Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  


Nora Roberts



  Beauty is its own excuse for being.



  T he damp, snapping wind iced the bones through to the marrow. Snow from a storm earlier in the week was piled in irregular hills along the side of the road. The sky was bitter blue. Stern trees with black empty branches rose out of winter-browned grass and shook their limbs like fists against the cold.

  That was March in Maine.

  Miranda pumped the heater up to full, programmed her CD player to Puccini’s La Bohème and drove with the music soaring.

  She was coming home. After a ten-day lecture tour, bumping from hotel to college campus to airport and back to hotel, Miranda was more than ready for home.

  Her relief might have had something to do with the fact that she hated giving lectures, suffered miserably every time she had to face those rows of eager faces. But shyness and stage fright weren’t allowed to interfere with duty.

  She was Dr. Miranda Jones, a Jones of Jones Point. And she was never permitted to forget it.

  The city had been founded by the first Charles Jones to make his mark in the New World. The Joneses, Miranda knew, were required to make their marks, to maintain their position as the leading family of the Point, to contribute to society, to behave as expected of the Joneses of Jones Point, Maine.

  Thrilled to put distance between herself and the airport, she turned onto the coast road and hit the gas. Driving fast was one of her small pleasures. She liked to move quickly, to get from one point to the next with a minimum of fuss and time. A woman who stood nearly six foot in her bare feet and had hair the color of a Tonka toy fire engine rarely went unnoticed. Even when she wasn’t in charge, she looked as if she were.

  And when she moved with the precision and purpose of a heat-seeking missile, the road ahead generally cleared.

  She had a voice one infatuated man had compared to velvet wrapped in sandpaper. She compensated for what she considered an accident of fate by cultivating a brisk, clipped delivery that often bordered on prim.

  But it got the job done.

  Her body might have come down from some Celtic warrior ancestor, but her face was pure New England. Narrow and cool with a long straight nose, slightly pointed chin, and cheekbones that could have chipped ice. Her mouth was wide and most often set in a serious line. Her eyes were Fourth of July blue, and most often sober.

  But now as she entertained herself with the long, winding drive that hugged the snow-laced cliffs, both her mouth and her eyes smiled. Beyond the cliffs, the sea was choppy and steel gray. She loved the moods of it, its power to soothe or thrill. As the road bent like a crooked finger, she heard the thunderous crash of water slapping against rock, then drawing back like a fist to strike again.

  The thin sunlight sparkled on the snow, the wind blew fitful streams of it into the air, across the road. On the bay side, the naked trees were bent like old men, twisted by year after year of storms. When she was a child, and still fanciful, she’d imagined those trees muttering complaints to each other as they huddled against the wind.

  Though she considered herself fanciful no longer, she still loved the look of them, gnarled and knotted, but lined up like old soldiers on the bluff.

  The road climbed as the land narrowed, with the water creeping in on both sides. Sea and sound, both moody, often bleak, nibbled away at the shores with a perpetual hunger. The crooked spit of land rose, its topmost point humped like an arthritic knuckle and graced by the old Victorian house that looked over sea and land. Beyond it, where the ground tumbled down again toward the water, was the white spear of the lighthouse that guarded the coast.

  The house had been her refuge and her joy as a child because of the woman who lived in it. Amelia Jones had bucked the Jones tradition and had lived as she chose, had said what she thought, and had always, always had a place in her heart for her two grandchildren.

  Miranda had adored her. The only true grief she’d ever known was when Amelia had died—with no fuss or warning, in her sleep eight winters before.

  She’d left the house, the tidy portfolio she’d cleverly put together over the years, and her art collection to Miranda and her brother. To her son, Miranda’s father, she left her wishes that he be half the man she’d hoped before they met again. To her daughter-in-law, she left a strand of pearls because they were the only thing she could think of that Elizabeth had ever fully approved of.

  It had been so like her, Miranda thought now. Those pithy little comments in the will. She’d stayed in the big stone house for years, living alone, having survived her husband by more than a decade.

  Miranda thought of her grandmother as she reached the end of the coast road and turned into the long, curving drive.

  The house that topped it had survived years and gales, the merciless cold of winter, the shocking and sudden heat of high summer. Now, Miranda thought with a little twist of guilt, it was surviving benign neglect.

  Neither she nor Andrew seemed to find the time to arrange for painters or lawn care. The house that had been a showplace when she was a child now displayed its sags and scars. Still, she thought it lovely, rather like an old woman not afraid to act her age. Rather than rambling, it stood in straight, soldierly angles, its gray stone dignified, its gables and turrets distinguished.

  On the sound side a pergola offered charm and fancy. Wisteria tangled up its sides, buried its roof in blossoms in the spring. Miranda always meant to make time to sit on one of the marble benches under that fragrant canopy, to enjoy the scents, the shade, the quiet. But somehow spring ran into summer and summer into fall, and she never remembered her vow until winter, when the thick vines were bare.

  Perhaps some of the boards on the wide front porch of the house needed replacing. Certainly the trim and shutters, faded from blue to gray, needed to be scraped and painted. The wisteria on the pergola probably needed to be pruned or fed or whatever you did with such things.

  She would get to it. Sooner or later.

  But the windows glinted, and the ferocious faces of the gargoyles crouched on the eaves grinned. Long terraces and narrow balconies offered views in every direction. The chimneys would puff smoke—when someone took the time to light a fire. Grand old oaks rose high, and a thick stand of pines broke the wind on the north side.

  She and her brother shared the space compatibly enough—or had until Andrew’s drinking became more habitual. But she wasn’t going to think about that. She enjoyed having him close, liked as well as loved him, so that working with him, sharing a house with him, was a pleasure.

  The wind blew her hair into her eyes the minute she stepped out of the car. Vaguely annoyed, she dragged it back, then leaned in to retrieve her laptop and briefcase. Shouldering both, humming the final strains of Puccini, she walked back to the trunk and popped it open.

  Her hair blew into her face again, causing her to huff out an irritated breath. The half-sigh ended in a choked gasp as her hair was grabbed in one hard yank, used as a rope to snap her head back. Small white stars burst in front of her eyes as both pain and shock stabbed into her skull. And the point of a knife pressed cold and sharp against the pulse in her throat.

  Fear screamed in her head, a primal burn that burst in the gut and shrieked toward the throat. Before she could release it, she was twisted around, shoved hard against the car so that the blossom of pain in her hip blurred her vision and turned her legs to jelly. The hand on her hair yanked again, jerking her head back like a doll’s.

  His face was hideous. Pasty white and scarred, its features blunted. It took her several seconds before the dry-mouthed terror allowed her to see it was a mask—rubber and paint twisted into deformity.

  She didn’t struggle, couldn’t. There was nothing
she feared as much as a knife with its deadly point, its smooth killing edge. The keen tip was pressed into the soft pad under her jaw so that each choked breath she took brought a searing jab of pain and terror.

  He was big. Six-four or -five, she noted, struggling to pay attention, pay attention to details while her heart skittered into her throat where the blade pressed. Two hundred fifty or sixty pounds, wide at the shoulders, short at the neck.

  Oh God.

  Brown eyes, muddy brown. It was all she could see through the slits in the rubber fright mask he wore. And the eyes were flat as a shark’s and just as dispassionate as he tipped the point of the knife, slid it over her throat to delicately slice the skin.

  A small fire burned there while a thin line of blood trickled down to the collar of her coat.

  “Please.” The word bubbled out as she instinctively shoved at the wrist of his knife hand. Every rational thought clicked off into cold dread as he used the point to jerk up her head and expose the vulnerable line of her throat.

  In her mind flashed the image of the knife slashing once, fast and silent, severing carotid artery, a gush of hot blood. And she would die on her feet, slaughtered like a lamb.

  “Please don’t. I have three hundred and fifty dollars in cash.” Please let it be money he wants, she thought frantically. Let it just be money. If it was rape, she prayed she had the courage to fight, even knowing she couldn’t win.

  If it was blood, she hoped it would be quick.

  “I’ll give you the money,” she began, then gasped in shock as he tossed her aside like a bundle of rags.

  She fell hard on her hands and knees on the gravel drive, felt the burn of small, nasty cuts on her palms. She could hear herself whimpering, hated the helpless, numbing fear that made it impossible to do more than stare at him out of blurred eyes.

  To stare at the knife that glinted in the thin sunlight. Even as her mind screamed to run, to fight, she hunched into herself, paralyzed.

  He picked up her purse, her briefcase, turned the blade so that the sun shot off a spear of light into her eyes. Then he leaned down and jammed the point into the rear tire. When he yanked it free, took a step in her direction, she began to crawl toward the house.

  She waited for him to strike again, to tear at her clothes, to plunge the knife into her back with the same careless force he’d used to stab it into the tire, but she kept crawling over the brittle winter grass.

  When she reached the steps, she looked back with her eyes wheeling in her head, with small, hunted sounds bubbling through her lips.

  And saw she was alone.

  Short, rusty breaths scraped at her throat, burned in her lungs as she dragged herself up the steps. She had to get inside, get away. Lock the door. Before he came back, before he came back and used that knife on her.

  Her hand slid off the knob once, twice before she managed to close her fingers around it. Locked. Of course it was locked. No one was home. No one was there to help.

  For a moment, she simply curled there, outside the door, shivering with shock and the wind that whipped over the hill.

  Move, she ordered herself. You have to move. Get the key, get inside, call the police.

  Her eyes darted left and right, like a rabbit watching for wolves, and her teeth started to chatter. Using the knob for support, she pulled herself to her feet. Her legs threatened to buckle, her left knee was screaming, but she darted off the porch in a kind of drunken lope, searched frantically for her purse before she remembered he’d taken it.

  She babbled out words, prayers, curses, pleas as she yanked open the car door and fumbled with the glove compartment. Even as her fingers closed over her spare keys a sound had her whirling around wildly, her hands coming up defensively.

  There was nothing there but the wind sweeping through the bare black branches of trees, through the thorny canes of the climbing roses, over the brittle grass.

  Breath whistling, she took off for the house in a limping run, jabbing frantically with the key at the lock, all but wailing with relief when it slid home.

  She stumbled inside, slammed the door, turned the locks. When her back was against that solid wood, the keys slipped out of her fingers, landed with a musical crash. Her vision grayed, so she closed her eyes. Everything was numb now, mind, body. She needed to take the next step, to act, to cope, but she couldn’t remember what step to take.

  Her ears were ringing and nausea rose up in one long greasy wave. Gritting her teeth, she took one step forward, then another as the foyer seemed to tilt gently right and left.

  She was nearly to the base of the stairs when she realized it wasn’t her ears ringing, but the telephone. Mechanically, she walked through the haze into the parlor, where everything was so normal, so familiar, and picked up the phone.

  “Hello?” Her voice sounded far away, hollow like a single beat in a wooden drum. Swaying a bit, she stared at the pattern the sun made as it slipped through the windows and onto the wide planks of the pine floor. “Yes. Yes, I understand. I’ll be there. I have . . .” What? Shaking her head to clear it, Miranda struggled to remember what she needed to say. “I have some things . . . things to take care of first. No, I’ll leave as soon as I can.”

  Then something bubbled up inside her she was too dazed to recognize as hysteria. “I’m already packed,” she said, and laughed.

  She was still laughing when she hung up the phone. Laughing when she slid bonelessly into a chair, and didn’t realize when she tucked herself into a small, defensive ball that the laughter had turned to sobs.

  She had both hands wrapped tight around a cup of hot tea, but she didn’t drink it. She knew the cup would shake, but it was a comfort to hold it, to feel the heat pass through the cup and into her chilled fingers, soothe the abraded skin of her palms.

  She’d been coherent—it was imperative to be coherent, to be clear and precise and calm when reporting a crime to the police.

  Once she was able to think again, she’d made the proper calls, she’d spoken to the officers who had come to the house. But now that it was done and she was alone again, she couldn’t seem to keep a single solid thought in her mind for more than ten seconds.

  “Miranda!” The shout was followed by the cannon bang of the front door slamming. Andrew rushed in, took one horrified study of his sister’s face. “Oh Jesus.” He hurried to her, crouched at her feet and began to play his long fingers over her pale cheeks. “Oh, honey.”

  “I’m all right. Just some bruises.” But the control she’d managed to build back into place trembled. “I was more scared than hurt.”

  He saw the tears in the knees of her trousers, the dried blood on the wool. “The son of a bitch.” His eyes, a quieter blue than his sister’s, abruptly went dark with horror. “Did he . . .” His hands lowered to hers so that they gripped the china cup together. “Did he rape you?”

  “No. No. It was nothing like that. He just stole my purse. He just wanted money. I’m sorry I had the police call you. I should have done it myself.”

  “It’s all right. Don’t worry.” He tightened his grip on her hands, then released them quickly when she winced. “Oh, baby.” He took the cup from her hands, set it aside, then lifted her abraded palms. “I’m so sorry. Come on, I’ll take you to the hospital.”

  “I don’t need the hospital. It’s just bumps and bruises.” She drew a deep breath, finding it easier to do so now that he was here.

  He could infuriate her, and he had disappointed her. But in all of her life, he’d been the only one to stick with her, to be there.

  He picked up her cup of tea, pressed it into her hands again. “Drink a little,” he ordered before he rose and paced off some of the fear and anger.

  He had a thin, rather bony face that went well with the long, lanky build. His coloring was like his sister’s, though his hair was a darker red, almost mahogany. Nerves had him patting his hand against his thigh as he moved.

  “I wish I’d been here. Damn it, Miranda. I shoul
d have been here.”

  “You can’t be everywhere, Andrew. No one could have predicted that I’d be mugged in our own front yard. I think—and the police think—that he was probably going to break into the house, rob us, and my coming home surprised him, changed his plans.”

  “They said he had a knife.”

  “Yeah.” Gingerly she lifted a hand to the shallow cut on her throat. “And I can report that I haven’t outgrown my knife phobia. One look at it, and my mind just froze.”

  Andrew’s eyes went grim, but he spoke gently as he came back to sit beside her. “What did he do? Can you tell me?”

  “He just came out of nowhere. I was getting my things out of the trunk. He yanked me back by the hair, put the knife to my throat. I thought he was going to kill me, but he knocked me down, took my purse, my briefcase, slashed my tires, and left.” She managed a wavering smile. “Not exactly the homecoming I was expecting.”

  “I should have been here,” he said again.

  “Andrew, don’t.” She leaned into him, closed her eyes. “You’re here now.” And that, it seemed, was enough to steady her. “Mother called.”

  “What?” He started to drape an arm around her shoulders, and now sat forward to look at her face.