ABOUT THE BOOK
From New York Times bestselling author Cassia Leo comes a new stand-alone novel, Amber Sky, the haunting, atmospheric love story of Walker Ainsley and Cassidy O'Connor.
A devastating car crash leaves Cassidy O'Connor stranded in rural Pennsylvania. Her only company is Walker Ainsley, the ruggedly handsome man who saved her from the wreckage and took her into his home. But when her ride back to town arrives after the crash, Cassidy can’t bring herself to leave Walker behind. She is determined to convince him to go back to town with her, until she begins to wonder if she actually survived the crash that brought them together.
I don’t know how I ended up on Route 120 in Middle-of-Nowhere, Pennsylvania. All I know is my phone stopped picking up a cell signal about the same time the sun went down twenty miles back. Now my brilliant navigation system is dying on me, flickering and flashing in the darkness like a dying star. I thought technology was supposed to prevent us from getting lost.
It seems lost is my default setting these days.
I should probably turn around, but I have a bone-deep sense I’ve been down this road before, and it leads somewhere beautiful. In fact, I’m sure of it. This looks exactly like a road we traveled during a family road trip about two decades ago.
Man, what I wouldn’t give to be twelve years old again. To be sitting in the tobacco-scented backseat of my dad’s Volvo, the backs of my thighs stuck to the leather seat with sweat, the hot summer air blasting my face through the open window. A green blur of trees streaking past us as we suffered through my father’s piercingly dead-on impersonation of Bob Dylan. I’d gladly relive my awkward, gangly transition into puberty—and the countless heartaches that had come and gone since then—for one more chance to beg my dad to change the radio station.
I tap haphazardly at the “buttons” on the navigation screen, and the display flutters back to life. I smack the steering wheel with sheer delight, letting out a whooping holler of relief.
But the relief is short-lived.
In a flickering flash of light, the navigation screen dies, along with what seems like the entire electrical system in my car. Inside the cabin, I’m plunged into total darkness. Outside the car, the forest becomes a sea of black through which I’m hurtled at fifty miles per hour, nothing but the spiny, silvery shadows of trees to roughly sketch out my proximity in space.
Before I can right the steering wheel, the road disappears beneath me, and I’m suddenly and violently bumping along rough terrain. With no light to guide me, my panicked mind quickly surmises I’ve veered off the road. By the time I get my bearings and attempt to slam on the brakes, while also wrenching the steering wheel sharply to the left, it’s too late. The right side of my car slams into something even more solid than the darkness.
* * *
My eyelids flutter as I regain consciousness.
There’s something in my eyes.
No, someone is moving me.
Blinking furiously against the sticky substance in my eyelashes, I reach up to wipe my eyes when a sharp pain shoots through my shoulder and discharges into my neck and chest.
I cry out in pain. “Help!”
“Don’t move!” a gruff voice commands.
“I can’t see! I’m blind!”
“You’ve got blood in your eyes!” the man shouts back.
The top of my thigh bumps into something that feels like the bottom of a steering wheel. The bitter stench of gasoline saturates my nostrils. The man grunts as he seems to pull me out of the car.
Tossing me up in the air a few inches, he adjusts my weight in his arms. I yelp at the momentary weightlessness, a sensation I recognize from my nightmares. But his grip on me is tight and assured as he carries me away to God knows where.
As I begin to contemplate where he might be taking me—an ambulance?—my limbs grow cold and weak. My hands tremble, my head becomes heavy. The stabbing pain in my shoulder dulls as my consciousness ebbs with the rhythm of my savior’s footsteps.
* * *
I wake to the sound of my own moans. Trying to open my eyes, I am panicked to find my eyelids glued shut. My shoulder blazing with fiery pain.
“I can’t open my eyes,” I rasp, a dry ache throttling my larynx.
“Keep still, and I’ll wipe your eyes again,” the gruff voice says, much gentler this time.
I can feel I’m lying on something soft, perhaps a hospital bed. But if I’m in the hospital, why does it smell like mothballs?
I flinch slightly as he sweeps a warm washcloth over my left eyelid. The cloth reeks with the sharp, metallic tang of blood. My shoulder explodes in pain again as I try to reach toward my face.
Laying my arm over my belly, I whimper. “What’s wrong with my shoulder?”
“I reckon you sprained it. I was just fixin’ you a sling when you woke up,” the man replies as he continues wiping my other eye.
The smell of blood dissipates as he finishes wiping my sticky lashes. I take that as permission to open my eyes, but I’m almost afraid of what I’ll find. If he was fixin’ me a sling, that means we’re not in an emergency room—at least, not the kind of ER I want to be in.
I open my eyes slowly, blinking a few times to dislodge the lashes still stuck together on the outer corner of my eye. Looking up at the dimly lit, rusted tin ceiling, I clench my teeth to keep from crying out in fear.
“You okay there? I…I got some of this here pain medicine. I ain’t used it in some years, but I reckon it still works.”
My lips tremble as tears slide down my temples. “Where am I?” I choke the words out of my parched throat.
He sighs, and I finally turn to look at him, ignoring the dull ache in my neck. His eyes lock on mine for a split second before he looks down at his feet. His dark hair is hidden beneath a dark-green baseball cap, just as his face is hidden beneath a dark beard. But the visible features are striking: his sharp cheekbones and strong brow look almost out of place juxtaposed with the smooth, ageless appearance of his fair skin.
“You’re in Momma’s room,” he whispers.
Something about the words and the way he spoke them feels ominous; as if it’s a dark secret.
I shiver as I reach up with my good arm, my left arm, and wipe at the tears sliding down my face. “Did you call for help? Is someone coming?”
He glances at me before looking away again. “No, ma’am. We’re over a hundred miles from town. And I… I ain’t got no phone.”
My gaze bores into him, taking in the cleanliness of his red plaid button-up and jeans. He doesn’t look like he wants to hurt me. In fact, he almost looks more afraid of me than I am of him.
He stares at the bottle of aspirin, which sits on top of the clunky oak nightstand, as if he was waiting for me to lash out, to deal out some sort of punishment for not having a telephone.
“I’m thirsty. Can I have some water?”
He looks back at me, a glimmer of something, possibly hope, in his blue eyes. “Of—of course. I’ll be right back.”
He disappears out of the tiny bedroom and into a dark hallway, his footsteps trailing off as my fear grows. Maybe that glimmer of hope is nothing more than hope for my compliance. I should try to escape now that he’s gone.
My heart pounds against my aching chest as I use my left arm to throw off the thin crocheted blanket. But when I attempt to sit up, the pain in my clavicle nearly strips me of my consciousness again. I squeeze my eyes shut and grit my teeth against the pain. The tears return, along with a painful lump in my throat, as I realize I’m trapped. I can’t travel a hundred miles to the nearest town on foot.
My eyelids snap open as I suddenly remember I have a cell phone in the car. I just have to make it to the crash site.
I sit up in bed, pressing my lips together to stifle my screams. My shoes are gone. I can’t even remember what shoes I’d been wearing. I slide off the mattress onto the dusty wood floor. I’ll have to go barefoot.
I take one step when the sound of the man’s footsteps comes to me from the dark hallway. In that split second, I consider bolting out of the bedroom and, hopefully, toward the front door, then out into the woods. But if this man means me harm, he’ll surely catch me. And if I do manage to get away, he will have no obligation to help me if I get lost out there in the dark forest.
Sinking back down onto the bed, I remain seated as I wait for him to enter. He seems surprised—and maybe a bit worried?—when he finds me sitting up. He doesn’t comment on it, though. He silently hands me the amber glass of water.
I sniff the liquid, confirming the lack of odor before I gulp down the whole glass. I know some poisons are odorless and tasteless, but I’m in this man’s hands now. What he does with me is beyond my control until he goes to sleep.
Tonight, while he sleeps, I’ll creep outside and attempt to find my car. Maybe the crash site isn’t too far if he was able to hear the collision from inside his house. Then, I’ll find my phone and pray for a cell signal, despite the fact I haven’t prayed in more than a year.
“You want one of these?” he says, lifting the bottle of aspirin off the nightstand.
I nod and hand him my empty glass. While he’s gone fetching me more water, I lay back on the bed, not bothering to pull the blanket over me again. The pain in my clavicle is too bothersome for me to notice whether I’m cold or otherwise uncomfortable.
When he returns with the water and aspirin, I gulp down four tablets and shut my eyes. Exhaustion seeps into every fiber of my muscles as I begin to feel woozy. Maybe he did poison me. Or perhaps I have a concussion.
I think of the myth I’d heard as a child that you shouldn’t go to sleep if you have a head injury, or you might die. It’s not true, but it is a frightening enough prospect for me to wonder if perhaps, by going to sleep now, I’ll be taking the easy way out…like my father.
***end of excerpt***