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In this gripping novel of small-town scandal and sizzling passion, New York Timesbestselling author Nora Roberts tells the story of a renowned artistwhoconfronts a mystery from her past—and finds that her family secrets have not been laid to rest.
Famed sculptor Clare Kimball has commanded the attention of the New York art world, but troubling memories from childhood have drawn her home to Maryland, to the town where she grew up and where her father died so long ago in circumstances never really explained. Nothing much has changed in Emmitsboro—except Cameron Rafferty, the onetime high-school bad boy turned town sheriff. The only hint of Cam’s wild nature is the light in his eyes when he looks at Clare. In Cam’s strong arms Clare is seduced into falling in love—and into believing that her small-town world is safe.
But within the dark woods of Emmitsboro, something evil is spreading its poisonous power. Now Clare must pay the price for digging up the secrets of the past . . . and confront an evil that may be unstoppable—because those who practice it believe it is divine. less
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The rite began an hour after sunset. The circle had been prepared long ago, a perfect nine feet, by the clearing of trees and young saplings. The ground had been sprinkled with consecrated earth.
Clouds, dark and secretive, danced over the pale moon.
Thirteen figures, in black cowls and cloaks, stood inside the protective circle. In the woods beyond, a lone owl began to scream, in lament or in sympathy. When the gong sounded, even he was silenced. For a moment, there was only the murmur of the wind through the early spring leaves.
In the pit at the left side of the circle, the fire already smoldered. Soon the flames would rise up, called by that same wind or other forces.
It was May Day Eve, the Sabbat of Roodmas. On this night of high spring, both celebration and sacrifice would be given for the fertility of crops and for the power of men.
Two women dressed in red robes stepped into the circle. Their faces were not hooded and were very white, with a slash of scarlet over their lips. Like vampires who had already feasted.
One, following the careful instructions she had been given, shed her robe and stood naked in the light of a dozen black candles, then draped herself over a raised slab of polished wood.
She would be their altar of living flesh, the virgin on which they would worship. The fact that she was a prostitute and far from pure disturbed some of them. Others simply relished her lush curves and generously spread thighs.
The high priest, having donned his mask of the Goat of Mendes, began to chant in bastardized Latin. When he had finished his recitation, he raised his arms high toward the inverted pentagram above the altar. A bell was rung to purify the air.
From her hiding place in the brush, a young girl watched, her eyes wide with curiosity. There was a burning smell coming from the pit where flames crackled, sending sparks shooting high. Odd shapes had been carved in the trunks of the circling trees.
The young girl began wondering where her father was. She had hidden in his car, giggling to herself at the trick she was playing on him. When she had followed him through the woods, she hadn't been afraid of the dark. She'd never been afraid. She had hidden, waiting for the right time to jump out and into his arms.
But he had put on a long, dark coat, like the others, and now she wasn't sure which one was Daddy. Though the naked woman both embarrassed and fascinated her, what the grown-ups were doing no longer seemed like a game.
She felt her heart beating in her throat when the man in the mask began to chant again.
"We call on Ammon, the god of life and reproduction. On Pan, the god of lust."
After the calling of each name, the others repeated it. The list was long.
The group was swaying now, a deep hum rising up among them while the high priest drank from a silver chalice. Finished, he set the cup down between the breasts of the altar.
He took up a sword and pointing it south, east, north, and west, called up the four princes of hell.
Satan, lord of fire
Lucifer, bringer of light
Belial, who has no master
Leviathan, serpent of the deep
In the brush, the young girl shuddered and was afraid.
"I call upon you, Master, Prince of Darkness, King of the Night, throw wide the Gates of Hell and hear us." The high priest shouted the words, not like a prayer, but a demand. As his voice rang out, he held up a parchment. The lights from the greedy flames washed through it like blood. "We ask that our crops be bountiful, our cattle fruitful. Destroy our enemies, bring sickness and pain to those who would harm us. We, your faithful, demand fortune and pleasure." He placed a hand on the breast of the altar. "We take what we wish, in your name, Lord of the Flies. In your name, we speak: Death to the weak. Wealth to the strong. The rods of our sex grow hard, our blood hot. Let our women burn for us. Let them receive us lustfully." He stroked down the altar's torso and between the thighs as the prostitute, well-schooled, moaned and began to move under his hand.
His voice rose as he continued his requests. He thrust the sword's point through the parchment and held it over the flame of a black candle until all that remained of it was the stink of smoke. The chant of the circle of twelve swelled behind him.
At some signal, two of the cloaked figures pulled a young goat into the circle. As its eyes rolled in fright, they chanted over it, nearly screaming now. The athamas was drawn, the ceremonial knife whose freshly whetted blade glimmered under the rising moon.
When the girl saw the blade slice across the white goat's throat, she tried to scream, but no sound passed her lips. She wanted to run, but her legs seemed rooted to the ground. She covered her face with her hands, weeping and wanting to call for her father.
When at last she looked again, the ground ran with blood. It dripped over the sides of a shallow silver bowl. The voices of the men were a roaring buzz in her ears as she watched them throw the headless carcass of the goat into the fire pit.
Now the stink of roasting flesh hung sickeningly in the air.
With a ululant cry, the man in the goat mask tore off his cloak. Beneath he was naked, his white, white skin glimmering with sweat, though the night was cool. Glinting on his chest was a silver amulet inscribed with old and secret symbols.
He straddled the altar, then drove himself hard between her thighs. With a howling scream, a second man fell on the other woman, dragging her to the ground, while the others tore off their cloaks to dance naked around the pit of fire.
She saw her father, her own father, dip his hands into the sacrificial blood. As he capered with the others, it dripped from his fingers. . . .
Clare woke, screaming.
Breathless, chilled with sweat, she huddled under the blankets. With one trembling hand, she fumbled for the switch on the bedside lamp. When that wasn't enough, she rose to flip on others until the small room was flooded with light. Her hands were still unsteady when she drew a cigarette from a pack and struck a match.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she smoked in silence.
Why had the dream come back now?
Her therapist would say it was a knee-jerk reaction to her mother's recent marriage--subconsciously she felt her father had been betrayed.
That was bull.
Clare blew out a defiant stream of smoke. Her mother had been windowed for over twelve years. Any sane, loving daughter would want her mother's happiness. And she was a loving daughter. She just wasn't so sure about the sane part.
She remembered the first time she'd had the dream. She'd been six and had wakened screaming in her bed. Just as she had tonight. But then, her parents had rushed in to gather her up and soothe. Even her brother, Blair, had come in, wide-eyed and wailing. Her mother had carried him off while her father stayed with her, crooning in his calm, quiet voice, promising her over and over that it was only a dream, a bad dream that she would soon forget.
And she had, for long stretches of time. Then it would creep up on her, a grinning assassin, when she was tense or exhausted or vulnerable.
She stabbed out the cigarette and pressed her fingers to her eyes. Well, she was tense now. Her one-woman show was less than a week away, and though she had personally chosen each piece of sculpture that would be shown, she was plagued with doubts.
Perhaps it was because the critics had been so enthusiastic two years before, at her debut. Now that she was enjoying success, there was so much more to lose. And she knew the work that would be shown was her best. If it was found to be mediocre, then she, as an artist, was mediocre.
Was there any label more damning?
Because she felt better having something tangible to worry about, she rose and opened the draperies. The sun was just coming up, giving the streets and sidewalks of downtown Manhattan an almost rosy hue. Pushing open the window, she shivered once in the chill of the spring morning.
It was almost quiet. From a few blocks up, she could hear the grind of a garbage truck finishing its rounds. Near the corner of Canal and Greene, she saw a bag lady pulling a cart with all her worldly possessions. The wheels squeaked and echoed hollowly.
There was a light in the bakery directly across and three stories down. Clare caught the faint strains of Rigoletto and the good yeasty scent of baking bread. A cab rumbled past, valves knocking. Then there was silence again. She might have been alone in the city.
Was that what she wanted? she wondered. To be alone, to find some spot and dig into solitude? There were times when she felt so terribly disconnected, yet unable to make a place just for herself.
Wasn't that why her marriage had failed? She had loved Rob, but she had never felt connected to him. When it was over, she'd felt regret but not remorse.
Or perhaps Dr. Janowski was right, and she was burying her remorse, all of it, every ounce of grief she had felt since her father died. Channeling it out through her art.
And what was wrong with that? She started to stuff her hands into the pockets of her robe when she discovered she wasn't wearing it. A woman had to be crazy to stand in an open window in SoHo wearing nothing but a flimsy Bill the Cat T-shirt. The hell with it, she thought and leaned out farther. Maybe she was crazy.
She stood, her bright red hair disheveled from restless sleep, her face pale and tired, watching the light grow and listening to the noise begin as the city woke.
Then she turned away, ready for work.
It was after two when Clare heard the buzzer. It sounded like an annoying bee over the hiss of the torch in her hand and the crash of Mozart booming from the stereo. She considered ignoring it, but the new piece wasn't going very well, and the interruption was a good excuse to stop. She turned off her torch. As she crossed her studio, she pulled off her safety gloves. Still wearing her goggles, skullcap, and apron, she flicked on the intercom.
"Come on up." Clare punched in the security code and released the elevator. After pulling off her cap and goggles, she walked back to circle the half-formed sculpture.
It stood on her welding table in the rear of the loft, surrounded by tools--pliers, hammers, chisels, extra torch tips. Her tanks of acetylene and oxygen rested in their sturdy steel cart. Beneath it all was a twenty-foot square of sheet metal, to keep sparks and hot drippings off the floor.
Most of the loft space was taken over by Clare's work--chunks of granite, slabs of cherrywood and ash, hunks and tubes of steel. Tools for hacking, prying, sanding, welding. She'd always enjoyed living with her work.
Now she approached her current project, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. It was holding out on her, she thought, and she didn't bother to look around when the doors of the elevator slid open.
"I should have known." Angie LeBeau tossed back her mane of black, corkscrew curls and tapped one scarlet Italian pump on the hardwood floor. "I've been calling you for over an hour."
"I turned off the bell. Machine's picking it up. What do you get from this, Angie?"
Blowing out a long breath, Angie studied the sculpture on the worktable. "Chaos."
"Yeah." With a nod, Clare stooped lower. "Yeah, you're right. I've been going at this the wrong way."
"Don't you dare pick up that torch." Tired of shouting, she stomped across the floor and switched off the stereo. "Damn it, Clare, we had a date for lunch at the Russian Tea Room at twelve-thirty."
Clare straightened and focused on her friend for the first time. Angie was, as always, the picture of elegance. Her toffee-colored skin and exotic features were set off to perfection by the navy Adolfo suit and oversize pearls.
Her handbag and shoes were identical shades of scarlet leather. Angie liked everything to match, everything to be in its place. In her closet, her shoes were neatly stacked in clear plastic boxes. Her blouses were arranged by color and fabric. Her handbags--a legendary collection--were tucked into individual slots on custom-built shelves.
As for herself, Clare was lucky if she could find both shoes of a pair in the black hole of her closet. Her handbag collection consisted of one good black evening bag and a huge canvas tote. More than once Clare had wondered how she and Angie had ever become, and remained, friends.
Right at the moment, that friendship seemed to be on the line, she noted. Angie's dark eyes were hot, and her long scarlet fingernails were tapping on her bag in time with her foot.
"Stand just like that." Clare bounded across the room to search through the confusion on the sofa for a sketch pad. She tossed aside a sweatshirt, a silk blouse, unopened mail, an empty bag of Fritos, a couple of paperback novels, and a plastic water pistol.
"Damn it, Clare--"
"No, don't move." Pad in hand, she heaved a cushion aside and found a chalk pencil. "You're beautiful when you're angry." Clare grinned.
"Bitch," Angie said and struggled with a laugh.
"That's it, that's it." Clare's pencil flew across the pad. "Christ, what cheekbones! Who would have thought if you mixed Cherokee, African, and French, you'd get such bone structure? Snarl a little bit, would you?"
"Put that stupid thing down. You're not going to flatter your way out of this. I sat in RTR for an hour drinking Perrier and gnawing on the tablecloth."
"Sorry. I forgot."
"What else is new?"
Clare set the sketch aside, knowing Angie would look at it the minute her back was turned. "Want some lunch?"
"I had a hot dog in the cab."
"Then I'll grab something, and you can tell me what we were supposed to talk about."
"The show, you imbecile!" Angie eyed the sketch and smothered a smile. Clare had drawn her with flames shooting out of her ears. Refusing to be amused, she glanced around for a clear spot to sit and finally settled on the arm of the sofa. God knew what else lurked under the cushions. "Are you ever going to hire somebody to shovel this place out?"