Beautiful Stranger Excerpt




Today was the day.  She was finally going to escape this hellhole.

A heady mixture of adrenaline and fear rushed through her veins.  Adrenaline because the day was finally here after three long months of waiting and planning.  Fear because she knew this was her only chance.  If she failed, she would be trapped here forever.  Her life would effectively be over.

The thought sent another blast of anxiety through her, but Claire Preston allowed her body to betray none of her turbulent emotions.  The breathing exercises she’d learned and years of yoga she’d practiced helped her keep her heartbeat steady.  Her eyes remained fixed on an empty space on the lawn in front of her.  She didn’t move a muscle, other than a slight bob of her head to relieve the growing crick in her neck.  Even that could easily be viewed as an unconscious twitch by anyone who might be looking.  There was absolutely nothing that might lead anyone to think she was anything more than what she appeared to be.

Just another patient at the Thornwood mental health facility, so drugged out of her mind she didn’t even know who she was anymore.

Except Claire did know.  Just as she knew the only way that would continue to be the case was if no one else was aware of that fact.

Voices drifted toward her as people passed by on the edges of the lawn, none of them paying her any mind.  Late afternoon sunlight poured down over the veranda where one of the nurses had parked and abandoned her.  Claire felt none of its warmth.  She’d felt nothing but a bone-chilling cold from the moment she’d woken up in this place and found herself living her worst nightmare.

More than once she’d wondered if this was really happening or if it was all in her head.  She didn’t know what would be worse, being sane and locked up in a mental institution, or figuring out this was a hallucination and she was really crazy after all.

It hadn’t taken her long to determine this was all-too real.  Nightmares didn’t last this long.

But no more.  It was time for this nightmare to end.

The voices finally faded from earshot.  She waited and listened closely for the sound of anyone else approaching.  Hearing nothing, she lifted her head slightly and scanned the area.

The lawn stretched before her, lush and green, seeming to go on forever.  She had to fight the urge to bolt, to lunge out of the chair and make a break for it as fast as her legs could carry her.

Not yet.  But soon.

A flicker of movement in the corner of her vision drew her eye in that direction.  It was a man, walking toward her on the path bordering the lawn.  The sunshine at his back, he seemed to rise out of the horizon.  Dismissing him, she quickly looked away, only to find her attention drawn back for some reason a moment later.

More details became visible the closer he came.  He was a stranger.  She recognized that much.  She’d never seen him before.

The sunlight caught his dark blond hair, burnishing it with a golden glow.  He had the big, brawny body of an athlete, with broad shoulders and biceps that filled the contours of the dark suit he wore.  His long, confident stride, not quite a swagger, but close, told of a man at complete ease with himself.  It was the kind of effortless confidence she’d always envied, even resented maybe.  Even from a distance, she could see the slight smile on his face.  He had a nice face.  Friendly.  Open.  Incredibly good-looking.

He moved like some kind of conquering hero, every inch the hale, hearty knight in complete command of himself and his world.  No one would ever accuse this man of being insane.

He looked like someone who could help her.  Someone she could trust.

She didn’t know where the thought came from.  Something painful twisted in her chest at the very idea.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d thought that about another human being, if ever.

She tried to dismiss it.  Instead, a burst of longing, so fierce and unexpected she lost control of her heartbeat for a moment, seized her.  For just a second, she allowed herself the foolish fantasy, that the knight had come to save the princess trapped in a tower, before forcing herself to face cold, hard reality.

No white knight was going to step out of a fairy tale and save her.

No one ever had and no one ever would.

This princess was going to have to save herself.



Copyright © 2008 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.