Lake of Dreams by Linda Howard

  And there were new things to discover about him. He hadn’t been freeze-dried; he was a modern man, with memories and experiences that didn’t include her. Occasionally he used an archaic term or phrasing that amused her, until she caught herself doing the same thing.

  “I wonder why we remember, this time,” she mused as they strolled along a deserted lane, with the trees growing so thickly overhead that they formed a cool, dim tunnel. They had left his Jeep a hundred yards back, pulled to the side so it wouldn’t block the nonexistent traffic. “We never did before.”

  “Maybe because this is the last time.” He held her hand in his. She wanted to just stare at him, to absorb the details of his erect, military bearing, the arrogant angle of his dark head, the stubborn jut of his jaw. Panic filled her at the thought of this being the end, of losing him forever if she didn’t manage to outwit fate.

  She tightened her fingers on his. That was what she had to do: fight fate. If she won, she’d have a life with this man she had loved for two millennia. If she lost, she would die. It was that simple.

  THE NEXT MORNING, Thea lay motionless in the predawn hour, her breath sighing in and out in the deep, easy rhythm of sleep. The dream began to unfold, as long-ago scenes played out in her unconsciousness.

  The lake was silent and eerily beautiful in the dawn. She stood on the dock and watched the golden sun rise from behind the tall, dark trees, watched the lake turn from black to deep rose as it reflected the glow of the sky. She loved the lake in all its moods, but sunrise was her favorite. She waited, and was rewarded by the haunting cry of a loon as the lake awoke and greeted the day.

  Her child moved within her, a gentle fluttering as tiny limbs stretched. She smiled, and her hand slipped down to rest atop the delicate movement. She savored the feel of that precious life. Her child—and his. For five months now she had harbored it within her, delighting in each passing day as her body changed more and more. The slight swell of her belly was only now becoming noticeable. She had been in seclusion here at the lake, but soon her condition would be impossible to hide. She would face that problem, and her father’s rage, when it became necessary, but she wouldn’t let anything harm this child.

  She still woke up aching for the presence of her lover, weeping for him, for what might have been had he been anyone else, had she been anyone else. Damn men, and damn their wars. She would have chosen him, had he given her the chance, but he hadn’t. Instead he had simply ridden out of her life, not trusting her to love him enough. He didn’t know about the new life he had left inside her.

  The dock suddenly vibrated beneath her as booted feet thudded on the boards. Startled, she turned, and then stood motionless with shock, wondering if she was dreaming or if her longing had somehow conjured him out of the dawn. Faint wisps of mist swirled around him as he strode toward her. Her heart squeezed painfully. Even if he wasn’t real, she thanked God for this chance to see him so clearly again—his thick dark hair, his vibrant, sea-colored eyes, the muscular perfection of his body.

  Five feet from her he stopped, as suddenly as if he had hit a wall. His incredulous gaze swept down her body, so clearly outlined in the thin nightgown that was all she wore, with the sun shining behind her. He saw her hand resting protectively on the swell of her belly, in the instinctive touch of a pregnant woman.

  He was real. Dear God, he was real. He had come back to her. She saw his shock mirrored in his eyes as he confronted the reality of impending fatherhood. He stared at her belly for a long, silent moment before dragging his gaze back up to hers. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked hoarsely.

  “I didn’t know,” she said. “Until after you’d gone.”

  He approached her, as cautiously as if confronting a wild animal, slowly reaching out his hand to rest it on her belly. She quivered at the heat and vitality of his touch, and nearly moaned aloud as the pain of months without him eased from her flesh. Couldn’t he sense how much he had hurt her? Couldn’t he tell that his absence had nearly killed her, that only the realization she was carrying his child had given her a reason to live?

  And then she felt the quiver that ran through him, too, as his hands closed on her body. Pure heat sizzled between them. She drew a deep, shaky breath of desire, her body softening and warming, growing moist for him in instinctive preparation.

  “Let me see you,” he groaned, already tugging her nightgown upward.

  Somehow she found herself lying on the dock, her naked body bathed in the pearly morning light. The discarded nightgown protected her soft skin from the rough wood beneath her. The water lapped softly around her, beneath her, yet not touching her. She felt as if she were floating, anchored only by those strong hands. She closed her eyes, giving him privacy to acquaint himself with all the changes in her body, the changes she knew so intimately. His rough hands slipped over her as lightly as silk, touching her darkened, swollen nipples, cupping the fuller weight of her breasts in his palms. Then they moved down to her belly, framing the small, taut mound of his child.

  She didn’t open her eyes, even when he parted her legs, raising her knees and spreading them wide so he could look at her. She caught her breath at the cool air washing over her most intimate flesh, and the longing for him intensified. Couldn’t he sense how much she needed him, couldn’t he feel the vibrancy of her body under his hands? Of course he could. She had never been able to disguise her desire for him, even when she had desperately tried. She heard the rhythm of his breathing become ragged, and glowed with the knowledge of his desire.

  “You’re so lovely, it hurts to look at you,” he whispered. She felt one long, callused finger explore the delicacies between her legs, stroking and rubbing before sliding gently inward. Her senses spun with the shock of that small invasion; her back arched off the dock, and he soothed her with a deep murmur. And then she felt him moving closer, positioning himself between her legs, adjusting his clothing, and she lay there in an agony of anticipation waiting for the moment when they would be together again, one again, whole again. He filled her so smoothly that he might have been part of her, and they both gasped at the perfection of it. Then the time for rational thought was past, and they could only move together, cling together, his strength complemented by her delicacy, male and female, forever mated.

  Thea moaned in her sleep as her dream lover brought her to ecstasy, and then became still again as the dream altered, continued.

  The water closed over her head, a froth of white marking the surface where she had gone under. The shock of it, after the ecstasy she had just known with him, paralyzed her for long, precious moments. Then she thought of the baby she carried, and silently screamed her fury that it should be endangered. She began struggling wildly against the inexorable grip that was tugging her downward, away from air, away from life. She couldn’t let anything happen to this baby, no matter what its father had done. Despite everything, she loved him, loved his child.

  But she couldn’t kick free of the bond that dragged her down. Her nightgown kept twisting around her legs, instead of floating upward. Her lungs heaved in agony, trying to draw in air. She fought the impulse, knowing that she would inhale only death. Fight. She had to fight for her baby.

  Powerful hands were on her shoulders, pushing her deeper into the water. Despairing, her vision failing, she stared through the greenish water into the cool, remote eyes of the man she loved so much she would willingly have followed him anywhere. He was forcing her down, down, away from the life-giving air.

  “Why?” she moaned, the word soundless. The deadly water filled her mouth, her nostrils, rushed down her throat. She couldn’t hold on much longer. Only the baby gave her the strength to continue fighting, as she struggled against those strong hands, trying to push him away. Her baby . . . she had to save her baby. But the darkness was increasing, clouding over her eyes, and she knew that she had lost. Her last thought in this life was a faint, internal cry of despair: “Why

  Helpless sobs shook Thea’s body as she woke. She curled on her side, overwhelmed by grief, grief for her unborn child, grief for the man she had loved so much that not even her destruction at his hands had been able to kill her feelings for him. It didn’t make sense. He had made love to her, and then he had drowned her. How could a man feel his own child kicking in its mother’s belly, and then deliberately snuff out that helpless life? Regardless of how he felt about her, how could he have killed his baby?

  The pain was shattering. She heard the soft, keening sound of her sobs as she huddled there, unable to move, unable to think.

  Then she heard the Jeep, sliding to a hard stop in the driveway, its tires slinging gravel. She froze, terror running like ice water through her veins. He was here. She should have remembered that he had the same dreams she did; he knew that she knew about those last nightmarish moments beneath the water. She couldn’t begin to think what he was trying to accomplish by repeating her death over and over through the ages, but suddenly she had no doubt that, if she remained there, she would shortly suffer the same fate again. After that last dream, there was no way he could sweet-talk her out of her fear the way he had done before.

  She jumped out of bed, not taking the time to grab her clothes. Her bare feet were silent as she raced from the bedroom, across the living room, and into the kitchen. She reached the back door just as his big fist thudded against the front one. “Thea.” His deep voice was forceful, but restrained, as if he was trying to convince her she wasn’t in any danger.

  The deep shadows of early dawn still shrouded the rooms, the graying light too weak to penetrate beyond the windows. Like a small animal trying to escape notice by a predator, Thea held herself very still, her head cocked as she listened for the slightest sound of his movements.

  Could she slip out the back door without making any betraying noise? Or was he even now moving silently around the house in order to try this very door? The thought of opening the door and coming face-to-face with him made her blood run even colder than it already was.

  “Thea, listen to me.”

  He was still on the front porch. Thea fumbled for the chain, praying that her shaking hands wouldn’t betray her. She found the slot and slowly, agonizingly, slid the chain free, holding the links in her hand so they wouldn’t clink. Then she reached for the lock.

  “It isn’t what you think, sweetheart. Don’t be afraid of me, please. Trust me.”

  Trust him! She almost laughed aloud, the hysterical bubble moving upward despite her best efforts. She finally choked the sound back. He’d said that so often that the two words had become a litany. Time and again she had trusted him—with her heart, her body, the life of her child—and each time he had turned on her.

  She found the lock, silently turned it.

  “Thea, I know you’re awake. I know you can hear me.”

  She opened the door by increments, holding her breath against any squeaks that would alert him. An inch of space showed, gray light coming through the slot. Dawn was coming closer by the second, bringing with it the bright light that would make it impossible for her to hide from him. She didn’t have her car keys, she realized, and the knowledge almost froze her in place. But she didn’t dare go back for them; she would have to escape on foot. That might be best anyway. If she were in the car, he would easily be able to follow her. She felt far more vulnerable on foot, but hiding would be much easier.

  Finally the door was open enough that she could slip through. She held her breath as she left the precarious safety of the house. She wanted to cower behind its walls, but knew that he would soon break a window and get in, or kick down the door. He was a warrior, a killer. He could get in. She wasn’t safe there.

  The back stoop wasn’t enclosed, just a couple of steps with an awning overhead to keep out the rain. There was a screen door there, too. Cautiously she unlatched it, and began the torturous process of easing it open, nerves drawing tighter and tighter. Fiercely she concentrated, staring at the spring coil, willing it to silence. There was a tiny creak, one that couldn’t have been audible more than a few feet away, but sweat dampened her body. An inch, two inches, six. The opening grew wider. Eight inches. Nine. She began to slip through.

  Richard came around the side of the house. He saw her and sprang forward, like a great hunting beast.

  Thea cried out and jumped backward, slamming the kitchen door and fumbling with the lock. Too late! He would come through that door, lock or not. She sensed his determination and left the lock undone, choosing instead an extra second of time as she sprinted for the front door.

  The back door slammed open just as she reached the front. It was still locked. Her chest heaved with panic, her breath catching just behind her breastbone and going no deeper. Her shaking, jerking fingers tried to manipulate the chain, the lock.

  “Thea!” His voice boomed, reverberating with fury.

  Sobbing, she jerked the door open and darted out onto the porch, shoving the outside screen door open, too, launching herself through it, stumbling, falling to her knees in the tall, wet grass.

  He burst through the front door. She scrambled to her feet, pulled the hem of her nightgown to her knees, and ran for the road.

  “Damn it, listen to me!” he shouted, sprinting to cut her off. She swerved as he lunged in front of her, but he managed once again to get between her and the road.

  Despair clouded her vision; sobs choked her. She was cornered. He was going to kill her, and once again she was helpless to protect herself.

  She let her nightgown drop, the folds covering her feet, as she stared at him with tear-blurred eyes. The gray light was stronger now; she could see the fierceness of his eyes, the set of his jaw, the sheen of perspiration on his skin. He wore only a pair of jeans. No shirt, no shoes. His powerful chest rose and fell with his breathing, but he wasn’t winded at all, while she was exhausted. She had no chance against him.

  Slowly she began to back away from him, the pain inside her unfurling until it was all she could do to breathe, for her heart to keep beating. “How could you?” she sobbed, choking on the words. “Our baby . . . How could you?”

  “Thea, listen to me.” He spread his hands in an open gesture meant to reassure her, but she knew too much about him to be fooled. He didn’t need a weapon; he could kill with his bare hands. “Calm down, sweetheart. I know you’re upset, but come inside with me and we’ll talk.”

  Angrily she dashed the tears from her cheeks. “Talk! What good would that do?” she shrieked. “Do you deny that it happened? You didn’t just kill me, you killed our child, too!” Still she backed away, the pain too intense to let her remain even that close to him. She felt as if she were being torn apart inside, the grief so raw and unmanageable that she felt as if she would welcome death now, to escape this awful pain.

  He looked beyond her, and his expression shifted, changed. A curious blankness settled in his eyes. His entire body tensed as he seemed to gather himself, as if he was about to spring. “You’re getting too close to the water,” he said in a flat, emotionless voice. “Come away from the bank.”

  Thea risked a quick glance over her shoulder, and saw that she was on the edge of the bank, the cool, deadly lake lapping close to her bare feet. Her tears blurred the image, but it was there, silently waiting to claim her.

  The unreasoning fear of the lake gnawed at her, but was as nothing when measured against the unrelenting grief for her child. She changed the angle of her retreat, moving toward the dock. Richard kept pace with her, not advancing any closer, but not leaving her any avenue of escape, either. The inevitability of it all washed over her. She had thought she could outwit fate, but her efforts had been useless from the very beginning.

  Her bare feet touched wood, and she retreated onto the dock. Richard halted, his aquamarine gaze fastened on her. “Don’t go any farther,” he said sharply. “The dock isn’t saf
e. Some of the boards are rotten and loose. Come off the dock, baby. Come to me. I swear I won’t hurt you.”

  Baby. Shards of pain splintered her insides, and she moaned aloud, her hand going to her belly as if her child still rested there. Desperately she backed away from him, shaking her head.

  He set one foot on the dock. “I can’t bring that child back,” he said hoarsely. “But I’ll give you another one. We’ll have as many children as you want. Don’t leave me this time, Thea. For God’s sake, let’s get off this dock.”

  “Why?” Tears were still blurring her vision, running down her cheeks, a bottomless well of grief. “Why put it off? Why not get it over with now?” She moved back still more, feeling the boards creak and give beneath her bare feet. The water was quite deep at the end of the dock; it had been perfect for three boisterous kids to dive and frolic in, without fear of hitting their heads on the bottom. If she was destined to die here, then so be it. Water. It was always water. She had always loved it, and it had always claimed her in the end.

  Richard slowly stepped forward, never taking his eyes off her, his hand outstretched. “Please. Just take my hand, darling. Don’t move back any more. It isn’t safe.”

  “Stay away from me!” she shrieked.

  “I can’t.” His lips barely moved. “I never could.” He took another step. “Thea—”

  Hastily, she stepped back. The board gave beneath her weight, then began to crack. She felt one side collapse beneath her, pitching her sideways into the water. She had only a blurred, confused image of Richard leaping forward, his face twisting with helpless rage, before the water closed over her head.

  It was cool, murky. She went down, pulled by some unseen hand. The darkness of the dock pilings drifted in front of her as she went deeper, deeper. After all the terror and pain, it was almost a relief for it to end, and for a long moment she simply gave in to the inevitable. Then instinct took over, as irresistible as it was futile, and she began fighting, trying to kick her way to the surface. But her nightgown was twisted around her legs, pulling tighter and tighter the more she struggled, and she realized that she had caught it in the broken boards. The boards were pulling her down, and with her legs bound she couldn’t generate enough energy to counteract their drag.

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