He stared at the finger of whisky
Glowing golden amber
in the bottom of the glass.
He focused on
his heart, his love, the link to her.
Finnola. Where are you?
“Finn! It’s okay. You’re safe now. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
Shep’s anxious voice reached me and I returned to present day in a rush, found myself wrapped firmly in his arms. I inhaled raggedly, my cheeks wet with tears.
Shep drew away, cupping his hands against my jaw tenderly. “It’s okay. It’s over now, baby.” He stroked his thumbs across my cheeks, brushing the tears away and fury was evident in his startling green eyes. “I won’t let him hurt you again, Finn. Not ever again.”
I drew a shuddering breath, inhaling the rich male scent of Shep’s skin, wondering abstractly what cologne he wore. Whatever it was, I loved it. A subtle mix of pine and bergamot, the aroma calmed me, soothed away the horror of what I’d heard and imagined in the darkness.
“I promise you. I won’t let him get to you. I swear I’ll protect you,” Shep said huskily, still brushing tears from my cheeks.
For a long moment, I watched him, welcoming the calm assurances he offered. Shep returned my gaze and the fury in his eyes faded, replaced with another emotion I couldn’t grasp. Inhaling another shaky breath, I watched Shep swallow deeply, his attention dropping from my eyes to my lips.
Shep suddenly cursed, turning away abruptly, and placing the kitchen bench between us. “Bad idea,” he muttered. “Drink your coffee, kitten. I’m heading up for a shower.”
I obediently picked up the coffee mug, holding it between my hands as both my mind and senses reeled. What just happened? For one second, I’d thought Shep was considered kissing me; in fact, I was positive the thought crossed his mind. Why did he pull away?
Shep strode away, leaving me alone with my tangled thoughts. With a sigh, I got up and went in search of something to eat, pushing the thought of Caleb Sheppard firmly to the back of my mind.
By the time I’d located a box of pop tarts and placed two in the toaster, I was convinced the moment with Shep was a figment of an overly stressed mind. I was pouring a second coffee when I heard a car in the drive, announcing Shelby and Taylor’s arrival.
Shelby greeted me with a hug and glanced around the dilapidated kitchen with unconcealed disgust. “It’s not too late, you know. You can still come back to Chicago with us,” she offered, a tiny crease wrinkling her smooth brow. “Ash can’t keep you here in Hicksville, if you don’t want to stay.”
“I’m fine,” I reassured her. “I like it here.” Catching the cynical roll of Shelby’s eyes, I placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I want to stay, Shel. I feel safer here.”
It was true, even if Shelby didn’t believe me. I couldn’t go home; the killer knew where I lived. After being released from hospital, I’d given up the lease on my apartment. Although living there had been wonderful, I would never feel safe there again.
After the kidnapping, I’d stayed with Shelby’s parents, who welcomed me with open arms and warm hearts. It was exactly what I needed, Shelby’s parents had always treated me as a second daughter, and their love, and support, was vital in the first few dreadful weeks after Bryan’s death. Ash wasn’t convinced of my safety in their suburban home however, insisting on this move to Massachusetts. Even Chicago’s finest wouldn’t know where I was and Ash had taken a lot of heat for his decision. I was the only living witness to the Ripper’s murderous activities—if they caught him, my testimony would ensure a death sentence.
If I could remember enough to be any help.
“I want you close to us, Finn,” Shelby persisted. “If he finds out where you are, you haven’t got any protection out here! There isn’t even a phone for Christ’s sake!”
“She’s got a cell,” Ash countered, walking into the kitchen. “She’ll be in constant contact with Shep and me.” He pressed a kiss to my forehead and gave me a reassuring squeeze as he met Shelby’s gaze. “Trust me, Shelby. This is the safest option for Finn right now.”
“Finn needs her friends around her!” Shelby argued vehemently, crossing her arms over her chest. “She’s fragile right now, you know that Ash! How can she possibly be comfortable out here alone?”
“She’s going to be fine. We’ve talked about it and Finn and I agree this is the smartest option,” Ash responded calmly. “You need to trust me on this, Shelby. Having her stay in Chicago is dangerous. We haven’t even got a handle on the Ripper’s identity.”
“So leaving her to fend for herself is the sensible idea? You aren’t giving me much confidence in the abilities of Chicago’s finest!”
“You’re beginning to piss me off, Shelby,” Ash growled. “Finn knows she’s secure here. There’s a security system, she’ll be in constant contact with me, and if there’s the slightest sign of trouble, I’ll have the Rockport Deputies on the doorstep, faster than you can take a breath.”
“I’m pissing you off?” Shelby said incredulously. “This isn’t about you, Ash! Finn needs to be with people she knows!”
“Could we stop talking about Finn like she isn’t even here?” I muttered miserably. Shrugging free from Ash’s arm, I pulled the pop tarts from the toaster and threw them onto a plate. “When did this become a situation in which I have absolutely no control?”
“When you were taken by the Ripper, kitten.”
Shep stood in the entrance, his dark hair damp from the shower. He gazed at me calmly, his expression impassive and for a long moment I stared at him, frustrated by what I’d lost. My life had been whole, complete before this happened. I’d been happy and confident, in charge of my own decisions. Having that control taken away was a bitter pill to swallow and I stalked from the kitchen, stomping through the sun porch and onto the balcony. I slammed the door behind me and was glad of it, wanted the others to know how angry I was.
The temperature was cool, the sky overcast despite it being the middle of summer. A vigorous breeze blew hair around my face as I leaned on the handrail, watching water crashing onto the rocks below. The house stood at the edge of the cliff, looking out across the rolling Atlantic. The smell of seawater reached my nostrils and I inhaled deeply, calmed by the rugged tranquility of the landscape. On both sides of the house, the forest almost touched the edges of the cliff, leaving a narrow pathway that snaked along the rocks. Majestic pines stood tall and thick, making it possible to believe this was the only inhabited building on earth.
Rebel crept up beside me, dropping to his haunches by my leg. Since waking this morning, he’d been constantly at my side, and I welcomed his quiet company. Rubbing a hand idly across his head, I found his fur was smooth and silky beneath my fingers. “I wish they would go away and leave us alone,” I told the wolf as I scratched behind his ears, “they’re all gonna drive me nuts.”
“You really mean that?”
Startled by the sound of Shep’s deep voice, I whirled around to face him. “Stop creeping up on me!” I snapped angrily.
Shep shrugged indifferently, leaning against the weathered railing beside me. “Sorry, kitten. Wanted to check if you were okay.”
“I’m fine,” I muttered. I’d assumed Shelby would come search me out and Shep’s sudden appearance had me unbalanced. “And stop calling me kitten.”
Shep shifted against the railing to face me, his green eyes intent. “I’ve always called you kitten.”
I crossed my arms against my chest. “Yeah, well you can cut it out. I’m not your damn kitten.”
“No,” he retorted mildly. “When you’re in a mood like this, you’re more like a tiger.”
“Go away, Shep.”
He reached into the pocket of his shirt, pulling out a packet of cigarettes and lit one, inhaling deeply. “Why are you so angry with me, Finn?”
“I thought you gave up smoking?” I retorted sharply, watching as he blew perfect smoke rings, which dissipated rapidly in the brisk breeze.
“I did. Having you kidnapped by the Ripper tested my resolve.”
“Why the hell would you care?”
Shep’s eyes darkened and he scowled. “Of course I care, Finn.”
“Well you can relax, I’m perfectly fine. Go back to Chicago and whichever bimbo you’re banging currently.”
Shep dragged on the cigarette as he considered my words. “Sounds a bit like jealousy to me, kitten.”
I turned and stalked along the balcony to escape him. The last thing I needed was an argument with Shep, which skirted this close to personal issues. I’d kept my feelings secreted away, but the earlier moment inside the house, combined with shredded nerves was making me careless.
Instead of taking the hint, Shep followed to where I stood gazing across the ocean. “Go away, Shep. I don’t want to talk to you.”
“I need to teach you the commands for Rebel.”
With an exasperated sigh, I turned around, searching his eyes for the truth. “Were you going to kiss me this morning?” I questioned bluntly.
For almost a minute, I thought he wouldn’t answer, but he inhaled heavily and his expression softened. “I thought about it,” he admitted huskily.
“But it’s a bad idea?”
His gaze flickered across to the crashing waves, avoiding eye contact. “Yeah. It’s a lousy idea.”