With a powerful voice and unstoppable suspense, Elizabeth Jennings makes her Forever debut.
A shocking betrayal…her father’s murder…and a life-threatening accusation…Heiress Charlotte Court has walked into a waking nightmare—one that sends her running from her wealthy home to anywhere she can hide.
Across the border in Mexico, Charlotte creates a new identity and finds refuge in the battle-torn arms of Navy SEAL Matt Sanders. Fleeing his past, Matt yearns to protect her and replace her pain with pleasure. But Charlotte can’t trust anyone, not even someone she’s starting to love. She knows she’s a target-and out of sight, a soulless killer is zeroing in on his prey…
About the Book
I spent my formative growing-up years in Florence, Italy, very much immersed in an artistic environment. My mom worked at a US graduate school of fine arts in a beautiful villa nestled in the green hills just below Fiesole, Villa Schiafanoia.
Legend has it that this was the villa where the young Florentine noblemen and women fled to avoid the plague and where Giovanni Boccaccio set the tales in the Decameron.
Living in Florence and not being immersed in art and in the life of artists is as impossible as living in Los Angeles and not being steeped in the movies.
I lived around the corner from a fabulous international art school founded by an Englishman, one of the very few art schools in the world that continues to teach the classical techniques in the Beaux Arts tradition.
The school itself was a small masterpiece. It was in a 16th century deconsecrated church in the Borgo San Frediano, simply a stunning place to study art. I remember a rotunda, where they kept all the marble and plaster of paris busts the students used to learn drawing techniques. Hundreds of Greek and Roman heads and busts. There was a gallery ringing the rotunda about ten feet up and the view from the gallery was simply breathtaking. As if being magically transported back to a Greek or a Roman temple.
The school accepts very few students and only after a rigorous selection process. They are incredibly dedicated and serious. The training in the naturalistic tradition of painting from life is thorough and deep.
I’ve been around art students and artists all my life, and much as I love them, many artists are essentially children—often lazy and irresponsible. Not these students. They would, yes, sometimes forget to eat and often forgot that you had to pay the bills and clean the house. But it was only because they were so immersed in learning the classical techniques of drawing and painting.
They could spend three months learning how to draw a finger. Over and over, obsessively, studying from the masters. Until they got it right.
I’m arty, but not visually gifted at all. I love words. At the time, I was learning how to draw a finger myself, only in my case it was characterization, hooks and motivation. Studying the masters, going over the writing again and again and again, revising and rewriting until I got it right.
I founded a writer’s group in Florence that met in the basement of the American church—quite an eclectic and floating group of people. I was the only one writing romance and it did me good to put myself up against those who had no sympathy for or knowledge of the genre. Stiffened my spine, as it were. And boy, did I learn how to tighten up the writing.
Since I was putting myself through this intense apprenticeship, as it were, exactly as a young Renaissance artisan working in a bottega, or the young artists learning how to draw a finger, I had an enormous amount of sympathy for the work involved in becoming proficient at an art.
Charlotte Court was born then in my mind, all those years ago. A beautiful woman, exceedingly gifted and hard-working, who lives for her art. I had her study at this wonderful art school. She was alive to me—her drive to paint and draw almost obsessive yet totally understandable.
I held Charlotte in my head and heart all these years, and in this, my eighth book, I have finally given her life.
She is put to the test in PURSUIT. Wounded and hounded, she shows immense courage and fortitude. I like to think that her art gave her strength and grace.
This article appeared in the Romantic Times magazine.
Charlotte Court and Matt Sanders fall madly in love in PURSUIT. Well, that’s only natural, really. He’s good-looking and ripped. She’s gorgeous. Nothing unusual there. Falling in love is what people do. It’s a hallmark of being human.
But staying in love…ah, that’s another matter entirely. I know Charlotte and Matt very well and I can assure readers that they will stay in love—and love and care for each other—throughout their long lives.
A romance novel covers the beginning of the love affair, those first heart-rending, tumultuous moments when your entire world is turned upside-down. In a romantic suspense, all of that is compounded by heart-pounding danger. Charlotte Court is wounded and on the run, accused of a terrible crime. Matt Sanders is recovering from battle-wounds that nearly killed him. You’d think they wouldn’t have time to fall in love, but the heat and the danger bring them together.
Still, the heat and the danger are not the only things holding them together. Charlotte and Matt not only love each other, they admire each other.
You wouldn’t think they’d make a good couple on the face of it. Matt’s a big, rough, tough soldier, a former Navy SEAL. All he’s ever wanted in his life is to serve in the Navy. Charlotte is a pampered rich girl who happens to be a gifted artist.
You wouldn’t think they have much in common, but to their surprise, they do and it’s enough to build a good life together on.
Matt discovers to his enormous surprise that he’s interested in art. In Charlotte’s art, anyway. He couldn’t do what she does, not in a million years, no matter how hard he trains. He does recognize in her that deep core of hard work and discipline he has himself. He would unquestioningly lay down his life for her, because he loves her and because what she does is important. She opens up an entire new life for him.
Charlotte learns to appreciate Matt, too. Once she steps into the blackness of the world, once she understands the rule of the violent over the defenceless, she understands the importance of warriors, willing to stand for the weak. Matt is one of them. Without him, there would be no art because there wouldn’t be civilization.
Matt discovers he actually likes classical music. Long-hair music. Gah. Who knew?
Charlotte turns into a crack shot. Ms. I-hate-guns wins a couple of shooting medals. Who knew?
Matt, the tough highly-disciplined warrior, is absolute putty in his daughter’s hands. If Charlotte didn’t step in with some tough love, the little girl would have turned into a spoiled brat.
For the rest of their lives they complement each other, support each other, love each other.
Oh, and all their lives, the sex is red hot!
Five Fun Facts
1. I took the way Charlotte field-dressed her bullet wound in the sleazy motel from a military blog I came across and which I have never been able to find again. The blog was written by a soldier trapped in the mountains without a medic and who treated his wound himself. He stitched himself up, but I drew the line at forcing Charlotte to do that to herself. Gah.
2. I love the villain, Barrett. He is so cool and so incredibly smart. He is a born tracker and uses his skills to track Charlotte down across the States and into Mexico. The reason he is so smart and so skilled is that his creator (moi) had access to the incredible workings of the mind of Frank Ahearn (www.frankahearn.com), America’s foremost skip tracer/bounty hunter and definitely The Man when it comes to knowing how to disappear. Had he been around at the time, he would have found Judge Crater, Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart, easy.
3. Charlotte studied art at a fantastic school in Florence, Italy, the Charles H. Cecil Studios (www.charlescecilstudios.com), the most extraordinary art school I’ve ever seen. I lived more or less around the corner from the school for many years, have been friends with many of the teachers and have employed many of the oh-so-serious students as baby-sitters for my son. The school itself is in a very beautiful deconsecrated church, the Church of San Raffaello and is filled to the rafters with classical art produced by modern artists. There is no other place like it on earth. We’re used to seeing great classical art created hundreds of years ago. And we’re used to seeing great modern art by modern artists, most of which is either abstract or conceptual. Certainly not representational. The Charles Cecil Studio has artwork created in the traditional classical, naturalistic style of the old masters but through the eyes and hands and sensibility of modern artists. There are no shortcuts to what they do, none. They will spend a year learning how to draw a finger. They study and work incredibly hard under masters who teach them in exactly the same way the great Renaissance masters taught in their bottega. It is the schooling that Michelangelo and Raffaello and Donatello had. It is a type of art that demands incredible discipline and dedication and it is that training that made Charlotte the artist she is.
4.The villain, Barrett, is named after the rifle he uses. I did a lot of research on the Barrett rifles and they are just amazing tools, whatever your stance on gun control. They can shoot accurately to 2,500 meters which is almost beyond belief. If you look at the bullets, they are like small missiles. It seems to me that they are perfect weapons just like, say, a tiger is a perfect predator. One designed by man, the other by nature.
5. An author really does get to play God. In Pursuit, I got to design an entire village, San Luis, in Baja Sur, the southern part of Baja California. It was so much fun designing San Luis. It became so familiar to me that I could calculate how much time it took Matt to go from Charlotte’s flat to Lenny’s dive shop. I could literally ‘see’ the Cantina Fortuna, the tiled beachfront walk, the quay…San Luis is now mine, in my heart forever, every inch of it mine.
By the way, Charlotte and Matt will buy a house there and go down often, particularly once they start having kids. Their kids are unofficially adopted by Mama Pilar and they grow up essentially bi-lingual…
Read an Excerpt
Warrenton, upstate New York
Four billion dollars.
All that was standing in the way of four billion dollars was an old man dying of pancreatic cancer and his cold bitch of a daughter. Once Philip and Charlotte Court were dead, he could cash in. In about an hour, it would be a done deal.
Robert Haine stared at the preliminary contract with the Pentagon.
Billion-dollar Pentagon contracts were the stuff of legend. He was about to join the mega-rainmakers’ club – men who could move so much money it would take a train convoy to ship it in cash.
There was no going back. He couldn’t lose this. He could feel the power of it, feel the forces of the universe aligning with him. His entire life had been an arrow, aimed straight at the heart of exactly this. Wealth, power, respect. They were all so close to his grasp, his fingers tingled.
The phone rang and Haine frowned when he saw the caller ID. Martin Conklin, his head of security, sent to take out a frail and dying man in the hospital and then drive a woman off a cliff. Conklin was scheduled to call in an hour to say that part one of the mission was complete, Phillip Court was dead in his intensive care unit. That was easy—who was going to do an autopsy on a guy dying of cancer, wasting away in some elegant private clinic, listening to Mozart? Conklin—who was good at impersonations—would place the call to Charlotte. Ms. Court, this is Sebastian Orvis at Parkland Hospice. I’m afraid I have some bad news.
To get to the hospital from the Court mansion, Charlotte would have to drive along the dangerous curve on Overlook, where Conklin would be waiting for her.
But all of this in at least an hour’s time, not now. This was not good. Conklin was calling way too early.
“We got a problem.” The cellphone connection was lousy, crackling and hissing. Was Conklin panting?
“What?” Haine’s voice was calm but the hairs on his neck were standing up. This was supposed to be easy, for Christ’s sake.
“She was already there.”
Fuck. Charlotte had caught them. Charlotte was a dead woman walking, but now it all had to be coordinated with precision timing. Haine was moving the pieces in his head, when Conklin broke in again, voice crackling with panic and static.
“The old guy’s dead, but she got away.”
For the first time in his adult life, Haine was stunned. “What do you mean – she got away?”
“Bitch whacked me with the IV tree. A nurse got in the way and I had to take her down, too. But I winged the Court bitch. Through the shoulder, I think. She’s bleeding. We followed her trail out of the hospital, but we lost it. She’s gone.”
Haine’s mind finally kicked in through the shock. He’d always been able to out-think any adversary. No question he could keep one step ahead of a spoiled, pampered heiress.
He had ten men in CI’s Security Department to deploy. He’d hired well. They were loyal to him, not the company.
“Don’t worry about that. Meet up with Vaneyck, Oakley and Ryan outside police headquarters. Stop Charlotte from getting into the police station. Use any means you want, but make sure she doesn’t get through. No matter what.” Renfer would know exactly what he meant. “Send the rest of the men to the Court mansion. Don’t let her get in. The gun you shot the nurse with – is it untraceable?”
“Of course.” Conklin sounded shocked.
“What is it?”
“Smith & Wesson 908.”
Perfect, Haine thought. It only weighed twenty-four ounces and had a small grip. Exactly the kind of gun a woman would choose.
“Wipe it down. Did you load the magazine like I told you?”
“With latex gloves? Yeah.”
Okay. There would be no fingerprints. Now they needed Charlotte’s fingers. With or without her hand attached.
Charlotte would be on her way to police headquarters or home.
Headquarters was taken care of. Haine had pumped a lot of money in Chief Brzynski’s account. Brzynski wasn’t going to question anything Haine said.
Haine war-gamed the new version. For the benefit of Chief Brsynski and that new anchor woman on WRCTV, the cute one with the tight ass, what was her name? Anna. Anna Lorenzetti.
Poor Charlotte, I guess she finally just broke down. Maybe I should have seen the signs. She told me a couple of months ago she felt hunted, there were enemies everywhere. She even told me she’d acquired an illegal weapon. A Smith & Wesson. She was acting very erratically, Anna. Said she hadn’t slept well in months and she was looking very poorly.
Who on earth could imagine it would come to this?
I sent my head of security to check on how Phillip was doing in the hospital. We miss him very much at the office. Conklin said he caught Charlotte smothering her father with a pillow. I guess she just couldn’t see him suffer any more. But when he tried to stop her, she grabbed that … thing… you know, for the IVs?
Here he’d stop and look quizzical, searching for the right word.
You mean the IV tree? Anna Lorenzetti would say, giving her control of the conversation. The little moment of triumph would so flood her mind with endorphins she wouldn’t even hear his answer.
That’s right, very smart of you, he’d say. Exactly. She swung the IV tree into the head of my employee, nearly killed him. And then a nurse walked in and Charlotte killed her. Here a slow sorrowful shake of the head. Sad, pensive expression.
What a waste, Anna. What a terrible waste.
Wonderful story. Played very well.
Now all that was missing was a dead Charlotte.
Charlotte Court buzzed down the window of her maid’s SUV and shouted over the howling wind at the gas station attendant to fill the tank up. She was shaking with shock and pain, huddled in her down jacket against the icy sleet pinging against her face, pressing a makeshift bandage against her left shoulder.
She needed a place to hole up. Robert’s men had been at the police station and had surrounded her home. The profile of an armed man outside her gates had been visible against the dying light. Whatever was going on, she needed to get away from Robert, get medical attention and then call in the FBI.
She could hole up in a hotel. She was driving her maid’s SUV. Moira had even left her driver’s license in the glove compartment, so she could sign in as Moira Charlotte Fitzgerald. Then tomorrow morning…
She jumped as a face with a straggly moustache plastered itself against the driver side window. “That’ll be seventy bucks, ma’am,” the man screamed against the wind.
Charlotte bumped her shoulder against the door in turning towards her purse and nearly blacked out from the pain. She had to breathe slowly through her nose until the worst had passed. Thank God she was wearing a black nylon parka. Blood from the wound had seeped slowly through and the parka left a wet sheen on her left hand side.
She handed the cash over to the attendant and drove around to the side of the station. The rest rooms were in the back, past rows of shelves with junk food, soda pop, maps and movie magazines. Were there any OTC medications? A couple of aspirin might just dull the pain a little.
To her horror, someone was calling her name! Charlotte cringed, ready to run, when she realized that except for a very bored young teen bopping her head to the beat of an iPod, she was alone in the shop.
Her name was being blared from the TV fixed to a bracket high up on the wall. There was a big-hair female anchor. A photograph of Charlotte was in the upper left hand corner of the screen.
Police are on the lookout for Charlotte Court, heiress to Court Industries. She is wanted for questioning in the death of her father, Philip Court of Court Industries at Parkland Hospice and the shooting death of Imelda Delgado, a trauma nurse at the hospital. Police warn that Ms. Court may be armed and must be considered dangerous. Anyone sighting Ms. Court is warned not to approach her but to contact the authorities at…
Charlotte made it back to the SUV, gasping with panic. She pulled out of the gas station lot as quickly as the ice on the road allowed and headed west, hoping to make it across the state line before she fainted.
Somewhere in Kansas
Crest Motor Court
Charlotte Court stared at her pale, exhausted face in the cracked, spotted bathroom mirror. Her skin was paper-white, except for the patchy red fever flags on her cheekbones. Whatever her temperature was, she didn’t want to know. Fever floated in her veins, making her light-headed, slightly hallucinatory. For a moment, there were two white-faced Charlottes in the dark , spotted mirror with the backing nearly completely eaten away on the left-hand side.
The only good thing about looking like someone about to circle the drain was that she bore no resemblance whatsoever to the photograph that up to two days ago had been broadcast over every TV station on earth, it seemed. The photograph was taken at the Red Cross charity ball and she’d spent an entire day at Elizabeth Arden’s in preparation. The white-faced woman staring her back in the mirror bore no resemblance to the polished, coiffed, bejeweled, heavily-made up woman in the photograph.
Right now, she looked ten years older, ten pounds lighter and ten million dollars poorer than in the photograph. Last night she’d washed her hair one-handed. The motel’s hair dryer didn’t work, so she’d fallen into bed with her hair wet. It was a universe away from Pierre’s frothy coiffeure which had taken him all afternoon before the charity ball.
The Red Cross ball photograph had migrated all over the newspapers over the past four days. It had been front page, above-the fold news the first day. Then it had slipped to below the fold, then on to page three, from color to black and white and had finally disappeared altogether while several other news cycles cranked their way through the public consciousness.
Already across the first state line, a double murder in Warrenton, New York became non-news. Each state had its own murders, thank you very much. With each mile she put between herself and Warrenton, she felt safer. The story of Charlotte Court, double murderer, had disappeared from the media by Chicago.
She’d run out of cash and had coasted to her bank on State Street on fumes, blessing her late Aunt Willa for the account that had been opened in her name the day she’d graduated from college.
Still, she’d taken precautions at the bank. She’d bought a huge, shapeless down coat in the Gary, Indiana Goodwill that reached to her ankles. A large-brimmed felt hat and enormous sunglasses completed the transition. Her own father wouldn’t have recognized her. The security cameras at the bank street would show a shapeless figure who could have been anything from twenty to seventy. She would have been impossible to identify on camera.
So, time and distance from Warrenton were taking her further and further away from immediate danger. And the shoulder wound was making her look less and less like Charlotte Court, heiress and socialite.
That was the good news. The bad news was that the wound had become infected and the infection wasn’t showing any signs of going away.
Exhaustion made her sway slightly. She clutched the dirty edges of the washbasin for balance. One look at the moldy Fungus City shower pad had her opting for a sponge bath. The faucet yielded up a reluctant gurgle of yellowish, warmish water. By the time she finished, she could barely stand.
There was one more thing to do before she could sleep, though bile rose in her throat at the thought. She stood naked in the bathroom, feet curling on the cold, damp tiles.
Charlotte stared at her shoulder, at the blood-stained gauze that had been pristine white this morning, hating what was coming next. The first time she’d tried to tough it out, tearing the bloody packing off in one decisive, painful rip, she’d woken up half an hour later on the bathroom tiles with a huge bump to her head.
Still, experience told her that it was better to do it in one go. Her right hand lifted to her left shoulder and with a decisive, painful rip, she tore the bloody packing off. The pain made her head swim and her stomach clench. Luckily, there was nothing in her stomach to throw up.
It was worse than yesterday. She leaned forward and examined her shoulder in the mirror. Yes, it was definitely worse. The wound hadn’t closed completely yet. It still suppurated sullenly, blood leaking out at a slow but constant pace. Part of it had scabbed over, but she could see pus at the edges of the scab. The skin was raw and red, inflamed and painful to the touch. To her horror, she could see a small streak of red angling downwards. Well, she had something for that now.
Everything she knew about gunshot wounds came from a blog she’d read all winter by a Marine in Afghanistan called Jimbo10inches, a combat medic. She’d come across the blog by accident and read the first paragraph out of a kind of horror, thinking it would be some macho soldier nonsense.
Instead Jimbo10inches turned out to be a sensitive man, with a deep sense of irony, trying to do an impossible job under even more impossible conditions. His postings were irreverent, blasphemous and crude, infused with gallows humor and desperation. In November, his blog stopped and Charlotte feared for his life. Three weeks later, he blogged from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He’d been shot in the leg. Luckily the bullet hadn’t shattered bone, which was the good news. The bad news was that he and his buddies had been high above a valley filled with Taliban terrorists and they hadn’t dared call in a rescue helicopter. They’d hidden in a cave, subsisting off what he’d called ‘MREs’, which from the description Charlotte took to be some kind of food substitute which—in Jimbo’s immortal words—gummed me up but good, for more than two weeks. For those two weeks Jimbo had self-medicated his bullet wound and it had been like a scientific treatise on dealing with bullet wounds while on the run.
The only thing was that he’d had a syringe to irrigate the wound and enough antibiotics in his medic pack to kill every germ within a ten mile radius. His wound had been much bigger than hers and must have nicked an artery, because his description of the amount of bleeding was nowhere near the amount of blood she’d lost.
Jimbo had even stitched himself up in the dark cave by the green glow of chemlights, which at the time had horrified her. It made Charlotte think that his internet handle shouldn’t be Jimbo10inches but Balls of Steel.
So far she’d managed without stitches but the infection was getting out of control. At a loss for antibiotics, she’d remembered going to a farmer’s supply store when her collie, Yeats, had caught his paw in a hunter’s trap. The store hadn’t blinked at selling her antibiotics over the counter. So Charlotte had stopped in one of the thousand anonymous small farming towns in Illinois and had bought antibiotics for a non-existent collie whose weight she gave as half her own. That way all she had to do was double the dosage the friendly man behind the counter had given her.
Irrigating the wound… she’d stopped at a supermarket to buy candy, fruit juice, bandages and the largest size possible of zip lock bags. Opening one of the bags, she filled it with hot water from the tap with a water purification tablet and waited for the tablet to dissolve.
Gritting her teeth, she raised the water-filled zip-lock bag until it was slightly higher than her shoulder, leaned forward into the sink and punctured a corner of the bag with the sharp end of the pencil the hotel provided. Immediately, a gush of warm water poured out, irrigating the wound. Charlotte wanted to scream with pain, but didn’t dare. She didn’t dare do anything that would call attention to herself.
It was like being stuck through the shoulder with a red hot poker. It actually hurt more than when she’d been shot. Then she’d been so filled with adrenaline, so panicked when she realized that Conklin was trying to kill her, that she’d barely felt the bullet going through.
Right now, though, it felt as if all the pain in the world had rolled into in a fiery ball which had found a home in her shoulder.
Her left hand hand, slippery with blood and water, slipped on the rim of the dirty wash basin. She clenched harder, until her shaking knuckles turned white. It would have helped to use both hands to squeeze the bag, in order to increase the water pressure, but she had to hold on to the basin or fall to the floor. She filled the bag again and lifted it. The face looking back at her in the mirror was now gray, with huge beads of sweat on the forehead. Bracing herself, she irrigated the wound again, locking her jaw against the scream that tickled her throat.
Again and again she filled the zip lock bag until the water from the wound ran pale pink in the sink instead of bright red.
The pain was blinding. Her hands and knees were shaking by the time she’d finished. Though she could barely stand up, there was more still to do.
Opening the packet of antibiotic powder for dogs, she sprinkled it liberally over the wound, hoping against hope that her physiology was close enough to that of a dog’s to kill the bacteria. By the time she’d finished putting packing on the wound and taping it, she was trembling so hard she could barely stand up. There was still one thing left to do—clean up the bloody mess she’d made. Using the towels to wipe off the blood would have been stupid. Instead she used up an entire roll of toilet paper, flushing it all down the toilet.
It was possible that if Gus Grissom were to examine the bathroom, he’d find plenty of DNA, but Charlotte was certain that unless she did something to call attention to herself, it would be all right.
By the time she was finished, Charlotte was exhausted and sweaty and whiter than the dirty sheets on the bed. She knew she needed some food, something warm and solid in her stomach – or even just something warm like tea or hot milk—but there was no hope of that. Going out for something was simply beyond her, not to mention the fact that if she ate another fast food hamburger she’d throw up. And the Crest Motor Court definitely would not run to room service. She’d chosen it specially because it was the most depressing and desolate motel she could find.
Luckily, it wasn’t far from the bathroom to the bed. She hesitated just a moment by the side of the bed, every fastidious cell in her body rebelling against lying down on the stained counterpane, but it was either lie down on a bed a thousand traveling salesmen had slept in, or fall to the floor and sleep there. It was a toss-up as to which was dirtier.
Charlotte turned her head on the lumpy pillow and examined the room. Faded wallpaper, scratched Formica desk and broken-backed chair. A TV set that only caught three channels. It was almost exactly like the other three motels she’d slept in on her way to Chicago, only worse.
Where was she? Somewhere in Kansas, that much she knew, though she had no idea where or what the name of the town was. It had been a long, frightening blur of Denny’s and Motel Sixes and used car dealerships from Chicago to here. One town had blended into another. She wouldn’t even have known she was in Kansas if it hadn’t been for the big Entering Kansas sign.
She still didn’t have much of a plan in mind, other than staying off the interstates and moving south, away from the vast cold front that gripped the Midwest. She was so weak and feverish, she knew instinctively that staying in the midst of a record-breaking blizzard would kill her.
She didn’t want to be in Kansas. She didn’t want to be anywhere, except back at home, in her bed.
She lay back, shaking, and closed her eyes, trying to ignore the ball of fire in her shoulder. Charlotte stared up at the ceiling, dry-eyed, too tired to cry, too weak to move. Tonight, somehow, it was taking longer than ever for the pain medication to kick in. She glanced down at her shoulder and saw a pinprick of blood and closed her eyes briefly in despair. Blood was already seeping through. Soon, it would spread in a bright red lake over the bandages. She had to put extra packing and stick something under her if she didn’t want the maid to find blood on the bed and possibly remember it. If the police for some reason came around to canvas hotels and motels, a maid couldn’t be expected to remember the hundreds of anonymous bodies that transited through their rooms, but they could certainly remember having to clean up blood.
She had to get up. Now. Though her mind gave out peremptory orders, whipping her into a state of anxiety, her body just sank deeper into the mattress.
Charlotte lay on the bed, completely hollowed out with fatigue and blood loss and despair. The dark wings of desperation fluttered in her mind.
The motel was close to the highway and the sounds of heavy traffic filtered in from the window. It was raining so hard she could hear the hiss of the tires plowing through the water. A siren sounded in the distance. In the next room, a man and a woman were arguing, voices shrill.
You goddamned son of a bitch! a woman’s voice in the room next door screamed, voice sharp and high with hysteria. Charlotte had never heard that raw note in a human’s voice before.
The dull thunk of an object hitting the wall behind the bed reverberated through the room.
This was a world she’d never been in. An airless, dark world of despair. Charlotte felt like she’d fallen into a deep well, cut off from the rest of humanity, cut off from the rest of her life.
For the very first time in her life, no one knew where she was.
She realized, with a start of surprise, that she’d always been … reachable by the people who loved her, all her life. Her parents and friends had always had a phone number. The closest she’d ever been to being out of touch was a cruise in the Caribbean two years ago, in places where her cell didn’t have coverage for a couple of hours.
All her life, she’d been tied by bonds of love and affection to everyone around her. This new place she was in—barren and bereft of human contact—felt exactly like hell must feel, only cold.
Charlotte shivered, partly from the chill of the room, partly from the fever that was burning in her veins.
The fight next door was escalating. There were ominous bumps and thumps, voices raised in anger. The snatches of words she could hear were vicious. Even though she didn’t catch what they were arguing about, it didn’t matter. The tone was enough to understand that it was primal and primitive. Another sharp blow to the wall so hard she could feel the vibrations. She only hoped it was an object and not the woman’s head.
Charlotte couldn’t call the police without calling attention to herself. She couldn’t call down to the front desk because the night porter wouldn’t understand her. She started at the sound of glass shattering. Perhaps a replica of the big, cheap porcelain lamp base on the desk. Suddenly, the woman’s voice wailed, notes rising in a hair-raising sound of animal despair.
They could trace 911 calls. Charlotte knew this from a thousand TV crime shows. How could she call in an emergency without—
Suddenly the raucous voices stopped and for a heart-rending moment, Charlotte wondered if the woman had been knocked unconscious. Or, worse, killed.
It took her a second to recognize the sounds now coming from the room, they were so different from the sound track of violence she’d been listening to for over a quarter of an hour. Low moans, murmurs…
Suddenly, the bedsprings of the bed next door started creaking in a fast, regular rhythm. Soon, the headboard was banging against the wall in brutally hard slaps accompanied by grunts.
Oh, yeah, baby, the woman moaned. Oh yeah, give it to me.
Violent sex had replaced the violence.
For a moment, worry about the woman next door had almost made her forget about her shoulder, but the instant she realized that the woman wasn’t in danger, the pain came rushing back, like a flood that had been temporarily dammed. It was alive, the pain, like another being in the room with her.
She reached for the bottle of pain medication. Charlotte held the bottle in her good hand, turning it slowly. A normal white plastic bottle with a child-proof top, colorful label, promising pain relief from toothache, migraines and menstrual disorders. No mention whatsoever of gunshot wounds.
She swallowed three pills, one after the other and lay back, good fist clenched around the plastic cylinder, waiting with slow thuds of her heart for the pills to take effect. It occurred to her, as she held the bottle, the plastic slowly warming up in her hand, that the bottle was full. It was entirely possible that swallowing the contents of this little bottle would yield up permanent pain relief. A way out of all her troubles was right here, in a white bottle in her clenched fist.
It would be so easy, too. Much much easier than trying to tend a wound on the run, much easier than driving ten hours a day in a frantic rush away from danger and towards nothing.
Charlotte dangled the plastic cylinder in front of her eyes. Even holding the bottle up—maybe an ounce of weight—made her hand tremble. Over the counter medication was probably calibrated to ensure that even a full bottle would not be a suicidal dosage. But she was weak from blood loss, had no food in her stomach to absorb the medicine and weighed much less than the average person.
It might work.
Swallow all the pills and lie back and wait for her life to drain away together with the pain.
Life as she knew it was over, anyway.
Her father was dead. Robert and his goons were out there, waiting to kill her. How could she turn to the police for protection when she was wanted for murder? The evidence Robert had planted must have been very convincing for a manhunt to have been organized that quickly.
It was all too overwhelming, too horrible. The future was an unknown abyss in front of her, dark and menacing and feral.
Opening the bottle one-handed, she shook out another three pills, popped them in her mouth and swallowed them dry. She could feel each individual pill as it went down. Lifting herself up slightly to be able to swallow made the pain in her shoulder explode in a fierce ball of fire and she gasped, and jerked, all the pills in the bottle spilling out onto the dirty counterpane. Tears of pain sprang to her eyes. Angrily she wiped them away with the heel of her hand.
Next door there was a loud male shout, a groan, and the bed-thumping stopped. Almost immediately afterwards, there was a sharp slap and the woman’s voice rose again. “You bastard! How could you?”
Well, the post-coital glow sure hadn’t lasted very long.
Charlotte stared at the ceiling. There was a crack running across the small room, barely visible in the meager light of the 20-watt bulb. At one point the crack split, like a river. She stared and stared, fingering the pills, one by one. There were thirty-three of them. Enough, perhaps, for the job.
She could do it in ten swallows. It would probably be pleasant, drifting lightly above the agony of her shoulder and the squalor of the motel room, feeling the pain slowly recede as the shadows drew closer. Drifting softly, gently, on waves taking her far far away. And at the end, peace.
Robert would win, then, though. He’d be getting away with it—getting away with snuffing out the life of her father and Imelda. Getting away with trying to pin it on her. He’d find a way to inherit Court Industries and live happily ever after, with his titanium golf clubs, Porsches and loathsome Hugo Boss shirts.
He’d be delighted. She’d be solving all of his problems in one stroke.
Slowly, so as not to waken up the fierce giant living in her shoulder who took huge bites out of her flesh, Charlotte fingered the pills once more.
She couldn’t let Robert win.
One by one, by touch alone, she slid the pills back into the cylinder, the little rattle as they hit the bottom sounding almost loud in the silence of the room. Thirty three.
She stared, dry-eyed, at the crack in the ceiling until the chemical darkness came to take her away.
Fifty miles away, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Sanders opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. It was painted puke green and had a big crack running through it.
Opening his eyes and staring at the ceiling was Matt’s newest, latest skill and was a huge step up from lying flat on his back in a coma, which is what he had been doing for the past three months. It was an even huger step up from dying, which is what he’d done on a lonely, sun-blasted Afghani plain.
His heart had stopped four months ago, when he and his men had been exfiltrating from a series of caves at the foothills of the Hindu Kush. They’d destroyed close as dammit to a million pounds of ammunition and were running for the Pave Low swooping in to the prearranged exfil point. Matt was hustling his twelve men into the safety of the helo. Five, six, seven he counted in his head. He had one foot on the skids to pull himself in after the last man, when his blood ran cold.
A nest of tangos, lying in wait behind a hill, rose up out of the dun earth 700 yards away, scattering clods of dirt and stones. What had the hair on the back of his neck rising was the profile of the Al Qaeda terrorist at the top of the hillock. Matt had superb eyesight. Even through the dust kicked up by the helo’s rotors, he could easily make out the RPG-7 on the man’s scrawny shoulder. A Soviet-made rocket-propelled grenade.
Helicopters are swift and agile and have only two moments of vulnerability—at take off and while hovering. The pilot was hovering, had to, for the men to scramble on board.
Men were still clambering onto the cargo deck of the helo. It would take the pilot at least two minutes to pull out of range, since he had to wait for the last man to board. RPGs don’t operate at distances greater than 1000 yards, but by the time the pilot got them out of range, the RPG would have shot them down.
Matt had watched a Black Hawk with close friends in it go down over Fallujah, brought down by an RPG. It was not going to happen again. Not while he could do something about it. Not to his men. Not on his watch.
“Lorenzo!” he shouted over his shoulder, “your SR-25!”
Sgt. Dominic Lorenzo, the team sharpshooter, automatically reached behind him for his heavy sniper rifle in its scabbard and handed it down. As Matt took the rifle from him, he saw Lorenzo’s eyes widen as he realized what was going down.
Lorenzo could never get a shot off at that distance from the heavily vibrating Pave Low.
The last man was in the helo. Matt slapped the skids.
“Get out of here! Go go go!” he screamed over the noise of the engines as he went down on one knee in the dust, sighting through the Leopold VX III scope. Once, a long time ago, he’d been a sniper. Sniping skills are perishable, but he’d kept his up.
Time went into combat slo-mo. The dust and the noise and the confusion disappeared as he made the world narrow and then disappear. This shot mattered. It would be his last shot in this lifetime and it had to be perfect. The old sniper’s mantra. One shot, one kill.
Shooters shouldn’t have to shoot twice. In this case, he wouldn’t have a second chance, anyway.
High low angle rule, he reminded himself. A rule he’d drummed into his recruits’ heads. Shooting up, aim high, shooting down, aim low. He was shooting up.
He’d been running and he knew his heart rate was topping 145 beats per minute, that red zone where motor skills drop, where hearing is lost and where tunnel vision sets in. He’d trained for this and knew what to do, only it took some time. It would be a race to the finish because the tango was ready to shoot.
Matt needed his heart rate at 80 bpm, and he needed it now. He rolled his shoulder muscles and took two deep breaths, relaxing all the major muscle groups as he shouldered the rifle.
He was at a disadvantage. All of this worked in training and on the range. He’d trained his body to obey his cortex instantly. But the mid-brain—the animal part of him that valued personal survival above honor and duty—was going haywire. It knew perfectly well that he was preparing to die and it didn’t want any part of this. It wanted to run away. Matt wasted two perfectly good seconds tamping the mid-brain monster down.
He breathed in and out, bringing the heart rate down 20 bps with each breath. He had to shoot between heart beats and between breaths.
Now! He breathed slowly, in and out. In and out. In. And. Out. In and—he pulled the trigger—out.
700 yards away a tiny figure flung its arms up and fell backwards, taking the RPG with it. Fifteen other men on the hillside shouldered their rifles.
It was the last thing he remembered. He spent the next three months in a coma and three months after that lying on a hospital cot staring at the ceiling, counting the cracks and water stains.
Later, he was told that Fred ‘Goat’ Pierce, who’d grown up on a ranch in Texas, had lassoed him just as he was crumpling to the ground. His unconscious, bleeding body had dangled for long minutes from the helo as the pilot banked and hauled ass out of there. He flatlined once they got him up onto the cargo deck, his system closing itself down in shock at the massive blood loss from five bullet wounds. He lost two and a half liters of blood in the first minutes and his heart had stopped beating by the time the medic, Morrison, got to him.
Morrison refused to give up on him. He defibrillated him and pumped four bags of plasma into him, keeping him stabilized until they got back to base. He’d been airlifted to Ramstein, where a team of surgeons worked on him for eighteen hours straight and when his vital signs had stabilized, he’d been airlifted—still in a coma—to the VFW hospital.
He’d first opened his eyes two weeks ago. The last thing he remembered was the whump whump whump of the Pave Low’s rotors. He awoke to the sound of the EKG machine beeping and an orderly swabbing the corridor outside his room, softly singing a blues song.
It had taken Matt several sweaty minutes to realize that he was alive and in a hospital and hadn’t been tossed into some scary hell with puke green walls and cracked ceilings.
There was someone else in the room with him—a silent figure almost completely wrapped in bandages from his head to the two stumps that ended about seven inches below his torso. Only his nose and his fingertips were visible. A jarhead, a nurse had said. Victim of an IED in Iraq. Double amputee. In the week that Matt had been awake, the jarhead had shown no signs of life other than a few weak moans in the night.
“You okay, buddy?” Matt asked the man softly, as he had every morning since he’d come back to life. That was his second brand-new skill—talking. The first day out of the coma he’d been unable to articulate any words. He’d think the words, but all that would come out of his throat had been raspy, guttural sounds, like an animal. It had terrified him, almost as much as the fact that he couldn’t move much more than his fingers and his toes.
As always, the figure next to him swathed in white didn’t answer. He wasn’t hooked up to any machines. He had a drip of a clear solution going into a tube that disappeared into one bandaged arm and a catheter coming out of his groin took the liquid back out. White in, yellow out.
When Matt had asked the nurse how long his room-mate had been in a coma, she’d replied that he wasn’t in a coma, he was ‘clinically depressed’. Funny expression that, Matt had thought. What better place to be depressed than a clinic?
Matt had got over his own depression. Matt had big big plans for today. Huge, ambitious plans. He was going to get out of this hospital bed and stand on his own two feet, by God. Right now, standing up was the most thrilling thing he could imagine, the most ambitious plan his exhausted mind could encompass.
In the Teams, Matt was the company tactician and strategist. He’d always been good at thinking ahead several moves, planning actions while always keeping the overall goal in sight. He could see the next step and the one after that, as clearly as if he were looking in a crystal ball. He planned missions down to the tiniest detail so that when the plan was put into action, it was as if he’d already lived through it.
Not now. Not lying flat on his back on a hard cot in room 347. Now his horizon was totally shrunk to today, to getting through each pain-filled hour of today. Up until now, making any kind of a plan had seemed impossible—something other people did, not people with broken bodies on hospital beds.
Well, he was going to start grabbing his life back. He knew the hospital schedule by heart. Some black sludge, powdered milk and a stale Danish had been served up, about 100 on the Crap Scale, worse than the worst MREs he’d ever had to eat in the field, and just as guaranteed to gum you up for life. Nurse Ratchet, who’d been assigned to him as part of the VFW’s ongoing effort to make his stay memorable, had cranked his bed up and insisted on waiting until he’d choked down every bite of the Danish, though it tasted like cardboard, and swallowed every drop of the coffee that tasted like what Helmut Dietmayer used to call Lutheran Church Basement Coffee.
Nurse Ratchet—actually, her name was Doris Barnes, R.N., as the badge stuck on her flat chest indicated – would be back in a half an hour to wash him, a humiliating ordeal he endured daily. He was treated like a piece of meat—uninteresting meat at that. Everything about being here was humiliating, starting from the appalling weakness he felt. Well, Matt thought, it’s time to change all that. He had half an hour. With a little luck, Nurse Ratchet would come back and find him standing on his own two feet, like a man.
And then he’d go to the head all by himself and burn the bedpan. Or rather, since it was plastic, toss it out the window.
He had it all mapped out in his head—throw off the covers, grab the overhead rails for traction, scoot his legs to the right and over the side of the bed and slowly stand up, holding on to the side of the bed for balance.
That was the theory and that was the strategy and that was the mission—slide legs out of bed, put legs on floor, stand up. He had half an hour to do it in.
Grim-faced and determined, Matt threw back the covers. Or at least, he tried to. Damn things weighed a fucking ton. It took him three botched attempts. Such simple movements, even an idiot could do it. Clutch the covers, and swing the arm up and to the left. Nothing to it. But his hand’s grip was weak and his arm faltered halfway through each swing. He ended up entangled in the top sheet, blanket and light cotton cover.
Even this light exertion had him breathing heavily from exhaustion and frustration.
Goddammit! He could do this! He swung his arm again and again until the sheet and blanket and cover were entangled around his knees. In frustration, he tried to kick them down to the bottom of the mattress, moving his feet frantically, making a bigger mess.
He stopped and breathed, enraged and panicky. This part was supposed to be easy. This was only the first damned step to getting up. If he couldn’t manage getting free of the blanket…
Stop! He ordered himself. He had to stop and regroup, before he ran completely out of strength.
Jesus. Getting out of bed. How hard could it be? He was 34 years old. He’d done it over 12,000 times in his lifetime. Even an idiot could get out of bed.
An idiot maybe, but apparently not him.
Matt pressed the button on the side of the hospital cot that raised the head of the bed, listening to the quiet motor purring as it lifted the head of the bed up. He raised it to its full extension. Maybe sitting up would help him. Sitting up was another nifty skill he’d just relearned, thanks to the hospital bed. Sitting up gave you a whole new perspective on the world as compared to lying flat on your back. Yesterday, he’d actually fed himself some soup while sitting up in bed.
Man, he was on a roll.
He looked with hatred at the tangle of sheet and blankets at the bottom of the bed and devised a strategy for dealing with it. Craftily, he slowly bent his knees and pulled his legs up until his feet cleared the tangle and were planted in the middle of the bed. Then he pushed them back down again, pushing the tangle of sheets and blankets to the bottom of the bed. Smart move, Sanders, he congratulated himself.
Glancing at the figure in the bed next to his, at a man who would never again in this lifetime stand on his own two feet, Matt thought—this is for you, buddy, and twisted his torso and straightened his legs until they dangled over the side of the bed. Moving hurt like hell and he had to stop to get his breathing under control. His quick pants of exhaustion were loud in the quiet room. Eventually the walls stopped spinning and the pain subsided enough for him to get a grip on himself. He sat on the side of the bed, trying to breathe regularly and trying to steel himself for what came next.
It had to be soon because Nurse Ratchet would be coming in to measure his blood pressure and temperature and give him an antibiotic jab in about fifteen minutes and Matt wanted to be on his feet when she came in. It was a matter of pride—pride and, yes, his goddamned manhood. Men stood on their own two feet.
He sat and contemplated the floor for long minutes, studying the waxy green linoleum as if all the answers to the questions that had puzzled mankind for centuries could be deciphered in the dark green streaks veining the floor. He barely recognized himself. He wasn’t an impulsive man—in fact, back in the day, he was known for his patience and self-control—but by the same token, once he’d taken a decision to do something hard, he immediately took action and he didn’t stop until he’d seen it through. He was patient but he was also pig-headed.
Sitting here bare-assed on the side of the bed with his bare feet dangling from the bed, Matt didn’t recognize himself.
Just do it.
Bracing himself on his hands, he scooted closer to the edge of the bed, the open white coat opening even further, but who the shit cared? His buddy in the next bed had his eyes closed and it sure as hell wasn’t anything Nurse Ratchet didn’t see every day. Didn’t wipe every day, to his shame. He slid closer and closer to the edge until his feet touched the floor, the first time his feet had touched anything but sheets in three months.
Matt closed his eyes for a second and set up a swift soldier’s prayer—just let me get through this next part and then I’ll be good—and stood up.
And fell flat on his face. No matter that he’d locked his knees and had visualized like crazy standing up, his legs simply wouldn’t hold him, not for one second. He’d gone down like a felled tree, and was splayed face down on the floor.
It hurt, but that was okay. Pain was okay, he’d always had a high tolerance for pain and anyway, pain meant you were alive. So he could deal with the pain. What he couldn’t deal with was the humiliation of being sprawled on the floor with no idea of how to get back up. He turned his head sideways and looked up at his bed. It looked like Mount Everest.
Matt braced his hands beside his head and tried to lift himself up, but he couldn’t do it. Simply couldn’t. He pushed with his arms until they trembled with fatigue, until sweat poured down his face and back, until his breath came in hot, painful pants.
He rested for a moment, hands still braced, still in the position for push-ups.
Fifteen years ago, a lifetime ago, on his first day of BUD/S, the instructor, a nasty old son of a bitch called Blackie screamed Drop you motherfuckers! to the recruits so often Matt could still hear him.
That first day on the grinder, he’d cranked out 450 pushups together with the other recruits. He’d vomited that night and the palms of his hands were raw and bleeding but by God he’d done it. He’d been young and healthy and strong, at his own personal peak.
Matt could hardly remember that young man, so strong and healthy. He was gone, together with his career. What was left was a large husk of a man—no, not a man—a thing. A thing that couldn’t even get itself up off the floor. He burned with humiliation at the knowledge that Nurse Ratched was going to come in and find him on the floor, bare-assed, unable to help himself in any way.
A drop of salty liquid from his face fell to the linoleum with a faint splat. He didn’t know whether it was sweat or tears and he didn’t care.