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Stranger's Game
Author: Colleen Coble

 

 

Chapter 1

 


Victoria Bergstrom almost forgot to breathe at the beauty of Georgia’s Jekyll Island. Standing at the railing, she watched the sunset gild the undulating tidal grass with gold and orange and continue to paint its spectacular hues on sand and sea as the boat made its way along the Intracoastal Waterway to the wharf. The Golden Isles was an apt name this time of day especially. Her gaze landed on the hotel, and her chest compressed.

Then again, maybe dread stole her oxygen instead.

The garrulous captain gestured toward The Wharf restaurant, perched at the end of the wooden walkway. “There she is. It’s a much prettier approach this direction instead of coming over the bridge. I still can’t believe those people blocked the bridge.”

Torie had planned to drive, but protesters advocating for the abolishment of the Federal Reserve had filled every inch of the bridge over the causeway to the island, and she hadn’t wanted to be stuck in traffic for hours. She shook her head. Did the protesters really believe marching would accomplish their goal? And besides, the Fed helped to protect against bank runs and depressions. It seemed insane to protest about it.

The boat docked, and she grabbed her carry-on bag to disembark. The rest of her luggage would be delivered tomorrow once she knew where she was staying. “Thanks for the ride, Captain.”

He tipped his hat. “You’re welcome, Miss Torie.”

Her heels clattered on the wooden planks past the restaurant and a storefront for boating excursions, and onto the sidewalk onshore. Time slipped past in a shimmering haze as she crossed Riverview Drive, avoiding the ever-constant bikers, and approached the Jekyll Island Club Resort hotel.

It had been eighteen years since she’d run and played along this water. Eighteen years since she’d smelled the river and listened to a bull alligator roar at Horton Pond. Eighteen years since she’d seen stiletto-tipped palmetto groves and moss-draped oak trees. The narrator on a passing tram droned on about the history of this place she’d once loved so much.

There it was.

The hotel that lived both in her dreams and her nightmares.

The tower in the left corner rose above the four-story structure, and the large wraparound porch beckoned visitors with thoughts of sweet tea and laughter with friends. She paused to tuck her white blouse into her navy skirt before she mounted the steps to the outdoor receptionist box guarding the doorway inside. It was unmanned at the moment, so she stepped into the hotel lobby. The scents of sandalwood and pine took her back to her childhood in an instant, and she swallowed past the constriction in her throat.

Audentes fortuna juvat. “Fortune favors the bold,” the Roman poet Virgil had said, and though being here brought out all her insecurities, Torie had to find her courage.

Little had changed through the years other than fresh paint and attentive maintenance. The ornate Victorian moldings gleamed with a gentle glow of wax, and the wood floors were as beautiful as ever. She had never wanted to step foot in this lobby again, yet here she was.

Torie raised her head with a confidence she didn’t feel and approached the resort’s front desk. “Torie Berg. I’m your new IT specialist.”

The alias flowed smoothly off her lips. She’d used it on her last assignment, and it was close enough to her real name to feel natural.

“Welcome to Jekyll Island Club Resort,” the young woman said.

The blonde looked to be about Torie’s age of twenty-eight and wore an engagement ring. Her open, friendly expression was perfect for the check-in desk.

“Marianne,” a familiar voice said behind Torie.

Torie froze and didn’t turn. While she didn’t think the older woman would recognize her, she couldn’t take the chance. The click of high heels went past her to the left, and she caught a glimpse of Genevieve Hallston’s lavender blouse, her signature color.

“Come to my office, please,” Genevieve said to the housekeeper she’d hailed.

The stricken look on the middle-aged woman’s face said it all. Genevieve was on a tear about something, and it took all of Torie’s resolve not to intervene. She’d been sliced by the older woman’s razor-sharp tongue enough to know it wouldn’t be a pleasant conversation.

But she had to remember her mission. If anyone recognized her, her cover would be blown and all of her plans would be in ruins.

Torie forced a smile and focused on the desk clerk again. “I was told there were rooms or cottages for employees?” The cottages had been added since she was a child, but she’d seen pictures.

The young woman nodded and handed over a key card. “You’re in Stingray Cottage, Ms. Berg.” She traced a path on the map in her hand and showed Torie the way to a cottage along Riverview Drive she could find with her eyes closed.

“Thank you. I believe I can find it. What’s your name? I’m sure I’ll be seeing you.”

“It’s Bella Hansen. I look forward to getting to know you.” Her gaze went over Torie’s shoulder, and she gave a reflexive smile to someone behind Torie.

Torie thanked her again and grabbed the handle of her suitcase. The wheels rolled smoothly over the floors, and she exited to follow the path around the pool and the entertainment area with its game tables and exercise room. Palm trees swayed in the breeze overhead, and the groundskeeper had done a great job with the banks of brightly blooming flowers and greenery lining the walk. She recognized Rozanne geraniums, hydrangeas, cosmos, baby’s breath, and zinnias. There wasn’t much she would change in the landscaping arrangements. It was perfect in every way.

She’d asked her dad to arrange for her to have the Stingray Cottage where Lisbeth had stayed. When she rounded the corner, she caught a whiff of artisan pizza baking in the wood-fired oven, and the aroma transported her back to her ten-year-old self. They’d had pizza every Friday night.

With a Herculean effort she moved past the temptation toward her cottage. Funny how things seemed smaller than she remembered. Perspective, she supposed.

She couldn’t wait another minute to get her toes in the sea of her childhood, so she unlocked the door and put her bag inside. A bike had been left for her convenience, and she changed into shorts and a tee before she mounted it and set off for St. Andrews Beach, a four-mile trip. The ride would blow away the memories trying to surface.

* * *

The cedar trees around St. Andrews Beach had been perfect for hide-and-seek when Torie was a little girl, and they’d grown in eighteen years. Dead trees that had once been part of the maritime forest lay toppled on the perfect beach just past the two-story viewing platform, and she caught a glimpse of sand and blue water melding into the twilight sky.

She kicked off her shoes and carried them as she walked along the wet sand. A thousand memories vied for space in her thoughts. The wind teased strands of hair from her coronet of braids, and she inhaled the aroma of salt and sea, a heady combination that made her feel as if she could actually accomplish the task before her.

“Hailey!”

She turned toward the frantic sound of the male voice. A man in his midthirties stood in front of a forest of oak and cedar trees. His light-brown hair fell across his forehead above clear green eyes. He was taller than most, even topping her six-foot height, and she estimated him to be six four.

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