The first time she saw her dream-beast, she thought her date had just missed killing it.
Heather Kincaid sat wedged against the front passenger door of Ted Gaines' car, wincing every time he whipped around another curve on the dark mountain road. He glared straight ahead through the windshield as they roared toward her family's summer cabin at ten miles over the speed limit.
Even though she'd just turned eighteen, her parents had expressed doubts about Heather's going out alone with Ted, who had a reputation for being "wild". But he was, after all, a cross-country star at the local high school and son of the local storekeeper whom they knew from years of summer visits. Heather had been thrilled when he'd asked her out, shy bookworm that she was.
She didn't feel so thrilled now, after they'd parked at the scenic turnoff and she'd had to bat his hands away one time too many.
Eyes flashed in the headlights, and something darted across the road. Deer--
Ted swerved, with a squeal of tires.
Heather caught sight of a second figure charging in the wake of the deer. Man? Beast? The shape conveyed nothing normal to her brain. But the car was about to ram it--
"Ted, stop!" She wrenched the wheel away from him, and they veered away from the creature.
Ted slammed on the brakes. The car screeched to a stop with a bone-jarring jolt, and the engine stalled.
In the headlights' beam, Heather saw a hulking thing with glowing red eyes glance at them, then lurch toward the bushes on the roadside.
Ted seized her wrist and yanked her hand off the steering wheel. "Are you crazy? What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Didn't you see him? I think you hit him."
"What are you talking about? All I saw was a stupid deer."
"There was a man, too! Or maybe some other animal--something." She felt lightheaded; her pulse pounded in her temples.
"You're seeing things." He started the ignition.
"Wait a minute, we have to find out if he's hurt."
"Is this some kind of excuse to get away from me?"
"No, Ted, I really saw another..." Person? She didn't know; the whole experience had been a blur. But she couldn't just ride away. She opened her door.
"I'm warning you, if you get out, you can just walk home."
"Fine! There's a full moon." Clutching her purse, she stepped onto the shoulder and slammed the door. The car peeled out and vanished around the next curve.
Real smart, Heather, she scolded herself. The cabin's at least three or four miles from here. I'll bet I won't get to go on another date till I'm thirty. Never mind that now; she had to find out whether the car had really hit someone. She peered along the embankment at the edge of the woods.
A rustle in the underbrush drew her attention. She picked her way down the slope. As her eyes grew accustomed to the moonlight, she made out a shape crouched under a bush.
For a second, the creature looked inhuman. A lupine muzzle contorted in a snarl. Then the apparition melted into the face of a man with crimson, glowing eyes.
Ted was right, I am seeing things! Trembling, she edged closer. Trick of the light, that's all. "Hey," she called in a shaky voice. "Are you hurt?"
The voice certainly sounded human. She glimpsed dragging movement, as if he unsuccessfully tried to stand.
"No, you are hurt. I'd better get some help."
"No!" The snarl in his voice paralyzed her. "It's only my leg, thanks to your quick action. The doe is right over there." She heard him drag in a rasping breath before he continued. "Its neck is broken. Bring it to me."
His voice compelled her. She didn't stop to question again until she leaned over the still-warm body a few yards away. What does he want with the deer? And why am I doing this? she wondered as she grasped the animal's forelegs and dragged it closer to the injured man.
As soon as she came within the man's reach, he grabbed the animal and shoved her away. "Stay back--not safe--" He rolled over and buried his face in the doe's belly.
What's he doing? Is he some kind of maniac? In spite of his warning, she tiptoed nearer and knelt down, trying to see what he was doing. After several minutes, he raised his head. She saw a dark stain around his mouth.
"I told you to stay back."
Heather scrambled to her feet, ready to flee. Too late--she didn't see the man move, yet he was at her side, his fingers around her wrist. With his other hand he wiped the--blood?--from his mouth.
"I mean you no harm. I owe you thanks for your help. Without it, I might have lain there for hours, in pain or unconscious." He stood firmly, as if he weren't injured at all.
What's going on? I thought he had a broken leg. But her fear ebbed away and she said, "Oh--no problem. I'd better get home now."
"You'll forget all this. You imagined what you saw a moment ago." His rich baritone vibrated beneath her diaphragm.
Now she saw his face as fully human, saw a pale young man with thick, dark hair and bushy eyebrows. Like Ted, he was much taller than she, but he carried himself proudly, without the slouch that characterized Ted's posture. The man's eyes held hers captive, while his thumb stroked the pulse point on her wrist, sending shivers up her arm.
How did I ever think Ted was sexy? She swayed toward him, yearning for the caress to go on and on. "What do you mean, imagined?"
"You were confused. Go home and forget."
"I'm not crazy! I know what I saw!"
The man's free hand brushed her temple, the curve of her jaw, the hollow of her throat. His fingers felt refreshingly cool in the humid air. "What you saw wasn't real. You don't want it to be real, child. Why complicate your life?"
She fought against the whirlpool sucking her thoughts into oblivion. It's real, and I don't want to forget!
The sound of a car's engine shattered her trance. She jerked her hand free, eliciting a snarl from the man.
Yelling for help, Heather scurried up the embankment. A station wagon stopped for her frantic waving. Its occupants, an elderly couple, vacationers like her own family, didn't question her half-true story about a tiff with her boyfriend.
To her relief, she managed to slip into the cabin without her parents' realizing that strangers, not Ted, had dropped her off. She mumbled a quick goodnight and headed straight for the shower.
* * * *
That night, she received the first "visit". She dreamed of waking up in her bedroom in the cabin, to find the creature from the woods standing over her. He looked like an ordinary man now, except that his eyes glinted red again. She realized at once that this encounter wasn't real, because he wore a ruffled shirt with lace collar and cuffs, topped by a swirling black cape with crimson lining. Anyway, a live, solid man couldn't have gained access to her room. She wasn't a heavy sleeper, so if he'd broken in through the front door or climbed in a window, the noise would have awakened her before he'd reached her bedside. Not to mention waking Mom or Dad. Therefore, he was a dream.
He seated himself on the edge of the mattress. She felt it sag. Wow, what a realistic dream!
"You are a very stubborn child," he said. His voice made the air vibrate around her.
"You're not really here," she murmured. Assured of that fact, she wasn't afraid. He was actually attractive, in a wild sort of way. Like Heathcliff. Heather and her best friend had tried to read Wuthering Heights that spring; the other girl had quickly given up, but Heather loved the book.
"I'm glad you're taking that sensible attitude now. I enjoy my life here and don't want to leave. Nor do I want to use excessive force. That always complicates matters." His cool fingers trailed over her face and neck. Delightful shivers coursed through her. "What you thought you saw this evening was your imagination. Don't tell anyone."
"I didn't plan to," she said.
"Good. Then you can forget it. It wasn't real."
Here we go again. Her head seemed to be floating. "I don't care if it was real or not, I still don't want to forget." His hand stroked her hair, making her feel like purring. "Only exciting thing that's ever happened to me. I want to remember. Won't tell anybody."
He gave an exaggerated sigh. "I've never encountered anyone quite so difficult. Well, as long as you understand that this is only a dream, how much of it you remember doesn't matter." He leaned over to kiss her forehead, her cheek, her neck, then still lower. Alternate waves of heat and cold rippled over her. She was burning, melting. An electric spark zapped her. Then, darkness.
Halfway out of the driver's seat, Heather stared at the dead animal sprawled on the gravel driveway in front of the cabin--a bobcat, looking like a discarded stuffed toy except for the dark blotch on the belly. With her heart racing, Heather retreated into the car, leaving the door open. She pressed her lips together and tried to slow her breathing. Dizziness rocked her.
The image leaped to life in her memory: Six years ago, a summer evening on a moonlit mountain road. A man crouched over the bleeding body of a deer. Glowing eyes.
Heather shook herself back into the present. I imagined that; didn't I settle that long ago?
She picked up her purse and leaned out of the open door. A flicker of movement in the side-view mirror caught her eye. A glint of red--
She squeezed her eyes shut. No, it's not going to start again! I won't let it!
When she nerved herself to glance around, she saw no sign of life. Removing the car keys from the ignition and digging another ring of keys out of her purse, she stood up and slammed the door behind her. She marched up to the dead bobcat. Blood still oozed over the matted fur, and no flies buzzed around it yet. A dog must have killed it, mere minutes before, probably scared off by the sound of the car. Nothing to get upset about.
Skirting the body, she walked up the two sagging steps to the front porch and inserted the key into the cranky lock. Boards groaned under her feet, as always. Dead leaves littered the porch, which needed a coat of paint. Look at this mess! Mom will have a fit.
No, would have had. Laura Kincaid would never see this place again. Uterine cancer had ensured that. Heather blinked away tears more of anger than sadness. It wasn't time. I wasn't finished with her yet. With them. Her father had outlasted her mother by less than four months. Heather recognized his "accident" as suicide, although, as a doctor, he'd been careful to make it appear otherwise. He'd left her with what their minister, a thirtyish woman with a counseling degree, called "unresolved issues".
Again Heather shrugged off the temptation to sink into gloom. The issue for this month was cleaning out this place and putting it on the market. Brooding on the porch wouldn't get that done.
A breeze followed her into the living room. She sneezed at the dust it raised from the scratched hardwood floor. A glance at the ceiling confirmed that the oval water mark on the plaster had expanded since her last visit. Mom had constantly complained about the defects in the place, ranging from the uneven floorboards and leaky roof to the hard water from the well and rust stains in the sinks and commode. Definitely no rich folks' summer cottage, just a four-room cabin--well, five rooms, if the screened-in back porch counted--with a fake Lincoln log façade. Dad had bought it early in their marriage, as soon as his medical practice began to prosper. Heather had often wondered why they'd kept the place and vacationed here every year, if Mom disliked it so much. Who knows, maybe complaining was a form of relaxation for her. She'd spent half of every month-long "vacation" cleaning. Everything had to be perfect.
Including me. With a cardiologist for a father and a professional volunteer--PTA president and chairman of countless hospital charity committees--for a mother, Heather had always had standards to meet. Honor roll was expected; only straight A's merited special notice. Her friends were subjected to a security check worthy of the CIA.
Heather took off her gold-rimmed glasses and rubbed her damp forehead. Cut that crap, right now! You're not a kid anymore; you don't have to swallow that stuff. Time to get to work.
She trudged back and forth from the car, carrying in a couple of grocery bags and stacks of flattened cardboard boxes. She'd brought her mother's station wagon, since her own compact was too small to transport much junk. Heather averted her eyes as she passed the dead animal, thinking, First thing, get rid of that.
Out back, on the screened porch, she found the shovel in its usual corner. A few hundred paces into the woods, she dug a shallow pit in the soft loam on the edge of a weed-choked ravine. Then she scooped up the carcass, which was heavier than she'd expected, and lugged it out back to bury it.
Good, that's over, she reassured herself a few minutes later, scrubbing her hands at the kitchen sink. Now I won't have any more hallucinations. On second thought, she mustn't label that glimpse in the side-view mirror a hallucination, which implied a crack in her sanity. Call it an optical illusion, a trick of light and shadow, enhanced by memories.
The kitchen faucet dripped, and the mineral stains in the sink looked worse than she remembered. Fishing a notepad out of her purse on the counter, she jotted down "Plumber". Noticing a missing handle on a cabinet as well as a hole in the window screen, and recalling the leaky roof, she added a hyphen and the word, "Handyman".
Who's going to buy this dump? She felt a twinge of guilt at her disloyalty. After all, her parents had valued the cabin enough to keep it for over twenty years. And Heather had enjoyed the place herself, until that summer when she'd turned eighteen. Be honest, I kept on enjoying it, a little too much. That was the problem. She wasn't sentimental enough to want to hold onto the cabin. She didn't need a vacation home she hadn't visited since the summer after high school graduation.
She'd had an excellent reason to renounce the mountain vacations, despite her parents' obsession with fresh air and exercise for their bookworm daughter. Her mother's peculiar about-face, forbidding her to join them on future trips ("Your father and I want some time to ourselves for a change"), had come as a positive relief, though Heather wouldn't have admitted that relief at the time. She had needed to escape the powerful allure the dreams exerted over her. The dreams she'd experienced only at the cabin that strange year, delusions so real she could touch and taste them...
Heather shook her head and brushed a tangle of auburn hair out of her face. She must not think about her dream-beast. He'd been a phantom of her imagination, and she was too old to need a fantasy lover.
Right now, she needed the phone number of a local handyman. Pausing in the living room to jiggle the fireplace damper, she wiped sooty fingers on a tissue pulled from her jeans pocket and wrote down "chimney sweep"? The cabin had a phone, since her father, as a doctor, couldn't spend a month without one. In later years, he'd even had cable installed. But no local phone book. She would have to visit Ted's father's store first thing in the morning, where she could get names and numbers as well as more groceries.
Nothing to worry about there, either. In the years since she'd last seen Ted Gaines, he had probably married and even moved out of town. And if not, so what? She had dated him once, during her last summer at the cabin. As a date, it had turned out a dismal failure, but they'd parted as friends, more or less.
She unloaded her laptop, resisting the temptation to check her e-mail. Never mind that a message from her online gaming partner, "Nightblade", would be more fun than any of the chores looming over her.
Deciding to get a little work done before supper, she scoured the kitchen sink, making a mental note to ask Ted or a plumber about stronger cleansers to obliterate the hard-water stains. Then she swept and mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors, ran the upright vacuum over the braid rugs in the living room and bedroom, and decided she'd done enough cleaning for the first day. After scrubbing the grit off her face and hands, she gobbled a sandwich at the Formica-topped kitchen table. She had saved her bedroom for an after-supper treat.
The twin bed had been left freshly made up, as usual, with a stuffed Winnie the Pooh on the chenille spread. The desk and dresser were neat, though dusty. Heather skimmed her hand over a three-shelf bookcase crammed with volumes of varying sizes and ages. These would go home with her, not to charity. The Lord of the Rings. She. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. Five Ray Bradbury collections. Dozens of paperback Tarzan and John Carter of Mars adventures.
I'm surprised Mom didn't give them to Goodwill. She always swore reading stories about "unreal" stuff was a waste of time. She had thrown away Heather's cache of Wonder Woman comic books, bought out of her allowance, without a word of warning, a memory that still ignited a flare of resentment. Forget that! I was twelve years old, for goodness' sake. Heather folded a box and began piling books into it. A few minutes later she settled on the floor, her back braced against the bed, to read a library-discard edition of The Borrowers.
She finally looked up when natural light became so dim she couldn't focus on the print. A twinge of guilt assailed her for frittering away an hour or more. Don't be silly, I've got a month, or all summer if I want to use it. She switched on the bedside lamp and collected nightgown and toiletries from her suitcase.
Before taking a shower, she gave the bathroom a quick scrubbing. She'd found dead insects in the tub. I'll never be a perfect housekeeper like Mom, but there are limits! While cleaning the bathroom sink, she noticed a rip in the window screen. Another repair to add to the list. Tomorrow, I'll think about it tomorrow.Yes, Miss Scarlett. She giggled. She realized she must be more tired, or nervous, than she'd thought.
The hot shower made her drowsy. Returning to the bedroom wearing a translucent, powder-blue nightgown that flowed to her ankles, Heather became aware of the quiet. She heard only crickets, none of the intermittent traffic noises she could always hear from her Charlottesville apartment. If anybody decided to break in and attack her, nobody would hear her scream. There you go again! Quit looking for trouble!
She forced herself to concentrate on the image in the age-flecked mirror above the dresser as she picked up the hairbrush and yanked it through her hair. I need a haircut, and my eyes look like they've got purple bruises under them. Beautiful eyes, anyway--or so the man in her dreams had always said.
He isn't real, remember? I came back here partly to prove that, didn't I? She stuck her tongue out at her reflection.
Something stirred in the corner of her vision. She wheeled around. Nothing there, of course. It was just the curtain rustling in the breeze. Why did she feel as if eyes rested on the back of her neck, then? She brushed her hair with long, vigorous strokes, refusing to look behind her again. Gradually the rhythmic motion lulled her into a fatigued daze. Minutes later, another movement in the background broke her trance. She blinked. Again the glass reflected only the stillness of the bedroom, without the shimmer of mist she thought she had glimpsed. I'm falling asleep on my feet. Nobody here but me, myself, and I. Her eyes drifted shut, with the hairbrush suspended halfway to her head.
The brush slipped out of her grasp. A second later, she felt it drawn through her hair, in gentle, languorous strokes all the way down to her shoulders. Cool fingers alighted on the nape of her neck to lift the locks of hair and massage the tight muscles of her scalp. Alternate waves of warmth and chills chased each other down her spine. Sighing, she relaxed into the caress. I like this dream.
The brush stopped. The phantom hand that had held it grazed her cheek as it tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. The fingertips skimmed along the curve of her neck to her shoulder, then insinuated themselves into the bodice of the nightgown. Heat blossomed in her chest. She leaned against a hard, male body, while a ghostly touch teased one of her nipples--
Her eyes flew open. The tantalizing sensations ceased. But in the mirror, a man stood behind her, staring over her shoulder. He had a pale, lean face with dark hair swept back from a high forehead. Dark, thick brows almost met over his nose and bristled like a bobcat's ear-tufts over deep-set, silver-gray eyes. When he shifted his gaze as if to meet hers in the mirror, his eyes flashed with a crimson glow. Heather screamed and spun around.
Nothing. The room was empty.
Her mind whirling, she fell to her knees and groped for the brush she must have dropped. Of course I did, because he wasn't real. Even if he had existed in the past, he couldn't be here now. She had fallen asleep for a minute and dreamed him. Otherwise, how could he look exactly the same as he had that first time, six years earlier? He had appeared about twenty-five then, and he hadn't aged. Since I imagined him anyway, why should he?
It was only natural to conjure up the face that had shadowed her dreams in this very room every night after that encounter on the dark road. The visions had transformed her vacation refuge into something wild and strange. They had both thrilled and frightened her, luring her into a realm whose forbidden pleasures had made real life seem faded and drab. She didn't need to be told that those sensations were forbidden. While Mom never discussed sex, aside from the pragmatic necessity of preparing Heather for her first period, the implied boundaries were sharp enough.
Heather threw herself face down on the bed, nuzzling into the pillow and hugging the stuffed toy. She recalled how lethargic she had become, dozing for hours on the screened porch or wandering under the trees, eventually stopping to lie on her back on the ground and gaze at the leaves rippling in the filtered sunset. Only her increased appetite and her father's medical assurances had quelled her mother's suspicions about her health. Mom had ascribed Heather's behavior to "adolescent moods". Since the dreams and the lassitude vanished as soon as they'd returned home to Arlington, Heather hadn't worried about her condition, either.
The visions she experienced at the cabin weren't bizarre and fragmented like ordinary dreams, but coherent, concrete--like slices of an alternate reality. In college she'd encountered the term "lucid dreaming" and recognized part of her own experience. She had known every time that the events were products of her sleeping imagination, but she hadn't wanted to cut them short. She clasped her secret to her breast and enjoyed it.
Now, when she closed her eyes, memories flashed on her mental screen: Her dream-beast came to her as her favorite TV hero, Zorro, masked and cloaked, to sweep her away on a black stallion in the moonlight. Or she lay awake like Guinevere in her bower, waiting for Sir Lancelot, clad in his golden armor, to remove his helmet and kneel at her bedside to worship her with his kisses.
He appeared in the guise of an elven lord, with pointed ears, silver eyes, and green robes. As he sang "The Demon Lover" and "The Great Silkie" and other ballads, his voice reverberated in her veins as if she were a living harp that he strummed.
Sometimes they shed their human bodies and ran side by side, on four feet rather than two. The pungent scents of moist loam and fleeing prey made her nostrils flare with delight and hunger. With him, she soared above the treetops, feeling cool wind on bare skin. She viewed the night through his eyes. The landscape glimmered in silvery pastels, punctuated with the infrared auras of small animals. He swooped down upon a fleeing doe, and the animal's heartbeat surrounded Heather like the pounding of surf on rocks.
He talked with her, too. After the first night, he called her by name instead of "child". He listened without dismissing or scolding her. She trusted him with fantasies and ambitions she wouldn't mention to her parents. She'd told him how much she wanted a computer system before she'd summoned the nerve to ask her parents. (Her mother had grumbled, "Waste of money, you'll probably use it for a lot of silly games." Yet a few weeks later, they had agreed to buy her a PC and even let her subscribe to an online service.) Some nights ended with his gently kissing her goodnight. Others ended with a fiery, melting sensation and a piercing, painless chill at her breast. Either way, she never saw the man depart; he simply vanished.
Later, during a couple of psychology courses in college, she'd decided her unconscious mind had latched onto the man she'd met in the woods--who couldn't have looked the way she remembered--and shaped him into the companion she needed at that point in her life. A companion who offered, in the safety of fantasy, what she lacked in reality. She assured herself that if she were actually an incipient schizophrenic, she would have imagined the man everywhere, all year round, not just at the cabin. Still, she'd felt relieved to stop the summer visits. Her one attempt to tell her best friend back home about the dreams had evoked the response, "Heather, you're weird," accompanied by a nervous giggle.
I'm grown up now, with a life and a budding career. I won't let it start again.
With that resolution, she turned off the light and burrowed under the covers. The buzzing confusion in her head didn't stop her from falling asleep within minutes.
* * * *
He stood beside her bed, gazing down at her as calmly as if they had last met just the night before. This time he wore no exotic costume, only an open-necked, short-sleeved shirt and very snug jeans.
"Heather, why did you stay away so long? I feared I would never see you again."
Still half-asleep, she reclined against the pillows and scowled at the apparition. "You aren't here. And I told you I wasn't coming back, remember?" Asking an imaginary man to remember a conversation didn't register as a contradiction in her sleep-clogged brain. She dimly noticed that her fear that the visions might resume had dissipated, as it always did when face to face with him. She accepted his dream-presence as easily as she had at eighteen.
"You did, and I begged you to reconsider. But as you'll recall, I used no force. I hoped you would return of your own accord--and you did." He sat on the edge of the bed; she felt his solid weight. He lifted her hand to brush his lips against it, a sensation like the tickle of a kitten's whiskers.
Damn, this feels real! She vividly recalled their final conversation, which had ended with an incandescent kiss that made her feel as if she would shatter like crystal, never to be whole again. And after that, in the velvet darkness before oblivion, a sweet taste burning on her tongue, and his farewell like a caress inside her mind.
She snatched her hand away. "I stopped coming here because I didn't need you anymore. I have a life now."
"Did you ever consider that I might need you?"
She pulled the sheets up to cover her bosom. "Yeah? For what?" Already she was falling into the trap, talking to him as if he existed in the same reality she did. "Why should I apologize to you? You're nothing but a Fig Newton."
"A what?" His bristling eyebrows arched.
"A figment of my imagination. So what could you possibly need me for?"
"The pleasure we shared, for one thing. As for what else you gave me--well, perhaps I can explain some other time." His fingers captured a strand of her hair and trailed along the curve of her chin.
A shiver coursed through her. She had trouble catching her breath. "Don't--you can't imagine what--"
He withdrew his hand. "Yes?"
"You made me think I was losing my mind!" Anger flared up, blotting out the insidious delight she'd almost succumbed to. "Damn you, you fractured my whole sense of reality. I didn't know what was wrong with me." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Just like I don't know what's wrong now, why I'm conjuring you up after all these years. I thought I'd finally turned normal."
"My dear girl, I never meant to cause you that kind of pain." He smoothed her hair, comfortingly rather than sensuously. "If 'normal' means you have to become a person I can't touch or speak to, I hope you'll decide against it. Can't you relax and accept me, as you always did before?"
"I don't know." Again she discovered herself speaking to him as if he were real. Those books on lucid dreams never mentioned anything like this! Well, why not treat him like a separate individual, as long as she kept in mind the difference between dreams and her daytime life? "It's not that simple. You...spilled over...into the rest of the world. You even spoiled me for real men." She blushed.
He responded with a low laugh that made her heart stutter.
Oh, Lord, I didn't mean to say that! But it was true; her loss of virginity in college had been anticlimactic, and she'd soon realized she hadn't loved the man after all. She hadn't dated seriously since.
"As a gentleman, I suppose I should ignore that remark. But I can't deny I'm flattered." He raised her hand to his lips again. His tongue flicked over her palm and lingered on the inside of the wrist.
Her insides churned with excitement. She imagined she could feel her pulse leap at his kiss. "Stop that! I'm not in the mood. I have too much on my mind." Dream or not, she refused to be an easy lay.
He obediently released her. "I apologize for my lack of consideration. Your parents' recent deaths must have been hard for you. Would you like to talk about that?"
How did he know? Why not? He's a product of my own imagination, so he must know everything I know. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees. "Mom died of uterine cancer in November. After that, my father just...went downhill. Gave up."
She recalled watching Dad sit at the kitchen table, night after night, with a bottle of Scotch and a juice glass full of ice. He would drain the glass, stare at nothing for several minutes, then refill it. He had drunk heavily as long as Heather could remember, though he'd never let the habit interfere with his cardiology practice. Between his workaholic hours and the alcohol he used for stress relief, she'd seen even less of him than most doctors' children might expect. He never became raucous, much less violent; he simply withdrew. Holidays always ended with his drinking himself to sleep on the couch after dinner. But only after his wife's death had he taken to drinking on week nights in addition to his usual weekend "relaxation".
One evening Heather had sat up with him, nursing a single Scotch and soda while he rambled on about his failure to save his wife.
"You're not an oncologist," Heather had said, with no real hope of penetrating his depression. "What could you have done that didn't get done? Didn't you say yourself that you hired the best specialists in the D.C. area?"
"I'm a doctor; I should have known." The liquor sloshed onto the table as he poured a fresh shot. "I should have made her get check-ups more often, should've noticed the warning signs." His normally crisp speech was slurred, the only mark of intoxication he ever displayed.
"You gave her the best care anybody could have. Stop blaming yourself."
He didn't seem aware of Heather's touch on his hand. He rambled in this vein for some time, then started maundering about Heather's uncle, Mom's brother.
"I let Ken die, too. The omnipotent M. Deity, can't do a thing when it really matters."
Uncle Ken, whom Heather remembered only as a sickly young man who liked to draw vividly lifelike sketches of animals for her, had been a hemophiliac who'd died of AIDS.
"But nobody could do anything for him. By the time the danger of transfusions became public, it was too late." Heather had read up on hemophilia as well as the early progress of the AIDS epidemic, as soon as she became old enough to understand.
"That's a load of--" Her father had bitten off the words, as if he still worried about exposing his grown daughter to vulgar language. "I should have known. The contamination of the blood supply was suspected long before the blood banks admitted to it. If I'd investigated properly--"
Finally Heather had stopped her futile attempts to argue him out of his depression. The conversation only deepened her own sadness. The best she could manage was to stay close when Dad wanted company. She talked out her own residual guilt with Sharon Lane, the minister of their church.
She told the man in her bedroom some of this. "Four months after Mom died, Dad killed himself. Oh, he made it look like an accident. I think he wanted to make sure there wouldn't be any trouble with the insurance company."
Her visitor made no comment on her bitter tone. He asked in his deep-velvet voice, "How do you know it was suicide?"
"He planned it so efficiently, right down to clearing up all his complicated cases so he wouldn't have to leave them to anybody else. That night, he had two drinks--just enough to make driver error plausible without raising his blood alcohol into the illegal range. Then he phoned the hospital to say he was driving over to check on a patient scheduled for surgery the next day. He even picked a rainy night--one when I was in Charlottesville instead of at home. He drove off an overpass at sixty miles an hour, judging from the skid marks." She swallowed the unshed tears trying to choke her. "They called it an accident, but I know better. He deserted me. I wasn't worth living for."
The man smoothed her hair. Heather felt as if his palm radiated warmth that spread like a cloak around her shoulders.
"No one could think that of you," he said.
"I was never perfect enough for them. They were always criticizing. If my report card had one B, they wanted to know why it wasn't straight A's." She gulped a deep breath. "I was an accident. They never planned to have a baby. With Mom's brother being a hemophiliac, she knew she might be a carrier."
"There are tests, surely?"
"Tests to find out whether the baby is a boy or girl after it's conceived. Mom didn't want the risk of producing a boy and facing the choice of whether or not to abort."
"She told you this?" His voice was very low.
Heather nodded. "When I started my periods. She had to explain the hazard, since I might carry the gene myself. I'm not taking the chance she took. I got my tubes tied over spring break. If I ever get married, there won't be any risk of children."
He took her hand. "Why do you say 'if'? I imagine men must pursue you constantly."
She said with a wry smile, "Not so I've noticed. Like Mom said, a girl has to avoid acting too serious or too smart, and I never mastered the trick. Doesn't matter." She shrugged. "After you got through with me, none of the real men I dated measured up. And who'd want to marry a crazy woman, anyway?"
He tightened his clasp on her hand. "Heather Kincaid, you are not crazy."
"Yeah? Then how did I dream you up?" His cool, firm grasp sent an electric current up her arm that felt anything but dreamlike. Her fingers stirred, exploring the contours of his palm. She discovered a silky patch of fine hairs in the center. Intrigued, she stroked the spot with the ball of her thumb.
He shivered, squeezing her hand still harder. "Sweet Heather, don't do that, if you want me to retain any self-control at all." He swallowed, then drew a long breath. "So you've decided that you're to live as a spinster. What else will you do with your life?"
She told him about earning her bachelor's degree at William and Mary, followed by the graduate program at the University of Virginia. "I'm working on a master's in library science. I plan to specialize as a medical librarian. The job market's better than in schools or public libraries."
His eyes glittered as they held hers. "Is this your own desire?"
Good grief, as a therapist, he cuts even deeper than Sharon.
"Of course! Well, okay, maybe at first it was to please Dad, spend time with him. All through high school, I worked in his office or for one of his colleagues. But I got really excited about medicine. I knew I didn't have the drive to become a doctor, but books always interested me."
"The popular lore states that all doctors are rich," he said with an ironic smile. "Surely your father left you funds sufficient that you no longer need to work?"
She laughed at the question--just the naive assumption she ought to expect from a dream lover. "He left enough to support me till I finish my degree, without working other than as a graduate assistant. I'm not about to deplete the capital by trying to live on it long-term. And why are you asking about money, anyway? I get enough of that stuff in the real world; you're supposed to act like a fantasy."
"You said you weren't in the mood."
She felt a hot blush suffuse her face.
"If you're so dissatisfied with my performance, why did you return?"
"To sell the cabin," she said.
His expression turned somber. "Why, if you don't need money... Then you don't intend to come back?"
"This place is nothing but a maintenance headache. I have no reason to spend summers here alone, so why should I hang onto it?"
His grip grew painfully tight. When she emitted a suppressed gasp, he let go. "Am I not reason enough, Heather?"
She edged away from him, wedging her back against the headboard. "You're the main reason not to! I told you, I don't need you anymore!" Something in her chest constricted. She had to struggle for the next breath.
"And I said that I need you! My dear, if I'm a product of your imagination, I cannot exist without you, can I? If you stay away, you condemn me to nothingness."
"That's the most twisted argument I ever--" She wrapped her arms around herself, fighting an inner chill. "Whatever you are, you appeared the minute I got here. I saw you in the mirror, out in the driveway, and later in this room." Could he possess some sort of real existence, after all? Could her starved imagination have projected her longings so powerfully that he had acquired a visible, tangible form? That's even more insane than a simple erotic fantasy.
"Yes, you did. I felt you approaching, after so many years of separation. I couldn't resist watching you, being near you. Mirrors betray my kind. I can cloud human vision, but a sheet of glass can't be beguiled." He placed his hands on her shoulders. "I came here to give you pleasure, not to frighten you. Forget all these doubts. They aren't important."
The silver gleam of his eyes, with the spark of red at the centers, captured her gaze. She felt as if she were floating, pleasantly lightheaded, as if from a glass of champagne. Her fears melted away. That's right, it isn't important where he came from. Might as well relax and enjoy him. She snuggled into his arms. His ragged breathing ruffled her hair.
"Ah, Heather, it's been so terribly long!"
His hard body trembled in her embrace. Laying her head on his shoulder, she heard the hammer of his heartbeat. His lips nibbled her ear, traced the arch of her jaw, and claimed her mouth. His kiss burned. She savored a tangy, metallic flavor as his tongue darted in quest of hers. She heard a second drumbeat throbbing along with his heart and realized it was her own pulse. The double rhythm filled the air with thrumming echoes. A crimson mist veiled her sight. Her head spun. Pleasure as blinding and deafening as a lightning bolt exploded at her core, an ecstasy whose power she had forgotten, so piercingly intense that she wondered how the girl she'd once been could have summoned the resolution to renounce it--and how, now that she'd found it again, she could ever maintain her resolve to leave it behind.