Home > Night of the Phantom (Anne Stuart's Greatest Hits #4)

Night of the Phantom (Anne Stuart's Greatest Hits #4)
Author: Anne Stuart

Prologue

 

 

* * *

 

 

He loved the night. It spread around him, a soft, comforting cloud of darkness that wrapped him in a warmth as vital to him as air and food. Daylight was a time to hide, a time to simply live through, but at night, he came alive. Blood pumped through his veins, his lungs filled with air and everything became possible, all under cover of the beneficent darkness.

He sat in his chair, utterly still, as he let the night drift around him. He could sit that way for hours, unmoving, not even blinking, absorbing the darkness into his very soul.

By tomorrow, his precious darkness would be violated. He'd never had the chance to pass judgment before, and he found the idea curiously seductive. In an unjust world, he was going to force justice. He was going to make Reese Carey pay for his crimes, and he expected to use his considerable creative powers to do so effectively.

And then he'd surrender to the darkness again. Triumphant in the inky black of night, he'd go back to being alone once more, content, a phantom to terrorize the narrow-minded people of Oak Grove. Ethan Winslowe, a creature to frighten children and gullible adults. A deformed monster, a specter of the darkness. A phantom of the night.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

* * *

 

 

Megan Carey told herself she had no reason in the world to feel guilty. For the first time in her twenty-seven years, she was going to do something irresponsible, romantic and wonderful. She was taking off with nothing but a brand-new matched set of luggage, a one-way ticket to Europe and a wad of traveler's checks that would choke a horse, not to mention enough unencumbered plastic to keep her going until she and she alone decided it was time to stop.

Her co-workers at Carey Enterprises were giving her a lavish send-off, out of keeping with her relatively few years on the job, but well deserved in terms of how well she was liked in the huge construction-and-development firm. The fact that she was the boss's only child was a drawback rather than an incentive, but her friends in the executive offices were partying up a storm anyway, throwing her a bon voyage party worthy of a veteran of fifty years in the company. Meg accepted it with good cheer and gratitude, wishing she could just get rid of this nagging little feeling of guilt.

It wasn't as if she were leaving her father in the lurch. She'd worked for the huge company founded by her grandfather since she was in high school, working during school vacations, doing every job imaginable as she learned the construction business from the bottom up. Not that Carey Enterprises was simply a construction company. Reese Carey had turned a run-of-the-mill organization into a multinational glamour business. He built mansions for millionaires, upscale office buildings, elite public buildings for wealthy municipalities. Carey Enterprises had a reputation for quality worth paying for, a reputation Megan viewed with justifiable pride, secure that she'd been partly responsible for it.

But she was tired of it. Tired of working every spare minute that wasn't spent on schooling, tired of being so tied to her father that she had no life of her own. Tired of squashing down her embarrassing, undeniably romantic yearnings for a life of adventure. And now, finally, she was going to give in to those yearnings, toss the common sense that had ruled her life to the winds and take off.

Her father hadn't taken her decision well. But for once, she was adamant. There wouldn't be a better time to leave. Her father was about to remarry after five years of widowerhood, and his fiancée was a sensible, attractive woman who knew as much about the business as Megan did. Her father would be so busy with his new bride that he wouldn't have time to miss her.

If only he hadn't been looking so worried during the past few weeks. So preoccupied and slightly desperate. Whenever she'd asked him what was wrong, he'd only insisted he was going to miss her, but she didn't think it was that simple, despite her immediate upsurge of guilt.

She'd even gone so far as to check the financial records of both the firm and her father's private accounts, wondering whether he was on the brink of ruin and didn't want to tell her. But both Carey Enterprises and Reese Carey himself were not only solvent, they were flush, with the real estate and building slowdown not seeming to affect them at all.

She accepted a glass of imported champagne from someone in the accounting department, accepted a kiss from one of her father's secretaries and moved through the crowd. She was due to fly from New York in four days' time. She was allowing two days to drive from their home in Chicago to the East Coast, another day to shop, and then her adventure would begin. But it wouldn't start until she made one last-ditch effort to find out what was troubling her father.

He wasn't anywhere in sight. He'd circulated through the chattering employees for a while, his usual bonhomie firmly in place, and then suddenly, he was gone. He could be anywhere in the elegant office building they'd constructed seven years ago from plans by the great Ethan Winslowe, but she had a pretty good idea where he'd be.

His office door on the deserted twentieth floor was ajar. She could see a pool of light beyond, and for a moment, she hesitated, wondering whether she'd be walking in on a romantic moment between Reese and Madeleine. But no, Madeleine had been deep in conversation with the comptroller. Her father would be alone, ready for one last father-daughter talk.

The thick rugs muffled her footsteps, even in the high heels she wore to add to her miserly five-foot-two height. She pushed the door open, a warm smile on her face, and then froze in horror.

Reese Carey was sitting, in his leather desk chair, his back turned to her, staring into the Chicago night. He was holding a gun to his temple.

For a moment, Megan was paralyzed with panic. She wanted to scream, but she knew it might startle him into pulling the trigger. She held her breath for one heartbeat, for ten, then spoke very, very softly.

"Father?"

He whirled around in the chair, dropping the gun to the desk, and his usually red, cheery face was pale with strain. "Meg," he said hoarsely.

She closed the door behind her, stepping into the walnut-paneled office. "What in God's name is going on?" she said, fear making her usually warm voice strident. "Don't fob me off with excuses anymore, I'm not buying them. What's happening to you?"

For a moment he said nothing. Then he put his face in his hands, and his big shoulders heaved with sudden, noisy sobs. "I wouldn't have done it, baby. I wouldn't have done it to you. I would have waited "

"Why were you going to kill yourself? Daddy, you're not sick, are you?"

He raised his head then, and the tears streaming down his face looked strange, unreal to her. Her father, who laughed and joked and bullied his way through life, shouldn't be crying. "I'm in trouble. Big, big trouble, and I can't see any way out of it."

"It can't be financial. I checked our accounts when you started acting so oddly. We've got plenty of money, plenty of contracts, prospects..."

"Not for long. Not if Ethan Winslowe has his way."

She sank down in the chair opposite him, a sudden foreboding making her cold inside. "What does Ethan Winslowe have to do with anything?"

"He's out to destroy me," Reese said, and for a moment, Meg almost laughed at the melodrama in his voice. Until she looked at the gun on the desk.

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