thicker than the others had been, weightier. Throw it away, her mind screamed out. Don’t open it. Don’t look inside.
Over the last couple of years, she had received samples of work from admirers of hers. Usually there was a letter attached, praising her own photographs before the sender went into a pitch about wanting her advice or her help, or in a few cases, suggesting that they collaborate on a project.
The success she was enjoying professionally was still relatively new. She wasn’t yet used to the pressures that went along with commercial success, or the expectations, which could become burdensome.
And, Jo admitted as she ignored her unsteady stomach and sipped coffee that had gone stone cold, she wasn’t handling that success as well as she might.
She would handle it better, she thought, rolling her aching head on her aching shoulders, if everyone would just leave her alone to do what she did best.
Completed prints hung drying on the wet side of her darkroom. Her last batch of negatives had been developed and, sitting on a stool at her work counter, she slid a contact sheet onto her light board, then studied it, frame by frame, through her loupe.
For a moment she felt a flash of panic and despair. Every print she looked at was out of focus, blurry. Goddamn it, goddamn it, how could that be? Was it the whole roll? She shifted, blinked, and watched the magnified image of rising dunes and oat grass pop clear.
With a sound somewhere between a grunt and a laugh she sat back, rolled her tensed shoulders. “It’s not the prints that are blurry and out of focus, you idiot,” she muttered aloud. “It’s you.”
She set the loupe aside and closed her eyes to rest them. She lacked the energy to get up and make more coffee. She knew she should go eat, get something solid into her system. And she knew she should sleep. Stretch out on the bed, close everything off and crash.
But she was afraid to. In sleep she would lose even this shaky control.
She was beginning to think she should see a doctor, get something for her nerves before they frayed beyond repair. But that idea made her think of psychiatrists. Undoubtedly they would want to poke and pry inside her brain and dig up matters she was determined to forget.
She would handle it. She was good at handling herself. Or, as Brian had always said, she was good at elbowing everyone out of her way so she could handle everything herself.
What choice had she had—had any of them had when they’d been left alone to flounder on that damned spit of land miles from nowhere?
The rage that erupted inside her jolted her, it was so sudden, so powerful. She trembled with it, clenched her fists in her lap, and had to bite back the hot words she wanted to spit out at the brother who wasn’t even there.
Tired, she told herself. She was just tired, that was all. She needed to put work aside, take one of those over-the-counter sleeping aids she’d bought and had yet to try, turn off the phone and get some sleep. She would be steadier then, stronger.
When a hand fell on her shoulder, she ripped off a scream and sent her coffee mug flying.
“Jesus! Jesus, Jo!” Bobby Banes scrambled back, scattering the mail he carried on the floor.
“What are you doing? What the hell are you doing?” She bolted off the stool and sent it crashing, as he gaped at her.
“I—you said you wanted to get started at eight. I’m only a few minutes late.”
Jo fought for breath, gripped the edge of her worktable to keep herself upright. “Eight?”
Her student assistant nodded cautiously. He swallowed hard and kept his distance. To his eye she still looked wild and ready to attack. It was his second semester working with her, and he thought he’d learned how to anticipate her orders, gauge her moods, and avoid her temper. But he didn’t have a clue how to handle that hot fear in her eyes.
“Why the hell didn’t you knock?” she snapped at him.
“I did. When you didn’t answer, I figured you must be in here, so I used the key you gave me when you went on the last assignment.”
“Give it back. Now.”
“Sure. Okay, Jo.” Keeping his eyes on hers, he dug into the front pocket of his fashionably faded jeans. “I didn’t mean to spook you.”
Jo bit down on control and took the key he held out. There was as much embarrassment now, she realized, as fear. To give herself a moment, she bent down and righted her stool. “Sorry, Bobby. You did spook me. I didn’t hear you knock.”
“It’s okay. Want me to get you another cup of coffee?”
She shook her head and gave in to her knocking knees. As she slid onto the stool, she worked up a smile for him. He was a good student, she thought—a little pompous about his work yet, but he was only twenty-one.
She thought he was going for the artist-as-college-student look, with his dark blond hair in a shoulder-length ponytail, the single gold hoop earring accenting his long, narrow face. His teeth were perfect. His parents had believed in braces, she thought, running her tongue over her own slight overbite.
He had a good eye, she mused. And a great deal of potential. That was why he was here, after all. Jo was always willing to pay back what had been given to her.
Because his big brown eyes were still watching her warily, she put more effort into the smile. “I had a rough night.”
“You look like it.” He tried a smile of his own when she lifted a brow. “The art is in seeing what’s really there, right? And you look whipped. Couldn’t sleep, huh?”
Vain was one thing Jo wasn’t. She shrugged her shoulders and rubbed her tired eyes. “Not much.”
“You ought to try that melatonin. My mother swears by it.” He crouched to pick up the broken shards of the mug. “And maybe you could cut back on the coffee.”
He glanced up but saw she wasn’t listening. She’d gone on a side trip again, Bobby thought. A new habit of hers. He’d just about given up on getting his mentor into a healthier lifestyle. But he decided to give it one more shot.
“You’ve been living on coffee and cigarettes again.”
“Yeah.” She was drifting, half asleep where she sat.
“That stuff’ll kill you. And you need an exercise program. You’ve dropped about ten pounds in the last few weeks. With your height you need to carry more weight. And you’ve got small bones—you’re courting osteoporosis. Gotta build up those bones and muscles.”
“You ought to see a doctor. You ask me, you’re anemic. You got no color, and you could pack half your equipment in the bags under your eyes.”
“So nice of you to notice.”
He scooped up the biggest shards, dumped them in her waste can. Of course he’d noticed. She had a face that drew attention. It didn’t matter that she seemed to work overtime to fade into the background. He’d never seen her wear makeup, and she kept her hair pulled back, but anyone with an eye could see it should be framing that oval face with its delicate bones and exotic eyes and sexy mouth.
Bobby caught himself, felt heat rise to his cheeks. She would laugh at him if she knew he’d had a little crush on her when she first took him on. That, he figured, had been as much professional admiration as physical attraction. And he’d gotten over the attraction part. Mostly.
But there was no doubt that if she would do the minimum to enhance that magnolia skin, dab some color on that top-heavy mouth and smudge up those long-lidded eyes, she’d be a knockout.
“I could fix you breakfast,” he began. “If you’ve got something besides candy bars and moldy bread.”
Taking a long breath, Jo tuned in. “No, that’s okay. Maybe we’ll stop somewhere and grab something. I’m already running behind.”
She slid off the stool and crouched to pick up the mail.
“You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to take a few days off, focus on yourself. My mom goes to this spa down in Miami.”
His words were only a buzzing in her ear now. She picked up the manila envelope with her name printed neatly on it in block letters. She had to wipe a film of sweat from her brow. In the pit of her stomach was a sick ball that went beyond dread into fear.
The envelope was
But her fingers were already scraping along the flap. Low whimpering sounds escaped her as she tore at the little metal clasp. This time an avalanche of photos spilled out onto the floor. She snatched one up. It was a well-produced five-by-seven black-and-white.
Not just her eyes this time, but all of her. She recognized the background—a park near her building where she often walked. Another was of her in downtown Charlotte, standing on a curb with her camera bag over her shoulder.
“Hey, that’s a pretty good shot of you.”
As Bobby leaned down to select one of the prints, she slapped at his hand and snarled at him, “Keep away. Keep back. Don’t touch me.”
“Jo, I ...”
“Stay the hell away from me.” Panting, she dropped on all fours to paw frantically through the prints. There was picture after picture of her doing ordinary, everyday things. Coming out of the market with a bag of groceries, getting in or out of her car.
He’s everywhere, he’s watching me. Wherever I go, whatever I do. He’s hunting me, she thought, as her teeth began to chatter. He’s hunting me and there’s nothing I can do. Nothing, until . . .
Then everything inside her clicked off. The photograph in her hand shook as if a brisk breeze had kicked up inside the room. She couldn’t scream. There seemed to be no air inside her.
She simply couldn’t feel her body any longer.
The photograph was brilliantly produced, the lighting and use of shadows and textures masterful. She was naked, her skin glowing eerily. Her body was arranged in a restful pose, the fragile chin dipped down, the head gently angled. One arm draped across her midriff, the other was flung up over her head in a position of dreaming sleep.
But the eyes were open and staring. A doll’s eyes. Dead eyes.
For a moment, she was thrown helplessly back into her nightmare, staring at herself and unable to fight her way out of the dark.
But even through terror she could see the differences. The woman in the photo had a waving mass of hair that fanned out from her face. And the face was softer, the body riper than her own.
“Mama?” she whispered and gripped the picture with both hands. “Mama?”
“What is it, Jo?” Shaken, Bobby listened to his own voice hitch and dip as he stared into Jo’s glazed eyes. “What the hell is it?”
“Where are her clothes?” Jo tilted her head, began to rock herself. Her head was full of sounds, rushing, thundering sounds. “Where is she?”
“Take it easy.” Bobby took a step forward, started to reach down to take the photo from her.
Her head snapped up. “Stay away.” The color flashed back into her cheeks, riding high. Something not quite sane danced in her eyes. “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch her.”
Frightened, baffled, he straightened again, held both hands palms out. “Okay. Okay, Jo.”
“I don’t want you to touch her.” She was cold, so cold. She looked down at the photo again. It was Annabelle. Young, eerily beautiful, and cold as death. “She shouldn’t have left us. She shouldn’t have gone away. Why did she go?”
“Maybe she had to,” Bobby said quietly.
“No, she belonged with us. We needed her, but she didn’t want us. She’s so pretty.” Tears rolled down Jo’s cheeks, and the picture trembled in her hand. “She’s so beautiful. Like a fairy princess. I used to think she was a princess. She left us. She left us and went away. Now she’s dead.”
Her vision wavered, her skin went hot. Pressing the photo against her breasts, Jo curled into a ball and wept.
“Come on, Jo.” Gently, Bobby reached down. “Come on with me now. We’ll get some help.”
“I’m so tired,” she murmured, letting him pick her up as if she were a child. “I want to go home.”
“Okay. Just close your eyes now.”
The photo fluttered silently to the floor, facedown atop all the other faces. She saw writing on the back. Large bold letters.
DEATH OF AN ANGEL
Her last thought, as the dark closed in, was Sanctuary.
AT first light the air was misty, like a dream just about to vanish. Beams of light stabbed through the canopy of live oaks and glittered on the dew. The warblers and buntings that nested in the sprays of moss were waking, chirping out a morning song. A cock cardinal, a red bullet of color, shot through the trees without a sound.
It was his favorite time of day. At dawn, when the demands on his time and energy were still to come, he could be alone, he could think his thoughts. Or simply be.
Brian Hathaway had never lived anywhere but Desire. He’d never wanted to. He’d seen the mainland and visited big cities. He’d even taken an impulsive vacation to Mexico once, so it could be said he’d visited a foreign land.
But Desire, with all its virtues and flaws, was his. He’d been born there on a gale-tossed night in September thirty years before. Born in the big oak tester bed he now slept in, delivered by his own father and an old black woman who had smoked a corncob pipe and whose parents had been house slaves, owned by his ancestors.
The old woman’s name was Miss Effie, and when he was very young she often told him the story of his birth. How the wind had howled and the seas had tossed, and inside the great house, in that grand bed, his mother had borne down like a warrior and shot him out of her womb and into his father’s waiting arms with a laugh.
It was a good story. Brian had once been able to imagine his mother laughing and his father waiting, wanting to catch him.
Now his mother was long gone and old Miss Effie long dead. It had been a long, long time since his father had wanted to catch him.
Brian walked through the thinning mists, through huge trees with lichen vivid in pinks and red on their trunks, through the cool, shady light that fostered the ferns and shrubby palmettos. He was a tall, lanky man, very much his father’s son in build. His hair was dark and shaggy, his skin tawny, and his eyes cool blue. He had a long face that women found melancholy and appealing. His mouth was firm and tended to brood more than smile.
That was something else women found appealing—the challenge of making those lips curve.
The slight change of light signaled him that it was time to start back to Sanctuary. He had to prepare the morning meal for the guests.
Brian was as contented in the kitchen as he was in the forest. That was something else his father found odd about him. And Brian knew—with some amusement—that Sam Hathaway wondered if his son might be gay. After all, if a man liked to cook for a living, there must be something wrong with him.
If they’d been the type to discuss such matters openly, Brian would have told him that he could enjoy creating a perfect meringue and still prefer women for sex. He simply wasn’t inclined toward intimacy.
And wasn’t that tendency toward distance from others a Hathaway family trait?
Brian moved through the forest, as quietly as the deer that walked there. Suiting himself, he took the long way around, detouring by Half Moon Creek, where the mists were rising up from the water like white smoke and a trio of does sipped contentedly in the shimmering and utter silence.
There was time yet, Brian thought. There was always time on Desire. He indulged himself by taking a seat on a fallen log to watch the morning bloom.
The island was only two miles across at its widest, less than thirteen from point to point. Brian knew every inch of it, the sun-bleached sand of the beaches, the cool, shady marshes with their ancient and patient alligators. He loved the dune swales, the wonderful wet, undulating grassy meadows banked by young pines and majestic live oaks.
But most of all, he loved the forest, with its dark pockets and its mysteries.
He knew the history of his home, that once cotton and indigo had been grown there, worked by slaves. Fortunes had been reaped by his ancestors. The rich had come to play in this isolated little paradise, hunting the d
eer and the feral hogs, gathering shells, fishing both river and surf.
They’d held lively dances in the ballroom under the candle glow of crystal chandeliers, gambled carelessly at cards in the game room while drinking good southern bourbon and smoking fat Cuban cigars. They had lazed on the veranda on hot summer afternoons while slaves brought them cold glasses of lemonade.
Sanctuary had been an enclave for privilege, and a testament to a way of life that was doomed to failure.
More fortunes still had gone in and out of the hands of the steel and shipping magnate who had turned Sanctuary into his private retreat.