything resembling a weapon.’

‘You have any enemies in the crime lab?’

Jonas grinned at him. ‘Jackson, you’re such a mean son of a bitch.’

‘Yeah, well. I try.’ He glanced at Jonas. ‘Hannah all right?’

‘She will be. She’s scared and worried about her sisters. Jackson, you were there, in the hospital when the wife made her try at Hannah. Did you feel anything? Could you tell if she was under some kind of compulsion?’

‘You’re asking me if Prakenskii could have been directing the attack.’

‘I like him. I don’t know why. He’s a killer. I can see it in his eyes, but I like him and that doesn’t make sense. I have problems when things don’t make sense.’

Jackson sent him another look, one Jonas preferred not to interpret.

Light was beginning to streak across the sky, turning the dark of night to a softer charcoal gray. Mist continued to creep in, long bony fingers of fog, stretching out over the ocean and land, moving inland. The men approached the side of the house cautiously, studying the surrounding ground before they took each step. There wasn’t a single yawning crack anywhere near the house itself. The balconies appeared intact and completely stable.

There was no blood spatter, in fact the entire area looked pristine, with the exception of the blackened hand and boot prints burned into the side of the house.

‘Do you have a camera?’ Jackson asked. ‘We could get some pictures and maybe take a print or two if we’re lucky.’

Jonas shook his head. ‘We’d probably get a bunch of ghosts and that would just freak me out.’

Jackson sent him a faint grin. ‘You’re safe. They’re fading already.’

The blackened marks grew fainter, beginning to diminish as the sky lightened, gradually losing color until finally they simply disappeared altogether.

‘There goes the last of our evidence. There aren’t even any shells left behind. Guns, bodies, blood and prints, all absorbed. What does that, Jackson?’

The deputy shrugged and reached inside his jacket to pull out a pack of cigarettes. ‘This is a hell of a mess, Jonas.’ He glanced up at the house, his gaze touching on each window before bending his head to the match cupped in his hands.

There was a faint glow coming from inside the house and Jonas knew the Drake sisters were holding another healing session for Hannah. Between the plastic surgeon and Libby, Hannah’s physical body was going to be fine. Jonas wasn’t as certain about her emotional state.

‘It isn’t Prakenskii. I’m certain of that, but what of Sergei Nikitin? Would Prakenskii know if his boss had the same abilities? We thought the Drakes were unique. Then Prakenskii came along. Why not another? Nikitin is cunning, street smart and violent, but smooth enough to cover his tracks so that he’s accepted, and that’s damned hard to do.

Nikitin might have psychic ability.’

Jonas held out his hand for the cigarette. ‘Would Prakenskii tell us if Nikitin did?’ When Jackson passed it to him, he took a slow, satisfying drag. He rarely smoked, but once in a while, like now, when his world had been shaken, his woman nearly killed in front of his eyes, and he’d watched a house consume a man and spit him out, he figured a drag or two were appropriate.

‘Who knows? Prakenskii tends to play everything close to his chest. He lives in the shadows and men like that don’t trust anyone.’ Jackson took the cigarette back.

Jonas refrained from pointing out Jackson tended to be the same way. Instead he walked to the edge of the bluff and looked down into the crashing waves. It didn’t surprise him that there were no bodies. He hadn’t expected to find any. But someone would be looking…

He turned back to Jackson. ‘Someone lost four men tonight. There aren’t any bodies and they aren’t going to believe the one that got away. What’s he going to say to his boss? The house came alive and ate his friends? They’re going to be looking and that means they’ll leave tracks. Get the word out that we want to hear of anyone asking about disappearances or strange occurrences. Maybe earthquakes or anything they can tell themselves would be a reasonable explanation.’

Jackson exhaled a thin column of smoke and nodded. ‘Who would hate Hannah this much? Someone has made this very personal, Jonas.’

‘Venturi was here, bringing her flowers. And the Reverend is in town with his band of bodyguards. Let’s see if they’re all accounted for. Maybe you could pay a visit to them nice and early and see if they’re all in their beds.’

‘No problem.’ Jackson went to take another heavy drag from the cigarette when it flared bright red in his hand and disintegrated into ash. He dropped it, shaking his hand from the sting of the burn and cursed, glaring at the house. ‘Mind your own business,’ he snapped under his breath.

Instantly the wind rose to a wild, outraged shriek, tugging at his jacket, exposing the pack of cigarettes, catching it with a burst of speed before Jackson could grab the box. ‘Theft.

Pickpocketing,’ he yelled. ‘Back off, Elle.’ He managed to get his fingertips on the pack, juggled a moment fighting to keep it, and then the wind whisked it away, out over the sea. ‘That’s littering,’ he called out, ‘and I can arrest you for that.’

The box flared into flames, the ash falling into the water.

The window slid open and Elle stuck her head out, long red hair cascading like a waterfall of silk. ‘I’m so sorry, Jackson. Smoking always kicks off my asthma and I reacted without thinking.’

‘I’ll just bet you did. I’m outside and you’re inside with the window closed.’ He glared at her. ‘Asthma my ass.’

‘I’m sensitive. And Jonas, Hannah would like a word with you.’ Elle smiled sweetly and disappeared again, slamming the window closed.

‘Oh hell.’ Jonas sighed. ‘Hannah must have eyes in the back of her head.’

Jackson kept watching the window where Elle had disappeared. ‘The wind talks to her, Jonas, and everything, voices, scents, information of all kinds are carried on the wind.

You aren’t going to get away with much with that woman, if that’s what you’re thinking.’

‘What about Elle? Hannah tells me she has all the talents.’

‘Elle is going to have to come to terms with me sooner or later. She’s choosing later, but I’m running out of patience.’

Jackson was patient, unlike Jonas. It was one of the things that made him so good at his former job as an Army Ranger. Jackson had it bad, which was odd, because half the time, Jonas didn’t think he felt much emotion. He was loyal to the few people he called friends, but nothing much rocked him. Like the house. He’d seen what the house had done, but he just shrugged his shoulders and took it in stride. Jonas, however, was going to have a few nightmares.

Something—some instinct—made him turn his head—and he saw Hannah slip out of the house. Everything inside him stilled as he watched her come toward him. She moved with the wind, elegant and graceful, her famous hair, spirals of platinum, silver and gold, hanging well past her waist and enveloping her slender shoulders, flowing like a silken cape around her body. In the dawn, she looked a dream, moving through the mist.

‘She’s so fucking beautiful,’ he whispered aloud, pressing his hand hard over his heart. It wasn’t about what others saw, not for him, it never had been. She stole his breath with her smile, the way her eyes lit up, the flash of temper—he loved that flash of temper—he found it sexy as hell.

‘Hannah,’ Jackson greeted her. ‘You look as if you’re feeling a little better.’

‘I am, Jackson, and thank you for looking out for us. Elle said you were outside.’

‘She warned me not to come onto the property,’ he said.

Jonas scowled at him. He knew Jackson and Elle had a strange relationship and could communicate, but they rarely admitted it—and Jackson hadn’t said a word to him about Elle warning him off.

‘There really isn’t much to write up in my report, Jonas. I’m not going to say the house swallowed a man, if that’s what you’re thinking. I don’t need to go in for any more psych tests,’ Jackson said decisively. He touched the back of Hannah’s hand, a rare gesture of affection. ‘You need anything, just call.’

‘I will,’ Hannah assured him.

Jonas knew her so well, knew what it cost her to look straight at Jackson, to let him see the slash marks on her face. They were less raw, less red, already beginning to heal with the continuing aid from her sisters, but it was difficult to let anyone see her wounds. He was proud of her courage, the way she stood straight and tall, so slim she appeared fragile. Her lips trembled, but her gaze never wavered.

‘I’ll see you both later,’ Jackson said. ‘I need to catch some sleep.’

‘Were you here all night?’ Hannah asked.

‘No, I didn’t see them arrive and I never did catch a glimpse of the car. They had some sophisticated equipment, though. They used earpieces to keep track of each other and the one that got away called in a ride from somewhere close by. I couldn’t get into position to even get a make on the vehicle.’

He lifted a hand and turned to walk away. The mist swallowed him until there wasn’t even the sound of footsteps.

Jonas stood for a moment just looking at Hannah because it gave him so much pleasure.

‘You’re being very brave coming out here. The photographers are still everywhere, although I doubt they can penetrate this fog.’

She smiled at him and stepped closer. ‘I came for you.’

‘Me? Are you all right?’

‘Yes, but you aren’t. I can feel that you’re…’ She paused to search for the right word.

‘Distressed,’ she finally settled.

The knots in his stomach began their familiar tightening. ‘I’m worried about you, Hannah. I knew it wasn’t over. It doesn’t come as a shock to either of us, but I still can’t help being angry.’

‘Anger isn’t the same thing as distress, Jonas. You may be angry on some level on my behalf, but this is different, not about me at all.’ She frowned and lifted her face to the wind, let it play over her skin and through her hair while she waited for him to tell her the truth.

Jonas looked down at his hands. There was no use in trying to hide anything from Hannah anymore. He had built solid shields over the years, but one night together and she seemed to have knocked a few holes in the wall. ‘All right, yes, it’s upsetting to me. I can’t figure out who is after you without knowing who they are. And…’ He shook his head, reluctant to admit the truth out loud, even to himself.

Hannah reached for his hands and brought them to her heart. ‘And?’ she prompted.

He sighed, feeling foolish. Feeling like a traitor. ‘I can’t stop thinking those men have families, a parent or sibling at least, someone who cares. That person will spend the rest of their life wondering what happened to the one they loved.’ He pulled one hand away and shoved it through his hair, unable to meet the intensity of her blue eyes. He was worried about the families of men who had tried to kill her. What did that say about him?

The silence lengthened and stretched for what seemed an eternity. Finally he looked down into her upturned face—met her gaze and was instantly held there—made captive by the love he saw. ‘You’re a good man, Jonas. It isn’t a weakness to have compassion for others.’

He didn’t pull her close, simply leaned down and kissed her, his lips slanting over hers—gently—tenderly. ‘And you came out here in the cold just to tell me that?’

‘That’s exactly why I came out.’


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