A Stone Denied – Chapter One

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Stella Caldway grumbled as she stuffed the oversized mug of coffee into the cup holder. The lid came off, and splashes of cream-colored liquid sprayed the console, passenger seat, and her long, cherry-red rain duster. “Damn.” She opened the middle console and pulled out wadded-up napkins, quickly soaking up the mess.

This was the second time of an already long morning she’d spilled coffee. The first time, right after she’d finished dressing, the coffee had run down her linen pants. After exchanging them for another pair, this time something a few shades darker, she tried wiping the stain out but gave up and tossed the slacks into the dry-cleaning pile.

The coffee had also managed to spread to a client folder and seeped into the top pages of the final contract, where earlier, she’d fought with a recalcitrant printer. Sighing, she’d spent another thirty minutes reprinting the contract and creating a new folder.

Once the car’s interior was clean and back to normal, Stella pushed her auburn hair back, checked her makeup in the visor mirror, glanced at her watch, swore to herself, then slid the car into drive to pull out of her small circular driveway.

She hated being late, priding herself on being the consummate professional. One thing she’d learned early on, very little in real estate ran on time. Inspectors ran late, customers wanted to see just one more house, sellers changed times on when a house could be shown. It never bothered her. She found she could adapt to any situation, always diverting disgruntled homeowners or buyers with other distractions. The one thing she could control was herself.

However, this morning, she’d definitely woken on the wrong side of the bed. If she knew what was good for her, she’d cancel her meetings and go back to bed, but there were only two appointments, both for contracts with new customers. Her first meeting went without a hitch. One contract was signed with a commitment to have a list of houses for their review in two days. Their wish list was pretty simple for new homeowners, and based on the decor of their rental house, she’d already made a mental list of a couple homes they’d adore.

She stopped at a local coffeehouse for a refill, and with plenty of time before her next meeting, decided to head to the inn. Ever since the large group of family and friends had returned from their holidays in France three months ago, Finn had split his time between assisting Jackson with the remodeling of the inn and preparing his sailboat for a week-long trip down the coast of California.

AJ was excited for a little time away, but if Stella had to guess, her friend was more thrilled to see Finn’s eagerness to set sail. She figured this was just the start of long sailing trips, and she’d be jealous if the thought of being on the waves didn’t make her stomach do flips. Standing on a dock was enough to get her seasick.

Although AJ and Finn were probably hoping for time alone, everyone sighed with relief when Maire had suggested she and Ethan tag along. She’d locked herself away after France, eager to study the pages of Sebastian’s two journals they’d discovered hidden in the monastery. After two months, Maire hadn’t fully completed the translation. It turned out, of the two journals they’d found while on holiday at the monastery, Sebastian had used the second one to copy what he felt were the more prominent parts of The Book of Stones before he sent the four sections away to be protected. Maire determined there were missing pieces Sebastian hadn’t copied but hoped that with more time, she might be able to make an educated guess on those gaps. That decision seemed to be enough for her to return to a normal routine, and everyone settled into their life.

Since Stella wouldn’t be sailing with them, she agreed to watch the inn, stopping by every day to refill bird feeders and water the indoor plants. Jackson had taken the week off, and the sun had decided to show itself on what was turning out to be a lovely, early spring day.

She was turning into the inn’s driveway when her phone rang. Checking the screen, she smiled and activated the speaker in the car. “Hi, Isaiah. What are you up to?”

Isaiah was Jackson’s grandson, who had returned the previous summer from his travels to help with the inn’s remodel. He was supposed to go back to California for the fall semester at a popular university but decided to finish his classes at the university in Eugene. Professor Emory had helped him transfer his transcripts and credits, having once been a tenured professor at the institution before retiring to buy an old bookstore.

“I’m on my way back to Baywood. I’m still an hour out but just got a ping from the inn’s alarm.”

“Really?” Stella slowed as she drove down the driveway. “I’m just now pulling in and don’t see any other cars except the ones that belong here.” She laughed. “It’s probably that crazy seagull that AJ keeps feeding. I’m running late this morning, so I haven’t put his snack out yet.”

Isaiah chuckled, and he raised his voice to compete with the wind gusting in the background. “It’s possible. It was definitely him two days ago.”

“Yeah, the poop in front of the French doors was a dead giveaway,” Stella spoke louder and shivered, not understanding how he could drive over a mountain pass on a cool morning with the windows down.

“Ari seems to know how to make an entrance.”

Ari, or Aristotle as AJ named him, was a one-eyed seagull that looked as if he had been in one too many bar fights. He’d somehow discovered AJ’s soft spot for gulls and found his way to her back deck. Once she fed him, he became the inn’s very own seagull, showing up every day at the same time, waiting for his snack. Turned out he was quite patient, and though he’d fluff his feathers in a disgruntled way, he always waited, no matter how long it took for someone to come home. Ethan was the one who started calling him Ari. He thought it was funny since he was a bird. No matter how hard AJ had tried to stop it, everyone now called him Ari except for her.

Stella parked her car and rolled down a window before shutting off the engine. She waited a beat. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Not even squawking?”

She shook her head then remembered to vocalize it. “No. But that’s not unusual. He likes to surprise people.”

Isaiah snorted. “And I just thought it was Grand Pops who did that.”

Stella grinned. “Well then, I guess Ari is in good company.” She got out of the car. “I think everything is okay.”

“Maybe you should wait until I get there. Do you have time to come back later? Ari will wait, and so will the plants.”

“I have a meeting in an hour, then just want to go home, soak in a hot bath, and forget this day happened.”

“That bad?”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“I’d still like you to wait. Or better yet, I’ll feed Ari and cover your other tasks. I’d feel better.”

“Tell you what. Since I’m already here, why don’t I just slip in, see what mess Ari made this time, then call you back? Five minutes tops.”

There was a long pause. “I’m not going to change your mind, am I?”

Stella mounted the stairs, pinched the phone between her ear and shoulder, then dug in her purse. “It’s all quiet. If anyone was here, they would have heard me pull up then scrambled to get out. And with no car, how much could they steal? Probably early spring breakers, and worst case, Finn’s stash of homebrew will be gone.”

“Now that would be disastrous.”

Stella laughed. “Five minutes, and I’ll call you back.” She hung up after she heard his grunt and tossed the phone in her purse while holding on to the set of keys she’d recovered. She opened the front door and breathed in the deep scent of cedar and lavender that always permeated the house. When she saw the mail on the side table, she cursed under her breath. She’d forgotten to grab the mail, considered walking up to retrieve it, then decided there was always tomorrow. Her purse dropped next to the stack of catalogs, bills, and other junk advertisements.

It was such a beautiful day, and her chores wouldn’t take long. She would have time for a cup of coffee on the back deck. Might as well squeeze whatever enjoyment she could out of the day. AJ kept a variety of single-serve coffees, and she strode to the kitchen to start a cup brewing while she inventoried Ari’s mess.

When she walked into the kitchen, she felt the chill and immediately found the broken window in the French doors. She raced over, hoping Ari hadn’t flown through it and died. What would she tell AJ? It wasn’t like running down to the local pet shop to buy a replacement goldfish.

She pulled to a stop and stared at the floor. Nothing but broken glass.

“Ah, there you are.”

She spun around, her hand sliding to her throat when her gaze fell on the tall stranger. Before she could turn to run, the man leaped toward her, and in two strides, grabbed her upper arm. Having taken some self-defense classes offered by one of the larger Realtor offices in town, she knew a thing or two. She turned into him and stomped on his foot with the stiletto heel of her boots.

The man screamed and released her, pulling his foot up like an injured paw. Stella shoved him and ran. He caught the edge of her rain duster, but she didn’t stop, and the sound of the material ripping at its seams made her growl.

The only question was where to run. Finn still hadn’t completed the panic room. AJ had drummed it into Stella that the library and the master bathroom were the safest places in the house. She headed for the library but switched mid-stride as she reached the staircase. The safety of the library was actually within the armory. They’d activated the alarm before leaving, and for some reason, her perfect memory was failing to come up with the code for the door. She didn’t think she’d have time to figure it out. The scuff of boots scrambling on the slick hardwood floor ramped up her frenzy.

She took the stairs two at a time and had just reached the top when a hand grabbed her shoulder. Then she was tackled, falling hard on the landing with the man on top of her. She rolled, kicking and punching, a couple of her strikes connecting, but all the man did was grunt.

Then a piercing pain slammed into her head just before her vision winked out.

#

The tingling sensation became painful enough to wake Stella. When she moved her leg, she released a whimper. Not sure what had happened, she pried her eyes open, but the light was too bright. Her head pounded, and when she reached for it, discovered she couldn’t move her hands. That forced her to take a peek through squinting eyes. She was back in the kitchen, tied to a dining room chair. Tied so tight, she was losing feeling in her hands and toes. That explained the pins and needles sensation.

The pounding in her head made it difficult to keep her eyes open, but she pulled herself together when the man entered the kitchen. She studied him more closely now that she wasn’t running from him. He was dressed strangely, the tailoring all wrong. His worn jacket hung halfway to his thigh, and the collar of his shirt rose too high on his neck. His vest…she gulped…wasn’t a vest but a waistcoat. Her chest tightened, threatening to close off her breath when a nagging truth slammed into her. This wasn’t a thief. Well, he might be, but he’d come a long way to rob someone. Like maybe two-hundred-years long.

No. No. No.

Why hadn’t she waited for Isaiah? Because she had been in a hurry. Because she didn’t think anything truly bad could happen in Baywood. She stifled a self-deprecating laugh. Because she thought, as AJ and Finn had, that the nightmare with the stones was over. And she would bet every last cent of her very fat savings that this man was here because of the stones.

He leaned his hip against the counter, arms crossed over his chest, and his expression a bit wild-eyed, which didn’t lend a comforting feeling.

“Where’s the stone, Miss Moore?”

Stella blinked then shook her head, which only made the headache worse. “What?”

“The Heart Stone. It must be here for the smaller stone to have found you.”

Yep. He was a thief. And if the clothing hadn’t told her enough, his English accent confirmed it. She hated when she was right. And, of course, he had a stone, or he wouldn’t be standing in AJ’s kitchen. How long had she been unconscious? She glanced at the microwave. If she was reading the numbers correctly, only five minutes had passed. It seemed longer.

He gave the outward opinion of being calm—for the most part. He continued to lean back, his posture relaxed, but his gaze bounced about the room as if taking everything in but confused by what he saw. Her best guess was that this wasn’t his first time jump to the future but hadn’t jumped much more than that. A mixture of an extremely dangerous man and a scared rabbit. She was fairly certain that wasn’t a safe combination.

“Who are you?” Her mouth was dry, and she glanced longingly toward the jug of water she used to water the plants.

“My name doesn’t matter. What matters is what I came for. The Heart Stone. If you just give it to me, I can be on my way, and you can get back to…” he scowled as he waved at the kitchen in general “…however you live with all this.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her head began to clear, and she bent her neck slowly from side to side, hearing a slight snap as pressure released and the ache receded, though it hadn’t left entirely. Now that she could think, she retraced her steps since arriving. Then his earlier words came to her. He thought she was AJ. That made sense since she’d bounced through the door and into the kitchen like she owned the place.

He stared at the ceiling, seeming to contemplate his next move. He prowled around the dining room and kitchen, which were designed to be one spacious open space. Every time he passed to pace behind her, she went rigid as she waited. For what, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

After the third pass, he grabbed her hair, pulling back so hard and fast that one moment she’d been staring at the horrifyingly slow movement of the clock on the microwave, and the next, she gazed at the ceiling. His grip was so tight, she was positive he’d rip her hair from her head as tears streaked down her face. The pounding in her head returned, but she refused to scream. Instead, she slammed her lids shut so she wouldn’t have to look at his menacing face as he leaned over her.

His body odor and wickedly sour breath made her want to choke. “From everything I’ve heard about you, I figured you’d choose the hard way. So be it.” While still clutching her hair, he raised a fist.

Before he could release the punch, she yelled, “Finn has it. All he told me was that he put it in a safe place. That I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.” The words raced out of her as she spun her tale. While she hated lying, she was pretty good at it. The fact she was terrified for her life added a huge dose of reality to her story.

The man paused, then slowly released her hair. Stella rolled her neck, and though she didn’t feel the satisfying snap, the intense thrumming lessened. She blinked back tears and noticed the clock change. Isaiah was still forty minutes away.

When her view was blocked by a hulking form, she stared up to eyes full of doubt—or maybe confusion. He stood within striking distance though his arms were crossed again. “I don’t believe you.”

Without missing a beat and needing to stall for time, she went with a partial truth from something AJ had shared with her. “When we returned from the monastery, I wasn’t myself.” She glanced down and nibbled her lips. She lowered her voice. “I began seeing things—people who should have been long dead. I couldn’t sleep, worried that a day like this might come.” She sniffled for effect, then choked out a half-laugh. “Guess someone owes me a big apology.”

After a silent moment, she lifted her chin and stared him in the eye, releasing part of her rage. “He decided it was best if I didn’t know where he put the Heart Stone.” She smirked. “He bought into that whole out of sight, out of mind theory.”

He pulled away from the counter and stalked toward her.

She couldn’t stop from daring to go a little farther. “It appears I was right all along. I’m hoping I’ll live long enough to tell Finn I told you so.” Did she want to know whether he was planning on killing her?

She kicked him in the shin and swore. She’d been aiming a lot higher. Before she could regroup, he slapped her so hard, she understood the phrase “seeing stars.” At the same time, he kicked her legs out from under her, then grabbed an arm along with her hair and dragged her back through the kitchen toward the French doors. He stopped long enough to open the door. Her raincoat protected her from the broken glass scattered on the floor. She continued to protest as he lifted her by the waist and pulled her through the door.

He smiled, though it wasn’t very pleasant. “Now we have some honesty.” He strode to the bay window and stared out to the shimmering ocean. Good fortune turned her way when he stood there for ten minutes before sighing. “I didn’t want to do it this way, but we knew we might not have another option.”

Stella wanted to scream. No one would hear her, but it might release the terror worming its way through her and picking up speed like an express train as he turned. She released an audible sigh when he walked past her.

He reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out two pages of parchment. He selected one and placed it in the center of the kitchen island, using the empty flower vase as a paperweight. The vase AJ always kept filled with fresh flowers from either her garden or Stella’s. It sat empty while they were gone—two days away from being of any help to her.

When he turned toward her, he pulled a knife from his boot. Her stomach dropped as if she’d plummeted from a penthouse window. She shook uncontrollably and couldn’t stop, even when all he did was cut the bindings to her arms and legs.

She immediately moved her hands and feet around, rubbing each wrist and grimacing as the blood rushed into her extremities. He turned his back on her for a moment as he pulled out another smaller piece of parchment. Stella didn’t wait to see what it was.

She was up, flying through the kitchen and rounding the corner, making one more attempt at the stairs and the master bathroom. She didn’t even make the stairs before a fist grabbed her hair and pulled her to a stop.

“You are a foolish woman,” he hissed and spun her around.

Isaiah wouldn’t reach her in time.

Once they were on the back deck, he fished in his pocket and retrieved a small piece of paper. She squirmed as he grabbed the chain from around his neck and pulled up a medallion with a familiar tricolored stone. With one glance at the necklace, Stella doubled her efforts to throw him off balance, but his arm was like steel. He squeezed her to him until she got a second dose of his stench. He managed to keep one hand on both the medallion and the slip of paper.

When she heard the Celtic words, she squeezed her eyes and shouted, “No. Let me go. We can wait for Finn.”

The wind picked up as if in response to his words, and she twisted in his grip to monitor the ocean and the sky.

The fog was coming. So fast. Too fast.

In the distance, she heard the slamming of a car door. Isaiah? He must have broken speed limits the whole way. She stared at the fog, felt the pounding of the man’s heart against her back as he pulled her closer.

The world went silent as the fog enveloped her in bright, white light.