Erin Quinn Books
Trade Paperback - January 2018
The man came for her at dawn.
She opened her eyes in her kitchen, coffee cup held between her palms, shocked by the sharp transition from there to here. Morning was still a purple smear on the horizon and the only light in the room came from the hallway, where she kept a lamp burning all night long. Against the layered shadows, the man seemed pale, his hair and brows dark and dramatic by contrast. His arms were crossed, his head bent, but he watched her with eyes of green. She saw something in that stare that drew her against her will. It confused her, the feelings it stirred. As if she must be the apparition here, not the silky-voiced stranger leaning against her counter. He seemed very real, while she felt like tethered gossamer in a violent storm.
Even before she saw him, Danni sensed his presence emerging from the frightening never-never land between dreams and premonitions. Neither real nor imagined, he represented a part of herself she’d thought erased, like the pieces of her childhood she couldn’t remember.
But this man had come without invitation, as visions tended to do. And he’d come for her.
“Danni,” the man said, his voice a catalyst, a bridge between their two worlds. “Wake up.”
She couldn’t look away from his eyes, his face—harsh, unshaven, rugged at every angle. Masculine, from the square jaw to wide shoulders and long legs. Not just tall. Not just broad. A big man.
Her gaze met his and one of his brows rose quizzically. She’d been staring—assessing. Danni flushed, suddenly self-conscious in her old Must Love Dogs T-shirt, pink boxers and slippers. She looked away quickly, sloshing coffee over the lip of her mug. She cursed under her breath as she set it on the counter and wiped her shaking hands on a towel. She probably would have dropped it if she’d tried to hold it any longer. Real or not, the man unnerved her.
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice sounding strange in the expectant hush of this no-man’s land.
They were outside now. It happened so quickly she felt dizzy. Her question still dangled unanswered between them. Without waiting to see if she followed, he started across the plateau that suddenly stretched out in front of them. Quilted with vivid greens and earthy browns, the unfamiliar terrain rose up to a rumbling sky that hung damp and low, rain-bloated and dreary. Somewhere nearby, waves thundered against a shore. A precipice was dead ahead, suspended over a spurning sea the same bleak shade as the sky.
It hit her then. She’d seen this view before. She knew it on a subconscious level, but she couldn’t say where or when or why it was sequestered in her memory.
The sky grumbled and rolled, layers of slate and steel piled one on top of the other. The clouds seeped down to the ground and chilled the air, chilled her bones. A sharp wind blew across the plateau, rife with brine, tar, and musky decay. The scents of the sea, as recognizable as the view that demanded recognition.
“Where are we?” she asked as she caught up to the man.
He paused, giving her a considering look over his shoulder. “You don’t remember?”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she muttered.
He nodded, somehow legitimizing her fear.
They’d reached the edge of the cliff, but he didn’t stop. Instead, he turned to a trail that zigzagged down the sea wall to the rocky beach below. Without another word, he started down, his long legs easily navigating the steep, uneven path. Reluctantly, Danni went too—certain a deadly plunge was in her future, not so clear on what that might mean in the real world. A tight, anxious knot had formed just under her breast bone.
Below, the tide pounded the shore with fury that subdued her thoughts. She focused on placing one foot in front of the other. On not plunging down to the jagged boulders that poked up from the beach. She sensed something big looming high up to her left, but didn’t dare look away from the treacherous path to investigate what it might be.
The exertion warmed her. Now some acoustical anomaly carried sounds up from down below. A woman’s voice, frantic and afraid. Other voices, too. A man, maybe two men. And children. Frightened children.
Danni’s steps slowed, then stopped altogether. The sound of their young, scared pleas propelled her back into her own history. To nights in the communal bedroom of the group home, where children no one wanted lived. Someone was always afraid, always crying, there.
Solemn and intent, the man continued down with effortless grace, dislodging pebbles that rappelled to the bottom. Danni remained frozen where she was as the argument below escalated.
There came a loud bang—a shot followed by screams. Danni flinched, suddenly hot and clammy with fear. She didn’t want to follow the man anymore. She wanted to be back in her kitchen where it was safe.
The man paused and looked back. It seemed he knew what she was thinking. His eyes darkened with compassion, but also with disappointment he didn’t hide. She felt it as much as she saw it. He gave her a small nod. Go ahead, run away. The gesture came without condemnation.
For a moment the steep seawall, the glowering sky . . . the compelling man watching her . . . it all wavered and Danni could see her kitchen through the overlaid image. All she had to do was step through, step out.
Down below the children sobbed, and the woman beseeched incoherently. Danni felt her despair, her terror. Her desperate need . . .
The man started down again, now with urgency. Danni clenched her eyes tight and breathed deeply, mentally closed the passage to her kitchen, slamming the door on safety and sanity. She followed once more, hurrying to catch up as he disappeared into the deep gloom at the bottom.
Broken shells and rocks crusted the shallow strip between massive boulders and angry surf. The path crunched painfully beneath her slippers as they stepped through an uneven opening into a cavern. Danni peered through the foggy murk thick enough to obscure her ankles and feet. And then, with the pop of her ears clearing and a surreal rush of color and texture, everything snapped into shocking focus.
The cavern hunkered low over a tide pool. An uneven stone floor circled the inky waters, and on the far side people stood in the hazy glow of a lantern. The muted lighting turned their faces into masks, adding ghoulish hollows and shiny peaks. They stood in a cluster—a woman with two children, a young boy and girl. The children clung to the woman’s legs. A man knelt on the ground just at the edge of the lantern’s light. He held something in his arms. Danni couldn’t make out what. Another man, obscured by the concealing shadows, spoke angrily.
Calmly, Danni’s guide approached the woman. Pausing to look back at Danni, he lifted the hem of her light jacket and blouse, revealing the bulge of an early pregnancy and . . . bruises. Huge discolorations mottled her ribs and abdomen in black, blue, neon yellow, and sickly green. Old and new, the marks layered one on top of the other.
The woman spun with a gasp, her eyes wide and frightened. She stared at the place where Danni stood for a long, breathless moment and Danni felt the woman’s gaze settle on her face.
As if she could see Danni . . .
But that wasn’t possible. Danni wasn’t really there. None of them were.
Yet the woman continued to stare right at her. Danni saw a shiver work its way through her body, shuddering down to the hands that held onto her children. A feeling of déjá vu riveted Danni, but she didn’t understand it—any of it.
The silent denials collided with doubt that bubbled up inside her. She looked at the little boy, then the girl. Her face was tear stained, her eyes big and gray, her hair golden brown. She blinked back at Danni with a flat, knowing gaze. A queer feeling spread through Danni, pointed and quicksilver. She knew this child . . .
Danni’s gaze shifted between the woman and her daughter, disbelief at odds with what she saw. It couldn’t be. She couldn’t be . . . but there was something in the little girl’s eyes, eyes the same color as her own. All at once, Danni knew who this woman and her children were. She remembered suddenly, powerfully, the sound of her laughter, her comforting scent, the aching loss Danni had felt when this woman had dropped her off at daycare twenty years ago and never came back.
The woman was her mother, and the little girl . . .herself. Danni, or rather the child she’d once been.
The man who was hidden from all of them by the cloak of shadow said something in a vicious, tone, jerking her mother’s attention abruptly away from Danni.
“No,” Danni shouted.
She rushed forward and tried to turn her mother back around. Tried to touch her, hold her, beg her mother to see her again. But whatever connection had been made for that brief instant was gone. The little girl began weeping inconsolably, and the man who knelt beside them rose, unsteady on his feet. Through the twilight, Danni saw his face, swollen and red, ravaged by grief. She felt his pain pulsing off him like the surging waves in the pool at her feet.
Terror lurked in her mother’s eyes now. In the way she flicked her gaze back and forth between the place where the disembodied voice came from and the man at her side, who lifted his hands, holding them away from his body, palms out—the universal sign for compliance.
But the hostile words exchanged between the woman and her unseen antagonist grew louder until they echoed all around them. The tension in the air tightened like a noose of thin wire that would soon cut through the skin. Why couldn’t Danni understand what was being said?
Suddenly another bang resounded in the cave, and Danni’s screams joined those of her mother and the children. A gun, she thought. That was a gun. Even as her mind catalogued the sound, her body reacted to the bite of pain slicing through her. She felt it—felt it—as if a bullet had burrowed into her heart. She looked down, expecting to see blood. To see her life draining out of her. But there was nothing, nothing to explain the bewildering agony. She looked around her in shock, in panic, seeing again the crumpled shape on the ground beside the cluster of frightened people. Only then did she grasp what it was—what the man had been holding when they’d first come in. It was a body.
She managed to turn to the stranger who’d brought her here. He only watched her, his face impassive, his gaze enigmatic. She couldn’t look away, couldn’t turn back to the unfolding drama. The voices of her mother and the children waned, taking with them the searing pain. They were fading—everything vanishing.
Danni wanted to cling to her mother like the child she’d once been. But she couldn’t break the hold of the stranger’s compelling green eyes.
A swirling mixture of grays and browns frosted the air, making Danni think of a giant God creating sand art on an unending pane of glass. The light changed from dark gloom to dreary twilight, and they were outside again
The wind joined the sensation of biting fresh air and bitter cold. They were back on the plateau, just the two of them now. The crushing pain of the gunshot was gone but Danni’s heart filled with grief at the loss of her mother. Again. Again, Danni had been abandoned by her.
The man moved, not giving her time to mourn. He had a mission. She’d forgotten that he was there for reasons of his own.
Danni hurried to keep up as he strode away, a tall dark figure in a world painted with shades of obscurity. Their time was nearly at an end. She could sense it, feel it in the crackling air.
Once again, she became aware of something huge casting a shadow on them, but they’d stopped beside a shallow grave, freshly dug and unmarked, and nothing else seemed to matter. The bitter scent of tilled earth mingled with the damp fishiness wafting from the sea.
Her stranger’s eyes filled with despair as he looked upon the open grave. Danni swallowed painfully, so afraid she couldn’t speak. The grave was an ominous symbol in this vision. Only a fool would think it otherwise.
The muddied ground at her feet sucked at her slippers as she moved closer and slowly leaned forward. There were two bodies sprawled at the bottom of the grave, as if they’d been carelessly tossed in. One was an adolescent boy, and some shadowy part of her mind said this was who she’d seen on the floor of the cavern. He was gangly and hollow-chested, his legs twisted beneath him in an unnatural position, and his face turned away. Crumpled beside him was a woman wearing leggings and an oversized T-shirt—an outfit reminiscent of the nineties. Her long golden-brown hair lay in a fall over her shoulders and against the boy’s chest. Half of her face was concealed, but the other half . . .
Danni recoiled, futilely trying to delete what she’d just seen. Once again, she’d come face-to-face with herself, only this time not the child she’d been, but the woman she was now. The other body in the grave was Danni’s.
Impossible, impossible, impossible . . .
The man beside her stared into the grave for another introspective moment. Then he looked to the distant, turbulent sea. Danni felt his grief and anger mix and grow until it burned like the whipping wind. She felt the power of it consume him, drive him to a point as perilous as the cliff ’s edge.
Then suddenly he turned those desperate eyes on Danni. He reached out, as if realizing for the first time that he might touch her. She waited for the contact with a biting combination of terror and anticipation.
Visions couldn’t touch, couldn’t feel . . .
He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers, and his warmth was electric against her cold skin. She stared at him, stunned, seeing her own astonishment mirrored in the glittering silver and green of his eyes.
He touched her again, settling his palm against her jaw, cupping her face—both hands now. Both hands warm and rough and undeniably real. Transfixed, she stared at him, catching her breath when his gaze shifted to her mouth.
Her hands came up to the muscled wall of his chest, feeling it rise with his deep breath, grappling with the sense of his heart beating beneath her palms. Her fear merged with the rush of sensation and became a ball of heat in her belly, a longing that smoldered and sparked. She waited as his head bent, his lips moving closer to hers. But the air was turning—she could feel it changing. Even as his mouth hovered over her lips, his breath a hot whisper she couldn’t quite hear, he was gone. An instant later, a ripping sensation sucked her back to where she’d started.
She sagged against her kitchen counter, drawing in deep breaths of warm air. Her cup sat just where she’d left it, coffee not yet cooled, though it seemed hours should have passed. She couldn’t stop the shaking in her legs or slow the pounding of her heart.
She didn’t understand what the vision meant, who the man was or why she’d seen him. Why he’d shown her the mother she barely remembered, or herself as a child she’d forgotten even existed. Who were the men in the cavern? Or the boy whose body had been tossed into the grave with her own? She had no answers, only questions.
She did know one thing, though. The green-eyed stranger was looking for Danni. And it was only a matter of time before he found her.
Order Haunting Beauty:
Trade: ISBN-10: 0990887650 ISBN-13: 978-0990887652
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