books

A Dark Love -- Margaret Carroll
Rita Finalist -- A Dark Love
August 25 , 2009
Avon
ISBN-10: 0061652784
ISBN-13: 978-0061652783

A Dark Love -- Out now from Avon Books

In an isolated cabin atop a mountain wilderness, handsome ex-football star Ken Kincaid fights for his life in the hands of world-renowned psychotherapist Dr. Porter Moross, whose genius has turned to evil.

Ken's only hope for salvation lies with his newfound love, Caroline, Porter's wife, who is reeling from years of psychological abuse.

Time is running out as the season's first snowstorm whirls through the tiny Rocky Mountain town of Storm Pass. Can Caroline find Ken in time? And if she does, can she find the courage to face her tormentor and win?

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Chapter One

Caroline Hughes left her husband on a scorching Monday in September. It was just past nine o'clock in the morning, but already the cobblestone streets of Georgetown baked in a heat so intense it made breathing difficult and proved without a doubt that this was a southern city.

She paused on the stoop of their townhouse, pretending to consider which direction to walk the dog. She had rehearsed this moment in her mind a thousand times.

Porter, she knew, could see her from his ground floor office.

The heat from the red brick sidewalk worked its way up through the thin soles of Caroline's Keds and beyond, to the thick layer of currency she had stashed inside. Mostly hundreds, with some twenties mixed in. Four thousand dollars in all.

She looked right and then left. Pippin tugged at his leash, dancing around on the hot sidewalk.

"Okay, handsome, now or never," Caroline spoke softly to the dog. Her hands shook so badly she nearly dropped the leash. She glanced at the window. Porter would be watching from his wing-backed chair.

Caroline forced a smile to her lips and gave a quick nod. It was their signal. Which meant she had twenty minutes. She forced herself to saunter the short distance to the end of the block. She turned left onto Wisconsin Avenue, Georgetown's main thoroughfare. Once around the corner she quickened her pace, walking more swiftly now but not fast enough to attract attention.

The Yorkshire terrier trotted, ears erect, happy to be out.

Reaching into the slender pocket of her Capri pants, she pulled out her passport and the flimsy linings of her Keds. She pushed them deep into an overflowing waste can and kept walking. If her passport was missing he might think she had traveled overseas. Keeping it with her brought a risk of identification that she could not afford.

Caroline Hughes had just made herself disappear.

The bills inside her sneakers slipped against her bare feet, and bunched around the balls of her soles. Halfway down the block, she hailed a cab, her breath coming in shallow, uneven bursts. She had gone far enough that he wouldn't see brake lights even if he walked out onto the front stoop right now. Not that he would have reason to do so.

She reached for the door, braced to feel Porter grab her from behind before she could get in. Her sweaty hand slipped from the handle. She tried again, heart pounding so hard blood roared in her ears. She scooped Pippin up and climbed in, her arms and legs shaking like rubber. She exhaled as her cab headed down Wisconsin to M Street and into Foggy Bottom, a short distance she had walked many times. Every second counted now.

Caroline ducked her head, letting her long brown hair fall forward like a curtain around her face. The driver paid her no attention, speaking rapid-fire Farsi into a walkie-talkie mounted on the dash.

Pippin scrambled to find his footing on the seat beside her. He let out a small whine, as though he, too, was afraid.

From her pocket, Caroline withdrew a small package of aluminum foil. She unwrapped a wad of cream cheese wrapped around a pill from the vet, left over from a supply given last year to help Pippin sleep on an airline flight. She had six more in reserve.

"Bottom's up, friend," she whispered. "We're free."

The Yorkie took one sniff and gobbled it down.

She peeled two bills from the stack inside her sneaker as the cab slowed to a halt. Two twenties, already damp with sweat, placed on top in anticipation of this transaction and the one that would follow. Head down, she pushed a twenty over the seat and placed the other in her back pocket. She counted the change and gave the driver a good tip. Not too big. Nothing that would attract attention.

She entered People's Drugstore. Collecting a basket, she made straight for the hair care aisle. She chose a box of hair dye and added scissors, a comb and a small bottle of shampoo before moving on. Next she picked up toothpaste and a toothbrush on her way to the sundries aisle, praying the zippered canvas totes would still be on sale. They were. She grabbed one, along with a pair of oversized sunglasses and a floppy hat before heading to the baby aisle for a small bowl for Pippin's food. To this she added a small package of dog food, bottled water and several packs of cheese and crackers, even though the thought of food filled her with nausea.

She waited in line to pay, hoping the other customers couldn't hear the pounding of her heart. Despite the soaring temperature outside, her hands had turned cold and clammy. Her mouth was dry, making it difficult to swallow. She hoped she wouldn't faint. At least there wasn't much worry of seeing anyone she knew. She had no real friends in Washington, D.C. Porter's business acquaintances would be working at this hour.

When it was her turn, she placed her items on the counter and handed the other twenty to the cashier, careful to avoid eye contact.

The clerk's voice sounded loud, booming. "Time for a whole new you, I guess."

Caroline flinched.

Smiling, the clerk tapped the box of hair dye.

Flustered, Caroline had visions of private investigators passing themselves off as D.C. cops, asking the counter clerks if a young woman had purchased items of interest. She forced herself to smile. "It's not for me." She licked her lips and swallowed, aware that it sounded like a lie. "My, ah, best friend sprained her wrist. I'm helping her touch up her roots." Best friend. It sounded so normal.

"You're a good friend," the cashier said, counting out the change. "You tell your friend to stay out of this heat now till she's feeling better."

"I sure will." Caroline took the bag and left. The sidewalk pulsed with a heat so intense the top of her head ached. She tore the tag off the sunglasses, put them on and looked around. She imagined Porter waiting on the sidewalk to force her back home. But the only soul braving the heat was an elderly man in a straw bowler, taking slow, deliberate steps down Pennsylvania Avenue. She tore the tag from the hat and donned it, tucking her hair up inside, and hailed a cab.

Within seconds a taxi appeared, swerving across two lanes of traffic to reach her. Caroline clambered in, directing the driver to First and L streets. She checked her watch as they headed east. Nineteen minutes had passed. So far, so good.

Porter would be growing impatient. Staring out the window from his wing-backed chair. Rubbing his jaw. Twenty-three minutes remained until the end of his patient's session. Then he would have just fifteen minutes free until his next patient arrived.

Caroline tried to push the thought away, hunching lower against the back seat. Spilling the contents of the People's bag on the seat, she yanked the price tag from the sale tote and placed all of her purchases inside. Plenty of room remained for Pippin.

The Yorkie panted, watching her. The drug was taking effect. She wished she could give him water, but didn't dare. Pets weren't allowed on Greyhound.

Dr. Porter Moross stared out his office window, his sense of unease growing with each moment. His wife was allocated twenty minutes to walk her dog. That was the amount of time they had agreed upon. Today she was late. Ten minutes already. That never happened. A woman with long brown hair walked past, and for an instant his heart leapt. But the woman was not his wife. His stomach curled and contracted until it twisted into a tight ball, making him sick. The feeling dated back to his childhood. But Porter's knowledge of that fact did not help.

His first patient of the day was lying on the couch. There was no sound from the upper floors of the town home Porter shared with his wife and their dog. Caroline was gone. His wife had left. Porter knew it with absolute certainty. The knot in his stomach didn't lie.

The man on the couch fell silent. The sudden stillness in the room startled Porter, and brought his attention back to his office. Keeping the window in view, Porter glanced at his desk clock. This never happened. She understood very well that tardiness was an act of emotional betrayal.

"So?" The tone was plaintive, demanding. The man on the couch was a three-term U.S. Senator.

Porter frowned.

The Senator punched his hand in the air for emphasis. "I know this isn't about you or what you think, but I had to ask."

Porter had no idea what the Senator was talking about. A figure appeared in the window, and Porter's heart leapt like a small child glimpsing Santa Claus. But the figure outside his window was not his wife.

Porter's stomach clinched even tighter. She had betrayed him. She had surrendered to the dark force of her inner corruption. He took a deep breath to stop the wave of panic. He gripped the armrests, shifting in his wing chair. "You're right," he said carefully. "This isn't about me."

The Senator glanced at his watch.

"I know we have three minutes remaining," Porter said in a well-modulated voice. "But I'd like to explore this further and we're almost out of time. I want you to hold that thought and we'll pick this up tomorrow."

The Senator considered a moment before swinging his feet over the edge of the couch. He sat up and donned his suit jacket.

Porter kept a steady watch out the window. "See you tomorrow." Outside, he knew, the man's chauffeur waited to whisk him back to the Dirksen building on Capitol Hill.

Once Porter heard the street door click shut, he bounded up the steep stairs to the living quarters.

He made a quick check of the residence, even though he knew she was gone. His heart labored under a great weight as he raced through the empty rooms, furnished with antiques he had spent years collecting. All for the purpose of making his home, their home, beautiful. The polished pieces of pecan and walnut, the horsehair sofa, mocked him now. The only sound was the hum of the air conditioning pack they had installed last year, at great expense, in the crawl space at the top of the old house.

He stamped his foot and let out a growl of frustration. The sound broke the stillness, confirming the terrible truth of Porter's situation. His wife of barely two years was gone.

What if she didn't come back?

He shook his head in a useless attempt to steady himself, quell the panic rising in his gut and threatened to swallow him alive. He checked his watch again. His next patient was due in twelve minutes.

In the entry hall, he removed the phone from its charger atop a roll-top mahogany Secretary's desk. He speed-dialed their private voice mail, then his office voice mail and both cell phones. No messages.

"Dammit!" Porter speed-dialed the garage where they kept the Saab.

"Dr. Moross calling. Has my wife been down today?"

"Haven't seen her, sir. Shall I bring the car up?"

"No," Porter said, allowing himself a tiny bit of relief. "There's a problem with the car." He paused. "A safety issue."

"I see."

"I don't want to alarm my wife. If she comes in to get the car, you need to call me at once. It's urgent."

"Yes, sir."

"Or if anybody comes, anybody at all. Is that clear? Under no circumstances are you to release the vehicle." Porter was aware of the edge in his voice. But he couldn't help himself.

"Very good, sir. As you wish. I'll make a note of it for the afternoon shift, sir."

"Thank you. And be sure to call me if she comes in."

"Very good, doctor."

Porter hung up. Caroline's Louis Vuitton purse was in the sitting room. Her scent drifted from it. Gardenia, mixed with the mint smell of chewing gum. He found her wallet inside, plus tampons, brush, lipstick, gum, and several crumbling dog treats. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. He had explained to her many times the dog treats would ruin the lining. He dumped the contents of the wallet on the floor. Seventy-one dollars in cash, her ATM and credit cards. And her driver's license. All of which should mean she had gone for a long walk.

But Porter didn't believe it. She was gone. He knew it. He tightened his grip on the change purse until the metal hasp left an indent on his hand.

He ran back down the stairs and outside, stepping into a heat so stifling it took his breath away.

He glanced toward Wisconsin Avenue, which would be filling with tourists at this hour despite the ungodly heat. Caroline avoided crowds. He began walking quickly away from Wisconsin, to the 29th Street Park at the end of block. Heat hung like a thick layer of molasses over the immaculate row of houses dating to Thomas Jefferson's presidency. Porter's breath burned at the back of his throat.

The park was nearly deserted except for a handful of students seated under a tree. There was no sign of Caroline or Pippin.

Swearing under his breath, Porter checked his watch and swore, the air weighing in his lungs like burning ash. He hurried home, pausing on his front stoop with one foot atop the antique brass boot scraper.

Why, Caroline, why?

He squinted one last time toward Wisconsin Avenue. It was no use. She wasn't there. He shook his head and tried to clear his mind. He needed to concentrate now.

He reached for the polished brass doorknob, hot to the touch, and stepped inside.

His next patient was seated on the Deacon's bench in the narrow hall beneath the stairs. "Dr. Moross? Is everything okay?" She was the wealthy, American-born second wife of a former aide to the late Shah of Iran.

Beads of sweat dripped into Porter's eyes. He pushed his rimless glasses aside and rubbed. "Fine," he replied. "Go inside and get settled. I'll join you in a moment."

She hesitated. Her abandonment issues had no doubt flared at Porter's unprecedented tardiness. Porter insisted on punctuality and perfect attendance. It was the most basic component of the patient-therapist relationship. He refused to treat anyone who could not abide by his rules. Nor were his sessions covered by health insurance. In spite of this, Porter Moross had a reputation for being one of the best Freudian psychoanalysts in the nation. His roster of patients read like the venerable Blue Book of Washington's social elite.

The woman on the bench tugged anxiously at the hem of her Chanel summer suit. She looked down at the blue carpet with its gold Fleur-de-Lis pattern. Underneath her abandonment issues was a desperate need for security. She liked being told what to do.

"I'll be right in," Porter said more forcefully, mopping at the beads of sweat on the back of his neck.

With a meek nod, she collected her belongings and went.

Porter took the stairs two at a time up to the residence. He went directly to the desk and flipped through his address book until he located the private cell phone number of his third and final patient of the morning.

The phone was picked up on the first ring by the editor-in-chief of one of the world's most influential daily newspapers.

Porter canceled their appointment and said he would call another time to reschedule.

The editor, six years into his treatment, thanked Porter and hung up.

Porter flipped through his Rolodex as the brief exchange took place, found the next number he wanted, and dialed. He left a message requesting a meeting at his office in one hour's time. He knew his request would be given the highest priority. Porter Moross was a steady customer of Beltway Security Investigations.

The cab dropped Caroline in a seedy part of town, one block from the Greyhound bus station. Pippin let out a small whine of protest when she bundled him into the tote and hoisted it onto her shoulder before entering a fast-food restaurant she had visited several times in preparation for this. The lunch crowd hadn't arrived yet, and the staff behind the counter didn't even glance up when Caroline entered. She made a beeline for the bathroom.

The place reeked of cigarettes and the musky smell of homeless people, perfect for her purposes. And, thankfully, deserted. With her heart hammering inside her chest, she made for the roomy handicapped stall at the end. Bolting the stall door behind her, she set the tote down. Pippin stuck his nose out, sniffed and yawned before curling into a ball and drifting back to sleep.

She pulled out the scissors and comb, looked in the mirror, took a deep breath and began snipping. Her long brown hair drifted to the floor like dying leaves from a tree in autumn.

Caroline cut in a line around her neck, just above her chin. Pulling the ends straight up in sections over her head, she jabbed straight down in short strokes, the way her hairdresser did. The result was passable, she decided.

She swept the loose hair from the floor and flushed it. Tearing open the dye, she mixed it up in the sink. She knew exactly what to do. She had purchased a box several weeks ago and memorized the instructions before tossing it into a public trash can on the way home.

Porter didn't approve of women who dyed their hair.

She lined the neck of her tee-shirt with paper towels before donning the clear plastic gloves and applying bleach from the roots all the way through to the ends. She took care not to drip on her shirt.

She needed to wait twenty minutes. Ammonia stung her nose and eyes. Her shoulder and back muscles ached. She had spent the night locked in their bathroom at home, curled on a bath towel on the cold tiled floor. Praying Porter wouldn't break the door down. Too frightened to sleep. Tempted to unlatch the window and climb out, taking her chances in the narrow airshaft that separated their house from the one next door. But she was afraid the noise would attract Porter's attention. She had made up her mind. Today would be the day. And now it was happening.

Tears sprang to her eyes as the full impact of her actions hit home. There was no going back. He would kill her if she did. Caroline tried to push the thought from her mind. She didn't want to lose her nerve.

The door to the ladies room swung open, making her jump. She prayed it wasn't anybody requiring use of the handicapped stall. But luck was with her. She listened to sounds from another stall as the minutes ticked by, trying not to think.

When twenty minutes had passed, she stood stiffly and rinsed in the sink, blotting her hair as best she could with paper towels. She ran the drugstore comb through her new short locks and surveyed the result.

A stranger gazed back with short blonde hair, a neck that was exposed and eyes that were hollow, haunted. She couldn't bear the sight. She slipped the oversized sunglasses back on, waiting till her eyes adjusted to the dimness.

She checked her watch for the thousandth time. She was on schedule.

By now, he knew.

The thought sent a jolt of fear sizzling through her like an electric current, robbing her breath and making the stall spin. She squeezed her eyes shut and grabbed the cold porcelain sink for support. She took a deep breath, licked her lips and tried to swallow. But her throat refused to close around the ball of solid fear inside her. Because she knew as sure as she stood here that his search had begun.

She opened her eyes and reached with unsteady hands for the People's tote bag, which now held all of her earthly belongings. She took one last look in the mirror at the frightened stranger.

"Alice Stevens," she whispered. "Good luck."

reviews

Nominated for a 2010 Rita from Romance Writers of America (Romantic Suspense category).

“Carroll develops what could be a stock story of an abusive marriage into a pulse-pounding romantic thriller with a strong, inspiring heroine determined to save herself.”

— Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2009 (posted January 2010)

“Romantic author Carroll brings tight prose and excellent pacing to her tense first thriller.... Suspense fans who like a touch of romance will find this a winner.”

— Publishers Weekly starred review (posted July 2009)