“Sorry, he’s an escape artist. Hud is really short for Houdini. I’m guessing that Shorty, my ranch hand who was watching the place, must’ve left the garage door open. Come on.” He whistled to the dog and headed toward the garage where a side door was ajar and through which they enter
ed the house. It was two steps into a screened-in porch that led to a back door and oversize kitchen. Following a step behind, Cassie waited while he toweled off the dog and checked to make sure there was water in Hud’s large dish.
“This way,” Trent told her as he headed down a short hallway wedged between the staircase and the front door to a small closet. From an upper shelf, he hauled out a rolled sleeping bag and pillow. “I’m not overly supplied with sheets and things. Just moved in a while back, about the time I got the dog.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to sleep upstairs?”
“You’ve got guest rooms?”
A slow smile spread over his jaw. “There’s no furniture in them. I was thinking that since we’re still married, you might want to stay with me.”
She saw the amusement in his eyes. He knew she’d never take that step. “Maybe another time,” she said, and couldn’t believe it actually sounded as if she were flirting.
Little did he know how tempted she was. It had been so long since she’d slept beside him, heard his deep breathing, felt the weight of his arm flung across her waist, or nestled against the warmth of his naked body, long and lean, spooned up against her. An ache started to swell deep inside her, but before she could change her mind and take him up on his offer, he said, “Suit yourself,” then carried the sleeping bag into a den off the front hallway.
“Two options,” he said. “The couch there is long enough for you to stretch out on, or that chair in the corner actually folds out to a single bed.”
“Don’t bother with the fold-out. I won’t be here that long.”
He tossed the bedding onto the leather divan, then bent on one knee near a wood stove and lit the kindling already stacked inside. “There’s a remote for the TV on the table near the chair.” As the paper and kindling caught fire, he hooked a thumb toward the back of the house. “Bathroom’s around the corner. Should be towels and everything you need in there.”
As the flames started to crackle, a warm glow emanating through the glass door of the stove, he glanced over his shoulder and his gaze touched hers. In a quicksilver instant she remembered another time when they’d gone to the mountains, had secreted themselves into an isolated cabin where he’d lit a fire in a huge rock fireplace and they’d made love for hours in front of the rising flames. She swallowed hard and, as if he’d shared the same intimate memory, he straightened and cleared his throat.
She almost blurted out that she was sorry for how far they’d come from the time when they’d been so much in love, but before she could form the words, he said, “I’m gonna run outside, check on the stock. Be back in a few.”
Whistling to the dog once more, he headed for the front door.
She walked to the window, stared through the rain sliding down the panes, and was reminded of another night, not that long ago when she was looking outside her hospital room to the night beyond.
It seemed like a lifetime ago.
And now she was here. Alone with Trent. Her marriage crumbling. Her sister still missing. One friend murdered, another nearly killed. She was too tired to make sense of it now, so she unzipped her bag and tossed her pajamas onto the couch. She dug past a makeup case for her toothbrush, which wasn’t in the usual pocket where she’d always kept it packed. Nor was her e-reader in its spot. Certain she’d just packed the items in one of the myriad pockets, she opened the case that held her laptop and there, on top of the slim computer, was a slick piece of paper with something attached to it.
“What the devil?” she said as she tugged on the laminated paper. It slid out and she found herself staring down at a warped picture of her sister. “Oh my God.” Her heart stilled and a newfound horror consumed her.
The photograph was hideous. Allie’s eyes had been cut out, as if they’d been gouged, but the face, even distorted, was recognizable as that of Jenna Hughes’s daughter. A thin strap of elastic was attached to the face in the back, as if the disturbing thing were a mask.
No! No! No! Cassie gasped and dropped the disfigured photo as if it burned her. As it fluttered to the floor it turned slightly to reveal the back where a horrid damning word, scribbled hastily in red, was visible:
“What?” Horrified, she backed up, putting distance between herself and the evil, twisted image. Her heart was pounding, her mind whirling, her stomach churning. How had the horrid thing ended up in her bag? Who had planted it there? Why, oh, God, why? She was breathing rapidly, her heart pounding in her brain, her skin crawling at the thought that someone had actually been in her apartment, had gone through her things, had hidden the mask in her laptop case. She felt the world go dark and leaned against the wall. With an effort she forced a calm that was against her very nature. The intruder had come into her home to do this . . . whatever it was. A warning? A threat? The cat had followed him and been locked inside when he’d left. Who would be so heartless, so cruel, so insidious to do this?
A door opened and she jumped about a foot. Trent walked into the house, his dog tagging behind. He found her with a hand pressed to her chest, her heart a drum, a newfound fear congealing in her blood
“Cass?” he said, his brows furrowing. “Are you okay? I thought for sure that you’d already be asleep by now and—”
She launched herself at him. Without thinking she let out a broken sob and flung herself into his arms.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she refused to cry but she held on fast. Desperately attempting to find some equilibrium, some stability in her unstable life, she drank in the solid male scent of him, felt the strength of his body as he held her, his breath ruffling over her hair.