She was out there.
He knew it.
Although the link was not complete,
he was certain he would locate her.
Standing beside the car, I viewed the house impassively, arms wrapped tightly around my chest in a self-protective stance. I wasn't aware of the posture I'd adopted but Ash noticed, wrapping his arm around my shoulders in a comforting gesture.
“I know it's not much,” he began hesitantly.
“It'll be fine,” I reassured him quietly. A narrow fronted two story in a sad state of disrepair, the faded blue cladding was in dire need of a coat of paint and the shingles needed replacing. Despite its ramshackle appearance, the structure appeared to be sound, a heavy lock and deadbolt visible on the front door.
As if reading my thoughts, Ash motioned towards the windows. “They're all secured, Finn. Bolts on every window, deadbolts on every door. There's an alarm system installed, which connects straight to the Sherriff's Office in town.”
For a few minutes, I studied the house and Ash scrutinized me discreetly, apparently sensing the tension, which rolled from me in waves. It was tangible evidence of the stress I'd endured, apprehension I couldn't hide from one of my dearest friends.
“Come on, I'll show you around,” he offered. Following Ash up the stairs, I stood back as he unlocked the solid front door and ushered me inside. The interior of the house was unexpected, the living room spotless and filled with contemporary furniture, a fawn leather sofa and two matching armchairs. Oak bookcases stood on either side of a picture window, a breathtaking view of the crashing Atlantic beyond. Fresh drapes hung at the windows and the walls had been recently painted, leaving a slight odor of paint fumes still perceptible. On the right of the hall, a dining room with elegant beech furniture led to a shabby kitchen. Although the benches were worn and the cupboards chipped, the kitchen was functional. Beyond that an enclosed sunroom led to a dilapidated terrace, which Ash assured me was sturdy enough despite its ramshackle appearance.
He guided me upstairs, where the master bedroom was comfortably furnished, and the bathroom was obviously newly renovated, with fresh tiling, paint, and fittings. The other two bedrooms were filled with paint cans, piles of wooden flooring, and the flotsam and jetsam of renovating an old home.
“The place was collapsing when I inherited it from my grandparents.” Ash rubbed a thumb across his jaw thoughtfully as he surveyed the master bedroom. “I had contractors replace the bathroom and do some structural repairs. The rest is a work in progress, when I can score a spare weekend to fly up here.”
I glanced at him, a quick appraisal catching the uncertainty in his eyes. I hurried to reassure him. “It's great, Ash. Perfect.”
Ash rubbed his fingers through his hair, eyeing me doubtfully. “Stay here as long as you want, Finn. I don't get up here often and the place sits empty most of the time. You'll be safe here.” His brown eyes were troubled, fine lines creasing his brow. “The security system will ensure nobody gets in.”
He caught the glimmer of anxiety in my eyes before I dropped a veil of composure over my features. “I appreciate it,” I said softly.
Ash cursed under his breath, I knew he hated seeing me like this. We'd grown up together and had become more like siblings than just friends. Ash, my brother Bryan and I lived on the same street as kids, growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. Ash and Bryan initially loathed one another, but when a minor disagreement resulted in a fistfight over a juvenile dispute, it was me who had waded in to referee. A four-year-old kid staring down two fourteen-year-old boys. It was a turning point for Ash and Bryan, turning mutual loathing into a deep friendship, which spanned two decades.
Even now, I had trouble recalling why they disliked one another in the first place. There'd been cultural differences, with Ash coming from Japanese American stock and Bryan and myself being purely Irish American. They made incongruous friends from the beginning, Ash was dark skinned with jet-black hair and chocolate brown eyes; Bryan freckled and blessed with the sky blue eyes and flaming red hair synonymous with an Irish background. Luckily, for me, I'd missed that particular legacy.
As kids, Ash and Bryan had a similar height and build, but when they turned fifteen the similarities ended abruptly as Bryan reached a soaring height of six feet three inches, whilst Ash was disappointed with his full height of just a touch over five ten. Despite their physical differences, both men shared an equal ability to attract women, with them both having handsome features and well-muscled bodies, honed through hours of physical exercise.
Their friendship continued throughout high school and college, before they joined the police academy together. Cementing their friendship as they worked their way up the ranks, their promotion to Detective was simultaneous. Their paths diversified from that point, Ash moved into Homicide as Bryan drifted into the harsh world of undercover work with the Vice Squad. For months, he would disappear into the seediest areas of Chicago, immersing himself in the underbelly of the windy city.
A familiar ache twisted my gut when I thought about Bryan, and I glanced surreptitiously at Ash, saw my pain mirrored in his expression. It was an agony he felt deeply, the loss of a friend who'd been like a brother. I winced uncomfortably, wrapping my arms more tightly around my chest. It was a gesture commonplace nowadays, an attempt at holding my fragile psyche together.
The sound of a car horn broke the stillness and I drew in a ragged breath, the sound making me jump. Nowadays I hated noises that were out of the ordinary, unexpected events, both of which combined to shatter my fragile nerves. Ash grinned and tugged my hand gently, catching it in his. “Don't worry, I know who it is.” He led me downstairs and out to the porch, where two cars had pulled into the drive behind Ash's Chevy Equinox.
“Hey guys.” Shep stretched as he stepped from the car, his muscular arms tensing. His dark wavy hair blew across his face when the sea breeze caught it, framing his striking features. “Jesus, Ash. Could you have chosen anywhere further away from Chicago?” Shep drew me into a friendly embrace, kissing my cheek and ruffling my hair. “How you doing, kitten?” he questioned.
“I'm okay,” I muttered.
“No you're not,” Shep countered mildly. “But you will be, Finn.” He offered me an affectionate smile and ruffled my hair once more, as though I was still a child. “You will be.”
It was a struggle not to cry with relief when my best friend, Shelby, clambered from the second car, along with her boyfriend Taylor Deveraux. Shelby dashed forward, incredibly graceful in stilettos and gripped me in a tight hug, holding me for a long time as I fought to control the tears which threatened to flow. When I regained some composure, I stared at her incredulously. “What are you doing here?”
Shelby glanced at the old house and didn't bother to hide the disdain in her light blue eyes. “When Ash insisted on bringing you here, I had to come and make sure it was okay. We flew in with Shep to Boston, hired cars there.” She wrinkled her nose delicately as she surveyed the crumbling exterior. “It's not the Hilton, that's for sure.”
Even as I reprimanded her, I couldn't help but grin. “Shelby, don't be rude. It's okay.”
Shelby raised her eyebrows. “It's the ass end of the world, that's what it is.” She glanced at Ash, who was watching her with a bemused smirk. They'd known each other for years, since Shelby and I met at grade school and Ash was very used to Shelby's acerbic personality and blunt approach. “How long are you going to make her stay here in Hicksville, U.S.A.?”
I didn't fail to notice the glance Ash and Shep exchanged, or the worried frown that crossed Shep's forehead before he swiftly smoothed it away. “Until I'm positive she's safe,” Ash announced decisively. “Now quit your bitching, Shelby. Massachusetts is not a backwater.”
Shelby gripped my arm firmly and guided me towards the house, leaving the bemused men in her wake. “I'll be the judge of that.”
Shelby toured the house from top to bottom, while Ash and Taylor trailed into the house with boxes from the back of Shelby's car. “I brought everything I thought you'd need while you're staying here,” she announced, as she descended the staircase. “Some of your books, clothes, a few of your favorite DVD's.” She reached the hallway and directed Ash and Taylor where to put the boxes. “Things to make you feel more at home.” She placed her hands on her denim-clad hips and glared at Ash. “Honestly, Ash, couldn't you have put her in one of those… what are they called? Safe houses?”