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The Haunting of Josie

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In a new edition of a classic romance, "New York Times" bestselling author Hooper brings together the themes that have remained at the heart of all her work--passion, danger, and a touch of the paranormal--in a classic story of a woman haunted by the past and tempted by a man too irresistible to trust.
年:
2007
出版社:
Bantam
语言:
english
页:
256
ISBN 10:
0553443453
ISBN 13:
9780553443455
文件:
EPUB, 162 KB
下载 (epub, 162 KB)

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Contents

SYNOPSIS

PROLOGUE

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

EPILOGUE





SYNOPSIS




She was a woman of secrets in a house of shadows and he held the key....

Marc Westbrook would have made a good warlock, Josie Douglas decided--with his raven-dark hair, silver eyes, and even a black cat in his arms! She'd chosen the isolated house as a refuge, a place to put the past to rest, but now her gorgeous landlord insisted on fighting her demons ...and why did he so resemble the ghostly figure who'd beckoned to her from the head of the stairs?

In a novel that sparkles with her unique blend of romantic mystery and spicy wit, Kay Hooper once more demonstrates her talent for seduction and suspense. Will her bewitched hero succumb to his lady's sorcery or enchant her forever with a spell of his own?





PROLOGUE



From his position at the top of a small rise, he could see the house clearly. It was a nice house. An interesting house, with the definite possibility of lots of nooks and crannies. The roof was angular with peaks and gables, and the numerous windows gleamed redly from the light of the setting sun. A wide porch, complete with aging wicker furniture, ran along two sides of the house and enticed with a view of the surrounding countryside.

In the fall the view was rather cheerless. The vibrant, colorful leaves of the hardwood trees had dropped long before, leaving their branches bare, and the grass of the hills looked bleached and curiously flattened. He could see a sprawling, overgrown garden in back of the house, the paths hardly more than rabbit trails winding among ragged hedges, ivy-covered benches, greenish bird-baths, browned and dried flowers, and naked rosebushes in desperate need of pruning.

Still, it was an oddly inviting place, placid in the momentary pause between hot weather and cold, solidly there as if its roots were planted deeply. Though the garden and surrounding land was obviously neglected, the house itself showed signs of recent repairs: new shingles covered t; he roof, a thick layer of pristine gravel coated the driveway, and the scent of fresh paint lingered in the still, cool air.

Just beyond the overgrown garden, he could see the roof of another structure, perhaps a small cottage that, in a richer age, might once have provided living quarters for a housekeeping couple or the gardener. Or it might have been designed for guests, an elegant—if inconvenient—attempt to provide privacy. He could see nothing else of the building, but since the shingles covering that roof also appeared new, it looked as if the cottage had seen the same recent repairs as the house.

He returned his gaze to the house, studying the rather battered van that was parked at the end of the sidewalk and was packed to the brim with boxes and bags. As he watched, a slender, redheaded young woman in jeans and a sweatshirt came out of the house and went to the van. He couldn't see what she was doing since the bulk of the vehicle blocked his view, but in just a few minutes she returned to the house heavily laden with several small boxes, one garment bag, and a closed umbrella.

Ah. Obviously, she was moving in.

When she disappeared through the front door, he made his way down the hill toward the house. The gravel of the driveway crunched pleasantly under his feet, and he paused a moment to examine the small white pebbles. Then he continued on until he reached the remains of what had once been a picket fence surrounding the small front yard; there was only a single post now where a gate had once stood, and the post that had once held a mailbox now provided only a crooked platform where the box would have sat.

He jumped up on that and sat, waiting.

When she came back down the sidewalk, the woman paused and regarded him in surprise. She looked tousled but not at all tired. Her bright hair was caught in an untidy braid, with escaping wisps of red that framed her face, and there was a smudge of something sooty on her nose. Her unusual violet eyes were very bright and vivid with energy.

"Well, hello. Where did you come from?"

He liked her voice. It was quiet yet lilting, and vibrant with the same interest that filled her eyes. He replied to her politely, offering greetings.

Her smile widened, and she reached out to touch him, careful until he raised his chin and purred happily. Then she scratched him in just the right way, her slim fingers deft and knowledgeable as they moved beneath his chin and behind his ears.

"The realtor said the owner was living somewhere on the place in a cottage," she remarked to him, still gently scratching. "I suppose you live with him?"

He ventured a somewhat muffled response, his eyes half-closed and chin still raised in bliss.

"Well, you're not a stray, that's for sure. You've obviously been fed and brushed on a regular basis. And then, there's this." With a last scratch, she reached for the silver tag hanging from his decorative collar and read the single word silently. She raised her eyebrows as she met his limpid gaze. This time her voice held definite surprise. "Pendragon?"

He affirmed this cordially.

She laughed. "Forgive me, please, but that's an odd name for a cat—even a black one. Are you somebody's familiar?"

He expressed scorn for this.

She laughed again, obviously understanding—his tone if not the actual language. "All right, I was just asking. Well, Pendragon, my name is Josie. It's nice to meet you."

Since she accompanied the words with a luxurious stroke all the way down his back, his throaty response was more than usually delighted.

"You're welcome to check the house for mice or bugs," she told him agreeably. "And you can even sleep on my bed as long as whoever else you own doesn't mind."

He appreciated the delicacy of her invitation; only cat people understood that cats were never owned; if there was any belonging, it was on the part of their humans. He accepted her offer with dignified pleasure.

She chuckled and scratched him briefly under his chin. "Okay. The front door's open, so you can explore inside, but I'd appreciate it if you stay out of my way while I'm carrying stuff in. The last thing I need is to break something falling over you. Got it?"

He indicated that he got it.

"Good. Then welcome to Westbrook. That's the name of the house, they tell me. It's named after the writer who built it back in the thirties."

She stepped to the van and began pulling more boxes out, still talking casually to the watching cat.

"I didn't know about the writer until after I signed the lease, but it seems a good omen to me. I mean, Luke Westbrook is supposed to have said this place inspired him to write, so maybe it'll help me with my work. Think it might, cat?"

Pendragon replied with a suitably ambiguous opinion, and watched as she gathered up two file boxes, a small suitcase, and another umbrella, to carry inside. When she staggered up the sidewalk toward the house, a hint of movement from another direction caught his attention, and he raised his gaze to one of the high windows to search out the source of the motion.

It was hardly more than a flicker, as though a curtain had been twitched back into place.

Pendragon watched for a moment longer, but there was no further movement. He murmured something in the back of his throat and jumped off the mailbox platform. Tail held high, he strolled up the sidewalk toward the house.

Where there were lots of nooks and crannies.





ONE




"Excuse me, but—"

Josie nearly jumped out of her skin. Not only was the deep masculine voice unfamiliar, it was totally unexpected. Though there were houses scattered about the countryside, none was close enough to invite curious neighbors to stroll over, particularly on a dreary fall afternoon.

But even as she turned quickly away from her van to face him, she remembered that the owner of Westbrook was also staying "on the place" in a cottage, as the realtor had offhandedly explained. He hadn't explained a few other vital bits of information, however, and she was suddenly very conscious of her faded jeans, sloppy sweatshirt, and the disastrous state of her once-neat braid.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

Josie looked up into apologetic gray eyes, and for an instant couldn't say a word. He had a slight southern accent, which she liked, and the words were certainly sincere enough—but neither was responsible for her silence. She wasn't a woman who judged someone on first appearances and, in fact, tended to be so cautious that she made up her mind only after knowing someone for quite a while—but her initial impression of this man was so positive it was bewildering.

It had to be his looks, she thought dazedly. Now she knew what "drop-dead gorgeous" really meant. He was a couple of inches over six feet with the wide-shouldered, powerful build of a natural athlete, ruggedly set off at the moment by jeans and a mostly blue flannel shirt. No wedding ring, which might or might not mean he was single. He had black hair—not dark, not sable, and not any shade of brown, but raven black—cut in a layered, neat style of medium length with short sideburns and a natural widow's peak as rare as it was dramatic.

His eyes were such a light gray they appeared almost silver, very sharp and vibrant, and they were set beneath winged brows as dramatic and memorable as the widow's peak. The rest of his face was just as striking, gifted with high cheekbones, a perfect nose, and a mouth that was utterly masculine and filled with sensuality and humor. He had a strong jaw that showed a great deal of character and perhaps just a touch of stubbornness.

All in all, it was a remarkable face.

Josie knew she stared up at him for only a few seconds, but it seemed much longer. Clearing her throat, she managed to say, "It's all right—I'd just forgotten you were staying at the cottage. That is, if you're the owner?"

He nodded and smiled. "Marc Westbrook."

"Westbrook?"

"An ancestor built the house back in the thirties," he explained. "It's been in the family, one way or another, ever since."

"I see." Gathering her scattered wits, she noticed two things then. One, that he was carrying Pendragon, and two, that his left arm—the one he was using to cradle the cat—was in a cast from elbow to knuckles. And since she had missed both those rather obvious facts while she'd stared at him like an idiot, it said a great deal about the effect he had on her.

For heaven's sake, she had noted the lack of a wedding band while completely missing the cast and the cat!

Belatedly recalling her manners, she extended a hand. "I'm Josie Douglas." She no longer expected people to react to the name; Douglas was fairly common, after all, and without the singularity of her father's name to stir memories, few knew who she was.

"Welcome to Westbrook, Josie Douglas," he replied.

His grip was firm but careful, the touch of a powerful man wary of his own physical strength. It was probably usual for him to be cautious because big men often were, she thought, but she also knew that she did look a bit fragile.

She had long considered it her curse that she frequently roused protective instincts in the men she met; she assumed it was because she was slender, small-boned, and always pale. She looked helpless, apparently. Never mind that she seldom needed help and even more rarely wanted it; few males asked, they simply tried to help her.

The handshake lasted just a bit longer than necessary, and Josie could have sworn her flesh actually tingled when the contact with his was broken. Ridiculous. Of course it's ridiculous. What on earth was wrong with her?

Conjuring up what she hoped was an impersonal smile, she said, "I met Pendragon a couple of hours ago."

"Met him? I thought he was yours," Marc Westbrook said, with a glance down at the cat in his arms. "That's why I came over here, to return him to you."

She looked into the enigmatic china-blue eyes of the big black cat, then shook her head. "No, he just showed up a couple of hours ago. But he can't be a stray, surely?"

"I wouldn't think so, he's been too well fed—and he certainly doesn't have the beat-up, ragged appearance of a stray tomcat. But I've been out here for nearly two months, and the first I saw of him was when he rattled my screen door a few minutes ago." He set the cat on the mailbox platform, and Pendragon curled his tail around his forepaws and regarded them both placidly.

His eyes were definitely odd for a black cat, Josie reflected. They were Siamese eyes, vibrant blue and just faintly crossed, yet he didn't show any other sign of Oriental ancestry. He was large-boned and solid rather than slender, and his glossy black coat didn't have so much as a speck of white anywhere that she could see. And he was unusually large, weighing every ounce of what Josie guessed to be twenty pounds.

"Do you suppose he belongs to one of the neighbors, then?" Josie suggested, but rather doubtfully.

"As I'm sure you noticed on the drive out, neighbors are few and far between. Most of the land around these parts is pastured. There's a horse farm about two miles or so from here—they raise Thoroughbreds—and maybe half a dozen houses within a ten-mile radius, but that's it."

Josie knew; one of the reasons she'd picked this place was its virtual isolation. Of course, that was when she'd imagined the owner of Westbrook as being some elderly man, a widower, perhaps, who was renting out the main house because it had gotten too big for him, or something like that. But she should have asked. She really should have asked. Because she certainly hadn't expected a devastatingly handsome man somewhere in his mid-thirties with vivid eyes and a lazy voice who liked cats and seemed to have time on his hands…

What a landlord.

"He might belong to somebody around here," Marc Westbrook was going on, "but I wouldn't know who to ask."

Concentrating on the conversation, she said, "Then I guess we should give him the run of the place and see if he sticks around. If he does… an ad in the local paper asking if anyone's missing a black cat?"

"Suits me. We'll give it a few days. As a matter of fact, it's nice to have a cat around."

"They're good company," she agreed. "And Pendragon seems very polite."

Marc smiled. "Agreed. So, we'll wait and see. And we'll let him decide whose bed he takes over at night."

There was a brief silence that Josie found a bit unnerving. Casting about, she gestured slightly toward his left arm and asked, "An accident?"

"So they said. A drunk driver crossed over the median and I couldn't get out of his way."

"I'm sorry."

"So was he." Marc didn't seem to think that needed elaboration, because he continued in a lighter tone. "As far as I was concerned, it wasn't all bad. I hadn't had a vacation in years, and I hadn't realized how badly I needed one until I spent most of the first couple of weeks sleeping. The injuries were relatively simple; the ribs knit, and the cast came off my leg two weeks ago, so all I have to put up with is the inconvenience of having a cast on my left arm."

"You're left-handed?"

"Wouldn't you know it? Murphy's law. But even it's better now than it was; the damn thing started out covering the entire arm."

The explanation answered Josie's major question, but she asked anyway. "So you're convalescing?"

"That's the idea. My doctor thought I wouldn't rest in the city—I work in Richmond—so knowing I owned this property, he insisted I exile myself out here. Unfortunately for me, my doctor also happens to be my best friend from college, so he considers it his right to push me around."

Josie had the shrewd notion that nobody pushed Marc Westbrook around, not even his best friend, but she didn't say so. Instead she said, "I'd say this would be a good place to heal. Quiet. Peaceful."

His mouth twisted slightly, and the silvery eyes gleamed with amusement. "Yeah, right. Miles away from everything, and too far out for cable; so far, I've resisted the lure of a satellite dish, but it's only a matter of time until I give in to my lesser self. For the first time since college, I'm caught up on my reading, and I've discovered a dozen new ways to play solitaire."

"Bored?"

"Well, let's put it this way—the arrival of the mailman is the high point of my day; I have all the Richmond newspapers sent out here, as well as several from surrounding cities." His smile became even more crooked. "Until the accident, I led the very busy, not to say frantic, lifestyle of a criminal lawyer, and all this peace and quiet is driving me nuts."

She was amused and not unsympathetic, but also a bit uneasy. While there was nothing wrong with having an attractive man nearby—she was a normal woman, after all—she had an awful lot to do and only a year in which to do it, and she certainly didn't want anyone looking over her shoulder while she did it. Particularly not a criminal lawyer. Of course, since Marc was obviously recovered except for the arm, he would no doubt be returning to Richmond and work soon.

Probing as delicately as possible, she asked, "It won't be much longer, surely? I mean, after two months?"

"If my friend the doctor has his way, a few more weeks. This cast is due to come off in thirteen days—precisely—and after that it shouldn't be more than a couple of weeks before he has to admit I'm fit for work."

Josie couldn't help smiling, but her amusement changed to embarrassment when he went on dryly.

"So you don't have to be afraid I'll make a nuisance of myself for too long."

"I didn't—"

He chuckled, a low sound of genuine amusement. "No, you didn't say so, but I don't blame you for wondering. I'll admit, finding out I'd have a tenant in the house raised my spirits a bit, and I do hope you won't get too upset with me if I borrow a cup of sugar now and then—but I promise I won't try to use you to alleviate my boredom."

"Fair enough." She managed to keep her voice light, but she knew her face was still filled with color because she could feel the heat. It was another of her curses; her skin was very pale, but embarrassment instantly brought a vibrant blush to her cheeks. It gave her away every time, dammit. But at least he didn't comment.

"Good. Now—that said, can I help you unload the van?"

Josie had brought the first load of her belongings to the house early this morning; this was the second and final load, and it was a bit sobering that all her worldly possessions—except for quite a few boxes of books that were in storage—could be stuffed in the cramped space of two vans… She glanced behind her at the vehicle, still about a quarter full, then at her watch. It was almost five, and with winter approaching, it would soon be dark.

She hesitated for an instant, then said, "I think I'll leave the rest until tomorrow."

Mildly, he said, "I can manage pretty well even with the cast, you know."

Josie eyed him. "I don't doubt it. But I've had enough for one day, I think. Look, I was going to make some coffee—would you like some?"

"I'd love some," he accepted promptly. "Even with a coffee maker, I don't seem to have the knack."

"How do you know I do?" she asked in a wry tone as she reached back to close the van's side door.

"I don't—but the odds say your coffee has to be better than mine."

"We'll see." But she wasn't too worried, because the truth was she knew she could make very good coffee. She used a specially blended fresh-ground variety filled with taste. And a percolator.

As if he had understood their conversation, Pendragon jumped down from his perch and preceded them up the sidewalk to the house, his tail high. Dignified.

Josie had a hunch that the cat would indeed stick around, for a while, and that a newspaper ad would produce no one who had misplaced a beloved pet. There was just something about Pendragon, an air of independence and pride even greater than usual for a feline, and it spoke of self-sufficiency. Still, someone had certainly fastened the decorative collar around his neck and provided a name tag…

He had been somebody's cat long enough to earn himself a peculiar name, at least.

She dismissed thoughts of the cat as they went into the house, leading the way through the jumble of boxes and furniture still under dustcovers while Marc followed her.

"I should have had this place cleaned before you moved in," he said suddenly. "The last time must have been right after the interior was painted, and that was six months ago. I'd forgotten how dusty a house could get."

She glanced back over her shoulder to see him frowning slightly as he looked around. "A little dust certainly isn't going to hurt me," she told him. "Besides, I'm sure I'll settle in better if I spend the first few days cleaning for myself. It's an excellent way to get to know a house."

"I could get somebody out here—"

"No, please, I'd rather do it myself." She pushed open the swinging door leading to the kitchen.

Following, Marc said, "If you're sure." He looked around at the bright kitchen, which boasted a line of windows along one side to admit plenty of light, and was painted a cheerful pale yellow. The remodeling work had gone well in here, he decided, and the decision to practically rebuild the room had definitely been the right one.

All the appliances were new, as well as the deep double sink and sparkling fixtures; the tile countertops had been redone in a lovely white marbleized pattern, and the original old wooden table in the center of the spacious room had been replaced by a combination breakfast bar and work island. But even with all the improvements, the room still retained the cheeriness and warmth Marc remembered from his childhood.

"Have a seat," Josie invited, gesturing toward one of the stools at the breakfast bar. She went to the counter beside the sink, where her percolator was already set out with the bag of coffee. There were several boxes on the counter containing her kitchen things, and a number of dry goods stacked here and there ready to be put away in the pantry; she had already unpacked perishable groceries earlier and placed the food in the refrigerator.

"I meant to tell you before," she commented. "This is a great house."

"Thanks, I think so. Plenty of character. It was in pretty good shape when I bought it a few years ago," he offered, taking a stool at the bar. "Structurally, anyway. It was built back when houses were intended to stand for a hundred years."

Josie filled the percolator and set it up, looking over at him curiously. "You said this place had belonged to your family since it was built?"

"Yes—though it hasn't been lived in for any length of time since Luke Westbrook's death."

"Why not?"

"I don't think anybody had the nerve at first; the house was probably closed up for a good ten years or so after his younger brother—my grandfather—inherited it. Since then, it's been mostly used as a summer house, and passed fairly rapidly from hand to hand until I bought it from an uncle."

Josie turned and leaned back against the counter, frowning slightly. "Wait a minute. You don't think anybody had the nerve to live here? Have I missed something?"

"Mmm. The realtor told me there were things tenants had no need to know, but…" He eyed her, a slight smile playing about his mouth. "Do you spook easily?"

"Not so far." She smiled in spite of herself. "Out with it. I've leased a haunted house?"

Marc shook his head. "Nothing so colorful, I'm afraid. I stayed here during quite a few summers while I was a kid, and I can tell you there was never so much as a creaking floorboard or the rattle of a ghostly chain to disturb the night—to the intense disappointment of my cousins and myself. No, it's human tragedy rather than the supernatural, but quite a few people are either spooked by it—or squeamish. Luke Westbrook committed suicide here in 1944."

She winced. "How?"

"Shot himself. In that front parlor. At the time it was his study."

Great. Just where I plan to work. But she didn't say it aloud. Instead she said, "I knew who he was, of course; I love mysteries, and I've read most of his books. But I had no idea he'd killed himself."

"It was a hell of a story in those days, and got worldwide coverage even with the war going on," Marc said musingly. "He was fairly young—in his late thirties—and a very successful mystery writer."

"Then why did he kill himself?"

"According to the note he left, he was convinced he couldn't write anymore—it had been more than a year since his last book was published—and didn't want to live the rest of his life trading on existing work and trying to recapture past glory. Or words to that effect. He seemed to feel his only worth was as a writer, and if he couldn't do that, and do it as well as he had for the better part of ten years, he didn't want to go on. Apparently, he was well known for having a mercurial temperament, so nobody was much surprised."

"So the death of a famous mystery writer wasn't a mystery?"

"Ironic, huh? Judging by some of the remarks I heard from older relatives when I was a kid, I gather the family rather thought old Luke had let them down in more ways than one. A juicy murder would have been preferable to a tawdry suicide."

"People being what they are," Josie agreed ruefully.

"Yeah." He studied her for a moment, the pale gray eyes intent. "So you aren't bothered by the shadow of violence under this roof?"

"That's a nice way to put it. No, I'm not bothered. I imagine most old houses have seen episodes of violence. In fact, I once lived in a house where two separate murders had taken place years before. But since there were no mysterious stains on the carpet or ghostly footsteps on the stairs in the wee small hours of the night, I wasn't disturbed."

He smiled. "In case you're wondering, that front room has been completely redone a number of times during the last fifty years. Even the fireplace has been sandblasted."

"I wasn't feeling squeamish," she assured him.

"Good. Now… since you've heard all about this house and me, what about you? What compels you to spend a winter way out here in the back of beyond—alone?"

Josie stepped aside to rummage in one of the boxes for a couple of coffee cups and spoons, hoping the action looked more casual than it was. With only a brief hesitation she replied in a light, slightly dry tone. "If you must know, I decided to take a year off my job—I'm a teacher—and find out if I really have the guts and the ability to write." Which was certainly true, as far as it went.

"You don't look old enough to be a teacher."

Josie knew he was fishing. She also knew that she looked a good ten years younger than she was. Resigned, she said, "I'm twenty-eight."

"You still don't look old enough to be a teacher." He was smiling.

"The eight-year-olds I teach haven't noticed." She put cups and spoons on the bar, then rummaged in another box for the canister of sugar she remembered packing.

"None of my teachers ever looked like you. Even when I was eight."

It was the sort of comment, Josie thought, that was usual between a man and woman, expressing tentative interest and inviting a response. She was too much a woman not to feel pleased, but too wary to respond with encouragement. This was hardly the best time in her life to get involved with anyone, given what she had come here to do. And, besides, a mending lawyer on the verge of ending his country exile was doubtless not the best man with whom to get involved.

So, ignoring what he'd said, she merely said, "Ah, the sugar. I knew it was here somewhere. Do you take cream—milk?"

"Milk if you have it."

"I have it. I think." She got a slender carton from the refrigerator and placed it and the sugar on the bar. Behind her, the percolator was bubbling, and the rich aroma of coffee filled the room.

He sniffed appreciatively, but what he said had nothing to do with coffee. "Do you wear contacts?"

"No. And my hair is really this color. I swear." Her voice was resigned once again. He was hardly the first to ask that question, and she understood all it implied; nobody ever believed that someone with hair as red as hers could also have pale violet eyes.

Marc chuckled suddenly. "Sorry. I seem to be asking all the obvious questions."

Reminding herself that a lawyer was trained to hear nuances in people's voices and adept at reading them correctly, Josie managed to smile at him. "Well, a few of them. I know I look like a kid, and the coloring is a bit weird. And, before you ask, I'm a lot stronger than I look—and not at all sickly."

"I'll try to remember that." He didn't say anything else until the coffee was poured. After taking a sip, he sighed and murmured, "If there's a secret, I wish you'd share it."

Josie nearly gasped in surprise before she realized that he was talking about the coffee. Of course he was talking about the coffee. But if she started jumping whenever he said things like that, she was going to arouse his courtroom instincts for sure, she knew that.

"No secret. I guess some people are just born with the knack," she managed.

"You're definitely one of them."

"Thanks."

There was a short silence that Josie was too unnerved to break. It was left to Marc, who asked what he probably assumed was an innocuous question.

"So this is a kind of sabbatical for you?"

"You could say that, I guess. I worked hard during the past few years to save enough so I could take a year off and get out of the city to try writing. I taught during the day, and did research and typed term papers for college students at night. I lived in Washington."

He nodded slightly, his gaze never leaving her face. "Did you pick this place because of Luke Westbrook?"

She shook her head. "No, the realtor told me about him only after I'd signed the lease. I didn't go looking for the former home of a writer. I wanted a place out in the country, peace and quiet. As soon as I saw the photos, I knew this house would suit me."

"Am I being too nosy?" he asked her, having obviously noted her dry voice.

"It's probably a character flaw of lawyers," she replied, still dry.

"I should probably try to defend myself on that point—but all I'll say is that it's nice to have somebody to talk to, and you'll have to forgive me if I get carried away."

Josie wondered how a grown man could sound so damned wistful, and even as she warned herself that lawyers were also innate actors, she could feel herself weakening. With a sigh, she said, "I don't really mind—but don't you think we've both asked enough questions for the first hour?"

"Is that a polite request for me to leave?"

"Of course not. You haven't finished your coffee."

Chuckling, he did so. "All right, Josie Douglas, I'll get out of your way and let you get settled in. But you have to let me repay you for the coffee. I happen to make the best spaghetti sauce in the state, and it's no fun at all to cook for just one. Tomorrow night at the cottage?"

Josie's hesitation was momentary. "If I can bring the bread and salad, you're on."

"Great. Is seven all right?"

"I'll be there."

She saw him out the back door, and as he went down the steps and walked away from her, she noted that he was favoring his right leg, though it was more of a tentativeness than a limp. Obviously, it was a lingering effect from the broken leg. With the cast off two weeks, he was probably regaining strength and mobility slowly but steadily.

Josie watched from the back door as he wound his way through the overgrown garden toward the cottage she could barely make out beyond tall and unruly hedges, and wondered if she was crazy. Her interest in Marc Westbrook was perfectly understandable, of course, but it was out of character for her to let down her guard—even a little bit—so quickly.

Out of character… and dangerous. She couldn't afford to trust anybody, not until she'd done what she had to do, what she'd planned for so many long years. It could all fall apart if the wrong person found out. Even now—especially now—she had to be careful.

Her purse was on the counter not far from the percolator. She went to it and slid a hand inside, then drew out a dark and deadly little automatic. She held the gun in her hand, the weight familiar and reassuring. She wouldn't need it, she told herself firmly. Not out here.

But she kept the gun within reach, nonetheless.





TWO




The furnace died with a gasp and a thud around one in the morning, and she was too tired and sleepy to get out of bed and try to figure out what was wrong with it. Hardly an emergency situation, she assured herself drowsily. A few hours without heat wasn't going to kill her. Surely she'd be all right until morning…

Unfortunately for Josie, the night was a cold one, and a brisk wind searched out and explored all the chinks in the old house's armor with sadistic glee. She could feel several drafts blowing through her bedroom every time she poked her head out from under the scanty covers.

Bedding hadn't been included as part of her lease, so she'd brought her own, but most of that was still packed in one of the boxes downstairs; Josie had made her bed with sheets and only one thin blanket, too weary to take the time to hunt for the thick quilt and several other blankets she'd brought along.

Shivering, she invited the visiting black cat, who had remained companionably in the house all evening and accompanied her to bed, to get under the meager covers with her. She was pleased when he accepted. Some cats didn't like to sleep under covers or other things, but this one promptly curled up at her side, his unusually large and warm body radiating enough heat to counter some of the chill.

Even so, it was hardly the most comfortable night she'd spent, and when Pendragon woke her early the next morning by licking her nose and murmuring to her urgently, she felt the leaden weariness of someone whose body had been tensed against the cold for too many hours.

"It's like an icebox in here," she grumbled, pushing his face out of the way so she could draw the covers up over her head. The black cat was stubborn, burrowing his way back under the covers until he could find and lick her nose again.

Since even the gentlest cat was gifted by nature with a tongue like sandpaper, Josie knew her nose would soon be raw if she didn't give in to his determination. She pushed both him and the covers away and snatched the robe lying across the foot of her bed. Not that the thin garment helped; the room really was like an icebox.

She found her bedroom slippers, which were plush and offered real insulation against the chill of the wooden floors. It was only then that she noticed the face of her electric alarm clock was dark, and an experimental flick of the light switch confirmed her suspicions.

Great. Not just the furnace, but the power.

Accompanied by Pendragon, she went downstairs. His urgency was explained when he went immediately to the front door, and she let him out with a murmured apology. Cats, she knew, disliked having to ask the aid of their humans in their comings and goings; if Pendragon decided to stick around, she'd have to ask Marc about installing a pet door.

The house, dimly lit in the gray morning, looked a bit eerie as she passed through on her way to the kitchen. Boxes were stacked here and there, and dustcovers remained over most of the furniture downstairs. But, as she'd told Marc, Josie wasn't easily spooked, and she was too cold to care about anything except restoring power to the house.

A box of kitchen utensils yielded one of her flashlights, and the cellar door opened with a groan when she used a little muscle. She went down the wooden steps and into total blackness; the cellar had no windows to admit even dim light.

In the beam of her flashlight, she saw an incredible jumble of crates, boxes, and trunks crammed into the dark, earthy-smelling space. Shelves lined one wall and held dozens of sealed jars from the days when canning had been prevalent in "country" households, and another wall was covered with pegs holding items ranging from two shovels and a rake to bits of leather that looked to Josie like something from a horse's harness.

Shaking off fascination, she ignored the lure of old steamer trunks and stacked boxes, reminding herself that she was only a tenant here; the Westbrook family might have saved everything they'd ever owned, but that didn't mean she had any business pawing through their stuff. Her only legitimate business down here was to find—ah, there it was. The switch box.

The realty company had assured her that the house boasted a completely updated wiring system and a new furnace—a heat pump, actually—but Josie was familiar enough with old houses to check the obvious first. And sure enough, she discovered that something had kicked off the main breaker during the night. If it happened again, she told herself, she would definitely call an electrician out here to find out what was going on.

She cautiously reset the breaker and was instantly rewarded when a light near the foot of the steps came on. She also heard the hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen and was pretty sure of the distant thud of the heat pump coming on.

She picked her way back across the cellar, frowning a bit as she eyed the naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling near the foot of the steps. That was odd. She distinctly remembered opening the cellar door yesterday just long enough to glance into the black maw of steps; there had been no light on down here, and she hadn't turned one on.

She went back up the steps and the light went out obediently when she flipped the switch just inside the door.

"Gremlins," she murmured to herself. She shut the cellar door firmly, turned off her flashlight, and went about the normal morning business of fixing coffee and trying to wake up.

Pendragon made his reappearance a few minutes later, and she let him in the back when he rattled the screen door imperiously. He obviously expected breakfast, so she rummaged among boxes until she found a can of tuna, which he was pleased to devour delicately; a big cat, he had a big appetite.

Mindful that the hot-water heater needed time to get back up to speed, she elected to skip her usual morning shower. She carried her coffee back upstairs, braved the cold water to wash her face and brush her teeth, then dressed in jeans and a comfortable knit sweater.

By the time she returned to the ground floor, the coffee and warm clothing had made her much more comfortable. She wandered through a few of the downstairs rooms, musing about which ones she would use and ultimately deciding that the house was too nice to have any part of it closed up. She avoided the front parlor, not so much because of the tragic death that had occurred in the room but because all the file boxes containing twenty years of hard work were waiting there for her.

She wasn't ready to face that just yet.

It was barely eight o'clock when Josie went out onto the wide, inviting porch that ran along the front and one side of the house. She strolled toward the rear of the house, sipping her coffee and enjoying the crisp, chilled air of the morning. When she ran out of porch, she leaned against the sturdy railing and stood gazing over the garden. It must have been lovely once, she mused, with neat paths and the heavy and rich scent of flowers. It was a shame it had been let go.

She'd lived in apartments for most of her life, but Josie had always felt drawn to plants and flowers, and she'd frequently spent a few dollars of her weekly grocery money on houseplants. She had a green thumb, apparently; plants did well for her. She'd had to give all hers away when she left Washington, choosing not to try moving them.

Maybe, if Marc didn't mind, she'd work on the garden here this spring. After all, she couldn't spend every hour in the house, and the physical work out in the fresh air would certainly do her good. She could even do some work before spring, pruning and clearing away brush…

Her gaze drifted across the garden as a movement caught her attention, and she saw a dark man in jeans and a sweatshirt moving away through the woods beyond the cottage. Marc. He seemed to be following a very faint path, Josie thought. Probably one he followed every morning. The doctor would have suggested walking to strengthen his leg after the cast came off, and the rolling hills around here would provide a good workout for the various muscles.

She watched him until he disappeared over a rise. She sipped her coffee, then held the cup away and stared at it thoughtfully. After a moment she went back into the house and to the kitchen. Pendragon was sitting on one of the barstools washing a forepaw, but looked up to greet her politely.

"You're a responsive cat, aren't you?" she commented, digging into the last remaining box in the kitchen to be unpacked.

"Yah," Pendragon replied, and bent his head to begin chewing on one of his claws.

"It's a bad sign to bite your nails," Josie told him severely. "Still, I'd rather you bit them than ruined Marc's furniture sharpening them."

"Ppprupt," the cat mumbled, still working on his manicure.

Josie decided she'd better stop talking to him until he finished; he could bite off something important while trying to answer her. Anyway, she finally found what she'd been looking for. She studied the thermos, checking it for cracks or other damage, then went to the sink to rinse it out. This was probably not a good idea, she told herself. For her to go to all this trouble demonstrated far too much interest in Marc. He could get the wrong idea about her intentions.

But she could stick a note on the thermos when she hung it from the cottage's doorknob to greet him when he came back home, explaining this as being no more than a neighborly gesture. After all, anyone would appreciate hot—and good—coffee waiting for them upon their return from a long walk on a chilly morning. She was just being a good neighbor.

That was all.



She had the last of her things out of the van by ten that morning, and it didn't take long to get everything put away. The morning had warmed enough so that she elected to turn off the heat and open a few windows; airing out the house for a few hours seemed like a good idea, since it had stood empty for so long, and all the activity had her warm enough.

By lunchtime, the dustcovers were off all the furniture, the kitchen was spotless, and the den was well on its way. Josie took a break to make herself a light meal, and that was when she discovered she had no bread—but all the fixings to make several loaves as well as a few batches of muffins. Though she couldn't remember buying the stuff, she wasn't surprised; she frequently made her own bread because it was one of the things her mother had taught her as a child.

Perked coffee and fresh-baked bread? The man would probably think she was aiming for his heart by way of his stomach. Great. She'd insisted on cleaning the house herself, and even if he didn't know it yet, she had designs on his garden. And she taught school to little kids.

Just your typical tough-minded career woman.

Josie sighed and began making bread. She had to eat, after all. Maybe he wouldn't notice that the bread she brought for their meal tonight was homemade. And if he did… well, it wouldn't matter. She felt far too wary of him to relax in his presence, so her prickly attitude would doubtless counteract whatever domestic points he might have tallied up in her favor.

She caught herself giggling as she kneaded dough. What on earth was wrong with her? Even if matrimony had been a goal of hers—which it definitely wasn't—Marc hadn't given so much as a dim sign that he was looking for a wife, domesticated or otherwise. In fact, common sense suggested that would be the last thing on his mind. All he wanted was something—anything—to relieve his boredom while he finished healing. A little harmless flirting was probably as far as he would go.

And that was fine with her. They could enjoy occasional wary companionship over a meal, fence verbally to amuse each other—and in a few weeks he'd return to Richmond.

Josie found that unaccountably depressing, and the realization bothered her. After all, she was accustomed to being alone, and she'd always been content with her own company. She had learned, by necessity, to be independent and self-sufficient at a very young age. Her father had been too busy and preoccupied to be much of a companion at any time, and she'd been completely on her own for the ten years since his death. Before that, she had always taken care of him, especially during the last five years of his life after her mother had gone.

So the prospect of being alone again, even way out here, shouldn't have made her feel so low. Especially considering the fact that she had met Marc Westbrook only yesterday. He was too new to her life to be having any kind of effect on it.

"Yaaah?"

Wiping her hands on a dishtowel, Josie turned from the counter and her bread making to find Pendragon sitting pointedly by the cellar door. "I gather you want to go down there?"

"Yah."

"It looked awfully clean for a cellar; I bet you won't find any bugs or mice."

"Pprupp."

"You don't say." She caught herself smiling as she went to pull the door open for the cat. He stood there looking down at the stairs, then looked up at her and spoke sternly.

"Forgive me," she murmured, and leaned over to flip the switch on the wall. The light at the foot of the stairs came on, obedient to her touch.

The black cat murmured something in his throat and descended regally.

Chuckling, Josie left the cellar door open just a few inches and went back to her bread making. She liked cats very much, but she'd never shared her home with one. Even though many felines were apparently perfectly content with apartment life, Josie had elected not to have a pet because she spent so many hours away from home.

But she thought now that might have been a mistake. A pet might have helped her feel more… connected these last few years. Certainly less alone. She'd read somewhere that people with pets tended to be healthier as well as happier, and God knew there was something especially cheerless about coming home to an empty, silent apartment.

Deciding that she was depressing herself for no good reason, Josie turned on her portable radio and found some music she liked, and listened to that while she ate her lunch. She cleaned up afterward, checked on the progress of the bread, then took her radio into the den to finish cleaning in there.

It was about an hour later that she looked up from polishing a small table near a window and saw that Pendragon had emerged from the cellar. And he'd brought her a gift.

"All right, what is it?" she asked, approaching warily.

The big black cat made a soft, curiously contented sound and reached out a paw to bat at his offering. He looked up at her, obviously awaiting praise.

Josie's misgivings about dead or mortally wounded victims faded as she knelt before the cat. Lying on the polished wooden floor near glossy forepaws was a tarnished brass key. It looked old-fashioned and plain except for the loop of red satin ribbon, faded and threadbare, that might have been used to hang the key on a hook somewhere.

She held the key up and studied it. For a door somewhere in the house? She didn't think so. The doors here were big, paneled things with ornate knobs, and took keys much bigger than this one. She supposed it might have been designed for some kind of small box, perhaps a jewelry box belonging to one of the Westbrook ladies who had lived or stayed here during the past fifty years or so. The cat must have found it in the cellar—possibly still inserted into its lock—and was attracted by the dangling ribbon.

Gazing at Pendragon, she said, "I don't suppose you'd show me where you found this?"

He yawned.

"I didn't think so." Josie sighed.



"Homemade bread?"

Getting defensive about it, Josie decided, would only make matters worse. "Yes, my mother taught me how to make it when I was a kid," she told Marc casually.

"It smells great."

"So does your spaghetti sauce." She looked around the surprisingly spacious kitchen of the small cottage. It had that domain-of-a-cook appearance, with plenty of pots, pans, and utensils; a place for everything and everything in its place. He was clearly quite at home in it, and she thought ruefully that he was probably a much better cook than she was despite his inability to make coffee. He had thanked her solemnly for the morning gift of "wonderful" hot coffee the moment she'd arrived at the cottage.

Returning her gaze to Marc, who was stirring the sauce, she said, "Why do I get the feeling that you're probably a pretty good cook for a lawyer?"

He chuckled. "Something my father taught me. He believed in equality between the sexes, so there was no such thing as a 'traditional' role in our house. So I can cook, clean, and sew on buttons—and my sister's a first-rate mechanic. Of course, she can also cook and I can overhaul an engine. Dad was a very thorough man."

"And a handy one, from the sound of it." Josie was smiling. "So what does your sister do now?"

"She trains racehorses in Kentucky," Marc replied. "Anne has a veterinarian husband, three kids, and a houseful of pets of various kinds."

At the reference to pets, Josie automatically glanced toward the screen door leading from the kitchen to the back porch, but there was no sign of Pendragon. He had asked to be let out a few minutes before she had headed for the cottage, and she hadn't seen him anywhere in the garden.

Marc might have been following her thoughts because, without looking at her, he added, "Speaking of which—where's our feline visitor?"

"Outside somewhere." Josie hesitated, then said, "He wanted down in the cellar a few hours ago, and the next time I saw him he had a brass key with a faded ribbon attached to it. Do you have any idea what it might belong to?"

"Offhand, no, but feel free to look for yourself," Marc invited amiably. "I haven't been in the cellar in years, but I seem to remember that the family kept practically everything we ever owned—and most of it down there."

"I wouldn't feel right going through that stuff," she objected. "It belongs to you—"

"There's nothing personal down there, Josie, just the kind of junk families store in cellars and forget about. If you're curious about the key, you're welcome to explore; if you like cellars and attics—which some people do—you have my permission to rummage around all you want. Of course, if you do happen to stumble over a lost Rembrandt or something…"

"Of course," she agreed dryly.

He smiled at her, and Josie told herself that the leap in her pulse was merely because she loved exploring cellars and attics. Yeah, right.

The cottage was too small to have a separate dining room, but it did boast a breakfast nook with a bay window, and a small wooden table with two chairs gave the area a cozy appeal. They ate their meal there, and the food was so good that conversation was desultory until they finished. Afterward Josie helped him clear the table and load the dishwasher, and they ended up on the couch in the living room, where a cheerful fire burned in the fireplace.

"Why can't I make it taste this way?" he wondered ruefully, sipping the coffee that Josie had made using his coffee maker.

"We each have our little talents," she reminded him in a consoling tone of voice.

"I guess. But it isn't logical, you know. I watched you make this, and you did exactly what I do."

"Ah—but you didn't hear me murmur the magic spell."

Marc peered into his cup with a frown. "You didn't sprinkle a little eye of newt or toe of bat while I wasn't looking, did you?"

"Of course not. Today's magic spells are much more sophisticated. I used dragon's teeth."

"Which you just happened to find lying by the side of the road, I suppose?"

"Don't be ridiculous. Everyone knows dragons shed their teeth every leap year and pass them out only to redheaded witches with purple eyes and black cats."

After a moment's thought Marc said judiciously, "Your eyes are violet, not purple."

Josie had been enjoying the nonsense, but she felt her pulse give another of those peculiar little leaps when he looked at her with a faint smile and an intent gaze. His eyes were like very slightly tarnished silver, she thought, and with his dramatic black hair, widow's peak, and flying brows, he would have made an excellent warlock.

More nonsense.

Making her voice light, she said, "Well, you can't deny that my hair is red. Very red. And I do have a black cat, even if it's only temporarily."

"True." With a faint smile still playing about his mouth, he said, "You also have walls about a foot thick."

The observation startled her, and she knew he saw it. "We just met yesterday, in case you've forgotten."

Marc shook his head. "That isn't it, Josie. We've been fairly casual with each other, and talked all through dinner, but every time I asked a question about you—especially about your background—you were evasive and guarded."

Josie leaned forward to set her cup on the coffee table. She was trying to give herself time to think, but it was difficult when her awareness of him was so strong and when he was so close. There was no more than a foot of space between them, and that was too little for her peace of mind.

"You're imagining things," she managed finally. She leaned back, half turned toward him as before, and met his gaze, trying to keep her own calm and unexpressive.

"I don't think so."

She smiled. "I think you've been so bored that you're looking for any excuse to sharpen your lawyerly skills. But I'm not on the witness stand, counselor."

"I never thought you were."

"Funny. That's what it sounded like to me." Josie knew she sounded too defensive, but she couldn't help herself. She had spent too many years feeling defensive about who she was to be able to let go of that. Not now, at least. Not yet.

"I'm just curious," he told her in a neutral voice that was belied by his very sharp gaze. "The normal curiosity of a man who wants to get to know a lovely woman. Do you realize that all I know about your background is that you're a teacher and that you lived and worked in D.C. before you moved out here?"

"There's nothing else to know."

He lifted an eyebrow, which made him look even more like a warlock.

Josie debated briefly, then shrugged. And when she spoke, it was calmly but rapidly, offering him no opportunity to ask questions. "All right. I was an only child, born to parents who'd given up on having children until I surprised them. My father died ten years ago. My mother left fifteen years ago. I may have a few cousins scattered about, but for all intents and purposes I have no family.

"I like music, the theater, and movies—particularly old ones, and if most of my books weren't in storage, I'm sure you'd be impressed by the size and variety of my library. I love cats, which you know, and am also fond of horses and dogs in that order. Like you, I can cook and sew on a button, and I could even knit you a sweater if I felt so inclined. I can't overhaul an engine, but I can change a tire and check the oil, which is all I've ever needed. My favorite color is blue, my politics are mostly liberal, and if it matters to you, I'm a Scorpio—so don't mess with me if I'm in a bad mood."

Marc was smiling.

Josie went on stolidly. "My first boyfriend gave me my first kiss around the age of nine, as I recall; he did it on a dare, and I was curious, but our teeth got in the way, so neither of us enjoyed the experience. Needless to say, the relationship didn't last. Over the next few years I had several more boyfriends; at that stage, we mostly punched each other on the arm as gestures of affection. In junior high I reached the hand-holding-in-public stage with a boyfriend who knew how to kiss without getting our braces locked; we went steady for more than a year and pretty much fought like two cats tied up in a bag."

When she paused, Marc murmured, "Don't stop now. I've a feeling we're just getting to the interesting part."

She frowned at him. "Not really. I had the same boyfriend all through high school, but he ended up at Stanford while I went to Wellesley, and neither of us could commute—so that took care of that. I dated in college, but nothing serious. Since then, I've been working long hours, so there hasn't been a lot of time for a social life. And that brings us up to the present."

Marc nodded gravely and leaned over to place his cup on the coffee table. He seemed thoughtful, and when he leaned back and met her gaze, there was a heavy-lidded look to his eyes. It was unmistakably sensual. That was the only warning Josie had before he closed the distance between them, slid his unencumbered right hand under her loose hair to the nape of her neck, and pulled her slowly toward him.

"There's something I have to know," he murmured.

In the seconds granted to her, Josie knew she could stop this. She knew she could. All she had to do was stiffen, or pull away, or just say no. No, don't do that. No, I don't want to.

Except that she did want to.

She gazed into his heavy-lidded, tarnished-silver eyes until his lips touched hers, and then she closed her own eyes as an abrupt wave of dizzying pleasure washed over her. His mouth was warm, soft and hard at the same time, and incredibly erotic. She could feel the tension of wariness seeping out of her, feel her body soften and begin to tremble.

She wanted to reach out to him, touch him, but her mind was still too wary for that even if another part of her wasn't. She couldn't reach out. But she couldn't pull back, either, or deny even to herself the pleasure she felt and the overwhelming response of her body to his touch.

She felt the tip of his tongue probing, sliding along the sensitive inner surface of her lip, and a hot shiver rippled through her. She had never felt anything like it before, and was astonished to realize that it was desire. She had believed she'd felt desire before, but now she knew better.

This was desire, swift, hot, and urgent, and everything in her recognized the enormity of it.

Josie didn't know what she might have done if he hadn't drawn slowly away just then, because with that devastating desire had come a confused jumble of emotions she very badly needed to sort through and understand.

"Our teeth didn't get in the way," Marc murmured huskily as he drew back, "and there are no braces to lock, but I have to know how I stack up against your previous boyfriends. It's a macho thing, I'm afraid. The battle of conquest, and all that. So tell me—how do I compare?"

She blinked at him. "What?"

"As a kisser." He appeared perfectly serious.

Josie had a vague objection. "But you aren't my boyfriend."

"We're a little old for the terminology," he agreed. "How does lover strike you?"

After a brief moment of uncertainty, Josie got hold of herself. "I don't want a lover, thank you very much," she told him politely.

"No?"

"No." She wished somewhat desperately that she sounded more certain of that. Before Marc could pounce on her hesitancy, she drew away from the fingers lightly stroking her cheek and got up off the couch. "Now, if you don't mind, I've had a long day and I think I'll go home. Thank you for dinner, it was lovely."

He followed her into the kitchen as she headed for the back door and her path across the garden. "I'll walk you to the house," he offered.

"That isn't necessary," she told him as she opened the door. She had the unnerving feeling that he knew very well she was more or less bolting in panic.

"I insist," he said, following her out onto the porch.

"No, Marc, I'll be fine." She went down the steps, relieved when he didn't follow.

Sounding amused, he said, "Well, all right. But you didn't answer my first question."

Josie paused before taking the narrow path that would lead her home, and looked back at him. It was too dark to see him, especially with the light from the kitchen behind him, and his silhouette was so starkly masculine that her throat tightened up in response.

What had he asked? Oh, yes, of course—how he compared to her "previous boyfriends" as a kisser.

She wanted to lie about it, but although she could evade the truth when necessary, an outright lie was beyond her. Drawing a deep breath, she said, "A-plus. Dammit."

He had a nice laugh. But it didn't do much for her peace of mind to have it echo after her as she bolted home.



Pendragon had apparently found a way into the house, because he was waiting for her inside. Josie didn't know how he'd managed it, but made a mental note to herself to find out in the morning. At the moment she was tired and upset, and the idea of a nice long bath and an early night sounded terrific.

She made sure everything was locked up downstairs, then went up to the bathroom across the hall from her bedroom and began running water into the wonderfully deep claw-footed tub. The cat perched on the rim and watched the scented water rising, intent, and she wondered vaguely if he was the kind of cat who actually liked water.

That idle thought followed her back into her bedroom. She went to the dresser to find a fresh nightgown, and frowned when she saw the key lying there. Marc must have gotten her more rattled than she thought, she decided, because she could have sworn she'd left the key hanging on a hook in the kitchen, well out of Pendragon's reach.

Carrying her nightgown, she started to leave the bedroom—and stopped dead in the doorway. The upstairs hall was fairly dim with only the light from the bathroom and her nightstand lamp illuminating it, but she saw him clearly as he stood at the head of the stairs.

For an instant she thought it was Marc, but then she realized that this man's face was harsher, his eyes lighter. He had the same raven hair, widow's peak, and flying brows, though, and the same tall, powerful build.

And he was looking at her.

Josie couldn't move. She wanted to cry out, but couldn't make a sound. All she could do was stand there, frozen, and wonder wildly how he'd managed to get into the house.

Then she felt a cold, cold finger glide up her spine, when the man held out a hand to her as if pleading for something… and Josie realized that he wasn't really there. He couldn't be, because the hand he held out was insubstantial and she could almost see through it.

"Yahhh?"

She jumped almost out of her skin, her eyes skittering from the visitor to where Pendragon stood in the doorway of the bathroom. The big cat wasn't looking at her, he was gazing at the head of the stairs, obviously greeting someone because he was a friendly, responsive cat.

Josie followed his gaze, afraid to see the man there, and more afraid not to.

He was gone.

It took her several minutes to get up the courage, but she finally went through the house from room to room, turning on lights and checking closets, her gun in hand.

Every door she had locked earlier was still firmly latched, dead bolts fastened. All the windows were secure. There was no sign whatsoever that anyone was—or had been—in the house with her and the cat.

No one living, that is.





THREE




Josie didn't expect to get very much sleep that night after the unnerving encounter, but her body had other ideas. Though she was wary enough to lock her bedroom door and leave the lamp on her nightstand on, and had her automatic underneath her pillow—for all the protection any of that would provide against a ghost—she slept soundly from eleven that night until seven the next morning.

In the bright light of a sunny morning, what had happened the night before seemed even more incredible, and she couldn't help wondering if she'd imagined the whole thing. A ghost? Surely not. Though she hadn't been adamant about it, she had never really believed in the supernatural, and she felt a bit silly now when she considered the possibility.

Certainly too silly to mention what she must have imagined to Marc. Besides, he had specifically said this house wasn't haunted, and he should know after spending so much time here.

With that reassurance in her mind, she was able to shrug off what had probably not even happened the night before. After dressing in her usual casual jeans and a sweater, she went downstairs, and was surprised to find Pendragon sitting on one of the kitchen stools waiting for her. He didn't want out, he wanted breakfast. Josie fed him another can of tuna—her last one—and made a mental note to go to the store for cat food.

Then, while her coffee perked, she searched the house methodically until she found what she was looking for. The cat had been getting in and out on his own since yesterday, so he'd obviously found an open window or some other doorway; Josie didn't much like the idea of that.

But when she found it, relief replaced misgivings. Pendragon had discovered an actual pet door, one that seemed to have been created before such things had become readily available in pet stores. It was in one of the smaller side rooms, maybe a parlor or sitting room originally and one that Josie hadn't explored. A set of multipaned French doors opened out onto the porch, and at the bottom of one of the doors a pane of glass had been reset within a narrow frame and hinged to provide a virtually invisible access door for small pets. The glass was tinted a very faint rose color, presumably so that pets wouldn't forget there was a barrier. There was a tiny but sturdy sliding bolt that locked the door from the inside; it was so small, it would be easily overlooked, she thought, and it was no wonder she'd missed seeing it.

With the rueful hope that no raccoon or other small forest creature would come exploring, Josie left the pet door unlatched and returned to the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and, sipping it, idly opened the back door. The morning air was cool rather than cold, but she hardly noticed that because of what she saw through the screen door.

Marc had returned the thermos she'd forgotten the night before; he had probably brought it over before beginning his morning walk. It was sitting on the porch railing beside the steps, with a bright purple ribbon wrapped around it and tied in a jaunty bow; the ribbon rather clashed with the black, red, and yellow plaid in which the thermos was done, but the result was colorful and charming.

Josie stepped out onto the porch and retrieved the thermos. She took it back into the kitchen and, smiling, untied the purple ribbon. A nice touch, she decided. She was about to find a place in one of the cabinets for the thermos, but hesitated.

The previous night's possible ghostly encounter had occupied her thoughts and kept her from thinking very much about Marc and how he'd made her feel. But now there was nothing to distract her, and the memory of his touch was suddenly so vivid that she felt heat sweep up her throat to color her cheeks. Her heart seemed to be beating harder, and she could have sworn that her lips were actually throbbing.

"Good Lord," she muttered. What on earth was wrong with her? She couldn't recall ever having reacted this strongly even to the actual touch of another man—and certainly not to the mere memory of his touch.

With an effort, Josie shook off the sensations. And the ridiculous thoughts. After all, it made perfect sense if she considered the matter logically. In her present state of mind—unusually intense, highly conscious of her feelings of aloneness, and more than a little anxious—she was bound to react strongly to most any new element in her life. And as for the stunningly powerful response to Marc, after long weeks of convalescence, he had doubtless stored up so much sexual energy, it was practically radiating from his body.

No wonder her first impression of him had been so positive. With the combination of pent-up sexual intensity and extraordinary good looks, he could probably seduce a marble statue.

Josie found herself smiling again, and shook her head ruefully. Enough of this. She was being absurd, and that was all there was to it. Marc was her landlord and her neighbor; last night's kiss had been in the nature of an experiment—he had, after all, said as much—and that was as far as it would go. All she had to do was be distantly friendly and make it clear she had come out here for solitude.

Simple enough.

Again, she started to put the thermos up in one of the cabinets, and again she stopped and gazed at it, this time thoughtfully. Well… distant but neighborly. Surely there was nothing wrong in being a good neighbor.

"Should I?" she asked Pendragon, who was sitting on a stool washing paws and face after his breakfast.

"Yaahh," he replied promptly and definitely, holding one paw suspended as he looked at her.

She couldn't help laughing, but Josie found herself filling the thermos once again with hot, fragrant coffee. Ruefully aware that she might well be setting a dangerous precedent but shrugging off the possibility with a peculiar sense of defiance, she stuck a note to the thermos that said she had to make a trip to the store for groceries this afternoon, and if Marc needed anything, he should let her know.

As she had the day before, she took the coffee across the garden to the cottage and left it hanging on his doorknob, then returned to the house. She made her own shopping list while she ate toast with apple butter for breakfast and listened absently to the radio.

Finished with her meal and the list, she straightened the kitchen and put the list into her shoulder bag, which she left on the breakfast bar. She was just about to go into the front parlor and begin the mammoth task of organizing the jumble of files and papers into something approaching a system when her gaze fell on something she hadn't noticed before: a simple little cup hook just to the left of the cellar door.

Pendragon's key was hanging there.

For a moment Josie felt oddly suspended as she stared at it. That key had been lying on her dresser last night… though she wasn't at all sure how it had gotten there. She had noticed it this morning while brushing her hair, and had left it there in the bedroom. She was positive she had left it there. So how on earth had it gotten down here? The hook was at her eye level, which meant the cat could not have hung the key there even if he'd wanted to.

She went over and lifted the key from its hook, and studied it as it lay in the palm of her hand. Small, old-fashioned key of tarnished brass, faded ribbon. Yes, definitely Pendragon's key. She half turned and regarded the cat, who was still sitting on his stool. He had finished his morning ablutions and returned her gaze with his usual serenity.

"I don't suppose you hung this here?"

The cat tilted his head a bit in a very unfeline gesture, then made a throaty little cooing sound.

Josie wished she spoke cat, because she had the unsettling idea that Pendragon had just told her something important. Pushing that ridiculous thought out of her mind, she opened the cellar door and reached to flick the switch so the bare bulb at the foot of the stairs glowed to light. Then she paused and looked back at the cat.

"You do realize I'm only doing this because I'm not ready to face all that stuff in the front parlor, don't you?"

"Yaah," he responded very softly.

Josie didn't really believe the cat had been placing the key where she couldn't help but see it; in fact, she would have preferred thinking a ghost had done it. But even if she herself had subconsciously moved the thing—which was, naturally, the only thing that could have happened—it was probably a good idea to find out where it had come from and put it back.

That was all, of course.

Since the light in the cellar wasn't all that good, she got her flashlight and carried it down with her, tucking the brass key into her back pocket. For a moment she just stood looking around. The place seemed a little eerie, but she told herself that was only because it was so dark and so crammed with boxes and odd-shaped piles of things. There was certainly nothing unusual or supernatural down here, just the forgotten possessions of a family.

Even with that reassuring thought, she felt more than a little jumpy, but forced herself to begin methodically searching among the jumble of boxes, crates, and old furniture. There were remarkably few cobwebs, and no signs of bugs or mice, which was a definite relief since she didn't like either. And Josie didn't have to open anything, after all; Pendragon must have found the key hanging from a box or hook, something like that. All she wanted to do was find out where it belonged.

It couldn't have been much more than ten minutes later, when she'd been distracted by a stack of paintings leaning against the wall and draped with canvas, that a hail from upstairs made her jump.

"Hello?"

"Down here," she called, recognizing Marc's voice instantly. Leaving the paintings still covered, she began making her way through the clutter toward the stairs.

He met her at the bottom. "Hi. Sorry to just barge in, but the back door was open—"

"It's all right," Josie reassured him. "Was there something you needed?" Realizing belatedly how that question might sound, she felt a tide of heat rise in her face. But Marc either found no reason to comment or chose to pass it up.

"Yeah, I wanted to take you up on your offer and ask you to get a few things for me when you do your shopping this afternoon," he replied easily. Then he peered past the circle of light where they stood, and added, "Why is it so dark down here?"

"Because it's a cellar."

"Funny." He reached over to a light switch Josie hadn't seen on the wall near them and flipped it a couple of times. When nothing happened, he took the flashlight from her hand and made his way toward the switch box, saying over his shoulder, "When the place was rewired, I added more lights in a few places, including here. That switch should be on…" He opened the switch box and aimed the flashlight in. "But it isn't."

Josie blinked as the click of a switch being thrown was followed by generous light. Now illuminated by three more simple, bare-bulb fixtures, the cellar appeared relatively neat and certainly innocent, and Josie felt a little foolish when she remembered her earlier thoughts.

"This is much better, thanks," she said as Marc rejoined her.

"My pleasure." He turned off the flashlight and set it on the fourth tread of the stairs. "So you decided to explore down here after all?"

"Sort of. That key Pendragon found is beginning to bother me."

"Oh? Why?"

Josie started to tell him about the key turning up in places where she hadn't left it, but chickened out. She really didn't want to admit to something that sounded so odd, especially when she wasn't a hundred percent sure she hadn't moved the key herself. So, instead, she merely said, "I guess I'm more curious than I thought I was. You don't mind?"

"Mind your exploring? Of course not, Josie, I told you that. As a matter of fact, if you'd like some company, I wouldn't mind looking around down here myself. Lord knows what we'll find, but the search might be fun."

Josie barely hesitated. "Why not? I was planning to spend at least a couple of hours down here before lunch; that should satisfy my curiosity." She told herself she agreed to his suggestion only because she'd feel better about exploring in the presence of the owner of the house, but she didn't believe that rational reasoning.

She showed the key to Marc and explained her thinking on where the cat must have found it, and they began searching different areas of the cellar. For half an hour or so, the search was brisk and they said little to each other beyond brief comments on what they found.

"What is this?"

"An iron. I think."

"For clothes? You're kidding."

"No, and thank heaven for progress; permanent press is wonderful, and so are clothes dryers. A decorator would probably pay you a fortune for that thing—turn it into a cute bookend or something. Country chic."

"Well, there's a whole box of them here. I'll remember if I need some quick cash."

"You do that. Hey—I found a birdhouse. It must have been on that post in the garden. I wonder why they took it down."

"I wonder why they put it down here. My relatives kept the damnedest things… Here's a pair of shears with only one blade. Why keep that?"

"In the days before planned obsolescence, somebody probably meant to repair them. The way they must have meant to fix this two-legged stool."

"For God's sake…"

Though ostensibly helping Josie to look for the key's origins, Marc didn't hesitate to open trunks, boxes, and crates "just for the hell of it."

"We have to look for that lost Rembrandt," he told her, peering into an old steamer trunk that held an astonishing variety of peculiar kitchen utensils.

"Yeah, right." But it reminded Josie of the paintings she had been about to look through before he arrived. Abandoning, without much regret, her exploration of shelves full of canned preserves and somebody's rock collection, she made her way back to where the paintings leaned against a wall.

She had to push a box labeled books out of her way in order to get to the paintings, and that box came in very handy when she flipped back the canvas and saw the first painting—because she sat down rather suddenly and the box made an adequate seat.

"Marc? Who is this?" Josie thought her voice sounded very peculiar, but he didn't seem to notice anything as he came and knelt beside her.

"That is—or was—Luke Westbrook," he replied. "I'd forgotten there was a painting of him."

It was a good painting, well-done and beautifully lifelike, and the years had done surprisingly little harm to it. Stored in its heavy gilt frame and covered with the canvas, it hadn't even gotten dusty. But that wasn't the reason Josie felt so dazed. She felt dazed because this was the man she had seen at the top of the stairs last night.

He looked enough like Marc to have been an older brother. Features handsome but more rough-hewn. Gleaming black hair with that arresting widow's peak. Striking gray eyes a shade lighter than Marc's—less tarnish and more silver showing through. Painted as a writer would have been earlier in this century, sitting at his desk with a fountain pen in one well-shaped hand and a sheaf of papers before him, wearing suit and tie. A small, slightly off-centered smile curving his lips.

A male Mona Lisa, mysterious and enigmatic.

"Josie?"

She had never seen a picture of Luke Westbrook until this moment; Josie was absolutely sure of that. She'd had no idea that Marc so resembled his kinsman. So—even if she'd taken it into her head to conjure a ghost out of her own imagination, how could she have been so on target?

She turned her head slowly. The light here was especially good, illuminating the painting as well as her and Marc. Still kneeling at her side, Marc was looking at her, frowning. She wondered what her expression was like to cause him to look so concerned.

"Josie, what's wrong?"

"I thought you said this place wasn't haunted."

His eyebrows shot up. "As far as I know, it isn't."

Without taking her gaze off Marc, Josie jerked a thumb toward the painting. "Tell that to him."

Marc shifted so that he was turned toward her, still on one knee. He rested the cast covering his left arm on his raised knee and studied her with a gaze that was very concentrated and not a little unnerving. She decided that just so would he turn his scrutiny into a silver-sheened rapier to skewer a difficult or deceitful witness in the courtroom.

She didn't like it. At all.

Fierce, she said, "I did not imagine it! I saw him upstairs, in the hallway, last night—as clearly as I see you now. He might have been a bit transparent, but I saw him. Even the cat saw him, for God's sake—"

"All right." His right hand reached out to touch her knee. "I believe you, Josie."

Convinced he was only humoring her, she moved her knee to escape his hand and then rose to her feet. "I'd never seen a ghost in my life until last night," she muttered, picking her way through the clutter to head toward the stairs. "And I've discovered I don't particularly want to share a house with one. I'm telling you now, if he starts rattling chains or doing anything else spooky, I'm out of here." She tried to keep her voice light, but didn't think she quite pulled it off.

Marc followed her across the cellar and turned off the secondary set of lights before going up the stairs, accepting her obvious decree that their exploration was over for the day.

"I thought you didn't scare easily," he said as they emerged into the bright airiness of the kitchen.

Josie might well have fired up at that, but his tone was absentminded rather than provocative, and when she turned to look at him, it was to find him obviously bothered by thoughts darker than simple teasing or mockery.

"Maybe I was wrong about that," she said mildly.

"What was he doing when you saw him?"

Since the question appeared to be serious, Josie replied in a serious tone. "He was standing at the head of the stairs. I had just come out of my bedroom and—and there he was. Just standing there looking at me. I thought it was you at first, but his features were harsher and the clothes weren't right. He seemed anxious, frowning a little. He lifted a hand, his left, almost as if…"

"As if?" Marc prompted.

"Well, I got the impression he was… asking something. That he wanted something of me." She tried to laugh and knew the sound held little humor. "Then I heard Pendragon speak, the way he does when he's saying hello, and I looked at him. He was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, and he was staring toward the head of the stairs as if he saw somebody. When I nerved myself to look back there…"

"The… visitor was gone?"

"Yeah. I told myself he couldn't possibly have been a ghost, so I checked every door and window in this house, and nothing was unlocked. Absolutely nothing. There was nobody here but me and the cat."

"I see."

Marc was looking at her so oddly that Josie was convinced he thought she was nuts—a profession of belief in her story notwithstanding—and was seriously considering calling a padded wagon and having her hauled away. She couldn't really blame him, except for the tiny fact that she knew she wasn't crazy. Tension stole through her.

"Look, never mind." She turned away to discover he'd brought back the thermos and set it on the counter. Just wait and see if I fix him anymore coffee, dammit. "I probably imagined the whole thing. Do you have a shopping list for me?"

"Josie, I believe you."

She put the thermos into the cabinet with a rather final air and went over to get her purse. "I think I'll go now and get this done—"

"Josie." He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. "I said I believe you."

He didn't believe her, she was certain of it, and her tension increased to the point that it actually hurt. On some level of herself, Josie was aware that she was abnormally sensitive to anybody—anybody at all—doubting her word. She had spent too many years watching her father try to convince people he was telling the truth, only to fail time after time and be openly viewed as at best a liar and at worst a callous monster. The experience had destroyed her father, and had left Josie with a painfully heightened awareness of skepticism and disbelief—and a violent reaction to either.

If everyone had a "button," a sore spot deep in the psyche that, if touched, was guaranteed instantly to provoke them beyond reason, being doubted was Josie's.

But being aware of that did nothing at all to control the reaction. Stiff, she moved back away from him until his hands fell, wondering vaguely if her face looked as frozen as it felt. "Skip it," she said flatly. "I'm going shopping now, so if you have a list, hand it over."

He hesitated only a moment, gazing at her with a frown, but then reached into his shirt pocket and produced a folded list and some money. "Just a few things, if you wouldn't mind. Spend whatever's left on Pendragon," he told her, his tone a bit preoccupied. "Cat food, toys—whatever."

"Fine. I should be back in a couple of hours or so."



Instead of returning to the cottage after being so brusquely dismissed by Josie, Marc went only as far as a stone bench in the overgrown garden. He heard her van start up a few minutes later and caught a glimpse of her driving away, and then the quiet day settled over him.

What the hell had just happened?

From a friendly, humorous, and companionable woman enjoying their exploration of the cellar, she had turned into a stiff—no, dammit, frozen—woman with eyes that looked through him and a voice as flat as a copper coin run over by a train. Why? Because he hadn't instantly believed that she had actually seen a ghost last night?

Okay, maybe some people were touchy about things like that, but her reaction went far beyond touchy.

Marc leaned forward on the bench and rested his forearms on his knees. He looked up as a hint of motion caught his eye and watched Pendragon stroll down the narrow path toward him. The cat sat down a couple of feet away, tail curled around forepaws, and regarded the man with his faintly crossed and oddly Siamese-blue eyes.

"Yaah," he said softly.

"So you saw the ghost, too, huh, cat?"

His face wearing a permanent cat-smile, Pendragon blinked and made a throaty cooing sound.

Marc frowned at him. "No court I know of would believe a feline witness—and I have to admit having a few doubts myself, old chum. But, her now… do I believe her?"

"Yah," Pendragon replied briefly and emphatically.

Throwing off the notion that the cat had actually answered his question, Marc brooded silently. Did he believe in ghosts? No, he didn't think he did believe in them, although he hadn't given the matter much thought until now. Serious thought, that is. As a boy, he had certainly lain awake on more than one summer night listening eagerly for the creak of a ghostly step on a stair tread, but now, as a grown-up lawyer trained in reason and logic as well as the laws of probability, he discounted the idea of spirits wandering through his house.

But he had to admit he'd never before known anyone personally who had had a close encounter with a ghost, and so he had always been able to view the matter with detached objectivity.

Until now. And, even now, he tried to consider the possibility objectively.

Had Josie really seen Luke Westbrook last night? Logic said it was unlikely, even absurd. There were no such things as ghosts, and besides, if Luke had been haunting the house all this time, why hadn't anyone else seen him? As far as Marc knew—and he was pretty sure he would have known if it were otherwise—in the fifty years since his death, nobody had so much as caught a glimpse of Luke. So why suddenly would a complete stranger to the family be the audience of his belated appearance?

Logically, it was doubtful that Josie had really seen the ghost of Luke Westbrook.

Marc was, however, not so wedded to logic that he wasn't willing to suspend his disbelief—provided he saw old Luke himself. Until then, until he was presented with something his own eyes could verify, he knew he wouldn't be able to pretend a belief he didn't feel.

But why had she reacted so strongly to his doubts? Any rational person would expect to face skepticism on the subject of ghostly visitations, after all, and he was reasonably sure Josie was a rational person. Reasonably sure.

So why had she frozen up on him? Why had her reaction been so… extreme? He had enough experience dealing with people to feel sure there was a reason; people's strongest reactions tended to spring from the hurts they carried around with them, and those hurts rarely existed without cause. So what—or who—had hurt Josie Douglas?

It was Marc's nature to seek the solution to a puzzle, but with this one he felt an unusual sense of urgency. He hadn't liked being frozen out by Josie, he hadn't liked it at all, and he had no intention of allowing her to go on freezing him out. He told himself it was simply because he disliked being on bad terms with his neighbor/tenant, especially when she was a lovely woman with unusual eyes and a smile that had mysteriously found its way into his dreams last night…

He sat there for a few moments longer gazing toward the big house, frowning. He had the distinct feeling that Josie wasn't going to confide in him and would probably, in fact, continue to freeze him out unless he found a way past that protective shell. Without her help. So… how?

He certainly couldn't get into the house while she was gone and look through her stuff for his answers—that would be an inexcusable and unforgivable intrusion even if he could bring himself to do it, which he couldn't.

Marc got up and headed toward the cottage, vaguely aware that Pendragon was accompanying him. His right leg was aching a bit, and he rubbed the upper thigh with the heel of his right hand absently. It was going to rain soon. His doctor—and good friend—had told him that people who'd had bones broken could often literally feel in those bones changes in the weather, and he certainly could.

There was probably some scientific explanation, of course, like the pin in his thigh reacting to a change in barometric pressure or something. Broken bones never knit precisely, and the asymmetry probably had something to do with it as well…

Marc shook his head and went into the cottage, automatically holding the door so that the big black cat could come in. Pendragon had already chosen a favorite chair close to the fireplace, and he went immediately to make himself comfortable there. Marc got the portable phone and sat down on the couch. He didn't have to concentrate to remember the number, because it was a familiar one.

"Tucker? Marc."

"Hey, shyster, how're the bones knitting?" Tucker Mackenzie had played cops-and-robbers with Marc when the two had been boys in Richmond, and they were such close friends that any casual listener might have thought them enemies.

"They're knitting just fine, thanks to Neil—and no thanks to you. That jigsaw puzzle you sent nearly drove me out of my mind, and I'd like to know how the hell I was supposed to play that damned video game with my good hand in a cast."

"I was just trying to challenge you," Tucker explained innocently.

"You were trying to drive me crazy."

Tucker chuckled. "It sounds like I succeeded. Is the country exile getting to you?"

"Let's just say that the sounds of traffic would be music to my ears right now. Tucker, I need my car."

"Sorry, chum, but Neil promised to break a few of my bones if I gave in to you. When the cast comes off your arm, and not before, you know that."

Marc made a sound of exasperation. "Look, I'm practically healed—eleven days until the cast comes off—"

"Counting down, I see."

"Tucker."

With another chuckle, Tucker said, "Hey, don't snap at me. Neil is determined to make sure you stay far away from your office or any courtroom, and since he's my doctor as well as yours, I'd rather not upset him. He might do something nasty to me. Typhoid germs or something."

"You have a writer's imagination," Marc told him ruefully.

"Most writers do."

"Yeah, but yours works overtime."

"Which is probably why my books do so well." In a more serious tone, Tucker added, "Aside from helping you escape the wilds of the country, what can I do? If you're worried about your shiny new BMW, don't; it's nice and safe in my garage."

"No, I'm not worried about it, I just want it." Marc sighed. "I'd like to know what Neil has on you to make you so obedient to his commands."

Tucker didn't take the bait. "If you need anything, you know I'm available. I happen to be between books at the moment anyway, so I've got time on my hands. So?"

Marc hesitated, but only for an instant. He'd had this in the back of his mind all along, he realized. There was no one he knew who was better than Tucker at digging up information—and he could be counted on for discretion.

"How do you feel about doing a little research for me?" Marc asked slowly.

"You better not be working on a case."

"I'm not. This is something… personal."

"Oh, yeah?" There was immediate interest in Tucker's voice. "How personal?"

Marc cleared his throat. "Well, I have a new tenant in the house. She just moved in on Tuesday, and—"

"She?"

"Yes, she. Will you let me finish?"

"Absolutely."

Convalescence made a man touchy, Marc thought defensively, conscious of snapping at his friend once again. "The thing is, I need to have her background checked out."

"Why?"

Marc couldn't think of a single reason he was willing to give to his friend, and so he fell back on a flat and unanswerable response. "Because."

"Um. Is this a young woman, by any chance?"

"Late twenties."

"And attractive, I suppose?"

"Some would consider her… pretty." And any man in his right mind would consider that the understatement of the year, Marc reflected silently.

"Uh-huh. Are you worried about her stealing the silver?"

"No."

"Tearing up your house?"

"No."

"Disturbing your peace with wild parties?"

"If she threw a wild party, I'd be the first in line," Marc muttered.

There was a moment of silence, and then Tucker said musingly, "So this is personal. How about that. I've never known you to be so devious in finding out about a woman. The usual procedure, you know, is to ask. Invite her to dinner, make some of your legendary spaghetti sauce, ply her with wine."

"Yeah, well, I somehow doubt that would work."

"Already tried it, huh?"

Marc sighed. "Tucker, must I remind you that my patience is worn a bit thin these days?"

"All right, all right, I was just asking. Obviously, this lady requires a more delicate touch. So you want me to do a little research into her life. Fine, I'd be glad to. What am I looking for? Hobbies you can discuss with her? Political affiliations? A criminal record?"

"I don't know, dammit." Marc hesitated, then said, "Look, there's just something… off center. I've dealt with enough witnesses to know when somebody is hiding something—and she is. She seems very reluctant to discuss her background, for one thing. And when I doubted something she'd said, she went into a deep freeze so fast I nearly got frostbitten."

"Sounds like an interesting lady."

Warningly, Marc said, "I don't want you coming out here, Tucker."

"You're hurting my feelings. Why not?"

"Because you're predatory."

"I resent that."

"I imagine you might, but it's the truth. The last time I introduced you to a lady, she broke a date with me to accompany you to the racetrack."

"My fatal charm. She was wrong for you anyway. Come to think of it, she was wrong for me too."

Their mostly good-natured competition over women had been going on since junior high, and though there had been one actual fight that Marc could remember, the contest generally ended with the amicable concession of one or the other. To date, the honors were fairly equally divided between them.

Marc was a bit surprised at himself now to realize that he definitely did not want Tucker anywhere near Josie.





FOUR




Tucker was surprised as well—and thoughtful.

"So you want the lady all to yourself, huh?"

"I didn't say that."

"Yes, you did." Before Marc could retort, Tucker went on cheerfully. "Okay, give me her particulars. Name, age, height and coloring, measurements, her car's tag number, if you know it. Stuff like that."

"Her name's Josie Douglas; I have no idea if Josie is short for Josephine, and I don't know if that's her first or her middle name. She's twenty-eight. About five-foot-five and very slender. Red hair, violet eyes."

"Violet?" Tucker asked in surprise.

"Yeah."

"Unusual. Measurements?"

"Forget it, Tucker."

"Well, can't blame a man for trying." Tucker laughed. "Did you happen to get a look at her car tag?"

Marc, who had an almost uncanny memory for numbers, rattled off the tag number of Josie's van and described the vehicle. "I don't know much more," he said. "She says she's an elementary teacher taking a year off to try and write."

"That sounds like I'd have more in common with her than—"

"Forget it, Tucker."

"I was just making an observation."

"I know what you were just doing. Forget it. If you show up out here, I'll tell Josie you're an ex-felon I helped put away years ago."

"You're a defense attorney."

"In order to get my client off, I found out and was able to prove you'd done it."

"Done what?"

Exasperated, Marc said, "I'll think of something dire. And I'll make her believe it."

"Ummm. I suppose you would, at that."

"Can we get back to the point, please?"

"Sure we can. You were telling me what you knew about Josie. She's taken a year off to try and write, and… ?"

"And she used to live and teach in D.C., although I don't know if she was born there. Father died about ten years ago, mother left about five years before that. No siblings. Oh, and she went to Wellesley."

"The spaghetti must have worked a little." Tucker noted dryly, "since you do know a few things about her."

Marc ignored the comment. "How long do you think it'll take you to find out anything?"

"Oh, hell, at least a few days. Maybe even a week or two. Thanks to one of my hacker friends, I can tap into a few data banks most people don't have access to, but even with the computer it's going to take a little time, Marc."

"Will you call me as soon as you have something?"

"Sure."

"Thanks, Tucker."

"Don't thank me yet—I might not be able to find out any more than you already know. But I'll try. And if you don't mind a bit of advice from an old friend—or even if you do—you might try to forget you're a lawyer when you're with the lady, okay? She might not like being on the witness stand."

"I never—"

"Sure you do. You always do. Bye, Marc."

He listened to the dial tone for a moment, then turned the phone off and set it on the end table, frowning. Did he tend to pounce on people, automatically probing for the truth even in a casual situation? It was an unsettling possibility.

Resolving to try to watch that, Marc turned his attention to the problem of Josie. The problem of how to get closer to Josie. His intuition told him that if he pressed her to confide in him before she was ready to do so, she would simply fold up her tent and leave; she didn't trust him. In fact, a reluctance to trust anybody might well turn out to be one of her problems, and only time and knowledge would prove to her that he was trustworthy.

So he would have to walk a fine line, refusing to be frozen out while at the same time fighting his instincts to dig for the truth.

Great.

He looked down at his left arm, absently flexing his fingers. Maybe being forced into patience was a good thing, he thought. With this awkward plaster weighing him down, he felt like a bird with a broken wing, and no man liked to feel that way with a lovely woman about—unless, of course, he wanted to appeal to her maternal instinct.

Marc grimaced. No. The last thing he wanted from Josie was mothering.

So—in eleven days, the cast would be off and he'd be virtually back to normal. Sometime during those eleven days, Tucker would probably have at least some information about Josie's background, information that Marc could use to get through her frozen shell.

She was not going to like finding out that he'd had her background researched, he knew that. But he wasn't doing anything unscrupulous, he told himself, since whatever information Tucker found—most of it anyway—would be a matter of public record, available to anyone who wanted to look for it. And it wasn't as if he meant in any way to hurt her or shout her secrets to the world. No, he only wanted to understand.

Already rehearsing my defense. That alone told him he wasn't comfortable with what he was doing—but he couldn't pull back now. Having once chosen a particular course, Marc tended to stick with it all the way.

He looked up to find the big black cat watching him intently with Siamese eyes, and almost unconsciously spoke aloud to his feline companion.

"I have a feeling I'm going to risk frostbite again unless I can convince her I don't believe she imagined seeing the ghost of my illustrious ancestor. So… how do I convince myself that she could have seen him? I don't believe in ghosts."

"Yaaah," Pendragon commented succinctly.

"Well, that's probably excellent advice, but I don't happen to speak cat," Marc told him dryly.

Pendragon uttered a throaty murmur and jumped down from his chair. He stretched languidly, unexpectedly distinct muscles rippling under the glossy black coat, then yawned. He looked at Marc for a moment, then abruptly pounced on nothing at all and began to play with it.

Marc had observed other cats chasing figments of their imaginations, a pastime that seemed to provide exercise as well as entertainment, and he watched Pendragon absently as the cat batted his invisible prize here and there. Around a leg of the coffee table, under a chair, even bounding over the couch in an athletic leap, Pendragon happily chased his figment. He cornered it at the bookshelves by the window, and a moment later a thud announced that in wrestling with his figment, he had somehow dislodged a book.

Curious, Marc went to see, and found the cat innocently washing a forepaw with his other one planted firmly on the book lying on the floor. Nothing else on the shelf had been disturbed, and Marc frowned as he bent down and picked up the book.

It was an old book, long out of print, since it had been published in the forties. It was a biography of Luke Westbrook, the only one in existence that had been written by someone who had actually known the mystery writer; Marc knew of the book, even though he'd never read it.

It also happened to be the only book about Luke Westbrook on the shelf—and in the cottage.

"Coincidence," Marc heard himself say in a rather peculiar tone. "Pure coincidence." He looked at the cat, who uttered another of those throaty murmurs of his and then went placidly back to his favorite chair.

Marc returned to his own place on the couch, holding