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Still Lake


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He was a lot bigger than she was, and even though he was occupied in taking off the enveloping raincoat he was still blocking the doorway, and he wasn’t the type to be taken off guard. And she was so damned cold.

In the end it didn’t matter. He took her icy-cold hand and pulled her over to the fireplace. “Stay there,” he ordered, and she didn’t waste more than a moment considering escape.

There was nowhere else she wanted to be.

Oh, God, not the Curse of the Wilsons, she thought somewhat crazily. Life was complicated enough. She should run away, back home, and lock the doors. Lock him out, lock her ridiculous fantasies inside, and maybe they’d go away.

But they wouldn’t. She knew it with a depressing certainty. And she knew that all he’d have to do was come knocking on the door and she’d let him in.

She was doomed.

16

He’d never seen anyone look more pathetic in his entire life. Sophie had just stood there in the rain, staring at him out of whipped-puppy-dog eyes, and he’d had the absurd longing to put his arms around her and tell her everything would be all right.

He hadn’t, of course. Not his style. And it would have been a lie. He’d made a crack about her weight, enough to jar her out of her pitiful daze and make her move. He had to be careful, though. He hadn’t seen her in the light yet, but he’d come to the uncomfortable conclusion that her soft, luscious body was almost perfect. It would be a damned shame if he goaded her into starving away her curves.

He grabbed an armful of the threadbare white towels that came with the cottage and headed back into the living room. She hadn’t moved from the spot where he’d left her, and the firelight flickered against her blood-streaked face. Her hair was clinging damply to her head, her dress was streaked with blood and mud, and if anyone had ever looked like a drowned rat, she did.

He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to wipe the blood and mud from her, strip off her ruined clothes and warm her from the inside out. Last night had only been a start, and he’d had a hard time concentrating on anything but Sophie all day long.

And here she was, vulnerable, full of possibilities, and he wanted to explore each and every one of them, slowly, thoroughly. He didn’t want to think about murder, about the past, even about the future. He wanted to think about now, and Sophie, and the way she smelled like flowers and fresh-baked cookies.

He dumped the towels on a wicker chair. “Did you see what you look like?” he asked, trying to keep his hands off her.

She looked at him instead, numbly. “What?”

“Over the window seat. There’s a mirror.”

She turned to look, obedient for a rare moment, and stared at her reflection. He’d half expected her to burst into tears.

Instead, to his surprise, she managed a rusty-sounding laugh. “Damn,” she said. “No wonder you’re being nice for a change.”

“I’m always nice,” he protested, starting to dry her head with one of the towels.

“Yeah, right. Ouch!” She grabbed the towel out of his hand. “I hurt my head, remember? I’ll take care of it.”

“Fine,” he said, reaching for another towel. “I’ll take care of your body.”

She took a step back from him, shooting him a warning glance. “I’ll break your hands.”

“You and what army?” She was cold—he could see the goose bumps on her arms, the faint shiver in her body. Damn, he really wanted to see her. The darkness had been a sensual treat last night. Now he was ready to get a good look at her.

But she was too miserable for him to push, at least for the moment. “Sit in the chair and I’ll get you a blanket,” he said after a moment. “Then I’ll see what I can do about that cut on your head.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“You’ve got it, whether you want it or not. And you’ve made your head bleed again.”

“I didn’t—you did,” she snapped.

At least she was still capable of fighting back. As long as he kept her pissed off she wouldn’t start crying again. He was really hopeless with crying women.

By the time he returned to the living room, a quilt in one hand and a poorly equipped first aid kit in the other, she’d done as he’d told her, sitting closer to the fire as she tried to dry her hair while avoiding the cut.

“Wrap this around you,” he said gruffly, handing her the old quilt.

“I will not!” she said, horrified. “That’s a double wedding ring.”

“It’s a what?”

“Double wedding ring quilt,” she clarified, as if to an idiot. “It’s probably from the 1930s. I’m not going to cover it with blood and dirt.”

“Wrap the fucking quilt around you or I’ll do it for you,” he said between clenched teeth.

She pulled the quilt around her shoulders, gingerly, jumping when he touched her head. “Quilts can be washed,” he added prosaically. She had a nice little cut on her temple, one that had bled profusely, but the bleeding seemed to have slowed. He dumped some peroxide on a swab and began cleaning it, more gently than he would have liked. He didn’t want to touch her gently. It would lead to other things, and he was coming to the belated conclusion that that was a very bad idea.

“It’s an antique,” she said. “The fabrics start to break down. You have to use special care in cleaning a quilt like this. You’d better bring it up to the inn and I’ll take care of it.”

“What the hell are you, Martha Stewart?” he grumbled. The wound was shallow enough, and it finally seemed to have stopped bleeding, but he put a butterfly bandage on it, anyway, just to be sure.

“You might say so. In a way. I write a column on housekeeping for a women’s magazine.” There was just a touch of defensiveness in her voice.

“So how come you’re not married?” Jesus, why did he ask a question like that? Was he asking for trouble?

Fortunately she was willing to avoid it. “None of your business.”

“True enough,” he agreed. He finished with the bandage. “That’s the best I can do for now.” The towel was streaked with blood, and he tossed it in one of the empty chairs.

“Why were you out there in the rain?” she asked, suddenly suspicious. “It’s hardly the night for a moonlight stroll.”

“Considering there’s no moonlight.” He pulled one of the chairs closer and sat. Close enough to reach her if he wanted to. He wanted to.

She turned her head to look at him. “Maybe you’d just come in from a drive up Route 16. Maybe you’re the one who tried to run me off the road.”

“Now, why would I do that?” he inquired in a lazy voice. “Killing you wasn’t exactly what I’ve been thinking about all day.”

She actually blushed. It wasn’t just heat from the fire—her cheeks turned pink and she looked away from him, flustered. “Then why were you out on a night like this?”

“Your car’s only a few hundred yards away from this place. I heard you take the corner too fast, heard the car end up in a ditch. For that matter, I heard you bawling your head off inside the car. At least you’d stopped by the time I found you. Trust me, going off the road is not enough reason for crying.”

“I wasn’t crying about going off the road,” she said, shutting him up for a minute.

Only for a minute. “Okay,” he conceded. “So what makes you think someone was trying to kill you?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Yes, you did. You said you thought I was trying to run you off the road deliberately. It wasn’t me, so it must have been someone else. You been making enemies around here?”

“Only you.”

He laughed at that. “Honey, you are so naive.”

Her cheeks turned pinker, and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to let her go tonight. Even if he knew it was the best thing for both of them, he just wasn’t going to be able to let it happen.

“It wasn’t deliberate,” she said. “It was a drunk driver, and he probably didn’t even realize he almost killed me

.”

“Maybe. What kind of car was he driving?”

“I don’t know. He had his brights on, and it happened so fast I couldn’t get a look at him. Or her, I suppose. I figured it would be a waste of time to go to the police. But maybe I should, after all.” She started getting out of her chair, but he put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her back down, gently.

“You can tell them tomorrow,” he said. “No one’s on duty this time of night—it would just be the state police in St. Johnsbury covering the area, and they’re probably busy enough.”

She stared at him. “How do you know that?”

He shrugged. “St. Johnsbury’s a small city with a lot of poor people….”

“No, I mean how did you know about the police coverage? For that matter, how do you know so much about St. Johnsbury?”

Shit. “I thought you’d already figured out I was a reporter. I would have done research.”

“You’re not a writer,” she said flatly. “I was wrong.”

“Glad you figured that out,” he said affably.

“You’re a cop.”

He blew out a disgusted breath. “Are you sure you don’t write fiction?” he said. “Why don’t you just accept the fact that I am who I say I am?”

“John Smith? Yeah, right. You have something to do with those old murders, I know you do, and it’s a waste of time trying to deny it. Maybe you were a young cop here at the time, and you’ve always been bothered that the killer got off on a technicality. Maybe you’re looking for proof that he really did it.”

“And exactly what good would that do? God knows where the poor kid is now. If he really did it, then I’d think he’d be suffering enough for what he did.”

“Well, that proves you’re not a lawyer,” she said. “You’d be more interested in justice.”

“It proves nothing but that you’re as innocent as a lamb about the way the world works,” he drawled. “Lawyers don’t care about justice, they care about money.”

He knew he was annoying her by harping on her innocence. Too damned bad. He was still reeling from the fact that she was a gorgeous, thirty-year-old virgin. Or had been, until he got his hands on her. Hell, it had been almost as traumatic for him. He’d made an effort to keep his distance from vulnerable young women, preferring experience and emotional detachment. Somehow Sophie had managed to get beneath his skin.

“I need to get home,” she said.

“It’s still raining.”

“That’s all right. I’m already soaking wet.”

“I could dry you off.”

She moved then, fast enough so that she was at the door before he reached her. She opened it, but he pushed it closed, and she turned.

“I want to go home,” she said in a shaking voice.

“Then I’ll take you home. If that’s what you want. What did you think I was going to do?”

“It’s what I want.” She didn’t answer his other question; she didn’t need to. They both knew exactly what he wanted to do. What she wanted him to do.

But she’d said no. And as far as he could remember, there was never a time when he hadn’t taken no for an answer. Unless maybe on a dark night twenty years ago. “Let me get my keys.”

“I can walk…”

“It’s pouring rain, and I don’t let women wander around in the woods alone at night, remember? Not unless they walk out on me when my back is turned, and I’m not turning my back on you again. I’ll drive you. The more you argue, the longer it will take. And I might try to make you change your mind.”

She shut her mouth at that, no more objections. He would have been amused if he wasn’t so frustrated.

No reason for him to be so edgy, he reminded himself, pulling his wet raincoat back on. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t gotten laid the night before, and very nicely, too, despite her inexperience. It wasn’t as if he was insatiable.

Except when he looked at Sophie, and he felt damned near voracious.

There was a hooded sweatshirt hanging on a peg, and he handed it to her. “Put this on. It might keep away some of the chill.”

She opened her mouth to argue, then closed it again. Smart of her. He would have stopped her mouth with his, just to see if she wanted to change her mind.

He half expected her to take off and try to make it through the woods on her own, but she dutifully ran from the porch to his car, ducking inside.

It started on the first try, damn it, and he put it into gear, backing out into the rain-swept night. She sat beside him on the seat, muddy feet pressed demurely together, hands tucked in her lap, her bedraggled skirt around her ankles, and all he could think of was how much he wanted to see her in something skimpy and slinky and sexy. She shouldn’t cover up all that lovely flesh with goddamned ruffles.

He turned the heat on, and they drove up the driveway in silence, passing her car as they went. “Do you want me to call the garage tomorrow?”

“I’ll take care of it,” Sophie said stiffly.

“Suit yourself.” He headed toward the inn, and the Jaguar slid briefly in the mud. He could see Sophie’s hands fisted in her lap, and he was half tempted to gun the motor, just to see what would happen if they went into a spin.

He was too mature for that. He drove up the winding drive to the inn sedately enough, pulled up to the kitchen door and parked. He expected her to leap out of the car while it was still moving, but as usual she managed to surprise him.

She turned around to face him and held out her hand like a perfect little lady. Her grubby, bloodstained hand. “Thank you very much for taking me home,” she said, her voice stilted.

He could feel a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, but he solemnly took her hand and shook it. “I live to serve.” He didn’t release her hand.

She noticed, but she didn’t pull away. “Are you a cop?” she asked.

“No.”

“Are you a writer? Reporter?”

“No.” Her hand was growing warm in his grip, and she bit her lip. He was going to have to kiss her.

“Then what are you?”

“Extremely turned on.” And he pulled her across the seat, onto his lap.

She struggled only for a minute, long enough to feel his erection beneath her, long enough to make him hornier than ever. And then she stilled, looking at him out of those huge, wary eyes.

“Sorry,” he said, absolutely unrepentant. “I can’t resist.” He slid his hand behind her neck, beneath her wet, tangled hair, and brought her mouth to his.

He half expected another argument. A struggle of some sort. Again, a surprise. She made that soft, hungry sound that had already emblazoned itself in his senses, she put her hands on his shoulders, and she kissed him back, her tongue sliding against his.

His reaction was immediate. He pulled her tighter against him, sliding his other hand up under the baggy sweatshirt to cover her breast. Why the hell had he suggested she wear an extra layer of clothing, when all he wanted to do was pull it off?

He could feel her heart thudding beneath his hand, and he knew it wasn’t fear—it was plain, simple desire. He turned her in his arms, his mouth never leaving hers, until she was sitting astride him on the bench seat, pressing against him, and he wondered whether he could talk her into doing it this way for her second try at sex.

He broke the kiss, moving his mouth down the side of her neck as he reached underneath her full skirt to touch her.

She let out a quiet little squeak, and pushed against him for a breathless, agonizingly wonderful moment, and he wanted to make her come that way, first, before he unfastened his jeans and pushed inside her. If he could hold out that long. He couldn’t ever remember wanting a woman so damn much—he was practically out of control, and his hands were shaking as his fingers slid beneath her panties.

She was wet. The feel of her against his hand, her soft neck beneath his mouth, the movement of her hips against him, the soft whimpering noises she made just before she exploded in a little shimmer

of climax that made him almost desperate to join her.

He reached down for his zipper, fumbling, but Sophie came back to her senses with a thud, and she scrambled off him with a choked sound of horror. A moment later she’d practically fallen out the door, and the last he saw of her she was running up the hill to the kitchen door. It slammed shut behind her.

He swore. Slowly, carefully, with as much vibrant obscenity as he could possibly come up with. He really needed to punch something, but there was nothing but the burled walnut dashboard, and he had his priorities straight.

He sat back and looked at the building through the driving rain. The dark, deserted wing stretched out behind the cozy inn—bleak, deserted, keeping its secrets. Now was as good a time as any—Sophie would be too upset to even notice where he’d gone.

But he’d left his flashlight back at the house. And he didn’t feel like scrambling through the debris and mud to stand in a place that might have seen violent death. Not tonight.

Tonight he was going home to jerk off, thinking of Sophie’s soft, sweet thighs.

That, or he’d punch something. Either one seemed a good release. The best he was going to hope for, on a long, frustrating night like this.

17

Sophie sat on the glider the next morning, legs curled underneath her, nursing a mug of coffee, as she watched the mist rise from the lake. Grace was up already—she was moving around her room, humming an off-key little tune. That was something new—Grace had always had perfect pitch. But as her illness had progressed, her tone had deteriorated, and it was hard to even guess what she was humming. It sounded a bit like Cole Porter crossed with Marty’s Limp Bizkit, but if there was a hidden meaning to her tuneless little song there was no way Sophie could figure it out.

She didn’t particularly want to. She had enough on her mind, not the least of which was wondering what the hell she was going to do about her car, her sister, her mother, her neighbor, her new business, her overdue column, the cut on her head and the miserable headache that even the strongest painkillers couldn’t dispel. How had things gotten so out of control in a matter of days? With no warning? Four days ago she had never heard of John Smith. Now suddenly she’d been having wild sex with a total stranger, and she would have done it again last night in the front seat of his car if she hadn’t come to her senses. Damn it.



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