Mommy, Daddy’s doing the bad thing again.
The child’s voice very clearly said the words she’d said to her mother when she was four years old. When she was five. When she was seven.
Stella Harrison knew she was dreaming but she still couldn’t fight her way to the surface. This was the fifth night in a row she’d had the dream and the camera had widened the lens just a little more as it had every night so she saw additional pieces of the hideous nightmare she couldn’t stop. The man fishing. He wore denim bibbed overalls tucked into high olive-colored waders. A blue cap was pulled low over his eyes so she couldn’t see his face. There were boulders among the heavy reeds and plants that grew thick along the shore, creeping out into the lake. He’d made his way through the boulders to get out from under the shade of several trees.
She tried to warn him. Yelling. Calling out. Don’t cast. Don’t do it. Every night she saw his line go into the same spot. That little darker area that rippled in rings like a little round pool, so inviting. The fisherman always did the same exact thing, like a programed robot. Stepping forward, casting, the lure hitting perfectly, sinking into the middle of that inky spot, dropping beneath the water into the depths below.
The camera switched then and she could see beneath the water. It should have been tranquil. Peaceful. Fish swimming. Not the man in the wet-suit, waiting for that hook, waiting to tug and enter into some kind of terrible game with the fisherman above the surface. The fight for the fish became a real life and death battle, with the fisherman lured further and further from the safety of the shore and into the reeds and rocks—closer to the threat that lurked beneath the water.
The mythical fish appeared to be fighting. He seemed big, and well worth the exhausting battle. The fisherman payed less and less attention to his surroundings as he reeled the fish nearer to him and realized he was close to winning his prize.
Without warning, the killer, beneath the water, rose up right in front of the unsuspecting fisherman, slamming him backward so that his waders couldn’t find traction on the muddy floor of the lake. He hit his head hard on the boulder behind him and went down. Immediately, the killer caught his legs and yanked hard, dragging him under the water and holding him there while the fisherman thrashed and fought, but he was weak from the vicious blow to his head from the boulder.
Stella could only watch, horrified, as the killer calmly finished the scene by dragging the body to the surface for just a few moments so he could drag the bottom of the wader along a boulder before pulling the fisherman back into the water and tangling him in his own fishing line just below the surface in the reeds and plants close to the shore. The killer calmly swam off as if nothing had happened.
The lens of the camera snapped shut and everything went black.
Stella woke fighting a tangle of sheets, sweat dripping, hair damp. She sat up abruptly, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes. Rubbing, scrubbing her palms down her face over and over. Trying to erase the nightmare. Not again. It had been years. Years. She’d made a new life for herself. New friends. A place. A home.
Now the nightmare was back and reoccurring. This was the fifth time she’d had it. Five times in a row. It wasn’t like she lived in a big city. Usually, if murder was happening, everyone would know, especially in small town, but this killer was brilliant. He was absolutely brilliant and that was why he was going to get away with it—unless she brought attention to the murders. Even then, she wasn’t certain he would get caught.
She hadn’t realized she was rocking herself back and forth, trying to self-soothe. She forced herself to stop. She hadn’t done that in years either. All those terrible habits she had developed as a child, that came back as a teen, she’d managed to overcome. Now, she found they were sneaking back into her life.
There was no going back to sleep even though it was still dark outside. She’d planned to sleep in. She had few days off even though they were winding down. She owned the Sunrise Lake resort and had for several years, turning it around from a dismal, losing business, to one that not only made large profits but helped out the local businesses as well. She loved the resort, loved everything about it, even the hard work, especially that. She thrived on solving problems and those problems changed hourly, keeping her mind constantly active. She needed that and first, managing, and then owning, Sunrise Lake provided it.
When the owner decided it was time to retire, four years earlier, he sold the resort to her. They’d kept the transaction quiet and he continued to stay the first year as if he owned it. Over time, his visits became less and less. She renovated the main house, but kept a special cabin for him, so he had a place whenever he came back.
The property was beautiful, high in the mountains surrounding a good portion of Sunrise Lake. Knightly, the nearest town was located an hour’s drive below them on a fairly winding highway. The town was small, but that just made the community close-knit.
Stella had made good friends there. She liked living in the back-country. She felt grounded, connected, alive there. There were all kinds of things to do from skiing, to backpacking to climbing. She fit here. She wasn’t throwing it all away on a few nightmares. That would be so foolish. It was just that the nightmares were so vivid and now they were reoccurring, becoming more detailed.
It wasn’t like there was even a body—yet. She shivered. There was going to be. She knew it. She just knew there would be. Somewhere, a fisherman was going to be murdered in the next two days. There would be no way to prove that he was murdered. She had to stop thinking about it or she was going to go insane.
She rolled out of bed, and headed straight for her shower. She had overseen the renovations to the main house herself, paying particular attention to the bathroom and kitchen. She loved to cook and more than anything, after a long day of work, she wanted to know she had plenty of hot water for showers and baths. Her spacious bathroom was a work of art.
The stand-alone-tub was deep, and the shower larger. She liked space in her shower and lots of jets coming at her from all sides since she was often sore from the work she did, or climbing, skiing, backpacking or any of the other outdoor activities she chose to do. Even dancing with her friends sometimes went on all night. Her shower was perfect for her.
She’d designed the renovations of the main house for two people, although she didn’t believe she would ever have a significant other in her life. She was too closed off. She didn’t share her past with anyone, not even her closest friends. She didn’t really date. The minute anyone started to get too close, she backed off.
The hot water poured over her as she washed her thick blonde hair. Her hair was the one thing she was a little vain about. She didn’t wear it down often, but it was almost silver in color, thanks to her Finish Grandparents on her mother’s side. She had inherited that light, light hair color from them along with her crystal blue eyes. The thickness of her hair and the darker lashes were a gift from her father’s side of the family. He was originally from Argentina. Her mother had met him in college in San Diego where both had attended. Her father was from a wealthy Argentinian family. Between her two parents, she had been lucky to get amazing genetics.
The hot water helped to dispel the last of the nightmare and the bile in her stomach. Unfortunately, uneasiness persisted. She just wasn’t certain what to do. She only had those dreams twice before and both times had ended up being worse than her nightmares. Sighing, she squeezed as much water out of her hair as possible before winding a towel around the mass and then she dried her body off slowly with a warm towel.
Dressing in her favorite pair of jeans and a comfortable tee, she pulled on a sweater and her boots before braiding her hair. She didn’t dry it if she could help it and since she actually had a day off, rarely wore make-up or dressed up, she was ready to go in minutes.
“Bailey, I can’t believe you’re still sleeping. Get up, you lazy animal.” She put her hands on her hips and tried to look stern as she regarded the large Airedale still curled up in his dog bed right beside her bed.
Bailey’s eyes opened and he looked at her and then around the room, noting the darkness as if to say she was out of her mind for getting up so early. Heaving a sigh, the dog got to his feet and followed her through the spacious house to the front door. On the porch, she hesitated at the door. She had stopped locking her door or setting the alarm some time ago, but lately, that crawling feeling down her spine was back. The churning in her stomach started all over again. Bailey waited patiently for her to make up her mind.
Stella knew it was ridiculous to stand in front of her door like a loon. She made decisions all the time. It was just that giving into her fears was like going backward and she’d promised herself she would never do that. She stood there indecisively staring at the thick, carved door for another full minute before making up her mind.
Locking the door, she set the alarm, furious with herself that she gave in to the nightmares and unrelenting terror that could consume her when she was asleep. Fear crept up on her unaware, and slowly, but surely took over until she was caught up in things best left alone. If she was going to actually acknowledge that a murder was going to take place in her beloved Sierras, no one was going to help with investigations this time. The killer would made it look like an accident. She didn’t have dreams unless the murderer was a serial killer, which meant he would kill again. Accidents happened all the time in the Sierras.
There would be no gossip, no whispers or rumors. Before, she’d hated that, the way everywhere she went, murder had been the topic of conversation. Now if she wanted to stop a killer, she would have to ask the right questions herself. Several of her friends were involved with search and rescue. She knew the medical examiner. Maybe she could figure out a reason to ask questions that would make sense and at the same time raise suspicion that the death wasn’t an accident.
Stella deliberately avoided the marina and walked in the dark, to reach the family pier. This dock was not one the original owners drove their boat to—they used the marina’s piers for that—it was private, one to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets, just as she was doing now. The dock had been positioned perfectly to catch the beauty of mountains mirrored in the lake as the sun rose or set. She never got tired of the view.
She was so familiar with the layout of the grounds, that she barely needed the small pin-light as she maneuvered the narrow path that took her away from the main buildings, the small grocery store, bait shop, the collection of cabins and the play areas designated for children and game areas for adults.
The trail took her behind the campsites and RV sites to an even narrower path that led through a pile of boulders and into a heavy forested area. Once through the trees, she was back to the shoreline. It seemed a ridiculous place to put a pier, but she liked the peace when she needed it most—like now. Tourists didn’t know the way to reach the pier and that meant precious solitude when she had a few hours—or a day to herself.
Fall had arrived and with it, the glorious colors as only the Eastern Sierras could cloak herself with. She loved every season in Sierras, but Fall was definitely a favorite. The cooler weather after the summer heat was always welcome. There was still fishing, and tourists still coming, but things were slowing down so she could take a breath. Climbing was still a possibility and she loved climbing.
Then there was just the sheer beauty of the blazing reds, all the various shades, from crimson to a flat almost purple-red on the leaves of many of the trees. The oranges were the same, all the varying shades. She hadn’t known there were so many shades, subtle to brilliant orange, golds and yellows, the colors vying for attention even amongst the varying greens, until she came to the Eastern Sierras.
The mountains rose above the lake, forests of trees pressed together so tightly they seemed impenetrable from a distance. The mountains stretched for miles, canyons and rivers, amazing forests and scarred, beautiful rock found nowhere else. This was the place of legends and she had come to love it and the ever-changing landscape.
Stella sat on the end of the thick planks making up the pier and stared out over the water of the icy lake. Fed by the high mountain rivers and snow packs, Sunrise Lake was a huge bowl of deep sapphire-colored water. A light breeze ruffled the surface, but for the most part, the water gleamed like glass. Sometimes the incomparable beauty of this place stole her breath. It didn’t seem to matter what time of year it was, the lake and surrounding mountains always had such elegance and majesty to them.
Bailey curled up beside her, close, the way he always did when she sat on the end of the pier. He went right back to sleep, never knowing how long she planned to sit, waiting for the sun to come up. She wished Bailey could talk, so she could at least have someone to sound important things out with—like murder—but when she’d tried, the dog gave her a look like she’d lost her mind, shoved his face in her lap, inviting her to scratch his ears. Taking advantage. That was her beloved Bailey.
There was no warning. A hand touched her shoulder and she nearly threw herself forward off the dock into the lake. Bailey didn’t even look up or make a sound. The hand caught her in a firm grip before she could tumble off the pier. She turned her head to glare up at the man towering over her. Sam Rossi was one of those men who could walk in absolute silence. Sometimes, like now, he freaked her out. He was too rough to call gorgeous, with his chiseled masculine features, all angles and planes. His jaw was always covered in a dark shadow that never was a beard, yet never was shaved. He rarely smiled, if ever, and when he did, that smile never quite reached his arctic-cold eyes.
He had a body on him. Wide shoulders. Thick chest. Lots of muscle. He was strong. She knew because she employed him as a handyman and he had to do all sorts of jobs that required unbelievable strength. He had to have knowledge of boats, carpentry, fishing, climbing, most outdoor activities and so far, he hadn’t let her down once.
He had scars. Lots of them. He took his shirt off when it was hot as hell and he had to work outside. Not so much when there were others around, usually only her, or when he was a good distance from others, but she’d seen the scars and those scars weren’t pretty. They weren’t the kinds of scars one acquired in a car accident. He looked like the skin had been flayed from his back. He’d been shot more than once. He had a few knife scars for certain. She hadn’t looked closely. She’d made it a point not to stare, although she’d wanted to. She’d never asked and he’d never volunteered an explanation.
“Quit sneaking up on me,” she snapped irritably as she reached for the coffee he had in his other hand, clearly meant for her.
He pulled the to-go mug out of reach and sat down, Bailey between them, ignoring her outstretched hand.
"Sam.” She practically growled his name. He couldn’t bring the aroma of her favorite brew and then withhold it.
He quirked an eyebrow at her. Evidently, he thought he could. He set the mug on the opposite side of his body so there was no way she could lunge over the dog and grab it. Ignoring her, Sam calmly drank from his mug and looked out over the lake. Bailey didn’t even help her by biting him. Or lifting his head and growling.
“Did you come out here just to annoy me?” Stella demanded.
He didn’t answer. She knew he could keep the silent treatment up forever. It was like his annoying nickname for her. He called her Satine in that silly voice—Satine from lead character in the movie Moulin Rouge. Well, not that he had a silly voice exactly, he had a low, mesmerizing sexy as hell voice. Fortunately, he didn’t call her Satine in front of anyone else. He didn’t talk much so it never came up when her friends were around.
She was not one to be embarrassed over much, not even when she was caught in a ridiculous situation, but because she harbored a slight crush on Sam, she found things she normally would laugh at, nearly humiliating.
She loved the movie Moulin Rouge. Loved it. It was her go-to movie when she was in a funk and wanted a pity party. She didn’t have them often, but when she did, she played that movie and cried her eyes out. When she wanted to watch something that made her heart sing, she played Moulin Rouge and ate popcorn and cried and laughed.
Stella didn’t even know how it happened that Sam had come in when she was having a pity party, but he had. He sat down and watched the movie with her. After that, he joined her more than once and seemed to watch her more than the movie. As usual, he didn’t say anything, he just shook his head as if she was a little nutty and walked out afterward. She didn’t even know if he liked the movie, but if he didn’t, he had no soul which she shouted after him. He didn’t even turn around.
She knew every song by heart and every single morning, when she did her exercises, she played the songs, sang to them and danced. At night she did her fitness routine to them and did a little burlesque show. Naturally, Sam walked in just as she was kicking her leg over a chair and she didn’t quite make it and landed on her butt. That was the first time.
She loved to do aerial silks as a form of exercise. Because the house was two stories and open, she had her own rigging in her home and practiced some nights. Of course, when she’d gotten tangled for a moment and was upside down, desperately trying to get her foot unlocked from the silks, music blaring, he had walked in.
The third time she was doing a very cool and sexy (if she didn’t say so herself) booty shake to the floor and back up again. Naturally, he would be leaning against the doorjamb watching, arms crossed over his chest, those dark eyes of his on her. She could never tell what he was thinking because he had no expression on his face.
He took to calling her Satine in a low, dramatic, movie-voice every now and then. She wanted to glare at him but it always made her laugh. He didn’t share the laugh with her, but his dark eyes sometimes went velvet soft and her stomach would do a strange little rollercoaster loop which irritated the crap out of her.
“Seriously, Bailey, what kind of watch dog are you?” She sighed as she sank her fingers in her dog’s curly fur. There was no getting around the fact that now that coffee was in her reach, she needed it. “Sam, thank you for thinking to bring me coffee. I appreciate it so much.”
Since she did appreciate him bringing coffee, it was easy to keep the sarcasm out of her voice, although a part of her wanted to be sarcastic. Maybe push him off her private dock into the snow-fed freezing cold water. He’d, no doubt, find a way to drag her into the water with him so she couldn’t even get satisfaction that way.
Without a word Sam handed her the to-go mug. She gratefully took her first sip as they both watched the breeze play with the surface of the water. She stole a quick look at Sam’s face. Fortunately, Sam never smirked. He was a restful person in that he never demanded anything from her. Sometimes, she was so exhausted at the end of the day she didn’t want to have to give one tiny bit of herself to anyone.
Those days, Sam would be on her deck grilling vegetables and steak or whatever, as if he knew she’d had a terrible day and didn’t want to talk. He’d indicate the cooler and there would be ice-cold beer in it. She’d grab one for herself, hand him one and go sit in her favorite swing chair hanging from the overhead ceiling covering the porch. He never asked anything of her. She never asked anything of him. That was the best part of their strange relationship. He just seemed to know when things were bad for her. She didn’t question when he’d show up and make things better or how he seemed to know she needed a little care.
She sighed and took another sip of coffee, her hand moving through Bailey’s fur. She’d found a few things made life great. This place and it’s beauty. Her dog. Coffee. Her five friends. Her favorite movie of all time and maybe Sam Rossi. She wasn’t certain what category to put him in. They didn’t exactly have a relationship. Sam didn’t do relationships. Neither did she. They both had too many secrets.
The leaves on the trees closest to the pier were yellow and red, some orange and they swayed with the breeze, creating a frame on either side of the wooden planks at the shoreline. Many of the leaves had dropped on the boulders where the lake’s waters lapped at the shore. On the pier, where the breeze sent the leaves spiraling down over the wood, it had turned into a carpet of blazing color.
The sun was just beginning to rise and the colors shifted subtly. Rays began to spread across the water. They were low at first. A golden globe barely seen reflected in the deep pools of the sapphire lake. The sight was pure magic, the reason Stella lived here. She felt connected to the real world. Humbled by nature. As the golden sphere began to rise, the trees took on a different look altogether. The ball looked as if it grew in the water, spreading out across the lake shimmering beneath the surface like a golden treasure.
Stella kept her gaze on the sphere. It appeared to be moving as if alive. Each sunrise was different. The colors, the way it presented in the water. The magic. She couldn’t always get to her favorite spot to watch the dramatic entrance, but she tried. There were always the sounds of the morning accompanying sunrise. The melodies of the early birds. Some were the songs as the males defined their territories. Some birds had beautiful musical qualities while others seemed to be raspy.
She listened for the way the birds sang, some ended on high notes while others let their notes trail off low. Some called out on a single courser pitch as if they just greeted one another or called out to say, I’m here! She enjoyed her early morning solitude before the sun actually rose and she could see which birds were up with her.
She noticed the hum of bees and skitter of lizards in the leaves. There was always the drone of insects, the cicadas calling. It was all part of nature she could count on there in the Eastern Sierras. It didn’t matter what time of year, there was always something that gave her that connection she needed to the earth itself instead of the insanity that made up a world she didn’t seem to fit into or understand.
"You gonna talk to me?”
Stella’s stomach was already in knots. She needed to talk to someone. If she was going to talk to anyone, it would be Sam, but what was she going to say? She sent him a look from under her lashes, hoping he wouldn’t see fear in her eyes. That was the thing about Sam. He was far too observant. He noticed everything. Details everyone else missed.
She wasn’t the talking type. What did she really know about him? She wanted to trust him. He was the only man who came and went from her home, but she didn’t know him. She didn’t know a single thing about his life. She didn’t even know if he was married or had children. She didn’t know if he was running from the police, although looking at him, she knew instinctively, if he was on the run, it wasn’t from something as mundane as the cops. Sam would be hiding from some international crime he’d committed, one the CIA or Homeland Security would know about and no one else.
As a rule, Stella knew everything there was to know about her employees, but not Sam. When she’d asked him to work for her, he had been a little reluctant. In the end, he had said he’d work for cash only. Under the table. She didn’t usually go for that. She kept everything strictly legal, but she was desperate for a really good worker who knew the kinds of things Sam knew. At the time, nearly every cabin needed renovations. Electricity, plumbing, walls crumbling. So much work. Motors on the boats. She needed him more than he needed her. She’d hired him thinking it would be for a short period of time. That short period had turned into over two years.
She stayed silent. Took another drink of coffee. Kept looking at the lake. What was there to say that didn’t make her look as if she was losing her mind? Nothing. There was nothing she could say. Even if she revealed her past, blew her carefully constructed lie of a life, what would be the point? There was no proof and she doubted if she could get any proof that accidents weren’t going to be accidents and a serial killer was on the loose. As of that moment, even the fisherman hadn’t been found dead because no crime had been committed--yet. The killer would strike in two days. She needed to drive around the lake and look for the location.
“Been here over two years now, Stella. You never once locked that door. You don’t snap at the workers, especially if they make a mistake. That’s not your way.”
She didn’t look at him again. Instead, she kept her eyes on the lake. The tranquil lake that was so deep and could hold countless bodies if someone weighed them down. Above the lake the mountains rose with all the beautiful trees. So many places to bury bodies no one would ever find. Hot springs. Some of the hot springs were hot enough to decompose a body.
Without thinking she pressed her fingers to her mouth the way she’d done when she was a child to keep from blurting out anything she shouldn’t say. A habit. A bad habit she’d worked to get over and now it was back. Just that fast. Her fingers trembled and she wanted to sit on them. She hoped he didn’t notice, but he saw everything. She knew he did. Sam was that type of man. She dropped her hand back into Bailey’s fur. Buried her shaking fingers deep.
“Satine, you want help, I’m right here, but you gotta talk. Use your words, woman.”
“Did I really do that? Snap at someone because they made a mistake?” She did turn her head and look at him then. “Did I do that to you, Sam?”
His tough features softened for just a moment. Those dark eyes of his turned almost velvet, drifting over her. Unsettling her. “No, it was Bernice at the boat rentals the other day.”
Stella pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. She had done that. Not yelled. But definitely been snippy. Okay. More than snippy. She was not a boss to be snippy or short with her employees. Bernice Fulton was older and had worked for her for over five years. She would take it to heart. “I’ll talk to her.”
That day was unusually hot when everyone had been expecting the cooler fall weather. Because it was, those in the resorts, had rushed to rent the boats, wanting to be out on the lake. Unfortunately, that included people who didn’t have the least idea how to run a boat, or dock one. Both Sam and Stella spent the better part of the evening rescuing very drunk parties of four, six, and couples as well as a single mom and her two very young children, who, thank heavens, were wearing life vests.
Fishermen had been complaining all day, a steady stream of grouchy, irritable, or downright furious, mostly men, acting superior, although most of them knew her now. They’d come to respect her over the years. Still, they weren’t immune to the unexpected high temperatures. Humidity when there was usually dry heat, and all the crazy tourists who didn’t have the first clue about how to navigate boats on the lake. Nor did those tourists even seem to have any manners when it came to sharing the lake with those fishing.
Stella had been yelled at, called names, insulted so many times, mostly in reference to her IQ and ability to run a fishing camp, which Sunrise Lake was not, but she didn’t correct anyone. She merely hung onto her polite smile, listened to every concern, complaint and assured them that it would be taken care of—unless they went too far.
Stella had learned a long time ago, when she first signed on as the manager, that if she wanted the respect of the fishermen, she had to stand up to them. She wasn’t shrill, she didn’t yell, she looked even the oldest, most hardened in the eye when she spoke to them. She knew her facts, fought for their rights, but refused to allow them to push her around, no matter how upset they were.
Still, at the end of a very long and trying day, after going out to boat after boat to retrieve mostly drunks who didn’t know how to dock a boat, she wasn’t in the best of moods and she had snapped at Bernice Fulton. Sam was right. She didn’t do things like that. He’d kept his cool. He always did. Sam didn’t snap at anyone. Of course, he didn’t talk to anyone. He didn’t have to. He turned that stare of his on anyone giving him a bad time and they stopped.
When he got aboard a party boat with five women in bikinis, all of whom were throwing themselves at him, he barely glanced at them. He simply brought the boat in, tied it off and didn’t even gallantly help the drunk women onto the pier. He just walked off, leaving them to Bernice. Stella knew, because she’d been watching. It had been the only thing she’d laughed at the entire evening.
Stella was having nightmares every night now. She wasn’t able to sleep after them, which meant she was getting very little sleep. That certainly contributed to her growing crankiness. Not being able to discuss her uneasiness with anyone and the alarm she felt, added to her irritability. She had no idea what to do in order to protect her friends or those she knew living in the area.
“Bernice will be happy you’re clearing the air, Stella, but it isn’t telling me why you’re upset. What’s going on?”
She took another sip of her coffee and regarded the glowing surface of the lake. A little shiver of apprehension went through her. There was no talking to anyone about this. Not even Sam. She had to figure this out on her own, at least until she knew Sam wasn’t involved in any way. He’d arrived two years earlier. He didn’t talk to anyone. He was a complete loner. He could shove his belongings into a pack and be gone in minutes.
Sam was good at every outdoor activity. He was extremely strong. He had scars all over his body indicating something terrible had happened to him at some point in his life. Psychologically, what did that do to a person? She’d tried to find out about him on the internet, looking him up, but there was nothing that she could find. She couldn’t imagine Sam being a killer of innocent people, but she had to know before she trusted him enough to talk to him.
She could feel Sam’s eyes on her and knew he wasn’t going to let it go. She was acting differently. She’d snapped at an employee. She’d locked her house. She was obviously upset.
“What made you decide to bring me coffee this morning, Sam?”
He didn’t bring her coffee every morning. He didn’t make her dinner every evening. He didn’t stop by her house to watch movies every night. She never invited him. He just showed up. When he did, he always cooked dinner. He brought beer. He never asked for anything. Never. He never once stepped over the line, to so much as kiss her. She’d been tempted to kiss him more than once, but she never crossed that line with him either. She was afraid he’d just walk away and she wanted him in her life however she could have him.
Sam liked to boulder and trad climb both. He showed up to climb in the area like so many others. He had driven a four-wheel drive rig containing his possessions and camped at one of the local campgrounds. He didn’t ask anything of anyone. He seemed to live off the land for the most part, but he wasn’t afraid of work and he was good at almost everything. She’d noticed him right away working in town for Carl Montgomery, the local contractor. Well, the only real decent one. If Carl hired him, that meant he was good.
It was impossible not to notice him. Stella noticed everyone. She was detailed oriented which was why she was so good at her job. Sam was a loner, even in the middle of a busy jobsite. He rarely spoke to anyone, but that didn’t stop him from doing any job asked of him. In the end, she decided he would be perfect working at the resort as a handyman. He could do just about any type of job she required.
She offered him a good salary, a cabin year-round and a four-wheel drive vehicle upgrade to drive. He hadn’t jumped at the offer. He’d taken his time, thinking it over. He even came up to the resort and looked it over before making up his mind. She’d liked him even better for that. She’d never once regretted her decision to hire him, even when he was annoying as hell because he almost never spoke.
Stella met his dark compelling eyes. It wasn’t easy. Looking into his eyes never was. Sometimes she thought it was like looking into hell.
“I can be gone you want me that way, Stella.”
He said it so quietly at first the words didn’t actually penetrate. When they did, her entire body nearly shut down. She had to turn her face away quickly, afraid he’d see the burn of tears. Afraid he’d see the panic she felt.
“Why would you say that to me, Sam?” She could barely speak, barely get the question out. “Because I asked you a question? Why would you say that to me?” She wanted to get up and leave him there, but she was afraid if she did, he would shove all his belongings into his backpack and go and she’d never see him again.
Sam was closed off even more than she was. It was possible he didn’t feel anything at all for anyone. Did she mean so little to him? Probably. She’d built up their relationship because she needed someone. He was truly self-sufficient. She thought she was, but in the end, she needed the resort, her friends. Sam. She needed Sam. The thought of being without him wrenched at her. Maybe she was just feeling so vulnerable because of the nightmares and uncertainty. Because she was afraid for everyone.
“I know things sometimes if people matter to me. You matter to me so I know when you feel like shit.”
Stella’s fingers tightened on her coffee mug. That was the very last admission she expected from Sam. His tone was exactly the same, that low blend of masculine sensuality that sank under her skin and found her somewhere deep. To other people who didn’t ever act on little unexplained urges, his explanation might have sounded ludicrous, but to her, it was perfectly reasonable.
It was the first time Sam had ever said anything that might make him vulnerable. He all but implied he had a psychic ability or at the very least, a heavy intuition. She wanted to give him something of herself back. It was only fair. Something real.
“I have nightmares sometimes. Bad ones. Once they start, they come in clusters. I can’t get any sleep when it happens. Nothing helps.” That was all true. She drank a little more of the coffee and kept her free hand in Bailey’s fur.
Sam was silent for a long time. When she dared to look at him, he was looking at the mountains. The sun’s rays had scattered color through the trees and ghostly mist. The sight never failed to stir her.
“What kinds of things bring on your nightmares? What are they about?”
Those were good questions. She should have thought he might ask her questions like those. He was intelligent and he was a fixer.
“Dead bodies floating beneath the surface of the lake.” She blurted the truth out. Or half-truth. It came out strangled because a part of her felt like it was a lie and he’d given her something of himself. Made himself vulnerable to her after two years of dancing around each other. He’d opened himself up to ridicule and she was still closed off. He was astute. He knew there was something she wasn’t telling him and it had to hurt. She would be hurt.
Stella forced herself to look up at him because he at least deserved that. Those dark eyes of his studied her face. Penetrating. Seeing too much. She knew there were shadows under her eyes. But what could she really tell him? There was no body. Not even an accident yet. She definitely was going to use her day off to drive around the lake and see if she could find the location where the fisherman would be killed if she couldn’t prevent it. The worst of it was, there were several lakes in the area popular with fisherman. Still, she was certain the location was her beloved lake.
“Stella, you’re the calmest, clearest thinking woman I’ve ever come across. I know you’re in some kind of trouble.” He shrugged. “I’m not going to pry, I don’t like anyone asking me questions, so I’m not going to insist you talk to me if you don’t want to share. Once you get past being shaken up, you do what you always do, think in steps and tackle the problem one step at time. You’ll find the answer. You always do.”
There was absolute confidence in Sam’s voice and that steadied her. That gave her confidence. He was right. She wasn’t a child and the killer was on her home turf. Her beloved Sierra’s. He had no idea she was already on to him and would be coming after him.