মুখ্য If There Be Dragons

If There Be Dragons

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এই বইটি আপনার কতটা পছন্দ?
ফাইলের মান কিরকম?
মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
সাল:
2008
প্রকাশক:
Bantam
ভাষা:
english
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
LS-71; Pepper's Way 2
ফাইল:
EPUB, 366 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 366 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
1

Exit Strategy

Ano:
2009
Idioma:
english
Arquivo:
EPUB, 682 KB
0 / 0
2

To Have & To Hold

Ano:
2012
Idioma:
english
Arquivo:
MOBI , 151 KB
0 / 0
CONTENTS

TITLE PAGE

DEDICATION

PROLOGUE



CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN



EPILOGUE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

PREVIEW OF BLOOD SINS

ALSO BY KAY HOOPER

COPYRIGHT





To Bob

for a voice out of the darkness





PROLOGUE

“PLEASE, CODY? YOU’RE the only troubleshooter I know.”

“I’m a business troubleshooter, Pepper,” Cody replied in exasperation to the voice on the other end of the phone.

“You’re a troubleshooter,” his best friend’s wife insisted stubbornly. “And Brooke’s got trouble. I know you can help her, Cody. If nothing else, you still owe me for foisting that blasted cat onto us.”

Cody laughed. “How is King Tut?”

“Impossible,” Pepper said roundly. “He brought his girlfriend home last night; I’ve never heard such a racket. And stop changing the subject. Look, you can—Hang on a minute, okay?”

Listening intently Cody heard her say to someone else, “I’m fine, Thor. Stop fussing.” He waited until she came back on the line, then asked in amusement, “What’s he worried about? Or should I ask, How’s my unborn godchild?”

Pepper laughed suddenly. “Better start thinking in the plural. The doctor hit us with that possibility today, and Thor’s coming unraveled.”

“I am not!” an indignant male voice announced offstage.

“Twins?” Cody asked in astonishment.

“It looks like it,” Pepper confirmed, sounding delighted by the idea.

“I am not coming unraveled,” the offstage voice denied firmly.

Half into the receiver and half to Thor, Pepper said, laughing, “Then stop putting pillows behind me and staring at me as if I’m about to explode, darling. We’ve got two more months to go.”

“The doctor said the birth might be early.”

“Not two months early.”

Listening to the ensuing “discussion” between his friends, Cody was both amused and envious. Like himself, Thor had spent a large part of his adult life alone. Then Pepper had breezed into the picture, bringing with her an attack-trained Chihuahua, a neurotic Dober; man, a huge motor home, and more nutty friends than one young woman should have been able to acquire in her short lifetime.

Thor went down for the count.

Cody thought of Pepper’s unabashed and cheerful pursuit of his friend, and that thought prompted a sudden suspicion. “Pepper? Pepper!”

She broke off whatever she’d been saying to Thor, coming back on the line with an amused “Sorry, Cody.”

“That’s okay.” He voiced his suspicion. “Look, you aren’t trying to fix me up with this Brooke, are you?”

Pepper laughed. “I’d love to, Cody, but you’re not at all her type. In fact, she’s liable to be hostile toward you.”

Taken aback, Cody demanded, “Then why should I try to help her?”

“As a favor to me. Please, Cody?”

Irritably reflecting that it was difficult to say no when Pepper pleaded so sweetly, Cody nonetheless tried. “I’ve got a month’s vacation coming up, and—”

“That’s perfect,” Pepper interrupted cheerfully. “You can go up to Brooke’s and—”

“—and I’d planned to take a cruise,” Cody finished defiantly.

Pepper was silent for a moment, then she spoke slowly and carefully. “Cody, I don’t want to make the situation sound more serious than it may be, but I think Brooke’s in real trouble. I can’t go up there because the doctor won’t let me travel, and Thor can’t go. She’s all alone, Cody, and I’m worried about her.”

Weakening, and unwillingly curious, he asked, “Just exactly what’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” Pepper sounded unusually fretful. “But she’s been nervous and edgy lately, and I think she’s afraid. There was some kind of trouble right after she inherited the place from an uncle, but I think that was legal stuff. Now…I don’t know. But something’s wrong, and I—”

“Okay, okay,” Cody soothed hastily, alarmed and unsettled by the sudden break in her voice. “If it’ll make you feel better, little mama, I’ll go up there. Just tell me exactly where it is I’m supposed to go, and call your friend to announce me. How does that sound?”



“That was a terrific performance, beloved.”

“It wasn’t bad, was it?”

“Especially the little heartrending break in your voice.”

“I am worried, darling.”

“I know you are. I also know you’ve a devious mind and ruthless matchmaking instincts. You were determined to get him and Brooke together, weren’t you?”

“Of course.”

“You said you’d warn him if you started matchmaking.”

“I did—as far as I was able to. He asked if I was trying to fix him up with Brooke, and I said that I’d love to, but that he wasn’t her type.”

“Liar.”

“Not at all, darling. She won’t think he is her type.”

“Lord, you’re devious.”

“Mmm.”

“Why’d you make that face? D’you have a pain?” he asked anxiously.

“No, darling.”

“Are you sure?”

Pepper sighed. “Two months is going to pass…slowly.”





ONE

THERE WAS NO answer at the front door. Cody shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his thickly quilted jacket and stepped back from the door, casting a hostile glance out over what would probably be a breathtaking view during daylight. At the moment he could only dimly discern the hulking and intimidating mountains looming all around the tiny valley.

Montana, he was thinking in disgust, and in the middle of winter too. He swore softly, moving out to the edge of the rustic redwood deck that pretended to be a front porch. The durable Jeep that had brought him with relative safety up the winding and icy road to this valley was making soft popping and crackling noises as its hot engine cooled down rapidly in the frigid air. Only those sounds and an occasional whine from the wind high above disturbed the silence.

Cody took care in stepping off the deck, avoiding the two shallow steps, which, he’d discovered only moments before, were slippery. He stood for a moment in the trampled snow that formed a rough walkway, staring at the rented Jeep and then looking around quickly for any sign of a garage. Another building off to one side attracted his attention, and he made his way in that direction cautiously, silently cursing his lack of forethought in not having worn thick boots; his ankle boots just didn’t allow for nearly a foot of snow.

He glanced back at the lodge once, trying for the third time to gain some impression of size or style, but was defeated again. The tall trees surrounding the building shadowed it too heavily to offer even a dim silhouette. It was big, though; that much he was sure of. And not a light showed anywhere.

He located a window in the side of the fairly large outbuilding and brushed snow away from the shallow sill, cupping his hands around his eyes and leaning closer for a look inside. The interior was dim, but he felt his brows raise slightly as he identified the hulking shape of a Sno-Cat on the far side. Nearer, he could barely make out a Jeep very like his own but with a more battered appearance.

Cody let his arms drop and backed away from the window, stumbling over rocks bordering a narrow trodden path. Regaining his balance and absently watching his quiet curses assume a misty shape in the cold air, he began to follow the path that led between the garage and the lodge around to the back.

Where the hell was the woman anyway? Cody wondered. He was sure that Pepper had let her friend know that he was coming; she wasn’t the type to forget to do something like that. He swore again. If Brooke Kennedy was so damn hostile that she wouldn’t even show him a welcoming light or open a door to him, the hell with it!

“Be patient with her, Cody—she’s had a rough time.”

Pepper’s last worried words to him surfaced in his mind, and Cody forced himself to calm down. But, he told himself firmly, if you can’t find her, you can hardly help her. The thought cheered him slightly. Maybe she’d gone away for a while. He could take that cruise after all.

As he was rounding a dark corner something hit him squarely in the stomach, driving all the breath out of him in an astonished whoosh, and he folded up neatly before measuring his length backward in the snow.

He lay there for a moment, staring up at the stars and trying to remember if breathing was a voluntary or involuntary action. Voluntary? Maybe he’d better try….

The stars winked out for a second as his paralyzed diaphragm resisted his efforts, then Cody found himself drawing the cold night air into his lungs in relieved gasps. He just lay there and breathed for a moment, then was about to try and get up when a voice reached him out of the darkness.

“Don’t move unless you want to hit the ground again. Tell me who you are and what you’re doing here.”

It was a husky, oddly gruff little voice, unmistakably feminine. And if there was any fear in the warning tone, it was strictly controlled.

The discomfort of lying in the freezing snow and the ache in his middle did nothing to improve Cody’s already sour temper. “What the hell did you hit me with?” he demanded, irritated by the wheeze in his voice.

“My feet.” It was still a gruff little voice, possessing a faint southern drawl and still containing a warning note. “Shall I demonstrate again?”

Instead of obeying the tone, Cody made a determined effort to gain his feet. “Now, look,” he began, and broke off abruptly as he found himself once more sitting in the snow, his feet neatly cut from under him.

“Who are you?” she demanded, still nothing more than a voice out of the darkness.

If his good sense had prevailed, Cody would have sat meekly in the snow and explained who he was. But the culmination of a rough drive up here, a hostile welcome that had painfully deprived him of breath, and the current freezing of his nether regions lost him the battle between good sense and recklessness. He surged to his feet, attempting a feint sideways to avoid her obviously skilled defenses.

It wasn’t her fault that he misjudged the slippery path and the angle of his dodge, both of which caused his left foot to slide violently to one side and bang painfully against the stone corner of the building. The violence behind that slide also twisted his ankle in a motion it rebelled against, and Cody sank back down on the path with a bitten-off groan as red-hot pain sliced all the way up to his skull.

At least the woman was still and silent, not laughing at him, he thought bitterly. He nursed the injured ankle with both hands and directed his gaze into the blackness out of which her voice had come. “My name is Cody Nash,” he told her flatly through gritted teeth. “And if you’re Brooke Kennedy, I’ve come to help you.”

There was a moment of silence, then she said calmly, “If that’s so, you’re a day early; you weren’t supposed to arrive until tomorrow.”

Cody held on to his ankle and his temper with both hands. “I was warned in Butte that a storm was coming later tonight and advised to get up here while I still could. Satisfied?” he finished coldly.

She apparently wasn’t. “Who sent you?”

His exasperated sigh misted in front of his eyes. “Pepper sent me. Right now she’s back in Maine with an anxious husband, two dogs, a cat, and possible twins—and, if you ask me, worrying unnecessarily about a friend who can obviously take care of herself!”

A patch of darkness disconnected itself from the rest to kneel in front of him, and Cody cautiously studied the hooded form he could barely make out.

“How’s the ankle?” she asked, no hint of apology in her tone.

“Sprained at the very least,” he told her bitterly.

She offered a gloved hand. “I’ll help you inside.”

“Don’t put yourself out,” he advised with awful politeness.

The hooded form rose abruptly to its feet. “If you want to sit there on your bruised ego and freeze,” she told him evenly, “then do it. I’ll be sure someone digs you out in the spring.”

An angry stab from his ankle and growing numbness made Cody decide to ignore his injured pride. Sighing, he held out a hand. “Sorry,” he apologized ironically. “I get this way whenever I’m kicked in the stomach with no warning.”

Silently she helped him to his one good foot, her arm going immediately around his waist to steady him on the slippery path. Throwing away the last of his pride, Cody let himself lean on her, his arm around her shoulders. She was strong, which surprised him since the form he was leaning on felt slender to the point of frailness even through her thick coat. She also moved with a cat-footed sureness along the icy path, even with his dot-and-carry movements beside her.

She guided him on around the building to a door that opened—thankfully—directly out onto a flat cement walkway. The door was opened swiftly and he was led inside to find a large and old-fashioned kitchen, its light due entirely to the blazing fire in the huge stone fireplace.

Cody eased himself down in a ladder-back chair by the round oak table, straining his eyes in the dimness to watch her cross the room to a counter. “You like darkness?” he asked.

There was the scrape of a match and then a flickering flame as she lit a large kerosene lantern on the counter. “Power’s out,” she told him briefly. “And so’s the generator. Ice storm yesterday. That’s why it was so slippery outside.”

She certainly didn’t waste words, he thought dryly. A box of matches slid across the table toward him, and before he could catch more than a glimpse of her still-hooded form, she was carrying her lighted lamp toward a second doorway.

“There’s another lamp on the table. I’ll go find the first-aid box.”

Being careful with his throbbing ankle, Cody unfastened his jacket and shrugged out of it, hanging it on the back of another chair nearby. He found the matches and the lantern, even larger than the one she’d lit, trimming the wick and lighting it until the room was fairly bright.

He looked around at the spotless kitchen, the copper pots and pans hanging around a central work island, the colorful Navaho rugs and curtains. With light it was now a cheery room, and the warmth from the fire was beginning to seep into his frozen bones. Cody bent to remove his left boot, grimacing with every movement of the hot, swollen ankle.

Morosely he thought of the sunny cruise he should have been on, making a mental note to get even with Pepper before either of them was much older. He sat back in the surprisingly comfortable chair, listening to the crackle of the fire and the silence and wondering how soon he’d be able to attempt the drive back down. If the storm held off, he decided, he’d try tomorrow—ankle or no ankle. He wasn’t about to hang around and try to help this cold woman with her remote voice and her obvious competence at taking care of herself.

She didn’t want his help, she obviously didn’t need his help and besides, he was becoming more and more convinced that Pepper’s worry was due to her pregnancy and little else. He’d tell her that her friend was fine—how, he wondered, had this cold woman won Pepper’s warm affection—and then he’d take that cruise after all.

But when Brooke Kennedy came back into the room, his plans shattered like so much brittle ice.

She’d shed the thick coat, revealing a too slender but perfectly curved figure advertised by a thin, ribbed gold turtleneck sweater and faded jeans. Her hair was true black that reflected blue highlights, and it was at least waist-length. It was pulled tightly away from her face at the moment and gathered high on her head in a ponytail. The style emphasized the striking widow’s peak and her marvelous bone structure. Her perfectly formed brows were twin wings above eyes the palest, greenest green Cody could ever remember seeing. High cheekbones, a straight, delicate nose, a mouth designed by nature for kissing and laughter…

She was beautiful, Cody thought. Strikingly, stunningly beautiful. And that beautiful, perfect face was as remote as a windswept glacier. The lovely eyes were shuttered and still, the lips, though naturally curved, showed no laughter.

Cody, staring at her and forgetting to breathe, watched as she placed a first-aid box on the table and opened it, seemingly completely unmoved by his steady gaze. He searched the beautiful face for life, and found nothing.

She looked at him. “I know a little first aid. Or would you rather?” She was holding a roll of elastic bandage.

“If you would. Please.” He heard his voice and was dimly astonished at its calm tone.

She pulled forward a kitchen step stool and sat down on it, turning up his pant leg and removing the sock before beginning to wind the bandage around his swollen ankle. Her touch was deft, gentle, and totally impersonal.

Acutely aware of the cool touch of her long, graceful fingers, Cody stared at her face and wondered. Beautiful. God, yes, she was beautiful. But that remote coldness, the shuttered eyes…

He tried to convince himself that he saw emptiness, that nothing at all lay beneath the perfection of features, but instinct and intuition warned him not to believe that. Empty eyes needed no shutters to hide what they contained. But that remote face…

Watching her intently, he only dimly heard a sudden wail as the wind picked up outside, but he saw her reaction. The green eyes slid sideways suddenly, darting quickly toward the outside door.

And for a moment, a single instant, her eyes held stark fear.

It was over almost immediately, and he could almost hear her mind identifying the sound and classifying it as something normal, something unthreatening. The shutters were up again; her fingers completed their task with the remote impersonal touch. She rose after calmly putting his sock back on.

“Coffee?” she asked casually, moving toward the counter and a large thermos there.

“Thanks.” What, he wondered, had terrified this woman? Her remoteness, he was now almost certain, was neither innate to her nor indicative of coldness. It was control, he thought; a rigid, fierce control over fear. And something told him that Brooke Kennedy wasn’t easily frightened.

He no longer thought Pepper’s worry the product of imagination.

She set a cup of steaming liquid in front of him on the table, gesturing wordlessly toward the sugar and cream containers near the lamp, then retreated back to the counter and leaned against it to hold her own cup.

“I tried to stop you from coming,” she told him in the distant, oddly gruff voice. “But by the time I got hold of Pepper, you were already on your way.”

Cody sipped his coffee slowly as he watched her. He ignored both tone and words to say casually, “You must be a good friend of hers.”

He was rewarded for the statement by the first sign of warmth he’d yet seen on her lovely face. There was even a faint, brief spark of humor in her remarkable eyes. “Do you think,” she asked dryly, “that anyone could meet Pepper and not become a good friend?”

Cody grinned. “Not a chance! Pepper hugs the world.”

Inexplicably the spark vanished as though it had never existed. “Yes,” she murmured, then shook her head slightly and abruptly changed the subject. “Sorry about the welcome. I was walking back up from the barn when I heard you coming around the corner. I decided to stack the deck in my favor before asking questions.”

He felt his sore stomach ruefully. “Is that what you call it? Stacking the deck in your favor? I thought I’d been hit by a train.”

“Karate,” she said, his remark winning no spark this time. “Comes in handy sometimes.”

Cody nodded, watching her and reaching for another spark. “Is that why you learned first aid? To be able to patch up your victims?”

She looked at him for a long moment. No spark, no visible reaction. Then her eyes slid almost involuntarily toward the door again before returning to his face. Abruptly she said, “You won’t be able to drive back down with that ankle. I can take you down in the Sno-Cat; there’s a shortcut.”

“Anxious to be rid of me?” he drawled softly.

Green eyes reflected the fire’s light and nothing else; her voice remained even and remote. Disinterested. “You can report to Pepper that I’m fine, and that I’m sorry I worried her. I have guests coming next week; the lodge is doing great. Then, your duty discharged, you can go on to wherever you’d planned to go before Pepper roped you into this.”

Presented with a quick and easy way out of his obligations, Cody was perversely determined not to take advantage of it. “Oh, I think I’ll stick around for a few days. This is a guest lodge, right? So consider me a paying guest.” As she opened her mouth to speak he added smoothly, “At least until the ankle heals.”

Instead of speaking immediately, she sipped her coffee for a moment. When she finally did respond to his statement, he could have sworn that there was a note of relief in her voice. “Am I going to be faced with a lawsuit, Mr. Nash?”

“Cody.” He smiled slowly. “Of course not. Why would I sue you? Just because I slipped on an icy path and loused up my ankle? Going to court is no way to start a…friendship.”

Quite suddenly she laughed. And it startled Cody in more ways than one. It was an oddly musical laugh, catching one by surprise after the soft gruffness of her speaking voice. And it was puzzling because the amusement in her voice never reached her eyes. In fact, the riveting green orbs held more than a touch of bitterness.

“Pepper didn’t warn you about me, did she?”

“Warn me?” he probed cautiously.

“She didn’t.” Brooke raised her coffee cup in a slightly mocking toast. “Here’s to Pepper and her tact. I wonder if she realized I’d tell you myself.”

“Tell me what?” Cody asked warily.

Brooke Kennedy threw the answer at him as if it were a gauntlet, a challenge she didn’t expect him to take up. She flung it at him in the tone of a woman who was braced for a reaction she’d seen one too many times.

“I read minds, Mr. Nash. I’m a certified, bona fide psychic.”

“Really?” Cody leaned forward, both his tone and his posture that of keen interest. “That’s fascinating. All minds, or just some? Can you read my mind?”

Green eyes flickered in a surprise nothing short of astonishment and then dropped as she sipped her coffee again.

Cody silently congratulated himself. It didn’t take a genius to realize what kind of reaction she was accustomed to after that statement: wariness, mistrust, even fear. He was thankful that she wasn’t the first psychic he’d encountered, thankful that he was aware of the problems she’d probably gone through because of her gift. He realized then that her rigid control guarded more than just fear.

“You didn’t answer me,” he prodded softly.

She looked back at him, the shutters down for a brief moment and uncertainty peeking out. Then, with the control probably built up over a lifetime of being a target for suspicion, she was shut inside herself again. “To the first question: I don’t know; I haven’t encountered ‘all minds.’ To the second question: I don’t know; I haven’t tried.”

“You have to try?” he asked, honestly interested. “I mean, d’you have to concentrate?”

Brooke nodded a bit jerkily. “I do now. I learned to—to build a wall. I had to.”

“I’m sorry,” he said very quietly.

“You’re…sorry?” Her tone was surprised, wondering.

Cody felt a sudden surge of rage so strong that he had to swallow hard before he could even speak. Lord, had no one ever shown compassion for this woman? he asked himself. Was she convinced that no one would understand what it meant to be locked away inside herself? “I’m sorry…because walls are lonely things. I’m sorry you had to build one.”

A slight frown drew her flying brows together as she studied him, a frown of uncertainty and confusion. Then she shook her head. “You’re an unusual man, Mr. Nash,” she said almost inaudibly.

“Cody,” he repeated gently, patiently.

After a moment she murmured, “Cody, then.”

“May I return the favor?” he asked, still gentle.

She nodded slightly, but said nothing.

He studied her, a frown beginning to draw his own brows together. Cody had met few women toward whom he felt any protective impulses, probably because he’d come of age during the women’s movement and had tried to respect everything that it stood for. But instincts and impulses were stirring to life now; he felt an almost overwhelming urge to protect Brooke Kennedy.

But from what?

She was afraid of something or someone, and the control she’d built up couldn’t stand against that fear. He could have asked her point-blank, but knew that she wouldn’t tell him. Not yet anyway. Cody had the feeling that Brooke didn’t trust easily. That the lack of trust was all bound up in her psychic abilities he didn’t doubt; it made his self-imposed task more difficult. For her to trust him, she’d have to open up, and he couldn’t help but wonder if years behind her wall had destroyed that ability.





TWO

BROOKE FELT HIS searching stare, and she didn’t need telepathy to realize that Cody had made some sort of decision. This golden man, she thought, had decided to stay here for a while.

She felt stiff, uncomfortable with that realization. She’d always been more nervous around men, and the compassion in this man’s eyes unnerved her even more. At the same time she was glad he would be around tonight; she was afraid to be alone tonight.

Hurt…

Setting her coffee cup aside and instantly regaining control of the tremor that shook her hand, she asked him calmly, “Have you eaten? I have a small butane stove, and I was planning to fix an omelet.”

Cody, who’d seen the tremor, bit back a question. “I had something in Butte, but that was hours ago. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble…”

“Of course not.” Brooke was already getting the small stove out of the closet near the back door, silently fighting to keep her concentration at full strength.

“I’d offer to help,” Cody said wryly, “but—”

“I think I can manage.” Her mind only half on his response, Brooke wasn’t conscious of her abrupt tone.

Cody felt his fingers beginning to drum rhythmically on the table and quickly stopped them. He told himself to be patient, to go slowly unless he wanted to put her even more on-guard than she already was. But the remoteness of her voice cut at him. He searched his mind for some casual conversation, something to help her relax.

“Do you live up here all alone?” he asked finally.

“When there are no guests, yes. Except for Mister, that is.”

“Who’s Mister?”

“He’s a burro.” Brooke went to the refrigerator for the ingredients for the omelets. “He was my uncle’s…pet.”

“But not yours?” Cody gathered that she spoke of the uncle who’d left her this lodge.

Breaking eggs into a large bowl, Brooke sent him a quick glance, feeling a faint prickle of humor. “Not exactly. Mister’s almost as old as I am. He’s nearsighted, bad-tempered, and hates every living thing now that my uncle Josh is gone.”

“Is he the reason you were at the barn when I arrived?” Cody asked easily, determined to keep alive that spark of amusement he’d seen.

She nodded. “With weather like the kind we’ve been having these last few weeks, he prefers his stable to the pasture. I was down there feeding him.”

After a moment of silence broken only by the crackle of the fire and the slight sounds she made cooking, Cody tried again. He was beginning to feel like a salmon swimming upstream.

“How often do you have guests up here? Is there a definite season?”

“No real season. I usually have a group stay four or five times a year, mostly during the summer.”

“No more often than that?” He shook his head slightly. “You’re up here alone the rest of the time?”

“I’m used to being alone.”

Her words had been easy, her voice still remote, and Cody felt a sharp stab of compassion. Lord, but she had a right to be bitter. He wondered if she guarded her mind even while alone, and knew somehow that she did. Could she never allow herself to relax?

Caution went by the board.

“I’ll bet you weren’t alone before you learned to shut out everyone else’s thoughts,” he said probingly.

Brooke tipped the first omelet into a plate and carried it and a handful of silverware over to the table. She set the plate in front of him, looking at his inquiring expression with nothing at all on her own face. Whe she spoke, it seemed as if she’d gone off on a tangent.

“Have you ever been around others and thought something which was, let’s say, unkind? A thought that never made it to speech because of innate good manners or tact?”

“Sure,” Cody frowned a little. “I’m sure we’ve all done that.”

She nodded. “But we don’t speak, because thoughts put into words can never be taken back.”

“True.”

“Before I learned to build a wall,” she told him tonelessly, “I heard those thoughts. All of them. The petty jealousies, the cruelties, the insults never voiced. Even the unconscious thoughts that would horrify if one were aware of them.”

Cody stared up into the remarkable green eyes, and what he felt in that moment he couldn’t define. “I’m sorry, Brooke,” he said huskily.

She looked at him for a moment. “Your omelet’s getting cold.” Then she turned and went back to the small stove on the counter.

Silently he dug in. After a moment, watching as she prepared her own meal, he said, “You’re a good cook.”

“Thanks.”

Cody reached desperately for normality. “Did your mother teach you?” Brooke sat down across the table from him with her own plate, and in the flickering light, he saw pain and bitterness flash in her eyes briefly before the shutters closed.

“No,” she said flatly.

He realized then that he couldn’t expect normality, and Cody wasn’t one to strive for what wasn’t there. There were murky waters to get through before he could expect to know this woman. He wanted to know her. Had to know her.

“Here there be dragons,” he said softly.

Brooke looked at him sharply. “What?”

Cody’s eyes were hooded, watchful. “Think back to history classes in school. Remember those old maps of the world when it was mostly uncharted?” He didn’t wait for a response, but went on in a musing voice. “The continents were weird shapes and all squashed together; a lot was missing. And at the edges of the unknown, unexplored territory were the words Here there be dragons.”

She shook her head. “You’ve lost me.”

“It’s a problem in getting to know someone.” He kept his voice easy. “You say something casual, maybe just making conversation, and touch a nerve without meaning to. You suddenly find yourself teetering on the edge of a pit, an area of darkness not to be probed…. Here there be dragons.”

He continued to watch her, but Brooke returned his gaze without expression or comment. After a moment Cody shrugged slightly.

“When that happens, you have two choices. You can back off; catch your balance, retreat to safer ground. Explored territory.”

“Or?” Brooke asked evenly.

“Or?”—he smiled crookedly—“if you’re an inquisitive soul, an explorer, you ignore the warning and step off into the pit. Launch yourself into those uncharted areas and battle the dragons. Or prove they don’t exist.”

Brooke looked down and concentrated on her food. “And so?”

“And so”—he took a deep breath—“tell me about your mother.”

“I see you’re a dragonslayer,” she said without looking up, striving to keep her voice casual.

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”

“Don’t try to slay my dragons, Cody,” she told him very quietly. “They’re the fire-breathing kind. You’ll get burned.”

Those statements caused Cody to chalk up several points in her favor. Because she was quick enough to understand exactly what he’d meant; because she was honest enough not to pretend that she hadn’t understood; and because she was clearly warning him to turn his damn boat back around and get out of those uncharted seas.

The lady was a challenge.

Lightly he said, “I’ll wear an asbestos suit.”

“You’ll be burned to a cinder.”

“I’ll bring along a fire extinguisher.”

“Ineffective against a dragon’s fiery breath.”

Delighted with the humor, Cody said sadly, “Better men than I have tried before, eh?”

A faint flush rose in her cheeks, and Brooke shot a wry glance at him. “No,” she murmured.

“No?” he probed in surprise.

She hesitated, wondering irritably why she was telling him this. “I’ve always avoided—uh—relationships. For some reason telepathy tends to frighten men more than women.”

“You mean, you’re—”

“Yes,” she muttered.

Cody was honestly astonished. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight.”

He stared across the table at the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and wondered briefly how many total idiots one woman could encounter in her lifetime. “Then the men you’ve known have been morons,” he told her calmly.

She laughed in spite of herself, looking up just in time to see the intent way he was looking at her. Trying to ignore the warmth of his golden eyes, she said reasonably, “You can’t blame them. It must be very unsettling to find out that the lady can read your mind.”

“Doesn’t unsettle me,” Cody said firmly, wondering how to extract that musical laugh more often.

“So you say.” Brooke kept eating, feeling more relaxed now because only the wind was howling outside. Nothing else. It was gone again.

Cody finished his own omelet and sipped his coffee. “I don’t mean this to sound crass,” he said carefully, “but when did you confide your psychic ability to these moronic gentlemen?”

Brooke laughed again at the careful phrasing. “D’you mean, at what stage of the game did they back off?” she asked wryly.

There was an answering twinkle in the golden eyes meeting hers. “I was trying to be delicate,” Cody said reprovingly.

“Mmm.” She lifted a brow at him. “Well, I’ll be blunt. The gentlemen were told at a very early stage; I thought it was only fair that they be warned.”

“Is that why you told me right off the bat?” he asked softly.

The question caught Brooke off-guard, and she stared across at him, her mind moving in slow motion. Was that really why she’d told him? Had that instant and confusing awareness of a stranger caused her to employ the weapon of her abilities so quickly? Had a deeply buried, little-used feminine instinct warned her that this man could hurt her?

She looked down at her plate. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re a stranger. I—”

He reached across the table to cover one of her hands with his. “Don’t. Don’t run away from me.” His voice was very deep.

Brooke stared at the strong brown hand covering hers for a long moment, her gaze finally lifting to his face. “You’re a stranger,” she repeated steadily.

“I don’t feel like a stranger.”

“But you are.”

His hand tightened on hers. “Brooke, I know what’s in all the unwritten rule books. I know that in relationships one step follows another—usually slowly. But I feel as if we’ve skipped a few steps. I came in here intending to leave as soon as possible. I’m being honest, you see. Then I met a fascinating lady—and it’ll take more willpower than I’ve got to make me leave.”

Brooke sat back abruptly, pulling her hand from beneath his. “D’you usually get results with that line?” she asked in a brittle voice.

Quietly he said, “That was a cheap shot.”

“Was it?” She refused to meet his eyes. “Yes, I suppose it was. You’ll have to forgive me; I seem to have forgotten the rules.”

There was a long silence then Cody began speaking in a calm, level tone.

“I’m thirty-five years old, single, a Scorpio if that matters. I work as a free-lance troubleshooter in computers—which just means that I travel from one company to another and untangle someone else’s problems. I was born and raised in Texas, and both my parents and my younger sister live there; I have an apartment in Virginia in which I seldom stay since I generally live out of a suitcase.”

Brooke was looking at him now, puzzled and wary. “I don’t—”

He cut her off, still calm, dispassionate. “I enjoy chess, poker, and jigsaw puzzles. I read mysteries and science-fiction. I’m a licensed pilot. My favorite colors are green and burgundy. I don’t bite my nails or snore. I’m a pretty fair cook, a first-rate dishwasher, and I was taught to put away my clothing neatly.”

Brooke was beginning to smile.

Satisfied. Cody kept going. “Since college, I’ve been gainfully employed in a job that pays exorbitant fees, so I’ve managed to salt away quite a bit for a rainy day. I’ve also been involved in at least two serious relationships. The first ended when I discovered that my fourth-grade English teacher was married to a fellow bearing a close resemblance to a Mack truck. The second ended some years later, mainly due to a conflict of careers…and of personalities.

“Since then. I have—in the popular vernacular—dated occasionally. Nothing serious, because I’m never in one place long enough. I’m by no means avoiding matrimony, since I happen to believe it’s a dandy institution. In fact, I’d love an ivy-covered cottage, two-point-five kids, a mongrel dog, and a snooty cat. And a wife. The possibility of the latter, in fact, has been on my mind quite a bit lately.”

“How lately?” she murmured.

Cody pushed back the sleeve of his flannel shirt and looked rather pointedly at his watch. “Since a little less than two hours ago,” he told her, totally deadpan.

Brooke was still smiling. “It’d never work,” she said gravely.

“Why not?”

“I’m a Scorpio too.” She shook her head. “Dragons are bad enough, but if you put two Scorpios in the same boat, there’s going to be a hell of a storm.”

“I think we can weather it.”

“I think you’re crazy.”

“Not at all.” Conversationally he added, “I very much think I’m falling in love with you, you see. And love seems to make improbabilities turn into definite possibilities.”

Brooke stopped smiling. She gazed across the oak table into golden eyes, and the calm conviction there stole her breath. “Now I know you’re crazy,” she said almost inaudibly.

Soberly Cody said, “I almost wish I were. Because something tells me you were right about that storm. After thirty-five relatively blameless years, I had to go and fall for a woman who first kicks me in the stomach and then warns me to stay the hell away from her dragons. You never did tell me about your mother, you know.”

She ignored that last. “You can’t fall in love with a stranger,” she told him tightly.

“Don’t tell me that I can’t do what I am doing,” he said quietly.

Brooke felt an almost overwhelming urge to burst into tears, and it shook her as she hadn’t been shaken by anything in a long time. “Don’t,” she murmured. “Don’t say that. You don’t know…what it means. You don’t know what I am….”

Softly insistent, he said, “I know you’re a beautiful, intelligent woman who’s hidden herself away somewhere. I know that you’ve held yourself under rigid control for so long that something has to give.”

“I’m a freak,” she burst out suddenly, that “something” finally giving way with an explosive sound. “Something unnatural to be stared at, and pointed at, and tested, and examined. Something to be afraid of because it isn’t normal. Something to hide and be ashamed of, something to put in a closet or in a sideshow—”

Her voice broke off in pain and bitterness, and Brooke covered her face with her hands, trying desperately to regain the control that had splintered. And she might have been able to regain it, might have been able to hide herself away again. Except for Cody.

He rose and came around to her chair, automatically careful of his injured ankle as he leaned back against the table and grasped her upper arms, drawing her to her feet.

Blindly Brooke fought to pull away from him. “No,” she said unsteadily. “No, don’t be kind—”

“It isn’t kindness, dammit,” he muttered roughly, ignoring her efforts and pulling her firmly against him. His arms went around her and held her tightly. “It isn’t kindness.”

Brooke fought against the wrenching, tearing need to cry. But the tears were dragged up from some well deep within herself, pulled inexorably by the gentleness of his touch, his soothing, wordless murmur. She’d never known such compassion and understanding from a man; her father had died when she was very young, and her uncle Josh had been a brisk, undemonstrative man.

She was tired from too many sleepless nights, bitter with years of memory, frightened by something she didn’t understand, and shaken by Cody’s declaration of falling in love with her. The haven of his arms was too powerful to resist.

Cody held her tightly, still astonished by the depth of what he felt but not bothering to deny it. He’d never thought that love would be something that would creep up behind him and then knock him off his feet in a single blinding instant, but that was what had happened. And he didn’t deceive himself into thinking that it was going to be easy.

The woman in his arms, crying with the jerky, shuddering sobs of someone who hadn’t let herself cry enough in her life, was complex and wary and unwilling to love easily. Her gift, he thought, had been her curse, and the hurt and bitterness of that went deep.

He was nowhere near having all the answers, but Cody thought that he could guess a few of them. And his heart ached for the little girl who’d been the object of stares and whispers, who’d “heard” thoughts even a hardened adult would have been shocked by. A little girl who’d grown up knowing that she was different, and that people were afraid of her.

And he ached even more for the woman who’d hidden herself away in this valley, allowing only rare and carefully spaced human contact for herself, cultivating a rigid control until it had very nearly drained the life out of her.

As to why she was afraid, he couldn’t even begin to guess. He meant to find out; until then he wouldn’t leave her alone a moment longer than he had to. He’d stay with her and try to shield her from whatever had stirred the stark terror in her eyes.

Brooke was too bewildered and uncertain of her rampaging emotions to fully give in to them. One by one she drew in the threads of control and pulled them tight until the sobs could be choked off. The unfamiliar hardness of Cody’s lean body unnerved her, and she could feel her heart thudding erratically against her ribs. She had to stop this insanity and get away from him, she told herself, before…before…before he made her feel—

She broke away from the incompleted thought and his arms in the same moment. Turning her back to him, she rubbed the sleeve of her sweater, childlike, across her wet eyes and spoke huskily.

“Well…you’ve certainly had an interesting evening. First you drive up an icy mountain road, then you’re kicked in the stomach and sprain your ankle, and then a crazy psychic woman cries all over you. If you had any sense, you’d just shake hands politely and say, ‘Gee, it’s been really strange knowing you,’ and then run like hell.”

Cody chuckled softly, but his golden eyes were steady and gentle when she turned to look at him hesitantly. “I also started falling in love,” he said. “And I’m not about to run.”

“Stop saying that!” she ordered almost frantically. nothing at all remote about her face or voice now.

“It’s true.”

Brooke got a grip on herself. “Look, it’s late. I’ll go out and get your suitcase—I assume you brought one—and then show you which room is yours. It’s been a long day. I’m sure you’re tired. I’m tired.” She realized that she was talking too quickly, and immediately shut down the flow, adding carefully, “All right?”

He nodded. “All right. My case is in the Jeep out front.”

Not trusting herself to say anything more, Brooke merely nodded in response. She picked up the lamp from the counter and headed for the doorway leading to the rest of the house.

Immediately Cody picked up the lamp from the table and, pausing only to throw his jacket over his arm and pick up his boot, followed her. Bound, his ankle could stand a little weight, but Cody nonetheless moved gingerly as he went through the doorway and down a long hall.

Halfway down the hall an archway on the right opened into a huge sunken room the size of an average house. He could barely discern its size and had no idea of the furnishings because of the darkness. Two closed doors were on the left side of the hall, and he didn’t bother to open them. He moved instead toward the end of the hall and the glow of Brooke’s lamp.

She had set her lamp on a long table near the front door and shrugged into the quilted hooded coat he’d first seen her in. She looked back over her shoulder before opening the door, and for a moment he thought that he saw the fear in her eyes. Then she’d opened the door and headed out for the Jeep.

She left the door open.

Within moments she was back, closing the front door and removing her coat silently. Holding his case, she picked up her lamp again and motioned toward another hallway leading off to the left of the front door.

“Two of the downstairs bedrooms have kerosene heaters and fireplaces,” she murmured. “The fires are already banked for the night, but the heaters are on. This way.”

The room she showed him to a moment later was as warm as the kitchen; the banked fire in the stone hearth was glowing and the heater was whirring softly. There were bookshelves lining one wall, and a high double bed, sturdy furniture, and bright rugs on the hardwood floor. An old rolltop desk sat in the corner by one window.

Cody knew instinctively that this had been her uncle’s room. He set his lamp down on a low chest by the door, watching as she set his case down and stepped quickly back out into the hallway.

“If—if you need anything,” she began awkwardly.

He caught her wrist gently. “Will you be all right alone?” he asked.

She looked up at him. “I told you. I’m used to being alone.”

His hand released her wrist, lifting to cup her cheek warmly. “You’ll have to get used to not being alone,” he said.

Brooke swallowed hard as the tingling touch of his hand brought a flush to her face. “Good night,” she said hastily, turning away.

Cody watched the light from her lamp fade away into the darkness. After a moment he quietly shut the door.



For the first time in more than a week Brooke slept well. She realized that it was because of Cody’s presence, because she wasn’t totally alone in the huge lodge, but she didn’t care to examine that too closely. Being alone had become an acceptable, if lonely, way of life.

God knew, it was better than being the focus of nervous, wary eyes….

Brooke shoved that thought into a compartment of her mind as she slid out of her bed the next morning. Weak sunlight filtered through the crack in the closed drapes and cast a dim beam across her bedroom; when the drapes were opened a moment later, the cheery room immediately flaunted its bright orange and rust color scheme and lost its murky shadows.

The room was large and comfortable, the furnishings—like most of those in the lodge—were of sturdy oak. Braided rugs brightened the gleaming hardwood floor and the sheer panels behind the drapes allowed lots of light.

Brooke automatically built a fire in the stone fireplace, a bit puzzled by the warmth of the room since she’d cut her kerosene heater off before going to bed. She’d just straightened from the hearth when she heard the furnace come on, and that puzzled her even more. The generator was out. Or at least it had been out last night. And the power lines from town couldn’t have been repaired so quickly. What on earth…?

Cody?

Hastily she stepped into the adjoining bathroom and went through her morning ritual of waking up and getting ready to face another day. Then she donned jeans and a bulky knit bright green sweater, warm socks, and loafers. She left her hair hanging straight and gleaming and, except for a moisturizer to combat the dry winter air, wore no makeup.

A glance at the windup clock on her nightstand hurried her steps as she left the bedroom; it was almost ten A.M.

Passing Cody’s bedroom, she noted that it was empty and neat. Where was he? Quickly she made her way through the silent house to the kitchen. The tantalizing aroma of coffee pleased her senses in the warm, cheery room, and Brooke paused for a moment to note the freshly built fire in the hearth and the merrily bubbling coffee on her little butane stove.

So he’d made the coffee before the generator was fixed? Experimentally she reached for a light switch. Plenty of juice for the lights and furnace anyway, she realized. Turning the unnecessary light back off, she poured out a cup of coffee and leaned against the counter, sipping it.

Granted a little time for thought, Brooke thought. She felt refreshed and calm after the much needed sleep, and blissfully free of the fear that haunted her at night. Tentatively she reached out, sensing. No. No, it was gone. It was always gone during the day. Only at night—

Something slipped casually into the fringes of her exploring probe. Cody. He was in the barn, making friends with Mister. He was—

Swiftly she pulled the probe back into her mind, frowning a little. Odd, that. She usually had to concentrate hard to sense a stranger. Why had it come so easily with him? Brooke frowned harder. She’d have to watch her guard with Cody Nash.

Remembering the night before, she felt a flush rise in her cheeks. Lord, what must he be thinking? Cried all over by a hysterical woman…Brooke shook her head a little ruefully. He’d think she had a split personality in addition to her other weirdnesses when he discovered a totally different woman facing him today.

After nearly three years of exposure to Pepper’s crazy friends, Brooke knew that her years of firm control were mostly a thing of the past. She could block out thoughts more without being stiff, and she usually enjoyed the contact with guests here at the lodge.

A kind of acceptance of her abilities had bred relaxation, even amusement. It had begun with a friend she met through Pepper, who had called Brooke in a panic and asked if she would use her psychic abilities to find a lost child who’d wandered away during a camping trip. Doubtful, but wanting desperately to find the child, Brooke had reached out. And the little girl had been located within an hour.

Wary of publicity, Brooke had nonetheless helped other friends periodically. For the first time in her life a sense of her own worth grew out of her abilities, and she’d begun to hope tentatively that they would one day be a blessing instead of a curse.

Still…. She thought of the night before with another frown. The bitterness of those early years was still with her; the floodgates had burst with Cody’s gentle probing, and with the fear that had made her nervous and uneasy. She had never really come to terms with those early years, Brooke realized. Memory still had the power to hurt her.

She wondered if Cody knew how much he’d unsettled her. She wasn’t used to meeting with compassion in strangers—particularly men. Few people casually met were unthreatened by her abilities. Only her friends—mostly unique people she’d met through Pepper—accepted her abilities without a blink. Those friends didn’t know of the early years and the bitter seeds sown, which was fine with Brooke; their easy acceptance helped her put everything in perspective.

And so her painful words to Cody the night before had shocked her; she hadn’t realized that she still felt that unhappiness so strongly. Had Cody’s declaration of love frightened her so badly that she’d reached back into bitter memory for something to shove between them?

Brooke swallowed the last of her coffee and immediately poured another cup. Love? The man was mad. Who would want to get involved with a woman who read minds and possessed dragons? That last brought a crooked smile to her lips. Dragons? Yes, and he’d neatly pounced on the biggest, most fire-breathing dragon of them all. A quick-witted, intelligent man, Brooke thought. And sensitive too. But she wasn’t about to get involved with him. Relationships between men and women had too many strikes against them to begin with without throwing psychic stuff into the pot.

So. She’d try her damnedest to prove to him that there was absolutely nothing wrong. She was fine. And then he’d leave.

Brooke felt a sharp pang, and instantly squashed it. He’d leave. If she could only get him away from here before night and the fear came—he’d leave. And she’d face that bogey in the dark the best way she could.

She looked up quickly when the back door swung inward, not surprised by his entrance because she’d felt him coming. Almost absently she shored up her walls to guard against his odd ability to creep into her mind.

“Morning.” Cody brushed snow off his shoulders, bright golden eyes looking at her intently.

“Morning.” Brooke forced down the thought that last night’s lamplight hadn’t done him justice: how many hearts had he broken with those incredible golden eyes? Her eyes skimmed over his broad shoulders, the leanly muscular frame, then back up unconsciously to examine a face that was very nearly classical in its masculine beauty. A golden man, she thought dimly, with all the warmth and compelling attraction of the precious metal that had built kingdoms and toppled them.

Gold fever, she thought, and then hastily dismissed the implications of that. “You’ve been busy, I see. How’s the ankle?”

Cody was so fascinated by the easy amusement in her green eyes and the warmth in that gruff little voice that he nearly forgot to answer. “Oh, it’s better. The swelling’s gone down quite a bit. I’ve been making friends with Mister—although the effort was somewhat one-sided.”

Brooke started to tell him that she knew exactly where he’d been, but swallowed the words. And she realized that last night’s declaration wasn’t going to be referred to; Cody apparently understood that she was hardly ready for love from a stranger. She said, “I gather you’ve also been fixing the generator.”

He shrugged out of his jacket and crossed the room to hang it on the back of a kitchen chair, limping only slightly. “It wasn’t hard. I scrounged a bit and found some spare parts in the shed with the generator. Besides, I thought we’d probably need the juice; there’s a blizzard starting up out there.”

She turned to look out the window, a little surprised to realize that she hadn’t thought to check the weather before. She saw snow beginning to blow around outside, the flakes ominously large. Absently she said, “I wondered why last night’s storm never hit; it looks like it was holding back until today.”

“Stranded for days.”

“I can always take you down in the Sno-Cat.” Brooke turned away from the window and looked at Cody, noting his startled expression. “The Cat can get through anything.”

Cody stared at her for a long moment. “How about some breakfast first?”

Brooke felt herself flush. She wondered if Cody understood why she was trying to send him on his way. Would that startle him? “Sorry. I guess I’m being a bad hostess. What would you like?”

“Whatever you’re having.” Cody eased his weight down into a chair, watching her and still wearing a bemused expression.

Brooke turned away again and busied herself with preparing breakfast. Anything to avoid thinking about how right he looked in her home.

“Do you cook when you have guests?”

“I help.” With her back still to him, she began mixing pancake batter. “There’s a lady in town who comes up when I have guests. She’s a retired cook, and enjoys keeping her hand in occasionally.”

“Do you like music?”

Amused at the leapfrogging subjects, Brooke asked, “What is this, Twenty Questions?”

“Humor me.”

“I love music.”

“Animals?”

“Yes, although I haven’t been around them much.”

“Where were you born?”

“Alabama. Next question?” she asked wryly, carefully pouring the batter onto the heated griddle.

“What do you like to read?”

“Murder mysteries, intrigue, and science fiction.”

“Do you realize you’ve been reading my mind?”





THREE

BROOKE SET THE mixing bowl down on the counter with exaggerated care and slowly turned to look at him. He was sitting by the table, one elbow resting on its polished surface and his hand cupping his chin. The golden eyes were still a bit bemused, but steady.

She realized then that only the sound of her own voice had disturbed the silence between them. Cody hadn’t said a word aloud since he’d told her that he would have whatever she was having for breakfast.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, horrified.

Philosophically Cody said. “That’s the damnedest thing I ever saw. Or heard. Whatever. At least I’ll never have to worry about holding up my end of a conversation with you, will I?”

Hardly hearing him, Brooke lifted a hand to rub her forehead fretfully. “That shouldn’t have happened,” she muttered. “How did that happen?”

“It jarred me at first,” Cody said, musingly. “You said something about the storm waiting to hit today and I thought, stranded for days. It was a delighted thought, by the way. Then you said you could take me down in the Sno-Cat, and I realized you’d read the thought. The rest was—uh—an experiment.”

Shaken by the slip in her control, Brooke snapped, “That was a sneaky trick.”

“I know.” He was disarmingly rueful. “But I wanted to know if you could read me, and I had a feeling you wouldn’t try if I’d asked.”

“I wouldn’t have.” Brooke turned back to the griddle and flipped the pancakes over. “Don’t—don’t do that again, Cody.”

“I won’t.” There was a pause, then he asked softly, “Forgive me?”

Irritably she said, “If your ankle was strong enough to carry you down to the barn, it’s strong enough to move around the kitchen. There’s orange juice in the refrigerator and the plates are in that cabinet.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Amused, Cody got up and began to set the table. A moment later he said conversationally, “It doesn’t bother me if you read my mind, you know.”

“It bothers me,” she said briefly.

“Why?” he asked, honestly interested.

Brooke turned the strips of bacon sizzling in the pan, trying to think of some way to explain the inexplicable. “It just bothers me. Look, it’s very disconcerting to have someone else’s thought running through my mind.”

“I’d think you’d be used to it by now.”

“I’ll never get used to it.”

“Which is why you live way up here like a hermit?”

She looked back over her shoulder at him, surprised by the touch of anger in his voice. “I cope the best way I can,” she told him tightly.

“By hiding away from the problem?”

She carried the pancakes and bacon over to the table, his accusation getting to her in spite of herself. “Don’t lay that on me,” she snapped. “You don’t know the whole story.”

“Then tell me,” he invited instantly.

Brooke set the plate down and glared across the table at him. “No.”

“I can’t fight the dragons until I can see them.”

“You’re not going to fight anything.”

“Brooke—”

“I’ll take you back to town after breakfast. The Cat can—”

“The hell you will,” he interrupted flatly. “I’m not going anywhere, Brooke.”

“I’ll call the police and have you thrown out,” she said desperately, filled with the strong conviction that unless she got him out of her life immediately, she’d no longer be in control. And she’d fought too long and too hard for control to lose it willingly.

“You can’t call them,” he taunted softly. “The phone’s out; I tried it this morning. And there’s no cell reception up here.”

“Then I’ll go to town myself in the Cat, and—”

He interrupted again. “If I could fix a generator, I could damn well disable a Sno-Cat.”

Brooke stared at him.

“You’re stuck with me.” His voice was still soft, but no longer taunting, his gaze level and calm. “And I’ve waited too long just to walk away because of a few lousy dragons.”

“Waited?” She had the uneasy feeling that his silence on a certain unnerving subject was about to be broken. And she was right.

“For love,” he said simply.

“You don’t love me, Cody.” Brooke put every ounce of certainty she could muster into the words. “Because you don’t know me. Maybe you think you’re in love, but you aren’t. Love at first sight’s a myth. It—”

“It wasn’t at first sight,” Cody said calmly. “It took a few minutes.”

She ignored that. “You can’t love someone without knowing them, and you don’t know me. My God—we only met last night.”

“Brooke, stop telling me that I can’t feel what I feel.”

She tried another tack. “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel what you think you feel.” Brooke felt a wild giggle trying to rise in her throat. Had that sentence been right? It hadn’t sounded right. Seeing that Cody was coming around the table to her, she added hastily, “And I won’t ever feel that way. Ever. So you’d better just go.”

Cody’s grin was honestly amused, but there was a glint in his eyes. “The lady’s protesting awfully loud,” he noted, halting barely an arm’s length away from her.

Brooke refused to back away from him physically. She lifted her chin and stared defiantly into the lazily smiling eyes. “If nothing else, the lady certainly knows her own mind. I’m not protesting, Cody. I’m stating a fact. And the fact is that I’m not interested. Period.”

The next thing she knew, Brooke found herself hauled against his chest and locked in an embrace that was inescapable without being painful. Even through her sweater and his, she could feel his heart thudding against her in a rapid and erratic rhythm.

“This is the second time I’ve held you,” he said huskily. “But this time, I’m afraid I don’t feel at all protective—or soothing.”

“Cody!” She pushed against his chest, disconcerted by the way her senses flared at the contact with unyielding muscles. But then her senses overloaded in a burst of inner sparks as his mouth found hers.

Brooke was hardly sweet-twenty-eight-and-never-been-kissed. There had been tentative beginnings during the last couple of years. But as she’d told Cody, it must have been very nerve-racking to discover that the lady could read minds; those tentative beginnings had remained only beginnings. Experience of sorts.

But she had never in her life felt anything like this. The sensory overload was frightening and yet strangely, insidiously addictive. She felt blind, deaf, and mute—aware only of sensations exploding inside her too rapidly to be assimilated.

She felt one of his hands tangle in her long hair, felt the other hand slide down to the small of her back and draw her impossibly closer. Warm lips moved demandingly on hers, taking with a fierce hunger that wouldn’t be denied. His tongue probed in the stark thrust of possession, igniting a fire that swept through Brooke in a raging, out-of-control blaze.

When Cody finally lifted his head, Brooke had to force her eyes to open. With a dim, wondering sort of surprise she saw that her arms were up around his neck, her fingers locked in his thick golden hair. She told her fingers to let go, her arms to fall to her sides. Nothing happened. His voice distracted her from vague annoyance.

“Time isn’t important,” Cody said hoarsely, golden eyes darkened to honey as he stared down at her. “Depth is. I may not know you with my mind yet, but I know you with my heart. And I’ve caught a glimpse of those dragons, Brooke. I’ll find them and slay them, or I’ll prove that they can’t hurt you anymore. And I’ll know you with my mind.”

In a split second of understanding, Brooke realized why she’d felt threatened almost from the first moment she’d laid eyes on Cody: She’d known with some instinct beyond knowledge that this man could step inside her walls and, once inside, see her in a way she’d never been seen before. And the Brooke who’d searched most of her life for privacy and found it at last marching hand in hand with loneliness felt a tug-of-war beginning inside of her.

She needed her privacy as balm for those bitter early years; at the same time what Cody was offering was almost irresistible. Offering? No. What he was demanding. It was almost irresistible, and scary as hell. He wanted to see her with walls down, wanted to see the parts of her hiding from the light.

Brooke, who’d seen quite a few psychologists and parapsychologists in her time, knew what that was called: psychological visibility. It was a basic need of human beings, according to the theory, to be clearly seen by at least one other person.

That was what Cody demanded as a lover’s right.

And that scared the hell out of Brooke, because in all the years of seeing into other people’s minds, no one had yet looked into her own.

This time her arms and hands obeyed her silent commands, and Brooke stepped back away from Cody. She broke the lock of his intense gaze, glancing down at the table. “The food’s cold,” she said in a faraway voice. “I’ll put it in the microwave.”

“Brooke.”

She picked the plate up before meeting his eyes. And her own was naked now, shutters unable to stand against him. She wasn’t sure that the walls would be able to either, and that fear was reflected in green depths.

Cody swore softly. “Brooke, don’t look at me like that,” he said, and there was a rough note of pleading in his tone. “I won’t batter my way through those walls of yours, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I wouldn’t hurt you like that. All I’m asking for is time. Time to find out if you can meet me halfway. That’s all—I promise.”

Brooke tried to ignore the pleading, and found it one of the hardest things she’d ever done in her life. “You’re asking too much. And you’re moving too fast.”

“I’ll slow down,” he promised instantly.

She looked into his eyes, startled, wondering at the intensity he seemed to feel so clearly. Did it matter so much to him? Was he really in love with her?

A seed buried deep inside of her began to grow in that moment. Tentatively, afraid of its own vulnerability, it began to reach out for the warm light of hope.

She was so tired of being alone.

Nodding jerkily, Brooke turned away and toward the countertop microwave oven. “Better unpack your asbestos suit,” she warned shakily. “I think you just might need it.”



They shared the cleaning-up chores in a companionable silence broken only by desultory conversation. Their words were meaningless, unimportant, but the very casualness of them helped to relax two wary people. Afterward Brooke showed Cody the lodge.

The enormous place contained six bedrooms upstairs in addition to the two downstairs, four bathrooms, a large formal dining room, and—the room Cody had noticed the night before—a sunken great room.

It was this room they wound up in. It was huge. At the front of the room was a tremendous stone fireplace with a raised hearth, before which lay an ankle-deep, snow-white polar bearskin rug. Synthetic, Brooke explained, since her uncle hadn’t believed in destroying animals for sport or decoration. Other rugs were scattered about the gleaming hardwood floor. Occasional chairs, couches, and love seats were placed seemingly at random in the room, lending an atmosphere of casual elegance. End tables and coffee tables were conveniently arranged. In one corner stood a tall, glass-fronted curio cabinet filled with ivory pieces.

After Cody built a fire in the big fireplace, they settled in front of it. He sat on the comfortable couch and Brooke sank down on the bearskin rug. They were relaxed now, almost at ease with each other. And when Cody brought up her abilities, he did so casually, and Brooke responded in the same manner.

“It really shook you when you read my thoughts,” he said musingly. “Why? I mean, it’s not something new.”

“But it is.” She frowned a little, gazing into the fire. “It’s very rare that I actually read thoughts—clear sentences, I mean. People generally don’t think in complete sentences. So what I pick up are images; I know what they’re thinking, but I put the thought into words.” She turned her head to look at him. “You said you’re a troubleshooter in computers?”

“Yes.”

“So you’ve been trained in logic?”

Cody nodded.

“I’ll bet you’re also exceptionally good at math.”

He smiled a little. “That’s true. Do my mathematical and logical abilities explain how easily you read my mind?”

“I think so. You’re obviously able to focus your thoughts very clearly. In fact”—she lifted a wry brow at him—“you threw them at me.”

“Sorry.” He didn’t look it.

“Sure.”

“Really. You have my sincere apologies; I was taught never to throw things.”

His solemn tone won a smile from Brooke. “Well. Just don’t do it again.”

Encouraged, Cody decided that a bit of absurdity would go a long way toward promoting an even more relaxed atmosphere between them. And, being Cody, he dived in headfirst. “It’s amazing what a smile will do,” he told her confidentially. “I mean, when you walked back into the kitchen last night, I thought, My God, she’s as cold as ice!”

Brooke gave him a startled look.

“Well,” he explained gravely, “I did say that it wasn’t love at first sight.”

Fighting back a giggle, Brooke managed a brief “Oh.”

“But that face,” he went on rapturously, a kind of besotted appreciation running rampant in his voice. “Such perfection! The face that launched a thousand hips—” Cody broke off abruptly, his eyes going wide and ludicrously woeful.

Blinking just once, Brooke murmured politely, “Freudian slip?”

Cody rested his forehead on an upraised hand. “Oh, Lord! Foot-in-mouth disease! Is there no cure?”

“Apparently not.”

“I did not mean to say that.”

“Of course, you didn’t.”

“My tongue got tangled.”

“Happens to the best of us.”

“If only thought could wed itself with speech,” Cody misquoted mournfully.

“Tennyson,” Brooke observed companionably.

Cody stared at her for a moment, then rubbed his hands together like a dastardly villain. “Ah-ha! I see I’ve found someone to sharpen my poetic sword on. Be warned, woman—poetry is my second language.”

She lifted an eyebrow at him. “Really? Well, then, sharpen away.”

Noting her slight smile, Cody quoted thoughtfully, “‘Flushed and confident.’”

Still smiling, Brooke murmured, “The flush comes from the nearness of the fire. The confidence comes from lots of reading. And the quotation is from Ibsen.”

Cody inclined his head in a small salute and racked his brain. “‘I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all winter,’” he said, altering the quotation’s last word.

Brooke started laughing. “Not exactly a poet! That was Ulysses S. Grant, and he was going to fight all summer.”

“‘Understand a plain man in his plain meaning,’” Cody told her in an offended tone.

Soothingly Brooke said, “It’s always easy to fall back on Shakespeare when one runs out of other poets, isn’t it?”

Cody visibly gritted his teeth. “‘Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene.’”

“Lord Nelson.”

“‘We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.’”

“Queen Victoria. You’re not a poet’s poet, are you? You just like words put together well.”

“‘With native humor temp’ring virtuous rage,’” Cody warned awfully.

“Pope.”

Cody put his head in his hands. “‘And like a thunderbolt he falls.’”

“Tennyson.”

“Uncle!” Cody raised his head and made the traditional “time out” gesture with his hands. “I give up already. I can see I’ll have to read up before I cross poetic swords with you again.”

“You started it,” she reminded him mildly.

A gleam was born in Cody’s golden eyes. “How about a game of poker?” he asked with deceptive casualness.

Brooke wasn’t deceived. “You wouldn’t win,” she murmured.

Cody grimaced slightly. “Pepper taught you to cheat?”

“No.”

“But?”

Her smile growing, Brooke said, “There’s a deck of cards in that end table. Shuffle them and put them facedown on the coffee table, and I’ll show you why you wouldn’t find it easy to defeat me in a card game.”

Cody followed the directions, beginning to guess what would happen.

“The top card,” she told him easily, “is a ten of clubs.”

He turned the top card faceup. Ten of clubs.

“The six of hearts is next.”

It was.

“Jack of diamonds.”

Silently Cody turned up the card. Still silent, he turned up ten more cards one at a time. Each card was exactly as she called it. He finally sat back and gazed across at her amused face. “Lord, you’d be worth a fortune to a professional gambler.”

Brooke laughed. “Afraid not. Under pressure I miss every time.”

“You couldn’t have read my mind,” Cody noted, “because I didn’t see the faces of the cards.”

She shrugged. “Like a lot of psychics, I have a lesser second ability; I can predict the turn of the cards.”

Hurt…

Brooke gasped in spite of herself, her gaze moving toward the back of the lodge. It was there—outside. She could feel its pain and confusion, its fear. There was a sensation—almost a scent—of wildness in the jumbled images, in the pain. And she was afraid to break through her wall and reach out to it.

Because it wasn’t human.

She rose to her feet, even her strong awareness of Cody blocked by a jumble of thoughts and the acid taste of fear. The first time had been a week ago. She had awakened from a peaceful sleep with the confusing, frightening sensation of something else’s pain battering her. Immediately the wall lowered by sleep had slammed back up, leaving only the faint echoes of…presence.

She had never been so confused or so terrified in her life.

What is it? Why did it come only with the night and reach out to her? And why did its cry of pain stir a primitive terror in her?

The wind wailed suddenly, loudly, and her eyes skittered toward a window. Her guard slipped a little.

Hurt…hurt…hurt…

Brooke closed her eyes, shivering. She couldn’t shut it out completely anymore. And it wasn’t a thought, not a clear, crystalized thought from a human mind; that was what frightened her. It was just an impression, a sensation of hurt, of pain. It made the hairs rise on the nape of her neck and froze the blood in her veins.

There were never any tracks outside. But then, it had snowed every night for the last week, and the wind had created drifts, obscuring any tangible evidence of a visitor that wasn’t human.

Hurt…

A part of her wanted to help something in pain, but she was afraid. Terrified. It had to be her imagination—had to be. She didn’t believe in inhuman things voicing human thoughts. And she had never before felt this wildness, this primitive sensation. There was intelligence in the wildness, and the anger of a cornered beast.

And now it was here in the light of day, and she could see what it was. But she was afraid to see, afraid of what she’d see if she looked.

Hard hands gripped her shoulders, the very touch of him draining away the spell of that inner cry.

“Brooke. Tell me what you’re afraid of.”

She looked up into anxious golden eyes almost blindly for a moment; then her own eyes cleared of the mist of fear. “I—nothing. There’s nothing.”

“Brooke.” Cody’s hands tightened on her shoulders. “Dammit, tell me what you’re afraid of.” Patience had gone by the board, Cody realized, when he’d seen the swift leap of terror in her green eyes and the rigid control he’d come to dread grip her face in stillness.

Hurt…

She winced, closing her eyes for a brief moment. “There’s…something outside,” she murmured, thinking dimly that if this didn’t send him in a mad dash away from a crazy woman, nothing would. “For about a week now, but only at night until a moment ago.”

“What are you picking up?” Cody asked quietly, as if it were the most natural and reasonable question in the world.

Brooke looked up at him wonderingly. “Pain…wildness…confusion,” she said unsteadily. “Not—not human.”

“An animal of some kind?”

She reached to rub her forehead fretfully. “I don’t know. Yes, I suppose. But I’ve never sensed an animal before, not even Mister. And, whatever it is, it’s intelligent. It’s hurt and I want to help it, but”—she laughed shakily—“it scares the hell out of me.”

Cody glanced briefly toward the front window, which showed a still-light fall of blowing snow. He looked back at her, his hands squeezing slightly and releasing her. “I’ll take a look outside,” he told her, turning away.

Momentarily frozen, Brooke swiftly caught up with him in the hallway leading to the kitchen. “Cody, no!”

He didn’t respond until they were in the kitchen. Reaching for the thick jacket still draped over the back of a chair, he said, “Honey, I have to find out what’s out there. For your peace of mind as well as my own.”

Her heart leaping into her throat at the endearment, Brooke had to swallow hard before she could speak. “I’ll go with you.”

Cody looked at her steadily for a moment. “Have to face the phantom yourself, I see. Is there a gun in the house?”

She nodded.

“Get it.”

Brooke came back into the kitchen moments later wearing her thickly quilited and hooded coat, and carrying a loaded .45 automatic. She handed the gun to Cody, watching while he examined it.

“Cleaned and oiled,” he noted approvingly. “You?”

“Josh taught me.” Brooke pulled the hood up over her hair, then went to the closet off the kitchen and exchanged her loafers for boots. She followed Cody out the back door, and they stood for a moment on the porch, both listening to the howl of the wind and Brooke listening to something else.

“Where?” Cody asked after one look at her face.

Brooke thrust her hands deep into her pockets and nodded jerkily toward a clump of trees about sixty feet from the back of the house and beside the beaten path leading down to the barn. “Over there.”

In step they moved out into the snow, feeling little of the wind but hearing it howling in the trees above them. Snow fell faster now, the flakes still large and wet and coming down almost in a solid curtain of whiteness.

“Careful,” Cody warned as quietly as possible over the sound of the wind. “If it’s hurt, it’s dangerous.”

But the closer they came to the trees, the less Brooke feared what was waiting for them there. Partly because Cody was at her side, partly because she was finally facing the fear and facing it in daylight, and partly because the inner voice she listened to now was a quiet one. She stopped suddenly, staring toward the trees.

Cody followed suit. “What is it?”

“It’s coming out,” she murmured.

He moved another couple of steps toward the trees, straining his eyes to see clearly. Automatically thumbing off the gun’s safety catch, he mentally prepared himself to act quickly when—if—the need arose.

They saw the animal a moment later, and Brooke realized instantly why she’d felt the primitive terror, and why she’d sensed an intelligent wildness as well as pain.

Though pitifully thin, the wolf must have weighed close to two hundred pounds. Gray and white fur showed through the layer of snow, and yellow eyes examined the two humans in turn before settling on Brooke. Moving with an uncanny grace, the wolf slowly pulled itself through the snow toward Brooke, dragging an obviously broken and useless front leg.

Instinctively Cody cocked the gun, and the soft click stopped the wolf. Eerie yellow eyes turned toward him and small, pointed ears pricked up as the creature looked at the man. As if he knew. As if he understood. Then the wolf sank silently down in the snow, rolling over almost onto his back and showing them his vulnerable belly. His tail moved weakly.

Cody hesitated for a moment and then eased the hammer back down. Cautiously holding the gun, which was still pointed at the wolf, he glanced at Brooke and then started slowly toward him. “I don’t think he’ll attack us. No, stay back,” he warned Brooke softly as she began to move toward the wolf. “I’m not sure, dammit.”

“I am. He won’t hurt us, Cody.”

“Brooke—”

“He won’t hurt us.”

“Dammit,” Cody muttered, still moving toward the wolf and making sure he had a clear shot just in case. He hoped Brooke was right; he didn’t want to be forced to kill such a proud and beautiful creature.

They reached the wolf at the same time, both kneeling in the snow. Brooke reached out slowly to touch the fur between the small pointed ears, gazing into yellow eyes that held a curious reassurance. And when the wolf licked her cold hand, the last of Brooke’s fear melted away.

Cody thumbed the safety catch of the gun a second time and slid it into his pocket. Cautiously stroking the fur over a still-muscular shoulder, he looked across and met Brooke’s eyes. “Even if he wanted to hurt us,” he murmured, “I don’t think he has the strength.”

“How bad is his leg?” Brooke asked.

The wolf was lying on his side now, his head a little raised and resting against Brooke’s thigh as the yellow eyes watched Cody’s gently probing touch. After a moment Cody said, “A clean break, I think. It’ll have to be splinted. I guess there’s something to be said for growing up on a ranch; I know how to splint an animal’s broken leg.”

Frowning, Brooke said, “I think there are some splints in the big first-aid chest, but they’re for people. D’you think….?”

“We can modify them. Go.”

“Cody, I can—”

“No, you can’t,” he interrupted quietly. “Brooke, I’m not going to leave you alone with him. Not until we have more experience in his temperament.”

Brooke wanted to argue, but the rising wind and the wolf shivering with cold beneath her hand decided her. They had to get the animal inside. Gently easing from beneath the animal’s head, she quickly rose to her feet and headed for the house.

She was back in ten minutes, immediately warmed to see that Cody’s thigh had replaced her own beneath the wolf’s head and that he was stroking the animal comfortingly. She changed places with him smoothly and silently, then watched as he went to work.

The wolf stiffened only once, when his leg was gently straightened, but he didn’t make a sound or even offer to bite either of them. Cody silently thanked the Fates that it wasn’t a compound fracture; there was no break in the flesh that he could find, and the broken bones seemed to set themselves when he straightened the leg. As quickly and gently as possible, he put the splint in place and fastened it securely.

The moment he finished, the wolf struggled awkwardly to his feet, holding the splinted leg out in front of him. He stood there, swaying a bit, and looked toward the lodge as if he could feel the warmth waiting there.

Cody got up and then bent, sliding one arm cautiously around the powerful chest and the other around the hindquarters.

“Your ankle—”

“It’ll hold.” Keeping as much of the weight as possible on his good ankle, Cody lifted the wolf very cautiously; he knew that most wild creatures panicked when lifted from their feet. But the wolf remained still and quiet. Cody grimaced as his ankle complained of the additional weight, but as he’d hoped, it held.

“Get a blanket or something to put in front of the fire,” he told Brooke. “In the kitchen would be best, I think.”

Nodding, she headed quickly toward the house.

Moving slowly, Cody followed her.





FOUR

THE BIG WOLF was placed on a thick pile of blankets before the blazing kitchen fire, and two willing pairs of hands went to work drying him with towels. When that had been done, Brooke and Cody consulted briefly before warming a large pan of chicken broth for their canine guest.

Watching as the wolf began slowly but hungrily to drink the broth, Brooke frowned in thought. “I remember Josh saying something once about feeding a sick dog cooked rice mixed with broth and small bits of meat. He said it was the best and most filling meal for them. D’you agree we should feed him just broth today and then start the rice and meat tomorrow?”

“It sounds right to me,” Cody replied. He had removed his jacket and eased himself down on one of the chairs. “The broth’ll warm him up and take the edge off his hunger; he probably couldn’t stand anything more today.”

Brooke looked at Cody for a moment, a new frown drawing her brows together; then she left the room. Returning a moment later, she held the small first-aid kit in her hands. She drew the step stool forward and sat down on it. “I want to have a look at your ankle,” she told him firmly.

“Brooke—”

“Hey.” She looked up at him with a faint smile. “There are certain advantages to being psychic; I know damn well that you strained that ankle by carrying the wolf. So shut up.”

Cody sighed softly. “I’m beginning to realize that there are certain disadvantages to your being psychic.”

“I wondered when you would.”

“Nothing I can’t live with though,” he added hastily.

Brooke smiled but said nothing. Her smile died, however, when she unwrapped the elastic bandage from his ankle; it was swollen again and looked extremely painful. She got up and left the room again, returning with a pillow from one of the couches and what looked like a wraparound hot water bottle. The pillow was placed on the step stool and Cody’s ankle raised to rest on it. Then she went outside long enough to fill a medium-size plastic bucket with snow.

She didn’t say a word to the puzzled Cody until she’d spread the rubbery device out on the counter and began filling it with snow. Then she merely said, “Cold compress.”

Cody, seeking to take her mind off her obvious concern for him, said lightly, “We can’t keep on saying ‘the wolf’ whenever we talk about our new houseguest. What should we name him?”

“You’ve already named him,” Brooke said.

“Have I? What did I name him?”

“Phantom.” Brooke carried the snow-filled rubber cuff back and carefully wrapped it around Cody’s ankle, then straightened and smiled at him. “You said that I had to go out and meet the phantom myself; can you think of a better name for him?”

Cody smiled a little. “No. No, I can’t.” He looked toward the hearth; the wolf was watching them silently. “Hello, Phantom.”

Phantom pricked up his ears. His tail thumped once.

Strangely unsurprised, Cody noted, “He knows his name.”

“Of course.” Brooke poured out two cups of coffee, handing one to Cody and taking the other herself as she sat down across the table from him. “I’ve seen him before, Cody.”

“Really?” Cody sipped his coffee. “When?”

“Well…several times. In the fall was the last time. But I’ve seen him at a distance for three or four years. Up on the ridge usually. He runs with a small pack, and he and another wolf—a black one—seem to be the leaders. I’ll bet the black one’s his mate.”

“Wonder how he broke his leg,” Cody mused idly.

Brooke shook her head. “I guess we’ll never know.”

Cody turned his gaze to Brooke. Oddly fanciful, he found himself telling Phantom’s story as if he knew it well. “There was no power struggle within the pack; Phantom’s too strong for that. And he’s too canny to have fallen into a trap set by hunters. He must have fallen or been kicked while they were hunting. With a broken leg he couldn’t hunt and he couldn’t lead the pack. So his mate had a choice. She could stay with Phantom and hunt alone for both of them, losing leadership of the pack, or else she could leave him where his chances of survival were good, and come back for him when the leg had time to heal.”

Taking up the thread of the story, Brooke went on. “She left him here, where there was no scent of hunters. Maybe she even knew that he could reach out to me for help. There was shelter here, and humans who’d left the pack unmolested in the past, so she believed this would be the best place to leave him. What shall we name her?” Brooke demanded suddenly.

Cody thought. “Psyche,” he decided firmly.

Brooke’s lips twitched. “Goes well with Phantom,” she murmured. “And so, Psyche left Phantom here; we’ll have to wait and see if she comes back for him.”

“D’you think she will?”

“Yes.”

“Is Phantom telling you that, or are you guessing?”

“Neither. I know. And Phantom isn’t telling me anything. He’s just lying there watching us and he’s warm.”

“I’m glad he’s warm. I wish I could say the same for my ankle.”

“It’ll take the swelling down.”

“Actually it feels pretty good.”

“Terrific. The last thing I need is to be snowbound with two cripples.”

“Kick a man while he’s down, why don’t you?”

“My favorite sport.”

Casually Cody said, “Tell me about your father.”

Brooke stiffened for a moment, then sent him a look that was a combination of wry amusement and guardedness. “You don’t sound a warning shot, do you? You just fire away.”

“I get results that way.”

She was silent for a moment. “You’re knocking at the walls, Cody,” she said finally.

“I know.”

“You promised.”

“I promised that I wouldn’t move too fast and that I wouldn’t batter at the walls. I didn’t promise not to knock.” His warm golden eyes were searching. “First dragon, Brooke. I have to start somewhere.”

She shook her head suddenly. “No dragon.” Her eyes were fixed unseeingly on Phantom. “Not exactly. I often wonder if my life would’ve been different if he’d lived longer. But he died when I was six.”

“Tell me about him,” Cody prompted softly.

“How?” She laughed shortly. “What does a six-year-old notice about someone she loves? That he was tall and strong and used to throw me up on his shoulder? That he had eyes the color of new grass and a voice I could listen to for hours?” Her voice dropped suddenly, became painful and bitter. “That he loved me so much it made my mother hate me?”

Cody saw the first dragon looming between them, not the father but given life by the father. And he wasn’t quite sure how to slay a six-year-old’s memory of the tangle of love and hate. He reached across the table to cover her hand, but Brooke snatched it away.

“Don’t.” Green eyes, filled with misery and confusion and pain, stared into his. “I—I can’t think when you touch me. I can’t tell you. And you have to know, don’t you? You have to.”

“I have to,” he agreed quietly.

Brooke nodded jerkily, falling silent for a while. When Cody was beginning to think she meant to confide nothing more, she finally spoke. “I guess I was about five when I realized Mother didn’t like me. She was never demonstrative; Daddy was. But it wasn’t that. I was psychic then; I picked up feelings rather than thoughts, and I didn’t understand. I always felt…twisted and ugly whenever Mother came near me. And she said things out loud to me when Daddy wasn’t around. That I was stupid. That I was ugly.”

Cody, swallowing anger, began to build a composite picture in his mind of a mother so driven by jealousy of her child that she cruelly undermined her confidence. Because Cody knew instinctively that Brooke had been a beautiful child, an innately sweet and giving child.

So lost in memory that she was unaware of Cody’s building anger, Brooke unconsciously validated his thoughts. “I tried to—to win her love. I tried to be a good girl. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t win her approval. And I was afraid to tell Daddy what I felt when I was around Mother; I was afraid he’d stop loving me.

“Then Daddy died.” Brooke blinked quickly for a moment, adding with unconscious starkness, “I missed him.”

Cody had forgotten the throbbing of his ankle, had forgotten the wolf lying quietly on his blankets watching them. He was staring at Brooke’s profile and hearing the puzzled anguish of a little girl.

She sighed raggedly. “There wasn’t any money, and Mother wasn’t trained for anything. She complained bitterly about having to wait on tables or clerk in stores. She ignored me, except when she wanted someone to yell at.”

The pain in her voice hurting him more than he would have believed possible, Cody tried to divert her mind. “Your uncle? Couldn’t your mother have turned to him for help?”

Brooke shook her head. “Daddy and Josh had a terrible argument when he married her. Josh thought that Daddy was too young, and that Mother wasn’t the wife he needed. They never saw each other again, and Daddy never told Josh about me. Mother—Mother had never met Josh, and she didn’t know where he lived. We were living in Alabama then.”

“I see.”

Brooke picked up her cup and drained the last of the cold coffee, seemingly unaware or uncaring that it was cold. “We lived in a tiny apartment, near enough to a school so that I could walk. And it was when I was in the first grade that everyone began to realize I was…different. My teacher noticed it first; I was answering questions before she asked them out loud, and she realized I was probably psychic. She’d graduated from Duke University in North Carolina, and she knew about the work they were doing there in paranormal research.

“She gave me a few simple tests herself, making them seem like games. Then she arranged a meeting with Mother after school one day. And she told her about my…gifts.”

Cody watched the still, silent profile for a few moments. He wondered what Brooke was thinking, wondered what had given birth to the diamond hardness he saw now in her face. Then the spell shattered.

Brooke stirred slightly and turned her head to meet his quiet gaze. “That’s Chapter One,” she said lightly. “Let’s leave Chapter Two for later, shall we?”

The forced lightness didn’t deceive Cody; he heard the strain in her voice and saw it in her eyes. And memories, he’d discovered, were best pulled from the dark recesses a few at a time; yanking open the door and allowing them all to rush in at once was possible only if one’s memories were mostly happy ones.

“Fine,” he agreed softly.

Restlessly she murmured, “You haven’t said much.”

“Just trying to decide whether to use my magic sword or my thrice-blessed dagger on those dragons,” he said solemnly.

In spite of herself Brooke started to smile. Wonderingly she realized that the recounting of her painful memories hadn’t hurt nearly as much as she’d believed they would. And Cody, the warm glow in his eyes undiminished, seemed so understanding. Of course, the worst was yet to come, but Brooke realized that Chapter Two, and all those chapters to follow, would come more easily.

She was grateful for that. Grateful to Cody and to his persistence. But she was also nervous and uneasy; she would be stripping layer after layer of her protective wall away until only her bare and wounded self remained. Would those half-healed wounds reopen when exposed to the light?

Would Cody hurt her?

Brooke pushed the silent questions away, and sought to follow his lead in lightening the atmosphere between them. “Thrice-blessed? I thought that twice did the trick.”

“Not with your dragons,” Cody responded feelingly. “S’matter of fact, I may have to get the thing blessed again. However, since three’s a magic number, we’ll hope it does the trick.”

“Three’s a magic number?”

“You should know.”

“I’m psychic, Cody—not a witch.”

“My mistake.”

“See that it doesn’t happen again.”

“Or?”

“Or I’ll feed you soup made of bats’ wings and eye of newt, and you’ll turn into a frog.”

“But then you could kiss me, and I’d turn back into a prince.”

“Back into a prince?”

“I’d hoped you wouldn’t notice that.”

“I notice everything.”

“Uh, I think I’ll practice reading your mind,” Cody announced calmly.

“Why?”

“Because this one-sided business is very unfair.”

“What brought this up?”

“I was just thinking.”

“Oh. Okay, then—practice. What am I thinking right now?”

“You’re hungry.”

Brooke stared at him, startled. “That’s—right.”

Cody smiled modestly, then started chuckling. “I’d better confess before you dip into my mind and discover that I didn’t dip into yours.”

After mentally untangling his sentence, Brooke shot him a suspicious glare. “You didn’t read my mind?”

“Nope.”

“Then how did you know…?”

“Well, I’m pretty observant myself, you know. Just before you challenged me to read your mind, you looked toward the refrigerator. So I guessed.”

“Princes don’t resort to sneaky tactics,” Brooke reproved him sternly.

“They do if princesses are psychic.”

“Even if. It’s unprincely.”

“All’s fair.”

“Don’t start throwing clichés at me.”

“I’ve already told you that I don’t throw things.”

“You’re looking more and more like a frog, pal.”

“Trust me, lady. I’m a prince.”

That plea was made with such a soulful look that Brooke had to bite back a laugh. Shaking her head, she rose from her chair. “And on that note I’m going to fix lunch. Any preferences?”

“I have a sudden aversion to frogs’ legs.”

“Funny.”

Cody looked mildly pleased with himself. “Apropos, I thought.”

Brooke sighed. “Right. I repeat. Any preferences?”

“Nope. Nary a one.”

“Then I’ll see what’s in the cupboard.”

“Do that, Mother Hubbard.”

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist that.”

“If I’m getting predictable, I’ll quit,” Cody said, injured.

“Not predictable.” Brooke reflected. “Just not surprising.”

Cody frowned. “I’ll have to do something about that.”

Rummaging in the cabinets and refrigerator for the makings of lunch, Brooke sent him an amused look, but said nothing. Surprise, she knew, was the essence of many a battle plan, and she wondered if Cody had chosen deliberately to keep her slightly off-balance. Why? The better to fight her dragons?

Something clenched inside of her suddenly as Brooke remembered what she’d very nearly forgotten: that this man claimed to be in love with her. She found herself staring blankly at a box she’d taken from a cabinet and wondering rather desperately why she kept forgetting it. Was it a part of Cody’s plan, or was her own mind playing tricks on her?

“Why’re you staring at a box of breakfast cereal as if it were whispering the secrets of a universe?” Cody asked politely.

She blinked at him. “Oh…just thinking.”

Cody’s eyes narrowed suddenly, and then one corner of his mouth lifted in a funny little grin. “Hey, I think I’m beginning to get the hang of it. You were thinking about me, weren’t you?”

“That’s called vanity,” Brooke managed firmly.

He looked hurt. “You weren’t thinking of me?”

Brooke shoved the box of cereal back into the cabinet, more rattled than she looked—she hoped. Ignoring his question, she asked, “Is beef stew all right with you? We can give the leftovers to Phantom tomorrow.”

“Fine.”

He was watching her, Brooke knew. And with a disquieting smile, dammit. He hadn’t read her mind. No way. He’d just guessed again. She’d have enough trouble coping with a dragonslaying prince without adding telepathy to all his other virtues.

Virtues?

Damn the man.



After lunch Brooke removed the cold compress from Cody’s ankle to find that the swelling had begun to go down again. She bound it up in an elastic bandage, then found a pair of crutches left over from Josh’s broken leg, and told Cody that if he put any weight on the ankle before she said he could, she’d throw him out into the snow to fend for himself. Somewhat meekly Cody promised to obey the command.

The promised storm was fully blown by three o’clock, the wind howling outside, and a mixture of snow and sleet pelting the windowpanes. Brooke had turned on the kitchen radio, and the weather forecast from Butte was not in the least encouraging—unless one were a polar bear. Up to two feet of snow was forecast, and the announcer cheerfully mentioned power failures and impassable roads. He also told listeners to have a nice day.

Tacitly agreeing not to leave their canine houseguest alone in the kitchen, Cody and Brooke settled down at the kitchen table with a Scrabble game. Phantom, further warmed and filled by a second helping of chicken broth, blinked sleepily and then seemed to doze off, his pointed ears twitching occasionally at the sounds of their voices.

“That’s not a word.”

“It is too. Asphodel. It’s a Mediterranean plant.”

Cody looked suspicious. “Are you a botanist?”

“No. It was a hobby of Josh’s.”

“Great.”

“I guess I should tell you that Josh tutored me for years. And he was a brilliant man.”

“Uh-huh.” Cody sighed.

“Buck up. If you can just make a word with that Z, you’ll beat me. More points, you know.”

Cody frowned in thought for a moment, and then triumphantly produced ZENITH.

Brooke wrestled silently with an X for a while before coming up with XENON. She smiled at Cody across the table. “We’ve conquered two of the roughest letters; it should be downhill from now on.”

“Oh, yeah? What can I spell with this Q?”

“I can think of six words right off the top of my head.”

Cody stared at her, then defiantly spelled out QUACK on the board.

“Your mind’s telling on you,” Brooke observed.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Quack. As in charlatan. You’re doubting me.”

“For your information I was thinking of the sound a duck makes.”

She bit back a laugh. “My mistake.”

“That’s quite all right.”

“You’re very gracious,” she said approvingly.

“I’m a hell of a guy.”

“And modest.”





That first day spent together told Cody quite a lot. Though beginning to piece together the events of her past through the little Brooke had told him so far, he discovered that he was actually learning more about her just by being with her in the present. With the wolf comfortably inside with them now, she was no longer haunted by a mental cry she didn’t understand and was far more relaxed than Cody had yet seen her.

And throughout the afternoon his seemingly casual but intent observation of her behavior gave him clues as to how to go about slaying the dragons standing between them.

He noticed first of all that Brooke was intensely wary of being touched; drawing away seemed almost a reflex with her. While she could touch him with apparent calm when dealing with his injured ankle, or allow him to lean on her as she had the night before, the most casual of unnecessary physical contact caused an inner stiffening that Cody could sense more than feel.

With the neatly logical mind that made him a wizard with computers, Cody sifted the possibilities until he arrived at one that seemed to explain Brooke’s wariness. Gradually he realized that the inner stiffening he felt was simply a shoring up of her mental wall. Physical contact, he decided, probably made her more vulnerable to mental contact.

That explanation satisfied Cody’s critical scrutiny, so he set his mind to finding a way of dealing with the problem. The answer promised a great many sleepless nights for him; to become accustomed to anything a person had to be gradually exposed to it. And while his own inner conviction and strong desires might have led him to push Brooke into a relationship she wasn’t ready for, his innate wisdom and a caution born of love joined together in the voice of reason.

So Cody held on to his willpower with every atom of control and set about getting Brooke accustomed to being touched undemandingly. He had to overcome instincts within her, instincts that had been sharpened by her need to guard her mind. He slowly and carefully had to invade the private territory that every human being claimed and marked as personal; had to convince Brooke that there was no threat to herself in allowing him so close.



Brooke tensed slightly when Cody reached over to take her hand in a gentle clasp. They were sitting on a couch before a blazing fire in the sunken den. Supper was over and the wind was howling in the darkness outside.

His hand