Lake of Dreams by Linda Howard

  Go. That was all she had to do, simply pack and go. Instead she let him lead her back to the kitchen, where their cups sat with coffee still gently steaming. She was disconcerted to realize how little time had passed since she had fled the table.

  “How did you know where to find me?” she asked abruptly, taking a fortifying sip of coffee. “How long have you known about me?”

  He gave her a considering look, as if gauging her willingness to accept his answers, and settled into the chair across from her. “To answer your second question first, I’ve known about you for most of my life. I’ve always had strange, very detailed dreams, of different lives and different times, so I accepted all of this long before I was old enough to think it was impossible.” He gave a harsh laugh as he too sought fortitude in caffeine. “Knowing about you, waiting for you, ruined me for other women. I won’t lie and say I’ve been as chaste as a monk, but I’ve never had even a teenage crush.” He looked up at her, and his gaze was stark. “How could a giggling teen girl compete?” he whispered. “When I had the other memories, when I knew what it was to be a man, and make love to you?”

  She hadn’t had those memories until recently, but still she had gone through life romantically unscathed, the deepest part of her unable to respond to the men who had been interested in her. From the first, though, she hadn’t been able to maintain any buffer against Richard. Both mentally and physically, she was painfully aware of him. He had grown up with this awareness, and it couldn’t have been easy. It was difficult to picture, but at one time he had been a child, and in effect he had been robbed of a normal childhood and adolescence, of a normal life.

  “As to how I found you,” he continued, “the dreams led me here. The details I saw helped me narrow down the location. The dreams were getting stronger, and I knew you couldn’t be far away. As soon as I saw this place, I knew this was it. So I rented the neighboring house, and waited.”

  “Where is your home?” she asked curiously.

  He gave her an odd little smile. “I’ve lived in North Carolina for some time now.”

  She had the definite feeling that he wasn’t telling her the entire truth. She sat back and studied him, considering her next question before voicing it. “What do you do for a living?”

  He laughed, and there was tone at once rueful and joyous in the sound, as if he’d expected her to pin him down. “God, some things never change. I’m in the military, what else?”

  Of course. He was a warrior born, in whatever lifetime. Snippets of information, gleaned from news broadcasts, slipped into place. With her inborn knowledge of him directing her, she hazarded a guess. “Fort Bragg?”

  He nodded.

  Special Forces, then. She wouldn’t have known where they were based, if it hadn’t been for all the news coverage during the Gulf War. A sudden terror seized her. Had he been in that conflict? What if he had been killed, and she had never known about him—

  Then she wouldn’t now have to fear for her own life.

  Somehow that didn’t mitigate the fear she felt for him. She had always been afraid for him. He lived with danger, and shrugged at it, but she had never been able to do that.

  “How did you get leave?”

  “I had a lot of time due. I don’t have to go back for another month, unless something unexpected happens.” But there was a strained expression deep in his eyes, a resignation that she couldn’t quite read.

  He reached across the table and took her hand. His long, callused fingers wrapped around her slimmer, smaller ones, folding them in warmth. “What about you? Where do you live, what do you do?”

  The safest thing would be not to tell him, but she doubted there was any point in it. After all, he had her name, and he probably had her license plate number. If he wanted to, he would be able to find her. “I live in White Plains. I grew up there; all of my family lives there.” She found herself rattling on, suddenly anxious to fill him in on the details of her life. “My parents are still alive, and I have two brothers, one older and one younger. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

  He shook his head, smiling at her. “I have a couple of aunts and uncles, and some cousins scattered around the country, but no one close.”

  He had always been a loner, allowing no one to get close to him—except for her. In that respect, he had been as helpless as she.

  “I paint houses,” she said, still driven by the compulsion to fill all the gaps in their knowledge of each other. “The actual houses, not pictures of them. And I do murals.” She felt herself tense, wanting him to approve, rather than express the incredulity some people did.

  His fingers tightened on hers, then relaxed. “That makes sense. You’ve always loved making our surroundings as beautiful and comfortable as possible, whether it was a fur on the floor of the tent or wildflowers in a metal cup.”

  Until he spoke, she’d had no memory of those things, but suddenly she saw the pelts she had used to make their pallet on the tent floor, and the way the wildflowers, which she had arranged in a metal cup, had nodded their heads in the rush of cold air every time the flap was opened.

  “Do you remember everything?” she whispered.

  “Every detail? No. I can’t remember every detail that’s happened in this life, either; no one does. But the important things, yes.”

  “How many times have we . . .” Her voice trailed off as she was struck once again by the impossibility of it.

  “Made love?” he suggested, though he knew darn well that wasn’t what she had been about to say. Still, his eyes took on a heated, sleepy expression. “Times without number. I’ve never been able to get enough of you.”

  Her body jolted with responding desire. Sternly she controlled it. It would mean her life if she gave in to the aching need to become involved with him again. “Lived,” she corrected.

  She sensed his reluctance to tell her, but he had sworn he would answer all her questions, and his word was his bond. “Twelve,” he said, tightening his hand on hers again. “This is our twelfth time.”

  She nearly jumped out of her chair. Twelve! The number echoed in her head. She had remembered only half of those times, and those memories were partial. Overwhelmed, she tried to pull away from him. She couldn’t keep her sanity under such an overload.

  Somehow she found herself drawn around the table, and settled on his lap. She accepted the familiarity of the position, knowing that he had held her this way many times. His thighs were hard under her bottom, his chest a solid bulwark to shield her, his arms supporting bands of living steel. It didn’t make sense that she should feel so safe and protected in the embrace of a man who was so much of a danger to her, but the contact with his body was infinitely comforting.

  He was saying something reassuring, but Thea couldn’t concentrate on the words. She tilted her head back against his shoulder, dizzy with the tumult of warring emotions. He looked down at her and caught his breath, falling silent as his gaze settled on her mouth.

  She knew she should turn away, but she didn’t, couldn’t. Instead her arm slipped up around his neck, holding tightly to him as he bent his head and covered her mouth with his.

  THE TASTE OF him was like coming home, their mouths fitting together without any awkwardness or uncertainty. A growl of hunger rumbled in his throat, and his entire body tensed as he took her mouth with his tongue. With the ease of long familiarity he thrust his hand under her T-shirt and closed it over her breast, working his fingers beneath the lace of the bra cup so his hand was on her bare skin, her nipple beading against his palm. Thea shuddered under his touch, a paroxysm of mingled desire and relief, as if she had been holding herself tightly against the pain of his absence and could only now relax. There had never been another man for her, she thought dimly as she sank under the pleasure of his kiss, and never would be. Though they seemed to be caught in a hellish death-dance, she could no more stop loving him than
she could stop her own heartbeat.

  His response to her was as deep and uncontrollable as hers was to him. She felt it in the quivering tension of his body, the raggedness of his breathing, the desperate need so plain in his touch. Why then, in all of their lives together, had he destroyed her? Tears seeped from beneath her lashes as she clung to him. Was it because of the force of his need? Had he been unable to bear being so much at the mercy of someone else, found his vulnerability to be intolerable, and in a sudden fury lashed out to end that need? No; she rejected that scenario, because one of her clearest memories was of the calmness in his aquamarine eyes as he’d forced her deeper into the water, holding her down until there was no more oxygen in her lungs and her vision clouded over.

  A teardrop ran into the corner of her mouth, and he tasted the saltiness. He groaned, and his lips left her mouth to slide over her cheek, sipping up the moisture. He didn’t ask why she was crying, didn’t become anxious or uneasy. Instead he simply held her closer, silently comforting her with his presence. He had never been discomfited by her tears, Thea remembered, past scenes sliding through her memory like silken scarves, wispy but detectable. Not that she had ever been a weepy kind of person anyway; and when she had cried, more often than not he had been the cause of her tears. His response then had always been exactly what it was now: he’d held her, let her cry it out, and seldom veered from his set course, no matter how upset he’d made her.

  “You’ve never compromised worth a damn,” Thea muttered, turning her face into his shoulder to use his shirt as a handkerchief.

  He effortlessly followed her chain of thought. He sighed as his fingers gently kneaded her breast, savoring the silkiness of her skin, the pebbling of her nipple. “We were always on opposite sides. I couldn’t betray my country, my friends.”

  “But you expected me to,” she said bitterly.

  “No, never. Your memories are still cloudy and incomplete, aren’t they? Sweetheart, you made some difficult decisions, but they were based on your own sense of justice, not because I coerced you.”

  “So you say.” She grasped his wrist and shoved his hand out from under her shirt. “Because my memory is cloudy, I can’t argue that point, can I?”

  “You could try trusting me.” The statement was quiet, his gaze intent.

  “You keep saying that.” She stirred restlessly on his lap. “Under the circumstances, that seems to be asking a bit much, don’t you think? Or am I safe with you, as long as we stay away from water?”

  His mouth took on a bitter curve. “Trust has always been our problem.” Lifting his hand, the one that had so recently cupped her breast, he toyed with one of her wayward curls. “On my part, too, I admit. I was never certain you wouldn’t change your mind and betray me, instead.”

  “Instead of my father, you mean.” Suddenly furious, she tried to struggle out of his lap. He simply tightened his arms, holding her in place as he had many times before.

  “Your temper never changes,” he observed, delight breaking through the grimness of his mood.

  “I don’t have a temper,” Thea snapped, knowing full well her brothers would instantly disagree with that statement. She didn’t have a hair-trigger temper, but she didn’t back down from much, either.

  “Of course you don’t,” he crooned, cuddling her closer, and the absolute love in his voice nearly broke her heart. How could he feel so intensely about her and still do what he did? And how could she still love him so much in return?

  He held her in silence for a while, his heartbeat thudding against the side of her breast. The sensation was one she had felt many times before, lying cuddled on his left arm so his right arm, the one that wielded his sword, was unencumbered.

  She wanted this, she realized. She wanted him, for a lifetime. For forever. In all their previous lifetimes, their time together had been numbered in months or even mere weeks, their loving so painfully intense she had sometimes panicked at the sheer force of what she was feeling. They had never been able to grow old together, to love each other without desperation or fear. Now she had a vital decision to make: should she run, and protect her life . . . or stay, and fight for their life together? The common sense that had ruled her life, at least until the dreams had disrupted everything, said to run. Her heart told her to hold to him as tightly as she could. Maybe, just maybe, if she was very cautious, she could win this time. She would have to be extremely wary of situations involving water. With the perfection of hindsight, she knew now that going to see the turtles with him had been foolhardy; she was lucky nothing bad had happened. Probably it simply wasn’t time, yet, for whatever had happened in the past to happen again.

  Things were different this time, she realized. Their circumstances were different. A thrill went through her as she realized that this time could be different. “We aren’t on opposing sides, this time,” she whispered. “My father is a wonderful, perfectly ordinary family man, without an army to his name.”

  Richard chuckled, but quickly sobered. When Thea looked up, she saw the grimness in his eyes. “We have to get it right,” he said quietly. “This is our twelfth time. I don’t think we’ll have another chance.”

  Thea drew back from him a little. “It would help if I understood why you did . . . what you did. I’ve never known. Tell me, Richard. That way I can guard against—”

  He shook his head. “I can’t. It all comes down to trust. That’s the key to it all. I have to trust you. You have to trust me . . . even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

  “That’s asking a lot,” she pointed out in a dry tone. “Do you have to trust me to the same extent?”

  “I already have.” One corner of his mouth twitched in a wry smile. “The last time. That’s probably why our circumstances have changed.”

  “What happened?”

  “I can’t tell you that, either. That would be changing the order of things. You either remember or you don’t. We either get it right this time, or we lose forever.”

  She didn’t like the choices. She wanted to scream at him, vent her fury at the mercilessness of fate, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. She could only fight her own battle, knowing that it would mean her life if she failed. Maybe that was the point of it all, that each person was ultimately responsible for his or her own life. If so, she didn’t much care for the lesson.

  He began kissing her again, tilting her head up and drinking deeply from her mouth. Thea could have reveled in his kisses for hours, but all too soon he was drawing back, his breath ragged and desire darkening his eyes. “Lie down with me,” he whispered. “It’s been so long. I need you, Thea.”

  He did. His erection was iron-hard against her bottom. Still, for all the intimacy of their past lives, in this life she had only just met him, and she was reluctant to let things go so far, so fast. He saw her refusal in her expression before she could speak, and muttered a curse under his breath.

  “You do this every time,” he said in raw frustration. “You drive me crazy. Either you make me wait when I’m dying to have you, or you tease me into making love to you when I know damn well I shouldn’t.”

  “Is that so?” Thea slipped off his lap and gave him a sultry glance over her shoulder. She had never given anyone a sultry glance before, and was mildly surprised at herself for even knowing how, but the gesture had come naturally. Perhaps, in the past, she had been a bit of a temptress. She liked the idea. It felt right. Richard’s personality was so strong that she needed something to help keep him in line.

  He glowered at her, and his hands clenched into fists. If they had been further along in their relationship, she thought, he wouldn’t have taken no for an answer, at least not yet. First he would have made a damn good effort at seducing her—an effort that had usually succeeded. Whatever his name, and whatever the time, Richard had always been a devastatingly sensual lover. But he too felt the constraints of newness, knew that
she was still too skittish for what he wanted.

  Stiffly he got to his feet, wincing in discomfort. “In that case, we should get out of here, maybe drive into town for lunch. Or breakfast,” he amended, glancing at his wristwatch.

  Thea smiled, both amused and touched by his thoughtfulness. Being in public with him did seem a lot safer than staying here. “Just like a date,” she said, and laughed. “We’ve never done that before.”

  It was a delightful day, full of the joy of rediscovery. After eating breakfast at the lone café in the small nearby town, they drove the back roads, stopping occasionally to get out and explore on foot. Richard carefully avoided all streams and ponds, so Thea was relaxed, and could devote herself to once again learning to know this man she had always loved. So many things he did triggered memories, some of them delicious and some disturbing. To say their past lives together had been tumultuous would have been to understate the matter. She was shocked to remember the time she had used a knife to defend herself from him, an encounter that had ended in bloodletting: his. And in lovemaking.

  But with each new memory, she felt more complete, as the missing parts slipped into place. She felt as if she had been only one-dimensional for the twenty-nine years of her life, and only now was becoming a full, real person.

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