Three women caught in a web of secrets and dark desires—
Rooke Tyler lives a solitary life in a small town on the Hudson River, carving intricate headstones in an exclusive cemetery for the county's wealthy families. At night she pours her dreams and desires into the figures she sculpts-waiting for the woman she senses in the stone.
Adrian Oakes knows there are things in life that defy rational explanation—she has spent her life avoiding casual contact with others, because sometimes what she feels draws her into a world of dangerous attractions and dark desires.
Melinda Singer, a beautiful seductive art dealer, wants both women and will stop at nothing to have them. When fate brings the three together, passion and destiny ignite.
Secrets in the Stone
Brought to you by
eBooks from Bold Strokes Books, Inc.
eBooks are not transferable. They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.
Please respect the rights of the author and do not file share.
Secrets in the Stone
© 2009 By Radclyffe. All Rights Reserved.
ISBN 13: 978-1-60282-269-6
This Electronic Book is published by
Bold Strokes Books, Inc.
Valley Falls, New York12185
First Edition: July 2009
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Editors: Ruth Sternglantz and Stacia Seaman
Production Design: Stacia Seaman
Cover Design By Sheri ([email protected])By the Author
Love’s Melody Lost
Love’s Tender Warriors
Turn Back Time
When Dreams Tremble
The Lonely Hearts Club
Secrets in the Stone
The Provincetown Tales
Beyond the Breakwater
Distant Shores, Silent Thunder
Storms of Change
Winds of Fortune
Above All, Honor
Love & Honor
Honor Under Siege
Word of Honor
A Matter of Trust (prequel)
Shield of Justice
In Pursuit of Justice
Justice in the Shadows
Justice For All
Erotic Interludes: Change of Pace
(A Short Story Collection)
(A Erotic Short Story Collection)
Stacia Seaman and Radclyffe, eds.
Erotic Interludes 2:Stolen Moments
Erotic Interludes 3:Lessons in Love
Erotic Interludes 4:Extreme Passions
Erotic Interludes 5:Road Games
Romantic Interludes 1:DiscoveryAcknowledgments
Authors always say they write because they “have to.” True, I think, for all of us, that need for self-expression. There are lots of other reasons, of course—passionate belief, outrage, joy, intellectual curiosity, fame and fortune. Well, maybe not the last so much. I write because I have never found any other experience that engages my heart and mind to equal extent—or that was as much fun in the process. This book was an adventure, in character, in tone, in style, in story. I am happy that after thirty-one novels and dozens of short stories, I can still enjoy the journey, and I sincerely hope that you do too.
Many thanks to first readers Connie, Diane, Eva, Paula, RB, and Tina; to Jennifer Knight for her always-insightful critique and suggestions; to Ruth Sternglantz and Stacia Seaman for outstanding editorial guidance; to the unsung heroes aka proofreaders; to Sheri for graphic brilliance; and to you—the reader—for taking another voyage with me. Deepest gratitude.
And to Lee, for always being the light in the dark.Amo te.
For All the Secret TreasuresChapter One
A harsh glare pierced the murky depths of the tunnel, accompanied by a rumbling roar that reverberated in Adrian’s bones. Frigid air carrying the scent of snow blasted her, and she flinched back, blinded by the light. Bodies pressed close around her, whispers of anticipation hammered at her eardrums, and she struggled to shut out the disorienting tumult as the northbound Acela screeched to a halt at the platform.
Gripping her briefcase, overnight bag, and a cardboard cup of take-out coffee, Adrian let herself be carried by the press of the crowd into the business-class car, where she finally dropped into a window seat with an overwhelming rush of relief. She’d never been good in crowds—too many seething emotions, too many unwanted caresses masquerading as innocent touches. Determined to dispel the lingering discomfort, she pulled several files from her briefcase and concentrated on her work, the one constant she could count on to ease her disquiet.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
“No. Please, sit down,” Adrian said automatically. She removed her briefcase from the adjacent seat to make room for the woman standing in the aisle. The blonde reminded her of Kim Basinger inL.A. Confidential,voluptuous in a way that contemporary women seemed to eschew. Lustrous shoulder-length honey blond hair, full red lips, and a sensuous figure that her tailored two-piece suit did nothing to temper. The curve of her hips and tapered thighs were obvious beneath the gray silk skirt, and the deep vee of the jacket, while modest enough for business attire at first glance, nevertheless gave a titillating hint of cleavage.
Adrian’s pulse kicked, and the response surprised her. She didn’t ordinarily find herself attracted to women who reminded her of the sophisticated, high-powered denizens of the world she’d grown up in. The train lurched forward and she grabbed for the coffee she’d placed on the narrow pull-down tray in front of her. She muttered an oath under her breath as a stream of scalding liquid sluiced over her hand.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” the blonde said in a smooth, melodic voice that matched the honey of her hair. To Adrian’s complete consternation, her wrist was grasped and the woman cradled it in her lap as she sat down, murmuring, “Here, let me see.”
“It’s fine, really.” Adrian tried to withdraw her hand, aware of a charge of current, so cold it nearly burned, dancing up her arm.
“You’re going to blister.” The woman pulled a silk handkerchief from a stylish black leather purse with one hand while her slender fingers continued to clasp Adrian’s wrist. She dabbed at a few drops of liquid before they could reach Adrian’s white cuff, then raised green-gold eyes to Adrian’s, her sensuous mouth curving into a flirtatious smile. “I don’t usually inflict bodily harm before introductions. I’m Melinda Singer.”
“Adrian Oakes.” Adrian finally extricated her fingers, ignoring the urge to shake her hand to dispel the disquieting tingle left behind. She’d always been hypersensitive to unexpected touch, especially from strangers, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had such a vivid reaction to anyone. Melinda Singer’s touch shimmered throughout her body with the intensity of an intimate caress.
“I hope I didn’t ruin your work.” Melinda gestured to the yellow legal tablet covered with scrawls and dotted with coffee stains on Adrian’s tray while casually surveying her traveling companion. Adrian Oakes was quite attractive in an entirely unstudied way. Her clothes, while informal, were expensive. The scuffed brown boots beneath the hem of her jeans were designer, as was the white cotton pullover. She was more deeply tanned than Melinda would have expected for late January, and the thin, pale crinkles at the corners of her sapphire eyes suggested she’d recently spent a fair amount of time squinting into the sun. Playing tennis possibly, or golf, on some Caribbean island. The smooth, unblemished surface of her fingers indicated she didn’t occupy her time outside doing manual labor.
Melinda imagined her lounging poolside at a resort or country club. She indulged herself with the pleasurable vision of the striking blonde in several even more interesting scenarios, all of which involved very little clothing, champagne and caviar, and an assortment of playthings. Melinda crossed her legs, escalating the tension between her thighs, enjoying the thrum of arousal. She’d been working too hard lately and had neglected her more personal appetites for far too long.
“I was just working on some notes,” Adrian said, hastily turning the smeared pages over to a blank sheet.
“Are you a college student?”
Adrian flushed under the scrutiny. She wasn’t a stranger to the attentions of women, or men, but this woman’s gaze bordered on avaricious. Reflexively, she edged closer to the window side of her seat, putting a few inches between her leg and Melinda’s warm thigh. Business-class train seats were hardly roomy, and even though she’d gotten used to close proximity with strangers through her constant travel, she still was never completely comfortable with anyone in her personal space. This afternoon, for some reason, she was even more sensitive. She had no idea why she sensed danger from Melinda Singer, because the woman had done nothing other than appraise her with candid interest. Adrian didn’t enjoy game playing in her relationships or any other aspect of her life, so she wasn’t quite sure why Melinda’s direct approach should bother her.
“College was quite a while ago.” Adrian smiled ruefully. She knew she looked young, especially without makeup and with her hair carelessly tethered into a loose ponytail by a plain blue scrunchie. Still, at thirty-three, she also knew when she was being flattered. She didn’t want to be pleased by the attention, but her breath came a little faster nevertheless.
“Let me guess, then,” Melinda mused. “Lawyer.” She tapped her chin with a manicured nail. “No. Not uptight enough.”
Adrian chuckled, drawn in despite herself.
“Doctor.” Melinda tilted her head, her gaze drifting down Adrian’s body, then back to her face. “I don’t think so. Not arrogant enough.” She lifted Adrian’s hand again and turned it over, palm up, and stroked a single fingertip down the center. “Not a painter or sculptor.”
“How can you tell?” Adrian asked, her fingers trembling. Melinda’s hand was warmer than it had been a few minutes ago and her touch had changed from soothing to seductive. Adrian had discovered at a very early age that she could almost read a person’s thoughts from physical contact. She’d once heard a paranormal psychologist refer to it as touch telepathy. She wasn’t certain she believed in that, but she’d learned to rely on intuition. And right now her instincts were telling her that Melinda Singer was a powerful, complex, and unpredictable woman. And a very sexual one. A heavy, engorged sensation churned in the pit of her stomach and her thighs tightened. The signs were unmistakable and completely out of character. She rarely responded so quickly even when she was a willing participant, and certainly never to a virtual stranger.
Smiling, Melinda traced her index finger the length of Adrian’s. “No nicks or scars. You don’t sculpt.” She turned Adrian’s hand over and brushed her thumb over Adrian’s fingernail. “Not even the faintest hint of pigment, and I’ve never seen a painter without a little streak of color left behind somewhere.” She placed Adrian’s hand back on Adrian’s thigh, pressing lightly for just a second before withdrawing her hand.
Despite her relief at being released, Adrian sensed a surge of disappointment, as if her body yearned for the return of that seductive caress. Oh yes, Melinda Singer was dangerous.
Adrian forced a light note into her voice. “You are very perceptive.”
“It’s an occupational habit,” Melinda said. “I’m an art dealer. Perception is my business.”
“Image is everything?”
“Not necessarily, but it’s never wise to underestimate it.” Melinda unbuttoned the top two buttons of her jacket, revealing a thin cream shell hugging the swell of her full breasts. “You write, don’t you?”
Adrian caught her breath. Melinda’s intense attention was almost as compelling as her touch. “Very good.”
“A novelist, then.”
“No. I freelance. Articles and exposés.”
“Ah. An adventurous spirit.”
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” Adrian said, unable to keep the irony and bitterness from her voice.
Her parents had viewed her career choice in a somewhat less complimentary light. When she’d decided to study journalism instead of business, they’d pronounced her action adolescent rebellion. After graduation when she’d refused to join her brother and sister in the family banking industry, her father had called it stubborn resistance while her mother merely deemed her foolish. Now, ten years later, her father made no secret that he believed she was wasting her talent, and her mother was convinced she had ruined her life. After all, Claire Oakes bemoaned, what man wanted to marry a woman who traipsed all over the world at a moment’s notice, chasing some wild idea? Adrian had made it perfectly clear that marrying a man was not in her future, regardless of her career choice, but that had little impact on her mother’s angst. The issue of her sexuality was quietly and unrelentingly ignored.
“And what about you?” Adrian asked, hoping to divert attention from herself and her own disquieting thoughts. “You have a gallery in the city?”
“Yes. On the Lower East Side. The Osare Gallery.”
Adrian knew it. Upscale, exclusive. The place every young artist wanted to be seen. A showing at Osare was practically guaranteed to launch an artist’s career. “Great name.Daring.”
Melinda raised a brow. “You speak Italian. What else?”
“Oh, I’ve picked up a smattering of a few other languages in my travels.”
“Are you traveling on business?” Adrian asked, ignoring the compliment. She was very glad they weren’t touching at the moment, because she didn’t need extrasensory perception to tell her exactly what was in Melinda Singer’s mind. She was no blushing virgin and no stranger to an enjoyable sexual encounter between consenting adults, but she wasn’t used to her body responding completely against her will. She was used to controlling when and how she gave in to desire, and exactly how much. Now Melinda was plucking her sexual strings and she was powerless to stop her. She knew she was overreacting, but the spiraling tension between her thighs was hard to ignore.
“Hopefully,” Melinda said, her tone speculative, “both businessandpleasure. I’m on my way to a little town on the Hudson you’ve probably never heard of. A place called Ford’s Crossing.”
Adrian’s throat tightened and she shivered with a quick flash of unease. “Ihaveheard of it. In fact, that’s where I’m headed.”
“Really.” Melinda’s eyes flashed, and for a heartbeat she looked like a great hungry cat. “How very fortunate.”
“Would you like to share a cab?” Melinda asked as the train pulled into the station an hour and a half north of New York City and fifteen miles from Ford’s Crossing. Although it was only a few minutes after five p.m., the sky was completely dark with so much cloud cover even the half-moon was obscured. A heavy snow was predicted, and a few flakes floated past the windows.
“Sure,” Adrian said, seeing no reason to be unfriendly. They hadn’t talked much for the rest of the journey, each of them engrossed in work. Nevertheless, she had been hyperaware of Melinda just a few inches away for the entire trip. Her scent was unlike any perfume she’d ever encountered, a subtle, simmering blend of woody fragrances tempered by an undercurrent of burning leaves. When she drew in a breath and absorbed the heady aroma, her skin tingled with a subtle wave of excitement. Still, she was determined to ignore her inexplicable reactions.
“Wonderful,” Melinda said. “I’m staying at a hotel…the…”
“Heritage House,” Adrian finished for her. “It’s the only hotel in the village.”
“That’s the one.”
They didn’t speak for a few minutes while they gathered their luggage and made their way onto the platform with the one other departing passenger. As they approached the front of the stone station, Melinda asked, “Are you at the hotel also? Perhaps you would join me for dinner tonight.”
“Thanks,” Adrian said, “but I am actually staying at my grandmother’s. House sitting, really. She decided on New Year’s Eve that the winter had gone on quite long enough and she would flee south until it’s warmer. I volunteered to look after the place.”
“For how long?”
“Pretty much as long as I want to. My grandmother’s definition of warm weather generally means July.” Adrian waved to the single cab idling in the lot and after several seconds, it chugged toward them. “I’ve got deadlines and a few new ideas for upcoming projects I need to pull together. But my track record for staying in one place for four or five months isn’t great.”
“Well, you’re not far from the city.” Melinda nonchalantly brushed a hand down Adrian’s arm. “In case you have a yen for excitement.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Adrian said. She had a condo in Chelsea that she’d owned since shortly after college, but it was really more of a place to land than home. Her parents lived on the Upper East Side and her brother and sister hadn’t migrated far from them. Adrian had returned in November after having spent eight weeks with a photographer friend in the Middle East, writing copy to accompany the images of women and children displaced by the war. She hadn’t been back in the country for more than two weeks and her mother was arranging her social schedule. After suffering through a dinner party seated next to the son of one of her father’s business associates who apparently thought he was her date, thanks to her mother, she’d jumped at the opportunity to escape to her grandmother’s.
She was actually looking forward to it. She’d always enjoyed the few weeks each summer the family had spent vacationing here when she was young. The slow, quiet pace was so different than the city; she used to spend hours on her own, wandering in the surrounding woods or traipsing along the river, exploring and daydreaming. She’d never minded that her brother and sister preferred each other’s company to hers, because she’d never really had all that much in common with them. She’d been a dreamer, longing for a glimpse of something new, imagining faraway places and exotic adventures. Her older brother Todd and her younger sister Susan were much more like her parents. They enjoyed the social life of the city and the glitter and prestige that went along with belonging to one of the notable families. There’d been a time when she was young when Adrian had wondered if she hadn’t been born into the wrong family. Maybe switched at birth, like a changeling.
“What about dinner?” Melinda asked, resting her hand in the center of Adrian’s back. “Can I tempt you?”
Oh, you probably could,Adrian thought,because she’d been tempted for hours with absolutely no explanation for it. That was reason enough to take a pass. “Thanks, but it will take me a while to get settled and I don’t want to risk the storm coming in.”
“Another time, then.”
“How long are you staying?”
“Just for the weekend.” Melinda smiled. “Other than the estate sale I plan to attend tomorrow, my time is my own, and I’m adaptable.”
The cab pulled to the curb on Main Street in front of a four-story square brick building with a wide front porch, tall carved double wooden doors, and a row of waist-high iron hitching posts bordering the sidewalk that made it seem as if carriages should be pulling up in front rather than mechanized vehicles.
“Well, I hope your trip is successful,” Adrian said, trying to imagine what kind of sale brought such an exclusive woman to the quaint little town.
“It already has been.” Melinda opened the door, slid out, and then leaned back inside while the driver got her luggage. “As for the rest of it, I have no idea. I’m in search of an artist whose work I saw in the estate listings.”
“Really? Anyone I might’ve heard of?”
“I have no idea. I don’t even know his name.”
Adrian smiled uncertainly. “Well, then. Good hunting.”
“Thank you.” Melinda held out her hand. “By the way, I didn’t get your number.”
Adrian hesitated for just a second, then shook Melinda’s hand and recited her cell phone number.
“Have a pleasant evening,” Melinda said, drawing back from the cab.
“Good night,” Adrian called, closing her hand tightly while trying to ignore the buzz of electricity in her palm. She settled back in the dark confines of the cab, which now seemed to echo with emptiness, as if Melinda had taken something vital with her when she left. If she believed in such things, Adrian would almost think she’d been bewitched.Chapter Two
“Roads are still pretty bad from that big storm last week,” the cabbie grumbled as he inched his way down the narrow unpaved lane that led to her grandmother’s house outside town. “Hope you’ve got a four-wheel drive. You don’t want to get stuck out here.”
“We’ve got a Jeep,” Adrian said, silently hoping her grandmother had remembered to have it serviced sometime in the last year. She doubted anyone had driven it since the last time she’d visited, and that had been…a long time ago. She rubbed condensation from the window and peered out, but only an occasional light flickered through the increasingly thick snowfall. Her grandmother’s stately home was surrounded by two hundred acres of wooded farmland fronting on the Hudson, and the nearest neighbors were over a mile away. In the summer, when escaping from the crowds and heat of the city, Adrian rejoiced in the privacy. Now, with the naked trees standing lonely sentry along the twisting, dark drive, the barren landscape seemed cold and unwelcoming.
“Uh-oh,” the cabbie said. “Looks like you’ve got a problem.”
“What?” Adrian leaned forward, craning her neck to see out the windshield. She could barely make out the outline of the rambling three-story stone and frame farmhouse with its wide porch and massive stone chimney through the storm. The barn behind the house was completely invisible. She grasped the back of the front seat for balance as the cab abruptly stopped. “What?”
“You’ve got a tree across the driveway here. Musta come down in that high wind we had a while back. And there’s a big pile of rocks further up. I can’t get the cab up to the porch.”
Adrian bolted from the cab, immediately wrapping her arms around her torso. Her thin fleece did little to protect her from the knifing wind and her heavier jacket was in her luggage. In the cones of the headlights, she could just make out the unplowed circular driveway in front of the house. The snow was easily two feet deep where it had drifted against the front porch stairs. One of the huge sheltering oaks bordering the drive now lay blocking it. Beyond that, stones and rubble, the remains of the chimney that once took up most of the right side of the house, lay scattered in the snow.
“Now there’s a mess,” the cabbie said as he slogged toward her. “Gonna need to get a tarp up on that roof before you get a lot of water damage.”
“Oh, God.” Adrian’s first instinct was to climb back in the cab and tell him to take her back to the train station. She was cold, she was tired, and she was hungry. The last thing she wanted to do was deal with a house emergency. However, she’d faced far worse challenges, both natural and man-made, including arid deserts and nearly impassable mountain ranges filled with hostile forces. Even if it weren’t a matter of pride not to back down from any kind of problem, she’d rather climb up on that roof herself in a blizzard than drag her family into it. The mere thought of her brother showing up to direct the repairs while subjecting her to a barrage of unwanted advice was enough to make the hair on the backs of her arms stand up.
“I guess I need a contractor,” she said. “Got any recommendations?”
The grizzled cabbie took off his cap and rubbed the back of his head while the cab idled behind them, emitting an ominous clanking sound. “Not too many local outfits anymore. Most of the construction work around here is seasonal. Moving the tree won’t be a big problem. You just need someone out to cut it up for you. Once it dries out, you’ll have plenty of firewood.”
“Doesn’t look like I’ll be having a fire anytime soon,” Adrian said, burying her hands in her pockets. Her short boots were losing the battle against the drifting snow, and a trickle of ice water soaked her right foot. “At least not in the main fireplace.”
“Shame about that. Don’t see that kind of stonework anymore. Everything’s fake. Fake stone. Fake tiles. They even have fake wood now.”
Adrian smothered a smile because the way he spoke made it sound as if synthetic materials were an affront to nature. He had a point, though. Her grandmother’s house was designated a historic building, and even if it hadn’t been, she would have wanted to restore it in the manner the beautiful old home deserved. “I want it put back the way it was. Can’t they use the original stones?”
“Seems like.” The cabbie resettled his hat. “You want it done right, you might give Ronnie Tyler a call. Tell him you got a stone problem.”
“Tyler,” Adrian repeated. “Okay, I will. Thanks.” She took a deep breath and started back toward the cab. “Well, I’d better get inside and see how bad the damage is.”
“I’ll get your bags. Watch your step getting around that tree, miss.”
“Thanks. I’m okay.” Adrian grabbed her briefcase and her smaller bag and gratefully left him to wrestle the larger one through the snow to the porch. The light from the cab’s headlights didn’t quite penetrate all the way to the front door, and even though the moon slipped in and out from behind the clouds to illuminate the porch a few seconds at a time, it took her a minute to find the house key on her key ring. By then, she was shivering. She finally got the huge front doors unlocked, pushed her luggage inside, and whispered a prayer as she flipped the light switch in the foyer. When the porch light came on, she let out a sigh of relief.
“At least the power lines are okay.”
“Got lucky there.” He took a step into the foyer. “Feels like you’ve got heat too. Like I said. Lucky.”
Adrian handed him the agreed-upon fare and a generous tip. “Thanks for bringing the luggage up.”
He squinted at her, his expression dubious. “You sure you’re gonna be okay out here all by yourself?”
“Yes, thanks. I’ll be fine.” Adrian didn’t add she was used to being here alone. That she’d always been here alone, even when all the family had been present.
Rooke Tyler heard the phone ringing upstairs in the apartment over her shop where she lived, but she didn’t plan on answering. When her grandfather went out, he forwarded his number to her because the calls were almost always business. Right now, the only business on her mind as she knelt on the concrete floor in front of the workbench was making Emma Ryan have an outstanding orgasm. When Emma writhed closer to the edge of the counter, Rooke tightened her hold on the hips that kept bucking, afraid that Emma was going to fling herself off and take Rooke down with her. Not only was that not the climax she was hoping for, but her toolbox was open on the floor behind them. She hadn’t even had time to close it when Emma had arrived unexpectedly, proclaiming she only had thirty minutes before cooking class and couldn’t wait another hour for Rooke to make her come. If Emma crashed down on a bunch of hammers and chisels, she was likely to get hurt.
“Don’t you dare answer that phone,” Emma gasped, twisting her fingers through Rooke’s thick, unruly hair. “I’m going to come any second. You just keep your mouth right on that spot.” She arched her back as Rooke obediently attended to her demands. “God, you are sogoodat that. I can’t believe…I went…three whole months…without this.”
The phone stopped ringing, at least Rooke thought it did, but she wasn’t certain because all she could hear was Emma screaming to God or maybe that shewasGod. She smiled, resting her cheek against the inside of Emma’s thigh. She never tired of hearing Emma’s pleasure, no matter how many times they did this.
“Oh, honey,” Emma sighed, brushing Rooke’s hair back from her forehead with trembling fingers. “I am going to miss you something fierce when you finally get yourself a girlfriend.”
Rooke stood, ignoring the cramps in the backs of her thighs, while Emma arranged her skirt. Then she clasped Emma around the waist and helped her down. “What makes you think I’m looking for one?”
“You might not be looking, but I expect someone will find you.” Emma opened the hair clip at the back of her neck, smoothed the loose chestnut tendrils laced with gray back into order, and reclipped it. She braced her hands on Rooke’s shoulders, leaned up on her tiptoes, and kissed her on the cheek. “You’re too good looking and just plain too damn good every other way to be running around loose. If my ex-husband had been half as talented with any of his body parts as you are, I’d probably still be married to him.”
“You’ll find another one someday. Maybe even one who knows what to do with his…parts.”
Emma laughed. “You’ve spoiled me, although I do tend to be drawn to those extra bits by nature. Can’t really imagine why.”
Rooke grinned and stretched, checking the big metal, plain-faced clock that hung over her workbench. Almost eight. She still had a lot of night left ahead of her to work.
“I’m keeping you from something, aren’t I?” Emma asked, glancing toward the door to the rear of the garage where Rooke worked. In all the dozens of times they’d trysted in this small front room, she’d never been in the back room.
“That’s okay,” Rooke said. “There’s plenty of time.”
The garage had once been used to house heavy machinery, but when a newer, bigger building had been built to accommodate a larger fleet of backhoes and Bobcats to meet the cemetery’s needs, Rooke had claimed for herself the building next to the groundskeeper’s house where her grandfather lived. She’d grown up in the big house next door with him, but by the time she was twenty and this place became available, she was ready to live on her own. In the five years since, she hadn’t changed anything about it, other than finishing the second floor for her living space. The first floor was still just two rooms with concrete floors, rough wood paneling, and an unfinished ceiling with exposed pipes and heating ducts. The small room in the front where she stored most of her tools had a counter along one wall with pegs above for hanging tools and shelves underneath for storage of her bigger items and toolboxes, a potbellied stove in the corner with a small black-and-white TV on a high shelf behind it, and a big overstuffed chair in the middle of the room. She only used the double roll-down doors when she brought in large materials, coming and going through the side door by the exit sign. The forty by sixty foot room in the back was where she worked, and off-limits to visitors. Even her grandfather was rarely admitted.
“I guess I was lucky I caught you when I did,” Emma said, gathering up her coat and purse. She linked her arm through Rooke’s. “I just had such an urge. Forty-three is too young for menopause, isn’t it? They say women want more sex during menopause.”
Rooke’s eyebrows rose. “Um.”
“Of course, you won’t have to worry about that for a long time.” Emma stopped next to the door beneath the big red exit sign. For a second, she looked uncomfortable. “Ronald playing bridge?”
She sighed. “Do you think that was him calling?”
“Not likely.” Rooke took Emma’s coat and held it while Emma slipped into it. “It’s okay. Don’t worry.”
“You know what he’d think,” Emma said, her hand on the doorknob. “That I seduced you…well, Ididseduce you. But—”
“I was willing. And legal.”
Emma snorted and stroked Rooke’s cheek. “Barely. But my goodness, you are something special. I never dreamed of a woman doing what you do to me. But, oh my.” She kissed Rooke’s cheek again. “You should get out more. It’s Friday night. Have some fun.”
“I just had fun,” Rooke said gently.
“Oh darlin’,” Emma whispered. “Thank you for saying that.” She traced her fingers along Rooke’s shoulder. “You’re sure you’re all right? Because you know if you wanted—”
“I’m great, Emma.” Rooke smiled. “Really.”
Emma nodded. “Good night, then.”
Rooke stood in the open door until Emma drove off. She stopped in the tiny bathroom off the front room to wash up, then went into the back of her shop. She found her iPod, sorted through the images until she came to theNew York Timesbestseller her grandfather had downloaded earlier that day, and pulled on her safety goggles. Then she picked up her hammer and chisel and got to work, ignoring the tension her encounter with Emma had stirred in the pit of her stomach. The rhythm of steel on stone, like another heartbeat in the room, and the melodic voice of the narrator were all the company she needed.
Six hours later, Rooke headed back to the small bathroom, unlaced her workboots, kicked them aside, and stripped off her sweat-soaked T-shirt and jeans. She stepped into the hot shower, lathered her body and hair, and stood under the steaming spray until her skin tingled with a rush of blood. The image she’d carved still lingered in her mind, the seductive curves and tempting hollows coming to life beneath her hands. She hadn’t known what the stone would reveal until she’d begun to explore it with hammer and chisel, following its natural planes at the same time as her mind guided her hands, bringing the essence of the woman who flirted along the edges of her consciousness into being. She didn’t know her name, she couldn’t see her face, but she felt her energy and passion. And when she touched the stone, hot from the strike of her steel, she knew her more intimately than she knew Emma, the only woman she’d ever touched in the flesh. Emma, a woman she liked and admired, but a woman she didn’t love and who didn’t love her. The woman who haunted her dreams, who drove her into the late hours of the night in search of a glimpse of her, lived only in her imagination. And in the stone.
Rooke flipped off the faucets and stepped out into the tiny bathroom, blindly reaching for the towel on the back of the door. After drying off briskly and efficiently, she pulled clean jeans and a T-shirt from a stack she kept on the shelf above the sink and dressed. She stepped into her boots, not bothering with socks, and walked back through the shop to the rear staircase that led to her apartment.
Upstairs, she dumped her soiled clothing in the alcove by the stacked washer and dryer and wandered into the galley kitchen at the far end of the room that made up the living and dining area. She’d partitioned off part of the space for a small bedroom. Since she was hardly ever there, preferring to spend her time in her shop, she had never bothered to decorate. She pulled a beer from the refrigerator, popped the top, and finished half of it in three long swallows. The yeasty taste made her think of pizza, and she realized she hadn’t eaten since lunch. Living alone, working alone, she didn’t follow any kind of regular schedule and often forgot to eat. Her grandfather constantly complained that she was too skinny for the strenuous work she did, even though he knew she was stronger than most of the men in the grounds crew because she spent her days and most of her nights moving stone.
Noticing the blinking light on her answering machine, she went to clear the message she hadn’t answered earlier. By now, whoever had called would have called back and reached her grandfather. Everyone in town knew he played bridge on Friday nights. With her finger poised over the first button in the row beneath the display, she looked out the kitchen window to be sure his red Chevy pick-up was parked behind the house where she’d grown up. She could make out the shape of the truck through the sheet of snow that had gotten heavier since Emma left. Several inches already covered the hood. The house was dark. He’d probably been in bed for hours. She hesitated with her finger over the first button, then pressed the middle button instead. She opened the refrigerator while she finished her beer, expecting to hear someone from the funeral home letting her grandfather know they needed to schedule an internment.
“Hi,” a woman said. “This is Adrian Oakes, Elizabeth Winchester’s granddaughter.”
For just a second, Rooke thought she was listening to one of the narrators of an audio book. The caller’s voice was so full timbred and vibrant, the air around Rooke practically shimmered with energy. Intent on hearing more, she closed the refrigerator and bent over the machine.
“I’m at the Winchester farm, and I’ve got a problem. A tree came down and there’s a hole in the roof, I think. I was given your name as a possible contractor. Could someone call me as soon as possible?”
Rooke didn’t recognize the woman who was calling, but she knew the Winchester place. She also knew that the woman probably had not called back, likely assuming she’d reached a business answering machine and that no one would be available to get the message until at least the morning, if not after the weekend. Which meant that Rooke had left her with no help in the middle of a raging storm while she finished making love to Emma.
One thing her grandfather had drilled into her from the time she was small was the importance of responsibility. When she took a job, she finished it. When she gave her word, she kept it. If she made a mistake, she admitted it. And she’d made a mistake tonight.
She grabbed her brown leather bomber jacket and the keys to her grandfather’s truck. Her grandfather had also taught her that when she made a mistake, she needed to fix it.Chapter Three
Thunder roared and Adrian rolled over in bed, burrowing a little deeper into the pillows, clinging to her dream. A darkened train car sped through the night, while in the shadows, a woman whose face she couldn’t see held her from behind. Warm breath whispered dark and dangerous promises in her ear as fingers skimmed over her breasts and belly, setting her skin ablaze. Rivulets of rain streamed down the window, and the world outside the streaking train dissolved in flaming towers that flickered and danced against an obsidian sky.Touch me,she screamed, pressing her hips into the curve of the body behind her, urging the hands lower, desperate to be taken. To be claimed. She burned, her blood so hot her tears seeped crimson down her cheeks.Devour me,her seething body begged.
Do you freely give what I would take,the hypnotic voice crooned.
Thunder broke again, and deep in the primal recesses of her brain, a warning sounded. Adrian fought the urge to surrender, to submit, to relinquish control to the faceless seductress.
Say yes, and I will give you more pleasure than you have ever dreamed.
Adrian writhed, orgasm clawing from her depths, rending muscle from bone, raging toward climax and final immolation.
“No,” Adrian cried, wrenching herself from the dream. Throwing the covers aside, she jerked upright in bed. Her clammy T-shirt clung to her swollen breasts. The brush of damp cotton against her nipples made her stomach quiver with want. Her panties were drenched with her arousal. When she reflexively pressed her fingers between her legs, her clitoris surged and she nearly came. She yanked her hand away. “Jesus!”
Disoriented, she stared wildly around the room, half expecting to find she wasn’t alone. She’d never had a dream so intense, so erotic, so consuming. She’d never had a real-life physical experience so intense. Even now she ached for release and could barely resist the urge to caress herself. She gripped the sheets tightly while another voice whispered of danger and menace.Be careful, she is not what she seems.The deep, husky tones were so real, so familiar, Adrian struggled to bring a face into focus. But she couldn’t.
Knowing sleep was unlikely, and half afraid she’d fall back into the erotic spell if she did sleep while she was still so aroused, she switched on the bedside lamp and grabbed her sweatpants from a nearby chair. She stopped in the midst of pulling on her socks.
The thunder in her dream was someone pounding on the front door. Who could possibly be at the front door at two in the morning? She stepped into her shoes and took a quick look out the window. Snow still fell heavily. Grabbing her cell phone, she started downstairs. Before she entered the foyer, she punched in 911 and held her thumb over the send button. Then she flicked on the porch light and twitched aside the lace curtain covering the window next to the door. A man stood on the porch, his face obscured by a baseball cap, his hands bunched in the pockets of a leather jacket. A half inch of snow covered his shoulders and from what she could see, his jeans were caked with snow almost to his knees. Maybe he was a stranded motorist. She wasn’t ordinarily paranoid or even particularly suspicious, but she was still rattled by the dream and acutely aware of the fact that there was no one around for miles.
“Who are you?” she shouted, wondering if she could be heard above the howling storm outside. The front door was chained, but she doubted it would withstand a hearty kick.
The man moved closer to the window and Adrian got the impression of dark eyes blazing in a pale, starkly handsome face. He stared at her, his gaze so hot she wouldn’t be surprised if her face blistered.
“Roof?” He pointed upward. His hand was bare despite the sub-freezing temperatures.
“You’re joking.” Adrian tucked her phone into the pocket of her sweatpants and opened the door as wide as the chain would allow. “Are you crazy?”
“You want your roof fixed or not?” an angry voice replied.
“It’s the middle of the night!”
Adrian stared, speechless, as he spun around, stomped across the porch, and disappeared into the storm.
Are you crazy?
The accusation echoed in Rooke’s mind as she plowed her way through the knee-deep drifts toward the far end of the driveway where she’d left her grandfather’s truck. She’d heard it before.
Hey, you. What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy, or just stupid?
She wasn’t a child anymore and hadn’t thought words could still have the power to hurt her. She’d been wrong. The fair-haired woman in the doorway had regarded her with a mixture of astonishment and suspicion, her pale eyes wide and her eyebrows drawn down in disdain. The dismissal had stung, maybe precisely because she wasn’t a child anymore. There was a reason she preferred to spend her time alone, with her work and her own company. She wouldn’t forget that again.
The wind was so strong, Rooke had to brace her arm against the truck cab to pry the door open. She finally managed to climb into the front seat and yanked the door shut against the brutal wind. Snow swirled through the cab, having made its way inside in the few seconds that she’d had the door open. She jammed the key into the ignition, started the engine, and whipped the gear stick into reverse. After hitting the headlights, she swung her head around to look out the back window and just as quickly jerked to face front again.
“What the hell?”
She switched off the engine and pocketed the keys, jumped out into the storm, and slogged toward the woman she’d seen illuminated in her headlights.
“What are you doing?” Rooke shouted.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” the woman shouted back. “Come back to the house.”
“You’ll freeze out here with no coat.”
“Well then,” the woman yelled, her words almost swallowed by the eddies of snow and wind, “I guess we should stop talking and get inside.”
Rooke hesitated, realizing her showing up in the middle of the night probablywouldseem strange to an ordinary person. She hadn’t really thought about the lateness of the hour when she’d left her apartment. She never paid much attention to the time because she slept and worked on her own schedule. Sometimes she’d work around the clock if she was inspired or if she unexpectedly had a number of work orders to finish. There was no one to complain if she didn’t come to bed at a certain hour or show up for work on any kind of timetable. She always got the job done, and that’s all that usually mattered. Now she felt awkward with this woman she didn’t know, who already thought very little of her.
Rooke grasped the woman’s arm to get her attention. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“It already is tomorrow!” Adrian stared at the hand on her bare arm as a panoply of powerful emotion cut through the cold and wind. Anger, pride, sorrow. She didn’t have time to ponder again why her usual barriers had evaporated, leaving her body an open channel to anyone she touched. They really had to get out of the storm. “Besides, if you go driving around in this kind of weather you’re likely to get in an accident, and I’m not going to be responsible for it.”
“You’re not responsible for me,” Rooke exclaimed.
To Rooke’s surprise, the woman gripped her coat with startling strength and tugged her forward. Despite her misgivings, she followed in the footprints that were obscured by drifting snow almost as quickly as they appeared. When they reached the porch, the woman turned with an impatient wave of her hand.
“Look, this is getting more ridiculous by the minute. Come inside, for God’s sake.”
Rooke had little choice but to obey. Once inside, she stopped in the foyer, dripping water on an expensive-looking rug and taking stock of the woman in a faded T-shirt and baggy sweatpants who faced her, hands on her hips and irritation flashing in her eyes. Her eyes, which had appeared pale through the snow, were actually crystal blue, in striking contrast to the sunstruck hair that fell just to her shoulders. The damp, curly tresses shimmered with droplets of melting snowflakes and framed a face that might have been carved by an artist far more talented than Rooke. Intrigued, Rooke studied the sweeping cheekbones, tapered jaw, and the bold, high nose that saved the exasperated stranger from being merely pretty. Instead, she was beautiful.
“I’m Adrian Oakes.” The words came out sounding harsher than Adrian had intended. But she was uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny of yet another unfamiliar woman and unnerved by both her dream and the unexpected appearance in the middle of the night of a stranger she now realized was not a man, but a woman. “Who exactly are you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“You called me.”
Adrian shook her head. “I did not.”
“You know what? You’re right. You’re obviously always right. Good luck with your roof.” Rooke spun around and reached for the door.
“Are you always this rude?”
Rooke stiffened. “Not usually.” She didn’t add,I make it a habit to avoid annoying, judgmental people,even though she thought it.
“Where are you going?” Adrian asked.
Rooke pulled open the door.
Adrian took a deep breath, wondering how her entire night had gone to hell while she wasn’t paying attention. “Wait. Please. It really is too bad out there for you to travel.”
“I’ll be fine.” Without turning around, Rooke said, “Did you check to make sure you’ve got enough oil and firewood? This storm isn’t going to blow out for a couple more days. It’s going to get a lot colder.”
“I can’t use the fireplace,” Adrian said to Rooke’s back. “Would you close the door? What little heat I have is on its way out.”
Rooke came back into the foyer, closing the door behind her. “No firewood?”
“No chimney.” Adrian sighed. “That’s one of the reasons I called Mr. Tyler. Ronald Tyler?”
“My grandfather.” Rooke removed her cap and brushed a hand through her hair, sprinkling water in a halo around her head.
“Ah.” For a second, Adrian was at a loss for what else to say. For most of their conversation she’d been looking at Rooke through the window, or the blur of snow, or while she had her back turned. Now that Rooke was standing still with her face exposed, Adrian saw the faint but obvious scar that ran from her right temple across her forehead into her hairline. The thin line was pale, so the injury had been a long time ago, but it bothered Adrian nevertheless to think about how serious the damage must have been. The scar didn’t detract in the least from her initial impression. Rooke was indeed handsome, with eyes so deep brown they were almost black and carelessly cut midnight hair. The thick, shaggy hair framing her square-jawed, strong countenance made her appear charmingly roguish. Or she would have appeared charming, if her eyes weren’t so still and cool. Adrian sensed the kind of wary appraisal in Rooke’s unwavering gaze that she’d often seen in caged animals, or prisoners. This was not a woman who trusted others easily.
“Maybe we should start over,” Adrian said.
“I think maybe you should start over with my grandfather on Monday.” Rooke resettled her cap. “I’ll wait while you check your oil supply. If it’s low, I’ll drive you to the hotel in town. You should probably stay there anyhow.”
Adrian’s temper flared. What was it about her that made people think they knew what was best for her? “Excuse me. I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
“You can’t stay here without heat.”
Adrian resisted the urge to tell Rooke to mind her own business. Rationally, she knew Rooke was just trying to be helpful, but she’d just spent weeks with her family listening to first her mother and then her siblings tell her exactly how she should rearrange her life. It was enough to make her get on a plane to anywhere. Immediately. “I have heat and if I have any problem at all, I have transportation.”
“I wouldn’t trust that Jeep to make it a mile on these roads,” Rooke said.
Adrian jammed her hands back on her hips. “How do you know… Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone in a town this size knows everything about everyone.”
“Not everyone. Not everything,” Rooke muttered. “I’ve seen that Jeep. It’s a good twenty years old and I’ll bet the battery’s dead even if the tires aren’t flat. Look, let me just get the firewood. The rest is up to you.”
“Well, thank you very much.” Adrian stepped forward quickly and grasped Rooke’s arm. “And you’re not going out there in this snow. You wouldn’t be able to see anything anyhow. I’m freezing, and you’re soaking wet. Come in the kitchen. I’ll make us something warm to drink.”
Rooke hesitated, torn between wanting out of the uncomfortable situation and a reluctant concern for Adrian. She longed to be back in her quiet, private space where no one bothered her, no one judged her, and no one assumed to know her. Unfortunately, she could tell just from the brief walk back to the truck that the storm was escalating. She wasn’t worried about driving, but she was worried about leaving Adrian Oakes here alone. If she lost power or heat and the Jeep didn’t start, she could be in trouble. What she needed to do was take a look around and make sure Adrian would be okay for the weekend. Then she’d get the hell out of there and leave her to her own devices, which was apparently exactly the way Adrian Oakes wanted it.
“What’s wrong with your fireplace?” Rooke asked, bending over to unlace her workboots. Adrian had probably just forgotten to open the flue, but she wasn’t going to say so and invite another barrage of ill temper.
“You can leave those on.”
“I’ll track water all over the floor.”
“Your feet will freeze. Where are your socks?”
Rooke didn’t bother to explain she’d been on her way to bed when she’d listened to the message and gotten the harebrained idea to rush over here. She just jammed her foot back in her boot. When she glanced at Adrian, she realized for the first time that Adrian had ventured out into the snow without boots. Her shoes had to be soaked. “You need to get warmed up yourself. Go stand in front of the fireplace. I’ll get it started.”
“I’d love that, but the chimney is lying in the driveway by the side of the house.”
Frowning, Rooke straightened. “What?”
“The tree out front,” Adrian said with a sigh. “The one that’s blocking your truck. It knocked the chimney down. That’s what put the hole in the roof too.”
“Well, that’s a problem.”
“Yes, I thought so too.” Adrian pulled her wet shoes off and placed them on the tray next to the coat closet tucked under the stairs. Her thick wool socks were damp, but her feet were fairly dry. “Take your jacket off. It’s warmer in the kitchen.”
“I’d better have a look at the chimney.” Rooke removed her jacket but kept it in her hand. She might need to go outside again soon to assess the damage.
“Are you a carpenter as well as a roofer?”
Rooke frowned. “I’m not either one.”
“Then I’m confused. What are you doing here?”
“You called us, remember?” Rooke repeated.
“About the roof.”
“That’s why I came out. I’ll take a look up in the attic and see what kind of leak problem there is.”
Adrian led the way down the central hall that led to the kitchen that spanned the entire rear of the house. A library and parlor opened off one side of the hall and the dining room off the other. “And then what?”
“We’ll get a tarp up there until the weather lets up.”
“If you’re not a carpenter…” Adrian switched on the kitchen light. Her grandmother had kept the country kitchen decor, replacing worn-out appliances with modern versions of classic styles. A huge oak table took up the center of the room, its surface scarred from the preparation of countless meals. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks.” Rooke pulled out a wooden chair at one end of the table, set her cap and jacket on a nearby chair, and watched Adrian move with swift economy around the kitchen. When she stretched to reach for teabags in a cabinet above the sink, her T-shirt pulled up, revealing an expanse of her lower back and the soft swell of the top of her buttocks. Rooke stared unintentionally, then looked away.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Adrian said, turning around with the teabags in her hand. She caught a flicker of uncertainty on Rooke’s face. “Something wrong?”
“No. Nothing.” Rooke shifted in her chair. “I’m a stonemason.”
“Really? That’s got to be tough work.”
“No more than any other.”
Adrian remembered how Melinda had deduced a person’s occupation from the appearance of her hands, and she looked at Rooke’s pressed flat on the table. Her hands were broad, her fingers long and sturdy. Even from a few feet away Adrian could see a few abrasions on her knuckles and a half-moon-shaped scar on the outer edge of her right hand. She had the hands of someone who did hard work, and although she didn’t appear all that muscular, her body seemed tight and fit. She was a few inches taller than her own 5'7", and a little broader in the shoulders and narrower in the hips. From the way her T-shirt molded to her chest, her breasts were probably a bit smaller too.
Adrian flushed, realizing she was close to blatantly cruising a stranger sitting at her kitchen table in the middle of the night. What was wrong with her?
“A stonemason,” she said, busying herself with the tea. “What do you do exactly? Build patios and sidewalks and things like that?”
“No,” Rooke said slowly. “I carve gravestones.”
Adrian spun around, her mouth curved into a faint smile. “And just when I thought the day couldn’t get any more interesting.”
“I don’t know about that.” Rooke shrugged self-consciously. She wasn’t used to discussing anything about herself. “Most people don’t find it very interesting.”
“You’re going to discover I’m not most people,” Adrian said softly.Chapter Four
Edgy and aggravated, Melinda paced in the parlor adjoining the hotel bar. She sipped her Remy Martin and took perfunctory stock of her surroundings. The room, while not showy, was opulently appointed. The rug was definitely Persian, and in very good condition. An original oil painting by one of the Hudson Valley’s more notable painters hung above the fireplace. The polished wainscoting, staircases, and floors were all original and scrupulously maintained. If the hotel was any indication of the village, there was money here. Melinda sighed. What there wasn’t, at the moment, was a woman.
Her body still resonated with the connection she’d enjoyed for a brief while earlier with the woman on the train. The promise of something quite extraordinary had been there. Melinda swirled the cognac, then lifted the glass and drained it in one long swallow. The exquisite burn only reminded her of her unrequited hunger. Adrian Oakes fascinated her. She sensed power, and knew the feast of her flesh would be exquisite.I would drink you, taste you. I would satisfy you in ways you never dreamed.
Melinda stalked to the window and glared out into the snow, as if the storm itself were her enemy. In a way, it was. The wind and precipitation had been the interloper, destroying the first tendrils of intimacy she’d established with her traveling companion. Adrian would have accepted the dinner invitation, becauseshetoo had been tempted by the energy that had flowed between them. Melinda had almost succeeded in enjoying her, if only in a dream, but even that small triumph had been denied her. She’d awakened just as she was about to ignite, dragged alert by a distant pounding—loose shutters or trees lashing against her window. Now her anger and frustration simmered close to the surface, her body still vibrating with the urgency to discharge that exquisite tension. She wanted Adrian, certain their joining would surpass that of mere flesh, but that was not to be tonight. Like so many other nights, she would have to settle for less than she desired.
“Can I get you another?” the young woman cleaning up behind the bar asked.
Turning, Melinda walked back into the bar. “I’m sorry to take you away from your desk duty”—she casually glanced at the small brass nametag pinned above the redhead’s left breast—“Becky. I know the bar is supposed to be closed. Thank you for getting me the drink. The storm…I was having trouble sleeping.”
“Believe me, I don’t mind.” The pretty young woman, in her early twenties and dressed informally in black slacks and a long-sleeved white blouse, joined Melinda. She gestured to the empty bar and lobby beyond. “The desk is always quiet this time of night, and no one’s going to complain if we pour a drink after hours for one of our guests.”
“Were you studying?” Melinda touched the hand resting on the table near her own. There was no special connection, no pulse of power as there had been with Adrian, but her skin was soft and her lips full and appealing. “I saw you with a textbook through the door to the office.”
“Oh. Yes. I’m on break for another couple of weeks. Just trying to get a jump on the semester.”
Melinda trailed her fingers up and down the young woman’s arm, holding her surprised gaze. “Would you mind company for a few moments? I’m not looking forward to going back to my room alone.”
Becky’s lips parted and her eyes grew liquid and soft. “There’s no one down here except me. No one will need me.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Melinda whispered, watching the young woman’s breasts rise and fall rapidly as her breath quickened.I need you. I need the scent of your pleasure and the taste of your passion.I need to feel your blood rush and your flesh tremble.She rubbed her thumb in a slow circle over the top of her companion’s hand, waiting patiently, already certain of the outcome.
“Come with me,” Becky murmured.
Melinda smiled. The invitation had been given and, although not everything she hungered for, was sweet nevertheless. “I’d love to.”
“Where are you going?” Adrian asked.
Rooke set her empty teacup on the drain board and shrugged into her jacket. “Out to the truck to get my toolbox. I need a flashlight if I’m going up into the attic.”
“I’m sure there’s a flashlight around here somewhere. You just got warmed up. I don’t want you going back outside again in the storm.”
Rooke stared, confused by her concern. Her grandfather, a solitary, stoic man, never treated her any differently than the men who worked in his crews, even when she’d been small. If she got hurt, he ignored her tears and tended to the damage, expecting her to be strong. He might have worried about her, but he never let his worry hold her back. He was always there for her, and that was enough. “I’ll just be a second. It’s not that cold.”
“Must you be so stubborn?” Adrian said. “Just let me look in the pantry. I’m sure there’s a flashlight in there.”
Crazy. Rude. Stubborn.So far, this woman who didn’t know anything about her had decided she was all these things. Rooke wasn’t sure why it bothered her what a stranger should think of her. She’d stopped caring what people thought at about the same time she’d understood she was different. She leaned back against the counter and put her hands in the pockets of her jeans. Some things weren’t worth fighting over.
“There’s a couple in here,” Adrian called from the walk-in pantry. “They all need batteries. I think there are some in the plastic storage bins under the counter by the sink. They should be labeled—my grandmother is a great categorizer. Can you check?”
Stomach tightening, Rooke squatted down and opened the cabinet drawer. In addition to cleaning supplies, she found a stack of containers with blue plastic lids. She couldn’t see inside them, so she lifted the first one out and opened the lid. Ten-inch fireplace matches, assorted candles, and a bottle of lamp oil. She put the top back on.
“Did you find any?” Adrian rested her hand on Rooke’s shoulder as she leaned down to peer into the cabinet. “What about the one on the bottom? Doesn’t that say batteries?”
Adrian’s warm breath wafted against her neck, and Rooke flinched. The sensation was so unfamiliar, as was the tremor that rippled down her spine. Forcing the disquieting reaction aside, she lifted the upper containers and slid out the bottom one. When she pried off the lid, she found several unopened packages of batteries. Quickly, she turned them over to look at the size. “What do you need?”
Rooke stayed very still until Adrian moved away, then straightened and carried the batteries to the table where Adrian had lined up three flashlights. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” Adrian said, unsettled and confused. When she’d rested her hand on Rooke’s back just now, she’d had the physical sensation of a door slamming closed. The abrupt absence of the intensity she’d experienced during their earlier touch left her feeling unexpectedly hollow, as if she’d lost something critical. She shook her head. She’d been hypersensitive the entire day, and she could only imagine it was because she’d been so barricaded against her family’s emotional and verbal barrage that now she was rebounding—letting every stimulus in. That she’d allowed two women in the same day past her defenses was like a warning clarion ringing in her mind. She felt vulnerable and exposed, and she automatically threw up a shield.
“Let’s get this over with,” Adrian said sharply.
“Where’s the attic access?” Rooke was anxious to finish up so she could get back to the safety and security of her shop. Being around Adrian reminded her of just how much she hated interacting with strangers. Usually she didn’t care what kind of impression she made. She was used to being dismissed, or worse. But from the instant she’d seen Adrian emerging from the snow, coming after her as if she mattered, she’d cared what Adrian thought of her. And that was just a setup for disappointment, because she knew what Adrian’s reaction would be when she knew the truth.
“There’s a staircase at the end of the hall on the second floor,” Adrian said. “I’ll take you up.”
“I’ll find it.”
“I’m not going to let you go wandering around up there by yourself.” As much as she wanted to stay downstairs in the brightly lit, warm kitchen rather than climb around in the frigid, dark, cobweb-ridden attic, Adrian couldn’t just let someone else take care of her problems.
“What? You think I’m going to steal the silver?” Rooke cursed herself for momentarily forgetting the sharp divide between the extremely wealthy members of the community, many of whom only summered in Ford’s Crossing, and the locals like her grandfather and her, who lived in the village year-round. Many of the year-rounders worked as domestic or grounds staff for the rich New York City families, and the villagers were grateful for the work. But the social classes did not mingle, as Adrian had just reminded her. How she could have forgotten, considering her family history, was just another sign of how off balance she really was. Ever since she’d first heard the message from Adrian Oakes, she’d been acting and thinking completely unlike herself.
“Right,” Adrian scoffed, certain Rooke was joking. “My grandmother never throws anything away. The attic is crammed with God knows what. I don’t want you tripping and breaking your neck up there.”
Rooke wasn’t certain what bothered her most—that Adrian didn’t trust her or that she didn’t think she was competent. Either one was an affront to everything she prided herself on. Stung, she shot back, “You might think it’s a national tragedy if you break a nail, but a few bumps and bruises won’t even register for me.”
“Break a nail?” Adrian exclaimed. “Why you arrogant, condescending…” She poked a finger at Rooke. “Let me tell you something, Ms. Macho Stonemason. I just spent two months dodging IEDs and suicide bombers in the middle of a…” Adrian clamped down on her anger. She couldn’t believe she’d let Rooke get under her skin so much that she lost her temper. She never lost her temper. Not since she’d discovered that the way to win an argument—to win anything—was with cold, hard logic and absolute control. She never let anyone know that they’d hurt or angered her. Why a total stranger could make her forget that was a mystery she was too tired to solve. Embarrassed by her loss of control, she said, “I apologize for my bad manners.”
“Why don’t you just take me up,” Rooke said, mentally addingarrogantandcondescendingto Adrian’s list of her bad qualities. “The sooner I get up there, the sooner I’ll be out of here.”
“This way.” Adrian pointed to the narrow hallway that ran from the corner of the kitchen into the adjoining wing. “There’s a back staircase.”
Of course there was, Rooke thought. Every house that had once had servants had a staircase into the kitchen for the help to come and go without disturbing the family in the formal parts of the house. Adrian had already grabbed one flashlight and started down the hall, so Rooke scooped up another and followed.
A blast of cold air struck them at the top of the stairs, and Adrian rubbed her arms. “God, I never remember this house being so drafty.”
“You’re shivering. Don’t you have a sweatshirt or something you can put on?”
“You’re in a T-shirt.”
Rooke shrugged. She was so used to working in a lather of sweat no matter the time of year, she barely registered the surrounding temperature. “The cold doesn’t really bother me all that much.”
“Of course it doesn’t.” Adrian resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Rooke Tyler reminded her of the soldiers she’d spent time with on her last assignment with her filmmaker friend Jude. Male or female, it didn’t matter—none of them would ever admit to any kind of weakness. Not fear, not pain, not even the heartache of losing a friend. They also tended to be overly protective and domineering. She admired them and was frustrated by them in equal measure.
Rooke slowed by the open door to the only room that was showing any light. Adrian’s bedroom. “Go ahead,” she said, turning her head away. It felt too personal to see where Adrian slept. “Get something warm to put on if you insist on being up here. Once we open the attic, it’s going to get a lot colder.”
“Are you sure you don’t want something? I’ve got extras.”
“No thanks.” Rooke hesitated. “I guess I can’t talk you into waiting down here, huh?”
“I don’t guess you can,” Adrian said lightly.
“You’re the boss,” Rooke muttered.
“I need to know what’s going on.” Adrian knew she probably seemed unreasonably obstinate to Rooke. Her independent streak and stubborn self-sufficiency often put a barrier between her and others, but if that was the price she had to pay to escape the narrow, soul-suffocating life that had been designed for her, the cost was well worth it. She’d rather be alone on her own terms than a player in someone else’s grand design.
“Oh God.” Becky clutched Melinda’s shoulders, her eyes wide and wild. “Oh God. I’ve never come like this.” Braced on the edge of the desk, she stared down between them, her legs spread wide on either side of Melinda’s hips. Melinda’s fingers played between her legs, sliding inside her and then up and over her clitoris. “Oh God. Please, please don’t stop.”
Melinda groaned, covering Becky’s mouth with hers, drinking her cries, swallowing her passion. The eternally hungry recesses of her soul filled as Becky burst into orgasm, Becky’s release searing her with the force of a lightning strike. Exultant, Melinda threw back her head with a shout of triumph, climaxing as she absorbed the rush of power.
“Yes,” she cried, tangling her fingers in Becky’s hair and pulling her head back to take her mouth again. “More.”
Becky whimpered, sagging in Melinda’s grip. Her lids were heavy, her eyes unfocused. Her hands trailed limply down Melinda’s arms. “I can’t. I came so hard already.”
“Yes, you can,” Melinda murmured, slowly stroking her, unerringly finding the places that made her breath catch and her pulse pound in her throat. “Let me show you pleasure like you’ve never dreamed.” She kissed along the edge of Becky’s jaw, then grazed her teeth over the soft skin beneath her ear. “Becky. Becky.”
“Yes.” Becky’s body opened, taking Melinda deeper. Her eyes fluttered closed and her breath shuddered out. “Yes. Yes.”
Permission given, Melinda thrust harder, filling Becky even as Becky’s passion filled her. Taking all that she had been given. Victorious.Chapter Five
“How does it look?” Adrian resisted the urge to reach up and steady Rooke’s hips as Rooke stood on one of her grandmother’s old walnut dressers and pulled insulation away from the underside of the roof. She didn’t touch her because Rooke clearly didn’t want her assistance, and she didn’t need any more sensory stimulation from anyone for a while. Her nerves jangled with constant bursts of energy that made her skin tingle and every part of her throb. She felt like a Roman candle with a very short, very hot fuse.
“It’s tough to see all the way to the outer angle of the roof, but there’s water back there,” Rooke reported, peeling back another few inches of the thick pink padding. The only light, other than from their flashlights, came from a single bare bulb at the top of the staircase at the other end of the attic, so she was working pretty much blind. “Yep. Got a hole next to where the chimney joins. Ah hell, my flashlight’s dying. Batteries were probably old.”
“Here, take mine,” Adrian said.
Rooke turned on the narrow width of the dresser, keeping her shoulders bent so she didn’t whack her head on the rafters, and took the flashlight from Adrian. “Thanks.”
“Can you do anything from in here to plug the hole?”
“Nope.” Rooke panned the light from one end of the attic to the other, marking her position so she could find the damaged section from outside. “I’ll have to get up on the roof and nail a tarp down over the whole area. Otherwise, you’ll have water in the walls before long.”
“You can’t get up on the roof in this storm.”
“As soon as it’s daylight, I shouldn’t have a problem.” Rooke ignored Adrian’s look of protest and returned to assessing the damage. She propped her flashlight on a horizontal beam, illuminating the section she’d exposed under the insulation, and pulled her pocketknife from her jeans. She used the blade to pry up a section of plywood. Pulling the edge down with her left hand, she cautiously worked her right over the surface of the plywood. “Damp, but not soaked. You probably haven’t lost a lot of shingles outsi—” She sucked in a breath as pain cut across the top of her hand. Fighting the instinct to yank her hand free, knowing she’d likely cause more damage, she held her arm still. “Could you pass me the light?”
“Nothing. I just need to get a better look in here and I can’t reach the flashlight.”
“I’ll have to climb up there to get it.”
“Never mi—” Rooke braced her legs as the dresser shuddered beneath her. When an arm came around her waist, the muscles in her abdomen contracted sharply and she gasped.
“Sorry,” Adrian muttered. “Not much room up here.” She leaned a little closer and reached over Rooke’s shoulder for the flashlight. As she stretched for it, her breasts pressed into Rooke’s back and her pelvis snugged against Rooke’s ass. She couldn’t have blocked out the feel of those hard muscles even if she’d wanted to, and at least part of her didn’t. The low-level current in her body instantly kicked up a notch, and all her sexual alarms started blaring. She feared she might be vibrating and Rooke would know why. Embarrassed, she clutched the flashlight with a sigh of relief and delivered it into Rooke’s free hand. Then she eased away as much as she could, even though she still needed to hold on to Rooke for balance on the narrow surface. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” Rooke shined the light into the tight space between the undersurface of the eaves and the sheet of plywood, trying to ignore the unfamiliar ache where Adrian’s palm pressed low on her belly. The throbbing in her stomach totally eclipsed the pain in her hand. “Can you reach the free lip of this plywood?”
“I think so. I’ll have to edge around you a little bit more. What’s wrong?”
“I just need you to make some room so I can slide my hand out,” Rooke said. A jagged edge of bent flashing canted inward, trapping her hand between the metal and the wood. Blood pooled on the wood under her palm.
Rooke sounded completely calm, but Adrian feared she was in trouble. She fought down a surge of anxiety and inched her way around until her legs straddled Rooke’s hip. Gripping the back of Rooke’s jeans with one hand, she hooked her fingers over the rim of the plywood. “Okay. What next?”
“When I say, pull down slowly until I tell you to stop.”
“All right.” Adrian bit her lip to keep from urging Rooke to hurry.
“Go.” Rooke kept the beam of light on the spot where the metal dug into her hand. Blood now covered her wrist and trickled along her forearm. Ignoring the burning in her hand, she focused on the unexpected comfort of Adrian pressed against her. The pressure forcing Rooke’s hand into the sharp metal edge abruptly eased. “Can you hold it right there?”
“I won’t let go, Rooke,” Adrian replied.
Slowly, Rooke drew her arm out. “Thanks.”
“Put the light on your arm,” Adrian said. “Let me see it.”
“It’s okay. I think we’re done up—”
“Rooke. Let me see your arm.”
“Climb down first before we both fall off of here.”
Reluctantly, Adrian eased to a sitting position and jumped down from the dresser. Then she turned and held out her hand. “Give me the flashlight.”
Rooke didn’t have a choice because she needed to brace her good hand on top of the dresser to get down. The instant she relinquished the light, Adrian shined it on her injured hand.
“Okay,” Adrian said briskly, squelching her initial panic upon seeing the amount of blood running down Rooke’s arm and dripping from her fingers. “That’s going to need some attention.”
“I just need to wash it up.”
“It needs a thorough cleansing, and then we’ll decide what else.” Adrian swept her flashlight toward the stairs. “Come on. You’re dripping on the floor.”
“Sorry,” Rooke muttered. She tugged her T-shirt from her pants and wrapped the bottom edge around her injured hand, hoping to catch most of the blood.
“I was kidding,” Adrian said softly, wondering if Rooke really thought she was that uncaring. She led the way, navigating through the haphazard piles of boxes, furniture, and racks of clothes as quickly as she could. “Does it hurt?”
“Are you just being tough?”
“Not really.” Rooke stopped at the top of the stairs. “I’ll wait here until you bring a towel. I don’t want to get blood on your grandmother’s carpet.”
“You’re not serious, are you?” Adrian lifted the light enough to illuminate Rooke’s face. She looked paler than usual, but otherwise her expression was unreadable. If she hurt, she didn’t show it. Adrian gripped Rooke’s free hand. “Be careful on the stairs.”
Rooke tried to concentrate on maneuvering down the narrow stairs, but most of her attention was fixed on Adrian’s hand clasping hers. Adrian’s skin was very soft even though her grip was strong. She wondered how her callused, rough hands felt to Adrian, and she wished she had something finer to offer her.
“Here,” Adrian said, drawing Rooke into the hall bathroom. “Hold your hand over the sink, but let me run the water for a few minutes before you get it wet. I’m afraid the water has been standing in the pipes and I don’t want any rust to get into that laceration.”
“Okay. I can take it from here.” Rooke peeled the bottom of her T-shirt away from her hand, and as soon as she did, blood welled up and dripped into the porcelain bowl.
“No, you can’t.” Adrian turned on both faucets, and after some coughing and sputtering, copper-tinged water erupted. She opened the medicine cabinet above the sink. The shelves were empty. “I’m going to check my grandmother’s bathroom. I’m sure she’s got first aid supplies in there. Will you be okay?”
“Yes. Sure.” Rooke was almost as embarrassed by the fuss as by the accident. She hated giving Adrian a reason to question her competence. “Look, it’s really not a big dea—”
Adrian pressed her fingers against Rooke’s mouth. “Let’s see if we can go five minutes without you aggravating me. Which means, hush.”
Rooke would have been offended at being called aggravating except she was too stunned by the sensation of Adrian’s skin against her lips to care. She felt heat, a teasing pressure, silky softness. Fighting the urge to slip her tongue out to taste her, she clamped her lips more tightly together. When Adrian’s eyes crinkled at the corners and she laughed, Rooke’s confusion suddenly turned to unexpected pleasure. She grinned.
“Not used to taking orders, are you?” Adrian whispered, lifting her fingers away from Rooke’s mouth. The smile had taken her by surprise. Rooke’s eyes had shifted from cool obsidian to gleaming onyx in the space of a heartbeat, and Adrian had not only seen the transformation, she’d felt it. A burst of heat and power enveloped her, still dark, but no longer dangerous. Sensual. Erotic. Hypnotic. She backed up a step. “Remember, don’t get it wet yet. I’ll be right back.”
Oddly light-headed, Rooke braced her good arm on the sink and closed her eyes. She’d had plenty of work-related injuries in her life, and on a scale of one to ten, this was about a three. Blood didn’t bother her, even her own. Even though her hand throbbed, it wasn’t enough to make her dizzy or sick to her stomach. Just the same, her insides were jittery and her head buzzed. She didn’t feel right at all.
“Hey,” Adrian said gently, rubbing Rooke’s back. “Do you need to sit down?”
Rooke shook her head. Adrian’s hand circling between her shoulder blades sent warm waves of pleasure through her. She sucked in air, which seemed in short supply, and gripped the sink harder. “I’m okay.”
“Right, then.” Adrian lined some bottles up along the edge of the sink, then cradled Rooke’s injured hand in both of hers. “Let’s get this clean. Tell me if the water’s too warm. Or if it hurts.”
Mutely, Rooke watched as Adrian held her hand under the faucet. Adrian ran her thumbs over the top of Rooke’s hand, dislodging the clotted blood while carefully avoiding the edges of the four-inch laceration that ran across the entire width of her hand just above her knuckles. Soon, their joined hands were covered in crimson.
Adrian concentrated on not hurting Rooke, hoping to stave off the effect of the warm red blood streaming over her skin, but she couldn’t block the images that seeped into her consciousness despite how hard she tried to barricade herself. She caught flashes of foreboding stone castles, fire-scorched parapets, and fierce warriors with their faces covered by beaten-metal helmets. She smelled burning oil and heard the agonized cries of the mortally wounded. Among the melee a single figure dominated the battle, dark eyes blazing, great sword cutting a swath through those who stormed the gates.Guardian.The word hummed in her mind as Adrian struggled to focus. She doubted more than a second had passed, and she’d had a lot of practice covering up her brief lapses. When she was a child her siblings and parents had laughed at her “overactive imagination,” until she’d learned not to share the strange and vivid pictures that sometimes jumped into her consciousness.
“Can you straighten your fingers?” Adrian asked.
“Yes.” Rooke carefully demonstrated. “A little sore but everything works.”
“Good. Are your fingertips numb?”
Rooke shook her head. “Are you a doctor?”
Adrian laughed, then out of nowhere, thought of Melinda holding her hand and unerringly divining her occupation. Melinda. Why did she keep stealing into her thoughts? “No. I’m a writer.”
“Oh.” Rooke couldn’t imagine a single thing more foreign to her experience. Common sense told her to let the subject drop, but she wanted to know about this part of Adrian. “Books, you mean?”
“No. Well, parts of books sometimes—I just finished scripting a photo journal about the war. To go along with still photos of friend of mine took. Sometimes I write articles about”—Adrian laughed—“just about anything that interests me. And then hope that someone else finds it interesting too and buys the piece.”
“For magazines and things like that?”
“That’s right. So I end up traveling to a lot to places that don’t have hospitals nearby. Most of us in my line of work get to be pretty good at first aid.” Adrian peered at the laceration, gently drawing the edges back with her thumbs. “It’s not too deep. Hand me the peroxide, could you?”
“Do you really think I need that?” Rooke stalled, eyeing the bottles lined up along the sink. Everything in her medicine cabinet at home was arranged precisely so she knew what they were. She didn’t recognize some of the bottles Adrian brought in.
“Rusty metal. Dirty attic. God knows what living up here? Yes, I think you need it.” Adrian released Rooke’s hand and plucked up the peroxide. “Keep it under the water while I pour this on. It won’t hurt.”
“I’m not worried about it hurting,” Rooke said.
“Then stop fussing.”
Rooke set her teeth to squelch a retort. She hadn’t intended to fuss, mostly because being taken care of was a completely new experience. She liked it, and she wasn’t certain that was such a good thing.
Adrian turned off the water and opened a nonstick gauze pad. After smearing some antibiotic ointment on the pad, she laid it gently over the laceration on Rooke’s hand and then expertly wrapped it with a roll of gauze. “There. That’s better.”
Aware that she was still holding Rooke’s hand, Adrian realized they’d gone from being strangers to being strangely intimate in a matter of a few hours. The air in the bathroom became close and too warm. The muscles in Rooke’s bare arm resting along the length of hers tightened and a thrill coursed through her. Too sensitive. She was just too sensitive right now to have this much physical contact with anyone. That’s all it was.
“You should probably have that looked at in the morning,” Adrian said briskly, moving away to break their contact. Avoiding Rooke’s gaze, she gathered up the first aid supplies and stored them in the cabinet. “I don’t think it needs stitches, but I’m not a professional.”
“It’ll be fine. You did a great job with it. I’m sorry to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble,” Adrian said softly. “Well. Will you send someone from your crew tomorrow to check the roof, then?”
Rooke followed Adrian out into the hall. “It’ll be light in a couple of hours. I’ll look at it then.”
Adrian halted abruptly. She just knew if she pointed out to Rooke that climbing up on the roof with an injured hand wasn’t wise, Rooke would argue, and she didn’t have the energy for a confrontation. The entire night had been one adrenaline rush after another—the erotic dream, Rooke’s sudden appearance, Rooke’s injury. Not to mention her heightened sensitivity to the smallest touch, her uncharacteristically intense physical reaction to Rooke, and the strange vision she’d just had. She felt drained and vulnerable, and she didn’t like the sensation one bit. Rooke Tyler was a disruption she didn’t need.
“I’d feel better if you got someone else to handle the roof,” Adrian said, not bothering to explain since her concern would only be shrugged off.
“I’ll just get my coat and get out of your way, then.” Rooke eased around Adrian and vaulted down the stairs.
By the time Adrian caught up to her, Rooke had her jacket in hand and was at the front door. She’d offended her—she could see it in the set of Rooke’s jaw and the dark clouds shadowing her eyes. That hadn’t been her intention, and she had the irrational urge to ask her to stay. Ordinarily, she was perfectly content with just her own company. In fact, she enjoyed being alone to read or write. That’s why she’d jumped at the chance to come here. Nevertheless, she found herself casting about for an excuse to keep Rooke from disappearing. “I appreciate you coming out in this miserable storm to check the roof. It’s almost morning. Why don’t you wait here until it’s light so you don’t have to drive in the dar—”
“I know these roads. It’s no problem.” Rooke tugged her ball cap out of the pocket of her leather jacket, yanked it low over her forehead, and pulled open the front door. A gust of wind blew snow into her face. “Someone will be out later this morning. Good night.”
And just that quickly, the door slammed shut and Adrian was alone. She hurried to the window and looked out in time to see Rooke jump from the porch and disappear into the storm.
“Well, damn.”Chapter Six
Rooke pulled through the ten-foot-high wrought-iron gates of Stillwater Cemetery and parked behind the two-story stone caretaker’s house with a palpable sense of relief. Even though the twelve-mile trip home had taken over an hour in the storm, the treacherous snow-covered roads hadn’t been nearly as difficult to navigate as the time she’d spent with Adrian Oakes. Black ice and snowdrifts were nothing compared to the unfamiliar territory of interacting with a stranger. She rarely had more than a five-minute conversation with anyone other than her grandfather, Emma, or Dominic—a guy her age who supervised the grounds crew at Stillwater. Her role at Stillwater mirrored her life, unfolding in solitude within the confines of her shop and centered in the heart of her art.
She worked for her grandfather, but he handled all the details of the bereavement process that required a personal touch—helping families to choose plots and coordinating services for interment with the funeral directors—as well as processing the orders for gravestones and mausoleums. He brought the work orders to Rooke, explaining what the family wanted, and together he and Rooke would map out the details for the stonework she would carve. The most Rooke had to interact with other people was when she directed family members to her grandfather’s small office or helped out the grounds crew when they were shorthanded. But even when she pitched in to mow grass, erect tents for services, or dig graves, she just worked. She didn’t socialize.
When they were teenagers, Dominic had tried to get her to go to parties and other social events with the small local crowd, but he eventually stopped asking after she refused time after time. Everyone in a village the size of Ford’s Crossing knew everyone else, and she knew she wouldn’t fit in.
Before tonight, she’d never spent time with a woman like Adrian—someone worldly and sophisticated. And beautiful and smart. All the way home on the slow, torturous drive, Rooke thought about the things she should have said or done differently. She should have just followed Adrian’s orders and she probably would have made a better impression. It was Adrian’s house, after all. Except she was used to just doing what she knew how to do without asking for direction or opinions or assistance. The one thing she was good at was her job.
Of course, Adrian probably didn’t think so—not after she had to go and get her hand stuck in a crevice so she looked like a total incompetent. That bothered her almost as much as having Adrian take care of her.
Rooke parked the truck and climbed out. Midwinter, it was still dark at six a.m. and she didn’t know what to do with herself. She was too wired to sleep, too distracted to work, and it was still snowing too hard for her to take her morning run along the river. Quietly, she let herself into her grandfather’s kitchen and set about making coffee. As she measured grounds into the metal basket of the percolator, she thought about Adrian making tea. Adrian had moved around the kitchen with quiet authority, doing everything with an economy of motion and brisk efficiency. She was so sure of herself. She said she traveled, and it sounded like the places she went were dangerous. Far from medical care, she said. Rooke wondered what that was like, being in a strange land, facing uncertain, possibly even life-threatening peril. She’d never been farther than the county line.
She wasn’t the kind of person Adrian would have any reason to befriend, but Adrian hadn’t hesitated to treat her injury. Rooke held the pot under the faucet, remembering how Adrian had held her hand under the warm water, gently washing the caked blood from around the cut. Their hips and shoulders had touched while they leaned close together. Adrian’s body had felt firm and strong, just as her hands were soft and sure. Rooke’s stomach was jittery again at the thought of Adrian’s thumbs gliding over her skin.
“You’re gonna spill that water all over the floor, you’re not careful,” a gravelly voice warned from behind her.
Rooke jumped and splashed water on her T-shirt. Cursing, she shut off the faucet and poured the excess out of the pot, which had filled to overflowing while she was daydreaming.
“Hi, Pops.” She turned to greet her grandfather, who stood in the kitchen doorway. He wore his usual khaki work pants and faded blue plaid flannel shirt, but instead of his work boots, he had on the brown slippers she’d gotten him for Christmas. She got him new slippers every year for Christmas, and he got her new leather work gloves. In his early sixties, he looked a decade younger, still solid and sturdy. Even though his hairline was receding, his hair was still the same deep mahogany as hers. His eyes were blue, though, not dark like hers. She had her mother’s eyes, he always said.
“Win last night?” Rooke set the coffeepot on the burner.
“Beer money for a couple weeks.” He pulled out a chair at the square Formica-topped table in the corner and sat down. “Up kinda early, aren’t you?”
“I just came back from the Winchester place. Don’t feel like going back to bed.”
“Some reason you went in the middle of the night?”
Rooke fiddled with the flame on the gas stove until it was the right height under the coffeepot. “A call came in while you were out and I didn’t pick it up until later. There was a problem with the roof. Didn’t sound like it could wait.”
“You drive over there by yourself?”
His question had been casual, but she knew it wasn’t. “Yep.”
“You didn’t think about waking me up?”
“Come on, Pops.” Rooke couldn’t get angry at him for looking out for her, but she wasn’t a kid anymore. She needed to make her own decisions, and accept the consequences. “A back road with no traffic. It’s no big deal.”
He studied her silently for a moment. “The roof, you say.”
“And the chimney.” Rooke leaned against the counter next to the stove. “A big tree came down and sheared off the chimney and the corner of the roof.”
“What happened to your hand?”
Rooke glanced down at the bandage. A quarter-sized spot of blood seeped through, leaving a dark crimson blotch on the white gauze. “Snagged it on a piece of sheet metal. It’s nothing.”
“Looks like it’s bleeding.”
“Adrian cleaned it up.” Rooke felt her face flush. “Dumb thing to do.”
Ronald Tyler shrugged. “Things happen. How bad’s the damage up there?”
“The roof needs covering. The fireplace is out of commission until the chimney’s repaired. I didn’t get much of a look at that, but a good couple weeks’ work at least.”
“What did Mrs. Winchester want us to do?”
Rooke frowned. “I don’t think she’s there. Just her granddaughter, Adrian. I didn’t get a look at the outside. Not enough to give her any kind of estimate.”
“The storm’s supposed to let up some later this morning. You plan on getting a tarp up there?”
“Yes.” Rooke wasn’t about to tell her grandfather that Adrian didn’t want her to do it. She was already embarrassed enough about her accident. “I thought I’d call Dom to give me a hand.”
“Sounds okay.” Ronald nodded toward the stove, where the coffee percolated vigorously. “You gonna pour some of that or just boil it to death?”
Rooke hadn’t even noticed the coffee about to spew out the spout and lunged to turn down the flame. She didn’t seem to have her head on straight, and she couldn’t figure out why. Nothing had seemed quite right since she’d met Adrian Oakes.
Melinda woke a little after seven, showered, and dressed in camel-colored slacks, a dark brown cashmere sweater, and low-heeled brown leather boots. She decided to leave her hair loose and, after finishing her makeup, walked down the three flights of stairs to the small dining room on the first floor of the hotel. On her way past the front desk, she thought of Becky. She’d left her just after three, dozing in a chair behind the desk in the office. Becky’s sexual reserves had been surprising, and Melinda had brought her to orgasm four times before Becky had slumped into her arms in an exhausted torpor. Becky would be pleasantly tired for a few days, but none the worse for the encounter. Melinda had gone to bed energized and, for the time being, nearly satisfied.
The dining room was empty except for a middle-aged businessman who looked up from his newspaper when she entered and followed her with his eyes as she crossed the room to a two-person table in front of the windows. She smiled at him and he lowered his paper, his gaze roaming hungrily over her body. She caught his gaze and held it, and his expression slowly shifted from one of avid appreciation to nearly mindless lust. Watching the transformation, Melinda breathed deeply, savoring his desire. She let the game go on as tension spiraled through her, senses growing ever keener as her body pulsed with arousal. When she brushed her fingertips over her erect nipple, his body twitched and she licked her lips, savoring the unanticipated infusion of pleasure.
After another minute, she broke eye contact and casually picked up the menu from the table. She knew from experience his passion would not satisfy her, but only leave her hungry. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him sag as if he had been held upright by an invisible cord that had been abruptly severed. Then, his face flushed, he rose and hurried from the room, holding his newspaper in front of the bulge in his pants.
Laughing softly, Melinda gazed out the window. The snow had tapered to a thin shower of flakes that swirled and danced in the wind. The sky was cerulean and the sun incongruously bright after the tempestuous storm the night before. A foot of pristine snow glittered on parked automobiles, sidewalks, and street. A few merchants shoveled sidewalks in front of their stores, but otherwise the streets were empty.
“Coffee this morning?” a young man asked as he approached her table with a pot.
“Yes, please.” Melinda set the menu aside and gave him her breakfast order. Then she withdrew the estate sale announcement from the side pocket of her shoulder bag along with a pen and her cell phone and punched in the telephone number provided for information. The call was picked up after three rings.
“Good morning,” Melinda said, “I’m interested in some information about the estate sale scheduled for later this morning.”
“Oh, I’m glad you called,” a man replied. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have to postpone that for a few days. One of the snowplows knocked out half the bridge over the creek, and I am afraid the road to the house is impassable.”
“I see.” Melinda swallowed her irritation. “Do you expect to have the problem cleared up by Monday?”
“I wish I could say, ma’am. I should have more information tomorrow. I certainly do apologize for the inconvenience.”
“Yes, well,” Melinda said, rethinking her plans for the weekend, “you can hardly be held responsible for the weather.”
“To hear my wife talk sometimes, you’d think differently.” He laughed. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Actually, there is. I’m interested in some information on item 7132 in your catalog.”
“The stone sculpture?”
“Yes. You have an excellent memory.”
“Why, thank you,” he said.
Melinda could envision him preening, and smiled. After a moment of silence, she prodded, “The artist? Do you have any contact information for the artist?”
“You know, you’re not the first person to ask me that question. I’ve gotten calls from three art dealers asking me the same thing.”
“Really.” Melinda circled the picture in the catalog of a stone sculpture depicting a reclining woman, her head thrown back, a slender leg bent at the knee, one hand splayed between her breasts and the other palm up by her side. Depending on one’s interpretation, she might have been basking in the sun or awakening from a dream, but Melinda knew without a doubt she had been captured in the midst of orgasm. The work was powerful, primal, and the energy of the artist was tangible even on the static page. She wanted the artwork, but even more, she wanted the unknown artist. She wasn’t just an art dealer, she was a collector. She prided herself on recognizing the unique and making it hers. “I’d like to see what else he’s done.”
“Well, I would surely like to help you, Ms…?”
“Melinda Singer. And you are?”
“Earl. Earl Barnes.”
“Can you help me, Mr. Barnes?”
“Like I said, I wish I could, but the artist is anonymous.”
“Surely you must be able to trace the piece through the owner?”
“Can’t. There’s nothing to be found on it among the estate paperwork.”
“A bill of sale or something in the insurance listings? It must be insured.” Melinda couldn’t believe that no one appeared to recognize the value of this piece. On one hand, that was very good for her. The bad news was that other dealers had obviously come to the same conclusion regarding its potential. Her only advantage was that she had come personally to procure the piece, and the others would most likely send representatives who wouldn’t be as relentless about tracking down the artist as she intended to be.
“’Fraid not. Folks around here tend to be pretty casual about that kind of thing. I got so many calls about this item, though, I did a little searching through Mrs. Meriwether’s papers. Believe me, that was a challenge. No filing system to speak of. I wasn’t able to find anything.”
Melinda tapped her pen impatiently on the tabletop and waved off the waiter as he approached with the coffeepot. “Perhaps if I could examine the piece.”
“That’s a bit irregular,” Earl said, “but I’d make an exception for you if that were possible. But with the roads out, it isn’t. I did ask Mrs. Meriwether’s niece if she had any recollection—”
“How wise of you,” Melinda interrupted, allowing her voice to drop a register.
“Yes, well…” He cleared his throat. “The niece thought it might’ve been a gift, but she wasn’t sure who sent it.”
“Did she happen to speculate?” Melinda heard what sounded like papers rustling in the background.
“I did make a few notes on that. Ah, here it is. There are a number of families of Mrs. Meriwether’s station who go back quite a few generations hereabouts. Close personal friends, you know.”
Melinda translated that to mean the wealthy families of the area. “Yes, of course. I can assure you, I’ll be quite discreet.”
“Here you are, then.”
Mr. Barnes provided her with four names that Melinda wrote in the margin of the catalog. She doubted she would have any difficulty finding phone numbers, since the town was so small. “You’ve been wonderfully helpful. And you will remember to call me about the new date and time for the sale.”
“I most certainly will. Very happy to be of service, Ms. Singer.”
“Thank you,” Melinda murmured, disconnecting. She was disappointed that the sale had been postponed, but this information might prove more valuable in the long run. She wanted the sculpture, and she intended to have it. But that wasn’t all she had come for.Chapter Seven
Adrian carried her cup of steaming tea to the front windows and looked out over the lawn toward River Road and the frozen expanse of the Hudson River beyond. The snow-covered branches of the skeletal trees stood silhouetted against the steel gray sky, a stark backdrop to an eerily empty world. She couldn’t glimpse a single puff of smoke from a neighboring chimney or even a bird in the sky. She might have been the only living creature on some distant world. Shivering, she zipped her gray sweatshirt over the T-shirt she’d donned along with jeans after taking her shower. She hadn’t bothered to tie back her hair, and the thick, shoulder-length waves curled wildly around her face. Absently, she tucked an errant strand behind her ear and sipped her tea while watching a blue truck slowly approach along the single-lane road that hugged the river. With a start, she realized she was no longer alone in the universe, and more than that, she was about to have company.
The truck turned into the drive and climbed toward the house, coming to a halt just beyond the fallen tree. Adrian’s heart picked up speed and just as quickly sank. Rooke’s truck had been red. She squinted, trying to make out the white lettering on the side through the thin curtain of falling snow. The driver’s door swung open toward her as a man stepped out. STILLWATERCEMETERYwas stenciled on the red door in white block letters. Rooke said she carved gravestones. Rooke had sent someone to look at the roof, just as Adrian had asked. Someone else. Exactly as Adrian had requested.
Adrian brushed aside the surge of unreasonable disappointment and opened the door. A sinfully handsome man in his mid-twenties with curly black hair, thick-lashed dark eyes, and olive features climbed onto the porch. For just an instant, Adrian compared his movie-star good looks to Rooke’s. Despite the thin scar, Rooke’s haunting pale beauty would linger in her mind long after this man’s face faded.
“Hi there!” he said with a dazzling smile and held out his hand. “I’m Dominic Fanucci. I’m here about the roof.”
Realizing she’d been staring, Adrian quickly pasted on a smile and grasped his hand. “Adrian Oakes. Thank you for coming out in this miserable weather.”
“Is there anything you need?”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the truck. “Nope. We’ve got it covered. I just wanted to let you know we’d be tromping around up there. Oh, and you might want to stay inside because we’re probably going to be knocking things loose.” He flashed another brilliant smile and his eyes swept over her with the kind of appreciation that probably made most women melt. “Wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
Adrian looked past him to the familiar figure removing tools from the back of the truck. Rooke wore the same navy ball cap as the night before, but she’d replaced her leather jacket with a black hooded sweatshirt. “Would you ask Rooke to come up when she has a minute?”
“Sure thing.” He hesitated, looking out from under long lashes with a hopeful expression. “See you later, then.”
Adrian stepped back inside and closed the door to keep out the cold. She watched Rooke approach through the wavy panes of the leaded glass window. Her face was blurred, but her body looked solid and somehow familiar as she strode up the path with strong, sure strides. Adrian opened the door just as Rooke stepped onto the porch.
“Good morning,” Adrian said quietly.
“How’s your hand?”
Rooke kept her bandaged hand in the pocket of her sweatshirt. “Doing fine.”
“You’ll be all right up there?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Okay then.” Adrian started to close the door, then stopped. “I was about to put on a pot of coffee. When you’re done, why don’t you and Dominic come in and have some and you can tell me how things look.”
“All right. I should check the fireplace too.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Adrian said, unable to look away from Rooke’s face. As she felt herself slipping into the endless dark depths of Rooke’s eyes, she had the impression of being sheltered, held, kept safe. She didn’t resist the pull, even though she should.
“Are you sure?” Rooke murmured, sounding far away.
“Yes,” Adrian said hastily, blinking as the odd sensation disappeared as quickly as it had arisen. Ordinarily she’d never seek protection or even simple comfort from anyone. She didn’t trust the demand for control that would surely follow.Trust us, Adrian, we know what’s best for you. Don’t be foolish, Adrian, you don’t know what you really want. Do as we say, Adrian…
“You look tired,” Rooke said. “I can call you with an estimate tomor—”
“I’m fine. I didn’t sleep much, but then, I imagine you didn’t either.”
“I’m used to it.” Rooke shrugged. “Sometimes I forget.”
Adrian laughed. “You forget?”
Rooke looked uncertain, and then she laughed, her quick grin highlighting a deep dimple in her right cheek. “There are better things to do at night than sleep.”
Adrian sucked in a breath as a swift kick of arousal caught her unawares. They weren’t touching and she wasn’t riding an adrenaline high today, so she had no explanation for her physical reaction other than the fact that Rooke was gorgeous and sexy and, unlike her handsome friend Dominic, didn’t seem to have a clue. Or perhaps it was just that she hadn’t had sex in months and now that she wasn’t sleeping in a tent on the ground, alternately worried about poisonous bugs and stray bombs, her libido had returned with a vengeance.
“Better things like what?” Adrian wanted to know. Suddenly she wanted to know everything about Rooke with a fierceness that alarmed her.
“Work,” Rooke said uncomfortably. Adrian had the strangest expression on her face, as if Rooke were speaking a foreign language. Adrian probably really thought she was crazy now. “I should probably get—”
“You do the gravestone carvings at night?” When Rooke nodded, Adrian said, “What do you do during the day?”
“The same thing.”
“You work all the time.”
Adrian smiled. “You must love it.”
Heat rushed through Rooke’s chest, and her stomach was suddenly all over the place again. She’d never tried to talk about her work with anyone because she was afraid they wouldn’t understand. But Adrian seemed to. “Yes.”
“Can I come see, sometime? I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries.”
“Maybe.” Adrian grinned. “So what do you say?”
“Okay.” Rooke was too stunned to say anything else. And she didn’t want to. She wanted very much for Adrian to see what she did. Some of it, at least. She backed up a step, then another, until she was standing on the snow-packed path looking up into Adrian’s face. “I should go.”
“But you’ll be back, right?” Adrian had no idea why, but the answer to that question was more important than anything else she could think of.
“Be careful, then.”
Adrian watched her walk away, enjoying the fit of her jeans over her tight backside and the way her mahogany hair curled along the edges of her cap. Her fingertips tingled as if the soft strands played over her skin even now, and her loins tightened in pleasant anticipation. Even as she welcomed the desire teasing in her depths, she recognized her reaction as completely foreign to anything in her experience and completely beyond her control. Fearing the intensity of her response, she went inside and firmly closed the door, leaving her wildly unpredictable emotions outside with the woman responsible for them.
“Did you know her from before?” Dominic grabbed one end of the extension ladder and hefted it onto his shoulder as Rooke did the same.
“No.” Rooke forged a path through the knee-deep, unblemished snow toward the right side of the house where the fallen tree had wrought havoc. She was still trying to figure out why being around Adrian had her wanting to do things she’d never done before. On rare occasions she shared her sculptures with her grandfather, but he had probably only seen a fraction of the work she’d done over the years. Emma, the one human being she was intimate with, had never seen a single one. The grave markers that Adrian had asked to see were important to her, but they were designed for the public. She knew as she created them they would eventually be on display. Even though she brought all of her skill and imagination to those carvings, they weren’t personal the way her sculptures were. If her sculptures were ever revealed, she would be too. Exposed and defenseless, something she had vowed since childhood never to be.
“She seemed to know you,” Dominic persisted.
“I told you, I looked at the roof last night.” Rooke braced the bottom of the aluminum ladder in the snow and jockeyed it from side to side, making sure it was well seated on the frozen ground.
“Is she married?”
“I don’t know,” Rooke said, her chest tightening. For no reason she could imagine, she didn’t want Dominic anywhere near Adrian Oakes. Dominic was a good guy. He worked hard. He treated his men respectfully. He had befriended Rooke when no one else had. He’d first started working on the Stillwater grounds with his father’s landscaping crew. They’d both been eleven. Over the years, they’d developed an undemanding, comfortable friendship. He was easygoing and nonjudgmental and never seemed to want anything from her except simple company. They didn’t talk about their personal lives, although Rooke wouldn’t have had much to discuss if they had. She certainly wouldn’t have told him about Emma, who had worked as a bookkeeper at the cemetery for twenty years, and was known to everyone, including Dominic. When she’d first realized she wasn’t attracted to Dominic or any of the guys she saw around Stillwater, she kept the knowledge to herself, uncertain what to do. Then she’d noticed Emma,reallynoticed her. After months of flirtation, Emma had noticed her interest and tried to talk to her. Rooke hadn’t wanted to talk, she’d wanted to touch her, and Emma had let her. The rest had come naturally, and she’d been satisfied with the occasional pleasure of pleasing Emma.
Just the same, when she thought about Dominic asking Adrian for a date, her whole body grew hot and she wanted to demand he stay away from her. The reaction was totally unfamiliar and completely confusing. The only other thing she’d ever felt so proprietary about was her work.
“You want to go up or hold the ladder?” Rooke asked, needing to do what she had come to do and forget about the disquieting feelings she couldn’t explain.
“Why don’t you go. You’re the monkey, after all.”
Rooke grinned as she started up. She was lighter and more agile than Dominic and when they were younger, they’d race to see who could climb the highest and the fastest in the sweeping oaks and maples that guarded the dead at Stillwater. She had always won.
Adrian poured another cup of tea and listened to the distant thud of footsteps overhead. She leaned forward over the sink to glance out the window, and saw Dominic with his legs spread and his arms braced against the ladder to steady it. Rooke must be the one climbing around up there. She shook her head at Rooke’s stubbornness, but secretly admitted she probably would’ve done the same thing. She could never let anyone do her job for her, and apparently Rooke was the same way.
She carried her mug to the kitchen table and set up her laptop, whispering thanks for her grandmother’s addiction to late-night television and classic movies. Her grandmother had cable and, along with it, Internet service. At least she wouldn’t be dependent on dial-up for the next few months. Since she did much of her research online when preparing a new project, being connected was critical. She Googled “gravestone carvings” and began to jot notes on a yellow legal pad. Before long she was completely immersed in the history of grave markings, the significance of the symbols and figures, and the social and religious messages inherent in the carvings. Captured by the familiar thrill of the hunt, she sipped her cooling tea and followed one link after another, all the while envisioning Rooke bent over a marble slab creating designs and patterns with hammer and chisel.
The house phone rang and Adrian jumped. As she leapt up to grab the cordless phone on the counter, she became aware that the thumps overhead had morphed into banging. Rooke must be nailing down the tarp she’d spoken of the night before.
“Winchester residence. May I help you?” Adrian answered, automatically repeating the message she had been taught as a child.
“Hello, darling,” her grandmother said breezily. “So you made it all right? I’ve been watching that nasty storm on television. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be down here in Fort Lauderdale. It was eighty-two when I woke up this morning.”
“That’s really very cruel of you, Grandmother.” Adrian paused as her grandmother laughed. “I do have a bit of bad news. I’m afraid one of the big trees came down in the wind and damaged the roof and the chimney.”
“Oh dear. Is it bad?”
“I don’t think so, but it’s definitely going to require repair. The fireplace too.”
“Did you call your father?”
Adrian took a deep breath. She didn’t need to be reminded how the family hierarchy worked. The men made the decisions and handled the problems. Even though her mother and sister, a VP in the family business just as her brother was, were both intelligent, capable women, they seemed content to take a backseat and deferred to the men in most matters. Growing up, Adrian had always run afoul of the subtle but clear lines between what was appropriate and what wasn’t for her to say or do or think. She’d always been at odds with her family because of that, and when she came out to them, the distance had grown.
But she knew she wasn’t going to change her grandmother’s worldview at this point.
“No,” Adrian said as calmly as she could. “There’s really nothing he could do from the city, and I’m right here. I have someone looking at the roof right now, as a matter of fact. I was going to call you after I had some idea of the extent of the damage.”
“Well, that was certainly fast. I’m surprised you could get anyone on a Saturday. And in that weather too.”
Adrian thought better of telling her grandmother that she had actually gotten someone at two a.m. Somehow, Rooke’s showing up in the middle of the night made perfect sense to her—she appreciated Rooke’s stubborn, single-minded focus. They were alike that way. Her grandmother, though, like the rest of the family, was big on doing things in the “proper fashion.”
“They’ve been really terrific. Some contractors who manage the work at the cemetery in—”
“Ronald Tyler?” her grandmother asked sharply.
“Yes. Well, he’s not actually here,” Adrian said, surprised by her grandmother’s tone. “His granddaughter and another man are looking at the damage.”
“The girl is there?”
Adrian’s defenses immediately shot up at her grandmother’s dismissive manner. If she’d been feline, her fur would have been standing on end and her claws would have been out and ready for battle. “Yes, Rooke Tyler. But she’s hardly a girl. She must be in her mid-twenties at least.”
“I’m surprised Ronald has her doing that kind of work. She’s not…” Her grandmother’s voice dropped. “She’s not quite right, you know.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Adrian said stiffly. She’d spent quite a bit of time with Rooke the night before, and despite the fact that they tended to rub each other the wrong way, Rooke had been nothing but scrupulously polite and responsible. If anything, Adrian had been the one verging on rude. “She seems very knowledgeable.”
“I’m sure she’s capable of whatever job her grandfather has her doing at the cemetery, but I do think you should get another estimate just to be sure.”
“Ronald Tyler came highly recommended.” Adrian didn’t add the recommendation came from a cab driver whose name she didn’t even know. She had the strongest urge to protect Rooke from her grandmother’s criticisms, and she wasn’t entirely sure why. She didn’t know her, after all.
“I know it’s all the rage to homeschool children today, but that wasn’t the case twenty years ago. Ronald kept her home because she was…well, the kindest word for it would be ‘slow.’ Everyone in town knows it.”
Adrian laughed, recalling the verbal battles she and Rooke had waged the night before. “You have been misinformed. Believe me, she is not slow.”
“I suppose you are a better judge than I,” her grandmother said, though her tone implied otherwise.
“Grandmother,” Adrian said, trying desperately to hold on to her temper. “I can handle this. If I have any concerns about the estimate, I’ll get a second opinion. And I promise to keep a close eye on the repairs. You don’t need to worry.”
“Youwillcall your father if you have any doubts.”
“I promise,” Adrian said with a sigh.
“All right then. Is everything else all right?”
“Everything is fine,” Adrian replied automatically, giving the response she had learned to give whenever any member of her family expressed concern about her. Because if she didn’t, she would quickly find someone else taking charge. “Now, go enjoy that wonderful weather. That’s what you’re down there for.”
“I’m having lunch with Ida and Annette. I’ll send them your regards.”
“Please do.” Adrian hadn’t seen her grandmother’s two best friends for several years, but remembered them very well from her visits over the years. Ida and Annette wintered in Florida in the same condominium complex as her grandmother. The three women, all widowed, were all members of Ford’s Crossing’s upper echelons.
“I’ll talk to you soon, darling.”
Adrian finished the call and put the phone back on the counter. The pounding overhead had stopped. She started the automatic coffeepot, assuming that Rooke and Dominic would be coming down soon. She kept thinking about her grandmother pronouncing Rooke “slow,” and couldn’t imagine what had led to that rumor. When she and Rooke had talked, she’d found Rooke to be serious and intent, but also subtly humorous and pleasantly direct—anything but slow. More importantly, when they had touched, she’d sensed barriers and reserve, yes, but also strength and honor. Rooke was a complex woman, and if she’d allowed a whole town to think she was not, there must be a very good reason.Chapter Eight
When the doorbell rang, Adrian quickly set the mug she was holding down on the counter and spun toward the front door with a surge of excitement. Just as quickly, she mentally admonished herself for the reaction. She was letting her inexplicably volatile emotions run away with her these days. Taking a slow breath, she walked down the hall and opened the door. Dominic stood just in front of it with Rooke behind him. They were almost the same height.
Dominic’s eyes were alight with good humor and confidence. “Rooke here said something about coffee. I sure hope you weren’t teasing.”
“Not at all.” Adrian returned his smile absently as her gaze swept past him to Rooke, who regarded her with dark-eyed intensity. Rooke and Dominic were like night and day—she was the dark to his light, the gravity to his bright joy. Adrian hadn’t thought herself drawn to the darkness until that moment, when she suddenly pictured herself walking in the moonlight, her hand clasped in that of a figure whose face was cloaked in shadows. In the fleeting vision, the moonlight, and not the sun, illuminated her world with stunning clarity, as if all the answers to her questions lay just ahead on that silvery path. With a start, she realized she was blocking the door.
“Come in,” Adrian said, turning to lead them down the hall to the kitchen. “How were things up there?”
“Tarzan did most of the reconnaissance,” Dominic said.
Adrian looked back in time to see Dominic grin and shoulder-butt Rooke.
“Tarzan?” Adrian asked, smothering a smile when Rooke blushed and shot Dominic a glare. The two of them acted like siblings, although Rooke clearly didn’t like being teased and Adrian didn’t want to embarrass her.
“She can climb anything, although she doesn’t swing from branches much anymore.”
“Dom,” Rooke growled.
Adrian laughed and gestured to the table. “Sit down.”
“Most of the damage to the roof is surface stuff.” Rooke pulled out a chair and Dominic followed suit. “Some slate will need to be replaced and a section of sheathing and slats is torn up.”
“How big a job are we talking about?” Adrian poured coffee into the mugs she’d lined up on the counter. Her hands shook. She was nervous, which was absurd. She hadn’t been nervous facing down a lion that had wandered into camp in Kenya, where she’d been doing a story on Doctors Without Borders. Or when she’d informed her entire family over dessert on her eighteenth birthday that she was a lesbian. Talking to two perfectly pleasant people in the comfort of her grandmother’s kitchen was hardly threatening. Tired. She was just tired. Too much traveling, too little time to de-stress.
“To do the work—a couple of weeks if the weather clears and the materials come in pretty fast,” Rooke said. “Getting the slate might take some time. Not that much call for slate roofs any longer.”
Adrian handed Dominic a cup of coffee and placed another mug in front of Rooke. She noticed Rooke’s fingers were red, windburned, and quickly looked away when she had the sudden impulse to take Rooke’s hands in hers to warm them. Her gaze landed on Dominic. His cheeks were flushed as well. To cover her disquiet, she resorted to inane small talk. “You two look frozen. I’m sorry there’s no fire. This house just doesn’t heat right without one going.”
“Nothing this coffee won’t cure.” Dominic took a sip and made an appreciative noise. “Definitely beats the stuff Rooke usually makes back at the shop. Now, this I wouldn’t mind standing around in the cold for.”
“I’m glad you like it,” Adrian said, avoiding his eyes. She wasn’t offended by his mild flirtation, but she didn’t want to encourage him either. “I’m a tea drinker myself.”
“Well, next time, you have to make me tea,” Dominic said.
Rooke stood abruptly. “I need to take a look at the fireplace.”
“I closed the doors to the parlor because there was so much cold air coming in through the opening in the chimney.” Adrian put her teacup down. “I’ll show you the way.”
“I can find it,” Rooke said. “No point in you getting cold.”
Before Adrian could argue, Rooke slipped out of the kitchen and was gone.
“She didn’t even drink her coffee,” Adrian said, looking after her. “Does she ever sit still?”
“She’s fine,” Dominic said. “Always happiest when she’s working.” He glanced casually at the yellow legal pad Adrian had left next to her laptop on the table. “Huh. You’re into gravestones too?”
“Yes,” Adrian said. Somewhere over the course of the morning what had started out as passing curiosity had blossomed into an idea for an article. The fact that the research would provide a reason to see more of Rooke Tyler was an added bonus. “I’m interested in seeing how the changes in grave markings parallel the social transitions within a community.”
“Uh-huh,” Dominic said with enthusiasm. “Well, you’ve come to the right place. Stillwater Cemetery is a few hundred years old. Everyone who’s anyone in the whole county is buried there. At least that’s how my father always told it.”
“Really. And you and Rooke work there.”
“Rookelivesthere. She knows every marker in the place, and the story behind it.”
Adrian leaned forward eagerly. “She lives at the cemetery? I know it was common in the past for caretakers to have a house on the grounds, but that’s got to be unusual today.”
He shook his head. “Not around here. There’s been a Tyler living at Stillwater since Ford’s Crossing was founded.”
Adrian quickly made a note to find the County Historical Society office and gather the names of the prominent local families. Ideas rushed through her head, and she flipped a page and scribbled a to-do list. “And Rooke does all the carvings?”
“She does all the stonework, period. Markers, crypts, big fu…frickin’ statues. If it’s stone, Rooke does it.”
Adrian put the pad aside. “By herself?”
“The carving and fancy work. Yeah. What she does—hand carving—not many people do that anymore. Most of it’s done with stencils and power tools.” Dominic shrugged. “The families who can afford Stillwater want one-of-a-kind. She’s the only one who can do that.”
“How did she learn?” Adrian put her pen aside, fascinated to contemplate what it must have been like for a young girl learning such an ancient trade. She remembered the strange vision she’d had of Rooke, or who she thought of as Rooke, guarding the gates of an ancient fortress. Rooke building monuments of stone made perfect sense.
“From her grandfather, I guess. That’s how it goes around here, pretty much.”
“If I wanted to look around, that would be all right?”
Dominic’s eyes lit up. “Hey. Any time you want a guided tour, just let me know. It’s a big place—over a hundred acres.”
“Thanks,” Adrian said, instantly regretting mentioning her desire to visit. He was a nice enough guy, but she didn’t want any misunderstandings. And if she wanted a tour guide, it would be Rooke. “I’d kind of like to just wander. But I think I’ll wait until the weather’s a little better.”
“If you change your mind, let me know.”
“I will. Thanks.” Adrian grabbed the coffeepot and refilled his cup. Then she picked up Rooke’s. “I think I’ll see how she’s doing. You sit here and relax.”
Adrian slipped through the partially opened French doors leading into the parlor and paused, taking in the scene. Rooke stretched out on her back on the broad stone hearth, her head and shoulders inside the fireplace. From her vantage point, Adrian scanned the length of her body from the toes of her work boots, up her long muscular legs to her abdomen and the flare of her chest, before her body disappeared from sight. Clad in denim jeans and a work shirt, Rooke looked tantalizingly inviting, an alluring temptation that had Adrian’s skin misting with sweet anticipation. She caught her breath, imagining for just an instant the press of that hard body against hers, a strongly muscled thigh caught between her own, the soft swell of breasts teasing over hers.
“Dom?” Rooke’s voice echoed from inside the huge stone chamber.
“No,” Adrian replied hoarsely. “It’s me. Adrian.”
Rooke jerked, and then her head and shoulders appeared. She sat up quickly, a flashlight in one hand and a black smudge down one cheek. “The lower third looks solid. Quite a bit of damage above that, but the worst of it is up near the top.”
“I see.” Adrian struggled to gather her wits. She wasn’t prone to random sexual fantasies, at least she never had been before. Rooke seemed to have changed all that. “That’s good, right?”
“We won’t have to dig out the foundation.” Rooke stood and brushed soot from the shoulders of her dark blue workshirt. “Your grandmother hasn’t had a fire in there this winter. Good thing.”
Laughing, forgetting her earlier unease, Adrian held out a coffee cup. “Here. You can probably use this after lying on those cold stones.”
“You’ve got a little soot…” Adrian brushed her thumb over the smear on Rooke’s cheek. Rooke went completely still and Adrian’s vision wavered, as if she’d stood up too quickly after lying in the hot sun on a summer’s day. Hands glided over her, outlining the contours of her breasts, the arch of her hip, the sweep of her thigh. Her flesh scorched, as if she stood in the blast from an open furnace, and her body undulated, yielding to the insistent touch. Her blood rushed and the roar of a train filled her head.
“Adrian,” Rooke said urgently, grasping Adrian’s forearms as she swayed. Her eyes were unfocused, her face washed clean of all color. Afraid she would fall, Rooke circled an arm around her waist. Adrian’s arms came around her shoulders, and Rooke found herself holding her. Automatically, she tightened her grip and slid one hand into the thick blond hair at the nape of Adrian’s neck. Her skin was on fire. Shock, then panic quickly gave way to a fierce driving need to shield her, protect her. Casting wildly around the room, she spied a blue brocade sofa on the far side of the room and instinctively swept Adrian into her arms. She crossed to it in three long strides.
“I’m sorry,” Adrian murmured, her cheek against Rooke’s shoulder. As the dizziness abated and her head cleared, she became aware of the rapid pounding of Rooke’s heart and the cool, gentle fingers cradling her neck. She trembled for an entirely different reason as she registered Rooke’s solid abdomen and chest supporting her. Despite her embarrassment and confusion, she reveled in the pleasure of Rooke’s embrace.
“Adrian,” Rooke whispered, kneeling by the sofa and carefully placing Adrian down. She lightly caressed her cheek. “What should I do? Should I call—”
“No,” Adrian said, grasping Rooke’s hand. As soon as Rooke’s strong fingers closed around hers, she felt better. And instantly humiliated. “I’m fine. I’m so sorry. I have no idea what happened.”
“I think you have a fever.” Rooke released Adrian’s hand and pressed her palm to Adrian’s forehead. “Your skin is so hot.”
Adrian laughed shakily. She could hardly say that if Rooke kept touching her she was likely to feel even warmer very quickly. She couldn’t seem to get her wayward body under control. “I just feel warm because you’ve been in this cold room.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Really, I’m all right now.” Adrian sat up and pushed her hair back with both hands. Her face did feel hot and she imagined she was flushed, and she hoped Rooke wouldn’t realize why. Her heart raced and her breasts felt tense and tingly. God, she wanted to be touched and Rooke was leaning so close, her eyes filled with concern and something else. Something a little wild and fierce, as if she were preparing for a battle. That look did nothing to calm Adrian’s rioting libido.
“Water. Should I get some water?” Rooke asked.
“No,” Adrian said gently, brushing her fingers along the edge of Rooke’s tense jaw. “You did exactly right. I’m fine now.”
Rooke’s eyes closed slowly and she leaned ever so slightly into Adrian’s touch, and Adrian fought not to rub her thumb over Rooke’s mouth. Her gaze drifted lower, down Rooke’s throat to where the open collar of her shirt framed the delicate points of her collarbone and the hollow between. She saw herself leaning forward, lips parted to press a kiss to the pale skin between Rooke’s breasts. Rooke tasted sharp and clean, like crystalline water from a natural spring, vital and pure. Adrian gasped and jerked her hand away. Rooke’s eyes flew open, the dark pupils widening.
“I’m sorry,” Rooke murmured.
“No.” Adrian rose, willing her shaky legs to carry her toward the door. She hadn’t touched her, but God, it had been so real she could still taste her. “You needn’t apologize. I seem to be the one creating a scene. I’ll let you finish your work.”
“She all right in there?” Dom asked when Adrian returned to the kitchen.
“Yes, she seems to be.”
Adrian busied herself at the sink, rinsing dishes and emptying coffee grounds. A few moments later she heard footsteps behind her and turned, willing her expression to be neutral, as if nothing had happened. Rooke stood in the doorway, her dark gaze on Adrian.
“All done?” Adrian asked.
“We’ll get an estimate to you tomorrow, probably.”
“Yes, all right. That will be great. Thank you.” Lord, she sounded like an idiot, Adrian thought.
Dominic stood and stretched. “If the wind picks up the way they predict, we ought to check that tarp tomorrow, Rooke.”
“I secured it, but the chimney should be boarded up to stop the draft.” Rooke looked questioningly at Adrian. “What are you going to do about fixing the chimney?”
“Can’t someone just…put the stones back?” Adrian asked.
“Rooke can,” Dominic said. “No one else around here can restore it, unless you just want to put up a chase with a stone façade.”
“No. No. I want it rebuilt. I’m sure that’s what my grandmother will want.”
Rooke dug her hands into the pockets of her sweatshirt. “I’ll take care of it, then.”
Adrian smiled, completely reassured by that simple statement. She didn’t question why she could accept help so easily from Rooke, not while Rooke’s voice flowed over her like a caress. “That’s settled, then.” She wiped her hands on a towel. “I’ll walk you out.” Just as she started forward the phone rang. “Ah, I should get this. It might be my grandmother.”
Rooke nodded and Dominic waved, and they were gone.
Annoyed, Adrian snatched up the phone. “Winchester residence. May I help you?…Hello?”
“Well, what a very pleasant surprise,” Melinda murmured.
“Yes,” Adrian replied, although she wasn’t really surprised at all. She had been waiting for Melinda to return.
“Tell me,” Melinda said. “Who is Elizabeth Winchester?”
Melinda laughed. The low, sultry purr coursed through Adrian like vintage wine, making her languid and warm. She leaned against the counter, aware of a teasing pressure building between her thighs.
“Why are you looking for my grandmother?” Adrian asked, hoping she sounded casual. She was still aroused from the strange interlude with Rooke, still far too sensitive toeverything,and Melinda had a powerful effect on her. She steadied her trembling legs.
“Obviously, our meeting yesterday wasn’t a coincidence,” Melinda said.
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“You do believe in fate, don’t you?” Melinda sounded playful, but there was an undercurrent of challenge in her voice.
Adrian would have denied it out of hand if she hadn’t thought of Rooke and remembered the way it felt to touch her. As if she had always been meant to touch her. She thought of the many instances in her life when a casual touch flooded her consciousness with sensations, images, half-remembrances of experiences not her own. The explanations had ranged from “hyper-reactive autonomic nervous system” to “sixth sense,” depending upon the prejudices of the expert rendering the opinion. Eventually she’d just accepted the occurrences as part of her life. “I know there are things in the universe none of us can explain. So who am I to say what is possible and what isn’t?”
“I’m not interested in what you think,” Melinda said, the timbre of her voice making Adrian’s skin tingle as if a dozen hands caressed her at once. “Only in what you feel. What do you feel, Adrian?”
Adrian wanted to surrender. She wanted those hands to caress the fevered reaches of her body, to take her soaring, diving, crashing, burning. She stifled a whimper as her inner muscles fluttered a warning.
“Adrian, tell me what you feel.”
“I…” Adrian took a shuddering breath and blinked away the mist that clouded her vision. She laughed shakily, wondering if she could be hypnotized by the sound of a voice. “I think you enjoy playing games.”
“Guilty.” Melinda murmured. “Don’t you?”
“Not when I don’t know the rules.”
“Oh, but that’s what makes this game so exciting,” Melinda countered. “Without rules anything can happen.”
“I’m not that daring,” Adrian said, and the name of Melinda’s gallery came to mind.Osare.Daring. An invitation.
“Of course you are. I’ve been reading some of your articles. You’re quite the adventurer. And a wonderful writer.”
Adrian flushed at the compliment. Her breath quickened and her body stirred again. Melinda’s subtle seductivity was potent, heady and addictive, but Adrian would not be led where she didn’t want to go of her own volition. “So are you going to tell me why you’re calling?”
“I was hoping your grandmother could help me track down my mysterious artist. Hers was one of the names I was given as someone who might know where the statue I’m interested in came from.”
“Really? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard her mention anything about local artists, although she does support more foundations than I can count.”
“Well, that would certainly be a place to start. Do you know the Meriwethers? They are the owners of the piece in question.”
“Bea Meriwether was a good friend of my grandmother’s. She’s been gone several years now. Is the estate sale at Fox Run Manor?”
“Ah. Now I understand.”
“So can I interest you in a little investigating?” Melinda asked. “The sale has been postponed and I am at loose ends. I’d love to have dinner with you. We can do some digging into the local history before that.”
Adrian suddenly felt energized and intrigued. She did want to do some research, and she felt foolish for letting her imagination run away with her. Melinda was simply an attractive woman who knew it, and who enjoyed a little playful sexual banter. There was nothing more to it. Besides, she wasn’t in the habit of backing down from a challenge.
“That sounds like a great idea.”
“Wonderful,” Melinda said. “You know where I’m staying. Two o’clock?”
“I’ll be there.”
“I’ll be waiting.”Chapter Nine
Dominic dropped Rooke off by the front gates of Stillwater and she made her way on foot up the driveway. Her grandfather must have plowed earlier that morning, because only a few inches of new snow had accumulated. The snowbanks on either side of the wide gravel drive reached almost as high as her shoulders.
Ordinarily she loved to walk through the cemetery after a fresh snow. The air was always crisp and clean, the tree branches glistened under their coating of white, and the gray stones jutted from the unblemished landscape like faithful soldiers standing guard over the innocent. Today, she barely noticed her surroundings. She couldn’t think of anything except the way Adrian’s fingertips had skimmed over her cheek, freezing her in place at the same time as every muscle in her body vibrated with excitement so intense it was nearly painful. She’d never experienced anything like that before. Emma often touched her casually, a hand on her shoulder, a quick brush of fingers over her cheek. Sometimes when Rooke made love to her, Emma stroked her neck and back. Those caresses were warm and soothing, often blunting the tightness in her chest and easing some of the tension that seemed to simmer deep inside her all the time. But she’d never ached the way she had when Adrian touched her. Even now, her body thrummed with so much pent-up energy she felt like she might explode.
She unlocked the door to her shop, dropped the keys on the workbench, and quickly shed her sweatshirt. Pushing on into the back room, she didn’t bother to switch on the heater, but stripped off her denim shirt even though her breath clouded in the cold air. The muscles in her shoulders and arms bunched tightly as she set out her tools. Hammer and chisel in hand, she circled the monolith in the center of the floor until her blood rose in response to the call of the stone. Then she set to work, searching for the woman hidden within.
Adrian sent a thank-you to whatever powers might have been watching when the Jeep started on the second try. Rooke had been right about one thing—the Jeep had not been serviced in a while. The windshield was covered with grime and the left front tire was flat. Fortunately, she found an air compressor and was able to fill the tire rather than change it. Of course, by the time she got the vehicle in working order she was filthy and had to go back to the house to shower and change. She’d left plenty of time, though, and after pulling on clean jeans, a navy cotton pullover sweater, her boots, and a black field jacket, she was ready for her afternoon of investigation.
Driving into town, she was surprised to find she had a case of nerves, as if she were on her way to a date. Strange, because she wasn’t looking for one, and she didn’t really think Melinda intended their meeting that way. Nevertheless, her insides swarmed with butterflies and her heart bounced around in her chest like a buoy on a stormy sea. She didn’t have time on the fifteen-minute trip to talk herself out of her irrational reaction, so when she parked in front of the hotel and started up the walk, she decided to approach her appointment with Melinda the way she would a difficult interview. She was well practiced at hiding her emotions in professional situations, and Melinda didn’t need to know the disconcerting effect she had on her. Just because she’d been behaving completely unlike herself recently didn’t mean she couldn’t handle a little mild flirtation. She’d certainly had enough practice saying no to quite a few of the men she met in her travels, and some of the women too.
The small lobby was empty save for the desk clerk when Adrian entered, so she walked through the bar to the parlor on the opposite side. Melinda stood by the fireplace, one arm stretched out along the mantel, a glass of deep red wine cradled in her other hand. She was taller than Adrian had appreciated in the dark train, appearing particularly svelte in tapered black slacks, black boots with three-inch heels, and a black cashmere cowlneck sweater that hugged her full breasts and slender waist. Her long blond hair shimmered with reflected firelight, and her patrician features seemed pensive as she watched the flames. She was very beautiful.
“Melinda,” Adrian said quietly.
“Hello.” Melinda smiled, her gaze drifting languidly over Adrian’s face.
“You looked lost in thought.”
“Would you believe I was thinking about you?”
“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” Adrian said, determined to resist Melinda’s tremendous allure. After all, she wasn’t twenty any longer, that a little attention should make her lose her head.
“I know you’ll find this hard to believe,” Melinda said as she neared, “but I’ve been waiting for you for far longer than you can imagine.” She kissed Adrian’s cheek, her lips lingering for a few seconds before she drew back. “It’s good to see you.”
Adrian willed herself not to react, even though the kiss sent showers of sparks dancing along the surface of her body. Despite the wave of arousal that followed, she experienced none of the instantaneous sense of rightness she’d felt when she’d touched Rooke, and remembering that brief but exquisite moment helped her keep her bearings now. Shewouldchoose when and with whom she shared herself.
“I’m parked out front. Unless you’d rather walk?”
Melinda scooped up a long leather coat from the back of the sofa and pulled it on. Then she hooked her arm through Adrian’s. “Let’s just wander, shall we. I always find it so much more exciting not to know what I might find.”
Rooke thumbed the button to pause her audio book and removed her earphones. After laying her tools aside and removing her goggles, she swiped her forearm over her face to mop off some of the sweat. She ran her palm over the smooth curve of a shoulder and part of an upper arm. The stone was warm and she imagined the firm flesh yielding beneath her touch. She ached to breathe life into the figure, yearned to fill the void in her heart with the beauty and grace of this woman.
“Who are you?” she whispered. “Where are you?”
Distant pounding drew her gaze away from the emerging form. She would have no answers this night or for many nights to come. The sculpture would relinquish its secrets when it was finished, and not before. Shoving her iPod into her pocket, she strode into the outer room, found her keys, and locked her workroom. Usually she left it open, but not now, not with the work unprotected.
“Rooke? You in there?”
“Hold on, Pops, I’m coming.”
“You know it’s going on suppertime,” her grandfather said when she opened the outer door. Beyond him, snow fell again.
“Was I supposed to cook?”
“No, you’re supposed to eat. Did you today?”
Rooke hesitated, reconstructing the day, hoping she hadn’t lost track of too much time. She thought of Adrian and was immediately back in the parlor. When she’d emerged from the fireplace to find Adrian watching her, her awareness of the room, the place, the time—all of it had slipped away, until all she could see or hear had been Adrian. Adrian had had the strangest expression on her face, as if she were in pain or afraid. Rooke couldn’t explain it, but seeing Adrian’s discomfort had stirred an overwhelming desire to protect her. Then Adrian had almost fainted. Recalling how fragile Adrian had seemed for those few seconds, Rooke grew more and more uneasy. She glanced toward her grandfather’s truck, wanting to rush back to Adrian’s to make sure she was all right. The urge was so strong it was like a huge weight on her chest, making it hard for her to breathe. The heaviness built until she braced her arm against the door and gasped.
“What’s the matter?” Pops grabbed her arm. “You been taking your pills?”
“Yes,” Rooke said hoarsely, tugging her arm free. “It’s not that.”
Pops studied her silently. “Come up to the house. I made stew.”
“I need a shower.”
“Yeah.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “You’re a bit of a mess. Don’t be too long.”
“I won’t.” She saw the worry in his eyes. She hadn’t had a seizure in almost four years, but with the last one she’d ended up in the hospital for two days. She still couldn’t remember much of what happened. What she did recall, and Pops for sure did too, was that right before it happened she’d worked for almost forty-eight hours straight without sleeping or remembering to take her medication. He found her on the floor of the shop, dazed and disoriented, blood on her face from where she’d bitten her lip. She hated that she’d scared him, and she’d been careful since then.
“Fifteen minutes,” Rooke said.
Pops nodded and headed back down the narrow, snow-covered path to the main house. Rooke went upstairs to her apartment, but instead of heading straight for the shower, she dropped onto the sofa, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. The weight in her chest hadn’t disappeared and the hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood up, as if in silent warning of some danger she couldn’t identify. She shifted agitatedly, an image of Adrian—her face drained of color, her crystal blue eyes clouded—all she could see. She remembered how helpless she had felt when Adrian had been overcome. Her powerful need to shield her, not knowing from what or even how, had created the same crushing pressure in her chest then as she felt right now. The only thing that helped her take a breath was reliving the sensation of holding Adrian in her arms. She still registered every detail—the coconut and cream scent of her hair, the satiny glide of fingertips over the back of her neck, the soft swell of breasts and firm muscles crushed against her chest and abdomen. Her hands trembled and she recalled the heat of the stone she’d carved—the curves and hollows giving freedom to sensuous valleys and lush hills as she carefully chipped away at the granite. Then stone became flesh and she imagined skimming her hands over the rise of Adrian’s breast and lifting the weight of her in her palms. She felt the hard prominence of an erect nipple, and when she danced her fingers over it, heard a soft moan. Her own. When her hand drifted lower to caress Adrian’s hip, she caught the musky aroma of mystery and desire. Then Adrian’s hand was on her cheek, stroking her, reaching inside her, seeing inside her.
Gasping for her next breath, Rooke dug the heels of her boots into the floor as the heaviness in her chest moved lower. The muscles in her abdomen turned rigid and her pelvis flexed in the air. She groaned and heat washed over her, coalescing into a ball of fire deep within. Her inner thighs tightened. Sweat dripped from her hair and trickled down her face. The pounding in her head echoed the staccato rhythm of her heart. She was close to exploding, so close.Never been like this before.An agonizing yearning, a want so powerful it pummeled her senses, threatening to rend flesh from bone and shred her sanity. Frantically fighting down the wild storm rising within, she cast about for an anchor, a rock to hold her earthbound, and finding none she lurched to her feet and stumbled across the room.
She jerked up the window over the sink and frigid air and snow whipped into her face. Tilting her head back, she gripped the edge of the counter and swayed as the storm lashed her, dousing the inferno that threatened to consume her. Gradually, the pressure eased and she could breathe again. The flames licking at her insides receded to glowing coals and she opened her eyes, finally able to bear the merciless demand for release.
“Not yet,” she whispered. Not time. She would know, somehow she would know, when it was time. Until then, she would wait, as she had always waited.Chapter Ten
“There has got to be an easier way,” Melinda said, leaning back in a creaky wooden chair in the dimly lit basement of the Ford’s CrossingDaily Chronicle.“There should at least be minions to help us.”
“I think the newspapers call them interns.” Adrian suppressed a smile and dragged the next stack ofChroniclestoward her. The managing editor had been gracious when they’d arrived unannounced, requesting access to back copies of the paper. They’d shown her the photo of the sculpture and explained they were hoping to find something in the arts section to point them toward the artist. The editor, a forty-ish brunette who might have stepped out of a Lands End catalog in her hunter green slacks and Irish fisherman’s knit sweater, led them downstairs into the cavernous basement where rows of shelves filled with what looked like hundreds of years of newspapers were stacked in boxes labeled by year.
“Make yourself at home,” the editor had said, pointing to a long wooden table against one wall with three mismatched wooden chairs in front of it. “I wish I could help, but I’m not aware of any local sculptors, and I’ve lived here all my life.”
“The artist might not be local,” Adrian said, “but it’s a place to start. And we might get lucky.”
“No computer?” Melinda asked, surveying the area.
“Sorry.” The brunette laughed. “I’m afraid the cyber age has come slowly to Ford’s Crossing. We’re just now getting online.”
“I’m afraid not. But we are very careful with our labeling. Everything should be exactly where it’s supposed to be, in chronological order.”
“Thanks for letting us barge in like this,” Adrian said.
“No problem. Good luck.”
After checking out the stacks to get familiar with the organization, Adrian and Melinda had agreed that there was no need to go back more than thirty years, at least to start. Although it was impossible to date the sculpture, the artist was unlikely to have been from a much earlier era because other pieces from his body of work would probably have surfaced by now. It made more sense to assume that the artist was young and undiscovered. Melinda took the current issues, while Adrian started with the older ones to work forward.
“You know,” Adrian said, searching for the arts section in a twenty-five-year-old newspaper, “maybe that piece is the first thing he, or she, has ever done.”
“No,” Melinda said with certainty. “The work is exquisite. Whoever he—or she—is, they are no novice.”
“What would you sell a piece like that for? Or is that a trade secret?”
“Mmm, top secret.” Melinda gave Adrian a heavy-lidded look. “If I answer your question, will you answer one of mine?”
“Not unless you tell me the question first.”
“Are you always so suspicious?” Melinda teased.
“Then I’ll save my question for a more intimate moment, and you can decide then if you want to answer it.”
“That’s very trusting. What if we never—”
“Are you always so confident?”
“Yes,” Melinda said, her green-gold eyes boring into Adrian’s. “As to the sculpture, if it’s as good as I judge from the photo, in the neighborhood of twenty-five thousand.”
“Then why do you suppose they aren’t making an effort to display their work?” Adrian didn’t avert her gaze, even though the pull of the dark pupils made it hard for her to concentrate on the conversation.
“I don’t know. There have certainly been instances where artists have created a substantial oeuvre before ever making their work public.”
“Then this might all be wasted effort.”
“No. Nothing about an afternoon spent with you is wasted.”
Adrian forced her attention back to the papers, and they worked in silence until Melinda complained, “Thank goodness these papers aren’t bigger. We’d be here forever.”
“Well, at least until dinner,” Adrian murmured, distracted by a familiar name in an article she’d just come across in an issue from twenty-four years before.
Local Woman Killed in Freak Accident
Grace Tyler, 19, was killed in a one-car accident Friday when her vehicle skidded off River Road into the Hudson River during a blizzard. Emergency crews did not discover the partially submerged vehicle for 10 hours due to hazardous road conditions and poor visibility. Tyler’s death was proclaimed to be a result of drowning. Her infant daughter, secured in the rear seat, survived the crash and is hospitalized in critical condition. Tyler’s husband, Army Sergeant Charles Tyler, was on maneuvers in an unnamed location at the time of the accident. Services will be private with interment at Stillwater Cemetery.
Adrian reread the article, a sick feeling in her stomach. Rooke looked to be in her mid-twenties, so the timing was right for Grace Tyler’s infant daughter to have been Rooke. The thought of Rooke losing her mother in such a horrible way, and nearly having been killed herself, made her ache. The sadness and sympathy was so overwhelming she wanted to find somewhere private and call Rooke on the phone, just to hear her voice, just to…to do what? Say how sorry she was? Rooke would probably think she’d lost her mind. Maybe it wasn’t even Rooke’s family. After all, how many Tylers were there in Dutchess County? Dominic had said there had been a Tyler at Stillwater Cemetery for generations. This could be a distant cousin or someone completely unrelated. But the scar on Rooke’s forehead made her think otherwise. She studied what appeared to be a senior high school photo of Grace Tyler printed with the obituary. The young woman was pretty. Wavy dark hair framed a heart-shaped face that was saved from being delicate by a slightly squared chin. She was smiling, her expression filled with anticipation. She didn’t look like Rooke, although Adrian couldn’t help thinking she was somehow familiar. She studied the image but couldn’t make any connections. The longer she stared, however, the more the slightly hooded dark eyes, intense and penetrating, drew her in. Adrian caught her breath. Rooke’s eyes.
“Did you find something?” Melinda said.
Adrian quickly turned the page. “No. So far the only thing I’ve seen are notices for craft shows and one regional juried art show. That appeared to be primarily paintings, though. You?”
Melinda draped her arm over the back of Adrian’s chair, her fingers resting on Adrian’s shoulder. She stroked along the curve of muscle toward Adrian’s neck. “No, but I’ll admit to being somewhat distracted.” She leaned closer. “You smell wonderful.”
“The only thing you could possibly be smelling is my shampoo,” Adrian said. “And it’s off-the-shelf at Rite Aid.”
“Mmm. I don’t think it’s your shampoo.” Melinda’s voice was low and teasing. She slipped her fingers onto Adrian’s neck, playing over the pulse that hammered rapidly. “You smell…alive. Earthy. Fertile.”
Adrian leaned into Melinda’s touch, envisioning a room drenched in golden candlelight, whisper-soft cotton sheets beneath her naked back. Melinda moved over her, her body insistent, her mouth so close to Adrian’s she could drink Adrian’s breath. Senses soaring, Adrian arched, anointing Melinda’s satiny thigh with her own silken heat. Soon, soon the last thread holding her earthbound would snap and she would give Melinda everything. Everything. Adrian couldn’t stop her body from responding. The desire Melinda telegraphed with just a touch was too potent, but she’d had a lifetime of practice shielding herself from the thoughts and wishes of others. Shuddering, she met Melinda’s gaze. “Melinda.”
“Yes?” Melinda murmured.Say yes. Give me leave, Adrian. Say yes.
“I’m not going to sleep with you.”
Melinda laughed throatily. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t take that as final.”
“Just so we’re clear.”
Melinda trailed one finger along the edge of Adrian’s jaw and traced the curve of her ear. Adrian shivered and Melinda raised an eyebrow. “Why are you struggling so hard to deny it?”
“Enough,” Adrian said.
Melinda dropped her hand and sat back with a sigh. “I know you like women. You’re far too passionate to be satisfied any other way.”
“I like women.” Adrian was grateful for the small amount of distance between them. She was as aroused as she had been after awakening from the dream the previous night, her body clamoring for release. Melinda was unbearably attractive, her persistent desire mesmerizing. For an instant, Adrian had wanted to kiss her.
“Are you monogamous?”
“You’re too remarkable to be unattached, so is it that you’ve promises to keep?”
“No promises.” Adrian was about to add she was unattached, that there was no one, but as foolish as it might be, she didn’t quite feel that way. Even with Melinda teasing her until she was barely rational, she couldn’t forget about Rooke. The more she thought about Rooke, the easier it was for her to breathe, to quiet the raging demands of her rebellious body. She had no idea what that meant, but she wanted—needed—to find out.
“I have no problem sharing. In fact,” Melinda said with a playful smile, “I enjoy company. I have several very beautiful friends who would love to join me in making you—”
“Stop.” Adrian pointed a finger at her. “You are not to say another word.”
Laughing, Melinda turned back to the newspapers.I can feel your need, your power straining to be free. Give me leave and I will please you as you have never been pleased. And you will fill me as no one ever has.
“Did you say something?” Adrian thought for a second she’d heard whispering.
Melinda glanced at her out of the corner of her eye. “No, darling. Not a word.”
The tension between them abated as swiftly as it had arisen, making Adrian wonder if she hadn’t exaggerated what had passed between them. Maybe six months of celibacy had left her unusually susceptible to the slightest physical contact. Putting aside the unsettling episode with Melinda, she returned to searching the subsequent issues for any more information on the accident that had claimed Grace Tyler’s life. She found no mention of the funeral or any report of further investigation into her death.
“This is interesting.” Melinda turned the newspaper spread out in front of her in Adrian’s direction and pointed to a photograph above two columns of print. “Whoever’s doing this work may be able to help us out.”
Adrian read the first few lines of the article, which described a wealthy donor who had given a sizable sum to a cemetery for the restoration of his historic family burial site. The photo depicted a square stone structure the size of a small garage sitting alone atop a knoll surrounded by huge oak trees. “Is that a crypt?”
“It’s a mausoleum. The crypts are contained inside.”
“I don’t understand. These are common, right? Especially in wealthy private cemeteries?” Adrian kept reading, but she already knew what she would find. The mausoleum was at Stillwater.
“You’re right, mausoleums aren’t that unusual,” Melinda said, pointing to a portion of the photo. “But this is.”
Adrian leaned closer and noticed the figures carved at the upper corners of the impressive mausoleum. “Are those gargoyles?”
“They are, and some of the most lifelike I’ve ever seen.”
Caught by the pensive, almost awestruck tone in Melinda’s voice, Adrian studied her. Her face and neck were subtly flushed, her widened pupils flickering, her expression distant. For the first time since she’d met her, Melinda appeared vulnerable, almost shaken. Adrian gently touched her wrist, and this time sensed nothing but soft, warm skin. “Are you all right?”
Melinda turned to her slowly, her moist lips swollen as if from invisible kisses. “Yes. I’m fine.”
“I’m not sure I see the connection,” Adrian said, withdrawing her hand before Melinda got the wrong idea.
“This article is recent—three years ago. Someone right here is doing very fine stonework, and there aren’t many places to find good stone in any given area.” Melinda traced her finger almost lovingly over the face of a crouched figure with the body of a man-lion beast, scaled wings, and a fierce head with pointed ears and a broad, snarling muzzle. “Whoever sculpted this guardian may be getting the material from the same place as the artist. It’s possible they even know each other.”
“Guardian?” Adrian asked, her pulse suddenly racing.
“This is a guardian gargoyle. He’s a watcher, a protector of the spirit. Quite powerful. Some believe magical.”
Adrian remembered Dominic’s words from that morning.If it’s stone, Rooke does it…markers, crypts, statues.This was Rooke’s work. It had to be. And Melinda was completely enchanted by it. Adrian had no doubt Melinda would be completely enchanted by Rooke, as well.
“Stillwater Cemetery,” Melinda murmured and glanced at her watch. “It’s probably too late today, but there’s always someone around at a cemetery, even on Sunday. Tomorrow, I’ll have to pay a visit.”
“I’ll drive you,” Adrian said quickly before she had a chance to consider how Melinda might view the offer.
“Then tomorrow promises to be a doubly pleasant day.”
“It’s getting late.” Adrian returned the newspapers to their box. She didn’t want to examine too closely her reasons for volunteering to accompany Melinda the next day. All she knew was that she didn’t want Melinda going off alone in search of Rooke.
A new storm greeted them when they walked outside. Darkness had fallen, and snow swirled in wild eddies beneath the curved iron streetlights. The sidewalks were already covered with several inches of new fall over the old, making them treacherously slippery.
Melinda wrapped her arm around Adrian’s waist as they carefully trekked back to the hotel. “I didn’t believe them when they said we were getting five days of snow.”
“I’m going to have to pass on dinner,” Adrian said when they made it to the shelter of the Heritage House front porch. “Plowing the roads out around my grandmother’s isn’t a priority.”
“I’d argue, but I want you to be safe. Besides, I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, so I’ll have another chance to invite you.”
“I’ll call you in the morning. We’ll set a time.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it all evening.” Melinda kissed her cheek and touched her face with a gloved hand. “Sleep well.”
Adrian hurried to the Jeep, quickly brushed the windshield clear of snow with her sleeve, and jumped in. When she started the engine and looked back toward the hotel, Melinda was framed in the doorway with the soft yellow light of the lobby highlighting her dark, blade-like form. For an instant, Adrian remembered the candlelit bedroom and the woman moving demandingly upon her. Only it wasn’t Melinda bending close to claim her. It was Rooke.Chapter Eleven
After reining in the chaos that had nearly overtaken her, Rooke spent a long time in the shower. She didn’t need the heat, because she wasn’t aware of being cold. She needed the steady drum of the water beating over her skin to drown out the last whispers of Adrian’s touch, fearing the slightest memory would be more than she could resist again.
When she walked into her grandfather’s kitchen and shook the snow from her hair, she said, “Sorry. Hope I didn’t ruin dinner.”
Her grandfather filled two bowls from a large pot on the stove and carried them to the table. He pulled out a red vinyl-covered chair with aluminum legs that matched the aluminum trim on the Formica table and sat down. He gestured to the other chair.
“Can’t ruin stew.” Pops shot her a glance. “You okay?”
“You want some rolls? I picked up those kind you like from the store this morning.” Pops pushed a green plastic dish lined with a napkin and filled with buttermilk biscuits toward her.
“I got an e-mail. Some of those books you been waiting for came out. You want to look at the list later?”
“I’m okay for now. I’ve still got half a dozen on the iPod.”
“Let me know when you’re ready, then.”
They ate in silence beneath the buzzing rectangular fluorescent light in the center of the ceiling. The small room was warm from the heat of the oven, and after a few minutes Rooke removed her flannel shirt and draped it over the back of her chair. Beneath it, she wore a clean navy blue T-shirt with her jeans and work boots. She’d covered the gash on the top of her hand with several Band-Aids.
“How things look at the Winchester place?” Pops finally asked.
“I got the tarp up. It won’t hold for long, not with the wind that’s coming up. I’ll check it tomorrow.” Rooke carried her bowl to the sink, rinsed it, and set it in the dishpan. “We’ll need to order slate.”
“That’s going to be a few weeks before it comes in.”
“That’s what I told Adrian.” She cleared her grandfather’s dishes and leaned against the counter, her hands in the pockets of her jeans. “The chimney needs rebuilding. I can start on that as soon as the storm lets up.”
“Going to be pretty cold for the mortar. You think it’ll set okay?”
Rooke shrugged. “I’ll rig up a heater. As long as I can layer it and get the stone set while the mortar’s at the right temperature, it should be okay.”
“What’s the hurry?”
“The house stays pretty cold without a fire, and with the added draft, Adrian’s uncomfortable.”
Pops leaned back in his chair. “She’s staying there for a while? Not just the weekend?”
“I don’t know.” Rooke realized she’d just assumed Adrian would be there. Maybe she’d just come up to check the place out and would be leaving come Monday. At the thought of never seeing Adrian again, the tightness returned to her chest. “I’ll have to ask her.”
“Well, either way, we’ll put the estimate together. I’m sure she’ll want to run it by her grandmother.” Pops gave a dry chuckle. “I’ll be surprised if Elizabeth Winchester doesn’t want some fancy outfit from Albany or somewhere to come down here and do the work.”
“She’ll wait a good long time if she does.” Rooke strode to the back door and twitched the curtain aside. Usually she didn’t care how long a storm went on or how much snow fell, but now, the snow presented a physical barrier keeping her away from Adrian. She didn’t even have the excuse of working on the house as a reason to see her as long as it kept snowing.
“You want to tell me why you’re pacing around like a cat in a cage?” Pops asked.
“I don’t know why.” Rooke wasn’t trying to be evasive. She really didn’t know. Since the moment Adrian had stared out at her through the window, a half-worried, half-aggravated expression on her face, she’d been captivated by her. It wasn’tjustthat she was beautiful. She had an edgy temper that hinted at both strength and vulnerability. She was alternately stubborn and tender. She was mysterious and smart. Very smart. She traveled around the world. She wrote articles that probably thousands of people read. Rooke sighed. Adrian’s world was light-years away from her own.
“Let’s get the measurements for the estimate, then,” Pops said. “Might as well put some of that energy to use.”
“Right.” Rooke followed her grandfather into the adjoining room that had once been the formal dining room but now was his makeshift office. The big square walnut table in the middle of the room was built to seat ten, although Rooke had only the vaguest memory of ever having a family dinner at that table. Now rolls of drafting paper lay in the center surrounded by coffee cans filled with pens and drafting pencils.
“How big an area of the roof?” Pops asked, bending over a blank pad of paper.
“About a quarter of the rear section.” Rooke had paced it off before nailing down the tarp. She had an excellent sense of spatial dimensions and could remember angles and 3-D relationships with perfect recall. When building any of the larger structures on the cemetery grounds, after she and her grandfather reviewed the plans, she’d sketch the structure and then they’d go to the site. She’d walk the perimeter and stake the positions of all the critical supports. Then he’d measure to confirm it was to plan, and she was always right. “Thirty by twenty-two feet. Thirty feet of flashing. And the vertical downspouts need to be replaced. Eighty feet of pipe should do it.”
He made notes. “Chimney dimensions?”
“Forty by twelve.” Rooke judged the vertical height by the width of the stone in the chimney. “I’m going to use the native stone that’s on site. I’ll need at least twenty bags of mortar.”
“A pallet of reclaimed bricks.”
Rooke hesitated. “Maybe we could give them a discount?”
Her grandfather looked up. “Why? You’re gonna be freezing your butt off out there. And standing on a scaffold in this kind of weather isn’t all that safe.”
Rooke felt herself blushing. She could hardly tell him that she’d do the work for free if it meant she could talk to Adrian once in a while. She didn’t want Adrian making coffee for someone else. “I…uh…the shop is slow right now. I could use something to do.”
“I just sent you four new orders for markers.”
“They’ll be ready. No problem.”
He scratched something down on the paper. “All right.”
“So what’s the total?”
He told her.
“I’ll take it over to Adrian tomorrow,” Rooke said. “I want to check to make sure the tarp is holding.”
He watched her as if expecting her to say something else. When the silence grew uncomfortable, Rooke said, “Thanks for dinner. I’ll get breakfast.”
“Sausage and eggs would be good.”
“You got it. ’Night, Pops.”
He waited until she was almost at the back door before calling, “Get some rest.”
Rooke pulled on her shirt and walked back to the shop. She hadn’t slept the night before and she was tired. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to sleep, though. She let herself into her apartment and got a beer from the fridge. Then she sat drinking it on the sofa in the dark. In the past when she’d been too agitated to sleep, she’d never known why—she’d only been aware of searching for something always just beyond her reach. Tonight, she knew her restlessness was because of Adrian, but nothing had really changed. Adrian was also beyond her reach.
Adrian didn’t want to go to sleep, so she cleaned. She’d replayed the events of the afternoon all the way home and still couldn’t stop thinking about the article she’d read about the young woman who died in the accident. Had Grace Tyler been Rooke’s mother? Was Rooke the child who’d nearly died? Why had there been so little mention of other family members in the article or so little follow-up in the press? Usually in close, tight communities such as this any tragedy, but especially the death of someone so young in such a violent manner, warranted more than a brief obituary. Why had her grandmother been so dismissive of the Tylers, and so obviously wrong in her assessment of Rooke? All her life, Adrian had felt compelled to look beneath the surface for the truth, perhaps because she’d grown up in a world that seemed built on superficiality and subterfuge. Rooke was a mystery she wanted very much to solve.
Rooke wasn’t the only person who occupied her mind as she straightened the kitchen, put away dishes, swept, and vacuumed. The sudden and intense appearance of Melinda Singer in her life had her in a quandary. She couldn’t bring herself to dislike her, even though Melinda’s attentions made her alternately aggravated and aroused. As annoying and frustrating as that was, Melinda still fascinated her. She’d always been drawn to danger—the unknown captivated her. That’s why she spent weeks of her life in places no sane person would travel, chasing a rumor, digging for a story. Melinda and her quest for the unidentified artist intrigued her, and the closer Melinda’s hunt took her to Stillwater, and Rooke, the more Adrian was driven to discover what Melinda was really after. She had moments when she wondered if their chance meeting on the train was really chance at all. Rationally, she knew it had to be coincidence, but nothing about Melinda felt ordinary. Her life seemed to have veered off course the moment she’d met Melinda Singer.
Moving into the parlor, she swept up the stone debris that had blown in when the chimney had collapsed. As she emptied the dustpan full of gray black powder into a heavy garbage bag, she recalled the smudge of soot on Rooke’s cheek and smiled to herself. Rooke had looked awfully sexy stretched out on the floor, one knee up, her long torso arching upward as she’d reached for something inside the chimney. Her pose might have been one of a woman lifting to meet her lover.
“Don’t go there,” Adrian muttered. The last thing she needed was another episode of unrequited arousal. Her body was already a seething mass of contradiction. She’d meant it when she’d told Melinda she wasn’t going to sleep with her, but the woman was almost mind-blazingly beautiful and so seductive the mere sound of her voice made Adrian wet. The response was purely physical, and she knew it. She just couldn’t stop it. The simmering arousal Melinda had incited plus the anxiety of driving on the slick road along the river in the dark, all the while remembering the article about Grace Tyler plunging into the Hudson in a similar storm, had her about ready to crawl out of her skin. She’d needed to do something to burn off the adrenaline, and she hadn’t wanted an orgasm that Melinda had prompted. So she cleaned.
Finally finished with the room, she relaxed on the sofa and immediately remembered being there earlier and opening her eyes to see Rooke bending over her. She’d looked so fierce, so possessive. Adrian’s breath came a little quicker and a familiar heaviness surged into her center. Rooke excited her in an altogether different way than the almost disconnected sexual response Melinda evoked. A smile from Rooke, a simple touch, stirred her, ignited her, in ways nothing else ever had. Melinda made her want to throw her shields up. Rooke made her want to take them down. She wasn’t certain if she should be exhilarated or terrified by that.
At last, physical exhaustion won out. She took a hot shower and fell into bed, vowing to put Melinda and Rooke and mysterious images of guardians and gargoyles from her mind.
At 3:15 a.m. Melinda was awakened by soft tapping at her door.
She didn’t bother with a robe, but answered the door in the black silk peignoir she’d worn to bed. Becky stood in the hall, her fingers laced together in front of her, looking uncertain and a little afraid.
Smiling, Melinda caressed her cheek. “Hello, darling.”
“I…I…” Becky’s green eyes were glazed, her peaches-and-cream complexion flushed a dusky rose. Her breasts lifted and fell erratically beneath her pale yellow blouse. She stared at Melinda’s mouth. “Please. I need…”
“Shh. I know.” Melinda clasped the back of Becky’s neck, weaving her fingers through her red-gold hair, and pulled her into the room. She gently closed the door, leaving them in the dark. “I know.”
Becky’s arms came around Melinda’s neck and she fell against Melinda’s body. Melinda kissed her and Becky trembled, her heartbeat as skittish as that of a frightened bird. Cradling her face, Melinda traced the contours with her thumbs as she kissed her way down the fluttering pulse in Becky’s neck. She nibbled the sweet, tender skin at the base of Becky’s throat and Becky whimpered. Opening Becky’s blouse with one hand, she made her way lower, running her tongue over the rise of her sweet young flesh as she cupped the firm breast in her palm. Becky gasped as her legs gave way and Melinda barely caught her in time to keep her from falling to the floor.
“Come.” Melinda guided her to the bed and removed her blouse and bra, continually caressing her until Becky gave a small cry and collapsed. Melinda quickly removed the rest of Becky’s clothes and leaned over her, taking a tight warm nipple in her mouth.
“Please,” Becky murmured, gripping Melinda’s shoulders. “Please, I need you.”
“Yes.” Melinda covered Becky’s body with hers, breast to breast, thighs entwined. Becky writhed, panting, fingers digging frantically into Melinda’s hips. The hunger, awakened earlier by her desire for Adrian and left unsatisfied, reared up in Melinda’s depths like a voracious beast, demanding its due at last. She’d tried earlier to soothe the hunger by her own hand, but nothing she could do had been enough. Now Becky was here, offering herself, and Melinda nearly screamed with the agonizing ache to be filled. She couldn’t deny the beast again, not and keep her sanity. Shuddering, she ground her hot, swollen center against Becky’s tight thigh.
“Becky,” Melinda crooned, holding herself back with the last remnant of her restraint, “let me pleasure you. Let me make you come. Say yes, darling. Say yes.”
“Oh God, yes, yes.”
Melinda slid a hand between them and entered her, first her fingers, then as Becky opened, more. Hot, smooth muscles instantly enclosed her and the power of Becky’s innocent passion flooded her. Melinda threw her head back, crying out. Her flesh became flame as the hunger lashed through her.
“Please, oh please make me come,” Becky keened, thrusting herself up and down on Melinda’s hand.
Melinda angled her wrist to massage Becky’s clitoris, desperate for Becky to orgasm. She needed Becky’s pleasure to free her from the need tearing at the fiber of her being. “Come for me, my beautiful one. Come.”
“I’m coming. More. Please. More.” Becky’s head thrashed and her eyes rolled back.
Yes.Bringing her face close to Becky’s, Melinda inhaled her moans of ecstasy. She took Becky’s mouth, delving deep inside, devouring her arousal until her orgasm sliced through her like silver shards of glass. Even as she reveled in Becky’s energy filling her, empowering her, the body that undulated beneath hers became Adrian’s. Adrian surrendering to her, Adrian immolating her with pure and powerful desire. The woman in her arms convulsed with another orgasm and Melinda came again, wildly, violently. Adrian’s face blazed in her mind. Exquisite. Rapturous.Adrian!
Adrian whimpered and twisted beneath the tangled sheets, damp with perspiration and desire. Moonlight bathed the room. The air was heavy and still. Slipping her hands over the sleekly muscled back to the hard, tense buttocks, she bowed up to meet the body bearing down into her. She wrapped her legs around the thrusting hips, kneading her turgid sex into the answering heat. Flames danced on the moonbeams, licking up her thighs, teasing over her clitoris like a silken tongue. Need writhed in her depths, too powerful to keep chained inside.
“Ohyess,” Adrian cried. Her hips bucked and she surged toward orgasm, her eyes flying open at the instant she climaxed. She clutched desperately for her invisible lover, finding only emptiness. Shuddering, gasping, she crushed her palm to her violently pulsing center.Stop, please stop.
Rooke jerked upright, staring around the unfamiliar room. She lurched to her feet and only then recognized her living room. She’d fallen asleep on the sofa. Heart pounding, she listened intently, searching for some sign of what had awakened her. The silence was total. Even the usual ping of the radiators was absent. She rubbed a hand over the back of her neck, her skin tingling as if from an interrupted caress.
Uneasy, every sense warning her of some danger, she crossed to the window and stared outside. She saw nothing through the curtain of snow in the moonlit yard except her grandfather’s truck, nearly buried under a drift. The surface of the driveway was unbroken. Not even the deer had ventured out. She was alone.
With a sigh, she made her way downstairs to her shop. When she ran her hand over the woman emerging from the stone, her unrest eased. When all that remained in her consciousness was the spirit of the stone, she started to carve.Chapter Twelve
“I’m too early, aren’t I?” Rooke said when Adrian opened the door shortly after seven. She’d worked until the uneasy feeling that had awakened her returned and broke her concentration. Finally, she gave in to the pressure in her head that kept warning her that something wasn’t right. All she could think was that Adrian was somehow in danger. Now that she stood on the porch with the sun barely up, she felt foolish. Adrian would really think she was crazy now. “I’ll come back.”
“No!” Adrian grabbed Rooke’s arm as she started to turn away and then just as quickly let go when Rooke stared, her brows drawing down.
“What’s wrong?” Rooke asked.
Rooke’s face took on the fierce expression she’d had when Adrian had nearly fainted from the unexpected surge of energy after touching Rooke the day before, and Adrian took irrational comfort in it. Never in her life, even when her life had been in danger, had she turned to anyone for protection, and she wasn’t going to now. Just the same, the nausea that had plagued her since the shattering and completely unwelcome orgasm relented for the first time in hours. “Nothing. I was just about to make breakfast. Are you hungry?”
“Oh man,” Rooke said.
“I’m supposed to make breakfast this morning.”
Adrian smiled, confused. “You lost me.”
“It’s my turn to make breakfast. My grandfather expects sausage and eggs.”
“Oh,” Adrian said, trying to hide her disappointment. “Well then, you’d better get to it.”
Rooke surveyed the dark circles under Adrian’s eyes. They were deeper than yesterday, almost bruised, and despite her bright smile, she looked upset. Something was wrong, but Rooke didn’t know how to ask. She had no idea what to say, so she followed her instincts. “Come with me.”
“What?” Adrian laughed, completely taken aback.
“Come with me. I think we have tea.”
Adrian quickly turned away, appalled to feel tears flood her eyes. She was going to cry just because Rooke remembered she drank tea? What was wrong with her? She heard Rooke move, felt a hand on her shoulder. She wanted to lean into Rooke’s touch with every fiber of her being, to feel that strength and warmth surround her. And because she wanted it and didn’t understand why, she pulled away.
“I’ll go,” Rooke said quietly from behind her.
“Wait.” Adrian spun back, unable to bear for Rooke to think she didn’t want her comfort. She could let herself have that much couldn’t she? “I would love to come to breakfast.”
Rooke’s face lit up and Adrian’s heart gave a little stutter. God, she was beautiful.
“I would.” Adrian held up a finger. “Come inside and give me five minutes to change my clothes.”
“Why?” Rooke stepped into the foyer and closed the door behind her. “You look great.”
Adrian eyed her shapeless green sweater and faded jeans. She would have taken the statement as meaningless flattery coming from someone other than Rooke, but she’d never met anyone who seemed less capable of artificiality than Rooke. The simple compliment threatened to bring tears again, and she backed away. She needed to pull herself together, and she wasn’t going to be able to do that until Rooke stopped looking at her with that consuming intensity in her gorgeous dark eyes. “Five minutes. Don’t go.”
“I won’t,” Rooke said.
As foolish as it might be, Adrian believed her.
“I’ll get that tree taken care of tomorrow,” Rooke said as she and Adrian made their way around the fallen oak to Rooke’s truck. “I see you got the Jeep out.”
“I was lucky. All this wind turned out to be helpful in one way, at least. The snow drifted away from the front of the barn and I managed to get down the driveway and around the tree in four-wheel drive.”
“If you need anything—groceries or supplies—you can call me. It would save you from driving on these roads.”
Adrian climbed into the passenger seat. “You’re driving on them.”
“I’m used to it.”
Any other morning, Adrian would have argued, or at least have pointed out that she was completely as capable as Rooke Tyler at managing a vehicle in the snow, but she was exhausted and shaken and she didn’t have the energy for verbal combat. More than that, Rooke’s concern warmed her. Rooke turned onto River Road heading away from the direction Adrian took into town, and she rubbed condensation from the window and looked out, almost too weary to keep her eyes open. The snow had tapered off to occasional flurries, but the sun remained hidden behind sheets of slate gray clouds that portended more snow before long. The river was only yards away and completely frozen, huge chunks of ice stacked like dominoes or giant, jagged teeth across the surface. For just an instant, the image of a vehicle half submerged beneath the frozen floes flashed through her mind and she shuddered.
Adrian turned her back to the river, finding it much more soothing to watch Rooke instead. She drove with both hands lightly clasping the wheel, relaxed in the seat, her blue jean–clad legs slightly spread. Her face was intent, but not strained. She looked comfortable and confident. Solid. Strong.
Rooke glanced over and caught Adrian staring. “Is the house too cold?”
“You look really tired. I thought maybe that was why.”
Adrian laughed self-consciously. “Hasn’t anyone ever warned you never to tell a woman she doesn’t look good?”
Rooke colored. She had no idea how to talk to a woman. Or how not to. “I’m sorry. I…I don’t know much about that.”
“Rooke,” Adrian said softly, instantly sorry for her remark. She’d meant it to cover her own embarrassment and could see that she had embarrassed Rooke instead. On impulse, she leaned across the seat and grasped Rooke’s forearm. “I was teasing.”
Adrian had the insane urge to slide all the way over until her body rested against Rooke’s. She wanted to tell her how good it felt to be with her. She contented herself with skimming her fingers over the top of Rooke’s hand. The brief contact made her feel more centered than she had since she’d gone to bed in physical and emotional turmoil the night before. “Can I ask you something personal?”
“Yes,” Rooke said, bracing herself for something she feared she wouldn’t be able to answer. Or if she did, Adrian would be done with her.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Rooke jerked in surprise and answered automatically. “No.” Then she remembered Emma. She wanted to be honest. “I’ve never…” She took a breath and started again. “I have a friend I care about. She cares about me too. But we’re not…like that.”
“Okay. I think I understand.” Adrian concluded Rooke was either in a relationship that wasn’t sexual or was in a sexual relationship that wasn’t serious. She wasn’t sure which she preferred, but she was glad Rooke seemed to have no significant ties.
“I don’t know very much about women, I guess,” Rooke muttered.
Sensing Rooke’s discomfort and wanting to lighten the mood, Adrian tapped Rooke’s thigh lightly. “Lesson number one. Never tell a woman she looks tired, because what that really means is she looks haggard and unattractive.”
“That’s not true,” Rooke said, her brows drawing down. “You look tired but you’re still beautiful.”
Adrian’s heart jumped into her throat. She’d been told she was beautiful before. Men had told her she was too beautiful to be with other women when she had rejected their advances. Melinda had told her she was beautiful while trying to seduce her, and other women had told her she was beautiful while making love to her. She had never in her life been told she was beautiful with such simple and honest sincerity. This was the first time she’d believed it might be true.
“My mistake,” Adrian whispered. “You aren’t in need of any lessons at all.”
Rooke smiled. “No?”
“Most definitely no.”
Rooke turned into the driveway at Stillwater and pulled to a stop behind the house. She turned off the engine and shifted to face Adrian. “Did something happen to you last night?”
Adrian caught her lower lip between her teeth. What could she say?A woman I don’t want to go to bed with got me so aroused I had an erotic dream and came in my sleep? If I’m going to come dreaming about anyone, I want it to be you?Oh, that would be a conversation stopper. She settled for partial truth. “Bad dreams. And I couldn’t get back to sleep.”
“I know how that is.”
“You were up pretty early yourself,” Adrian said.
“You probably think this is crazy, but I was worried about you.”
The air in the truck suddenly seemed terribly still and warm. With another woman, Adrian would have politely but firmly told her there was no need to worry—she could take care of herself. A few days ago, she would have said the same thing to Rooke. Right now, all she wanted was to bury her hands in Rooke’s hair and kiss her. She wanted that long, tight body on top of her. She wanted those strong, sure hands on her breasts, on her thighs, inside her. She wanted, with the same wild urgency she had wanted the night before when a stranger had crouched above her, delving inside her, driving her beyond sanity. But today, the wanting was by her choice. And that was enough.
“I don’t think it’s crazy,” Adrian whispered.
Adrian nodded toward the house. “Breakfast?”
“Yeah. I’d better get to it.”
Adrian followed Rooke up the narrow path to the back door of a gorgeous stone house that emanated the same enduring strength she sensed from Rooke. She wondered if a Tyler had built that house two hundred and fifty years before.
“You live here with your grandfather?” Adrian asked as Rooke held the door open for her and she walked into the kitchen. She handed Rooke her jacket.
“No. Over the shop out back.” Rooke took both their jackets into the adjoining room and when she returned, she gestured to the table. “Have a seat. Do you want some tea while I cook?”
“What are you having?”
Rooke hefted a coffeepot.
“Coffee is fine,” Adrian said with a smile. “I drink it all the time when I’m on assignment.”
“No,” Rooke said. “I promised you tea.”
“That would be great, then. Thank you.” Adrian settled into a chair at the table. “Can I help?”
“No. I’ve got it. Thanks.” Rooke put a pot of water on to boil and pulled a coffee can from the refrigerator.
Adrian watched her work. Mostly, she watched her move. Her white cotton shirt stretched across her shoulders as she took food from the refrigerator and dishes from the cabinets. Her stonewashed denim jeans molded to her butt and thighs as she bent down to pull a frying pan from the drawer in the bottom of the cast-iron stove. Adrian’s mouth went suddenly dry as she pictured herself running her hands over those taut muscles. Just as her musings were leading her into definitely dangerous territory, she heard footsteps and a vigorous-looking man about her grandmother’s age halted in the doorway of the adjoining room. He regarded her with a pensive expression.
“Hello,” Adrian said, shooting to her feet to cover her embarrassment at having been caught while she was cruising Rooke’s backside.
Rooke looked over her shoulder in the man’s direction. “Hi, Pops. This is Adrian.”
Adrian held out her hand and the man took it. His hand was warm and dry. He had calluses in some of the same places as Rooke. “Adrian Oakes. I’m very pleased to meet you.”
“Ron Tyler.” He released Adrian’s hand and went to the counter, picked up a coffee mug, and filled it. Then he sat down opposite her at the table.
Not knowing what else to do, Adrian sat back down. Thankfully, Rooke brought her a cup of tea at that moment so she could occupy herself with it. She fiddled with the teabag. She wasn’t often speechless in new situations and she didn’t usually concern herself with what kind of first impression she made. Chiding herself, she forced herself to sit back in her chair and meet Ronald Tyler’s gaze. She saw pieces of Rooke in the bold arch of his cheekbones and the square set of his jaw. His eyes, however, were not the deep dark brown of hers, but blue.
“You’re Elizabeth Winchester’s granddaughter,” Rooke’s grandfather said.
“You look a little bit like her.”
“Rooke looks quite a lot like you.”
He smiled and sipped his coffee. “Things okay at the house?”
“Rooke’s got them under control.” Adrian glanced at Rooke, who was dishing eggs and sausage onto plates, and smiled. “She’s very thorough.”
“She should be. That’s her job.”
Rooke set the food on the table, brought an extra chair from the dining room, and sat down. She gave Adrian a worried look. “Is the tea okay?”
“The tea is perfect. And breakfast looks great.” Adrian touched Rooke’s bare forearm. “It’s exactly what I needed.”
Rooke’s smile blazed at the same instant as light burst in Adrian’s vision, as if the sun had suddenly leaped above the horizon and turned night into day in a fraction of a second. Arms wrapped around her middle from behind and she leaned back against a strong chest, secure in the knowledge that she would not fall. Warm lips moved over the curve of her neck and she tilted her head back, content to let the pleasure enfold her.
“Good,” Rooke said.
Adrian blinked and felt her face go hot. She almost didn’t dare to look across the table at Rooke’s grandfather, but she forced herself to do it. He seemed engrossed in his breakfast. Thank goodness she hadn’t made a sound, because in her mind, she had moaned from absolute bliss.
“So I gather Rooke has told you about the damage to the house,” Adrian said, searching for a safe topic of conversation. She edged her chair a little farther away from Rooke so their thighs wouldn’t touch, not wanting a repeat of her last little loss of control.
“Yup. Rooke give you the estimate to discuss with your grandmother?”
Rooke pushed her plate aside and reached into her back pocket. She handed Adrian a folded square of white paper. “I was going to give this to you later.”
“Thanks,” Adrian said.
“Well, I think I’ll have a look at the trees. Make sure we don’t have any branches down.” Rooke’s grandfather rose and donned a dark green canvas jacket and matching hat that he lifted from pegs on the far side of the door. “Nice meeting you, Ms. Oakes.”
“You too, Mr. Tyler,” Adrian said as he disappeared out the back door. She sighed inwardly with relief. That seemed to go all right. She glanced at Rooke, who was drinking her coffee and watching her. “He didn’t even seem surprised to find a stranger in his kitchen at a godawful early hour of the morning. Do you often bring home strays?”
“I’ve never brought anyone home before.”
“Oh, I just assumed you grew up here. I don’t know why.”
“I did. I just got the place out back five years ago.”
“Then how…” Adrian realized she was prying. But how could Rooke have never brought anyone home? She must’ve misunderstood. Trying to cover her confusion, she unfolded the paper Rooke had given her and spread it out on the table between them. “So. Anything special here I need to know when I discuss this with my grandmother?”
Rooke pushed back in her chair as if Adrian had dropped a snake between them. “The total is $15,800.”
“I see that. I was just wondering…”
Adrian frowned when Rooke stood abruptly and walked into the other room. She waited a moment and, when Rooke didn’t return, followed her. Rooke stood with her back to her, bent over a large table in the middle of the room, her arms braced on it, her head lowered. “What’s wrong? Did I do something to upset you? I’m not doubting your figures. I just wanted to be sure I understood everything. You don’t need to review it with me. I’m sorry…”
“Stop.” Rooke turned, the expression on her face one Adrian had never seen there before. She looked resigned, almost defeated. “You didn’t do anything wrong at all. It’s me, okay?”
“I don’t understand,” Adrian said quietly.
“I can’t read it.”
Adrian looked down at the paper in her hands, then back at Rooke. “What part can’t you read?”
“Any of it.” Rooke picked up their jackets and handed Adrian hers. “I can’t read anything at all. Come on, I’ll take you home.”
Reflexively, Adrian reached for her jacket, a thousand jumbled thoughts careening through her mind. This wasn’t a third-world country. This wasn’t some isolated pocket of rural Appalachia. How was it possible that in a community like this a child did not learn to read? And why had Rooke, as an adult, not taken steps to change that? She thought of her grandmother’s veiled comment about Rooke.She’s slow.But Adrian knew that wasn’t true. Rooke was far too perceptive, far too sensitive, too bright to be impaired in that way. But what then? Why…
The back door slammed and Adrian was left alone with her questions.Chapter Thirteen
Adrian found Rooke leaning against the front of her truck, her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket, her face turned away from the house. Away from Adrian. Although her pose looked relaxed from a distance, the set of her shoulders and the tight line of her jaw said otherwise.
“Hey,” Adrian said, coming up beside her.
Rooke finally looked at her, and her eyes were so bleak all Adrian wanted to do was put her arms around her and hold her. She wanted that so much her chest ached, but she was afraid Rooke might misinterpret her actions as pity and she was absolutely certain Rooke would not want that. She contented herself with running her fingers down the arm of Rooke’s jacket.
“Can we take a walk?” Adrian said.
Adrian smiled. “Show me Stillwater.”
Rooke hesitated and Adrian was afraid she was going to say no. She didn’t know what she would do then, but she couldn’t bear to feel the barrier that had suddenly sprung up between them. Ordinarily, she welcomed barriers, and she was always the one erecting them. She decided how close she allowed anyone to come. More than one lover had complained that she wouldn’t let them in, wouldn’t share enough, and that was probably the main reason why she’d never had a serious long-term relationship. Most of her affairs were casual and mutually convenient and the few times they’d drifted toward something deeper, she’d pulled back. Breaking those connections, even with women she’d slept with, had never left her feeling as bereft as Rooke’s sudden withdrawal.
“I started research for a new article,” Adrian said casually, propping her hip against the truck next to Rooke as if they weren’t standing outside in fifteen-degree weather. As if Rooke hadn’t just told her something she still couldn’t quite take in. “I’m going to do a series on cemeteries.”
“Cemeteries.” Rooke shot a quick look at Adrian. “Why?”
“Not cemeteries per se, actually.” Adrian tried not to smile, but she loved that Rooke always wanted toknow.She didn’t seem to take things for granted or make assumptions. Her uncluttered, grounded view of the world was terribly refreshing. “Grave markers. Their design, the symbols that have been used over the centuries to indicate all kinds of things. Family associations. Superstitions. Religion. Social and economic status. It’s like the gravestones are history books with their own language. If we know the language, we’ll know how to read them.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to take them back. God. Could she have picked a worse time to bring up this subject?
“I’m sorry,” Adrian said quickly.
“What for?” Rooke grimaced. “I’ve had a long time to get used to what I can’t do, and what people think of me.”
“I’m notpeople.”Adrian shivered, more from the coldness inside than the lancing wind that blew ice crystals from the surface of the snow into her face like tiny, invisible knives. “Damn it, I’m doing this really badly. Take me to the older part of the cemetery, and I’ll show you what I mean.”
“All right. But you’re going to get wet.”
Adrian laughed, relieved to see Rooke’s shoulders relax and hear the teasing in her voice. “You mean more than I am now?”
“The paths aren’t cleared. We could wait—”
“No.” Adrian grasped Rooke’s hand and tugged her away from the truck and toward the one road into the cemetery that had been plowed. Her relief was short-lived. Something was wrong. Even though both their hands were bare, she couldn’tfeelRooke. She’d lost the sense of her, and the absence of that quiet strength made her ache. Adrian feared if Rooke took her home now, she would never have another chance to restore their lost connection. “My friends tell me that when I get started on a project, I’m like a dog with a bone. I can’t let up.”
“Okay, if you want to go exploring, we will.”
Rooke withdrew her hand from Adrian’s and the hollow place inside grew larger, and so did the pain of loss. Did Rooke really think she would find her lacking because of what she’d just confided? Of course she did, because very clearly others had. She doubted there was anything she could say to combat those old hurts. She would have to convince Rooke that what mattered to her was the woman she was, the whole person, not just one aspect of her. She’d need time to show her, and hoped they would have it.
“You’re elected tour guide,” Adrian said, trying for a casual note.
“You have to put your gloves on,” Rooke said, removing her own from the inside pocket of her jacket.
When Adrian pulled on her leather gloves, Rooke took her hand again. Adrian clutched Rooke’s arm against her side, happy for the slightest bit of contact. Before long she was holding on even tighter to keep her footing on the icy surface as Rooke led her off the semi-cleared road into a section of the cemetery where the stones were obviously very old. Most were marble, and on many, the engravings were so worn by the years that the names and dates were illegible.
“There—the matching crossed hands on those two stones,” Adrian said, indicating two markers side by side jutting from the snow. “According to what I’ve read, those symbolize—”
“Relatives,” Rooke said. “Sometimes marriage.”
“Yes,” Adrian said eagerly, pointing to another marble marker with a scrolled top and the image of a bird in flight carved above the names. She hadn’t come across that in her initial research. She looked at Rooke questioningly. “What about that one?”
“The soul—the birds are usually shown rising, because—well, you know. Heaven and all. The lamp is for innocence, the lily for purity, the anchor for hope.”
“You know all about this, don’t you? Of course you would.” Adrian shook her head. “I could have saved myself a lot of time on the computer yesterday.”
Rooke shrugged. “There’s probably a lot more I don’t know. I’ve only seen this cemetery and some of the small family plots in other parts of the county. According to what you said, symbols might be different in other places, right? Depending on what the people were like who lived there.”
“Yes,” Adrian said softly. “Exactly.” She hesitated because she didn’t want to make Rooke self-conscious, but she couldn’t pretend she didn’t know that Rooke could not read. She could only imagine how hard it had been for Rooke to share something so personal, and she wouldn’t treat the subject as if it were something Rooke should be ashamed of. “How do you know all of this?”
“It’s the family business. I know it the same way I know how to do the carvings.”
“Does your father do this too?”
“No, my grandfather said he didn’t have it in his blood. He joined the army instead. My great uncle taught me. I started when I was eight. Simple stuff.”
“So will you explain to me about the other symbols?”
“Yes, if you want me to. When the weather lets up, we’ll come back out and I’ll show you. Some of the earliest markers at Stillwater are right here,” Rooke said. “These are the founding families.” She pointed to a large obelisk-type monument with a simple cross at the top surrounded by many small rectangular markers. “The Brewsters. Harold and Hannah were the first. Then, their children—Matthew, Thomas, Lydia, and James.”
Adrian followed Rooke’s hand as she pointed to each smaller stone in turn, reading off the faint names on the stones. She looked from the stones to Rooke. “I thought—”
“I’m not reading them,” Rooke said gruffly. “My grandfather told me who they are.”
“And you remember them all?”
Rooke smiled faintly and nodded.
Adrian dragged Rooke by the hand to the next grouping. “Well?”
“The Smiths. Reginald and Elizabeth. Their sons, Arthur, Charles, Robert, and Thomas,” Rooke said, pointing to each gravestone. “Their daughters Elizabeth, Margaret, Roberta, and Anne are buried with their husbands further down this row.”
“Oh my God. That’s amazing!” Adrian turned and took in what she could of the cemetery. It stretched beyond the crest of a tree-lined hill farther than she could see. Dominic had said Rooke knew the story behind all of the stones, but she hadn’t taken him literally. “Tell me you know everyone here.”
“I do. I remember things like that.”
Adrian couldn’t contain her astonishment and wondered how it could be that people like her grandmother had no idea what a remarkable person Rooke was. She couldn’t restrain her need to let Rooke know just how special she found her. Guided by instinct, she took off her gloves and pressed her palms to Rooke’s face. “You’reamazing.”
The wind howled and snow danced in the air like spirits released from the grave, but Adrian didn’t feel the icy cold. Heat emanated from Rooke, reaching to Adrian’s very core. She saw herself standing before a great stone hearth in a vast hall, torches flaming on the walls, huge arches disappearing into the darkness overhead. Thick furs covered the stone floors and hung over openings chiseled through the thick walls. In the shadows, a warrior watched. Adrian sensed great strength and great power. And more—passion and desire. Belonging. The yearning for those feelings was so strong she felt herself drifting into the dream, even while part of her knew it was not real. Would never be real.
“Adrian.” Rooke’s arms came around her and her embrace was very real. Rooke held her close, shielding her from the biting wind, and brushed her hair back, searching Adrian’s face. “We need to go back. You’re shaking and pale again.”
“Your skin is warm,” Adrian said thickly, wanting to stay by the fire, surrounded by thick walls of stone and fierce passion. But Rooke’s call was strong, and the vision receded, leaving her a little disoriented. She let herself lean against Rooke for just a few heartbeats. Rooke felt so good.
“Damn, I was an idiot to bring you out here,” Rooke said gruffly.
“Don’t say that.” Adrian’s voice came out hollow and weak and she forced herself to straighten, even though it meant moving away from Rooke. “You are not responsible for me. I wanted to come.”
“I’m responsible for my own bad judgment.”
“Come on,” Rooke muttered. “Before we get into another power struggle and freeze.”
Adrian didn’t argue, because Rooke was right. She was cold to the bone. Rooke kept an arm around her shoulder, putting herself between Adrian and the wind as they walked back to the house. Instead of taking her to the truck, Rooke turned up a path toward a big cement-block building that looked like a garage. Rooke unlocked the door and guided her to an overstuffed chair in front of a wood-burning stove.
“I’ll get the fire going and you’ll be warm in a few minutes.” Rooke quickly stacked logs from the pile next to the stove and lit them. Then she knelt in front of the chair where Adrian had kicked off her boots and curled up with her legs beneath her. Rooke reached out as if to rest her hand on Adrian’s knee and then moved it to the arm of the chair at the last moment. “How about hot chocolate? I don’t have tea here.”
“Where are we?” Adrian asked, looking around at the cement floor and counters covered with tools. “I thought you said your apartment was here. Tell me you don’t consider this an apartment.”
Rooke grinned. “My shop. I live upstairs, but the stove down here is better. So, hot chocolate?”
“That would be great. And you can stop looking so worried. I’m all right.”
“You’ll be even better in a few minutes.” Rooke straightened. “I’ll be right back.”
Adrian waited until she heard Rooke’s footsteps fade, then leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She didn’t want Rooke taking care of her, although Rooke’s tenderness made her feel special, something she’d never thought she’d wanted before. Still, she didn’t want to appear weak. Now that her head was clear, she needed to figure out what was going on. She’d always been open to heightened sensation, especially when she was emotionally vulnerable or intensely connected to someone. At odd times she would also pick up energy from strangers, but lately she seemed to be more susceptible than ever before. Maybe with Rooke it was because shewanteda connection between them, but she couldn’t offer the same explanation for Melinda. She’d be just as happy never to experience the disconcerting reactions Melinda stirred in her again.
Adrian sighed. Melinda was a question for later. She glanced at her watch. She owed Melinda a phone call too. It was almost ten. And before she made that call, she needed to decide what she was going to do about Melinda and Rooke.
Rooke set the cup of hot chocolate down gently on the packing crate that she used for an end table next to the chair in which Adrian was sleeping. She checked the fire and added a log. When she turned, Adrian was awake and watching her. Adrian no longer looked pale, and it might have been the dim light in the room, but the bruises beneath her eyes seemed lighter too. She appeared relaxed and peaceful. Rooke liked the way she looked, curled up in the chair. Almost at home.
“How are you feeling?” Rooke asked.
Rooke grinned. “It’s not that warm in here yet.”
“Says you.” Adrian pulled off her sweater and stretched, feeling as rested as if she’d just awakened from a two-hour nap. In fact, she felt wonderful. When Rooke’s eyes narrowed and dropped to her breasts, she remembered that she hadn’t put a bra on under the T-shirt she’d layered beneath her sweater. The instant she realized Rooke was staring at her breasts, her nipples tightened. A breath later, she was wet and ready. She fought to keep anything from showing in her expression and picked up the hot chocolate.
“Thanks for this,” Adrian said.
Rooke sounded tight and strained and Adrian was afraid to look at her. If she saw that intense fascination in Rooke’s face again, she was likely to explode right there in the chair. She sipped the hot chocolate and ordered her body to behave.
“This is where you do all your work?” Adrian chanced a glance and was only halfway disappointed that Rooke appeared to be engrossed in something on the ceiling. At least one of them had some control. Work ought to be a safe subject, and Rooke was clearly an expert in the subject she was currently absorbed in.
“Yes,” Rooke said.
“How do you carve the names if…”
Rooke met Adrian’s gaze. “If I can’t read them?”
“Yes.” Adrian kept her voice carefully neutral, as if they were discussing an everyday occurrence. She never wanted to see that defeated look in Rooke’s eyes again.
Rooke’s stomach became leaden. No one had ever asked her to explain how she worked before. Everyone seemed to assume what she was capable of, or what she wasn’t. She had learned not to care what others thought of her, but she desperately wanted Adrian to understand. Crossing to the counter, she picked up several sheets of paper and offered them to Adrian.
Wordlessly, Adrian took them and leafed through them. They were all drawings of gravestones. The designs were all different—some were completely plain, others ornate. Above each marker, a name was hand printed in simple letters. On the stones, the same name appeared several times in different styles, from block lettering to ornate script. Adrian frowned.
“You need to interpret for me,” Adrian said.
“When I carve a symbol, like a bird, on a marker, I don’t carve the same one every time,” Rooke said.
“Okay. That makes sense.”
“The letters are symbols, like the bird or a tree or a lantern. I can carve symbols, I just can’t…” Rooke sighed and she rubbed her forehead as if it hurt.
Rooke’s hand was shaking and Adrian heard the frustration in her voice. God, she wanted to understand, and she was making it worse. “That’s okay. You don’t have to…”
“I want to,” Rooke said fiercely. She paced a few steps, her back to Adrian, then spun around. Her body was taut, her hands clenched. “I want to tell you.”
“Okay,” Adrian said softly. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Why can’t you read?”
Rooke’s head jerked as if she were startled. Then some of the tension went out of her body. “I was in an accident when I was a baby. Something happened to my brain. I can see the letters but my brain can’t make them into words.”
“No words at all?”
“No. Not numbers, either.”
“My God,” Adrian said quietly. “That must be so hard.”
Rooke smiled. “I don’t think about it all that much. It’s just the way it is for me.”
Adrian wanted to ask a thousand questions, starting with,Was that your mother who was killed in the accident in the Hudson?but she wanted to focus on Rooke, and what Rooke needed to tell her.
“Your grandfather prints the names for you?”
“Yes. When he takes the order. Then I work up the samples and let the family choose. Sometimes they have specific things they want, and I work those in.”
“It all sounds highly personal.”
“Shouldn’t it be?”
Adrian smiled. “Yes. It should.” She put her cup aside and stood. “Can you show me one you’re working on?”
“You want to see a gravestone?”
Rooke looked so surprised, and so immune to her own charm that Adrian had a hard time not touching her. But she was afraid if she did, with her feelings for Rooke so very close to the surface right now, she’d fall into her again, and she didn’t want this moment to be about her. “Yes, please. I’d like you to show me.”
“All right.” Rooke held out her hand.
Adrian hesitated, then willed herself to close everything down. Tentatively, she slid her hand into Rooke’s and Rooke squeezed gently. Warmth flowed into her, the connection reestablished, and she breathed a sigh. They were holding hands, nothing more complicated than that. “You have beautiful hands.”
Rooke stared down at their joined hands, then into Adrian’s eyes. “They’re pretty rough and banged up. Your skin is so soft I’m not sure I should be touching you.”
“It’s fine,” Adrian said, her throat threatening to close. “Perfect.”
Then Rooke smiled as if she’d been given a gift, and Adrian felt herself falling and had no desire to stop. She wasn’t dizzy, she wasn’t disoriented. She knew exactly where she was and with whom. What terrified her was that she knew exactlyhowshe was falling, and that wasn’t at all what she had planned.
“Over here,” Rooke said, leading Adrian into the far end of the room where several mounds were covered with tarps. A big exhaust fan occupied the space there the windows had been. “This one is actually part of a much bigger marker. This figure will be inset near the top.”
When Rooke pulled the tarp away, Adrian stared at the head of a lion emerging from the stone. It was so lifelike, the eyes so hypnotic, she would have sworn it was alive. “It’s incredible.”
Adrian thought of the picture in the newspaper of the mausoleum and the gargoyles. She remembered Melinda saying how lifelike they were. With a sinking sensation, she said, “I met someone coming up here who’s trying to find a sculptor. She saw a picture of a mausoleum in the newspaper with gargoyles at the four corners. You did that, didn’t you?”
Rooke stiffened and dropped Adrian’s hand. “Yes.”
“She was hoping you might know the sculptor she’s looking for.”
“Why is she looking for the sculptor?”
“She has a picture of a sculpture that’s being sold at an estate sale here. She was impressed.” Adrian began to worry as Rooke’s face lost all expression. “Is something wrong?”
“I want to see the picture.”
“I’m sure she’d be happy to show it to you. I was going to bring her out here later to talk to you. She’s staying at the Heritage House.”
Rooke shook her head. “Call her and tell her I’ll come there.”
“All right.” Adrian told herself there was absolutely no reason why Rooke shouldn’t meet with Melinda, but her stomach was instantly queasy. “When?”
“As soon as possible.”Chapter Fourteen
“Melinda said she’d meet us at the hotel in an hour,” Adrian said, watching Rooke pace in the small space between the stove and the chair. “She wants me to come along.”
“I knew the moment I saw you that we’d make good partners, darling,” Melinda said. “You’re bringing her to me here?”
“You don’t really need me along,” Adrian said reluctantly, even though an irrational part of her did not want Rooke to meet with Melinda alone. “I don’t have anything to lend to the discussions—”
“You two already know each other. She’ll probably be more comfortable with you making the introductions. Besides,” Melinda said, her tone susurrus, “I want to see you.”
“Well, I suppose since I’m already with her—”
“Wonderful. I look forward to seeing you both.”
Rooke stopped pacing. “You’d do that? Come with me? You don’t mind?”
“No, of course I don’t mind.” Adrian couldn’t tell if Rooke was angry or anxious, or a little bit of both, but as soon as they’d started talking about Melinda and the sculpture, she’d become progressively more agitated. “What’s upsetting you?”
“She’s from New York, you said?”
“Yes. She’s an art dealer with a gallery in Manhattan.”
Rooke shook her head, frowning. “I don’t understand why she would come all the way up here just because she saw a picture of something.”
“That’s what art dealers do,” Adrian said, although she did think it was odd that Melinda would come personally rather than sending a representative. “The successful ones are able to identify talent before an artist becomes popular. That’s often how they make their greatest profits. And of course, young artists are always hoping that someone will see something unique in their work and promote them.”
“What does it matter what anyone else sees? The story is already in the stone.”
Adrian perched on the arm of the chair and studied Rooke. “You know who did the work, don’t you.”
“Not for sure.” Rooke walked to the door and looked out onto the cemetery and the rear of the main house. With her back to Adrian, she said quietly, “But what does it matter who did it? Isn’t something like that supposed to exist independently? Free of the artist?”
“Well, that’s an age-old question.” Adrian chuckled. “I think you’d find some pretty opinionated people on both sides of that argument. Is that what you think? That the artist doesn’t inject some part of themselves in the work—that it’s a case of art for art’s sake and nothing else?”
Rooke glanced at Adrian over her shoulder. “I think the artist is just a tool. The stone is everything.”
Adrian pictured the grainy photograph of the mausoleum and the gargoyles that so enchanted Melinda. She glanced to the far corner of the room where the lion’s head emerged half formed from the stone, eyes gleaming with life. Then her mind skipped to the figure Melinda had shown her in the catalog, a woman who seemed so alive, even in the small, faint photo, that Adrian had expected her to breathe and move. Dominic, saying there was no one anywhere around who could do what Rooke could do with stone. Already certain of the answer, Adrian asked, “You sculpt, don’t you? More than just what you do with the gravestones.”
As the silence stretched, Adrian tried to tell herself there was no reason for her growing sense of foreboding. Melinda was a businesswoman, and her interest in the sculpture and the artist who created it was perfectly reasonable.
“Yes. I sculpt other things.”
“Anyone else around here do that?” Adrian asked lightly.
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, then I guess you really do need to talk to Melinda.”
Rooke turned and leaned her back against the door. “I don’t see how she has a picture of anything I did. I don’t sell them.”
“What do you do with them?”
“I just make them.” Rooke shrugged and glanced toward a door in the far wall that Adrian assumed led to another room. “My grandfather has a couple.”
“How many are there?”
Adrian tried to sort out her conflicting emotions. If Rooke was the artist Melinda sought, and her work was as extraordinary as Melinda seemed to believe, Melinda could make a huge difference in Rooke’s life—financially, of course, but also in every other way. Melinda could introduce Rooke to an entirely new world—an exciting and seductive new world of celebrity and adventure. A world with Melinda at its center. Adrian tried to mentally shrug off the surge of jealousy. Rooke was an intelligent woman. She could handle herself. She could handle Melinda.
“Adrian?” Rooke asked.
“I’m sorry.” Adrian hadn’t realized she’d drifted off until Rooke touched her arm. Rooke looked worried, probably because she was telegraphing her own misgivings, and that wasn’t fair. She wanted to be happy for Rooke. Shewashappy for Rooke. “Do you have photographs of your other work?”
Rooke shook her head.
Adrian plucked her cell phone from the waistband of her jeans and thumbed through to the camera setting. Then she held it out to Rooke. “Why don’t you take a few shots of some of them. Just point and press here.”
“Because if you sculpted the figure Melinda is interested in, she’s going to want to know what else you’ve done.”
“Even if I did, I don’t think I want her to see the rest.”
“Why not?” Adrian asked gently.
“I don’t know her.”
Adrian heard the protectiveness in Rooke’s voice and thought of the warrior in her visions. Perhaps this was what she’d sensed all along—Rooke’s fierce desire to guard her sculptures from those who might not understand or respect the stories they revealed. She wanted to see them very much herself, but she wouldn’t ask. She would see them when Rooke offered, when Rooke trusted her enough.
“There’s no rush.” Adrian was secretly glad that Rooke appeared to have reservations about Melinda and making her work public. She told herself she was being selfish, wanting to keep Rooke all to herself. Rooke wasn’t hers, and she deserved the chance to decide what direction her life would take. Even if her choice led her to Melinda Singer.
A clock somewhere in the lobby chimed noon as Melinda settled onto a love seat in the corner of the parlor with a glass of Pinot noir. She crossed her legs beneath her burgundy cashmere pencil skirt, enjoying the slide of the soft wool upward over her bare thighs, almost as exciting as a woman’s caress. She’d left the top three buttons of the matching jacket open, exposing a hint of the black lace cupping her breasts. Her nipples had been tense and tingling since Adrian had called. She regretted she had not relented and allowed Becky to stay when the girl had pleaded to do so earlier. The excitement of Adrian’s unexpected announcement that she might have found Melinda’s elusive artist aroused her so much her sex ached and hunger clawed at her depths again. She sipped the wine and pressed her thighs together until pleasure speared through her clitoris. The shaft distended rapidly and pulsed harder as Adrian, looking as beautiful as ever in a plain black sweater and slacks, stepped into the parlor. Melinda smiled, her attention immediately captured by the woman in a plain navy button-down shirt and jeans by Adrian’s side.
She was delicious. Slightly taller than Adrian, whip-slender, with short, thick dark hair and midnight eyes. Her dark gaze searched Melinda’s face with curiosity and cool appraisal. Melinda lusted for the power coiled in the woman’s muscular shoulders and taut torso, and envisioned sweeping her hands, her lips, over that tight, bold body—sucking her, drinking her ecstasy. Melinda’s sex blossomed and twitched in anticipation.
“Melinda, this is Rooke Tyler,” Adrian said. “Rooke, Melinda Singer.”
“Hello.” Melinda rose, her hand outstretched. In her high-heeled boots she was several inches taller than Rooke, but their eyes met on the same plane. She held the strong hand for several heartbeats longer than necessary, gauging Rooke’s energy. She sensed a force darker than Adrian’s, heavy and foreboding, of the earth, whereas Adrian radiated the light and heat of the sun. Adrian’s passion promised to set her ablaze; this woman’s would brand her very essence. For a fleeting second, she imagined the three of them together, of their bodies fused and their passion melded—earth and air, dark and light, consumed to ashes in her fire. Their release would satisfy her in her deepest reaches.
“Hello,” Rooke said, pulling her hand away.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Melinda said.
“How do you know it’s me?”
Melinda smiled and glanced at Adrian, whose eyes held worry and a possessiveness Melinda doubted she was aware of. Oh yes, there was passion here to surpass any she had known.
“I just have a feeling that we were destined to meet.” Melinda slipped her fingers around Rooke’s wrist and drew her down onto the love seat next to her, close enough that their thighs touched. Adrian took an adjacent wing-backed chair, her expression wary. “My intuition is never wrong.”
Rooke glanced at Adrian, whose eyes softened. Energy hummed between them, but Melinda doubted either was really aware of the intensity of their connection. Her skin vibrated with it, and she wasn’t even touching them. Her excitement escalated. She was very much going to enjoy these two. So much more together than apart.
“Adrian said you wanted me to look at a picture of a sculpture.”
Melinda opened her purse and removed the page she had printed from the sale catalogue. She handed it to Rooke and pointed to the sculpture. “This is yours, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Rooke said without looking at Melinda or Adrian. She held the paper in both hands so the other women would not see her shaking. Until now, she hadn’t really believed that a woman she’d never met had traveled from New York City to find her because of one of her sculptures. “I don’t understand how this happened.”
“Did you sell this to someone?” Melinda asked, stroking Rooke’s forearm.
“No. I’ve never sold any of my sculptures.”
Melinda caught her breath. “How many more?”
Rooke looked at Adrian again.
“She has quite a few more,” Adrian said quietly. She almost hated to admit it, feeling as if she were somehow delivering Rooke to Melinda. That was crazy, she knew, but Melinda was beautiful and alluring and from the way she looked at Rooke, she was interested in more than just Rooke’s sculptures.
“Where are they?” Melinda asked.
“At my shop. My grandfather has a few in the house,” Rooke said. “No one else has ever had one.”
“Did he have this one?” Adrian asked. “Maybe he sold it?”
Rooke shook her head vehemently. “No, he wouldn’t sell my work.” She paused. “But maybe…”
“Maybe what?” Adrian wished she could make this easier for Rooke. Learning one of her sculptures was about to be auctioned off had to feel like a violation.
“Pops might have given one to my grandmother.” Rooke focused on Adrian. “Where is the sale you were talking about?”
“It’s at Fox Run Mansion,” Adrian had. “Is Bea Meriwether your grandmother?”
Rooke shook her head. “No. Ida Hancock is.”
Adrian gasped. She’d just assumed that Rooke didn’t have any other living relatives. Ida Hancock was her grandmother’s best friend. They were in Florida together right at that moment. Adrian had known Ida all her life. How was it possible she’d never heard Ida talk about Rooke? Why had she never met Rooke at any of the summer parties her grandmother hosted? Ida was always there. And how, if her grandmother knew Ida, could she ever have repeated such ridiculous rumors about Rooke? When she realized Rooke was staring at her, she said lamely, “I didn’t know Ida Hancock had any grandchildren.”
“She wouldn’t have mentioned me,” Rooke said with a shrug. “As far as she’s concerned, we aren’t related.”
Melinda laughed softly, running her fingers over the top of Rooke’s hand. “Ah, the luscious intrigue of small towns. How foolish of anyone not to claim you.”
Rooke handed the paper back to Melinda and eased her hand out from under Melinda’s fingers. She didn’t want to talk about her grandmother. She didn’t want to talk about her sculptures, either.
“What are you going to do with it? When you buy it?”
“I’m going to display it in my gallery. And I’d like to represent your other works as well.” Melinda finished her wine and set the glass aside. When she breathed in the scent of desire emanating from the other two women, she almost laughed, wondering how they couldn’t know. “When can I see the rest of your work?”
“Why?” Rooke asked.
Melinda did laugh then. “Most artists would be begging me to review their portfolio at this point.”
Rooke frowned. “I don’t have a portfolio. I guess I’m not really cut out for this kind of thing.”
“Oh, my dear,” Melinda murmured, lightly caressing the edge of Rooke’s jaw. “You have no idea how perfect you are. Exactly what I was looking for.”
Adrian edged forward, forcing Melinda’s attention away from Rooke. “You’ll be offering a contract, spelling out the terms of representation?”
“Of course, darling. You needn’t worry. I have no intention of mistreating her.” She smiled at Rooke. “In fact, I promise to treat you very, very well.”
“I have to think about it. I don’t know if I want to sell my sculptures.”
“I understand.” Melinda took a card from her purse and handed it to Rooke. “You can look up the gallery on the Internet. Study some of the pieces we have on display. I think you’ll like what you see. If you don’t want to put your pieces up for public sale, I have private collectors who I know would be interested. I can assure you, it would be quite lucrative for you.”
Rooke glanced at the card, then tucked it into her shirt pocket. “I don’t know if I want anyone to have them.”
“Then why did you create them?”
“Because…” Rooke didn’t know how to explain, but Adrian’s gaze said she understood, so she tried. “Because that’s what I do.”
“Is it pleasurable?” Melinda asked.
Rooke flushed, remembering the stone heating under her hands, the fluid arch of a neck, the fullness of breasts flowing through her mind, stirring her flesh. Excitement burgeoned, making her groin tighten and throb. She met Melinda’s eyes and saw her arousal reflected in the flickering green-gold.
“More,” Melinda murmured, her voice thick as honey. “I can promise you the pleasure will be greater than you dreamed if you let me share your gift.”
The longer Rooke looked into Melinda’s eyes, the more uncomfortable she became. She sensed danger everywhere, but she couldn’t find a focal point for it. Darkness encroached on the edges of her vision, and she wanted to grab Adrian’s hand and leave this place. She wanted to be back in Adrian’s kitchen, in the soft glow of the lamplight, listening to Adrian talk about places she’d been and the things she wanted to write about. A fist squeezed tightly in the center of her chest and she almost groaned.
“I need to go now,” Rooke said so abruptly Melinda gave a small cry of disappointment. She lurched to her feet, casting wildly about for Adrian, unable to find her.
Adrian rose quickly and rested her palm against Rooke’s cheek. “Hey. It’s okay.” She brushed her fingers through the thick lock of hair that fell across Rooke’s forehead. Sweat misted along Rooke’s hairline. “We’ll go.”
“I’m sorry.” Rooke closed her eyes and tilted her head into Adrian’s palm as the tension eased and she could breathe freely again.
“We’re done here,” Adrian said to Melinda, who watched them with an avid expression. She gripped Rooke’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“Good-bye for now,” Melinda whispered. “Thank you for bringing her to me.”
“I didn’t do it for you.” Adrian heard Melinda laughing softly as they left.
Didn’t you?Chapter Fifteen
“I think you’d better drive until we get out of town,” Rooke said, handing Adrian her keys.
“Sure,” Adrian said uncertainly. “Why?”
Rooke didn’t reply, just pulled open the passenger door and climbed in. Adrian slid behind the wheel and started the engine. When she checked in the side-view mirror before pulling out onto the nearly empty Main Street, she noticed a sheriff’s patrol car parked on the opposite side, half a block down. She drove carefully along the snow-covered street and turned off Main onto River Road. After they’d gone a mile and there was no one behind them, she pulled over and looked at Rooke, who sat facing forward, her hands in the pockets of her jacket, her face still as granite.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine.” After a beat, Rooke said, “I can drive now.”
“We’re not that far from my house. Come over and have some lunch.”
“I do still need to check the tarp to make sure it hasn’t come loose.”
“That works out, then.” Adrian flicked the keys hanging from the ignition. Rooke was upset, but Adrian couldn’t tell if it was due to learning that her sculptures were no longer her secret or if Melinda’s obvious attentions bothered her. Or, something Adrian didn’t want to contemplate, maybe Rooke was brooding because Melinda’s attentions were welcome and Rooke wanted more, something Melinda seemed confident of delivering.And maybe,she growled inwardly,I can sit here and wonder for the rest of the afternoon and never know the answer.She’d always gone after what she wanted and what she wanted to know. Indecision was foreign to her and she rebelled against it now. “Why am I driving?”
“Because I don’t have a license.”
“Ah. And I guess the local authorities know that,” Adrian said, recalling the sheriff’s car.
The way she said it made Adrian’s heart hurt. No wonder Rooke had kept her work a secret in a town where she had no secrets. “You’ve been driving out to my place.”
“The sheriff has better things to do in the middle of a blizzard than haul me in because I’m driving without a license.”
“Haul you in?”
Rooke’s eyes were dark deep pools of anger and frustration. “I graduated from just getting ticketed a few years ago. The last time they stopped me, I spent half the night in jail.”
“They can’t do that!”
“They did. For some reason it took them a while to call my grandfather.”
Adrian reached across the space between them and took Rooke’s hand. “That’s not right. For God’s sake, you grew up here. You don’t need to read the street signs to know where you are or to recognize a stop sign. Aren’t there any lawyers in this town?”
“It’s not just because I can’t read,” Rooke said in a low, strained voice.
“I don’t have a license because I can’t pass the written test, but even if I could, I would have a problem getting a license. I have…” Rooke blew out a breath. “I have seizures.”
Adrian twined her fingers through Rooke’s, squeezing gently. “From the accident?”
“How bad is it?” Adrian couldn’t bear the thought of Rooke being hurt, and the idea of her having a seizure at any time, but particularly while driving, terrified her.
“Not bad. I haven’t had one in a long time.” Rooke bowed her head and cradled Adrian’s hands between both of hers, brushing her thumb back and forth over Adrian’s knuckles.
“You take medication?” Adrian asked faintly, riveted by the sweep of Rooke’s thumb back and forth over her skin.
Adrian barely heard her as the rhythmic caress sent teasing currents of pleasure into her breasts and lower. The longer it went on, the more her clitoris swelled and pulsed. Tendrils of excitement twined through her pelvis and along her spine. She’d never been so sensitive before, even in the midst of making love. The arousal was so intense she wanted it to go on forever, and needed it to stop immediately before she moaned aloud and humiliated herself. When her thighs tensed and her pelvis clenched, she was on the verge of screaming from the pressure to climax. Carefully, not wanting Rooke to know just how close to the edge she was, she eased her hand free of Rooke’s hot grasp and clutched the steering wheel. Beside her, Rooke was breathing hard, looking almost dazed.
“I’d better drive us home,” Adrian said, her throat tight.
Rooke didn’t answer, and out of the corner of her eye, Adrian saw her hand ball into a fist on her thigh. It wasn’t until she put the truck in gear and started cautiously down the rutted, snow-covered road that she realized while Rooke had been touching her, all she’d felt was Rooke. Here and now and overwhelmingly potent. She hadn’t sought to shield against her, wasn’t certain she could have if she tried. She seemed to have no ability to keep Rooke at a distance. She never allowed herself to be so vulnerable. How had she let this happen?