Lake of Dreams by Linda Howard

  The boys’ room had always had twin beds—three of them, in fact—and she checked inside to see if that still held true. It did, though the number of beds had dwindled to two. Thea sighed. She would have liked to sleep in her old room, but probably her parents’ room was the only one with a double bed, and she knew she’d appreciate the comfort even more. She had a queen-size bed in her apartment.

  She felt like Goldilocks as she opened the door to the third bedroom, and she burst out laughing. Sure enough, here was the bed that was just right. The double bed was no more. In its place was a king-size bed that took up the majority of the floor space, leaving only enough room on either side to maneuver while making up the bed. A long double dresser occupied most of the remaining space. She would have to be careful about stubbing her toes in here, but she would definitely sleep in comfort.

  As she hung her clothes in the closet, she heard the unmistakable creak of the screen door, heavy footsteps on the porch, and then two short, hard knocks on the frame of the open front door. Startled, Thea stood very still. A cold knot of fear began to form in her stomach. She had no idea who could be at the door. She had never been afraid here before—the crime rate was so low that it was almost nonexistent—but abruptly she was terrified. What if a vagrant had watched her unload the car, and knew she was here alone? She had already checked in with her mother, to let her know she’d arrived safely, so no one would expect to hear from her for another week or so. She’d told her mother that she intended to stay about two weeks. She could be murdered or kidnapped, and it might be two weeks or longer before anyone knew she was missing.

  There were other houses on the lake, of course, but none within sight. The closest one, a rental, was about half a mile away, hidden behind a finger of land that jutted into the lake. Sammy What’s-his-name’s family had rented it that summer when she was fourteen, she remembered. Who knew who was renting it now, or if someone hadn’t bothered with renting and had simply broken in.

  She hadn’t heard another car or a boat, so that meant whoever was on the porch had walked. Only the rental house was within realistic walking distance. That meant he was a stranger, rather than someone belonging to the families they had met here every summer.

  Her imagination had run away with her, she thought, but she couldn’t control her rapid, shallow breathing, or the hard pounding of her heartbeat. All she could do was stand there in the bedroom, like a small animal paralyzed by the approach of a predator.

  The front door was open. There was another screen door there, but it wasn’t latched. There was nothing to stop him, whoever he was, from simply walking in.

  If she was in danger, then she was trapped. She had no weapon, other than one of the kitchen knives, but she couldn’t get to them without being seen. She cast an agonized glance at the window. What were her chances of getting it open and climbing out without being heard? Given the silence in the house, she realized, not very good.

  That hard double knock sounded again. At least he was still on the porch.

  Maybe she was crazy. How did she know it was even a man? By the heaviness of the footsteps? Maybe it was just a large woman.

  No. It was a man. She was certain of it. Even his knocks had sounded masculine, too hard to have been made by a woman’s softer hand.

  “Hello? Is anyone home?”

  Thea shuddered as the deep voice reverberated through the house, through her very bones. It was definitely a man’s voice, and it sounded oddly familiar, even though she knew she’d never heard it before.

  My God, she suddenly thought, disgusted with herself. What was wrong with her? If the man on the porch meant her any harm, cowering here in the bedroom wouldn’t do her any good. And besides, a criminal would simply open the door and come on in, would already have done so. This was probably a perfectly nice man who was out for a walk and had seen a new neighbor arrive. Maybe he hadn’t seen her at all, but noticed the car in the driveway. She was making a fool out of herself with these stupid suspicions, this panic.

  Still, logic could only go so far in calming her fears. It took a lot of self-control to straighten her shoulders and forcibly regulate her breathing, and even more to force her feet to move toward the bedroom door. She stopped once more, still just out of sight, to get an even firmer grip on her courage. Then she stepped out of the bedroom into the living room, and into the view of the man on the porch.

  She looked at the open door, and her heart almost failed her. He was silhouetted against the bright light beyond and she couldn’t make out his features, but he was big. Six-three, at least, with shoulders that filled the doorframe. It was only her imagination, it had to be, but there seemed to be an indefinable tension in the set of those shoulders, something at once wary and menacing.

  There was no way she could make herself go any closer. If he made a move to open the screen, she would bolt for the back door in the kitchen. Her purse was in the bedroom behind her and she wouldn’t be able to grab it, but her car keys were in her jeans pocket, so she should be able to dive into the car and lock the doors before he could reach her, then drive for help.

  She cleared her throat. “Yes?” she managed to say. “May I help you?” Despite her effort, her voice came out low and husky. To her dismay, she sounded almost . . . inviting. Maybe that was better than terrified, but she was doubtful. Which was more likely to trigger an approach by a predator, fear or a perceived sexual invitation?

  Stop it! she fiercely told herself. Her visitor hadn’t said or done anything to warrant this kind of paranoia.

  “I’m Richard Chance,” the man said, his deep voice once again sinking through her skin, going all the way to her bones. “I’m renting the house next door for the summer. I saw your car in the driveway and stopped by to introduce myself.”

  Relief was almost as debilitating as terror, Thea realized as her muscles loosened and threatened to collapse altogether. She reached out an unsteady hand to brace herself against the wall.

  “I—I’m glad to meet you. I’m Thea Marlow.”

  “Thea,” he repeated softly. There was a subtle sensuality in the way he formed her name, almost as if he were tasting it. “Glad to meet you, Thea Marlow. I know you’re probably still unpacking, so I won’t keep you. See you tomorrow.”

  He turned to go, and Thea took a hasty step toward the door, then another. By the time he reached out to open the screen, she was at the doorway. “How do you know I’m still unpacking?” she blurted, tensing again.

  He paused, though he didn’t turn around. “Well, I take a long walk in the mornings, and your car wasn’t here this morning. When I touched your car hood just now, it was still warm, so you haven’t been here long. It was a reasonable assumption.”

  It was. Reasonable, logical. But why had he checked her car hood to see how hot it was? Suspicion kept her silent.

  Then, slowly, he turned to face her. The bright sunlight glinted on the glossy darkness of his hair, thick and as lustrous as a mink’s pelt, and clearly revealed every strong line of his face. His eyes met hers through the fine mesh of the screens, and a slow, unreadable smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “See you tomorrow, Thea Marlow.”

  Motionless again, Thea watched him walk away. Blood drained from her head and she thought she might faint. There was a buzzing in her ears, and her lips felt numb. Darkness began edging into her field of vision and she realized that she really was going to faint. Clumsily she dropped to her hands and knees and let her head hang forward until the dizziness began to fade.

  My God. It was him!

  There was no mistaking it. Though she’d never seen his face in her dreams, she recognized him. When he had turned to face her and those vivid aquamarine eyes had glinted at her, every cell in her body had tingled in recognition.

  Richard Chance was the man in her dreams.

  THEA WAS SO shaken that she actually began loading all of her stuff back into
the car, ready to flee back to White Plains and the dubious safety of her own apartment. In the end, though still trembling with reaction, she returned her supplies and clothes to the house and then resorted to her own time-honored remedy of coffee. What good would going home do? The problem was the dreams, which had her so on edge that she had panicked when a neighbor came to call and then had immediately decided, on the basis of his vivid eye color, that he was the man in her dreams.

  Okay, time for a reality check, she sternly told herself as she nursed her third cup of coffee. She had never been able to see Marcus-Neill-Duncan’s face, because of the damn mist that always seemed to be between them. All she had been able to tell was that he had long, dark hair and aquamarine eyes. On the other hand, she knew his smell, his touch, every inch of his muscled body, the power with which he made love. What was she supposed to do, ask Richard Chance to strip down so she could inspect him for similarities?

  A lot of people in the world had dark hair; most of them, as a matter of fact. A lot of dark-haired men had vivid eyes. It was merely chance that she had happened to meet Richard Chance at a time when she wasn’t exactly logical on the subject of eye color. She winced at the play on words, and got up to pour her fourth cup of coffee.

  She had come here with a purpose. She refused to let a dream, no matter how disturbing and realistic, destroy her enjoyment of something she had always loved. It wasn’t just this new fear of water that she hated, but what the dreams were doing to her memories of the summers of her childhood. Losing that joy would be like losing the center of her being. Damn it, she would learn to love the water again. Maybe she couldn’t look at the lake just yet, but by the time she left here, she swore, she would be swimming in it again. She couldn’t let her stupid paranoia about Richard Chance frighten her away.

  It didn’t mean anything that he had said her name as if savoring it. Actually, it did mean something, but that something was connected to his sexual organs rather than to her dreams. Thea knew she wasn’t a raving beauty, but neither was she blind to her attractiveness to men. She was often dissatisfied with her mop of thick, curly, chestnut hair, despairing of ever taming it into any discernible style, but men, for reasons of their own, liked it. Her eyes were green, her features even and clean-cut, and the rigors of her job kept her lean and in shape. Now that her nerves were settling down, she realized that the gleam in those memorable eyes had been interested rather than threatening.

  That could be difficult, considering that she had come up here to work through some problems rather than indulge in a summer fling with a new neighbor. She wasn’t in the mood for romance, even of the casual, two-week variety. She would be cool and uninterested in any invitations he might extend, he would get the hint, and that would be that.


  She turned, and saw him standing under the willow tree, his hand outstretched. She didn’t want to go to him, every instinct shouted for her to run, but the compulsion to obey was a terrible need inside her, an ache and a hunger that he could satisfy.

  “Come,” he said again, and her unwilling feet began moving her across the cool, dewy grass. Her white nightdress swirled around her legs, and she felt her nakedness beneath the thin fabric. No matter how many layers of clothing covered her, he always made her feel unclothed and vulnerable. She knew she shouldn’t be out here alone, especially with him, but she couldn’t make herself go back inside. She knew he was a dangerous man, and it didn’t matter. All that mattered was being with him; the propriety that had ruled her life suddenly meant less to her than did the wet grass beneath her bare feet.

  When she reached him, they stood facing each other like adversaries, neither moving nor speaking for a long moment that stretched out until she thought she would scream from the tension of it. Like the predator he was, he had been stalking her for weeks, and now he sensed, with unerring instinct, that she was within his grasp. He put his hand on her arm, his touch burning with vitality, and a smile lightly touched his hard mouth as he felt her betraying quiver. “Do you think I will hurt you?” he asked, his amusement evident.

  She shivered again. “Yes,” she said, looking up at him. “In one way or another . . . yes.”

  Inexorably he drew her closer, until her flimsily clad body rested against him and the animal heat of his flesh dispelled the chill of the night air. Automatically she put her hands up to rest against his chest, and the feel of the rock-hard sheets of muscle made her breath catch. No other man she’d ever touched was as hard and vital as this—this warrior, whose life was based on death and destruction. She wanted to deny him, to turn away from him, but was as helpless as a leaf on the wind to defy the currents that swept her toward him.

  He brushed his lips against her hair in an oddly tender gesture, one she hadn’t expected from such a man. “Then lie down with me,” he murmured, “and I’ll show you the sweetest pain of all.”

  Thea awoke, the echoes of her own cries still lingering in the darkness of the bedroom. He had; oh, he had. She was lying on her back, her nightgown twisted around her waist, her legs open and her knees raised. The last remnants of completion still throbbed delicately in her loins.

  She put her hands over her face and burst into tears.

  It was more than disturbing—it was humiliating. The damn man not only took over her dreams, he dominated her body as well. Her entire sense of self was grounded in her sturdy normality, her good common sense. Thea had always thought of herself as dependable, and suddenly that description no longer seemed to apply. Because of the dreams, she had taken a two-week vacation right in the middle of her busiest time, which wasn’t dependable. What was going on with her now defied common sense, defied all her efforts to understand what was happening. And it certainly wasn’t normal to have frighteningly intense climaxes night after night, while sleeping alone.

  Choking back her tears, she stumbled out of bed and down the hall to the bathroom, where she stood under the shower and tried to rid her body of the sensation of being touched by invisible hands. When she felt marginally calmer, she dried off and relocated to the kitchen, where she put on fresh coffee and then sat drinking it and watching the dawn progress into a radiantly sunny morning.

  The kitchen was located at the back of the house, so the lake wasn’t visible from the window, and Thea slowly relaxed as she watched tiny birds flitting from branch to branch in a nearby tree, twittering to each other and doing bird things.

  She had to stop letting these dreams upset her so much. No matter how disturbing their content, they were still just dreams. When she looked at this rationally, the only thing about the dreams that had really affected her life was the unreasoning fear of water they had caused. She had come to the lake to work through that fear, to force herself to face it, and if she could overcome that she would be satisfied. Maybe it wasn’t normal to have such sexually intense dreams, or for the same man who brought her such pleasure to kill her in some of those dreams, but she would handle it. Who knew what had triggered the dreams? They could have been triggered by her eclectic reading material, or some movie she’d watched, or a combination of both. Probably they would cease as mysteriously as they had appeared.

  In the meantime, she had already wasted one day of her self-prescribed recovery period. Except for that one nauseating glance at the lake when she had first arrived, she had managed to completely ignore the water.

  All right, Theadora, she silently scolded herself. Stop being such a wuss. Get off your can and do what you came here to do.

  In an unconscious gesture of preparation, she ran her fingers through her hair, which had almost dried in the time she had spent drinking coffee and postponing the inevitable. She could feel the unruly curls, thick and vibrant, taking shape under her fingers. She probably looked a fright, she thought, and was glad there was no one there to see. For this entire two weeks, she could largely ignore her appearance except for basic cleanliness, and she looked forward to the fr

  For comfort, she poured one final cup of coffee and carried it with her out onto the porch, carefully keeping her gaze cast downward so she wouldn’t spill the hot liquid. Yeah, she thought wryly, that was a great excuse to keep from seeing the lake first thing when she opened the door.

  She kept her eyes downcast as she opened the front door and felt the cool morning air wash over her bare feet. She had simply pulled on her nightgown again after leaving the shower, and the thin material was no match for the chill that the sun hadn’t quite dispelled.

  All right. Time to do it. Firmly gripping the cup like a lifeline, she slowly raised her eyes so that her gaze slid first across the floor of the porch, then onto the overgrown grass, and then down the slight slope toward the lake. She deliberately concentrated on only a narrow field of vision, so that everything else was blurred. There was the willow tree off to the left, and—

  He was standing beneath the spreading limbs, just as he had in her dream.

  Thea’s heart almost stopped. Dear God, now her dreams had started manifesting themselves during her waking hours, in the form of hallucinations. She tried to blink, tried to banish the vision, but all she could do was stare in frozen horror at the man standing as motionless as a statue, his aquamarine eyes shining across the distance.

  Then he moved, and she jerked in reaction as she simultaneously realized two things, each as disturbing in a different way as the other.

  One, the “vision” was Richard Chance. The figure under the tree was a real human being, not a figment of her imagination.

  Two, she hadn’t realized it before, but last night she had been able to see her dream lover’s face for the first time, and it had been Richard Chance’s face.

  She calmed her racing heartbeat. Of course her subconscious had chosen his features for those of the dream lover; after all, she had been startled that very day by the similarity of their eyes. This quirk of her dreams, at least, was logical.

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