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Still Lake


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But there was no murderer on the loose. She was just getting spooked by the unnerving reminders of those long-ago deaths. The boy had been caught, and even if he’d eventually been freed, in most people’s minds there was no doubt he’d done it.

Though her unwelcome neighbor probably had some other theory, or why would he bother snooping around?

No, it was much more likely to be Marty or Grace sneaking out of the house. Marty slipping out for cigarettes or a boy. Maybe Patrick Laflamme wasn’t nearly as stalwart as Marge had promised.

She opened Marty’s door just a crack, breathing a thankful sigh that she’d oiled the hinges, and peered in at the bed. Marty was sprawled on top of it, her fuchsia-streaked hair startling against the pillow, her face innocent in sleep. For a moment Sophie couldn’t move, as a wave of nostalgia washed over her. For all her sullen, teenager defiance, Marty was still a kid. The little sister Sophie had always loved, and somehow felt responsible for. Her parents’ deaths had hit her hard, but Sophie had done everything she could to make up for it, to give her a home and security. Seeing her like that, her defenses washed away by sleep, reminded Sophie just how much she loved her and always had. And reminded her to thank God Marty wasn’t in the garden shed with Patrick. And the spiders. And the ghosts.

That had been an odd thing for Grace to say. God help them all if she started seeing ghosts and apparitions. Sophie wasn’t about to put her in a nursing home—Grace was her responsibility, and Sophie had every intention of keeping her home as long as possible. But how would a delusional old lady mix with her well-heeled clientele?

Sophie closed the door just as silently and made her way down the stairs, carefully avoiding the seventh one that always squeaked no matter how she tried to fix it. Sure enough, Grace’s door stood wide open, her rumpled bed empty in the moonlight.

Sophie didn’t hesitate. She grabbed a flashlight and a shawl she’d draped across a chair and ran out into the damp night air.

The moon had vanished behind a cloud. There was a mist rising from the lake, spreading out over the sloping lawn like a velvet fog. She tried to beam the flashlight toward the woods, but the light simply bounced off the rolling mist, and there was no sign of anyone.

She couldn’t afford to wait. Grace would be heading back to the Whitten place—she’d developed a fascination for it. Or maybe it was a fascination for Mr. Smith, though Sophie doubted it. That particular weakness seemed to be left to her usually hardheaded daughter.

She plunged into the woods, fighting her way through the overgrown ferns and saplings, as the fog swirled around her. The air was cool and damp, almost clammy, and Sophie pulled the shawl tighter around her. At least she wore decent cotton nightgowns, not the skimpy shorty pajamas Marty favored or the slinky silk that used to be Grace’s style. She was still shivering, probably because her feet were bare and cold, but she was determined to catch up with her errant mother before she happened to wake her mysterious neighbor. The last thing she wanted was another midnight confrontation with the man. Especially after that kiss this afternoon. Right now all she wanted was to keep her distance.

She could always head back home and call Doc. He’d come out and find Grace, and provide a buffer if Smith decided to come calling. But what if Grace had headed in the opposite direction? Did Sophie dare waste time?

No, she’d be at the Whitten place. Sophie had found her there any number of times, sitting on the porch, humming softly. Her mother seemed to have a fascination for the old house, and an entirely unhealthy fascination for the man who’d rented it. She wouldn’t go anywhere else on a midnight stroll.

The Whitten cottage was set in a little clearing among the towering white pines, and the moonlight filtered through the darkness, glancing off the rolling fog. The mist was almost like a living thing. Some giant, lumbering beast, some strange enchantment from an old fairy tale, wrapping itself around the cottage. The house was dark, but the front door was open, and Sophie breathed a silent curse. She was too late.

Or maybe not. There were no lights on—clearly Grace hadn’t woken the tenant yet. Maybe there was a chance she could get in there, retrieve Grace and get out before Smith even realized his privacy had been breached once more.

The porch creaked beneath her bare feet, and she tiptoed carefully across it, pushing open the screen door and peering into the house.

“Ma?” she whispered, not too loud. At least Grace still had all her faculties, even if her memory and reasoning power were shot all to hell. If she was there she’d hear Sophie calling her. “Grace, are you there?”

She couldn’t see anyone, any movement, and she stepped inside, squinting in the darkness. Immediately the smell assailed her, the unmistakable scent of old wood and paint and years of lakeside living, mixed with the unexpected note of fresh lumber. She took a deep breath, inhaling it, fighting off the wave of pure longing. This should have been her house, Sophie thought for a blind, covetous moment.

And then she remembered what she was doing here. And who was upstairs asleep. “Ma?” she whispered loudly.

She didn’t dare climb the narrow stairs to the second level. She was already playing with fire—besides, Grace wasn’t the stealthy sort. If she was here, Sophie would have heard her. She tried one last time. “Grace?” she called in a stage whisper.

“She’s not here.”

Sophie shrieked. Smith had appeared out of nowhere, looming up in the darkness. Blocking the doorway. “What are you doing here?” she demanded in a panicked voice.

“I live here, remember?” he said with thinly disguised impatience. “And your mother hasn’t wandered over here tonight. What made you think she had?”

“She’s missing.” It was bad enough that she was standing in his house in the middle of the night in her nightgown. Somehow the darkness made it worse. Not that she wanted bright lights to expose what she was wearing. Though in fact the nightgown had more fabric in it than some of her dresses. She was being stupid. “Why are you prowling around here in the dark?” she demanded.

“It’s my house, I can prowl around all I want. In fact, the power’s out. I was just calling the electric company.”

“You told me your phone didn’t work.”

“It didn’t work yesterday. They hooked it up today. Why don’t you call your house and see if your mother’s there?”

“She won’t answer the phone.”

“Your sister will. That way you’ll know whether you really need to panic or not.”

“All right,” she said grudgingly. He sounded too damned practical for her, and she wanted to get away from him as fast as she could, but if Grace was missing she needed to get help quickly. “Where’s the phone?”

“Over by the sofa. You’ll have to feel your way there—I don’t have a flashlight or candles.”

“I do,” she said, remembering it belatedly, and she switched it on, shining it on Smith.

Big mistake. He was wearing a pair of ragged cutoff jeans and nothing else. There seemed to be acres and acres of naked, tanned, warm male skin right in front of her, and she dropped the flashlight, which immediately went out, plunging them back into darkness again.

“Smart move,” he drawled. “Did you see a ghost?”

There it was again. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” she said.

“Given the history of this place that’s probably just as well,” he muttered. “Give me your hand.”

“Why?”

“I said your hand, not any other part,” he said, annoyed. “I’m going to lead you over to the telephone, preferably without you breaking your neck in the process.”

“I think I should just go back…”

He’d already grabbed her hand. He could see better than she could in the darkness, and she had no chance to pull away. His hand was big, strong, warm. Flesh. He moved past her into the pitch-black room. The doorway was empty. She could yank her hand free and run for it if she could just take him by surprise.

“Don’t think you

can run away,” he said, tugging at her. “I won’t be responsible for you getting lost in the woods any more than I would for your mother. I have at least a faint sense of decency. Come on.”

She didn’t bother struggling—it would have been undignified, and her tattered dignity was her only defense by that point. She let him lead her through the darkness, and she only banged her hip once against a wooden object before he placed her hand on the telephone. “There,” he said, sounding impatient.

The impatience was both reassuring and annoying. He didn’t want her there any more than she wanted to be there—he’d made that entirely clear. He just had a sense of responsibility beneath his remote exterior.

It was an old-fashioned dial phone, probably black and ancient. Touch-tone would have been hard enough in the dark. By the fifth attempt she could hear the phone ringing on the other end, and she only hoped to God that she’d dialed the right number and not some frosty Vermonter.

She let it ring. Her eyes were just beginning to get used to the darkness, and she could tell that Smith’s body was once again blocking her escape route. Why did he have to be so damned big? So damned there? So damned naked? It was a cool night—he should be sleeping in pajamas like any sensible man, not in skimpy little cutoffs….

“Yeah? What is it?” Marty’s sleepy voice finally answered the phone.

“Grace has disappeared. I’ve been looking everywhere for her—would you check her room and see if by any chance she’s come back in? I’d hate to call the police for nothing.”

“All right.” She sounded martyred, as always, and Sophie clutched the phone tightly as she listened to Marty’s footsteps shuffle away.

It seemed to take her forever. When she finally got back on the phone she’d gone beyond begrudging to outright annoyed. “She’s sound asleep in her bed, Sophie.”

“Are you sure? I heard the door close and…”

“I’m sure. You must have been dreaming. Where the hell are you, anyway?”

“I’m at the Whitten place. I thought she might have come back here….”

“The Whitten place? O-kay.” There was no doubt Marty knew exactly who she was with. “Don’t wake me up when you get back home.”

“It’ll only take a couple of minutes. You’ll still be awake.”

Marty’s laugh was far from comforting. “Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not. Have fun, sis. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Marty…” But Marty had already hung up the phone—leaving Sophie with no choice but to hang up the other end and somehow figure out a way to get by her unwilling host without him touching her again.

He wasn’t there. He’d disappeared while she was talking to Marty, obviously having lost interest in her. Again one of those moments of regret-tinged relief. At least he wouldn’t interfere with her leaving.

She headed straight for the door, bumping into two more objects and almost knocking down a table in her haste. “Thanks for letting me use the phone,” she called out into the darkness as she pushed open the screen door.

“Anytime,” he said from the porch. “Now, why don’t you tell me why you really came here.”

12

She should have known she couldn’t escape that easily, Sophie thought. Not the way her luck had been running. He was standing on the porch, leaning against the railing, and the moon had come out again, sending a silvery light over the landscape, a shimmering trail on the mirror-still lake. He was even better-looking in the moonlight, she thought irritably. Why couldn’t life ever be simple?

She pushed open the screen door, letting it slam behind her as she stepped out onto the porch. Into the night. “I told you why I came here,” she said patiently. “I was looking for my mother.”

“Who was sound asleep in bed.”

“It was a logical assumption. She was here the other night,” Sophie protested. “I thought I heard the outside door closing, and when I went down to check on her, her room was empty.”

“Did you think to check the bathroom?”

“No,” she muttered. “That was probably where she was. She gets up several times during the night.”

“Too much information,” he drawled. “So why the panic tonight? It would have taken only a moment to see if your mother had wandered off, and presumably no one could have gotten in without jimmying the door. You do lock the doors, don’t you?”

“Do you think I’m some kind of idiot?” she demanded huffily.

Wrong question. “Yes. What kind of lock do you have?”

“Whatever came with the house.”

“Jesus Christ, woman, don’t you have any sense at all?” he exploded. “The first thing you should have done was have the locks upgraded on the place. Three women alone out here at the end of the lake, with no one around…”

“You’re around,” she pointed out.

“I just got here. And you trust me about as far as you’d trust Jack the Ripper. Don’t you have any sense of self-preservation?” He sounded really annoyed with her.

“The crime rate around Colby is very low,” she said in a haughty voice.

“This year, maybe,” he muttered. “Get new locks for the doors. It won’t keep anyone out who’s really determined, but it could slow them down.”

“Why would someone want to break in?”

“People do all sorts of strange things. Maybe someone’s developed a mad passion for you.”

“Thanks a lot,” she said wryly. “The notion is not that strange.”

She couldn’t see his expression in the shadows. The moon was behind him, silvering him with an almost eerie light. He had bony shoulders. She liked bony shoulders. Oh, God, she liked him, she realized with sudden horror. Not his personality or his presence or anything about him. Except his body. And his mouth.

Why the hell was she reacting like this to the most disturbing man she’d ever met? At this time in her life?

She didn’t show a glimmer of what was racing through her mind. “I better get home,” she said after a moment.

He was watching her. He leaned against the porch, lazily, as if he hadn’t a care in the world except to bait her. Maybe it was only her crazy emotions, roiling around beneath her determinedly calm exterior, or maybe he was just as tense as she was despite his negligent pose. She couldn’t tell what was going on under his enigmatic exterior.

“Yeah,” he said, not moving. For her to leave, he’d have to move out of the way. But he showed no signs of moving. “Tell me something. What the hell are you wearing?”

Presumably he couldn’t see the blush that warmed her face. She pulled the shawl more tightly around her shoulders. It was a warm night for late August, she was wearing a voluminous Edwardian nightgown, and he was making her feel naked.

“It’s a nightgown. Haven’t you ever seen one before? I would have thought a man of your vast experience would have seen women in nightgowns before.” Shit. In her effort to be arch and cool she’d inadvertently brought up the subject of sex. Obliquely, but it was there, between them, and she didn’t want to talk about sex with John Smith or whoever the hell he was.

The slight curve of his mouth, his very sexy mouth, was his only reaction. It was enough. “I have to admit that most women I sleep with are naked. They certainly don’t wear things like that. You look like a doomed bride. All you need is a bouquet of dead flowers and a tattered veil and you could haunt this place quite nicely.”

Ghosts weren’t any improvement over sex as subject matter. Not when she had to walk by what had once been a murder scene.

“It’s a nightgown, and I’ll have you know it came from Victoria’s Secret!”

“Not the Victoria’s Secret I know. Trust you to consider that sexy.”

“I don’t consider it sexy!” she protested.

“Then why are you wearing it?”

“Because I don’t care about sex.” Shit. He’d trapped her into it. And in fact, it was a lie. She hadn’t cared about it before. All he’d had to do was kiss her,

and she couldn’t stop thinking about it. And why the hell didn’t he put on more clothes—his chest, his stomach, everything about him was distracting her, making her think about things she didn’t want to even consider.

He pushed away from the post, and she thought he was going to let her leave. She was wrong. He came right up to her, and there was no place for her to retreat. The screen door was pressed against her back, and he was blocking her way with his body. His moonstruck shoulders. His mouth.

“Oh, yeah?” he said mildly enough. He reached out and took the shawl in his hands, pulling it from her. She made a futile grab at it, but it was too late. He let it drop on the porch floor, at her bare feet beneath the ruffled nightgown. Then he began to unfasten the pearl button at her throat. She was having trouble breathing. “Prove it,” he whispered, unfastening the second button.

She finally looked up at him, stricken. “What are you doing?” she demanded in a strained voice.

“Seducing you.” He sounded remote, almost clinical, as his long fingers moved down the front of her nightgown, parting one button after another. It had too many buttons. “I would have thought a woman with your vast experience would have figured that out by now.”

“But…why?”

His low laugh was even more unnerving. “Because I want to.”

In another minute she was going to be naked in front of him, she realized dazedly. Why the hell hadn’t he shown up ten years ago—twenty pounds ago? She was not going to get naked with a man who hadn’t even told her his real name, who was nothing but hostile, who was looking at her out of hooded eyes that seemed filled with impossible desire, as the last button gave way beneath his deft fingers and the yards of white cotton fell to a heap at her feet.

At least it was dark. His eyes drifted down over her body, the ripe curves in the moonlight, and a dreamy expression crossed his face, just before he leaned forward and put his mouth against the side of her neck, tasting her hammering pulse.



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