Can Clay convince Leah to risk her heart? And when her stalker finds her, will Clay be able to stop him in time?More info →
Clay Raven Nighthorse got out of his Ford F150, put on his aviator-style sunglasses, and took a deep breath. He waited for just a few extra seconds before straightening his shoulders and heading across the parking lot toward the sleek, two-story, concrete and glass building on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. Obviously inspired by the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C., its swoops and curves and sandstone color perfectly captured the sweeping grandeur of the American southwest. Which, in his mind, made it very much an oddity in hide-bound, tradition-minded Virginia. At first he’d considered dressing up in a suit for this meeting. Instead, he’d come straight from working on his ranch, wearing a western style shirt, cowboy boots, and jeans. At least he’d taken off the leather chaps he’d been wearing and had replaced his work hat for the Stetson that currently sat on his head, black, brand new, and with a hand-wrought silver and turquoise band. He wore his long, thick hair untethered, letting it flow down his shoulders like an inky waterfall.
He didn’t know what he was doing here. He’d never met Everett Burke, the man he was here to see, and had no idea why he’d sent for him. Burke hadn’t even contacted him directly. Instead, Adam Sinclair, of Sinclair Securities, who occasionally hired Clay for specialized ops when he needed an extra man, had called him, insisting he was the only man for this particular job without telling him any of the particulars beyond the client’s name. All Clay knew about this job was that he wasn’t particularly looking forward to meeting Everett Burke, who was actually related to him by marriage.
Eight years ago, Rosemary Nighthorse, Clay’s cousin and a weaver of extraordinary skill, had left their small town in New Mexico and run away to San Francisco to marry Everett Burke. He was the owner of an upscale art gallery, where her exquisite wall-hangings sold for enormous sums. Her departure had been abrupt and unexpected. She had invited none of her family or friends to the wedding. Nor had she ever returned to New Mexico and Clay blamed Everett Burke for that. She’d never even called, not once in all that time, and had ignored the calls Clay had made to her, and he blamed Burke for that, too. Four years later she was dead from an overdose of sleeping pills and, instead of returning her body to New Mexico, where she belonged with her ancestors, her husband had buried her in San Francisco. Clay blamed Everett Burke for all of that, too.
He almost hadn’t come here today. But his curiosity had gotten the better of him and here he was. He walked through the front door, welcoming the immediate blast of cold air provided by the air conditioned interior. The only truck available to him had been the one whose AC was on the fritz, so it had been a hot ride into Richmond from his ranch. He lived in Passion Lake, a thriving little community in the Virginia foothills. He and eleven of his former SEAL teammates had purchased a bankrupt town and turned it into a thriving tourist attraction. As he looked around, it was obvious that Burke’s gallery was definitely upscale, with exquisite paintings, pottery, weavings, sculpture, even baskets and jewelry, all done by skilled Native American artists. Each piece was displayed to its full advantage, inviting visitors to spend as much time as they wanted admiring their particular favorites. Clay didn’t know how into southwestern art the horsey set of aristocratic Virginia was, but those who were into it, were definitely getting the biggest bang for their buck in this gallery.
A lovely young woman with the dusky skin, straight black hair, and facial features of a fellow Native American walked toward him, extending her hand in greeting. “Hello. I’m Kaya Birdwing. Welcome to Skysong Gallery. Is there a particular artist or piece you would like to see?”
Clay watched her slow up-and down appraisal of his appearance, her feminine eyes frankly admiring his hard, muscular, warrior’s body. When her eyes darkened, he just gave her a casual smile, one that crinkled the corners of his eyes and had her catching her lower lip between her teeth, telling him that with very little effort he could have a bedmate for the night. Sorry, sister, not interested. “Actually, I’m here to see Mr. Burke. And, yes, I do have an appointment,” he added hurriedly to forestall her inevitable next question.
“Of course.” Disappointment in her eyes, she nodded her head and turned toward the back of the gallery. “Right this way, please.” She opened a door and ushered Clay into an outer office tastefully decorated and comfortable looking. An older, gray-haired woman dressed in a deep purple suit looked up at their entrance. “Naomi, this gentleman, Mister…”
“Nighthorse,” Clay supplied.
“Mr. Nighthorse says he has an appointment with Mr. Burke.”
“And so he does,” said the gentleman standing in the door that had just opened. “Hello, Clay, thank you for coming. Please…” he stood aside, gesturing for Clay to precede him into the inner office. Closing the door behind him, Everett Burke went around a large mahogany desk. He stood behind it, facing Clay, gesturing toward a comfortable-looking leather chair. “Please, have a seat.”
Clay looked around casually. The well-appointed office was modern and immaculate and functional. “Sorry I’m a bit late,” he said, standing next to the chair and removing his Stetson, holding it in his hands. “I’m afraid we had a fence break we needed to mend right away before I could leave the ranch.”
“Please don’t worry about it,” Burke said with a dismissive gesture. “Naomi told me you’d called to say you’d gotten a late start. I know how much hard work there is to do on a ranch, so I’m just grateful that you could spare any time for me. Please. Sit.”
Clay sank down in the overstuffed armchair and placed one ankle across his knee, balancing his Stetson on top. For a long moment the two men eyed each other in silence.
Everett Burke was an elegant, refined man of around sixty years of age. His silver-gray hair was short and neat, and matched his mustache and goatee. He had been born in England, the youngest son of an aristocratic family and had moved to the U. S. as a boy of thirteen. He had made his rather large fortune dealing in art and antiques for an ultra-refined super rich clientele that included both European and Middle Eastern royalty, with some Hollywood heavy hitters thrown in. He was dressed in a black Armani suit, with a lavender silk shirt and darker lavender silk tie. He looked very dapper.
Clay, on the other hand, looked exactly like the scruffy, rumpled working cowboy that he was. There was nothing refined about him, not his chiseled Native American nose and chin, nor his beautifully-sculpted, male-model lips and high cheekbones. His straight, blue-black hair was long, hanging halfway down his back. Despite the fact that his outward appearance was so totally at odds with the understated elegance of Everett Burke’s sleek decor, Clay Nighthorse looked right at home in this modern yet genteel room. Because of the way he carried himself, with supreme confidence and a certain level of power and authority that made him perfectly at ease in any situation.
“Why did you—“”
Both men began speaking at once. With a small laugh, Everett Burke inclined his head and gestured toward Clay. “You first.”
“Why did you want to see me?” Clay asked directly. “Adam Sinclair didn’t give me any details other than that you had called him looking for me.”
“Actually, I called Jesse Colter, since he was your commanding officer when you were in the SEALs. He said you often took temporary assignments with SinTech on a job-by-job basis, so I called Adam Sinclair. I am in need of your services for a job. A very special job.”
Clay’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How did you know that Jesse Colter was my CO?” he asked.
Instead of answering, Burke opened the center drawer of his desk and drew out a photograph. He pushed it across the desktop toward Clay.
Leaning forward, he reached out and picked it up to look at it. All the breath left his lungs as if he’d taken a punch to the gut. Jesus Christ! How can this be possible? He stared at the woman in the photo, drinking in all the details that had lately become so out of focus in his dreams. This was the woman he’d met three years ago on the beach in San Francisco. The woman with whom he had spent less than twenty minutes, and yet who had become an integral part of his nightly dreams. He’d never forgotten her and at times had come to fear he never would forget her.
Her long hair was a rich, golden blond with red highlights that seemed to absorb the sun’s rays and glow with inner fire. In the photo it hung straight down, thick and shiny and beautiful. On the beach that long-ago day, long, thick locks of it had been lifted and teased and tossed about by a playful wind. The photo was only a head shot, but Clay had no trouble remembering the rest of her lush, even voluptuous figure, with long, slender legs, firm, high breasts and a nice, round ass, one that had fit his lap perfectly. She’d been wearing some sort of long, gauzy dress that had made her seem…impermanent. Ethereal. As if she were a magical creature from an otherworldly realm who, through some misfortune, had stumbled through a rift in time and been transported to this realm. She had been crying, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen, her cheeks wet with tears. None of that had mattered to Clay. All that mattered was that he wanted, no needed, to stop them. To do everything within his power to help her.
He had approached her, striding across the sand, trying to make enough noise to alert her to his coming. But he had startled her, making her jerk back away from him, panic in every line of her body. “Please, please, don’t be afraid,” he’d begged, keeping his tone gentle and extending his hand out to her, palm up, as if he were trying to gain the trust of a frightened animal. He saw her glance frantically around and knew she’d just realized how alone she was, how deserted this particular stretch of beach. Alone with a very large, very intimidating man. “I promise I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, “looks like someone else has already done that. I’d just like to help, if you’ll let me. Sometimes talking about things, even with a stranger—especially with a stranger—can help put things into perspective.”
She raised her eyes to meet his. They were a pale green, like pieces of sea glass held up to the sun. And they were filled with bitterness and betrayal. “Perspective,” she spat. “I just found my husband in bed—in our bed—with his new assistant! You wanna put that in perspective?” She turned and started to walk away, then turned back to face him. “And on top of that, after kicking me out of my bedroom—my bedroom—he told me he was filing for divorce and taking me for h-half of everything I o-own!” She began sobbing once again, turning away from Clay and taking a few stumbling steps down the beach.
Acting purely on instinct, Clay had caught up with her. Turning her around, he’d pulled her against him, ignoring her feeble struggles. Sinking down to the sand, he’d sat there cross-legged, holding her on his lap, murmuring words of comfort, giving her permission to just let herself go and cry herself out. And she had done just that, sitting in his lap, gripping the fabric of his T-shirt so tightly, it was a wonder her fingernails hadn’t poked holes through it. After the last, quiet, hic-cupping sob had shuddered through her, she’d just leaned against his chest within the sheltering circle of his arms, letting him hold her as exhaustion claimed her. Clay had closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her in his arms. Inhaling the light, flowery scent that smelled expensive and exclusive and unique to her and her alone. Drawing it deeply into his lungs as if he were storing it up so he could take it out later and immerse himself in it.
Too soon, she’d stirred and Clay had known the exact moment she realized where she was, who she was with and what she was doing. He’d also known that she was going to flee. She began struggling to get to her feet, while he was having his own inner struggle with his sudden, inexplicable need to continue holding her. In the end, common sense had won out and he’d let her go, putting his hands around her waist and lifting her up, helping her as much as he could from his seated position. He’d decided he would appear less threatening from that position. He hadn’t wanted to tower over her and make her fear him.
She’d stared down at him, aghast, hand over her mouth. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry, I—”she gestured toward his chest, eyes wide with distress—“I got you all wet!”
“Well,” his lips quirked and he’d flicked his hand toward the water. “This is the beach, after all. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t expect to get wet sooner or later.”
“But, I mean—you—I didn’t—I never should have—Oh, my God! You’re a stranger!” Then she’d turned and run up the beach away from him, skirts flying, hair streaming out behind her like fairy floss.
Clay had sat there, watching her go, feeling all the warmth drain out of his chest, returning him to his own world and his own troubles. He hadn’t even gotten her name, but he’d known even then that he would never forget that encounter. He had finished his walk on the beach that day, but he’d finished it alone, with her scent lingering on his shirt and in his nostrils. He still had that shirt in the bottom his T-shirt drawer, still stained with her tears, sealed inside a plastic zip-lock bag to retain as much of her essence as possible. He’d never laundered it, never even opened the bag, afraid that the scent would dissipate and the shirt would become nothing more than just an old, stained T-shirt in a long line of old, stained T-shirts. Every time he came across it looking for one of his current favorites, he’d just stand there shaking his head at his foolishness. Someday, he told himself every time he tucked the bag back under the rest of his shirts. Someday I’ll either take it out and wash the damn thing or throw it away. Yeah. Someday.
If his buddies ever found out about this particular bit of sentimental nonsense, they would laugh him right out of town. All except Jesse Colter and Adam Sinclair. They were so head-over-heels in love with their wife, Sarah, and weren’t ashamed to show the world just how much, he knew instinctively that, not only would they understand, they would give him a kick in the ass and tell him to go for it.
Clay studied the photograph in his hand. So that’s what she looks like when she smiles. It was a beautiful smile, wide and genuine, revealing, even white teeth. It lit up her entire face. He reacquainted himself with the features on that face. The face that, even though it appeared nightly in his dreams, had begun to fade over time. He found himself smiling at the beautiful sea-green eyes filled with intelligence and humor, the tip-tilted nose, the soft, full lips, the long, graceful neck.
When Burke saw the smile on the other man’s face, he permitted himself to relax just a fraction of an inch. Perhaps this was going to work out better than he’d had any right to hope.
“Who is she?” Clay asked without looking up from the photo.
“Her name is Leah Stanhope,” Burke replied.
Something deep down inside of Clay just…released. As if he’d been waiting for this information and could now relax.
“She your wife? Your mistress?”
“She was my ward.”
Clay scoffed. “C’mon, Burke, nobody is anybody’s ward! This is the 21st century, not Victorian England!”
Burke inclined his head. “Nevertheless, when her father, my business partner, died twelve years ago, she was only sixteen. He named me her legal guardian in his will, which made her my ward, which she remained until she reached the age of twenty-one.”
Which would make her twenty-eight now, Clay calculated quickly.
“So what does all this have to do with me?”
“You recognize her, don’t you?”
“I might have seen her before,” Clay hedged.
“Three years ago,” Burke said. “She had just found her degenerate husband in their bed with another woman and had driven to her favorite beach to mourn the loss of her marriage and her dignity. She met you.”
Trying to hide his shock, Clay looked down at the photo, then back at Burke. “How’d you know?”
“She told me about the man she’d met on the beach. A Native American man wearing a U.S. Navy T-shirt. She told me that he had just held her and let her cry. That, for the first time in three years, since she had married Richard, she had felt…safe…with a total stranger, she’d felt safe! She told me how kind he’d been to her and how awful she’d been in return, running off without even thanking him or asking his name. She wanted me to find him so she could thank him properly. I hired a private detective. It took him about a week to find you, but by that time you had been deployed, destination classified.”
Destination Kazakhstan. Clay grimaced. The armpit of the world, along with all the other ’stans. They’d been deployed to rescue an American businessman being held hostage by a terrorist cell. Fuckin’ tangos. There’s something fundamentally wrong with people who insist that their way is the only way, and that disagreement must be punished by death. “All right, yes, it was me. So, what am I doing here? You in the matchmaking business now?”
Everett Burke took off his glasses, closed his eyes, and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “I made a judgment call three years ago. I told her the P. I. hadn’t been able to find you.” He opened his eyes again and put his glasses back on. “I now realize that that was probably wrong.” He met Clay’s gaze squarely. “Six months ago, she told me she felt like she was being followed. Whenever she left the gallery she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching her.”
“She works for you?” Clay asked.
“She runs my gallery. She’s my top appraiser. And she is a gifted artist in her own right. Her sculpted fabric pieces and clothing items are highly sought after by an elite clientele. But I digress. After the feeling of being watched, her phone started ringing at all hours of the day and night. She answered at first, thinking it might be a customer, but no one was ever on the other end. So she stopped answering calls from numbers she didn’t recognize. Three weeks ago, she started getting these…” He shoved some papers across the desk.
Clay picked them up and shuffled through them, reading aloud, “Look over your shoulder. Someone’s watching you. You’re not alone.” All were short, written in neat, block letters, all vaguely threatening, but nothing specific.
“They were all hand delivered, shoved under the front door of the gallery or under her apartment door, usually after business hours or when she wasn’t home,” Burke continued, “all in envelopes with no return address. That’s when I called the police, but we were told that unless this person was caught in the act of actually doing something to endanger Leah’s life, there was nothing they could do. A friend of mine dusted them all for prints, but of course there were none. We installed surveillance cameras, but the letters stopped.”
“Again,” Clay said, tossing the papers back onto the desk, trying to convince himself he didn’t want to get involved, “why am I here?”
Everett Burke sat back in his luxurious, leather office chair. “Because last week, she found a dead cat outside her front door. Not just dead. Mutilated. And three days later, she was nearly run down while crossing the street in front of the gallery on her way to lunch. Whoever is responsible for this is escalating and I think Leah’s in serious danger.”
Clay’s chest constricted. “Any idea who it is?”
“Richard Gordon, her ex. Who else could it be? He was a rising lawyer in a very prestigious law firm, on the fast track to becoming partner. They knew he was sleeping around and cheating on his wife, but they didn’t care, as long as he continued bringing in wealthy new clients. Until he made the mistake of sleeping with one of his subordinates, who filed charges against him for sexual harassment. When three other associates came forward and made the same allegations, he was summarily dismissed. For the past three years he has been unable to find a position, since no reputable law firm will touch him.” Burke’s lips twitched. “He even managed to get himself fired from Burger King.”
“Your doing, no doubt.”
Burke’s smile was modest. “One does what one can. It pays to have influence, even if it is only at Burger King. Anyway, he blames Leah for ruining his career and, subsequently, his life. I believe he’s extremely dangerous and will stop at nothing until she’s dead.”
“Again,” Clay repeated. “Why me? Any of the operatives at SinclairTech could do this job. And why now, after all these years of nothing but silence from you?”
“I called SinTech because they’re the best. And I asked for you because you’re Rosemary’s cousin and I know you to be a man of unquestioned integrity. And because you once made Leah feel safe. I want her to feel safe. Thanks to Richard Gordon, she hasn’t felt that for six years. Not during their marriage, and certainly not since.”
“Has she agreed to having a bodyguard?”
“Well…”Burke gave a little half smile, “Not exactly. She’s adamant about my not hiring a bodyguard. We had a rather significant altercation about it just last week. So I’ve arranged a slight subterfuge. To get her out of Richard’s grasp, I’m sending her to my estate in Palm Beach, Florida. I just inherited it from my sister upon her death seven months ago. She doesn’t know I own the property. She only knows that she’s going there to appraise everything in the house to get it ready for an estate auction. I’ve told her that I’ve hired the former housekeeper to look after things as long as she’s there and that she will be met at the airport by my groundskeeper, Julio Rodriguez. But I want you to meet her instead. Tell her Julio had to have emergency open heart surgery and you’re taking his place. And I want you to keep her safe.”
Clay’s throat tightened, as did his grip on the photograph of Leah Stanhope. He wanted to keep her safe, too. That day at the beach three years ago, she had touched a place hidden deep inside him and left her image there. A place no other woman had ever even come close to touching. That had made her unforgettable. And that had made him alone in the middle of endless nights with nothing but the memories of how she’d felt in his arms. Oh, yes. I’ll keep her safe. “I’d have to see the place first, check the security layout. I may have to install additional surveillance devices.”
“I’ll email you a complete set of blueprints,” Burke responded. He reached into his jacket pocket and held out an American Express card. “Use this to buy whatever additional equipment you feel you need. If you leave tonight that would give you nearly two days to get things set up to your specifications.”
Clay took the card. “I don’t like lying to her,” he said.
“If she finds out I hired you to protect her from Richard, she’s stubborn enough to just turn around and fly back to San Francisco and put herself right back in danger. Unless…”
Clay’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Unless what?”
Burke met his gaze squarely. “Unless you give her a good reason to stay.”
Clay just stared back at him incredulously. “You old goat, you are matchmaking!” He got up to leave, adjusting his Stetson on his head. He’d known this was going to be a colossal waste of time. He never should have allowed his curiosity to overrule his common sense. “I’m outta here.”
“Sit down, Clay. Please.” Again Burke took off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose, waiting patiently for Clay to resume his seat. Then he put his glasses back on and sank back into the sumptuous padding of his leather chair.
“For the past three years I’ve watched Leah go about reclaiming her life after her fiasco of a marriage with Richard. And for all intents and purposes, she has done just that. She’s successful, she has plenty of friends, lots of interests. But it’s all surface. As if she’s been on automatic pilot this whole time, with no real emotional connection to anyone or anything. She doesn’t date. Seems to have no interest in men.”
Clay snorted. “This surprises you? After what Richard Gordon put her through?”
“It’s not Richard. It’s not even normal caution after being burned. No, this is different.” Burke shook his head. “Something is missing, the desire, even the need to connect emotionally with someone. Ever since I told her my P.I. couldn’t find you, it’s like she’s been in some kind of”…he shrugged, gesturing vaguely…“I don’t know, deep mourning. As if she’d lost something precious with no hope of ever getting it back, and she’s struggling to live life without it.”
“Yeah, her asshole of a husband.”
“No,” Burke persisted. “It’s something else. Sometimes I catch her just staring out into space, her face soft and almost glowing, a tiny smile hovering around her lips, as if she’s remembering something beautiful. And then”…one shoulder lifted…“then this look of utter despair kind of sneaks up on her, stealing that smile and replacing it with an expression so sad it rips my heart out.”
“Again, her asshole of a husband.”
“Trust me, she has never looked that way when thinking of Richard. In fact, I’ve only seen that expression one other time on one other face.”
Clay didn’t want to ask. He was not going to ask. “Whose?” he asked.
“Yours. Just now. When you saw Leah’s picture.”
The older man leaned forward over his desk. “Something happened that day on the beach. Something rare and precious that has, I see now, haunted you both ever since.”
“I don’t think so. Because I saw another expression on your face, too, just now, when you saw Leah’s picture.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
Clay just sighed. “It’ll never work. I’m a sexual dominant. She just came out of an abusive relationship with a controlling asshole. I’d scare the shit out of someone like Leah.”
Burke nodded. “True, you’re a dominant. But you’re not a sadist. And you’ve never harmed a woman, not even when administering punishments.” At Clay’s startled look, he just smiled. “You think that just because you’re my cousin—”
“Only by marriage.”
“—that I haven’t had you thoroughly checked out? I know, for instance, that you have quite a reputation in the BDSM clubs up and down the west coast for being fair and even-handed, strict, yet attentive, always giving your subs as much pleasure as they can handle. I know that a little over a year ago you were working in Thorne Cahill’s BDSM club in England as part of an undercover operation that took down Europe’s largest slave trafficking ring. Congratulations on that, by the way. I also know that you left England and came back to your ranch to decompress, telling Adam Sinclair that you might consider taking special assignments if he needed you, but otherwise you were unavailable.” He quirked an eyebrow. “Is this assignment special enough for you? If so, I’ll fly you to West Palm Beach tonight in my private jet. That’ll give you enough time to get back home, pack a bag and take care of whatever business you need to take care of before you leave. This isn’t a favor I’m asking for, Clay. I will pay you handsomely.”
“I don’t want your fucking money, Burke,” Clay’s voice was terse, “I don’t want anything from you. You destroyed my cousin Rosemary! She ran off to marry you and wound up committing suicide! Why should I help you?”
Everett Burke permitted himself a small smile. “Rosemary loved you very much, Clay. She thought of you as a brother and talked about you incessantly. She missed you so much.”
“Then why the fuck didn’t she ever call me?” Clay whispered. “Why didn’t you let her contact any of her family? Why did you keep her away from us?”
Everett Burke looked shocked. “I never kept her away from you! I begged her to stay in touch with you, urged her to call you, invite you for a visit—at the very least send you an invitation to one of her showings. But she always had an excuse. ‘Oh, he’s probably busy,’ or ‘oh, he’s probably out of the country’, or ‘he probably won’t want to come.’ So, after a few years I quit suggesting it.”
“I don’t understand. Why didn’t she want to see me?”
Everett Burke gave Clay a long, calculating look before answering with a sigh, “She didn’t want to see anybody who knew her. Because she was too ashamed.”
“What the hell did she have to be ashamed of?” Clay demanded angrily. “She never did anything to anybody!”
“No,” Burke agreed, “she didn’t. It was done to her.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come right out and say it. Your cousin Rosemary was molested from the age of seven, first by her father and, after he died, by her older brother, Franklin.”
“That’s a goddamned lie!” Clay jumped to his feet and turned to leave. “You bastard, I’m not listening to any more of this.” He threw the photo and the credit card on the desk. They both slid across the smooth surface and fell to the floor on the other side. “Find someone else to do your fucking job. I’m done. I knew coming here would be a waste of time.”
“Wait!” Burke jumped up from his desk and came around to put his hand on Clay’s arm. “Clay, please. Think about it! Don’t you remember how unhappy she was? How withdrawn? It took her a year to work up the courage to tell me about her father, Mason Nighthorse. He was a drunk and a bully and abused all of his children, except Franklin, his oldest. Franklin was the golden child who could do no wrong, and when Mason died, Franklin took over. Surely you remember the bruises she always had. Didn’t you ever wonder?”
Suddenly Clay couldn’t breathe. He sucked in great gulps of oxygen, almost paralyzed by the sudden memories of his cousin, who was always sporting terrible bruises on every part of her body, including her arms and legs. Come to think of it, she’d suffered more than her fair share of broken bones, too—her arm, her wrist, her leg—“She was such a tomboy,” he murmured, almost as if talking to himself, “playing as hard and rough as the rest of us. I just thought…”
“I’m sure that’s what she wanted everyone to think. Nobody likes to admit they’re being beaten,” Burke persisted. “Do you remember Ella?”
“Of course I do. Rosemary’s niece, born when Rosemary was fourteen and Franklin was in his early twenties. He’d been married to a local gal for around a year. It was their first child. Ella died when she was still a baby—heart problem, I believe.”
“Yes. Except she wasn’t Rosemary’s niece.”
“She was her daughter.”
Clay recoiled as if he’d been struck.
“Fathered by her brother Franklin, who raped her over and over until she conceived because his wife was unable to give him the son and heir he demanded.”
Oh! My! God! Vehement words of denial sprang to Clay’s lips, but he never uttered them because the analytical part of his brain had taken over and he knew the old man’s words were true. When his mind stopped reeling, he began talking in a low, halting voice. “Rosemary was fourteen, supposed to be in the seventh grade that year. Except she wasn’t. She was off visiting relatives, at least that’s what Franklin told everybody. She showed up a year later, but she was…different. She seemed…sad. Broken. As if something bad had happened to her while she’d been away. But she refused to talk about it. She became almost reclusive, no longer wanting to play or even just sit around and talk like we used to.” As memories of his cousin came flooding back, Clay felt bile rising in his throat, vowing to make Franklin Nighthorse pay for the things he’d done to Rosemary. And he would do it, too, quietly, in the dead of night, like the wind spirit, leaving no trace behind.
“She was going to tell you,” Burke put his hand on Clay’s arm in a desperate attempt to get him to listen, “the day you completed basic training.”
Clay just stared at the older man while his mind went back to the last time he’d seen his cousin Rosemary. He’d just finished at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and was shocked when she’d approached him after the graduation ceremony, the only member of his family to show up. Not that there were all that many members left. His own parents were dead, and he didn’t have any brothers or sisters of his own. Just Rosemary and Franklin. Not that he would have expected Franklin to show up. The man had always been an ass wipe.
At that point in his life he hadn’t seen Rosemary for nearly five years. She hadn’t attended either his high school or college graduations—nobody had. But she had made the effort to fly to Chicago for his Navy Basic Training graduation. And had insisted on taking him to lunch afterward.
By that time, her talent for weaving exquisite wall hangings had been “discovered” by Everett Burke, owner of several art galleries, including the one they were currently in, where he sold works by many Native American artists. His high-end, enthusiastic clients had made Rosemary Nighthorse a wealthy woman. She should have been happy and carefree. But as he looked back upon that luncheon now, he recalled how gaunt she’d looked, and thin, almost wasted, with big, sad eyes, as if life had become too much of a burden. She’d never been carefree, but that day she seemed to bear the weight of the world on her slender shoulders. She’d mostly listened to Clay talking about his own shit, waffling over whether to apply for SEAL training or not, and even though he’d picked up on her long pauses and her forced smiles, he hadn’t questioned her about them.
Now he wished he had. He’d sensed at the time that she’d been holding something back. That she’d had things she wanted to say, if only he’d only allowed her to get a word in edgewise. That was the day she’d flown back to San Francisco and married the man sitting across the desk from him now. Everett Burke, the gallery owner who had discovered her talents. Clay had never heard from her again. Perhaps she’d still be alive if he’d listened back then.
And as the memories flooded back, he thought about the last thing she’d said to him, at the main gate to the naval base, where she’d dropped him off. She’d lifted her hand to his cheek and smiled, her first genuine smile of the day, and said, “I’m so proud of you, Raven, you’re a good man. I think you definitely should apply for the SEALs. You’ve got the true warrior spirit, and they need that. Just remember that wherever life takes you, I will always love you. In my whole life you’ve been the only one who made me feel safe, and I want to thank you for that.”
Stunned by her unaccustomed show of emotion, Clay had stammered something idiotic, but she’d simply given him a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, “Good-bye, Raven. May the spirits of our ancestors guide your steps and be with you always. Egagahan.”
Till we meet again.
“Why did she go to you?” Clay asked around the constriction in his throat. His chest was so tight he feared he was having a heart attack.
“Because she knew I would never hurt her.”
“Why?” Clay scoffed. “Because you’re British?”
Burke smiled. “No, dear boy. Because I’m gay.”
Clay just stared at him, eyes wide with shock.
Burke just chuckled. “Sit down, boy, before you fall down.”
Clay sat. The older man sat as well, leaning his elbows on the desk and steepling his fingers. “I loved your cousin very much,” he said, “but it was purely platonic. She knew I was gay.”
“Then why marry her?”
“To make sure she was well taken care of after my death,” he explained. “At the time I had no one else, except some very greedy, distant relatives who would surely have contested any will that left my considerable estate to anyone who was not related or married to me. And so I could look after her the way she needed someone to look after her. To try and make her life as free from care as possible. After I finally gained her confidence enough for her to tell me what had happened to her, I insisted she get counseling. She went to several eminent psychiatrists over the years, and, for a time, she would seem better, but it never lasted. None of them was ever quite able to reach the core of her melancholy.”
He lowered his voice, tears glistening in his eyes. “When she committed suicide, it tore me apart. I blamed myself, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. That I had done everything I could do. By that time, Leah had become my ward. She and Rosemary had become close and she was as devastated by Rosemary’s death as I was. So I devoted all my attention to her, and together we got through the grief.”
“If I agree to do this job,” Clay’s voice was terse, “and that’s a really big ‘if’, by the way, it wouldn’t be for you, Burke. It would be for Leah. And for my cousin Rosemary.”
“It would be a fitting tribute to her.” Burke smiled, his eyes still glistening with tears.
Clay gave him an assessing look. “I believe I may have misjudged you. You seem to be a good man. And I believe you when you say you loved Rosemary. I-I wish I’d known about”—he spread his hands. “If I had, I guarantee Franklin Nighthorse would now be taking his nourishment through a stomach tube, and blinking once for yes, twice for no.”
“He’ll get his eventually,” Everett said philosophically.
Clay’s smile drained from his eyes. Count on it.
“My car will follow you back to your ranch and drive you to the airport after you pack. I now have men watching Richard Gordon. If he somehow finds out where Leah is and makes a move to follow her to Palm Beach, I’ll alert you. And, thank you, Clay. I appreciate this more than I can say.”
Adjusting the Stetson on his head from back to front, Clay touched the brim with two fingers. “Don’t worry, Burke. I’ll take good care of your girl.”
“Careful,” the older man warned with a smile. “She might end up your girl.”
Yeah. I could live with that.