A dark and stormy night would have been an asset right now. Too bad the predicted thundershowers hadn't arrived yet. In the moonlight anybody passing by would get a clear view of Cordelia walking up to the house.
She leaned against a tree and drew deep breaths to calm her nerves. Guilty conscience, that was her problem. After all, she'd never burgled a house before. She wouldn't have started with Karl Robak's if her sister's life hadn't depended on this escapade.
She resisted the impulse to tiptoe across the vast front lawn or sidle from the shadow of one tree to the next until she ran out of trees. In spite of her nervousness, she had to laugh at her own qualms. Because all the lots in this semi-rural area covered several acres, the odds were low that the neighbors would notice her. If anyone did happen to catch sight of her, she would look less suspicious strolling to the door than creeping up on the house like an enemy fortress. As for Karl himself, he taught his evening Tudor history class on this night. The empty carport confirmed that he was gone, as scheduled. She didn't have to worry that he'd catch her.
She still had to take Thor into account, though. The moment she thought of him, the Great Dane trotted toward her from the front porch. Thanks to her late father's friendship with Karl, Cordelia knew the dog well enough to be confident he wouldn't attack her. Whether or not he'd bark, she wasn't sure.
"Thor," she whispered. "Here, boy." She held out a hand with a doggie treat in the open palm. Not for the first time, she wondered how Karl had trained the animal to stay on the property, even though the only boundary between him and the road was a decorative split rail fence. She knew the Great Dane didn't wear an electronic collar.
"Shh. Be quiet, boy. That's a good dog." Thor walked up to her, wagged his tail, and nosed the treat from her hand. Stroking his head, she continued her soothing murmur. He rubbed against her and paced alongside her toward the house. "Go lie down," she ordered, pointing at the porch. "Go take a nap. Good dog."
Ears drooping, he ambled onto the covered porch and lay in his dog bed next to the door. She had no idea why she had the gift of lulling animals into obeying her. She sensed their emotions, just as she did those of people. Animals had clearer, simpler feelings than human beings, so she could shape their reactions. Confident Thor wouldn't give her any trouble, she focused on the urgency of the moment. She had to find what she'd come for before Karl got home.
A sullen rumble of the approaching storm sounded in the distance. Scattered raindrops started to fall as she stepped onto the porch. She swatted a mosquito on her arm. An evening in late September wasn't cool enough to discourage the pests. Luckily she didn't have to break into the house, a skill she'd never had reason to learn. Her dad, with his daughters' help, had taken care of Thor whenever Karl had gone out of town, and in the five months since Professor Torrance's death, Karl hadn't bothered reclaiming the spare key.
She dug it out of her jeans pocket and unlocked the door. She figured his leaving the key with her must have been an oversight, because he didn't have the close relationship with either her or her sister that he'd had with their father. Close enough that the professor had appointed Karl the executor of his estate. After their father had died, Karl had dropped in on the sisters several times for financial consultations, but neither of them had visited his place recently. Still, Cordelia remembered the layout of the house clearly enough.
In the foyer she eased the front door shut behind her and pocketed the key. In the entryway her skin prickled with the chilled air. Karl had the thermostat set extravagantly low for a mild September evening in Maryland.
Two closed doors flanked the foyer, with the staircase and other rooms straight ahead. The office, where the object she wanted was supposedly hidden, lay to her left. She shut the office door after entering, although she expected to unearth her quarry and clear out in plenty of time. Not that a closed door would keep Karl from catching her if he did show up before she finished her search.
With her heart racing, she crept to the desk and switched on the lamp. Though she could see in the dark better than most people, she needed light to read, and she was after a particular book. She hoped she could trust her instructions about its location. If so, she could grab it and run.
Bookcases lined the room, with a full shelf of books Karl had written about the Renaissance directly above the massive, antique cherrywood desk. The dusty aroma of old volumes tempted the librarian in Cordelia to explore the treasures that surrounded her. No time to waste, though. According to the man who'd sent her here, the desk had a secret compartment. She knelt on the carpet and opened the lowest drawer on the right side. Old check registers, packages of ballpoint pens, notepads. She moved part of the contents onto the floor to get better access. Groping in the drawer, she felt around for a latch to open the false bottom. What would it feel like, anyway? If she ever decided to make a career of burglary, she'd have to hone her thievery skills. She sneezed at the dust her fumbling stirred up. To reach the back of the drawer, she had to bend her wrist at an awkward angle, scraping her skin on the wood. Realizing she should have taken the drawer out, she considered doing that but bumped into the catch a second later.
After clicking it, she had no trouble sliding back the lid that covered half of the drawer's bottom. Underneath, she found the shallow compartment she'd expected. A leather-bound book barely fit in the space.
Just as she lifted it out, she heard a sound that made her heart jump. The front door opened. No time to escape. She had to hide.
Setting the book on the desk, she glanced around the room. Nowhere to conceal herself, not without her other special talent, anyway. She'd have to use it and hope for a chance to sneak out when Karl turned his back. What was he doing home so early, anyway?
Breathing shallowly, as if he could hear her from the foyer, she turned off the lamp, tiptoed to the window, and flattened herself against the curtains. They didn't hang to the floor. Hiding behind them wouldn't do her any good. She invoked her other gift.
You don't see me. There's nobody here.
Along with the sensing of emotions and power over animals, she had one more gift she didn't talk about--the ability to keep people from noticing her. When she wished hard enough for invisibility, it shrouded her like mist.
Would it work against Karl? His eyes always seemed to drill right through her. She had to try. Look away. There's nothing to see here. This isn't the intruder you're looking for. She draped the psychic mist around her like a cloak to deflect any gaze that fell on her.
The office door opened.
As soon as Karl strolled into the foyer with Thor beside him, he picked up Cordelia's scent. Smoothing his rain-dampened hair with one hand, he paused to consider his next move.
What was she doing here? How had she gotten in? A moment's thought answered that question. She must have used the spare key he'd left with Gary Torrance and not bothered to retrieve after the professor's death. It had never occurred to Karl that either of his old friend's daughters would have any motive to trespass on his property. Examining his own reaction, he was surprised to realize he felt worse than annoyed. Her betrayal of trust hurt. He shook his head with a rueful smile. He must have spent too many years associating with ephemerals if he could succumb to such a human emotion.
How had she made it past the dog? Rubbing the Great Dane's ears, Karl whispered, "What's wrong with you? Falling down on the job?" Thor knew Cordelia too well to attack her, but he should have put up a convincingly scary show of barking.
Karl bared his teeth in exasperation. This outrage made the second home invasion inflicted on him in the past two weeks. The other intruder had disabled Thor with a tranquilizer dart. Luckily, the dog hadn't suffered any lasting harm. Karl wondered whether he should get an alarm system installed after all. No, his reason for doing without one remained valid. An alarm would summon police, who would violate his privacy and might endanger his secret. Damn it, he'd picked this neighborhood, in the less densely developed southern part of the county, for its tranquil reputation.
He heard Cordelia moving around in the office. She probably thought she was being stealthy. In a barely audible murmur, he ordered the dog to lie down. He then glided to the closed door.
Her honey and vanilla scent, with floral undertones from her soap and bath powder, filtered through the door and insinuated itself into his brain. He couldn't help parting his lips to taste her on the air. His mouth watered. Ever since she'd blossomed into womanhood, he'd thirsted to sip her nectar. Rationing his contacts with her hadn't weakened the craving. During her father's lifetime, he'd kept his hands off her out of respect for the professor. Counting an ephemeral as a friend wouldn't allow him to treat the man's daughter as prey or pet. Now that her father was gone, Karl's other motive for holding her at arm's length hadn't changed. He didn't want her to become overly curious about his peculiarities. Too soon, he would have to increase his apparent age or withdraw from her life altogether.
The prospect upset him more than he liked to admit. All the more reason to fight the attraction. She appealed to him a little too much for his peace of mind. Never again would he take the risk of intimacy with a human female.
When he opened the office door, her heartbeat pounded in his ears. Along with her shallow, fast breathing, the sound made his own heart race in anticipation. She stood next to the window, trying to use the drapes for camouflage like a rabbit freezing under the gaze of a fox. The enticingly rosy glow of her aura dimmed with fear. She faded into shadow.
He stared in astonishment. While he could still see her, she looked ghostly, translucent. The effect lasted only a second or two before she became fully visible again. He felt the intensity of her concentration, and she faded again. Her silhouette blinked in and out of full visibility.
Was she actually trying to obscure his vision with psychic power? He'd had no idea she possessed that gift. Her mother's blood must run stronger in her veins than he'd guessed. She couldn't succeed, of course, since her aura remained clear to him, but she had no way of knowing he could see her life-energy.
As usual, the sight of her jolted him like a blow to the chest. How could genes reshuffle after so many generations to produce such a disturbing likeness? True, the resemblance was mainly in the face, but that was enough to rouse an ache of longing every time he saw her. Cordelia's heart-shaped face and the curve of her lips racked him with memories of Lydia. Otherwise, the young woman showed her mother's traits--milk-pale skin, gray eyes, and black hair. Tonight she wore her hair, just below shoulder length, in a ponytail instead of her usual French braid. Tall for a human woman, she stood five feet nine inches, slender but still appetizingly healthy.
Her twin sister had the same skin and eye coloring but otherwise didn't resemble their mother. Miranda, a blonde, was shorter and more buxom. More important, she looked nothing like Lydia, so she stirred no painful emotions. If Miranda had invaded his home, he'd have felt no qualms about overpowering her will and wiping her memory.
Striding into the middle of the room, he folded his arms and impaled the trespasser with a stern glare. "Good try, Cordelia, but I can see you. You may as well come out."
She became clearly visible and crept toward him. The sound of her racing heart made his mouth water. He clasped her wrist, captured her eyes, and skimmed his fingers over her cheek. She evaded his stare long enough to glance aside and downward before he snared her gaze again.
Following the direction of her eyes, he noticed the open drawer. The secret compartment gaped open, too. Empty. A quick scan of the desk revealed Lydia's memoir on top of it. Anger surged through him. His hand tightened around Cordelia's wrist. She winced, and her heart stuttered. How dare she commit this violation? For that matter, how had she known about the hidden compartment? She couldn't have stumbled on it by accident.
The alarm in her eyes muted his outrage. He didn't want to terrify her, only to discover what she was up to. Relaxing his grip, he traced circles over the inside of her wrist. The pulse throbbed under the tender skin. Again he had to beat down the temptation that assailed him every time he met her. If he pierced that skin and sampled only a drop, she would become easier to control.
What a feeble excuse for breaking a long-held resolution. He could mesmerize her without tapping her veins. "Don't be afraid, Cordelia," he murmured. He stroked the curve of her jaw and savored the glow of blood suffusing her cheeks. "I won't hurt you. Just tell me why you're here."
She swayed toward him. Her scent thickened with the musk of desire.
"Yes." His fingers wandered to the nape of her neck. "Tell me everything."
She blinked at him and shook her head. Impossible. She was fighting his control.
* * *
When Karl stared right at her and spoke to her, Cordelia's vision went gray. Why didn't her trick work? It always had before. By the time she'd discovered that talent, in high school, she'd known better than to ask her dad about it. It had first come over her at a party where a boy whose emotions made her feel slimy had pursued her from room to room. She'd finally slipped outside and ducked behind a gardenia bush. She'd prayed, Don't let him see me. She'd visualized herself wrapped in a cloud of fog. The boy had walked right past her and glanced behind the bush without seeing her. Later, wondering if she'd imagined the incident, she'd experimented. The trick had worked every time. She hadn't even dared to reveal it to Miranda, the only other person who knew about and shared her ability to read emotions.
Or had it ever actually worked after all? Had she deluded herself all these years? She shook off that recurring qualm and focused on Karl.
His violet-gray eyes drew her like a leash around her neck. Shaking, she walked into the trap of his gaze like a mouse crawling to a cat instead of running away like a sensible quarry. Normally she couldn't feel his emotions. For a second, though, a blast of anger flared from him. He quenched it instantly. Now she sensed only the same cool reflective surface that always met her tries at probing him.
She squelched the panic that hammered in her chest. Nothing to be afraid of. It's just Karl.
Now he was touching her, a rare event. Touching her the way she'd so often fantasized. His fingers hovered at the hollow of her throat before wandering to the back of her neck, where he caressed her under the hairline. She tilted her head to stare up at him, one of the few men she knew who towered over her.
Raindrops glittered in his mane of sable hair, streaked with auburn highlights and sprinkled with silver at the temples. The damp shirt clung to his chest. She longed to sculpt the lean shape with both hands. He kept talking to her, repeating words she couldn't process. She only hoped he couldn't tell she was melting inside, the way she always did when he got close to her. He kept ordering her to relax, as if she could while his cool fingers inexplicably left fiery trails on her skin.
If only she could sense his emotions like every other man's. Her inability to read him made her feel helpless.
She did sense one thing from him--pressure. He pushed at her mind. "Tell me why you're here. Tell me everything."
The mental coils tightening around her chilled her desire. She blinked away the mist in front of her eyes, shook her head, and pushed back.
"What are you doing in my house?" She caught a whiff of his breath, like peppers seared on heated metal. His faint trace of a German accent made her shiver with pleasure, as always. She'd love to listen to his voice all night, but not while it spun a web of fog around her brain.
"What are you doing to my head?"
"It doesn't work on you, does it? Interesting. You can't affect me with your psychic invisibility, so for the moment we're even."
His open reference to that secret she'd hidden from everyone made her stagger in shock. He steadied her with both hands on her shoulders. "You saw me?" she whispered. "I mean, you saw me trying to keep you from seeing me?"
To her relief, he didn't laugh at her babbling. "Of course. I'm surprised at your talent, though I suppose I shouldn't be."
"Then I'm not crazy." Light-headed, she clutched his forearms.
For the first time since he'd walked in, he smiled. She felt the pressure on her brain ease. "Hardly. You're gifted. Since I can't compel you to answer, I'll ask politely. Why are you searching my office? And why shouldn't I call the police on you?"
Could she trust him enough to answer truthfully? He seemed ready to listen, and now that he'd caught her, she had no hope of getting the book unless he handed it over. She saw little choice but to confide in him.
"I broke into your house because Randy's been kidnapped." Speaking the words aloud for the first time made the situation feel both more bizarre and more frightening.
His thick eyebrows arched. "What in the name of sanity does that have to do with your taking up a life of crime?"
"I was looking for that journal in the secret compartment. I need it to ransom her."