- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- Release Date: August 19, 2013
- ISBN-13: 978-1455581122
- Available Formats: Audio, e-Book, Print
Dr. Emory Charbonneau, a pediatrician and marathon runner, disappears on a mountain road in North Carolina. By the time her husband Jeff, miffed over a recent argument, reports her missing, the trail has grown cold. Literally. Fog and ice encapsulate the mountainous wilderness and paralyze the search for her.
Emory, suffering from an unexplained head injury, regains consciousness to find herself held captive by a man who won’t even tell her his name. She’s determined to escape, and willing to take any risks necessary to survive. Then Emory and her mystery man encounter people who adhere to a code of justice all their own. At the center of the dispute is a desperate young woman whom Emory can’t turn her back on, even if it means breaking the law.
As her husband’s deception is revealed, and the FBI closes in on her captor, Emory begins to wonder if the man with no name is, in fact, her rescuer.
She watched him with unabashed curiosity and apprehension. He’d placed a paper towel in his lap as though it was a linen napkin, but he ate with his elbows on the table. He served his butter from the wrapper and had crumbled a cracker into his stew, but he blotted his mouth after every bite.
He lived in an outdated log cabin, but he didn’t look like a mountain man. Particularly. He had a scruff, but it wasn’t more than a day or two old. He wore a black and red checked flannel shirt tucked into faded blue jeans, but the garments were clean. His hair was dark brown, collar length in back, longer than most men his age typically wore. It was laced with strands of gray at his temples.
That frosting would make another man look distinguished. It only made him look older than he probably was. Late thirties, possibly. But it was a lived-in face with a webbing of creases around his eyes, furrows at the corners of his lips, and a watchful wariness behind his eyes, which were a startling aquamarine. The cool color contrasted to his suntanned, wind-scoured face.
He was an odd mix of contrasts. He lived ruggedly, without even a telephone or TV, but he wasn’t uncouth, and he was well-spoken. Open shelves affixed to the log walls held dozens of books, some hardcover, some paperback, tidily arranged.
The whole place was neat, she noted. But there wasn’t a single photograph in the room, no knickknacks or memorabilia, nothing that hinted of his past, or, for that matter, his present.
She didn’t trust his casual manner, nor his explanation of why he hadn’t taken her to a medical facility as soon as he found her. Calling nine-one-one would have been even more practical. If he’d wanted to.
A man didn’t simply pick up unconscious and bleeding women and cart her to his remote and neighborless mountain cabin without a reason, and she couldn’t think of one that didn’t involve criminality or depravity or both.
He hadn’t touched her in any untoward way, but maybe he was a psychopath who drew the line at assaulting his victims while they were unconscious. Maybe he preferred them awake, aware, and responsive to his torment.
Shakily, she asked, “Are we in North Carolina?”
“I ask because some of the trails in the park stretch over into Tennessee.”
She remembered parking in a designated area, doing her stretches, clipping on her fanny pack. She remembered hitting her stride, and she recalled the stillness of the woods on either side of the trail and how the cold air had become thinner as she gained altitude. But she had no memory of falling and striking her head hard enough to cause a concussion.
Which led her to wonder if that’s what had indeed happened.
She helped herself to one of the crackers and took a sip of Coke, hoping that the combination of them might improve her queasiness. “What’s the elevation here?”
“Close to five thousand feet,” he replied. “Difficult terrain for running.”
“I’m training for a marathon.”
He stopped eating, interested. “First one?”
“Huh. Hoping to improve your time?”
“So you push yourself.”
“I don’t see it that way. I love it.”
“Quite a challenge, distance running at this altitude.”
“Yes, but it makes running at a lower level easier.”
“You don’t worry about overdoing?”
“I’m careful. Especially with my right foot. I had a stress fracture last year.”
“No wonder you favor it.”
She gave him a sharp look. “How do you know I do?”
“I noticed as you were hobbling from the bed to the door.”
Possibly, she thought. Or had he noticed it before when he was watching her through binoculars? From just how far away? From a far ridge as he’d claimed, or from a much closer distance?
Rather than confront him with those questions, she continued making conversation in the hope of gaining information. “My foot gave me fits last year after Boston. The pediatrist advised that I stay off it for three months. I hated being unable to run, but I followed his instructions. Once he gave me the green light, I began training again.”
“When’s the marathon?”
“Nine days from today.”
“Yes, I know,” she sighed. “This concussion comes at a most inconvenient time.”
“You may have to pass.”
“I can’t. I have to run it.”
He didn’t ask, just looked at her.
“It’s a fund-raiser. I helped organize it. People are counting on me.”
He spooned another bite, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. “Your driver’s license identifies you as Dr. Emory Charbonneau. Medical doctor?”
“Pediatrics. I share a practice with two OB/GYNs.”
“You take over the babies once they arrive?”
“That was the plan when we formed the practice.”
“Do you have kids of your own?”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “Someday, hopefully.”
“What about Mr. Charbonneau? Is he a doctor, too?”
“My husband’s name is Jeff Surrey. When we married I was already Dr. Charbonneau. For professional reasons, it seemed best not to change my name.”
He didn’t remark on that, but his eyebrows came together in a half-frown. “What does he do for a living?”
“He’s a money manager. Investments. Futures.”
“Like for rich people?”
“I suppose some of his clients are well to do.”
“You don’t know?”
“He doesn’t discuss his clients’ money matters with me.”
“Right. He wouldn’t.”
She bit off another corner of the cracker. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“What do you do?”
He looked across at her, and, with all seriousness said, “Live.”
He wasn’t being glib, and Emory sensed that he didn’t intend to elaborate. He held her gaze for a moment, then set his spoon in his empty bowl, and pushed back his chair. He carried his utensils to the sink. Returning to the table, he politely asked if she wanted any more crackers.
“No, but I’ll keep the Coke.”
While he set about washing dishes, she excused herself. Treading carefully to keep the walls in place and the floor from undulating, she made her way into the bathroom. The space heater was the old-fashioned kind like her great-grandmother had had. Live blue flames burned against blackened ceramic grates.
She used the toilet, washed her face and hands, and rinsed her mouth out with a dab of toothpaste squeezed from the tube she found in the medicine cabinet above the sink. Also in the cabinet were a bottle of peroxide, a razor and can of shaving cream, a box of Bandaids, a jar of multiple vitamins, and a hairbrush.
The shower stall was made of tin. The wire rack hanging from the shower head contained only a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo. She longed to wash the blood out of her hair but didn’t for fear of reopening the cut on her scalp. The goose egg beneath it hadn’t gotten any larger, but any pressure she applied caused blow darts of pain.
She couldn’t resist peeking into the small cupboard. On the shelving inside it, folded towels and wash cloths were neatly stacked. It also stored rolls of toilet tissue, bars of soap, and cleaning supplies.
Out of the ordinary were the boxes of bullets.
They were on the highest shelf, labeled according to caliber. She had to stand on tiptoe to lift one down. She raised the lid. In the glow of the light fixture above the sink, the shells looked large, long, and lethal.
She quickly closed the box and replaced it exactly as she’d found it, wondering where he kept the guns that corresponded to his arsenal of ammunition.
She left the bathroom to find the main room dark except for the flickering light of the fireplace and the fixture above the kitchen sink. He was folding a dish cloth over the rim of it. Hearing her, he turned his head, speaking to her over his shoulder.
“I figured you’d want to turn in early.”
She glanced toward the bed where the covers, which she’d left rumpled, had been straightened and, on one side, folded back at a precise ninety degree angle. The bloody pillowcase had been replaced with a clean one.
“I’ll sleep in the recliner.”
“You’ll sleep in the bed.” He yanked on a string to extinguish the light above the sink.
The action had a finality to it that strongly suggested arguing over the sleeping arrangements would be futile. Emory sat down on the edge of the bed. She’d been in her running tights all day. Her jogging bra felt uncomfortably tight. But there was no way in hell she’d be removing so much as a single thread, and he was in for a hell of a fight it he intended to take her clothes off.
Her breath caught when he started toward the bed, but after setting the bottle of analgesics and the can of Coke on the night stand, he walked past and went into the bathroom, returning within seconds with the bottle of peroxide and an applicator formed of folded toilet paper squares.
“I don’t have any cotton or gauze,” he said as he poured the solution onto the toilet paper. He set down the bottle and leaned toward her.
“I’ll do that.”
“You can’t see it. If you start feeling around, you might reopen the cut.”
She knew that to be true, so she lowered her hands.
“Turn your head. . .” He nudged her chin with the back of his hand. She complied and sat there, strained and nervous, while he dabbed at the wound.
“Does that hurt?”
“A little.” It hurt like hell, but she couldn’t think of a proper way to phrase it without sounding critical. In fact it was hard to think of anything with him standing so close, bending over her. The proximity of her face to his middle was unsettling and she didn’t breathe until he said, “There,” and stepped away.
“I hate to dirty another pillowcase.”
“Blood washes out. Most of the time.” He picked up the pill bottle and shook two into his palm, then extended his hand to her. “They’ll help with the headache.”
“I’ll wait to take them. See how I do.”
He looked prepared to argue, but returned the tablets to the bottle and replaced it on the night stand. “They’re there if you change your mind. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thank you. I will. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“Maybe I should wake you up at intervals. Just to make sure you’re all right, to make sure that I can wake you up.”
“That’s a good idea, but rather than disturb you, I’ll set alarms on my wristwatch.”
He looked prepared to argue, but finally said, “Suit yourself,” and turned away.
She lay down and then pulled the covers to her chin. Although she closed her eyes, her ears were on high alert as she listened to him moving about the room, adding logs to the grate, scooting the fire screen back into place.
Blood washes out. Most of the time. Spoken like someone who had experience with that dilemma.
She shuddered to think how susceptible she was. She couldn’t even stand alone for more than a couple of minutes. If she had to protect herself, what would she do?
While in college she’d taken a self-defense class, but that had been a long time ago. All she recalled of it now was not to think of the assailant as a whole, but to focus on individual parts of him that were vulnerable to counterattack. Eyes, nose, ears, testicles. She feared that rule wouldn’t apply to a man who appeared as solid as a redwood.
She wished she’d secreted one of those deadly looking bullets. The tip of one jammed into an eyeball would do serious damage. It would stop even a giant long enough to slip past him.
She heard what sounded like boots hitting the wood floor muffled by the carpet, then the squeak of leather as he settled on one of the pieces of furniture. The lamp went out. She opened her eyes to slits and saw that he’d chosen the recliner over the sofa. He was leaned back in it, a quilt pulled over him to mid-torso.
Disconcertingly, he was looking straight at her, his eyes reflecting the firelight like those of a predatory animal.
His voice rumbled across the distance between them. “Relax, Doc. If I was going to hurt you, I would have by now.”
Reason told her that was true. She’d been sleeping defenselessly all afternoon and he hadn’t harmed her. Nevertheless. . .
“Why did you bring me here?”
“But I don’t believe it’s the truth. Not completely.”
“I can’t control what you believe. But you don’t have to be afraid of me.”
After a time, she asked, “Is Drakeland the nearest town?”
“You’ve never heard of it.”
“How far is it?”
“As the crow flies? Twelve miles.”
“And by road?”
“I could easily run that. Going downhill, that wouldn’t be a challenging distance for me.”
He didn’t say, Oh, for godsake, lady, you’ve got a concussion and can’t even walk a straight line, much less run one.
He didn’t say anything at all, which was more unnerving than if he’d cited how illogical that prospect was. His silence was also more menacing than if he’d told her flat out that she wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, that he’d brought her here to be his sex slave, and that upon pain of death, she had better not be plotting an escape.
However, she did escape his opalescent gaze by closing her eyes. For five minutes, they shared nothing but a thick tension and the snapping of the logs in the fireplace.
In spite of her fear, her body was exhausted. On their own, her muscles began to relax. She sank deeper into the mattress. Her concussed brain dragged her toward oblivion. She was just this side of it, when she jerked into full awareness. “You never told me your name.”
“That’s right,” he said. “And I won’t.”
“Brown will have you guessing right up to the very end. What she so creatively calls the finish line.” — Fresh Fiction
“Solid novel of romantic suspense from bestseller Brown.” — Publishers Weekly 6/23/14
“Just when readers think they’ve got things figured out, Brown pulls a clever twist. Settle back and enjoy!” — Romantic Times TOP PICK (Aug 2014)
“She knows how to weave a story that will hold her reader’s attention from the very first line.” — Totally Addicted to Reading