Lake Lanier, GA ~ June 2011
A final thud hurled him backwards, flailing through brush and thickets like a rag doll. Grasping at anything to break momentum, Rob’s hand clung to a branch wedged into the face of the precipice. Spiny splinters sliced his skin. Oozing blood trickled into his palms and, one by one, his fingers slowly slipped.
A sharp crack echoed through the silence of the ravine as the bough succumbed to his weight. He plummeted into free-fall. Clenching his eyes, he drew in a deep breath, terrified of the pain, the mauling that waited on the jagged rocks below.
When icy water broke his fall, the chill kept him from losing consciousness. He swirled, straining to see, but darkness enveloped him. Soggy clothing pulled him deeper––deeper into the murky, fathomless depths. He wrestled to squirm free from the waterlogged jacket dragging him down to a watery grave, watched the coat disappear into black obscurity. Panic clenched his stomach, or was it death that snaked around his chest, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing the air, the life from his body? Lack of oxygen burned his lungs, beckoning surrender and a chard of rage pierced his gut as reality set in. He lunged upward with one last thrust and burst from the water’s deadly grip, gasping for air. A gurgling howl spewed from depths of his soul and echoed into silence.
Sunlight shimmered across a smooth, indigo lake, but aside from the slight ripples of his own paddling, nothing but stillness surrounded him. He floated toward the shore, sucking deep breaths into his lungs until the pummeling in his chest subsided. When he reached the water’s edge, he hoisted his body onto the soft red clay and collapsed while the sun’s warmth drained the tension from his body.
No one knew he had survived. The rules had shifted––he mused––now he could reinvent himself, become a stealth predator. His target: Lacey Madison Montgomery.
One Year Later ~ Lake Lanier, GA ~ June 2012
June 9th began like any ordinary day but, for me, nothing would ever be ordinary again. In hindsight I could see that the rainy night wasn’t the catalyst for my twist of fate. The storm was more like a vortex with currents reaching out beyond imagination. Within twenty-four hours I would lose my ability to distinguish dreams from reality. But I digress. The chain of events really started before the storm. As I left Buckhead Plaza on Thursday evening, my cell phone rang.
“You’ll come, Lace, won’t you? Please. You have to see my new lake house.” My best friend, Piper refused to take no for an answer. Of course, she forgot to mention the extravagant charity party she had planned. So, here I was, Lacey Montgomery, introverted attorney, caught in the midst of a crowd of wealthy people I abhorred.
“So this must be Lacey.”
The voice wrapped around me like a warm blanket, familiar––and yet not. Perhaps I’d heard it long ago or conjured him in a forgotten dream. I’m not sure what I expected when I turned around, but one glimpse of the incredibly hot man standing behind me, and my legs went weak while a warm tingle slithered into my most sensual spot.
Piper cocked her head and beamed a familiar I-told-you-so smile. “Lace, this is Rob, the neighbor I bragged about last night.”
Leaning down to kiss her cheek, his gaze anchored to mine. “I’m glad you could make it to our little soirée, Miss Montgomery.”
“Rob is an architectural genius.” Piper gushed. “I never could’ve pulled off the design of my deck without him.”
An eerie sense of déjà vu washed over me. Strange. I’d never seen him before, but something about this man made my heart race.
“You flatter me, Piper. I’m sure you would’ve devised a plan of your own.”
As Rob’s gaze deepened, his conversation with Piper waned into a muted echo. Was I the only one who noticed him staring directly at me? The party faded into the background and, for several heartbeats, time stood still. No one else existed except the man standing in front of me. A surreal heat surged between us. An energy so intense, I wasn’t sure if I felt passion, or panic.
Before last night I’d never heard of Rob. He was a perfect stranger. And now . . . perfect . . . strange . . . Snap out of it, Lace. The man was married and, according to Piper, blissfully happy. And what about Cole? A wave of guilt flashed through me. I wasn’t a free agent despite my boyfriend’s abrupt departure, bailing on our weekend getaway, again, for yet another “client emergency.” Still, for some odd reason Rob stirred something inside of me that––
“He does have a knack for getting things done.” Piper’s friend, Travis, chuckled.
Geezzz. Did I say that out loud? Rob enchanted me, drew me into a mesmeric daze. But, surely I hadn’t uttered my curious attraction, or dissed Cole aloud. Had I?
Travis patted Rob on the back. “This guy is the most inspired man I’ve ever known.” He arched an eyebrow. “And speaking about inspiration.” Eyeing a voluptuous young woman strutting by, he trolled after her.
Thank you, God. I hadn’t said a word. No one had an inkling of the visceral responses Rob’s gaze evoked in me, or my momentarily zone out into La-la-land. I’d never felt a rush like that before.
Piper pursed her lips. “See Rob, even Travis thinks you’re amazing.” Tucking a strand of golden hair behind her ear she glanced around to check out the crowd.
Rob didn’t respond to her comment. His eyes, twinkling like pools of cobalt fire, burned into mine melting my inhibitions.
Finally managing to speak, I extended my hand, anticipating an intense reaction to his touch. “It’s so nice to . . . meet you.”
He reached out in slow motion. I’d have stood there for hours staring into those gorgeous blue eyes totally spellbound if Piper hadn’t ripped me away.
“Oh Lace, there’s Riley.” She tugged on my arm. “Come on, you have to meet her.”
Piper dragged me in tow just as Rob’s fingers touched mine, and I could swear a flux of electricity rushed between us.
“Riley is a defense lawyer too, but she represents . . .” My friend kept talking as she led me toward the ballroom, but I didn’t hear a word she said. Still captivated by Rob, I glanced back over my shoulder at him and shrugged, offering an apologetic smile.
“I guess I’ll see you later?” I intended my comment to be a statement, not a question. But I couldn’t help myself and wondered why this man was having such a profound effect on me.
“I’ll catch up to you,” Rob said with an odd grin. “You can count on that.” Then, he turned toward Travis and the lady he’d managed to charm.
Despite my disdain for swanky parties, not to mention being tricked into attending this one, I actually was enjoying myself. Something about Piper’s friends made me feel relaxed, like I’d known them for years. I felt comfortable around them. Well, not all of them. No matter whom I spoke to the entire evening, I found myself constantly searching for Rob. Part of me felt guilty about the physical reaction I had felt when we met. The attraction could never evolve into anything. Still, I couldn’t wait to get Piper alone to ask her more about her intriguing neighbor––and his wife. Unfortunately, I never had the chance.
Between the music and voices, no one noticed the storm approaching until a strong gust of wind blew the main entry door open. I slipped outside to check my car windows, then scooted upstairs to the parlor for my purse so I could comb my disheveled hair and dry the mist off my arms.
When I opened the door, I inadvertently walked in on a man and woman stretched across the chaise lounge in a lustful embrace, passionately fondling each other. Her dress was hiked up around her waist, while his hands roved across her thighs. His face burrowed between her bulging breasts.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” Turning to leave, I glanced at the reflection in the mirror and froze.
“Cole?” I spun around, trying to make sense of what I saw. A gut wrenching wound wrought with adrenalin throbbed in the pit of my stomach. Taking a deep breath, I forced the familiar ache into a closet in the back of my mind then slammed the door shut. The ice queen took over.
Cole looked up and his eyes met mine.
“Lacey? What the hell are you doing here?” He twisted around, pushing the woman aside, his confused glare fixed on me.
“I was invited.” Controlled anger seethed inside of me. “But I thought you were in New York with your big client.”
My cold reply must have caught him off guard. “Right, well he . . . Wait a minute.” Cole sat up straight, brushed his rumpled hair off his face. “How did you know where I––Were you following me?”
“Following you?” I sneered. “Don’t flatter yourself.” I clenched my fists so hard my nails cut into my palms. If I’d been fueled with testosterone, I’m sure my knuckles would have shot directly into his jaw. Forcing my fingers to relax, I rested my hands on my hips and waited for his lame response.
“No, you’d never think to, I mean . . . Never mind. Just let me explain.” He stood, tucked in the back of his shirt.
The woman pulled down her dress. Straightening her hair, she spoke in a voice laced with annoyance, “I can’t wait to hear this explanation.”
Did Cole actually say I’d never think to? Was I that easy to manipulate? “Don’t bother, Cole.” I walked around the chaise to gather my belongings having every intention of storming out the door without uttering another word. Instead, on impulse, I picked up a large crystal globe filled with fresh-cut narcissus from the table beside the sofa, calmly turned and tossed the entire contents over both of them.
“Fitting flowers for a narcissistic jerk,” I bit out. “Wouldn’t you say?” I grabbed my shawl and purse, turned on my heel, and marched out of the room.
Maybe it had something to do with my discussion with Piper the night before, but seeing Cole’s reflection stunned and drenched in daffodils, I felt a sense of satisfaction that tempered my anger. He tore after me, his messy hair and half-buttoned tux shirt dripping and a sprinkling of white and yellow petals lingering on his neck.
“Lacey, wait. You don’t understand.”
I stopped at the top of the staircase and coolly replied. “I understand perfectly. Too bad a flower vase full of water was the only thing handy. Raising my voice a notch, I yelled toward the parlor, “He’s all yours.” My gaze bored into his. “Go back to your client, Cole.”
The emotion behind my icy comments must have resounded a lot louder than I’d intended as the crowd below hushed. I turned in a huff, glancing over the banister, and realized I wasn’t alone. All eyes gazed up as if some starlet had spilled fine Bordeaux on her snow-white Valentino dress. Dropped jaws and blank stares fell over the entire room and followed me step-by-step down the lavish, never-ending staircase. To make things worse, soft background music amplified through the silence . . . when you find your true love . . . fly to her side . . . or you’ll dream all alone . . . Perfect: a romantic ballad confirming my loveless life.
I had to say something to break the tension. “Lawyers,” I announced, wishing I could just fade into the woodwork and disappear altogether.
Halfway down the steps, I felt a rush of emotion explode inside. My head swirled. Dear Lord, please don’t let me collapse right here in front of everyone. I held the handrail tightly to keep from losing my balance. That’s when a single pair of hands in the middle of the crowd began to clap, slowly at first, inviting others to join. When Rob’s cobalt eyes met mine a flood of tranquility flowed through me like warm honey, calming me as if he had willed my composure.
One by one the guests followed suit, clapping until the entire room boomed with a boisterous ovation. I marched down the rest of the stairs with head held high, strutted through the ornate foyer, then sailed out the front entrance to my Lexus. Surely Piper would understand why I had to leave. I’d call her when I got back to the house but, after the whole ordeal with Cole, there was no way I could go back into that party.
I pulled off my heels and darted through the pouring rain. The deluge pelted my arms and the wind whipped my gown around me. Totally drenched by the time I reached my car, I fumbled with my keys, pressing the remote over and over before the lock finally released. Once inside, I turned the ignition then sped away leaving a trail of rubber despite the rain. Still furious with myself as well as Cole, I tightened my grip on the steering wheel to keep my hands from trembling.
The rain peppered my convertible top like the thrum of a rolling train beating in unison with the swish-swish of the wipers. The headlights reflected off sheets of rain instead of lighting the way ahead and the curvy road that had been tricky in broad daylight now twisted hypnotically before me, daring me, yet luring me forward. The downpour distorted my view. Where was I? I could barely see the secluded mountain road and nothing looked familiar.
Tears trickled down my cheeks as the emotion behind my confrontation with Cole sank in. When I brushed them away with the back of my hand, my eyes blurred for an instant. The car hydroplaned, slid sideways and scudded across the flooded highway as if it were sheer ice, smooth and deadly. Water spewed upwards spraying everywhere. I battled the steering wheel, turned into the slide and managed to regain control. Trembling, I slowed to a crawl and stopped on the narrow shoulder of the road. “Relax, Lacey,” I whispered. “Just breathe.” I filled my lungs, held the breath for a few moments then blew tension out with the air. How could Cole bail on our weekend and blatantly lie to me to hook up with that pretentious, plastic skank?
That’s when it hit me. If Cole broke our date to go to Piper’s party, he must’ve known about the event before I did. But that made no sense. Piper’s only knowledge of Cole was what she’d heard from me and from all indications she had little interest in meeting him.
Thunder boomed and I jerked in response, pressing harder on my brakes. The wind whirled around my Lexus, pushing it against the night while rain interspersed with tiny nuggets of hail bounced off the hood. Fiddling with my phone GPS proved useless: no bars confirmed the nonexistent service. My instincts told me I had to be close to Piper’s lake house, but I could barely see the road through the downpour. The defrost fan turned up full blast did little to clear the condensation fogging the windshield. I grabbed my shawl to wipe the moisture-ridden glass.
A flash of lightening burst through the darkness. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I caught a glimpse of a shadow skulking in the distance behind my car. But the image quickly faded as inky darkness swallowed the light. A chill ran down my neck to the core of my back. “It’s just the storm, Lace,” I said to reassure myself. “Get a grip.” Another burst of lightening streaked through the night followed by a roll of thunder. Lurching around, I saw a ghostly figure hovering a few yards behind me. He darted forward. With my foot pressed to the floor, I threw the car into gear and peeled off down the road spitting gravel behind me. A single thought flooded my mind––escape.