THE SECRETS OF SPIRIT CREEK SERIES
The secrets outnumber the population
PRAISE FOR LINDA’S NOVELS
Winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award
Winner of the Orange Rose Award
Holt Medallion Award of Merit
USA TODAY Best Romance of 2012 List
Romance Writers of America Honor Roll of Bestselling Authors
“Linda Style writes an intriguing, fast-moving, intelligent story. I’ll be on the lookout for more.”
—Linda Lael Miller, NY Times & USA Today bestselling author
“Absolutely spellbinding. A great plot…extraordinary in every way.” --Coffee Time Reviews
“A riveting read that will leave readers glued to the pages. A series you won’t want to miss. --Romance Designs
“Brilliantly creative, an engrossing read…strong characters and a beguiling plot.”
—Donna Zapf, Cataromance
Arizona State Prison
“DON’T GET YOUR HOPES UP, Crusoe. You’re not going anywhere.” The guard scoffed as he strolled past Linc’s narrow cell.
Hope. What the hell was that? Linc drew his hands into fists and gritted his teeth, forcing himself not to tell the bastard what he could do to himself.
But it was true. He wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet. Linc still had to be processed. The ubiquitous paperwork had to be done. And the unfathomable delays made the public defender’s recent revelation seem unreal. A dream. Just the way he’d felt ten years ago.
Only that had been a nightmare. Two years of depositions, court motions and subpoenas before he’d finally had a trial. He’d lost everything. His fiancée…his scholarship to law school…his friends…and his dog.
His mother, who’d been battling cancer for a year when he was arrested, had passed away during the trial. She’d been his champion, never believing for an instant that he was guilty…or would be convicted. Every day she’d shown up in court, her face drawn, dark circles coloring the thin skin under her eyes, her body rail thin and wasting away in front of him. She’d looked ten years older than the last time she’d visited him in jail while he awaited trial, and the helpless, forlorn look in her eyes haunted his dreams. He was grateful she hadn’t been there to see him hauled away.
Now, just two days ago, a fresh-out-of-law-school attorney couldn’t understand why Linc wasn’t excited about the news that DNA had proved him innocent of rape. The twenty-something kid, filled with the belief that justice would always prevail, hadn’t a clue how things could go sour in an instant.
The only reason they’d done new DNA testing was because a suspect in another crime claimed he had information on an unsolved rape that was strikingly similar to the crime in which Linc had been convicted, and the similarity had prompted another look at Linc’s case. Ironically, while the findings hadn’t been conclusive in their unsolved crime, the new tests had proved Linc innocent.
Sheer luck and newer, more sophisticated, DNA testing procedures was all it took. If the DNA testing done years ago had been as advanced, he may never have even seen the inside of prison. But the original test wasn’t conclusive and most damaging of all…the prosecution had an eyewitness.
All these years, the only people who really knew he was innocent were Linc and the scumbag rapist who’d been free this whole time. And possibly the woman who’d sealed his fate—the woman who’d identified Linc as her attacker.
He flopped onto his bunk, stretched out, hands behind his head. When he was outside, free to walk away and never look back—that’s when he’d get excited.
“Yo, homey!” The distinct drawl came from the adjoining cell. Snake.
Linc pulled upright, muscles taut. Snake, the recently transferred lowlife from the ADMAX prison in Colorado, the Alcatraz of the Rockies, where the most dangerous criminals in the US were sent, had been baiting Linc since the day he arrived.
“We got business to finish,” Snake growled.
They had business all right, and he wanted to finish it more than Snake did. But he wasn’t going to screw up a possible release to even a score. Payback—personal satisfaction—wasn’t worth crap if he had to do another millisecond longer in this hellhole than he had to.
“I’m comin’ for you, pretty boy,” Snake taunted.
Hot blood pumped through Linc’s veins. His former cell mate had warned him to watch his back around Snake, a lifer known for taking down anyone on the “good behavior” list. Especially short-timers.
A couple of months ago, Linc’s cell mate had been one of those guys on the list, eager to go home to his wife and kids. He’d been Linc’s only real friend for the past four years. But instead of going home to his family, he’d left in a box. The yard had been full when it happened, but no one would ever know who’d done it because no con ever ratted out another. Not if they wanted to survive. Even the guards turned a blind eye. In their minds, prisoners were the bad guys and deserved whatever they got.
Linc hadn’t seen the attack, but he knew who’d done it, and someday the guy was going to pay…one way or another.
“I’m waiting,” Linc shouted back, tacking on an obscenity at the end. He’d learned within hours of his incarceration that he had to respond in kind—even if he did nothing to back it up. Behind bars, self-preservation was everything. Never back down, his first cellmate had advised. Stand your ground.
But if there was even a remote chance that what the attorney said was true, he had to stay cool. And if his release was true, he’d get a hell of a lot more satisfaction walking out with a smile on his face.
Deciding to make one last entry in the journals he’d been keeping for years, he stood to get the notepad from the shelf where he kept it. He tipped the box. Empty? What the hell… He did a 360, eyes darting, heart thumping. Gone.
His journals were gone!
His pulse pounded like thunder in his ears as he ripped the threadbare blanket from the bed, tore the thin mattress from the springs.
Ten years of writing…gone. Ten years of letting all the anger, desperation and longing to feel like a human being again bleed onto paper. It was all there. His broken spirit. His wretched soul.
He leaned forward, head bent between outstretched arms, palms flat against the wall. His stomach knotted, all the air left his lungs, and he couldn’t breathe… as if he’d been gut punched…as if his heart had been ripped from his chest.
The unmistakable grate of metal against metal startled him—the cell door sliding open behind him. He swung around.
“Missing somethin’, preppy?” Snake stood in the open doorway, feet apart, a crumpled wad of yellow paper in his hand.
The guard stood to the side, looking away as Snake chucked the paper over his shoulder.
White-hot adrenaline roared through Linc, but just as he was about to charge the bastard, he saw the guard smile.
Linc froze. Every muscle. Because that’s exactly what they wanted. He clenched his jaws. Planted his feet.
“C’mon,” Snake taunted. “Come and get me. You know you want to.”
He did. More than anything. Except his freedom.
Getting no response, Snake stepped inside the cell and jammed his fingers into Linc’s chest with enough force to shove him back a step. Linc stood sentinel, stone-faced, tamping down the rage boiling inside. Snake jabbed him again, harder. Then again, pushing Linc back another step.
Linc crossed his arms, lifted his chin and allowed his mouth to curve into a smile.
Snake’s nostrils flared. He swung out, but Linc caught his arm in motion, then twisted it around to get behind the guy. Only Snake landed a kidney punch and two more blows before getting a lock on Linc’s neck.
Blood pounded in his ears. Rage flicked like strobe lights in Linc’s head. He got off a groin punch. Snake’s hold eased just enough for Linc to lower a shoulder. He grabbed Snake’s arm and, holding it straight out, gave one swift shove to the elbow from underneath. Ligaments popped, rendering the arm useless.
On high-octane adrenaline, his fist like a jackhammer, Linc smashed Snake’s face. Heard nose bones crunch. But at the last crush of flesh against flesh, he caught the glint of a razor-sharp shiv in Snake’s other hand. Linc dodged sideways and landed a double-fisted hammer to the back of Snake’s head.
The scum fell to his knees. Linc clasped his hands and raised them up for a final strike, but searing-hot pain jagged from his calf down to his ankle. He stumbled, sucked air through his teeth. He willed away the pain. Threw another punch. Missed…
And never saw the head butt coming.
“DO YOU KNOW anything more about her?”
Eyebrows raised, the nurse at Linc’s side reached to help him shift position in the hospital bed. “Only that she’s been here every day sitting at your side, so I suspect you were very good friends.”
An apple-cheeked motherly type, the nurse reached to plump his pillow. “There, is that more comfortable?”
“It’s as good as it’s going to get.” How comfortable could anyone be with one leg up in a truss and an arm in a sling? He glanced over and saw a young woman in the shadows near the doorway, apparently waiting for the okay to come in. He could only see her in profile—dark blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Glasses. Average height, slender. Plain.
He strained his brain to remember her, but for the life of him, he couldn’t draw up an image.
“Okay. I’ll leave you two alone so you can get reacquainted. Maybe seeing her will spark those brain cells.”
He was up for that. Ever since yesterday when he’d awakened from a medically induced coma, he’d waited for that spark. But he got nothing. He had no idea who Tori Amhearst was. But he’d soon find out.
His stomach tightened. He’d been told she was the only person who’d come to visit during the three weeks he’d been in the Scottsdale Trauma Center, oblivious to the world around him. He might not have been guilty of the crime, but crime or not, he wasn’t a very popular guy.
Linc watched the nurse and the woman talking. Then the nurse left, and Tori…his “friend”…started toward him. At first, she seemed hesitant, maybe as unsure as he was.
As she got closer, he smiled, raised his good hand. “Tori?”
She nodded. Moistened her lips. “Hello.”
No smile. Not even the slightest hint of a tipped lip.
“Come over here where I can see you better,” he said.
She came forward, looking as if someone was behind urging her every step of the way until she reached the side of his bed, eyes wide and filled with something akin to apprehension, or fear… almost as if something horrible might happen if she got too close.
“You look nice,” he said, then reached out and took her hand in his. She flinched at the contact, eyes widening even more as she drew her hand away. If she was his friend, she sure wasn’t acting like it. “I was told we’re friends, but since I don’t remember, this is a bit awkward. For you, too, I guess.”
Frowning, she said, “You…don’t remember…what?”
“Didn’t they tell you?”
She cocked her head slightly. The woman had unusual eyes, a light amber color. Long, dark lashes.
“Tell me what?”
“Could you get that drink for me, please?” He indicated the water glass on the tray just out of his reach. She handed it to him, and after a sip, he said, “Geez. I can’t believe they didn’t say anything…tell you that I don’t remember what happened? I don’t even remember how I got here.”
“No, I…I haven’t talked to anyone…about that.” She glanced at the door again, then back at him. “What…what do you remember?”
He shrugged, winced at the stab of pain in his arm. “Nothing. I don’t know what I don’t remember. Yesterday I woke up and someone told me where I was, who I am and where I’ve been, but I don’t remember it. They told me I’ve been in prison. How could I not remember something like that?”
Her mouth opened and closed again, apparently at a loss for words, and he couldn’t blame her. It had to be a surprise to find out he didn’t know her. “Yeah. A state attorney was here and told me I’d been in prison for ten years…said I’d been exonerated and hadn’t actually committed any crime. But before I could be released from prison, I was injured in a fight and sent to the county hospital until I was transferred here.”
“You don’t remember prison?” Her voice rose with the same incredulous tone as the look in her ever widening eyes.
He shook his head, ran his good hand through his hair. “Nope. I don’t remember anything. I’ve tried to, but I can’t, not even the family I was told I had. I can’t bring up a single name.” He looked deep into Tori’s eyes, hoping something would come. Nada. Nothing. “They told me you and I are good friends, but I’m sorry, I don’t remember you, either.”
“But…the nurses said you asked to see me.”
“Yeah. They told me you’d been here every day, and I thought if I saw you…if we’d been really good friends, it would help. I thought I might remember something.”
She blinked. Didn’t say anything. Finally she said, “But you don’t?”
He shook his head. “I don’t mind forgetting the prison part, but not remembering family and friends…it sucks.”
She dropped onto the chair at his side. “Did the doctor say if the memory loss is temporary?”
“They’re doing more tests. The doc told me it’s not unusual for someone to lose short-term memory after a traumatic event. And the fact that I remember some things is good. Apparently total amnesia is rare. Dr. Menke said a person with total amnesia wouldn’t know how to get dressed, or speak. He wouldn’t know anything he’s learned. The doc told me what I have is called a fugue, which translates to partial amnesia. You remember some things and block out others.”
He let out a long sigh. “It’s really hard to understand because I don’t feel like I’m blocking anything. Yet here I am. And
I don’t remember anyone or anything that’s happened in my life.”
“You will. I’m sure you will. Perhaps a relative or someone will be able to fill you in and it will all come back.”
“I thought…since we were friends…that you could do that.”
She pulled back a little, hands clasped against her chest. “I’m sorry. I-I can’t.”
He cocked his head. “You can’t? I don’t understand…I mean they said we’re friends. You’ve been here every—”
“Yes,” she injected, launching to her feet. She took a few steps away. “But it…we were friends a long time ago. In school.”
His stomach dropped. He’d been feeling so damned good, excited about meeting someone who could fill in the blanks, and now he was back to square one. “You didn’t know I’d been in prison?”
She shook her head. “I hadn’t seen you in years.”
No wonder she’d looked stunned. “Oh, man.”
“But I’ll be happy to help if I can.”
“Thanks.” He forced a smile. Even old information was better than no information. “I appreciate that. If you just tell me what you do know about me, I’ll know more than I do now. I don’t even know what name people called me…what I liked to be called myself. Lincoln or Linc or some other nickname.” He held her gaze. “What did you call me back then?”
She moistened her lips. Close up she wasn’t as plain as he’d originally thought. She just didn’t do anything with her assets. High, model-like cheekbones, large wide-set eyes. Cat eyes. No makeup, no polish on her nails. And it was obvious that, even if his brain didn’t remember that he’d been abstinent a long time, his body sure did.
“Both. I called you by both, but…most of the time it was Linc.”
Linc. A family name, or just something picked at random? Considering he seemed to have no family, at least none who came to visit, it didn’t matter much. He’d been told his mother had passed away years ago, and his father had made no contact while Linc was in prison or here.
Maybe his father was dead, too? Maybe they’d both disowned him after he’d been convicted—as his supposed fiancée apparently had. He shifted position, shoving his body up with his good arm so he could sit straighter, but with the movement, a sharp pain shot through his leg.
Tori reached out. “Wait. I’ll help.” She searched for the mechanism on the bed and, finding it, raised the head for him.
“That’s good,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Would you like more water?”
He nodded, and she poured some into the glass from the pitcher on the cart. When he finished drinking, he took her hand again and saying, “Come here,” pulled her toward him. Close. Close enough to feel her breath on his neck. The contact sent a jolt to his groin. Good to know some parts of his body worked just fine. “Just how well did we know each other?” he said voice low.
Right then he hoped they’d known each other “very” well and could get to know each other all over again. No memory needed for some things.
“Actually—” she pulled back “—not well.” She shoved a few strands of hair from her forehead. “We were both students at Arizona State. We…uh…were in some classes together and met a few times at different functions, football games, parties and—” she waved a hand “—well, just a bunch of times. A few weeks ago, I happened to be in the hospital visiting someone else when I saw you, and since I hadn’t seen you since school, I wanted to say hi. But you were asleep. I mean…I thought you were asleep. I guess the nurses just assumed we were more than friends.”
“And we weren’t?”
“No, not like that. I came back to the hospital because I always liked you and still wanted to say hello, and that’s when
I learned you were in a medically induced coma.”
“But you came back every day?”
She nodded. “I did.”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to.” She shrugged. “The nurse said I’d been the only one here to see you, and I thought, if it were me—”
He stopped her. “You felt sorry for me.” He compressed his lips. “Got it.”
“No. That’s not it. I mean…friends are friends. Friends are…there when you need them.”
His eyes caught hers. He was making her nervous, he could tell, and that was the last thing he wanted to do with his one and only friend. Smiling, he said, “Well, I’m glad we were friends.” He took her hand again. “You know, when I came out of the coma I had this odd feeling that someone had been with me during that time, talking to me. I thought I’d heard a woman’s voice…not actually talking, but more like reading a story or something.”
“That was me.”
“When I woke up I thought it was a dream.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m glad it wasn’t.”
A noise, someone talking in the hallway made them both turn and look toward the open doorway. Tori drew her hand away and stepped back, as if ready to leave.
No, not yet. She was the only person who knew him from the past. He had to know more. Now. “I can’t blame you for wanting to go,” he finally said. “But I hope you’ll come back.”
Her forehead furrowed. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“You didn’t know I was in prison when you visited me before. Now you do. I can understand if that bothers you.”
“But…you weren’t guilty. Why would it bother me?”
A quick sense of relief swept through him. “I don’t know. You might think I really am a criminal or…” The muscles in his chest tightened. “I don’t know…I don’t know anything. Sorry. I just hate that I can’t do anything to change things. It feels so—”
“Good morning, Mr. Crusoe. I’m glad to see you’re awake.” His doctor walked toward them.
“I better go,” Tori said.
“This won’t take long,” the doctor said, glancing at him, then to Tori and back again.
Tori headed for the door.
“I’m thinking if you keep making this kind of progress, you’ll be discharged in three or four more days. You’ll need therapy and someone to help you for a while, but you’re on the mend.”
“That’s great. Or it would be if I had a place to go.” Seeing Tori near the door, Linc said, “Can you come back in a few minutes, Tori?”
“I think I’m going to need a friend.”
Her heart pounding, Tori forced herself to smile. “Sure,” she said, and then rushed from the room. Outside the door, pulse racing, she braced herself against the wall. I’m going to need a friend. What a joke! She tipped her head back and closed her eyes. God, she was an idiot. And a liar. He was going to find out anyway, so why not just tell him? It would be a shock whether it was now or later.
But seeing him injured and helpless, she hadn’t been able to do it. She was the reason for everything that had happened to him. It would be like throwing salt on an open wound. Good God, she needed to help him, not hurt him.
Tori started at the doctor’s voice, then brought herself to attention.
“You can go back in now.”
“Thank you.” As he turned to leave she said, “Excuse me, Doctor…”
“I was just wondering…how bad the memory loss is.”
The strange look he gave her made her squirm. Did the doctor know she was a phony? A fake? No, he couldn’t. He had no way to know that. No one did. She didn’t look the same as she had twelve years ago, and by keeping her married name, no one could know that Tori Amhearst was really Victoria Culhaine. Her attorney had told her what had happened at the jail and about Crusoe’s hospitalization, but not how badly he’d been injured.
“He’s sustained some serious physical injuries,” the doctor said. “The arm injury is minor and shouldn’t be any problem. The leg fracture is healing nicely, too, but the muscle and tendon damage are far worse and take much longer to heal. But with time and therapy, they will. The brain is more complex since the problem isn’t a result of the injury. What I can tell you is that the memory loss may be harder for him to deal with than the physical injuries. He was right when he said he’d need a friend. He really does.” The doctor tipped his head toward her, patted her arm and then left.
Tori didn’t want to be Lincoln Crusoe’s friend. Couldn’t be. She wanted to go back to her home. Her normal life. She had to go. She’d finally made a safe and secure haven for herself and now it could be--
“Tori? You still here?”
Hearing the plea in his voice, she froze. Oh, God. How utterly selfish she was. She had a life to go back to. He didn’t. He’d even said he had no place to go. And everything that had happened to him was her fault. Her heart sank. He needed someone. A friend.
She closed her eyes. Could she do that? Be his friend? Did she really have a choice? Sighing, the answer was obvious. She didn’t. Not if she was the person she believed herself to be. That person would do whatever she had to do for him until he was back on his feet again.
Or until he discovered who she really was.