THE WYCKHAM HOUSE

By

Sharon Gerlach

 

PROLOGUE

October 28, 2004 – 10:00 a.m.

How do I get myself into these situations?

 

The shadowy ceiling offered no answers, not that Kimberly could have read them anyway in the flickering light of the torch. But of course she didn’t need the ceiling to point out a few home truths. She was in this situation through her own foolhardiness: a stolen identity, swiped from her best friend, to whom she bore a striking resemblance; a reckless, half-assed plan to find her father, whom she wasn’t even sure was missing; and falling in love with the wrong man.

 

She shifted on the unyielding stone surface, and the links of her chains clinked like chimes. She was caught as surely as a rabbit in a snare; chewing her arm off seemed a drastic step to free herself, although if her bladder wasn’t given relief soon it would seem like a fine idea.

 

He would come for her, of course; nothing would stop him. She wished he wouldn’t. He would be given no reprieve this time; they would finish the job they had started years ago, silencing him forever. And what of her? There were worse things than death; he had been right about that.

 

It was her fault her father was missing as well. Had she begged off gathering his requested research – after all, she had deadlines of her own and little time to spare – perhaps he wouldn’t have had the information that led him to his suspicions about this town.

 

But that was only supposition and a bit of her habit of taking the blame for things that weren’t her responsibility. Todd must have already suspected what lay behind the strange animal attacks and unexplained disappearances, or he would not have asked for the particular information she’d collected.

 

Finally, she had to acknowledge the fact that she’d been warned away. The danger was real, the potential for mortal disaster unequivocal. And yet here she was, strapped to an ancient stone altar in the bowels of the house of the devil himself, lying in a pool of blood still tacky to the touch. The blood of a friend.

 

Quiet footsteps brought her head around; her hair stuck to the altar, and she fought a wave of nausea as she pulled it free. She’d grown used to the scent of blood over the last two hours, but when she moved, it wafted strong and cloying on the air and coated her tongue with bitter copper, like licking the end of a battery. Her stomach rolled.

 

He appeared out of the gloom like a violent apparition: her captor, the man who held her fate in his bloodstained, murderous hands. He moved with a fluid grace common to his family, as though he were liquid contained in a human shape. The darkness didn’t seem to bother him, and not for the first time she wondered what gifts he’d been given in exchange for his soul.

 

“How are we doing?” His soulless eyes held a glint of mocking laughter.

 

“I don’t know about you, but I could really use the restroom.”

 

“Just came from there myself, but thank you for your concern.” He extended no offer of relief to her, not that she had expected him to. He seemed determined to drive her to such a point of discomfort that she would release her bladder to mingle with the blood on the stone. But damned if she was going to add that humiliation to her already dismal circumstances.

 

Which brought her to another of her failings: she should have been more cautious, more suspicious of everyone. She’d been bagged easily – too easily, almost as if by complicity she’d been placed exactly where he could catch her.

 

She turned away, her eyes going back to the dark shadows hovering above her, silently communicating her refusal to beg. He chuckled.

 

“It’s simple, Kimberly. You know what I want: a simple bit of truthful information. Then I’ll let you go.”

 

Her head came back around. “You won’t. You’ll keep me captive until it suits you to either kill me or…worse. And I’m sure being in your captivity won’t be pleasant. I’ve already experienced enough to know that much.”

 

Involuntarily, her hand came up and massaged her bruised throat, leaving sticky prints of blood behind. At his widening smile, she damned herself for showing weakness. Yet another of her failings.

 

He leaned close. He smelled heavenly, like the woods after a heavy rain. How ironic that such an evil man could smell so divine. She tried not to breathe in; his scent clouded her mind with a hellish desire to fling herself at him and satisfy her carnal urges. It would be exquisite, she knew. Exquisite and satiating and shameful and damning. He would be cruel in his passion and passionate in his cruelty, and worse, he would own her then, body and surrendered soul.

 

His lips brushed her cheek as he spoke. She couldn’t stop her shudder, and she told herself it was simple revulsion. But her pulse sped to a wild beat, and her body flared with sudden heat.

 

“Why did you say it? Who told you to say it? How did you know what she said before she died?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

It was not the first time he’d asked, nor the first time she had no answer; she hadn’t been aware of speaking at all. Her only memory of their altercation was of him catching her by her hair as she bolted for the back door and being pinned to the floor, his elegant fingers around her throat.

 

She was certain she had died, but perhaps that had been a dream while she had been unconscious.

 

Otherwise, she would have to accept the fact that she had been brought back to life by the breath of an angel – a real angel – and that meant she would also have to accept that the driving force behind this man, behind his circle of black magic, was hell itself.

 

He offered no comment; her answer had been expected. His finger traced an indecent line down her cheek and over her throat, jumping the inadequate barricade of her collarbone, coming to rest in the valley between her breasts and hovering just above the first fastened button of her shirt. Add another of her failings: never dressing appropriately for the occasion.

 

Her heart galloped like a bolting horse, and his smile grew predatory. His eyes held her paralyzed; she’d never encountered someone who could hold one’s gaze so unflinchingly for such a long time. She felt exposed, x-rayed, stripped down and distilled to her core by those cold eyes. She recognized the silent proposition in them and sent back her equally silent answer: No. Not just no, but HELL no.

 

“You might not appreciate the destination, but you will surely enjoy the journey.”

 

“Physical satisfaction isn’t everything.”

 

His grin was thoroughly unholy, but he moved away from her, taking with him the tantalizing woodsy scent and his inhibition-erasing sensuality.

 

“You’re taking this rather well, much better than most do. No weeping or begging. Very noble of you to accept your fate so philosophically and matter-of-factly.”

 

“Will fighting you make any difference?”

 

“None.” He leaned in again swiftly, startling her. She pressed back into the stone and instantly regretted it as copper scented the air. “Don’t make me kill you, Kimberly,” he whispered urgently. “Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let you live.”

 

“As your captive.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“As your consort?” She lifted a brow.

 

“That goes without saying.”

 

She turned her face away again, forcing her expression to lapse into careful indifference. “I’d rather die.”

 

His rage could not be contained behind his impassive reaction. While he simply straightened from her and squared his shoulders, the very air around them vibrated with his fury. He pressed a finger painfully against her lips and took a step away from the altar.

 

“So be it.”

 

RECKLESS IS AS RECKLESS DOES

October 3, 2004

 

It began with a simple delivery from UPS, a medium-sized box addressed to her father. The return address read Los Angeles, but if one knew how to read the shipping company’s labels, one could tell this package originated from Pennsylvania.

 

Her father was in Pensylvania

 

Kimberly Owens spent several hours, collectively, staring at the package as she went about the duties of her day. She sent compiled research for a novelist who wrote historical romances (her client would be relieved); then accepted a challenging request from a compiler of mythology for information on an elusive Hungarian gypsy clan purportedly called merénylõ, which meant “assassin” (this client would cheer and then pop a Xanax, which she claimed Kim alone had driven her to with all her waffling about accepting difficult projects). She cleaned her father’s Forest Falls cabin where she was currently staying (her possessions littered nearly all of the spacious log structure), and fixed a nutritious dinner (for a change).

 

Finally tucked into the corner of the sofa, a cozy fire crackling in the fieldstone fireplace and a novel in her hand begging for attention, she glared at the box with undisguised malevolence.

 

“You’re just going to have to wait for him to come home,” she muttered sullenly.

 

The box didn’t answer, but simply sat on the floor near the door, shoved beneath the antique drop-leaf table that held her father’s mail. Its very existence called to her, though, as surely as the sirens called to hapless sailors, and she was just as powerless to resist.

 

Quick work with a utility knife laid the box open for her perusal. At first she could only stare at the contents, perplexed: a Shimano trolling rod, broken down to its smallest form; a Fenwick casting rod, likewise disassembled; a tackle box crammed with fishing lures and spinners of every imaginable brand, bobbers, lead sinkers, floaters, several spools of various test fishing line, half a dozen jars of salmon eggs in Day-Glo colors, and a single white paper drink coaster – imprinted with a drawing of a log cabin structure, the words ‘The Watering Hole Tavern’ around the edge – taped inside the lid. 

 

Todd Garrett hated fishing

 

She detached the paper disk and turned it over. Nothing but an address: 110 Stoneridge Way, Mills, PA – the town her father had gone to research. Her heart hammered in her chest as she sat cross-legged before this tableau, a sense of foreboding catching her breath in her throat. When her arms broke out in goose-flesh, she smoothed them out and tried to push away her troubled thoughts. I am a professional researcher. I am not prone to will-o-the-wisps or the screaming meemies.

 

A headache pulsed behind her right eye: a migraine just waiting for her to let down her guard. Kim scowled. Her migraines hadn’t affected her so frequently in many years, but since her divorce – since she’d learned about her husband’s mistress, actually – it seemed the headaches were poised on a hair-trigger, ready to flatten her with the slightest provocation.

 

As a child, she’d suffered frequent bouts of what her mother called “sick headaches.” While medication was available, the Garretts couldn’t afford it; poor as church mice – possibly poorer – the recommended nutrition and reduced stressors had been all but impossible to attain.

 

And then Todd had discovered his knack for research. His first paying client, a friend who was trying to juggle grad school, marriage, and a full-time job, had been so impressed he’d sent more students Todd’s way. In a relatively short amount of time, Todd had quit his job as a server in a bad Italian restaurant (the smell of garlic would nauseate him for years to come) and opened the doors of his own small research company.

 

His reputation grew, as did his client list, and by the time Kimberly started high school she wanted for nothing. Her health improved, she blossomed from scrawny weed to graceful flower, and often went a year or more without a migraine.

 

And then the divorce. At twenty, she had married her high school sweetheart. At twenty-one, she attempted to get pregnant. She’d expected some difficulty – she’d suffered erratic, painful cycles her entire life – but it never occurred to her that it might prove impossible.

 

Three years and as many miscarriages later, Mark Owens walked out on his young wife, obtained a quickie divorce in Las Vegas, and married his mistress almost before the ink was dry on the divorce decree. His very pregnant mistress. He’d placed more importance on having a child than on his relationship with Kim, and that was the killing blow to her self-esteem, the blow that kept her awake at night. He’d thrown her aside as easily as he would a malfunctioning toaster and with as little regret. To be so meaningless to someone who’d once promised her so many idealistic but wonderful things, it was really no wonder the last two years had been liberally punctuated with debilitating headaches.

 

Pressing the heel of her hand against her right eye to stop the nauseating pulse, Kim chewed her lower lip uncertainly. She could simply text Todd and ask him why he’d sent home fishing gear when he detested fishing. There would be a simple explanation, such as someone had convinced him to go fishing and he’d enjoyed it much more than he had in his younger years; a friend who liked to fish was coming home with him and they didn’t want to pay for checking the box on the airline (stupid theory, but it had possibilities). Or perhaps the contents of the box was a message, and the paper coaster a clue. But from whom, and why?

 

After a while she realized she was sitting on the sofa, staring into the fire, her cell phone open in her hand. She had no recollection of moving, no memory of sending a text, but her sent messages folder showed one placed to her father several minutes earlier. Box of fishing gear arrived today. WTF?? Did you buy out Cabela’s?

 

A frown puckered her forehead as she tried to recall composing it, but the memory wouldn’t come. With a niggling sense of unease, she went back to the novel, and almost succeeded in putting the incident from her mind.

 

The nightmare came for the first time that night, blurred images of freezing rain pelting her face; of a broad-shouldered man, dark blue eyes illuminated by the glow of the full moon behind angry storm clouds; of booming thunder drowning out all other sound and flares of lightning blinding her to peril; of a meadow filled with blood and screams and desperation.

 

She awoke screaming her father’s name, a disquieting sense of déjà vu she recognized following her into consciousness. It came only with certain dreams, the kind she hadn’t had in more than two years.

 

Prophetic dreams.

 

Anxiety had been her constant companion since the day Todd told her he planned to go to New England for a client to research a small town with one of the highest rates of disappearances and wild animal attacks in the United States. She couldn’t put her finger on what caused her apprehension, but her best friend Bethany had offered her thoughts.

 

It’s your gift, she’d said calmly, ignoring Kim’s skeptical snort. God gives you a glimpse of knowledge and waits to see what you’re going to do with it.

 

Yeah, well, Kim had a theory as well: indigestion – the only theory to which she would lend any credence.

 

That didn’t change the fact that her prophetic dreams always came true. Without fail.

 

She stared up at the ceiling. The frenzied shadows of the wind-blown trees through the weak light of dawn, playing across the ceiling like a frantic ballet, stirred in her a crushing dread.

 

She considered those indigo eyes, so clear in her dreams that she could have drawn the exact pattern of their green and gold flecks. She considered the dark woods, the snowy sleet that drenched her and her unfamiliar companion, frigid needles that permeated the thin veil between sleep and wakefulness so that her skin felt icy and she shivered even as she huddled beneath a warm quilt. She considered the worst that could happen: her father was in trouble.

 

And thus, considering the worst, she began to make reckless plans.

 

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