Lake of Dreams by Linda Howard

  She scowled. She didn’t know whether to back away or to turn around and let him get a good view of her rear end, too. She didn’t have enough hands to cover all her points of interest, and it was too late anyway. She compromised by sidling.


  She paused, her brows lifted in question.

  “Will you come on a picnic with me this afternoon?”

  A picnic? She stared at him, wondering once again at the disturbing blend of strangeness and familiarity she felt about him. Like the baby turtles, a picnic sounded almost unbearably tempting; this whole thing was feeling as if she had opened a book so compelling that she couldn’t stop turning page after page. Still, she felt herself pulling back. “I don’t—”

  “There’s a tree in a fallow field about a mile from here,” he interrupted, and all amusement had left his ocean-colored eyes. “It’s huge, with limbs bigger around than my waist. It looks as if it’s been here forever. I’d like to lie on a blanket spread in its shade, put my head in your lap, and tell you about my dreams.”

  THEA WANTED TO run. Damn courage; discretion demanded that she flee. She wanted to, but her legs wouldn’t move. Her whole body seemed to go numb. She let the hem of her nightgown drop into the wet grass, and she stared dumbly at him. “Who are you?” she finally whispered.

  He studied the sudden terror in her eyes, and regret flashed across his face. “I told you,” he finally answered, his tone mild. “Richard Chance.”

  “What—what did you mean about your dreams?”

  Again he paused, his sharp gaze still fastened on her so that not even the smallest nuance of expression could escape him. “Let’s go inside,” he suggested, approaching to gently take her arm and guide her stumbling steps toward the house. “We’ll talk there.”

  Thea stiffened her trembling legs and dug in her heels, dragging him to a stop. Or rather, he allowed her to do so. She had never before in her life been as aware of a man’s strength as she was of his. He wasn’t a muscle-bound hulk, but the steeliness of his body was evident. “What about your dreams?” she asked insistently. “What do you want?”

  He sighed, and released his grip to lightly rub his fingers up and down the tender underside of her arm. “What I don’t want is for you to be frightened,” he replied. “I’ve just found you, Thea. The last thing I want is to scare you away.”

  His tone was quiet and sincere, and worked a strange kind of magic on her. How could a woman fail to be, if not reassured, at least calmed by the very evenness of his words? Her alarm faded somewhat, and Thea found herself being shepherded once again toward the house. This time she didn’t try to stop him. At least she could change into something more suitable before they had this talk on which he was so insistent.

  She pulled away from him as soon as they were inside, and gathered her tattered composure around herself like a cloak. “The kitchen is there,” she said, pointing. “If you’ll put on a fresh pot of coffee, I’ll be with you as soon as I get dressed.”

  He gave her another of his open looks of pure male appreciation, his gaze sliding over her from head to foot. “Don’t bother on my account,” he murmured.

  “Your account is exactly why I’m bothering,” she retorted, and his quick grin sent butterflies on a giddy flight in her stomach. Despite her best efforts, she was warmed by his unabashed attraction. “The coffee’s in the cupboard to the left of the sink.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” He winked and ambled toward the kitchen. Thea escaped into the bedroom and closed the door, leaning against it in relief. Her legs were still trembling. What was going on? She felt as if she had tumbled down the rabbit hole. He was a stranger, she had met him only the day before, and yet there were moments, more and more of them, when she felt as if she knew him as well as she knew herself, times when his voice reverberated deep inside of her like an internal bell. Her body responded to him as it never had to anyone else, with an ease that was as if they had been lovers for years.

  He said and did things that eerily echoed her dreams. But how could she have dreamed about a man whom she hadn’t met? This was totally outside her experience; she had no explanation for it, unless she had suddenly become clairvoyant.

  Yeah, sure. Thea shook her head as she stripped out of the nightgown and opened a dresser drawer to get out a bra and panties. She could just hear her brothers if she were to dare mention such a thing to them. “Woo, woo,” they’d hoot, snorting with laughter. “Somebody find a turban for her to wear! Madam Theadora’s going to tell our fortunes.”

  She pulled on jeans and a T-shirt and stuck her feet into a pair of sneakers. Comforted by the armor of clothing, she felt better prepared to face Richard Chance again. It was a loony idea to think she’d met him in her dreams, but she knew one sure way of finding out. In every incarnation, her dream warrior’s left thigh had been scarred, a long, jagged red line that ended just a few inches above his knee. All she had to do was ask him to drop his pants so she could see his leg, and she’d settle this mystery once and for all.

  Right. She could just see herself handing him a cup of coffee: “Do you take cream or sugar? Would you like a cinnamon roll? Would you please remove your pants?”

  Her breasts tingled and her stomach muscles tightened. The prospect of seeing him nude was more tempting than it should have been. There was something dangerously appealing in the thought of asking him to remove his clothing. He would do it, too, those vivid eyes glittering at her all the while. He was as aware as she that, if they were caught, he would be killed—

  Thea jerked herself out of the disturbing fantasy. Killed? Why on earth had she thought that? It was probably just the dreams again—but she had never dreamed that he had been killed, only herself. And he had been the killer.

  Her stomach muscles tightened again, but this time with the return of that gut-level fear she’d felt from the moment she’d heard his step on the porch. She had feared him even before she’d met him. He was a man whose reputation preceded him—

  Stop it! Thea fiercely admonished herself. What reputation? She’d never heard of Richard Chance. She looked around the bedroom, seeking to ground herself in the very normality of her surroundings. She felt as if things were blurring, but the outlines of the furniture were reassuringly sharp. No, the blurring was inside, and she was quietly terrified. She was truly slipping over that fine line between reality and dreamworld.

  Maybe Richard Chance didn’t exist. Maybe he was merely a figment of her imagination, brought to life by those thrice-damned dreams.

  But the alluring scent of fresh coffee was no dream. Thea slipped out of the bedroom and crossed the living room to stand unnoticed in the doorway to the kitchen. Or she should have been unnoticed, because her sneakered feet hadn’t made any noise. But Richard Chance, standing with the refrigerator door open while he peered at the contents, turned immediately to smile at her, and that unnerving aquamarine gaze slid over her jean-clad legs with just as much appreciation as when she’d worn only the nightgown. It didn’t matter to him what she wore; he saw the female flesh, not the casing, Thea realized, as her body tightened again in automatic response to that warmly sexual survey.

  “Are you real?” she asked, the faint words slipping out without plan. “Am I crazy?” Her fingers tightened into fists as she waited for his answer.

  He closed the refrigerator door and quickly crossed to her, taking one of her tightly knotted fists in his much bigger hand and lifting to his lips. “Of course you’re not crazy,” he reassured her. His warm mouth pressed tenderly to each white knuckle, easing the tension from her hand. “Things are happening too fast and you’re a little disoriented. That’s all.”

  The explanation, she realized, was another of his ambiguous but strangely comforting statements. And if he was a figment of her imagination, he was a very solid one, all muscle and body heat, complete with the subtle scent of his skin.

  She gave h
im a long, considering look. “But if I am crazy,” she said reasonably, “then you don’t exist, so why should I believe anything you say?”

  He threw back his head with a crack of laughter. “Trust me, Thea. You aren’t crazy, and you aren’t dreaming.”

  Trust me. The words echoed in her mind and her face froze, a chill running down her back as she stared up at him. Trust me. He’d said that to her before. She hadn’t remembered until just now, but he’d said that to her in her dreams—the dreams in which he had killed her.

  He saw her expression change, and his own expression became guarded. He turned away and poured two cups of coffee, placing them on the table before guiding her into one of the chairs. He sat down across from her and cradled a cup in both hands, inhaling the rich aroma of the steam.

  He hadn’t asked her how she liked her coffee, Thea noticed. Nor had she offered cream or sugar to him. He drank coffee the same way he did tea: black.

  How did she even know he drank tea? A faint dizziness assailed her, and she gripped the edge of the table as she stared at him. It was the oddest sensation, as if she were sensing multiple images while her eyes saw only one. And for the first time she was conscious of a sense of incompletion, as if part of herself was missing.

  She wrapped her hands around the hot cup in front of her, but didn’t drink. Instead she eyed him warily. “All right, Mr. Chance, cards on the table. What about your dreams?”

  He smiled and started to say something, but then reconsidered, and his smile turned rueful. Finally he shrugged, as if he saw no point in further evasion. “I’ve been dreaming about you for almost a month.”

  She had expected it, and yet hearing him admit it was still a shock. Her hands trembled a bit. “I—I’ve been dreaming about you, too,” she confessed. “What’s happening? Do we have some sort of psychic link? I don’t even believe in stuff like that!”

  He sipped his coffee, watching her over the rim of the cup. “What do you believe in, Thea? Fate? Chance? Coincidence?”

  “All of that, I think,” she said slowly. “I think some things are meant to be . . . and some things just happen.”

  “How do you categorize us? Did this just happen, or are we meant to be?”

  “You’re assuming that there is an ‘us,’ ” she pointed out. “We’ve been having weird dreams, but that isn’t . . .”

  “Intimate?” he suggested, his gaze sharpening.

  The dreams had certainly been that. Her cheeks pinkened as she recalled some of the sexually graphic details. She hoped his dreams hadn’t been mirrors of hers . . . but they had, she realized, seeing the knowledge in his eyes. Her face turned even hotter.

  He burst out laughing. “If you could see your expression!”

  “Stop it,” she said crossly, fixing her gaze firmly on her cup because she was too embarrassed to look at him. She didn’t know if she would ever be able to face him again.

  “Thea, darling.” His tone was patient, and achingly tender as he tried to soothe her. “I’ve made love to you in every way a man can love a woman . . . but only in my dreams. How can a dream possibly match reality?”

  If reality was any more intense than the dreams, she thought, it would surely kill her. She traced a pattern on the tabletop with her finger, stalling while she tried to compose herself. Just how real were the dreams? How could he call her “darling” with such ease, and why did it sound so right to her ears? She tried to remind herself that it had been less than twenty-four hours since she had seen him for the first time, but found that the length of time meant less than nothing. There was a bone-deep recognition between them that had nothing to do with how many times the sun had risen and set.

  She still couldn’t look at him, but she didn’t have to see him for every cell in her body to be vibrantly aware of him. The only other times she had felt so painfully alive and sensitive to another’s presence were in her dreams of this man. She didn’t know how, or why, their dreams had become linked, but the evidence was too overwhelming for her to deny that it had happened. But just how closely did the dreams match reality? She cleared her throat. “I know this is a strange question . . . but do you have a scar on your left thigh?”

  He was silent for several moments, but finally she heard him sigh. “Yes.”

  She closed her eyes as the shock of his answer rolled through her. If the dreams were that accurate, then she had another question for him, and this one was far more important. She braced herself and asked it, her voice choking over the words. “In your dreams, have you killed me?”

  Again he was silent, so long that finally she couldn’t bear the pressure and glanced up at him. He was watching her, his gaze steady. “Yes,” he said.

  THEA SHOVED AWAY from the table and bolted for the front door. He caught her there, simply wrapping his arms around her from behind and holding her locked to him. “My God, don’t be afraid of me,” he whispered into her tousled curls, his voice rough with emotion. “I would never hurt you. Trust me.”

  “Trust you!” she echoed incredulously, near tears as she struggled against his grip. “Trust you? How can I? How could I ever?”

  “You’re right about that, at least,” he said, a hard tone edging into the words. “You’ve lowered yourself to let me touch you, give you pleasure, but you’ve never trusted me to love you.”

  She laughed wildly, with building hysteria. “I just met you yesterday! You’re crazy—we’re both crazy. None of this makes any sense.” She clawed at his hands, trying to loosen his grasp. He simply adjusted his hold, catching her hands and linking his fingers through hers so she couldn’t do any damage, and still keeping his arms wrapped around her. She was so effectively subdued that all she could do was kick at his shins, but as she was wearing sneakers and he had on boots, she doubted she was causing him much discomfort. But even knowing it was useless, she writhed and bucked against his superior strength until she had exhausted herself. Panting, unable to sustain the effort another second, she let her trembling muscles go limp.

  Instantly he cuddled her closer, bending his head to brush his mouth against her temple. He kept his lips pressed there, feeling her pulse beating through the fragile skin. “It wasn’t just yesterday that we met,” he muttered. “It was a lifetime ago—several lifetimes. I’ve been here waiting for you. I knew you would come.”

  His touch worked an insidious magic on her; it always had. The present was blurring, mixing with the past so that she wasn’t certain what was happening now and what had happened before. Just so had he held her that night when he had slipped through the camp of her father’s army and sneaked into her bedchamber. Terror had beaten through her like the wings of a vulture, but she had been as helpless then as she was now. He had gagged her, and carried her silently through the night to his own camp, where he’d held her hostage against her father’s attack.

  She had been a virgin when he’d kidnapped her. When he had returned her, a month later, she had no longer been untouched. And she had been so stupidly in love with her erstwhile captor that she had lied to protect him, and ultimately betrayed her father.

  Thea’s head fell back against his shoulder. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she murmured, and the words sounded thick, her voice drugged. The scenes that were in her head couldn’t possibly be memories.

  His lips sought the small hollow below her ear. “We’ve found each other again. Thea.” As he had the first time, he said her name as if tasting it. “Thea. I like this name best of all.”

  “It’s—it’s Theadora.” She had always wondered why her parents had given her such an old-fashioned, unusual name, but when she’d asked her mother had only said, rather bemusedly, that they had simply liked it. Thea’s brothers, on the other hand, had the perfectly comfortable names of Lee and Jason.

  “Ah. I like that even better.” He nipped her earlobe, his sharp teeth gently tugging.

  “Who was
I before?” she heard herself ask, then hurriedly shook her head. “Never mind. I don’t believe any of this.”

  “Of course you do,” he chided, and delicately licked the exposed, vulnerable cord of her arched neck. He was aroused again, she noticed, or maybe he’d never settled down to begin with. His hard length nestled against her jean-clad bottom. No other man had ever responded to her with such blatant desire, had wanted her so strongly and incessantly. All she had to do was move her hips against him in that little teasing roll that always maddened him with lust, and he would take her now, pushing her against the castle wall and lifting her skirts—

  Thea jerked her drifting mind from the waking dream, but reality was scarcely less provocative, or precarious. “I don’t know what’s real anymore,” she cried.

  “We are, Thea. We’re real. I know you’re confused. As soon as I saw you, I knew you’d just begun remembering. I wanted to hold you, but I knew it was too soon, I knew you were frightened by what’s been happening. Let’s drink our coffee, and I’ll answer any questions you have.”

  Cautiously he released her, leaving Thea feeling oddly cold and abandoned. She turned to face him, looking up at the strong bones of his features, the intense watchfulness of his vivid eyes. She felt his hunger emanating from him like a force field, enwrapping her in a primal warmth that counteracted the chill of no longer being in his arms. Another memory assailed her, of another time when she had stood and looked into his face, and seen the desire so plainly in his eyes. At that time she had been shocked and frightened, an innocent, sheltered young lady who had suddenly been thrust into harsh conditions, and she’d had only his dubious protection from danger. Dubious not because of any lack of competence, but because she thought she might be in greater danger from him than from any outside threat.

  Thea drew in a slow, deep breath, feeling again that internal blurring as past and present merged, and abruptly she knew how futile it was to keep fighting the truth. As unbelievable as it was, she had to accept what was happening. She had spent her entire life—this life, anyway—secure in a tiny time frame, unaware of anything else, but now the blinders were gone and she was seeing far too much. The sheer enormity of it overwhelmed her, asked her to cast aside the comfortable boundaries of her life and step into danger, for that was what Richard Chance had brought with him when he had entered her life again. She had loved him in all his incarnations, no matter how she had struggled against him. And he had desired her, violently, arrogantly ignoring danger to come to her again and again. But for all his desire, she thought painfully, in the end he had always destroyed her. Her dreams had been warnings, acquainting her with the past so she would know to avoid him in the present.

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