Sam Carmichael switched his high beams on and eased off the pedal as he drove the narrow mountain road. Fat raindrops splattered the windshield of the SUV in a steady torrent that even the windshield wipers working double time couldn’t keep up with.
The Tremayne mansion drive should be another half a mile up the road. He’d be glad to get there. The mountainside wasn’t known for landslides, but the amount of rain that had been coming down steadily had been causing a number of accidents throughout Carville. Best-case scenario, he’d see the crazy cat lady and get back into town before anything bad happened.
Thunder cracked overhead, followed by a flash of light that lit up the road, revealing towering trees on both sides. He also caught sight of the gate that signaled the Tremayne estate.
He made the turn and pulled up beside the box attached to the wall. He lowered his window, pushed the button and waited for a response.
He’d been out here years ago when he’d been riding patrol. A woman dressed in shawls and surrounded by dozens of cats, or so it had seemed, had answered the door. She’d insisted that he find the person who was trying to steal her cats.
Setting aside his private thoughts, he’d checked the house and the grounds, but had found no signs of anyone having been there.
He’d chalked it up to experience and had forgotten about it until tonight, when the desk Sergeant had roped him into coming to check out a report of a possible burglary before going home.
“Lucky me,” he said into the darkness.
“Excuse me?” The voice crackled across the intercom.
Sam leaned out, ignoring the rain that pelted him, and spoke loudly.
“Detective Sam Carmichael, Carville PD. I’m here about the burglary.” He pulled his head back in and waited for the gate to open. Instead, the intercom crackled to life once more.
“Would you show me your badge, Detective?”
Sam reminded himself that he had become a detective to serve the public, even on foul nights when man and beast knew better than to be outside. He fished his badge out of his pocket and thrust it out towards the camera. How the hell the person on the other side expected to see anything with the rain coming down like it was, he didn’t know.
The gate suddenly creaked and slowly began opening.
“You’re welcome,” Sam muttered.
While he waited for the opening to be large enough for him to drive through, he gave himself a stern talking to. Crazy cat lady or not, he would do his job and be professional. Some days were the pits and today ranked as one of them, but he wouldn’t let it interfere with his job.
He drove up the long drive, noting the overgrown lawn and the creepy vibe given off by the ivy crawling up every inch of the turreted mansion, the branches overhanging the drive, and the coldness that seemed to emanate from the dark exterior. Before he left tonight he would make a point to the person who called the stationhouse to add lights to dispel the gloom.
He pulled the SUV as close to the front porch as he could, but he was still soaked by the time he reached the top step.
He pushed the bell next to the door and prepared to meet the crazy cat lady.
The door opened, and Sam stared dumbfounded. The woman before him was dressed in shawls and a long dark grey skirt, and had one cat in her arms while another curled up on a straight back chair that butted up against the wall.
But she was years younger—younger than him, he’d guess—and punch-in-the-gut beautiful.
None of it made sense and he said the first words that popped into his mind.
“What happened to the other crazy cat lady?”
Kelsey Tremayne winced at the question. When she’d opened the door, she hadn’t been sure what to expect. The security system needed a major upgrade. She had barely been able to hear the detective identify himself, and the rain and poor camera quality had made it impossible to see his badge clearly.
Though she’d debated the risk in letting him approach, she had decided to chance it. She gripped the pepper spray she held in her hand which was concealed by the shawls. It hadn’t been easy to call the police given her history with them, in fact, her stomach still felt queasy over the decision, but she needed the incidents on record.
Crazy cat lady, indeed.
“Please come in, Detective.” She stepped back and petted Sabina, the white Persian mix that had sought comfort in her arms when the thunder had started.
The detective entered, dripping water on the wood floor, and surveyed her from head to foot. He was tall, over six feet, if she had to guess, with a rangy build, brown close-cropped hair, and a stubborn jaw.
Kelsey could imagine what he saw. A not-very-tall, not-very-short, brown-haired, brown-eyed female with more cats than friends. Okay, he wouldn’t be able to guess the last, but it wouldn’t take long for him to stumble onto the truth.
Then again maybe he already knew it. After all, he’d asked about the other cat lady.
“If you’d follow me,” she said, and turned to head down the hall to the one habitable room.
For whatever reason, her aunt hadn’t put her mark on the library. Perhaps it had remained a tribute to her aunt’s father, Kelsey’s grandfather. Whatever the reason, Kelsey was grateful for the comfortable furniture and the working fireplace. The heater had shown itself to be temperamental and the fire burning in the fireplace was the only source of heat she had. In a few weeks, when winter dumped snow on the ground, she’d be in trouble if she didn’t get someone to fix it. Lately, she never seemed to warm up, as if the cold lived and breathed inside her, spreading its tentacles throughout her body.
She shivered, mentally relegated the broken heater to the long list of repairs she had written, and focused on the detective.
“Would you like to have a seat, Detective? Can I get you anything to drink?” She knew she’d said the wrong thing from the way his eyes widened.
“Kelsey. Kelsey Tremayne. Ma’am makes me sound old.” She moved a little closer to the fire, wanting the heat to dispel the chill that had taken up permanent residence in her bones.
The detective splayed his hands on his hips and watched her.
“Ms. Tremayne, you called the station and reported a burglary.”
Kelsey wet her lips and wished he’d asked for a drink. Her mouth felt dry and her throat parched.
He wouldn’t believe her. She could tell from his stance and from the way his gaze swept over the room. He had made up his mind about her. Maybe he’d even heard the rumors about her.
He’d obviously heard the ones about her aunt or why would he have called her the “crazy cat lady”?
Suddenly the room seemed to shrink. Her pulse rate increased and sweat broke out on her brow. A panic attack was imminent if she didn’t do something to head it off.
That would be all he would need to see to confirm that she was as crazy as her aunt. She couldn’t let him.
“I’m sorry, detective, for wasting your time. You should go. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. Please chalk it up to the horrible weather.” She tried to smile, but her lips seemed to tremble instead. She couldn’t even look him in the eye; her gaze slid away. She marched purposely to the door, hoping he would follow.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
She tried to remember everything her therapist had told her. Her control, though, was slipping. Footsteps sounded behind her and she knew a moment of relief. He would go.
Once he was gone, she could fall apart.
She juggled Sabina in order to grab the doorknob and pull the heavy front door open. Thunder boomed overhead and lightning lit up the sky. Sabina yowled and leaped from Kelsey’s arms, scratching them in her descent. Kelsey tripped on her floor-length skirt and fell backward.
Arms caught her and pain exploded in her head. “Let go!” She kicked and scratched and fought, determined to fight her way free.
One minute she was trapped and the next she was thrust into a hard-backed chair. Detective Carmichael stood a few feet away, looking at her as if she were indeed crazy. She wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
If only she were a cat-like Sabina, who’d scampered to the top of a stack of boxes further down the hallway and was observing them from her perch.
“Please go,” Kelsey whispered, her voice raw.
Silence pressed in on her, despite the sounds of the storm made louder by the open front door. She’d asked him to leave. Why didn’t he leave?
He walked over to the door and closed it. He blew out a breath and rubbed the top of his head.
“Look, you called about a burglary. Why don’t we focus on that?”
She shook her head. “I was mistaken.” She twisted her fingers in the shawl’s fringe. “You can go.” Maybe if she repeated it enough he’d get the hint.
He bent down and picked up the pepper spray that must have fallen out of her hand when she’d tripped. He put it on the table in the entry, next to her chair. He looked puzzled.
She waited for the barrage of questions. Memories of another interrogation intruded into her mind and once more her control began to crumble. She got to her feet, strode purposely to the front door and pulled it open.
“I’ve asked you to leave. I told you it was a mistake. Please go or I’ll have to call the station to register a complaint.” She wouldn’t, of course. Her days of dealing with the police were at an end. She’d thought she could handle talking to them, after all of her therapist’s encouragement to see beyond her own nightmarish experience. But, again, images and voices crowded into her mind, threatening to push out here and now if she didn’t hang on.
“All right. I’ll go,” he said.
He spoke evenly, and she focused on the words, not wanting to look into his eyes and see pity there.
She expected him to step past her and out onto the porch so she could shut the door. But he paused directly in front of her, facing her, though all she saw was his dark blue shirt tucked into a pair of jeans. She forced her head up to meet his gaze, her hands tightening the shawl’s material around her.
His eyes were gray, turbulent, like the storm outside. Something inside her wanted to shy away from the way he seemed to be stripping away the layers she’d successfully piled on to protect herself. But she made herself withstand the scrutiny.
He shook his head. “You know, none of this makes sense. This,” he waved his hand around to encompass the hallway, “doesn’t make sense. Mostly, though, you don’t make sense.” He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a business card and held it out to her.
She wet her lips, aware of his gaze suddenly focused on her mouth. She felt the heat rushing to her cheeks.
“If I take the card, will you leave?” Her voice sounded husky to her own ears and she wanted to kick herself. The last person she needed to be attracted to was a police detective.
“Just take the card,” he said.
She reached out to pluck it from his fingers, but he held on to it.
“First, get some light and better security. Second, I don’t know why you called the police, or what’s going on, but if you change your mind or need assistance, my cell phone is on here. I’ll pick up day or night.” With those final words, he released his grip on the card and walked out, closing the door behind him with a snap.
A cat meowed, and she felt the animal rub against her legs. Pulling her gaze away from the door, she reached down and picked Sabina up. She was still holding the card in her hand as she carried the cat to the library where warmth lay. She should throw it away, yet she couldn’t quite rid herself of the image of those gray eyes and that penetrating stare. He’d called her a crazy cat lady, but when he’d zoomed in on her lips, he’d seemed attracted.
Of course, it might all be in her imagination, but that didn’t matter. If she concentrated on how he’d been captivated by her lips, she wouldn’t have to think about who had been in the house and whether they would be back.