Read an Excerpt:
~ Prologue ~
Brilliant white light startled Jesse John Fisher to awareness. Wild screams echoed in his ears, muffled quickly by the sound of rushing water. Surging, pounding, icy water cleansed his spirit, then complete silence. All pain was gone. Blood no longer oozed from his wounds. Soft-spoken words mumbled within his head until they became clear.
You must go back and help them find the truth.
Go back? No, he could not go back. He never wanted to suffer that torture again. Pain unimaginable had crushed his body. He had fought to the bitter end, only to have his life cut short by violence and greed. His heart ached to live and breathe again. He had wanted to say goodbye, touch the face of the woman he loved. Kiss her one last time…
Blackness surrounded him, pulling him to and fro. He was falling, returning to the night of his death. A night to relive, over and over again, until the end of time. As the mighty Shenandoah River polished its pebbled bed, he found the endless motion soothing. He hung in limbo now, non-existent in either Heaven or Hell. Weightless as a feather, he inhaled a deep breath of fresh mountain air and released it—he was home. Now, he would make the most of this ethereal curse. Revenge would be sweet payback for a cruel twist of fate.
Beware my foe. I am coming.
~ Chapter One ~
Azure Clarke peered in the bookstore window. The worst thing about small towns was their laid-back time schedule. Royal Oak’s businesses opened up as late as noon and closed before most people got off work. Such was the way of life in the small Blue Ridge Mountain community. She tapped on the windowpane with impatience. A man and a woman stood within. The man looked right at her and turned away. She tapped on the glass again and smiled in an attempt to gain their attention.
The woman wore an old-fashioned flowery dress and walked toward the door as slow as molasses runs out of the bottle. She even paused to straighten books here and there along the way.
No hustle-bustle of a big city here. The shopkeeper finally made it to the front of the store and fumbled with a large key ring before unlocking the heavy, glass-paned, oak door.
Azure stuck her foot in the opening. “Any chance you can open early?”
“Not allowed to until the owner arrives.”
Azure peeked over the woman’s shoulder at the dark-haired man who sat casually on a tall wooden stool beside the counter. “Is that your manager?”
“The man sitting by the counter back there.”
The gray-haired woman’s face paled. She pushed on the door to close it and frowned down at Azure’s stubborn foot. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m here alone, and I…I can’t open up until the owner arrives.” She huffed and puffed, and pushed harder. “Now please remove your foot, young lady, so I can shut the door. We will open in a half an hour. Not a moment sooner. Come back then.”
She withdrew her foot. “But who—”
The door slammed, and the lock clicked. The woman pointed to the cardboard clock on the door set at 11:00 A.M., turned on her heel, and walked away. Azure peered through the wavy glass pane again. No one in sight. Maybe they had both disappeared into the back room. Or maybe she’d stumbled upon a secret romance? Nah, he was much too young for the old gal.
Besides, he’d stared at Azure the entire time she’d argued with the frustrating woman. Accepting defeat, even though it meant coming back to town later, she swung around and nearly ran into the dark-haired man who had been inside the shop moments before. She stepped backward, and so did he.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t see you.” She gushed out the apology, and then wondered why. He’d been just as much at fault. In fact…was he following her?
He didn’t say a word. Just stood still and smiled, a sly sideways smile like he knew something she didn’t. She looked into his deep green eyes. Strange tingles zapped through her, like riding on a zip-line. Daring, exhilarating, and a little disturbing all at the same time. Flustered, she glanced to the side and caught her reflection in the wide display window. Odd, there was only her reflection. She turned back around to speak, but he was gone. Maybe her mind was playing tricks on her, or maybe he was never there at all.
Jesse recognized Meg’s descendant. The resemblance was uncanny, except for Azure’s blonde hair. She did share Meg’s incredible eyes that changed from dark to pale blue, depending on her emotional state, and her scent—fresh raspberries—a scent he would always remember. He had followed Azure since her arrival in Royal Oak. She drew him like a magnet. He could not resist
haunting her. He did not want to frighten her, but was excited and anxious to make contact. He had waited a very long time. Today was their closest confrontation yet, and he wanted to communicate. He sent an imploring message into the cool night air, hoping she would respond and come to him. If not, he would continue to haunt her, until she realized this was her destiny.
“I’m a prisoner in a house of green. A long dreary path I follow. Please…help me.”
A faraway voice whispered to Azure’s soul. She sat by her computer, staring out the window at the lacy white pines and tall tulip poplar trees surrounding the house. Moved by the passionate plea, she wanted to help. But how? Someone needed her assistance. She needed to discover who and why. Helping people was what made her decide to pursue a degree in genealogy. She loved delving into the unknown past of people’s lives. She loved history, and she enjoyed solving mysteries.
Her current case from the 1860s involved a family member, her great-uncle Warren. Upon receiving his urgent request, she’d left her tiny, big-city apartment in Washington D.C. and drove westward with Whiskers, her cat. Back to the two-hundred acre Virginia farm she inherited when her father died. The old house was the perfect place to stay. And the nearby town of Royal Oak was drenched in Civil War antiquities, with classic architecture and a detailed historical museum to browse. She had everything at hand she needed for research.
Her mind wandered over what she’d learned so far. A tangle of lies, rumors, and partial truths complicated the facts she’d uncovered. During a war where families fought against each other for the freedom to uphold their beliefs, there were rough times, hard work, and loyalties to different ways of life. Bloody battles fought, houses looted and burned, brave soldiers dying—
Azure shook off the uncomfortable impressions and watched multi-colored bubbles float across the computer screen. Her research sat on the back burner, while her thoughts drifted in melancholy. Mindless and unorganized. Dammit. Concentrate!
Maybe she should discover the identity of the dark-haired man she saw in town yesterday. His vivid green eyes had grabbed her attention and brought about feelings she didn’t want to think about. Maybe the man was a tourist, one who enjoyed staring at women to make them aware of his total masculine essence. But why would he be in the bookstore before it opened? And why had he disappeared so fast without saying a word?
She pushed away from the desk and spun around in her chair. Like when she was a kid, spinning made her giggle and feel goosey all over. Her mind flipped back to the moment her eyes locked with the mystery man. His gaze had been intense. An eerie feeling overcame her as though he’d read her mind in an instant and peeked slyly into her heart. She hadn’t dated in quite a while, but there was interest in those dreamy eyes. Or her wearied brain might be playing games. Maybe he was an erotic illusion, a hopeless female’s daydream from the inner workings of her overactive mind.
Heaving a sleepy sigh, she stretched her arms over her head and stood up. No more of this today. She needed fresh air—not emerald green eyes piercing her every thought. No one should have eyes that enticing. She grabbed her favorite pink sweatshirt off the chair, tugged it on over her head, and snatched up her jumble of keys. She passed the sprawled out brown tabby cat, enjoying a leisurely nap with his paws stretched out above his head. He loved to lay twisted-pretzel style.
“Now don’t make a mess while I’m gone, boy. Last time I left you alone too long, I picked up shredded pieces of toilet paper for days.”
Whiskers mewed, disagreeing politely with her complaint. He rolled over and displayed his creamy belly, a simple request for a tummy-rub. His loud purr was far too inviting to resist.
Azure crossed the room and sat beside him on the sofa. He pawed at her ponytail and blinked his round golden eyes, begging to play. She ran her hands along his soft fur and smiled. “You’re so incredibly spoiled.”
Whiskers had been her constant companion for the past ten years. She’d found him trapped inside a coffee shop, frantic to escape the loud noise and confusion. It was love at first sight. He understood her, and she understood him.
“Okay. I have to work now, and you need to keep an eye on things here at home. Do not be destructive. I will bring you back a tasty treat, if you stay out of trouble. Deal?”
His tufted brown ears twitched. He rolled upright and batted at her departing hand, his plea for more attention. “Meeeow?”
“Be good.” She blew him a kiss before closing the front door.
Fresh mountain air cleared her senses and helped her gain focus on her projects. A short walk down the gravel path to her Ford Explorer 4×4 and she was ready for a productive day. One clue solved or one answer to a gazillion unanswered questions was all she needed to make the day a success.
Azure drove along the bumpy rutted drive, creating a dust storm behind the truck—following a road she’d become familiar with over the past two weeks as it wound through the shadows of the tall stand of pine and cedar trees. On the way, she passed the nineteenth-century Dutch-style barn downhill from the farmhouse, a place she still needed to explore.
She was alone now, and some days her work load and the utter loneliness got to her. She took a deep breath and released it slowly as her Pilates teacher taught her to do. Stress had haunted her since her father’s passing. Another deep cleansing breath. Calm and easy, one step at a time. She could do this today.
Only she controlled her life. Forget all the big city hassles. No long lines, no hectic traffic, and no more irritating men to stand her up or dump her after their first date. She was alive and carefree, and deserved to find happiness in her life.
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