Surveillance was simpler in the South in autumn. It was hunting season in North Carolina. A man dressed in camouflage and carrying a rifle in the woods didn’t rate a second glance. The thick canopy of summer had yielded a blanket of damp leaves that made soft whispery sounds underfoot. Sparse branches improved viewing range, even in the darkness. Forecasters had predicted that by dawn, the frost would give way to the promise of an Indian summer day.
It was just the sort of weather James Cannon enjoyed on his day off from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. However, tonight he was on the job, alone in an unfamiliar area, and closing in on what might be a desperate character.
James’s alertness level ratcheted up as he came to the edge of the woods he had been passing through. The absence of Bogart gnawed at his focus. They were always on duty together, had been until a month ago. That’s because James’s law enforcement partner had been kidnapped. The cabin in the clearing just ahead was the purported location where he was being held.
Ever since his partner had been taken, he’d spent a hellish amount of time tracking down useless leads. He’d been afraid, as the days stretched out, that Bogart was dead.
He jerked his thoughts back from that murky water-under-the-bridge reality to the present. Now he had his first good lead, and it had led him here.
He slowed as he reached the clearing. The cabin stood alone and dark in the distance. He’d been told that the woman who rented it lived alone. But he never relied on hearsay when it counted. Two years in the military police plus four years on the job made him cautious. He needed facts. He’d come here, in the wee hours, to check things out for himself.
He eased down into a crouched position to survey the terrain. Almost immediately, something at the edge of his vision caught his eye. It was the absolute stillness of an object amid the natural stirrings of a rural night. He turned his head to discover he wasn’t the only one doing surveillance on the property.
Fifteen feet away, a truck sat in the deep shadows at the edge of the tree line on the unpaved track that ran through the forest. Had James not been on foot, he and the driver might have met in the woods.
James rose and moved in a little closer to try to get a better look at the vehicle to determine if it was occupied. It was. A man in dark clothing, unlike James’s hunting gear, sat behind the wheel.
Something about the furtiveness of his actions, the way he just sat with headlights and engine off, increased James’s suspicion that something illegal was going on here. He wondered if the driver was standing guard. Or, perhaps, waiting for someone?
Even as he pondered his options, a light flared and drew his attention back to the cabin.
A woman had stepped out of the cabin onto the porch. She didn’t bother to turn on the porch light, nor did she carry a flashlight. She was simply a slight figure in silhouette for the instant she was backlit by the open doorway. Then a dark furry animal shot past her out the door. The dog was moving at full throttle, coming straight toward the woods, and James.
One bark was all it took to confirm the identification. James’s heart squeezed tight, and though he would have denied it to his own mother, he had to blink away the threat of a watery leak in his left eye.
It was Bogart! He was unharmed! He was in good voice. Recovering his partner was going to be easier than he’d thought possible.
James stood to call the dog to him but the sound was lost when the truck’s engine suddenly roared to life. Headlights caught Bogart in their full flare but the dog did not hesitate. He was after the truck and his barking increased, signaling that he had found his prey.
“Prince! No! Come here!” The plaintive cry of the woman who’d been on the porch diverted James’s attention. She’d left the porch and was running toward the woods. “Come, Prince! Heel! Heel, boy!”
The dog paused uncertainly and turned to look back at the woman just as she entered the circle of the truck’s headlights. She was dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie but her feet were bare.
“Heel! Heel, Prince!” Her voice was strained with emotion as she bent down to scoop up something.
Even as the driver threw the truck into reverse and floored the pedal, she stood up.
“Bastard!” She launched what must have been a rock or a heavy piece of a tree limb at her Peeping Tom.
James couldn’t help but admire her strength and aim. The missile bounced off the hood of the truck even as it blasted backward.
“Heel! Heel, Prince!” She began running back toward the cabin.
This time Bogart didn’t hesitate, he sprang after her, easily catching up and circling her with excited barks as she made her way to the porch. The pair were through the door in an instant, and then it was shut behind them with a force that reverberated through the night.
“What the fuck?” James sat back on his haunches as the sounds of the truck tearing back through the forest became ever fainter, and let his thoughts sort themselves out. First things first.
He’d seen Bogart! Knew he was okay. That was a huge relief.
But now he had other complications to deal with. Something else was going on besides the dog-napping of his K-9 partner. Something he didn’t understand. But whatever the something was, he meant to get to the bottom of it.
One thing was certain. Regardless of the events of the night, the woman in the cabin was the prime suspect in the abduction of his K-9.
He should report what he’d discovered to the sheriff of this North Carolina county and ask for help. But after weeks of searching, he wanted the pleasure of confronting the suspect himself. That wasn’t exactly legal procedure. Any way he factored it, he was way the hell out of his jurisdiction.
James slid a hand down his face. By nature he was a by-the-book guy, professional, methodical, reasonable. But something had snapped when Bogart went missing. The job of finding him became a personal quest. And he was going to see it through. So then, how best to confront the woman holding his dog hostage?
Maybe the woman who had his dog had abducted him herself, or maybe she had had help. No way to judge that from here.
He had learned long ago that “female” did not equal “easy to best,” and certainly not “harmless.” Unlike the truck driver, he wasn’t going to give her the chance to get the better of him, or escape. He was going in full force and with overwhelming strength, to teach her a lesson she wouldn’t soon forget.
He was just going to wait for full light.
* * *
Shay Appleton jumped up when her dog, sprawled at her feet, suddenly lifted his head to listen. “What is it, Prince?” She stared into the shiny, alert gaze of her pet with an intensity equal to his. “Do you hear something?”
Prince made a soft nasally sound but his tail did an unperturbed thump on the floor.
Shay glanced at her front door. The bolts were still shoved into place. Was that enough?
For eight heavy heartbeats she stared at the doorknob of her rental cabin, burnished by years of use. It did not turn.
Shay exhaled audibly. Okay, so maybe nothing. Of course it was nothing. Prince wasn’t behaving the way he had last night when there had been a real problem.
Not until Prince lowered his head back to his paws did the warmth of spilled coffee permeate Shay’s awareness the way it had her jogging shorts.
“Oh damn!” She fumbled to right her mug and grabbed for napkins to catch the steaming liquid dripping over the edge of the kitchen table.
When she was done cleaning, she picked up her empty cup and stared into its depths. She hadn’t had enough sleep. And now she couldn’t even blame the caffeine she had yet to drink for her nerves.
Hypervigilance. Her condition even had a name. Her doctor assured her that this latest episode would pass. Many women felt unnerved after a nasty breakup. Especially if the ex-boyfriend continued to harass her with text messages and middle-of-the-night phone calls. She was told to ignore the calls and delete the messages unread. Within a few weeks most men moved on.
Unfortunately, that prognosis hadn’t made her less anxious for long. Though she had tossed away her disposable cell and bought another so that Eric could not reach her, she could not get rid of the feeling that she was being watched. Again her doctor assured her that only hypervigilance plagued her and it would subside with time.
That was a month ago.
Shay shook her head tightly. Not when it had become freakin’ obvious, after last night, that there was a very real reason for it to continue!
Eric Coates wasn’t most men. He had not sent angry messages or threats. He was more clever than that.
Eric had found her. Alone.
Who else would have been lurking in the woods watching this place? How had he found her?
Did it matter? He was out there, waiting.
Eric didn’t know about the cabin. No one in her present life knew about this place up on the state line. It had been her refuge since age fourteen, the one safe place in the broken world of her teenage years. That was a past she had run from, and was still running from. Even now, she’d do almost anything to protect herself from it.
Shay shook her head to dispel the band of fear threatening to tighten into a headache. She was an idiot to have left the city for an off-season cabin in the woods. She’d just provided him with the perfect place—
“No.” She raised both hands as if she could physically chase away the negative thoughts. “No!”
The shock of a wet nose poking her behind the knee jolted her.
She glanced down as Prince pushed his weight against her leg and stared up at her in question, alert to every nuance of her feelings. Her world righted.
She wasn’t alone. She had Prince.
Relief slid through her as she bent and scratched her new pet behind the ears.
The fairy tales were right. There was a Prince Charming out there for her. He’d arrived in her life the day after she broke up with Eric.
And like in all fairy tales, he’d come into her life from an unexpected place, the animal shelter, in an unexpected guise, wearing a black mask with black ears, and sporting a thick black and golden doggy pelt.
They’d bonded immediately. He was extraordinarily attuned to her moods. While she didn’t always trust her own reactions these days, she quickly came to trust Prince’s without question. If he responded to sounds in the night, as he did last night, then she knew it wasn’t just her anxiety. She needed that assurance badly.
“Good boy.” She rubbed his back affectionately a couple of times before straightening up. Prince was the best thing to happen to her, maybe ever. As long as she had him she was safe.
She picked up her cup and moved to put it in the sink. She hadn’t been able to force herself to return to bed after her night visitor had been chased away. Instead, she’d curled up beneath a throw on the sofa, where she could sleep with one hand on Prince’s back as he lay on the rug beside her, and hold her cell phone in the other in case she needed to call for help. If the sheriff’s office would believe her. The Raleigh police hadn’t.
The cup rattled hard against the porcelain sink, an indication that the adrenaline-charged anxiety attack had yet to recede. Shame splashed through her at the realization that after all this time, her body could still betray her in this way.
She should have recognized the signs sooner. From the beginning of their year-long relationship she was often uncomfortable in Eric’s presence. Yet, she’d never told anyone about her uncertainties concerning him. Life had long ago taught her to doubt herself. Besides, who would believe her? Eric could be outrageously generous and so charming. She was a lowly temp. She was lucky to have attracted the attention of a man with money and good looks, who took her on secret glamorous vacations.
Yet Eric could go from charming guy to complete asshole in the time it took to knock back a few tequila shots. Gradually, he became critical of her, avoided her friends, seldom took her out in public after the first few weeks of their relationship. She gave in more and more to his point of view because it was easier than facing his stern disapproval. But there was a deep well of resentment growing inside her that she hadn’t realized was there until a few weeks ago. Even she had a limit.
Rough sex, he’d called it.
Shay clamped her teeth over her lower lip to stop its trembling.
She couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Afterward, she’d locked herself in his bathroom and called the police. That brought the next shock.
Eric was so quick to confess that he’d gotten a little carried away, and apologized so convincingly, she could tell the police began to doubt her version of deliberate assault. Still, they said they would take her in for testing and she could file charges and take him to court.
Court. In her fury and outrage, she had forgotten. The last thing she wanted was to go to court where her personal history might be pulled up again for public view. No, her life would be ruined all over again. Mortified, she had recanted her story.
Shay shivered, recalling her feelings of helplessness and outrage.
It was the sight of Eric’s smug expression, knowing he was going to get away with what he’d done, that spurred her to blurt out that their relationship was over, right there in front of the two law enforcement officers who could not help her.
Eric didn’t respond but she saw the cold fury in his expression that no one else seemed to notice. There’d been a promise in his last look, and it terrified her. She knew in her bones that he was going to get even. When she let her guard down. When she stopped worrying. When she was most vulnerable.
Shay looked out the window above the sink at the morning light reflecting off the silver surface of the lake. Its serenity didn’t calm her this morning.
Since that night a month ago, she couldn’t shake the panicky feelings of being followed and watched. Anxiety had her running from her own shadow. Checking and rechecking the locks. Glancing repeatedly over her shoulder until her friends became concerned by her increasingly paranoid behavior. One morning she couldn’t even force herself to leave for work until Angie came and got her. Unable to explain the cause of her panic attack, she watched Angie’s sympathy turn into concern for her sanity. Two days ago, she had fled Raleigh, seeking refuge in the one place where Eric wouldn’t know to look for her.
Yet he had found her.
Shay closed her eyes and took a deep trembling breath.
She had known the drill from age fourteen. Self-control, that was the answer, not meds, to conquer her attacks. Time and self-awareness, those were the keys to control. She mustn’t allow small things to get the better of her. She needed to think, be reasonable, and logical. Consider that she was jumping to conclusions.
She let out her breath as a quiver of apprehension rippled over her skin. She resisted it, forcing herself instead to make a mental list of other possible answers for the presence of her night visitor.
She was so certain it was Eric. What if she was wrong? The person in the truck outside her cabin could have been anyone: a camper, a hunter, even a Peeping Tom. Besides, Prince had scared whoever it was away. If he came again, she’d call the sheriff’s office. Even if they didn’t believe her, someone would show up.
Shay breathed in again, slower and steadier.
Today was Saturday. She’d have to go back to work on Monday. She couldn’t afford to lose her position in a job market that wasn’t exactly overflowing with prospects.
Get your act together, Shayla Lynn Appleton.
Shay exhaled, longer and easier this time. She could feel her heart begin to slow. She was going to be fine. She just needed to believe it. Or fake it until she could make it a reality.
A sharp, high-pitched bark made her open her eyes.
Prince had come into the kitchen and was watching her from the threshold.
As she walked over to him, his tail began wagging. Then his head swung toward the front door, head cocked as if to listen.
Shay’s heart skipped as she followed his gaze. Then she spied his leash hanging by the door. “Oh, you’re just trying to remind me it’s time for our morning walk.”
Prince shot forward with a yelp of excitement.
It was clear that her pet was better trained than she was. He was trying his best to show her what he needed, but she still often misunderstood. Yet he’d acted without her direction last night, knowing instinctively that she was afraid of whatever was out there in the dark. She really did need to get them both to the doggy-training class she’d looked into, and soon. But not a fancy place like that Harmonie Kennels in Virginia that Angie had suggested she call.
“He’s got the attitude of a professional canine. Maybe he’s, like, a drug dog that’s been retired,” Angie had said after meeting Prince.
Angie, her one real friend, was like that, always seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Even so, Angie could be very persuasive. She kept mentioning this kennel she’d read about, supposedly the top place in the mid-Atlantic states. So, after arriving at the lake, Shay had called just to find out how much the training would cost.
The woman who answered had been much too nosy for Shay’s liking, asking if her shelter dog had any distinguishing markings or ID tag. That’s when it hit her that the woman who had brought Prince to the shelter might not have been entirely honest. If something was amiss, she might lose him. So she had hung up quickly, sorry she’d made the call.
As Shay came up behind him, Prince began pawing at the door, making little excited whimpering sounds.
“Fine, but you’ll have to slow your pace this time.” She pulled back the dead bolts then reached for the doorknob with one hand and his leash with the other. “Yesterday you nearly— Oh!”
One moment she and Prince were alone. The next she was staring into the gaze of one very stern-looking man in camo.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish