Lake of Dreams by Linda Howard

  They faced each other across the dewy grass, and a slow smile touched the hard line of his mouth, almost causing her heartbeat to start galloping again. For the sake of her circuits, she hoped he wouldn’t smile too often.

  Then Richard Chance held out his hand to her, and said, “Come.”

  WHAT LITTLE COLOR she had drained from Thea’s face. “What did you say?” she whispered.

  He couldn’t possibly have heard her. He was standing a good thirty yards away; she had barely been able to hear the one word he’d spoken, though somehow the sound had been perfectly clear, as if she had heard it inside herself as well as out. But the expression on his face changed subtly, to something more alert, his eyes more piercing. His outstretched hand suddenly seemed more imperious, though his tone became cajoling. “Thea. Come with me.”

  Shakily she stepped back, intending to close the door. This had to be pure chance, but it was spooky.

  “Don’t run,” he said softly. “There’s no need to. I won’t hurt you.”

  Thea had never considered herself a coward. Her brothers would have described her as being a touch too foolhardy for her own good, stubbornly determined to climb any tree they could climb, or to swing out on a rope as high as they did before dropping into the lake. Despite the eerie similarity between the dream and what he’d just now said, her spine stiffened, and she stared at Richard Chance as he stood under the willow tree, surrounded by a slight mist. Once again, she was letting a weird coincidence spook her, and she was tired of being afraid. She knew instinctively that the best way to conquer any fear was to face it—hence her trip to the lake—so she decided to take a good, hard look at Mr. Chance to catalog the similarities between him and her dream lover. She looked, and almost wished she hadn’t.

  The resemblance wasn’t just in his eyes and the color of his hair. She could see it now in the powerful lines of his body, so tall and rugged. He was wearing jeans and hiking boots and a short-sleeved chambray shirt that revealed the muscularity of his arms. She noticed the thickness of his wrists, the wrists of a man who regularly did hard physical work . . . the wrists of a swordsman.

  She gasped, shaken by the thought. Where had it come from? What did she know about swordsmen? They weren’t exactly thick on the ground; she’d never even met anyone who fenced. And even as she pictured the elegant moves of fencing, she discarded that comparison. No, by swordsman she meant someone who used a heavy broadsword in battle, slashing and hacking. A flash of memory darted through her, and she saw Richard Chance with a huge claymore in his hand, only he had called himself Neill . . . and then he was Marcus, and it was the short Roman sword he wielded—

  No. She couldn’t let herself think like that. The dreams were a subconscious fantasy, nothing more. She didn’t really recognize anything about Richard Chance. She had simply met him at a time when she was emotionally vulnerable and off-balance, almost as if she were on the rebound from a failed romance. She had to get a grip, because there was no way this man had anything to do with her dreams.

  He was still standing there, his hand outstretched as if only a second had gone by, rather than the full minute it felt like.

  And then he smiled again, those vivid eyes crinkling at the corners. “Don’t you want to see the baby turtles?” he asked.

  Baby turtles. The prospect was disarming, and surprisingly charmed by the idea, somehow Thea found herself taking a couple of steps forward, until she was standing at the screen door to the porch. Only then did she stop and look down at her nightgown. “I need to change clothes.”

  His gaze swept down her. “You look great to me.” He didn’t try to disguise the huskiness of appreciation in his tone. “Besides, they might be gone if you don’t come now.”

  Thea chewed her lip. The nightgown wasn’t a racy number, after all; it was plain white cotton, with a modest neckline and little cap sleeves, and the hem reached her ankles. Caution warred with her desire to see the turtles. Suddenly she couldn’t think of anything cuter than baby turtles. Making a quick decision, she pushed open the door and stepped out into the tall grass. She had to lift her nightgown hem to midcalf to keep it from dragging in the dew and getting wet. Carefully she picked her way across the overgrown yard to the tall man waiting for her.

  She had almost reached him when she realized how close she was to the water.

  She froze in midstep, unable to even glance to the right where the lake murmured so close to her feet. Instead, her panic-stricken gaze locked on his face, instinctively begging him for help.

  He straightened, every muscle in his body tightening as he became alert in response to her reaction. His eyes narrowed, and his gaze swung sharply from side to side, looking for whatever had frightened her. “What is it?” he rasped as he caught her forearm and protectively pulled her nearer, into the heat and shelter of his body.

  Thea shivered and opened her mouth to tell him, but the closeness of his body, at once comforting and alarming, confused her so she couldn’t think what to say. She didn’t know which alarmed her more, her nearness to the lake or her nearness to him. She had always loved the lake, and was very wary of him, but his automatic response to her distress jolted something inside her, and suddenly she wanted to press herself against him. The warm scent of his skin filled her nostrils, her lungs—a heady combination of soap, fresh air, clean sweat, and male muskiness. He had pulled her against his left side, leaving his right arm free, and she could feel the reassuring steadiness of his heartbeat thudding within the strong wall of his chest.

  She was abruptly, acutely aware of her nakedness beneath the nightgown. Her breasts throbbed where they pressed against his side, and her thighs began trembling. My God, what was she doing out here, dressed like this? What had happened to her much-vaunted common sense? Since the dreams had begun, she didn’t seem to have any sense at all. No way should she be this close to a man she’d just met the day before. She knew she should pull away from him, but from the moment he’d touched her she had felt an odd sense of intimacy, of rightness, as if she had merely returned to a place she’d been many times before.

  His free hand threaded through her damp curls. “Thea?” he prompted, some of the alertness relaxing from his muscles. “Did something scare you?”

  She cleared her throat and fought off a wave of dizziness. His hand in her hair felt so familiar, as if . . . She jerked her wayward thoughts from that impossible path. “The water,” she finally said, her voice still tight with fear. “I—I’m afraid of the water, and I just noticed how close I was to the bank.”

  “Ah,” he said in a slow sound of realization. “That’s understandable. But how were you going to see the turtles if you’re afraid of the water?”

  Dismayed, she looked up at him. “I didn’t think about that.” How could she tell him that her fear of the water was so recent that she wasn’t used to thinking in terms of what she could or couldn’t do based on the proximity of water. Her attention splintered again, caught by the angle of his jaw when viewed from below. It was a very strong jaw, she noticed, with a stubborn chin. He had a fairly heavy beard; despite the evident fact that he had just shaved, she could see the dark whiskers that would give him a heavy five-o’clock shadow. Again that nagging sense of familiarity touched her, and she wanted to put her hand to his face. She wondered if he was always considerate enough to shave before making love, and had a sudden powerful image of that stubbled chin being gently rubbed against the curve of her breast.

  She gave a startled jerk, a small motion that he controlled almost before it began, his arm tightening around her and pulling her even more solidly against him. “The turtles are just over here, about fifty feet,” he murmured, bending his head down so that his jaw just brushed her curls. “Could you look at them if I stay between you and the lake, and hold you so you know you won’t fall in?”

  Oh, he was good. She noticed it in a peripheral kind of way. Whenever he did something
she might find alarming—something that should alarm her, like take her in his arms—he immediately distracted her with a diverting comment. She saw the ploy, but . . . baby turtles were so cute. She thought about his proposition. It was probably a dangerous illusion, but she felt safe in his arms, warmed by his heat and wrapped up in all that muscled power. Desire began in that moment, a delicate, delicious unfurling deep inside her . . . or maybe it had begun before, at his first touch, and had just now grown strong enough for her to recognize it. Why else had she thought about the roughness of his chin against her body? She knew she should go back inside. She had already made the logical decision that she had no time for even lightweight romance. But logic had nothing to do with the wild mixture of reactions she had felt since first seeing this man, fear, panic, compulsion, and desire all swirling together so she never knew from one minute to the next how she was going to react. She didn’t like it, didn’t like anything about it. She wanted to be the old Thea again, not this nervous, illogical creature she didn’t recognize.

  All right, so throw logic out the window. It hadn’t done her much good since the dreams had begun anyway. She looked up into watchful aquamarine eyes and threw caution to the dogs, too, deciding instead to operate on pure instinct. “Maybe that would work. Let’s try it.”

  She thought she saw a flare of triumph in those crystalline eyes, but when she looked more closely she saw only a certain male pleasure. “Let’s go a couple of steps farther away from the water,” he suggested, already steering her along with that solid arm around her waist. “We’ll still be able to see the turtles. Tell me if we’re still too close, okay? I don’t want you to be nervous.”

  She chuckled, and was surprised at herself for being able to laugh. How could she not be nervous? She was too close to the water, and way too close to him. “If I were wearing shoes, I’d be shaking in them,” she admitted.

  He glanced down at her bare feet, and the way she was having to hold up her nightgown to keep it out of the wet grass. “There might be briers,” he said by way of explanation as he bent down and hooked his other arm beneath her knees. Thea gave a little cry of surprise as he lifted her, grabbing at his shirt in an effort to steady herself. He grinned as he settled her high against his chest. “How’s this?”

  Frightening. Exciting. Her heart was thudding wildly, and that first pressure of desire was becoming more intense. She cast a look at the ground and said, “High.”

  “Are you afraid of heights, too?”

  “No, just of water.” And of you, big guy. But far more attracted than afraid, she realized.

  He carried her along the bank, taking care not to get any closer to the water, while Thea looked everywhere but at the lake. The most convenient point of focus was his throat, strong and brown, with a small vulnerable hollow beneath the solid knot of his Adam’s apple. The close proximity of his bare skin made her lips tingle, as if she had just pressed them into that little hollow where his pulse throbbed so invitingly.

  “We have to be quiet,” he whispered, and eased the last few steps. They had left the relative neatness of the overgrown yard and were in a tangle of bushes and weeds that probably did contain briers. Given her bare feet, she was just as glad he was carrying her. The trees grew more thickly here, greatly limiting the view of the lake. “They’re still here, on a fallen log lying at the edge of the water. Don’t make any sudden moves. I’m going to let you down, very slowly. Put your feet on my boots.”

  Before she could ask why, now that she was perfectly comfortable in his arms, he withdrew his arm from beneath her legs and let her lower body slide downward. Though he took care not to let her nightgown get caught between them, the friction of her body moving over his could scarcely have been more enticing. She caught her breath, her breasts and thighs tingling with heat even as she sought his boot tops with her feet and let her weight come to rest on them. Nor was he unaffected; there was no mistaking the firm swelling in his groin.

  He seemed more capable than she of ignoring it, however. He had both arms around her, holding her snugly against him, but his head was turned toward the lake. She could feel excitement humming through him, but it didn’t seem to be sexual in nature, despite his semierection.

  “There are seven of them,” he whispered, his voice the husky murmur of a lover. “They’re lined up on the log like silver-dollar pancakes with legs. Just turn your head and take a peek, and I’ll hold you steady so you’ll feel safe.”

  Thea hesitated, torn between her desire to see the little turtles and her fear of the water. Her hands were clutching his upper arms, and she could feel the hard biceps flex as he held her a little closer. “Take your time,” he said, still whispering, and she felt his lips brush her curls.

  She took a deep breath and steeled herself. Half a second later she convulsively buried her face against his chest, shaking, trying to fight back the rise of nausea. He cuddled her, comforting her with a slight rocking motion of his body while he murmured reassuring noises that weren’t really words.

  Two minutes later she tried again, with much the same result.

  By the fourth try, tears of frustration were welling in her eyes. Richard tried to take her back to the house, but the stubbornness her brothers were well acquainted with came to the fore, and she refused to leave. By God, she was going to see those turtles.

  Ten minutes later, she still hadn’t managed more than a single peek before the panic and nausea would hit her, and she was getting furious with herself. The turtles were happily sunning themselves right now, but they could be gone in the next second.

  “I’m going to do it this time,” she announced, her tone one of angry determination.

  Richard sighed. “All right.” She was well aware that he could simply pick her up and stride away at any time, but somehow she sensed that he would stand there until she was ready to give up the effort. She braced herself and began to turn her head by slow degrees. “While you’re torturing yourself, I’ll pass the time by remembering how I could see through your nightgown when you were walking across the yard,” he said.

  Stunned, Thea found herself blinking at the little turtles for two full seconds while she reeled under the impact of what he’d just said. When her head jerked back around, there was more outrage than panic in the motion. “What?”

  “I could see through your nightgown,” he repeated helpfully. A smile tugged at his mouth, and his crystalline eyes revealed even more amusement as he looked down at her. “The sun was shining at an angle. I saw . . .” He let the sentence trail off.

  She pushed at his arms in an effort to loosen them, without results. “Just what did you see?”

  “Everything.” He seemed to enjoy the memory. He made a little humming sound of pleasure in his throat. “You have gorgeous little nipples.”

  Thea flushed brightly, even as she felt the aforementioned gorgeous little nipples tighten into hard buds. The reaction was matched by one in his pants.

  “Look at the turtles,” he said.

  Distracted, she did just that. At the same time he stroked his right hand down her bottom, the touch searing her flesh through the thin fabric, and cupped and lifted her so that the notch of her thighs settled over the hard bulge beneath his fly. Thea’s breath caught in her lungs. She stared blindly at the turtles, but her attention was on the apex of her thighs. She bit back a moan, and barely restrained the urge to rock herself against that bulge. She could feel herself alter inside, muscles tightening and loosening, growing moist as desire built to a strong throb.

  He was a stranger. She had to be out of her mind to stand here with him in such a provocative position. But though her mind knew he was a stranger, her body accepted him as if she had known him forever. The resulting conflict rendered her all but incapable of action.

  The little turtles were indeed the size of silver-dollar pancakes, with tiny reptilian heads and stubby legs. They were lined up on th
e half-submerged log, the water gently lapping just below them. Thea stared at the sheen of water for several seconds before she realized what she was doing, so successfully had he distracted her.

  “Richard,” she breathed.

  “Hmmm?” His voice was deeper, his breathing slightly faster.

  “I’m looking at the turtles.”

  “I know, sweetheart. I knew you could do it.”

  “I wouldn’t want to go any closer, but I’m looking at the water.”

  “That’s good.” He paused. “As you learn to trust me, you’ll gradually get over your fear.”

  What a strange thing to say, she thought. What did he have to do with her fear of the water? That was caused by the dreams, not him. She wanted to ask him what he meant, but it was difficult to think straight when he was holding her so intimately, and when his erection was thrusting against her more insistently with each passing moment.

  Then something unseen alarmed the little turtles, or perhaps one of them simply decided he’d had enough sun and the others followed suit, but all at once they slid off the log and plopped into the water, one by one, the entire action taking place so fast that it was over in a second. Ripples spread out from the log, resurrecting an echo of nausea in Thea’s stomach. She swallowed and looked away, and the sensual spell was broken.

  He knew it, too. Before she could speak, he matter-of-factly lifted her in his arms and carried her back to the yard.

  Remembering what he’d said about her nightgown, she blushed hotly again as soon as he set her on her feet. He glanced at her hot cheeks, and amusement gleamed in his eyes.

  “Don’t laugh,” she muttered crossly as she moved away from him. Though it was probably way too late, she tried for dignity. “Thank you for showing me the turtles, and for being so patient with me.”

  “You’re welcome,” he said in a grave tone that still managed to convey his hidden laughter.

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