Dark Heart of the Sun
Cottage by the Sea
Early on a Sunday morning, Cassidy Chandler upended her life. She stood before her fiancé, looked into his steel gray eyes, and announced, “I’m leaving, Jackson. We’re done.”
This, as it turned out, was the easy part.
Much harder was witnessing his reaction—or the complete lack of one.
He stared at her, blank-faced, as though she had interrupted his punishing workout routine in the mansion’s private gym to declare that Eddie, her cat, had coughed up a hairball in the kitchen. Surprise. That had to be what she was seeing. He’d start asking questions now, making demands, badgering her for explanations.
Jackson Striker’s hands came together, the left rubbing at the stumps of two fingers on his right, an injury he’d sustained while trying to save his twin brother’s life. Doubt flickered at the back of Cassidy’s conscience. They had been through so much, been there for each other through trauma and loss, right from the beginning when Jackson had charged to her rescue like the proverbial knight in shining armor. This couldn’t really be the end, could it?
His gaze dropped to her neck. She could almost feel it press on the bruise there, making the bizarre injury throb. Making her want to squirm away. He nodded. “Okay.”
Oh, yeah, she thought. The end. No doubt about it. Lifting both hands in an incredulous gesture, she said, “Okay? Really? Okay? Is that all you have to say?”
“You look like you’ve made up your mind. What do you want me to say?”
“How about everything you didn’t say to your father and uncle when they declared me unfit to be their heir’s wife?” That red-hot coal of humiliation still seethed in her gut.
“We talked about this, Cass. What does it matter what two old men think? I’m okay with you having a career, and it’s me you’re marrying.” A statement of fact, nothing more. No heat in his words beyond maybe a touch of irritation. Which only served to kick her ire up a notch.
“These ‘two old men’ are living under the same roof with us. For the rest of my life, they’d remind me every day that I’m nothing more than the middle class provincial you saddled their esteemed one-percenter family with. How do you expect me to live like that?”
“Give them time. They’ll come around. I’ll make sure they do.”
“Seriously?” she shot back. “Like you made sure to speak up when they called your future wife ‘disagreeable’ to her face?” She made air quotes around the exact term used by his uncle—the term that had sent her over the edge and rendered her anything but agreeable. She hoped their ears still burned.
Jackson shifted his weight, the barest hint of discomfort hardening his square jaw. They had hashed this incident out between them at length, but not until now did she realize what really bothered her about it.
“No, Jackson. I’m not marring you.” She pulled the enormous engagement ring off her finger. “If the best you can do now is sit there and let them insult me, I don’t see how that’s going to change in the future. That’s not the man I know.” Grabbing his hand, she smacked the ring into his palm. “And it’s so not the man I want to marry.”
Not that she’d seen that man since they’d moved in with his family as engaged recent college grads. Within days, Jackson became consumed by the family business, turned cagey and tense, and kept Cassidy at an increasing distance. At this point, she felt exiled in the relationship equivalent of Outer Mongolia.
He closed a white-knuckled fist around the ring, but his tone remained casual. “This is about last night, isn’t it?”
Stone-cold anxiety seized her guts out of nowhere. Last night… She caught her reflection in the gym’s mirrored wall behind him. Haunted exhaustion stared back. Dark smudges circled fevered eyes in a pallid face. And that bruise… Not quite successful at suppressing a shiver, she pulled her thick hair forward, hiding the mark. She didn’t know what was worse, the sight of that greenish purple crescent beneath her left ear—or the fact that she had no memory of how it got there.
Jackson watched her, waiting for she-knew-not-what. He towered over her, a mountain of tanned muscle, reeking of sweat. Tension crackled off his skin. He knew what had happened to put that mark on her, she was sure of it. She opened her mouth, but hesitated, unwilling to admit her ignorance—her vulnerability—to someone who might well be responsible. Instead she straightened her spine and raised her chin.
“It’s about a lot of things. I should have never let you talk me into marrying you.” Her bravado faltered under his stoic regard. Before it could evaporate completely, Cassidy said, “Goodbye, Jackson.”
Turning on a heel, she headed for the door, struggling to keep from breaking into an outright run. Every cell in her body strained to get away from him, his family, and this mindboggling palace they called home. She collected the overstuffed suitcase, duffle, shoulder bag, and pet carrier she’d left outside the gym door, and then continued down the hall. As she tumbled her luggage into the air-conditioned hangar of a garage, Jackson came after her.
“So where are you going? Home?”
“None of your business.” She reached for the pet carrier. He was quicker, picking up the case with the twenty-pound Maine Coon cat inside and headed for her car. Mercedes, Jaguars, and a Rolls Royce. Her little VW Beetle sat near the end of the line, a small, bright yellow accident wedged between Jackson’s white Audi sports coupe and his uncle’s black Cadillac SUV.
“Colorado is a long way to drive from South Florida,” he called over his shoulder. “You should stick close.”
Corralling her bags, she huffed after him. “What? In case I change my mind?”
“In that case, Alaska it is,” she shot back. The farther away, the better.
Ignoring her retort, he opened the passenger door and secured the pet carrier to the seat.
Cassidy wrestled her awkward bags into the rear seat and tiny trunk and fumed at Jackson’s cocky certainty of her imminent return. He knew damn well that Alaska—where she had never been—held no more for her than did Colorado, where she had spent all her life. This house with this man by her side should have been her first real home in years. Her home and family for the rest of her life. But not only did she feel misplaced in this mansion, the man appeared only too willing to help her leave. Why the hell had he even asked her to marry him in the first place? Judging from the consoling murmurs coming from the front seat, he was less concerned about losing her than her cat.
She slammed the trunk shut and slapped the wall control for the nearest of five double garage doors. It rose, admitting a swirl of sweltering, fecund air into the refrigerated sanctum of fresh wax and new tires.
“Stay close,” Jackson suggested again as he opened the driver’s side door for her.
“Why would you even care?”
“I do. Believe me, I care.” After a brief hesitation, he added, “I love you.” Something flickered in his cool, bright gaze. Concern maybe. She’d give him that. But not love.
She gestured at the door he held open. “And you have such a way of showing it, too.”
The shadow of a smile curved his mouth. “I know better than to get in your way when you’re like this.”
Like this? Right. He expected her to come crawling back to him and his family’s multi-billion dollar fortune. Just as soon as she calmed down enough to see reason. Her nostrils flared in agitation. “Do yourself a favor, Jack. Go find yourself a more…agreeable girl.”
He shrugged. “You’re the one for me. Do what you have to. I can wait.”
Steam piped out of her ears. Unable to form a comeback beyond an incoherent sound of pure outrage, she dropped behind the wheel and yanked the door shut. She left rubber on the garage floor and swerved around the bend in the driveway that took her out of view of the house.
But she slammed on the brakes at the wrought-iron gates guarded by two life-size bronze lions. Right would be the most direct route to the Interstate, and from there anywhere, including Colorado, her home for all of her twenty-two years. Going there would mean throwing herself at the mercy of her father and his mistress-turned-wife, not to mention their two out-of-control toddlers.
With a groan, she dropped her forehead on her hands at the top of the steering wheel. The motion made the bruise on her neck ache, sending a frisson of unease skittering across her brain before she smothered it. Alaska was almost tempting if only because she couldn’t get farther away from Florida and still remain in the country. She’d take glaciers and bears over swamps and alligators any day. But, damn it, this tropical hellhole had the one thing she couldn’t afford to give up yet—her first real job and the beginnings of a journalism career. Like it or not, she wanted the experience and needed the money. Without them, she’d go nowhere.
Cassidy turned left.
The town of Orchard Beach nestled along Florida’s Atlantic coast, well out of the way of major urban centers, and featured some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Wealth settled here for quiet anonymity, and affordable housing on short notice didn’t exist. Even temporary options she checked, like hotels and motels, turned out to be either out of her budget or pet-averse, and the residents at the extended stay north of town leered at her in ways that made her not even get out of the car.
Discouraged, Cassidy stopped at the public beach for lunch. Though the fishy, ninety-plus degree breeze did nothing for her appetite, she picked at a burger and diet soda. Eddie explored the shade beneath the picnic table at the end of a leash, scratching, crunching kibble, and retching up a hairball. When she checked on him, his green eyes brimmed with accusation.
“I know, buddy. Being homeless sucks. I’ll find us something. I promise.”
She checked local listings in the paper and browsed Craig’s List on her phone. Nothing. The universe continued to conspire against her at every turn and even laughed at her outright when she settled the cat back into his carrier and a bright glint caught her eye.
“Jackson, you son of a bitch,” she muttered and retrieved the Striker family engagement ring from the blanket wadded up inside the carrier. The rare pink diamond in its antique silver setting was worth the kind of money that could buy a house in this town—the kind of money it would take her a lifetime to scrape together. The thought made her feel queasy with both apprehension and anger. No doubt he expected this to prod her into acknowledging the error of her ways and come rushing back.
“I should sell this puppy and run. Let Jackson figure out how to tell his father it’s gone.” Eddie sat up in his carrier and watched her, questions in his furry face. The white stripe down his chest resembled a tie on a solid black suit and shirt, giving him the distinguished appearance of the pioneering broadcast journalist he was named after, Edward R. Murrow.
Dubious, the cat cocked his head. Cassidy sighed and slipped the ring onto her right hand. She was no thief, and whatever she might think of the Strikers and their ways, losing a priceless heirloom that had been in their family for generations was more than she wanted on her conscience—or risk from a legal perspective. Better to keep the rock close then, and return it later. Much later.
Having exhausted every other local option, she stopped at Beachside Havens, which advertised short-term holiday rentals. The inventory turned out to be sizeable during the oppressive Florida summer but still dwindled in light of her requirements. Nevertheless, an hour later she walked out with a key, a month-to-month agreement, directions, and her bank account down to vapors.
It took another half an hour to find the leaning sign at the A1A turnoff to Seagrape Lane. Mule trail, she thought as the Beetle bounced along the narrow, broken pavement winding into the thicket. The beach cottages strung out along the way were all deserted for the summer, their windows shuttered and yards overgrown, but by far the one in worst shape was the most affordable of the lot…and her new home.
Number Seven squatted around a small bend at the end of the road, as though trying to hide its shameful condition from the others. A wilderness of subtropical foliage crowded around the ramshackle two-story structure. The paint that might have been blue at some point was now a peeling, nondescript shade of fog. The two upstairs windows were shuttered while the downstairs porch yawned like a forbidding cavern, giving the impression of a giant head decomposing beneath a blanket of clattering palm fronds. An overgrown bougainvillea climbing up a porch post splashed a vivid red gash across its face.
In his carrier, Eddie mewed, echoing her misgivings. “It’s either this or we sleep in the car, buddy.”
Outside, the air steamed with brine and shrilled with cicadas. Lizards darted from beneath her sandals as she climbed the creaking front steps to a porch where two Adirondack chairs battled with a tenacious vine. When Cassidy pushed open the front door, the house exhaled a cloud of thick, moldy heat. She hurried to the air conditioner controls only to find them dead. It wasn’t for a lack of power, though. The lights worked fine. Their incandescent glow illuminated an interior of polished wood surfaces and gently worn, tropical-print furnishings.
The kitchen appliances looked to be older than her but all functioned. Several bottles of Perrier lined the fridge shelves, sparkling leftovers of the previous tenant, no doubt. She helped herself to one, pouring the cold bubbles down her throat. Opening random drawers and cabinets, she found standard sets of utensils and dishes, a box of crackers two years out of date, and several surprised roaches. She shuddered and slammed the drawer shut.
A cursory inspection of the rest of the place turned up several empty green bottles, towels wadded up in the downstairs bathroom, and a locked door to the back bedroom. The master suite upstairs was dusty but otherwise in good order.
Beachside Havens apologized when she called, promised maid service first thing in the morning, and would reimburse two weeks’ worth of rent for the inconvenience. The air conditioner would have to wait until the owners could be tracked down overseas.
“I’m going to boil in here,” she muttered. Rivulets of sweat already trickled between her shoulder blades. With a clip from her bag, she bunched her hair on top of her head. Then she got to work opening curtains and windows and locating cleaning supplies. No way would she wait until tomorrow to make this dump livable.
But, at least for the next two weeks, the dump in question was free.
Dominic Marchant returned to consciousness with a start. Music drifted through his house. American Country music, no less. His eyes snapped open and he inhaled, tasting the air for the familiar brooding heat, but found only the unfamiliar stink of cleaning solutions—and the bone-deep temptation of warm-blooded life.
He sat up, the small hairs all over his body rising in alarm. Expanding his vision, he scanned the darkness in infrared shades of gray. His meager belongings lay scattered among the juvenile furnishings, and the samurai swords hung together in their usual place on the wall beside the locked door. Nothing had been disturbed. He stretched his senses outward. No movements, no sounds beyond the music. Outside, the sighing rhythm of the ocean accompanied the lazy chirp of insects. He cocked his head and focused.
There. Light and fast. A heartbeat.
Dominic unlocked the door and cracked it open. Light blazed in the kitchen down the hall. Eyes narrowed, he moved into the living room where he found the source of the heartbeat curled up on the sofa. It was the largest domesticated cat he had ever encountered. When it spotted him, the animal sprang up, arched its back and puffed out its black fur in a hissing display of flat-eared, wild-eyed, bare-fanged aggression. On instinct, he responded in kind, extending his far more impressive canines and issuing a guttural growl.
The cat wisely reconsidered its folly. Ceding the territory to the superior predator, it bolted for the far corner of the room and the perceived safety of a love seat. But instead of sliding beneath the furniture, the animal thumped into the too low base with a surprised screech. Frantic, it hurtled into another direction, paws skidding on the tiles before finding traction, and galloped up the stairs.
Dominic swayed as it passed, lured by the rush of its agitated blood, but he let it go. The cat wasn’t the problem. Whoever had brought it was.
While he lay in oblivion during the day, someone had come and scrubbed years of neglect off the floors and furnishings. And while they weren’t here now, they would be back and intended to stay. His own sense of panic rose as he scanned the familiar space and its unwelcome additions—litter box, pet dishes, blaring radio, laptop bag, camera, papers…
He shuffled the small pile on the kitchen table. To-do lists, cryptic notes, phone numbers, doodles. And a contract.
The tight print hit him like a train roaring over him. In the weeks he’d been here, it never occurred to him that the cottage—legally owned by his mother on St. Barth—might be managed and available for rent. The place was too much of a wreck to be viable as an income property. Yet, here it was, written. For very generous terms—he stared at the line labeled ‘tenant’s name’—one Cassidy Chandler had taken possession on a month-to-month basis.
He dropped the contract on the table and rubbed a hand down his face. Mon Dieu, non.
What would he do with a human in his lair? He couldn’t even remember his last conversation with one that didn’t end with a corpse in his arms. The very thought of it drove his fangs out again. His belly cramped with hunger. This Cassidy Chandler could not—would not—survive meeting him. Not here. Not now. Not like this.
And then what?
Then it was all over. Someone would come looking for her, and they would find him instead. He would have to leave. One way or another, either before or after he made a corpse of her, he would have to leave.
“Non,” he whispered. Leaving was out of the question. Of his stolen life in the sun, this place was all he had left. It was his final tether to humanity, his past, his present, his future. He would exist here—and he would die here.
And he would do it alone.