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By Sandra Brown
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Emory hurt all over. It hurt even to breathe.
The foggy air felt full of something invisible but sharp, like ice crystals or glass shards. She was underdressed. The raw cold stung her face where the skin was exposed. It made her eyes water, requiring her to blink constantly to keep the tears from blurring her vision and obscuring her path.
A stitch had developed in her side. It clawed continually, grabbed viciously. The stress fracture in her right foot was sending shooting pains up into her shin.
But owning the pain, running through it, overcoming it, was a matter of self-will and discipline. She’d been told she possessed both. In abundance. To a fault. But this was what all the difficult training was for. She could do this. She had to.
Push on, Emory. Place one foot in front of the other. Eat up the distance one yard at a time.
How much farther to go?
God, please not much farther.
Refueled by determination and fear of failure, she picked up her pace.
Then, from the deep shadows of the encroaching woods came a rustling sound, followed by a shift of air directly behind her. Her heart clutched with a foreboding of disaster to which she had no time to react before skyrockets of pain exploded inside her skull.
Does it hurt this much?” Dr. Emory Charbonneau pointed to a drawing of a child’s face contorted with pain, large teardrops dripping from the eyes. “Or like this?” She pointed to another in the series of caricatures, where a frowning face illustrated moderate discomfort.
The three-year-old girl pointed to the worst of the two.
“I’m sorry, sweetie.” Emory inserted the otoscope into her right ear. The child began to scream. As gently as possible, and talking to her soothingly, Emory examined her ears. “Both are badly infected,” she reported to the girl’s frazzled mother.
“She’s been crying since she got up this morning. This is the second earache this season. I couldn’t get in to see you with the last one, so I took her to an emergency center. The doctor there prescribed meds, she got over it, now it’s back.”
“Chronic infections can cause hearing loss. They should be avoided, not just treated when they occur. You might consider taking her to a pediatric ENT.”
“I’ve tried. None are accepting new patients.”
“I can get her in with one of the best.” It wasn’t a misplaced boast. Emory was confident that any one of several colleagues would take a patient that she referred. “Let’s give this infection six weeks to heal up completely, then I’ll set her up with an appointment. For now, I’ll give her an antibiotic along with an antihistamine to clear up the fluid behind the eardrums. You can give her a children’s analgesic for the pain, but as soon as the meds kick in, that should decrease.
“Don’t push food on her, but keep her hydrated. If she’s not better in a few days, or if her fever spikes, call the number on this card. I’m going away for the weekend, but another doctor is covering for me. I doubt you’ll have an emergency, but if you do, you’ll be in excellent hands until I get back.”
“Thank you, Dr. Charbonneau.”
She gave the mother a sympathetic smile. “A sick child is no fun for anybody. Try to get some rest yourself.”
“I hope you’re going someplace fun for the weekend.”
“I’m doing a twenty-mile run.”
“That sounds like torture.”
She smiled. “That’s the point.”
Outside the examination room, Emory filled out the prescription form and finished her notes in the patient file. As she handed it over to the office assistant who checked out patients, the young woman said, “That was your last of the day.”
“Yes, and I’m on my way out.”
“Did you notify the hospital?”
She nodded. “And the answering service. I’m officially signed out for the weekend. Are Drs. Butler and James with patients?”
“They are. And both have several in the waiting room.”
“I hoped to see them before I left, but I won’t bother them.”
“Dr. Butler left you a note.”
She passed her a sheet from a monogrammed notepad. Break a leg. Or is that what you say to a marathon runner? Emory smiled as she folded the note and put it in her lab coat pocket.
The receptionist said, “Dr. James asked me to tell you to watch out for bears.”
Emory laughed. “Do their patients know they’re a couple of clowns? Tell them I said good-bye.”
“Will do. Have a good run.”
“Thanks. See you Monday.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. Your husband called and said he was leaving work and would be at home to see you off.”
* * *
“In here.” As Jeff walked into the bedroom she zipped up her duffel bag and, with a motion that was intentionally defiant, pulled it off the bed and slid the strap onto her shoulder.
“You got my message? I didn’t want you to leave before I got here to say good-bye.”
“I want to get ahead of Friday afternoon traffic.”
“Good idea.” He looked at her for a moment, then said, “You’re still mad.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.”
Last night’s argument was still fresh. Words shouted in anger and resentment seemed to be reverberating off the bedroom walls even now, hours after they’d gone to bed, lying back to back, each nursing hostility that had been simmering for months and had finally come to a boil.
He said, “Do I at least get points for wanting to see you off?”
“On whether or not you’re hoping to talk me out of going.” He sighed and looked away, and she said, “That’s what I thought.”
“You should have stayed and finished out your day at the office. Because I’m going, Jeff. In fact, even if I hadn’t planned this distance run for tomorrow, I’d still want to take some time for myself. A night spent away from each other will give us a chance to cool off. If the run wears me out, I may stay up there tomorrow night, too.”
“One night or two won’t change my mind. This compulsion of yours—”
“This is where we started last night. I’m not going to rehash the quarrel now.”
Her training schedule for an upcoming marathon had been the subject that sparked the argument, but she feared that more substantive issues had been the underlying basis for it. The marathon wasn’t their problem; the marriage was.
Which is why she wanted so badly to get away and think. “I wrote down the name of the motel where I’ll be tonight.” As they walked past the kitchen bar, she tipped her head down toward the sheet of paper lying on it.
“Call me when you get there. I’ll want to know you made it safely.”
“All right.” She slid on her sunglasses and opened the back door. “Good-bye.”
Poised on the threshold, she turned. He leaned down and brushed his lips across hers. “Be careful.”
* * *
“Jeff? Hi. I made it.”
The two-hour drive from Atlanta had left Emory tired, but most of the fatigue was due to stress, not the drive itself. The traffic on northbound Interstate 85 had thinned out considerably about an hour outside the city, when she took the cutoff highway that angled northwest. She’d arrived at her destination before dusk, which had made navigating the unfamiliar town a bit easier. She was already tucked into bed at the motel, but tension still claimed the space between her shoulder blades.
Not wanting to exacerbate it, she’d considered not calling Jeff. Last night’s quarrel had been a skirmish. She sensed a much larger fight in their future. Along every step of the way, she wanted to fight fairly, not peevishly.
Besides, if the shoe had been on the other foot, if he had left on a road trip and didn’t call as promised, she would have been worried about his safety.
“Are you already in bed?” he asked.
“About to turn out the light. I want to get an early start in the morning.”
“How’s the motel?”
“Modest, but clean.”
“I get worried when clean is an itemized amenity.” He paused as though waiting for her to chuckle. When she didn’t, he asked how the drive had been.
They were reduced to discussing the weather? “Cold. But I planned on that. Once I get started, I’ll warm up fast enough.”
“I still think it’s crazy.”
“I’ve mapped out the course, Jeff. I’ll be fine. Furthermore, I look forward to it.”
* * *
It was much colder than she had anticipated.
She realized that the moment she stepped out of her car. Of course the overlook was at a much higher elevation than the town of Drakeland where she’d spent the night. The sun was up, but it was obscured by clouds that shrouded the mountain peaks.
A twenty-mile run up here would be a challenge.
As she went through her stretching routine, she assessed the conditions. Although cold, it was a perfect day for running. There was negligible wind. In the surrounding forest, only the uppermost branches of the trees were stirred by the breeze.
Her breath formed a plume of vapor that fogged up her sunglasses, so she pulled the funnel neck of her running jacket up over her mouth and nose as she consulted her map one final time.
The parking lot accommodated tourists who came for the nearby overlook. It also served as the hub for numerous hiking trails that radiated from it like the spokes of a wheel before branching off into winding paths that crisscrossed the crest of the mountain. The names of the particular trails were printed on arrow-shaped signposts.
She located the trail she’d chosen after carefully reviewing the map of the national park and researching it further online. She welcomed a challenge, but she wasn’t foolhardy. If she wasn’t certain she could make it to her turnaround point and back, she wouldn’t be attempting it. Rather than being daunted by the inhospitable terrain, she was eager to take it on.
She locked her duffel bag in the trunk of her car and buckled on her fanny pack. Then she adjusted her headband, zeroed the timer on her wristwatch, pulled on her gloves, and set out.
Emory came awake gradually but didn’t open her eyes, fearing that admitting light would make the excruciating headache worse. It had jarred her out of a deep sleep with pains so piercing it was as though a nail gun were being used inside her skull. She was hearing a noise not ordinarily heard in her bedroom, but even her curiosity wasn’t enough to embolden her to lift her eyelids.
In addition to the sharp pains inside her head, her right foot was throbbing constantly. She’d run too hard on it this morning.
The aroma of food was making her queasy.
Why was she smelling food in her bedroom, when it and the kitchen were on opposite sides of the house? Whatever Jeff was cooking—
Jeff didn’t cook.
Her eyes sprang open, and, when met with nothing she recognized, she sat bolt upright.
The alien scene before her blurred and spun. Scalding bile gushed into her throat. She barely managed to choke it down before spewing it. Dizziness thrust her back down onto the pillow, which she realized wasn’t her pillow.
And the man looming at the side of the bed wasn’t Jeff.
She blurted, “Who are you?”
He came a step closer.
“Stay away from me!” She held up her hand, palm out, although she had no chance of fighting him off. She was as weak as a newborn. He was a giant.
But on her command, he stayed where he was. “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Who are you? Where am I?”
That remained to be seen. Her breaths were short and quick, and her heart was pounding. She willed herself to calm down, knowing that panicking wouldn’t benefit her.
“How do you feel?” His voice was low and rusty, as though he hadn’t used it in a while.
She just stared at him, trying to piece together the disjointed stimuli and form an explanation of where she was and why she was here.
“How’s your head?” He hitched his chin up.
Tentatively she felt the area indicated and groaned when her fingertips touched a knot behind her left ear. It was like she’d struck a mallet to a gong, sending waves of pain through her head. Her hair was sticky and matted with blood, and her fingers came away stained red. She noticed blood on the pillowcase.
“What happened to me?”
“You don’t remember?”
Her mind backtracked. “I remember running. Did I fall?”
“I thought maybe you could tell me.”
She was about to shake her head, but the motion made her ill and caused another sunburst of pain. “How did I get here?”
“I’d been watching you through binoculars.”
He’d been watching her through binoculars? She disliked the sound of that. “From where?”
“A ridge on another peak. But I lost track of you and thought I should check it out. I found you lying unconscious, picked you up, brought you here.”
“Where is here?”
He made a motion with his hand, inviting her to see for herself.
Every movement of her head meant a fresh agony, but she pushed herself up onto her elbows. After giving the vertigo several moments to subside, she took in her surroundings, specifically looking for a possible means of escape should one become necessary.
There were four windows. Only one door. Only one room, in fact.
The bed on which she lay occupied a corner of it. A screen of louvered panels, probably meant to separate the sleeping area from the rest of the room, had been folded flat and propped against the wall, which was constructed of split logs.
Other furnishings consisted of a brown leather recliner and matching sofa. Both had creases, wrinkles, and scratches testifying to decades of use. Between them stood an end table, and on it was a lamp with a burlap shade. These pieces were grouped together on a square of carpet with a hemmed border.
The kitchen was open to the rest of the room. There was a sink, a narrow cookstove, an outmoded refrigerator, and a maple wood table with two ladder-back chairs painted olive green. A large stone fireplace comprised most of one wall. The fire burning in it was making the crackling sound she’d been unable to identify when she first woke up.
He’d given her time to survey the room. Now he said, “Only one of your water bottles is empty. You must be thirsty.”
Her mouth was dry, but other matters concerned her more. “I was unconscious when you found me?”
“Out cold. I’ve tried several times to wake you up.”
“How long have I been out?”
“I found you around seven thirty this morning.”
She looked down at her wristwatch and saw that it was twenty past six in the evening. She bicycled her legs to kick off the layers of covers. Throwing her legs over the side of the bed, she stood up. Immediately she swayed.
He caught her upper arms. She didn’t like his touching her, but she would have fallen on her face if he hadn’t. He guided her back down onto the side of the bed. Her head felt as though it was about to explode. Her stomach heaved. She covered her eyes with her hand because everything within sight was alternately zooming close and then receding, like the wavering images in a fun house mirror.
“Want to lie back down or can you sit up?” he asked.
He gradually withdrew his hands from her arms, then left her. He went into the kitchen and took a gallon jug of water from the refrigerator. He filled a glass and carried it back to her.
She regarded it suspiciously, wondering if he’d drugged her. The date-rape drug was odorless, tasteless, and effective. It not only debilitated the victim, it wiped clean the memory. But if this man had some nefarious purpose in mind, what would have been the point of drugging her if she was already unconscious?
He said, “I tried to get some water down you earlier. You kept gagging and spitting it out.”
Which explained why the front of her shirt was damp. She was fully clothed except for her jacket, gloves, and headband. Her running shoes had also been removed and placed on the floor beside the bed, lined up evenly side by side. She looked up from them to the man extending her the drinking glass. “I’m certain I have a concussion.”
“That’s what I figured, since I couldn’t wake you up.”
“My scalp is bleeding.”
“Not anymore. It clotted quick enough. I’ve been dabbing it with peroxide. That’s why the blood on your fingers looks fresh.”
“I probably need stitches.”
“It bled a lot, but it’s not that deep of a gash.”
He’d made that assessment himself? Why? “Why didn’t you call nine-one-one?”
“I’m off the beaten path up here, and I can’t vouch for the quality of the emergency services. I thought it best just to bring you here and let you sleep it off.”
She didn’t agree. Anyone who’d sustained a blow to the head should be seen by a physician to determine the extent of the damage done, but she didn’t yet have the energy to argue the point. She needed to get her bearings and clear her head a bit first.
She took the glass of water from him. “Thank you.”
Although she was desperately thirsty, she sipped the water, afraid that if she drank it too quickly, she’d only throw it up. She was feeling a mite less anxious. At least her heart was no longer racing and her breathing was close to normal. She would take her blood pressure soon—her wristwatch allowed for that—but she didn’t feel up to doing it yet. She was having to white-knuckle the glass of water to keep it steady. He must have noticed.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I had a concussion once. Didn’t amount to anything except a really bad headache, but that was bad enough.”
“I don’t think mine is serious. My vision is a little blurry, but I remember what year it is and the name of the vice president.”
“Then you’re one up on me.”
He’d probably meant it as a joke, but there was no humor either in his inflection or in his expression. He didn’t come across as a man who laughed gustily and frequently. Or ever.
She sipped once more from the glass and then set it on the small table at the side of the bed. “I appreciate your hospitality, Mr.—”
She looked up at him with surprise.
He motioned toward the end of the bed. Until now, she hadn’t noticed her fanny pack laying there, along with her other things. One of the earpieces on her sunglasses was broken. There was blood on it.
“I got your name off your driver’s license,” he said. “Georgia license. But your name sounds like Louisiana.”
“I’m originally from Baton Rouge.”
“How long have you lived in Atlanta?”
Apparently he’d noted her address, too. “Long enough to call it home. Speaking of which…” Not trusting herself to stand again, she scooted along the edge of the bed until she could reach her fanny pack. Inside it, along with two water bottles, one of them empty, were two twenty-dollar bills, a credit card, her driver’s license, the map she’d used to mark her trail, and, what she most needed right now, her cell phone.
“What were you doing up here?” he asked. “Besides running.”
“That’s what I was doing up here. Running.” When she tried unsuccessfully for the third time to turn her phone on, she cursed softly. “I think my battery is completely out of juice. Can I borrow your charger?”
“I don’t have a cell phone.”
Who doesn’t have a cell phone? “Then if I could use your land line, I’ll pay for—”
“No phone of any kind. Sorry.”
She gaped at him. “No telephone?”
He shrugged. “Nobody to call. Nobody to call me.”
The panic that she had willed away earlier seized her now. With the realization that she was at this stranger’s mercy, a baffling situation became a terrifying one. Her aching head was suddenly packed with stories of missing women. They disappeared and often their families never knew what their fate had been. Religious fanatics took wives. Deviants kept woman chained inside cellars, starved them, tortured them in unspeakable ways.
She swallowed another surge of nausea. Keeping her voice as steady as she was capable of, she said, “Surely you have a car.”
“Then could you please drive me to where I left my car this morning?”
“I could, but it—”
“Don’t tell me. It’s out of gas.”
“No, it’s got gas.”
“I can’t drive you down.”
“Down the mountain.”
He reached for her hand. She snatched it back, out of his reach. He frowned with annoyance then walked across the room to the only door and pulled it open.
Emory’s distress gave way to dismay. Supporting herself on various pieces of furniture as she slowly made her way across the room, she joined him at the open door. It was as though a gray curtain had been hung from above the jamb.
The fog seemed impenetrable, so thick that she could see nothing beyond a few inches of the doorframe.
“It rolled in early this afternoon,” he said. “Lucky I was there this morning, or you could’ve woken up to find yourself stranded out there in this.”
“I am stranded in this.”
“I don’t have to be.” Once again, her respiration sounded and felt like panting. “I’ll pay you to drive me.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the open fanny pack on the bed. “For forty bucks? No way.”
“Charge whatever you want. I’ll pay you the balance as soon as you get me home.”
He was shaking his head. “It’s not that I doubt you’d pay me. It’s that no amount of money will entice me. The roads up here are winding and narrow, steep drops on the outside. Most don’t have guard rails. I won’t risk your life, or mine, to say nothing of my truck.”
“What about your neighbors?”
His face went blank.
“Neighbors? Surely someone living close by has a phone. You could walk—”
“No one lives close by.”
It was like arguing with a fence post. Or a telephone pole. “I need to let my husband know that I’m all right.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” he said, glancing up toward the sky, although there was absolutely nothing to see. “Depending on how soon this lifts.” He closed the door. “You’re shivering. Go stand by the fire. Or, if you need the bathroom…” He pointed out a door on the other side of the room near the bed. “It can get cold in there, but I turned on the space heater for you.” He went over to the cookstove where a pot was simmering. “Are you hungry?” He removed the lid and stirred the contents.
His casual dismissal of her situation astounded her. It frightened her. It also made her mad as hell.
"DEADLINE is both a breathtaking and heartbreaking story; one that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished."
"Deft characterizations and eye for detail make this a winner...Satisfying, vintage Brown storytelling."
—Kirkus on DEADLINE
- "Sandra Brown meticulously develops a stellar cast of characters, weaving them into a tense, gritty thriller that offers numerous plot twists leading to stunning revelations and a nail-biting conclusion....I'm now wondering why I waited so long to enjoy this talented author's work. I highly recommend Brown's Low Pressure. Its multilayered, intricate and suspenseful storyline is enriched with vivid descriptions and crisp dialogue. If you enjoy romantic suspense, Low Pressure is a book you'll want to read in one sitting."—USA Today on LOW PRESSURE
- "A good old-fashioned thriller, and a winner..."—Kirkus on LOW PRESSURE
- "Sexual tension fueled by mistrust between brash Denton and shy Bellamy smolders and sparks in teasing fashion throughout."—Publishers Weekly on LOW PRESSURE
- "Hair-raising . . . a perfect mix of thriller and romantic suspense."—USA Today on LETHAL
- "Pulse-pounding . . . a relentless pace and clever plot."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on LETHAL
- On Sale
- Feb 10, 2015
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing