A Taste of... Shadow's Secret

Chapter One

Pressing a hand over her mouth, Cassie Leigh attempted to hold back the sobs fighting to escape her throat. She had to be quiet. If she made a sound, she knew she wouldn’t survive this night.

And she needed to survive.

How had this happened?

With no time to even consider the question, Cassie ran as fast as she could. She didn’t realize she’d made it into the marshes until her bare feet splashed into the slimy mire. With a soft gasp, she barely managed to strangle her startled yelp as decaying plants, mud, and silt squelched between her toes.

Holding the red dress she’d bought just for him closed in the front, Cassie was exposed to the rawness of the swamplands hiding in the sharp grasses and hidden pools of water. That was just a couple of the many reasons she should have tried to avoid them, but when she’d started running, there hadn’t been time for choices. The only thing that mattered was to get away. She needed to keep moving.

Lightning flashed, providing Cassie with a glimpse of her current location and saving her from running into an old, abandoned boat half buried in the muck. The marshes stood out during the day, an oddly satisfying addition to the island landscape. If she hadn’t spent so much time looking over her shoulder, she still might have seen them, even in the dark of night. It was too late to change her path now.

Marsh muck would be the least of her problems if he caught her.

No!

She couldn’t think like that.

Cassie’s lungs burned, and her mind raced, stirred by panic and the very sudden and real understanding that she had royally screwed up. Cassie had never seen him like this before.

“You lying bitch!”

Spittle had flown from his lips as he’d shouted into her face, and that hadn’t even been the worst of it. The way he had screamed at her, the names he’d called her, even the way he moved, none of it was like the man she thought she had known so well.

It wasn’t until he’d slapped her that she knew he wasn’t going to calm down. She’d had only one choice after that…run. He’d pursued her, though, still raging and screaming, so she had kept running, trying to keep ahead of him.

Cassie wasn’t sure if she was more scared or heartbroken as she tore through the mud…if it was tears or the stink of the marsh trickling down her cheeks. She sloshed forward as the first drops of rain pelted her skin. The stagnant, muddy water coming up to her ankles and then her knees. Each step was accentuated by the swish and splash as she groped forward blindly. She tried to ignore the things that were sticking to her bare flesh as she prayed it didn’t get any deeper.

I’m making too much noise.

She stopped for a moment, holding her breath and listening, then jumped when lightning struck again. Maybe she could hide from him instead? Though the storm was terrifying, it might even be her friend. Its sound would cover her shaking breaths, and if she hunkered down in the tall grass, maybe he’d walk right by her. It wasn’t like he had a flashlight, and the moon was covered by clouds.

Maybe he’d give up. Or maybe he’d calm down, and they could—

Splashing footfalls came from behind her, and she gasped as the world was lit from yet another strike of fire. Did he see her?

“Cassie!”

The word roared over the sound of the rain, and she’d never had anyone speak to her in such rage. Less than an hour before, Cassie had loved listening to his labored breathing as he called out her name during the throes of passion, but there was something unmistakably different about it now. In the darkness, standing in the mud and pelting rain, it sounded desperate. It was the sound of an enraged animal on the hunt, not someone she’d willingly spent so many happy times with.

From what she could tell, he seemed to be somewhere off to her right. Keeping low in case lightning lit up the sky again, she slunk off to the left, angling herself so she’d come out closer to the beach. She only had fifty yards or so to cross, a distance she felt sure she could make. All she had to do was be quiet, to keep panic from slowing her legs.

They’d been pushing this mad dash ever since they’d left the old witch’s cottage that had become their meeting spot. She’d been tempted to climb the steps to the lighthouse but knew she’d be trapped there if he spotted her before she could get to the top.

If she could make it to the beach, she could run much easier. Even out in the open and visible, she could still get away. And go where? Where could she go that was safe from him? There was nothing close by, she knew.

This hadn’t been the plan.

She’d been so careful…so picky! They’d never argued before tonight, and it was the first time she’d ever experienced his violent side. Sure, she’d heard others talk about him losing his temper and knew what he was like when he was frustrated.

But tonight was different.

Tonight, she’d refused to do what he wanted, and she’d seen it in his eyes—some sort of fissure or break. The man who revealed himself at that moment was a stranger. Not the loving, gentle man she’d grown to care for.

Crash!

She screamed as a bolt of lightning hit the island several hundred yards away. She had to get out of there…for more than one reason.

The water was shallower now, only to her ankles. If she allowed herself to run, maybe she could escape. The beach was visible through the weeds and salt grass. She could outrun him for a while, but if she didn’t find safety within a minute or so, he’d find her for sure.

She hated the idea of running from him. He’d been a place of safety. Even the mere thought of him had made her feel secure. That’s why she had chosen him in the first place. But what she’d seen in his eyes before she bolted from the bedroom…she gagged as a wave of nausea snuck up on her.

She didn’t trust herself.

Didn’t trust him.

Not anymore. She had to make it out of here and get help.

Or maybe it was better to hide? But where?

Crash!

Maybe he’d simply give up or come to his senses. She could talk with him about this tomor—

A hand came down on her shoulder with a viselike grip. A scream rose, but only a whimper escaped as his other hand clamped around her throat. Before she could claw at his arm or fight in any way, Cassie was lifted from the ground. Her feet came free of the muck, but only for a moment before she was slammed down onto her back.

Mud and brine combined with the rain to splash into her eyes, but even through that and the darkness, the face above hers was clear. The water was deep enough to cover her face as he shoved her down into the soft ground. Mud crept into her ears, muffling his harsh breathing.

Silt kicked up as she shook her head, both in denial of what was happening to her and in silent communication with her attacker.

No. Please don’t do this. Please.

As the storm waged a war with the land, Cassie fought against her lover, but he was too strong. As she grew desperate for air, instinct forced her mouth open, but her breath had nowhere to go. The hands wrapped around her throat were too tight.

Crash!

She gagged as the bitter taste of the marsh coated her tongue. And her lungs screamed, as if they knew they would never draw in air again. Cassie tried with all her might to communicate with him, to say the words she knew he needed to hear.

I’ll never tell. I can fix this! I’ll do whatever you want!

That was what she wanted to say. He didn’t have to do this. She’d have kept this secret forever. They could go back to how it had been. Her perfect life with the perfect man.

I love you. I need you.

Sheltered from the rain by the body above hers, Cassie poured everything she felt for him into her eyes, trying to make him see that she was sorry. With her expression, she pleaded with him to give her a second chance.

It wasn’t working.

Knowing she had only one last chance to communicate her feelings to him, she dragged her trembling fingers off his wrists where they’d clutched on in fear and lifted them to his face, caressing his cheek.

Just the way he liked.

His hand batted hers away, then joined the one at her throat, squeezing harder. The pain in her neck was almost as bad as the pain in her chest.

In Cassie’s final moments, she closed her eyes, not wanting to look at his face. She wanted to hate him, but her hand found his cheek one last time.

She didn’t know why. He’d betrayed her, was killing her, ripping their future to shreds. How she wished her fear of him had followed her down into the waiting darkness instead of the pain from her broken heart and crushed throat.

Chapter Two

A thin sliver of moon was barely visible in the midmorning sky, but the pale crescent was a reminder of how clear the air was away from the city.

How peaceful.

And how very necessary.

Former Special Agent Rebecca West breathed in the salty air, raising her face to the warm sun. Smiling for the first time in what seemed like years, the knots in her shoulder muscles loosened a bit.

Yes…this was exactly what she needed. Exactly where she needed to be.

At thirty-four, Rebecca was pleasantly surprised to see just how much of Shadow Island looked exactly the same as the last time she’d been there. Rebecca had been in her twenties then, and she and her parents had walked around the town, checking out the shops and attractions.

During the few visits she’d made while in college, most of her time had been spent on the back deck of the family’s cottage or on the beach. Still, those memories from the past were clearer than she would have expected.

The island was somehow a perfect blend of old and new. She was especially thrilled to see that some of her favorite childhood spots were still standing. There was I Scream You Scream, the pink and blue parlor where she’d consumed innumerable scoops of chocolate mint, along with numerous sandwich shops and little cafés her family used to frequent.

Hugh’s Surf Shop was still open, but time and the elements had roughed it up a bit. The weeds in the cracked parking lot showed that Hugh’s was struggling to keep up with some of the newer, more modern surf shops in town. And then, through gaps between the shops and businesses on Cottage Street, was the lighthouse. Its name escaped her, but she had been enamored with it as a kid.

Rebecca took Coastal Drive to Cottage Street, again spotting the lighthouse peeking up over the horizon. She’d only visited the structure a single time in her childhood and barely remembered it. She did remember the story, though, because she’d always found it fascinating.

When the island was discovered in 1822, the land had been uninhabited and empty of life, with the exception of birds and turtles…and a single family who lived in a cottage on the western shore. Other than the single cottage, there was nothing else on the island—no evidence of other settlers, no other buildings, no developed land for many years.

Over time, though, people came, drawn by the sea, and rich developers sought to turn the small island into a tourist destination. But the cottage held pride of place, and its owners refused to sell.

When a ship crashed into the rocky shore of the island, officials decided a lighthouse was necessary. It was then that the townsmen got their revenge.

Rather than perch the fifty-foot structure on the island’s highest peak, they chose to build the lighthouse in front of the little cottage, blocking the owners’ view of the sunrise and casting a shadow over the little home.

The lady of the cottage, a witch as lore tells the story, cursed the lighthouse and all who stepped into its shadow. As a child, Rebecca had been terrified of that part of the island, even though the beaches there were the best by far.

She wasn’t afraid of it now.

As she crossed over Main Street, she was happy to see that the Shadow Island Museum was still up and running. She was pretty sure it had gotten a paint job and new picture windows since her childhood. It was a prime example of how it all looked the same but felt different.

She supposed it was true of most things remembered from childhood and then viewed through the eyes of an adult. Hell, even the ocean and the beach itself changed when studied through that lens. The play and adventure of youth were gone, replaced by the irritation of sand in uncomfortable places and the worry of sunburn and skin damage.

Taking the next few turns from memory, she pulled up in front of the house she’d stayed in so many years ago. When she had come here with her parents, the house had been called Sand Dollar Shores, though the sign on the archway above the porch steps was now gone. Still, it was the same old place.

Very little had been remodeled. The only real change she noticed at first glance was the updated patio furniture on the back deck that she could just barely see from the road. The new outdoor suite was sleek and modern, a far cry from the nearly neon Adirondacks that had sat out there in years past.

Not too far beyond the new outdoor living setup was the brilliant strip of blue she’d been so enamored with as a girl. The Atlantic Ocean sat less than eighty yards away from the deck, the two broken apart by a sparse backyard, low-lying dunes, and unblemished beach.

Parking her blue Toyota Tacoma in the driveway, she wasted no time in gathering her first load to take inside. Rebecca pulled the gun safe from the passenger floorboard and headed up the little pebble walkway to the front porch. Unlocking the front door was a struggle, but after a bit of fumbling, she made it inside.

It was odd to be back in the old house. Though heartwarming in a way she hadn’t expected, the experience of standing here could only be defined as out-of-body, as if she was transported back in time. She hadn’t even been close to this place in the past thirteen years. To know she’d be living here for three months was hard to process.

Sand Dollar Shores wasn’t one of those mammoth three-story deals that lined beaches in Nags Head or Myrtle Beach since few party crowds and spring breakers visited the island. Instead, it was a basic beach cottage, one-story with a wraparound porch that merged with an extended deck overlooking the beach.

To her left, the living room was connected to the kitchen, separated by a small bar area. The two rooms shared a long picture window that looked out onto the patio, giving a picture-perfect view of the beach beyond, which would be perfect for the sunrise.

To her right, a hallway led to the two bedrooms as well as the single bathroom and laundry nook. The entire place was painted a pale teal, and though there were beach-themed decorations placed here and there, it was quaint and not overdone.

Thank goodness. She couldn’t stand beach homes that looked like they were shitting seashells or berthing for a pirate crew.

Heading down the hallway, she dropped her safe off in the master bedroom, storing it in the closet. Once it was settled, she entered her password and opened it. Pulling the Springfield Armory 1911 from her holster, she added it to the small stack of firearms already there. Concealed carry was possibly a bit much for the first day of her vacation.

A Ruger 22 and a Glock 40 rounded out her collection, each wrapped in a cleaning cloth. The fabric was just there to keep them from getting scratched up, just like the small desiccant pack was in the back of the safe to keep the humidity and rust in check.

She pushed the Glock to the back of the case. It was the most she had touched the weapon since the last time she had fired it, but she couldn’t bring herself to dispose of the tool. It wasn’t the gun’s fault those actions had killed her career, though she hadn’t felt comfortable carrying it since then either.

Touching it now, when she was trying to start over, felt like an omen. Good or bad, she couldn’t know. Relics of the past had a way of addling mind and memory. Sealing the safe, she stood and headed back to her truck.

The house was a rental, so it came furnished with all the basics and linens. Back home, she’d sold the little bit of furniture she’d had in her Georgetown apartment, giving her an extra twelve hundred dollars for the summer—which was half of what the house would cost her for one month here.

She spent the next half hour hauling in boxes, totes, and bags, dropping them in the foyer. Stepping back, she jammed her fists on her hips.

“You, Rebecca West, are pathetic.”

Her life shouldn’t have fit so easily in such a small room. In her move from D.C. to Shadow Island, she hadn’t even needed a U-Haul or one of those small flatbed trailers to move all her belongings. Due to her preference for a minimalist lifestyle, her possessions had all fit in the bed of her truck.

There was something sad about that, but at the same time, she was glad. At least there wouldn’t be much to unpack.

She had never been the type to hold on to clothing, furniture, or even sentimental objects. Once those were removed from the equation, all she really had were her clothes, library, and important documents. And of course, her guns and ammo, sentimentality be damned. Which all fit neatly into her new accommodations.

As Rebecca set down the final box, she couldn’t decide if she wanted to unpack everything now or walk down to the beach. She knew there were happy memories waiting for her down there, just as there were here in this house…if she was ready to face them.

“Well, shit.” She blew out a breath.

Standing just inside the door, she examined the place that would be her home for the next couple months while the Ramones serenaded her new life from her phone.

“Sedate me too,” she crooned her own version of the lyrics along with the band. Actually, sedation via a nap didn’t sound too bad. Maybe if she just ignored the boxes, she could lie down for an hour or so and…

Just as she’d very nearly talked herself into curling up on the couch, Rebecca’s Spotify station changed over to “Holidays in the Sun.”

Seriously?

Had the Sex Pistols transitioned from punk rock to motivational speakers?

Since it seemed she was getting a universal prod from her playlist to keep moving, Rebecca forced herself to pick up a box. “Just empty this one,” she bargained with herself, “and then go sit on the beach for a while.”

The box she’d chosen was filled with beach towels and toiletries and took very little time to empty out. Rebecca admired the sparkling chrome in the small bathroom. A sunken tub looked inviting, and the seahorse shower curtain made her smile.

After she’d booked the cabin for the month, Rebecca had been told that a cleaning service would have it in tip-top shape. They certainly had. She could tell the house had been cleaned recently, but she could also pick up some of the trace smells she remembered of the place. Faint teak wood, stale ocean air, and a crisp tanginess she always assumed came from traces of salt on the breeze.

She’d seen the ocean on her way in, particularly during the drive over Shadow Way Bridge, the one and a quarter mile long expanse connecting Shadow Island to the mainland. But that was different. With the beach bordering the little Cape Cod structure and hearing the gentle crashing of waves through the recently cleaned windows, it seemed to be calling to her—to come dip her toes in, to stare aimlessly out to the horizon and lose herself for a bit.

As a girl staying here with her parents all those years ago, Rebecca imagined the waves were whispering as they slapped against the shore. She’d thought of it as a secret language she didn’t understand. They hadn’t spoken to her but to someone or something else on the island.

She heard it now and smiled.

Glancing back into the foyer at the bins and boxes, she shrugged and walked to the kitchen adjoined to the living room and opened the fridge. The contents inside were nonexistent, save for an open box of baking soda. She’d go on a grocery run later, once she was finally unpacked. For now, though, it was time for a break. The secret whispering of the waves told her the errand could wait.

Rebecca took a beer out of a cooler she’d brought along, and after a second or two of deliberation, decided to get a second one as well. It wasn’t her favorite coffee stout, but it was better than nothing. It was also the best of a poor selection at the gas station.

Beggars couldn’t be choosers.

And yeah, it might be too early to officially be drinking, it was Saturday morning on the beach, so she could do whatever the hell she wanted.

She carried them both outside, making her way across the patio and down the stairs to the backyard. The grass was dry and somewhat dead, but that was the case over most of Shadow Island—a result of all the salt and heat. She crossed over the dunes, and when she came to the stretch of beach she’d explored as a girl, the sudden surge of nostalgia pulled at her heart.

Grief burned her eyes, but she blinked it away. As she hunkered down in the sand, not caring about getting it on her shorts, Rebecca imagined her family sitting here. Her father would be reading some nonfiction book about the Revolutionary War or the creation of the atomic bomb. Her mother would be sitting just close enough to the ocean so that the waves would rush up to her feet, a magazine draped across her chest as she snoozed in the sun.

And Rebecca would have been bodysurfing or looking for conch shells. She could see it all a little too clearly as she popped the top on her first beer and drank deep, almost half of the contents gone in a forced gulp. The alcohol warmed her belly as she gazed out at the ocean, then closed her eyes to focus on her other senses.

The waves crashed, the sweeping gulls cried out, the coastal breeze swirled around her. Her thoughts turned once again to her mother and father, of what their reactions might be to know she was here, back at Shadow Island to live the summer in solitude.

Sadly, she’d never know their reactions because they’d been dead for the better part of five years. Though Rebecca had been the FBI agent responsible for bringing their killers to justice, she still felt as if nothing had been accomplished. It was naive, she knew, but the fact that her success would never bring her parents back made everything that had followed hurt even more.

After dealing with all of that, after fighting for so long, there should have been some kind of payoff, something good to come from it. With no one to turn to, no place to call home, she had felt as if she was drowning in grief. As if sucked out to sea in a riptide.

The family home had been put up for sale because there’d been too many memories there for her to want to keep it. That was what had made her think about this place again. She’d been compelled to come back here. Her hope was that Shadow Island would help her sort it all out. A sense of home without being overwhelming. Only the good memories lived here, not the ones now filled with sorrow.

And no memories of blood-splattered walls.

Rebecca blew out a breath, then finished beer number one. This was supposed to be about finding a new life, not wading back into the problems from her past. She’d be damned if she was going to let the events of the last few years ruin it. Wrinkling her nose, she tried to usher those thoughts away.

Twisting the cap from the second beer, Rebecca only took a sip this time, forcing herself to slow down. Not that she cared. She wasn’t much of a drinker aside from a glass of red wine from time to time, but when she did allow herself to indulge, she’d never been too worried about limitations. This summer might very well be the epicenter of one such moment.

She knew there was a liquor store somewhere on the island, but she couldn’t remember where. That was going to be a key location if she planned to drink her cares away on the beach every day.

“Note to self…find liquor store soon.”

Her quiet mumblings came to a halt when she spotted a woman walking a dog down the beach. The canine was one of the most gorgeous golden retrievers Rebecca had ever seen. All her dark thoughts evaporated as she watched the dog sniffing at the sea foam as it washed in and out on the waves.

When he sneezed so hard his nose dipped into the sand, she couldn’t help but laugh. Startled, the dog looked around. When he spotted Rebecca, the hairy beast gave a tug on his leash in her direction.

“No, Brody!” The woman’s voice was filled with exasperation, and she gave that little apologetic wave people of her parents’ generation did.

“It’s okay, really.” Rebecca had always loved dogs, though she wasn’t the type to ever own one. She wasn’t home enough, and she’d only end up feeling guilty leaving the pup alone so much. Her family once had a golden retriever as a pet, a dog named Goldie who died at the ripe old age of fifteen. Heartbroken by his loss, Rebecca wasn’t sure she ever wanted to outlive a beloved pet again. “Mind if I pet him?”

“Sure.” Brody’s mom walked over, allowing the beautiful animal to receive the petting and attention he knew he deserved.

Rebecca scratched behind his ears, and his tongue lolled out as he gave her a goofy grin. “He’s adorable.”

“Shh. Don’t let it go to his head. Because, oh boy, will it.” She cocked her head to the side, her wavy dark hair swaying as she studied Rebecca closely. “Are you vacationing here?”

“Sort of. I’m renting out the house for the summer.” Rebecca hitched a thumb over her shoulder to indicate the little Cape Cod directly behind them.

“Oh, exciting! I live just down the beach a bit.” She pointed behind her. “About half a mile back that way.” She stepped forward, nudging Brody aside for a moment. “I’m Kelly Hunt. And this, of course, is Brody.”

Brody’s tail stirred up a breeze at the mention of his name, and he looked over his shoulder at his mom.

“Brody, shake.”

Like the good boy he was, Brody sat back and waggled one paw at Rebecca. She reached out and shook it before adopting a formal tone that came out more British sounding than she’d intended. “Pleased to meet you both. I’m Rebecca West.”

Kelly laughed, and Brody gave her a goofy, tongue lolling grin. “Forgive the nosy questions of a local, but are you new to the island?”

Nostalgia threatened to clog Rebecca’s throat, but she swallowed it away and smiled. “Not really. My family used to come here every summer when I was a little girl. I guess I’m trying to recapture the mindset of my younger self…if that’s even possible.”

“Absolutely.” Kelly inhaled deeply, lifting her face to the sun. “Half the reason I decided to move out here seven years ago was because I wanted to remember what it was like when I was a kid.”

I’m not the only one.

Warmed by the thought, Rebecca found herself even more curious about the woman. “Did you grow up around here?”

“No, I’m from just outside of Daytona, Florida. And even though my parents might disown me for saying so, I think the ocean up here is much nicer. Cleaner and…I don’t know. Wilder, maybe?”

Rebecca looked out to the ocean, sipped her beer, and nodded. “Yeah, wilder. I think that’s fitting.”

She wasn’t sure about the cleaner part, though. This stretch of the ocean was also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic due to the piles of wrecked ships just below the surface. Partly due to pirates and the sea battles they caused, but mostly the result of shifting sand dunes between the different islands and peninsulas. Kelly might be a local now, but she certainly hadn’t grown up raised on the stories of the past.

A gull landed nearby, catching the dog’s attention and nearly toppling Kelly over when he lunged for the bird. Kelly laughed. “Well, Rebecca, it was nice meeting you. I’m sure we’ll run into one another again.”

“I hope so. Take care.” They exchanged polite waves as Kelly tried to keep up with Brody’s quest for another new scent.

Rebecca watched as the pair continued down the beach, toward a bend in the sand where the island gradually curved around to create its rough crescent shape. Turning her attention back to the sea, Rebecca mulled over Kelly’s description of the ocean lapping at the shore just ten feet from her.

The almost pleasant sting of little bits of seashells digging into the bottoms of her feet made her wonder if she still had that one single pair of sandals she’d been holding on to forever. She’d tossed all her shoes and clothes in boxes so haphazardly she hadn’t even noticed.

Curling her toes into the sand, Rebecca thought about what Kelly had said…

Cleaner. Wilder.

Two attributes entirely different from one another but that seemed to fit perfectly. The ocean covered up and hid all the remnants of its past while slowly eroding them. That concept provided a tiny spark of hope. Maybe she could come out of this summer a little cleaner, her mind settled and finally focused.

As for the wilder part, Rebecca had experienced enough of that to last a lifetime as far as she was concerned. Perhaps the ocean would help her redefine the term as her summer on Shadow Island wore on.

Turning away from the view and her memories, Rebecca went back inside. There were still several boxes to unpack before she could get some rest.

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Shadow's Secret by Mary Stone

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