Dark clouds blotted out the glow of the sun setting over the ocean, and the threatening storm sent a chill down Isabella Silveira’s spine. Her hands tightened on the steering wheel as the Pacific Coast Highway took another terrifying twist along a steep cliff that dropped abruptly into the wild, crashing waves below. She’d always been a spontaneous person, but this trip was giving her plenty of second thoughts.
She was exhausted, haunted by a series of tormenting dreams for the last two weeks. They’d begun shortly after she’d received a birthday present from her brother Joe, an antique turquoise and gold pendant that he’d found in the house he’d inherited from their uncle Carlos in Angel’s Bay. He’d told her that the turquoise reminded him of her unusual eyes. All of her other siblings had brown eyes, but somehow in the Irish-Hispanic mix of her parents, she’d ended up with dark hair, olive skin, and deep blue eyes.
Her eyes were part of her special gift, her grandmother Elena had told her—the gift of insight imparted by their Mayan ancestors and shared by only a few women in the family. Her teasing siblings had told her that her “gift” was a story their grandmother had made up to make her feel special. But that didn’t explain why touching certain items belonging to people she cared about triggered dreams and visions of the future. Unfortunately, those flashes of insight were rarely helpful. Even when she tried to warn someone, she often wound up getting somewhere just in time to pick up the pieces.
After several troubling incidents, she’d learned to shy away from deeply emotional relationships, because they often brought on the disturbing flashes. It was easier to skate along the surface, never settling too long in one place or with one person. She could have fun, have friends, have sex—but love was another thing entirely. Love could make her crazy.
For months her brain had been quiet, until she’d put on the necklace. That night, she’d dreamed of Angel’s Bay.
She’d never been to the town where Joe had taken over as police chief almost a year earlier. But the images haunting her had included this highway and the Angel’s Bay sign she’d passed three miles back, as well as shadows and silhouettes swirling around landmarks and people that seemed meaningful in some unfathomable way. Just when she came to the brink of discovery, she woke up sweating and shaking, with a certainty that she was supposed to do something, save someone—but she didn’t know what to do or whom to save.
She’d taken to exercise, running, spinning, kickboxing, anything that would leave her too exhausted to dream. She’d lost five pounds, but the dreams had continued to come. Finally, she’d stopped fighting. The pendant had come from Joe. What if he was in trouble and she did nothing? She’d never forgive herself.
Fortunately, she was between movie projects. She worked as a freelance costume designer, and the start date of her next film had been pushed back until January, leaving her at loose ends for the next two months. While she normally helped out at her sister’s clothing boutique between design jobs, she’d decided to go to Angel’s Bay instead. Even if she couldn’t figure out her dreams, at least she’d get to see Joe. And she was more than a little curious about Angel’s Bay. Joe seemed to be in love with the town—so much so that he’d agreed to divorce his wife rather than move back to L.A.
As raindrops splashed across her windshield, she turned on her wipers and her headlights. The road had widened, the hills on her right side falling back to vast open meadows, closed-up fruit stands on the edge of farmland, and an occasional rural road heading inland toward the mountains. There weren’t many cars and very few lights. She felt isolated, alone, and inexplicably tense.
A crack of thunder jolted her. She’d heard that sound in her dreams. But she wasn’t dreaming, she reminded herself as goose bumps ran along her arms. This was reality.
She hit the defrost button as her window began to fog, telling herself everything was fine. A few more miles, and she’d be in Angel’s Bay.
As she drove around another turn, a flash of light blinded her, high beams from an oncoming car that wove recklessly across the highway. She hit the brakes as the car suddenly turned in front of her, skidding onto a dirt road heading toward the mountains.
Her brakes couldn’t grip the rain-soaked highway, and her car began to skid. She hung on to the wheel, fighting for control, but she was heading straight toward the cliff on the ocean side of the road. She jammed the brakes to the floor, but there was no way to stop.
Her car ripped through the guard rail, plunging down the rocky hillside in a wild, jolting ride. The front of the car hit something, and the windshield shattered. She threw up her hands as her airbag deployed and stars exploded before her eyes.
Minutes or hours later, she heard someone yelling, tugging the car door open. Rain hit her face, and she blinked in bewilderment. The front window had splintered, and smoke was coming off the hood of her car.
“Are you all right?” a man demanded.
She stared at him in confusion. His clothes were drenched, his hair soaked, his eyes dark and worried.
“You’ve been in an accident,” he said. “Are you hurt?”
She put a hand to her forehead and winced as she saw the blood on her fingers.
“The cut on your head doesn’t look too bad,” he told her. “Can you move? I want to get you out of here. There’s no telling how long the rocks will hold.”
He’d barely finished speaking when the car slid a few inches forward. Isabella grabbed his arm in panic. “Don’t let me go.”
His jaw tightened in determination. “I won’t. I’m getting you out of here right now.”
His voice held so much confidence, she felt marginally reassured, but the car was pitched at a precariously steep angle. The man reached across to undo her seatbelt, and she tried to get out, but her left foot was pinned where the side of her car had smashed against the rocks. “My foot is stuck!” A wave of terror ran through her as she tried to pull her leg free.
“Hold on. Let me see if I can figure out what’s pinning you down.”
He squatted next to the car, his hand running down her leg. She could feel his fingers against her ankle as he pushed down on the metal. He grimaced with the effort, but she was finally able to yank her foot out, sending the car sliding forward another few inches. The wall of rocks holding the car back from the sea began to break apart.
The man grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the car just as the vehicle lurched forward. He rolled on top of her, digging his feet into the soil as the vehicle slid down the mountain. She watched in shocked horror as it plummeted over the edge of the bluff in a shower of rocks, the roar of the waves swallowing its splash.
She’d almost been inside. She’d almost died.
Her breath stalled in her chest. She tightened her arms around the man who had her pinned to the ground, terrified that they would slide down the hill just as the car had done.
“You’re okay,” he told her soothingly. “You’re safe.”
Safe? She was lying on a slippery hillside, yards away from the edge of a cliff, but the weight of his body reassured her. She wasn’t going to fall. He wouldn’t let her. She didn’t know how she knew that—but she did.
“I’m going to sit up,” he said slowly, his gaze on hers. “And you’re going to loosen your grip on me just a little bit.”
She swallowed hard and shook her head. “I don’t think I can let you go.”
“You’re not letting go. We’re just going to move toward those rocks, where the ground is more stable.” He gave her a small smile as if what he was asking her to do was no big deal. “It will be fine.”
Something about the certainty in his eyes made her trust him. Slowly, she loosened her hold on him, digging her hands and feet into the dirt as he moved off of her. He didn’t let go of her entirely, keeping a strong hand on her arm. Sitting up, he scooted backward, pulling her with him, until they reached flatter ground and another outcropping of rocks.
Letting out a breath, she was finally able to sit up without feeling as if she was going to slide down the hill.
The steady rain had stopped, a slice of moonlight breaking through the clouds, and she took a better look at her rescuer. He was wearing a suit and tie, not exactly superhero attire. How had he made it down the cliff in leather shoes? As her gaze traveled back to his face, a shock of awareness ran through her. She’d seen his face in her dreams.
“It’s you,” she muttered in amazement.
He gave her an uncertain look. “Have we met?”
“I dreamed about you.” The words came out before she could stop them. “I just didn’t know it was you.”
By the frown on his face, he had no idea what she was talking about, and she wasn’t completely sure herself. While his face was familiar, her dreams had never put her on the side of a cliff in the middle of a rainstorm.
“All right, take it easy. Help is on the way,” he said.
She lifted her head at the distant sound of sirens.
“I called nine-one-one as soon as I saw your car go off the road,” he said. “What happened?”
“A car turned right in front of me onto a side road. I braked, but the road was too wet, and I had no traction. I turned the wheel, but the car skidded toward the side.” She shivered and pulled her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them as a horrified chill ran through her.
“I didn’t see the other car, just your taillights disappearing off the side of the road. A minute later, I wouldn’t have seen a thing. I don’t know if I would have even noticed the broken guard rail in the rain. I was concentrating on getting home.” He stopped abruptly, frowning. “You’re freezing.” He stripped off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. “Better?”
She nodded, her teeth chattering from the cold. Her head throbbed, and everything seemed surreal, as if she were in a dream. But there was blood and mud on her clothes, and her wet hair was plastered against her head, all signs of reality. She glanced at her rescuer again. “What’s your name?”
“Nick Hartley. And you?”
“Isabella,” she murmured, looking into his dark eyes. She extended her hand, and as his fingers gripped hers, a burst of color, almost like flames, flashed in her head. She wanted to let him go, but she couldn’t. Was it because he’d saved her life? Or because he was part of whatever had put her on this highway in the first place?
Nick Hartley pulled his hand from hers and stood up, looking toward the road high above, where a fire engine’s strobe lights bounced off the hillside.
“They should be able to get you out of here in a few minutes,” he said.
“How did you ever get down here?” she asked in wonder. The hillside was steep and rocky and hard to see in the dark. Yet he had rushed down it without a thought.
“I don’t remember exactly. I had some adrenaline going. Getting back up won’t be as easy, but we’ll make it.”
“You saved my life. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me. I was just in the right place at the right time. Luck was on your side tonight.”
She nodded. But as another shiver ran through her, she didn’t think that luck had had anything to do with their meeting.
Thirty minutes later, Nick stood on the edge of the highway, watching the ambulance take off toward Angel’s Bay. He let out a relieved breath. He hadn’t had a chance to think, only to act, but now the reality of what he’d just been through washed over him. He was soaked from the rain, and his clothes were filthy, but at least the woman was alive. She was damn fortunate.
A shudder ran through him as he flashed back to the moment when he’d pulled her free of the car, crushed her body against the hillside, and prayed the ground would hold. She’d been terrified, her eyes wide and shocked. She’d clung to him as if he were the only thing that stood between life and death for her. And he had been.
He could still feel the force of the car plunging toward the sea, threatening to take them with it. It had taken all his strength to pull her free. Thank God he’d been successful.
The way she’d looked at him had rattled him, her fingers wrapped around his as if she’d never let go. For a second, he’d felt a ripping fear that he might not want to let her go, either. Which was crazy, because where women were concerned, he always let go first. The only time he hadn’t had ended in painful disaster.
Getting into his car, he started the engine and turned on the heater. Isabella still had his suit jacket. He’d check in at the hospital later to see how she was, but first he had to get home. He had another, much younger female to worry about: his daughter, Megan.
He pulled out his cell phone. There were no missed calls, which was disturbing. He’d been trying to get in touch with Megan since three o’clock, when she was supposed to get home from school. He’d tried to set down some rules since her arrival, but so far, he was the only one following them. He punched in her number again, but it went immediately to voice-mail.
He tossed the phone onto his console and pulled onto the highway. He probably should have thought about Megan before he’d charged down that slippery hillside, but he wasn’t used to worrying about anyone but himself. His fifteen-year-old daughter had been out of his life for the past twelve years, returning under duress only three weeks ago. She didn’t want to live with him, didn’t want to stay in Angel’s Bay, didn’t want anything to do with the father she believed had abandoned her.
He’d been only twenty-one when her mother had taken off with her and gone to Europe. He’d had no money, no job, and no way to fight for Megan. By the time he had the means, years had passed, and he’d thought she was happy with her mother and her stepfather, that it was too late for him to be a dad.
He’d never imagined that his ex-wife, Kendra, would suddenly ship Megan back to him, claiming that it was his turn to take care of her. He knew Megan was hurt and furious at both of them; he just didn’t know how to make it better. Nor did he know how to be a father. Megan wasn’t the sweet, loving three-year-old he remembered. She’d dyed her blond hair black with shades of purple, had a nose ring and an attitude that was bigger than she was. He had no idea how to handle her.
The ring of his phone gave him a small moment of hope. But it was his mother’s number that flashed across the screen.
“What happened?” Pamela Hartley asked worriedly. “I got a call from Phyllis, who heard from her son that you were in an accident.”
“That was fast. I wasn’t in the accident. I just got the woman out of the car to safety.”
“Is she all right?”
“I think so. She has some minor injuries.”
“Wet, cold, and dirty but otherwise fine. I’m on my way home. I’m more concerned about Megan. Did you check on her after school?”
“Was I supposed to?” his mother asked.
“I called you this morning on the way to my meeting,” he reminded her.
“Oh, that’s right, you did. I got so caught up in work that I completely forgot. I’m sure she’s fine.”
That was his mother, completely offhand and reluctant to focus on anything or anyone who wasn’t involved in her world of the theater. Why was he even surprised? His mother had often forgotten to pick him up from school when he was a kid. He should have asked his sister, Tory, to check on Megan.
“Well, I’m not sure Megan is fine,” he said. “She isn’t answering her phone.”
“Probably to annoy you. She’s been uprooted, and she’s angry. You need to give her some time. Her whole world changed in a second, and she hasn’t caught up yet.”
“I feel exactly the same way. I never imagined Kendra would suddenly bail on Megan.”
“You should have seen it coming. Kendra was always selfish. I never knew what you saw in that girl.”
He’d seen long legs, big breasts, and a sexy mouth—but then, he’d been eighteen when they’d met during a summer production at his family’s theater. They’d had a passionate romance that ended with an unexpected pregnancy. They’d married, thinking it was the right thing to do and that their love would last—but it hadn’t. Kendra had gotten a better offer and taken off.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with Megan,” he said, not expecting his mother to have an answer but needing to talk to someone.
“You’re going to be her father.”
“It’s a little late for that. Megan hates me.” It hurt to say the words out loud. “She thinks I deserted her, and in a way, I did.”
“She doesn’t know the whole story. She’ll come around eventually. She likes being with us at the theater. And why not? It’s in her blood. She gets along with Tory, too. It’s all going to work out, Nick.”
“I hope so.” His extended family was the reason he’d brought Megan to Angel’s Bay. While they often drove him crazy with their quirky, eccentric personalities, he needed reinforcements, and everyone was in town to put on the Winter Workshop. So instead of taking Megan to the one-bedroom condo he owned in L.A., he’d brought her to the two-bedroom fixer-upper in Angel’s Bay he’d purchased a few years earlier.
“We started auditions today,” his mother continued, “and some of the locals came in. Kara Lynch was much better than I expected. Of course, we still have a lot of people to see. And there’s so much to do to get the theater ready. I can’t believe this is the last production we’ll have in this old building, but I also can’t wait to see your designs for restoring the theater to its original glory.”
Nick’s mind drifted as his mother rambled on about preproduction planning. The theater was her life, as it was for everyone else in his family. The Hartleys had been running the Angel’s Bay Regional Theater for six decades; he was one of the few who’d broken away.
“Mom, I’m pulling into the driveway,” he said, interrupting her ramble. “I’ll talk to you later.” As he turned off the engine, he noted the dark house. One thing he’d learned about his daughter was that if she was home, every light in the place was on.
He entered through the kitchen door, snapping on the overhead light. He called for Megan and checked her bedroom, but there was no sign of her.
Returning to the kitchen, he debated his options. Megan had been testing her boundaries ever since she arrived, and he doubted she was lost or anywhere she didn’t want to be. Maybe he should be glad she’d found somewhere to go, making friends, getting out of the house. On the other hand, she could be in trouble, and he couldn’t just do nothing. Perhaps his sister would have an idea. He was about to call Tory when the kitchen door flew open and Megan ran in.
Her face was flushed, her hair damp, as if she’d been out in the rain. Her brown eyes were bright and a little guilty. She’d been up to something. He was sure of that.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
She stared back at him, her eyes as stormy as the weather. “I could ask you the same question. What did you do, fall into a hole?”
He glanced down at his mud-caked clothes. “Something like that. Don’t change the subject. You were supposed to stay home after school, and you were supposed to answer your phone.”
“And you were supposed to be my father. But you disappeared for twelve years. So what if I took off for an hour or two? That doesn’t come close to making us even.” She ran down the hall and slammed her bedroom door.
Nick drew in a deep breath and let it out. It had been a long day and it was getting even longer. He walked down the hall, knocked on her door, and then turned the knob. Fortunately, there was no lock, so she couldn’t keep him out even if she wanted to.
Megan was sitting cross-legged on her bed in front of her laptop. She gave him a scowl. “Aren’t you going to take a shower?”
“In a minute. Where were you?”
“Out with friends.”
“I thought you said you didn’t have any friends.”
“Well, I do. Isn’t that what you wanted?” she challenged.
What he wanted was for them to have a conversation without a wall of anger and pain between them, but that wasn’t happening tonight.
She picked up her headphones and slipped them on, clearly dismissing him.
He needed to find a way to connect with her. She was his daughter, and he loved her. No matter how unhappy she was now, he didn’t intend to let her go again.
Copyright © 2011 by Barbara Freethy
At Hidden Falls
Isabella’s drive to Angel’s Bay would have ended in tragedy when her car slid off a cliff if she hadn’t been rescued by Nick Hartley. As he helps her to safety, she realizes he is the man who has haunted her dreams. Nick, however, is committed to reconnecting with his estranged teenage daughter, refusing to respond to his powerful attraction to Isabella. And Isabella’s police chief brother has his hands full with a missing mother, an abandoned baby, and an unknown father. What is Isabella’s role in the mysteries—both past and present— that swirl around the town?
When she starts helping at the Hartley family theater, all the pieces begin to link together. Loves found and lost, heartbreak and happiness, courage and betrayal are all part of the patchwork quilt of the community—and of life. Isabella’s gift is seeing the patterns. . . .