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Nora Roberts is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 200 novels, including The Liar, The Collector, Whiskey Beach, The Witness, and many more. She is also the author of the bestselling In Death series written under the pen name J. D. Robb. There are more than 500 million copies of her books in print.
From the Hardcover edition.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Nora Roberts
August 29, 1998
She didn’t know what woke her, and no matter how many times she relived that night, no matter where the nightmare chased her, she never would.
Summer turned the air into a wet, simmering stew, one smelling of sweat and drenching green. The humming fan on her dresser stirred it, but it was like sleeping in the steam pumping off the pot.
Still, she was used to that, to lying on top of summer-moist sheets, with the windows open wide to the relentless chorus of cicadas—and the faint hope even a tiny breeze would slither through the sultry.
The heat didn’t wake her, nor did the soft rumble of thunder from a storm gathering in the distance. Naomi went from sleep to awake in an instant, as if someone had given her a good shake or shouted her name in her ear.
She sat straight up in bed, blinking at the dark, hearing nothing but the hum of the fan, the high pitch of the cicadas, and the lazy, repetitive hoo of an owl. All country summer sounds she knew as well as her own voice, and nothing to put that odd little click in her throat.
But now, awake, she felt that heat, like gauze soaked in hot water and wrapped around every inch of her. She wished it were morning so she could sneak out before anyone was up and cool off in the creek.
Chores came first, that was the rule. But it was so hot it felt like she’d have to part the air like a curtain just to take a step. And it was Saturday (or would be in the morning) and sometimes Mama let the rules slide a little on Saturdays—if Daddy was in a good mood.
Then she heard that rumble of thunder. Delighted, she scrambled out of bed to rush to her window. She loved storms, the way they whirled and swung through the trees, the way the sky went spooky, the way lightning slashed and flashed.
And maybe this storm would bring rain and wind and cooler air. Maybe.
She knelt on the floor, her arms folded on the windowsill, her eyes on the bit of moon hazed by heat and clouds.
She wished for it—a girl who’d turn twelve in just two days and still believed in wishes. A big storm, she thought, with lightning like pitchforks and thunder like cannon fire.
And lots and lots of rain.
She closed her eyes, tipped her face up, tried sniffing the air. Then, in her Sabrina the Teenage Witch T-shirt, she pillowed her head on her hands and studied the shadows.
Again she wished for morning, and since wishes were free, wished it were the morning of her birthday. She wanted a new bike so bad, and she’d given out plenty of hints.
She knelt, wanting morning, a girl tall and gawky, who—though she checked daily—was not yet growing breasts. The heat had her hair sticking to her neck. Annoyed with it, she pushed it up, off, let it hang over her shoulder. She wanted to cut it—really short, like a pixie in the fairy-tale book her grandparents had given her before they weren’t allowed to see each other anymore.
But Daddy said girls were supposed to have long hair, and boys short. So her little brother got a crew cut down at Vick’s Barbershop in town, and all she could do was pull her sort-of-blonde hair back in a ponytail.
But then Mason got spoiled silly, in her opinion, being the boy. He’d gotten a basketball hoop and a backboard, with an official Wilson basketball for his birthday. He got to play Little League baseball, too—something that by Daddy’s rules was only for boys (something Mason never let her forget)—and being younger by twenty-three months (something she didn’t let him forget), he didn’t have as many chores.
It wasn’t fair, but saying so only added on more chores and risked losing TV privileges.
Besides, she wouldn’t care about any of that if she got the new bike.
She caught a dull flash—just a shimmer of lightning low in the sky. It would come, she told herself. The wish storm would come and bring the cool and wet. If it rained and rained and rained, she wouldn’t have to weed the garden.
The idea of that excited her enough that she nearly missed the next flash.
Not lightning this time, but the beam from a flashlight.
Her first thought was someone was poking around, maybe trying to break in. She started to stand up, run for her father.
Then she saw that it was her father. Moving away from the house toward the tree line, moving quick and sure in the beam of the light.
Maybe he was going to the creek to cool off. If she went, too, how could he be mad? If he was in a good mood, he’d laugh.
She didn’t think twice, just grabbed up her flip-flops, stuck her tiny flashlight in her pocket, and hurried out of the room, quiet as a mouse.
She knew which steps creaked—everybody did—and avoided them out of habit. Daddy didn’t like it if she or Mason snuck downstairs for a drink after bedtime.
She didn’t put the flip-flops on until she reached the back door, then eased it open just enough—before it could creak—to squeeze out.
For a minute she thought she’d lost the trail of the flashlight, but she caught it again and darted after. She’d hang back until she gauged her father’s mood.
But he veered off from the shallow ribbon of the creek, moving deeper into the woods that edged that scrap of land.
Where could he be going? Curiosity pushed her on, and the almost giddy excitement of sneaking through the woods in the dead of night. The rumbles and flashes from the sky only added to the adventure.
She didn’t know fear, though she’d never gone this deep into the woods—it was forbidden. Her mother would tan her hide if she got caught, so she wouldn’t get caught.
Her father moved quick and sure, so he knew where he was going. She could hear his boots crunching old dried leaves on the skinny trail, so she kept back. It wouldn’t do for him to hear her.
Something screeched, made her jump a little. She had to slap her hand over her mouth to muffle the giggle. Just an old owl, out on the hunt.
The clouds shifted, covered the moon. She nearly stumbled when she stubbed her bare toe on a rock, and again she covered her mouth to smother her hiss of pain.
Her father stopped, making her heart pound like a drum. She went still as a statue, barely breathing. For the first time she wondered what she’d do if he turned around, came back toward her. Couldn’t run, she thought, for he’d surely hear that. Maybe she could creep off the path, hide in the brush. And just hope there weren’t snakes sleeping.
When he moved on she continued to stand, telling herself to go back before she got into really big trouble. But the light was like a magnet and drew her on.
It bobbled and shook for a moment. She heard something rattle and scrape, something creak like the back door.
Then the light vanished.
She stood in the deep, dark woods, breath shallow, and cold prickling over her skin despite the hot, heavy air. She took a step back, then two, as the urge to run fell over her.
The click came back to her throat, so sharp she could barely swallow. And the dark, all the dark seemed to wrap around her—too tight.
Run home, run. Get back in bed, close your eyes. The voice in her head pitched high and shrill like the cicadas.
“Scaredy-cat,” she whispered, clutching her own arms for courage. “Don’t be a scaredy-cat.”
She crept forward, almost feeling her way now. Once again the clouds shifted, and in the thin trickle of moonlight she saw the silhouette of a ruined building.
Like an old cabin, she thought, that had burned down so only the jags of foundation and an old chimney remained.
The odd fear slid away into fascination with the shapes, the grays of it all, the way the thin moonlight played over the scorched bricks, the blackened wood.
Again she wished for morning so she could explore. If she could sneak back here in the light, it could be her place. A place where she could bring her books and read—without her brother nagging at her. And she could sit and draw or just sit and dream.
Someone had lived there once, so maybe there were ghosts. And that idea was a thrill. She’d just love to meet a ghost.
But where had her father gone?
She thought of the rattles and creak again. Maybe this was like another dimension, and he’d opened a door to it, gone through.
He had secrets—she figured all adults did. Secrets they kept from everybody, secrets that made their eyes go hard if you asked the wrong question. Maybe he was an explorer, one who went through a magic door to another world.
He wouldn’t like her thinking it because other worlds, like ghosts and teenage witches, weren’t in the Bible. But maybe he wouldn’t like her thinking it because it was true.
She risked a few more steps forward, ears cocked for any sound. And heard only the thunder, rolling closer.
This time when she stubbed her toe, the quick cry of pain escaped, and she hopped on one foot until the sting eased. Stupid rock, she thought, and glanced down.
In that pale moonlight she saw not a rock, but a door. A door in the ground! A door that would creak when opened. Maybe a magic door.
She got down on all fours, ran her hands over it—and got a splinter for her trouble.
Magic doors didn’t give you splinters. Just an old root cellar, or storm cellar. But though disappointment dampened her spirits as she sucked her sore finger, it was still a door in the ground in the woods by an old burned-out cabin.
And her father had gone down there.
Her bike! Maybe he’d hidden her bike down there and was right now putting it together. Willing to risk another splinter, she put her ear to the old wood, squeezing her eyes tight to help her hear.
She thought she heard him moving around. And he was making a kind of grunting noise. She imagined him assembling her bike—all shiny and new and red—his big hands picking the right tool, and whistling through his teeth the way he did when he worked on something.
He was down there doing something special just for her. She wouldn’t complain (in her head) about chores for a whole month.
How long did it take to put a bike together? She should hurry back home so he didn’t know she’d followed him. But she really, really, really wanted to see it. Just a peek.
She eased back from the door, crept over to the burned-out cabin, and hunkered down behind the old chimney. It wouldn’t take him long—he was good with tools. He could have his own repair shop if he wanted and only worked for the cable company out of Morgantown to provide security for his family.
He said so all the time.
She glanced up at the snap of lightning—the first pitchfork of it—and the thunder that followed was more boom than mumble. She should’ve gone home, that was the truth, but she couldn’t go back now. He could come out any time, and he’d catch her for sure.
There’d be no shiny red bike for her birthday if he caught her now.
If the storm broke, she’d just get wet, that’s all. It would cool her off.
She told herself he’d just be five more minutes, and when the minutes passed, he’d just be five more. And then she had to pee. She tried to hold it, ignore it, squeeze it back, but in the end, she gave up and crept her way farther back, back into the trees.
She rolled her eyes, pulled down her shorts, and crouched, keeping her feet wide to avoid the stream. Then she shook and shook until she was as dry as she was going to get. Just as she started to pull her pants back up, the door creaked open.
She froze, pants around her knees, bare butt inches off the ground, her lips pressed tight to hold back her breath.
She saw him in the next flash of lightning, and he looked wild to her—his close-cropped hair almost white in the storm light, his eyes so dark, and his teeth showing in a fierce grin.
Seeing him, half expecting him to throw back his head and howl like a wolf, she felt her heart thudding with the first true fear she’d ever known.
When he rubbed himself, down there, she felt her cheeks go hot as fire. Then he closed the door, the quick slam of it echoing. He shot the bolt home—a hard, scraping sound that made her shiver. Her legs trembled from holding the awkward position while he tossed layers of old leaves over the door.
He stood a moment more—and oh, the lightning sizzled now—and played the beam of his light over the door. The backwash of it threw his face into relief so she saw only the hard edges, and the light, close-cropped hair made it look like a skull, eyes dark, soulless hollows.
He looked around, and for one terrible moment she feared he looked right at her. This man, she knew into her bones, would hurt her, would use hands and fists on her like the father who worked to provide security for his family never had.
With a helpless whimper in her throat, she thought: Please, Daddy. Please.
But he turned away, and with long, sure strides, went back the way he’d come.
She didn’t move a trembling muscle until she heard nothing but the night song, and the first stirring of the wind. The storm was rolling in, but her father was gone.
She hiked up her pants and straightened, rubbing the pins and needles out of her legs.
No moon now, and all sense of adventure had dropped into a terrible dread.
But her eyes had adjusted enough for her to pick her way back to the leaf-covered door. She saw it only because she knew it was there.
She could hear her own breath now, wisping away on the swirl of wind. Cool air, but now she wanted warm. Her bones felt cold, like winter cold, and her hand shook as she bent down to brush the thick layers of leaves away.
She stared at the bolt, thick and rusted, barring the old wood door. Her fingers traced over it, but she didn’t want to open it now. She wanted to be back in her own bed, safe. She didn’t want that picture of her father, that wild picture.
But her fingers tugged on the bolt, and then she used her hands as it resisted. She set her teeth when it scraped open.
It was her bike, she told herself even while a terrible weight settled in her chest. Her shiny red birthday bike. That was what she would find.
Slowly, she lifted the door, looked down into the dark.
She swallowed hard, took the little flashlight out of her pocket, and, using its narrow beam, made her way down the ladder.
She had a sudden fear of her father’s face appearing in the opening. That wild and terrible look on his face. And that door slamming shut, closing her in. She nearly scrambled back up again, but she heard the whimper.
She froze on the ladder.
An animal was down here. Why would her daddy have an animal down . . . A puppy? Was that her birthday surprise? The puppy she’d always wanted, but wasn’t allowed to have. Even Mason couldn’t beg them a puppy.
Tears stung her eyes as she dropped down to the dirt floor. She’d have to pray for forgiveness for the awful thoughts—thoughts were a sin as much as deeds—she’d had about her father.
She swung her light around, her heart full of wonder and joy—the last she would feel for far too long. But where she imagined a puppy whimpering in his crate was a woman.
Her eyes we...
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