Blood Red Chapter 2


She wasn't sure how she'd gotten there, but Lauren found herself outside the tent. It seemed so normal now, nothing more than a little red canvas tent again.

She was back outside just as if they had finished their session completely normally,, as if she had casually strolled out after hearing some nice normal prediction for her future. She was back outside, in the midst of the neon light and movement of the night. The very normal night. She could hear footsteps and laughter, bits of conversation, the sound of mules'hooves as they clattered on the pavement, drawing carriages filled with tourists.

Both Heidi and Deanna were staring at her in surprise, and that wasn't normal at all.

Lauren turned to look back inside the tent. The images she had seen now seemed ridiculous, but the shattered crystal ball was there as proof that something out of the ordinary had happened.

’’Lauren!’’ Heidi said, shocked. ’’Susan, we're so sorry. We'll pay for your crystal ball, of course. What on earth happened?’’ She stepped forward, slipping an arm through Lauren's, lowering her voice to a whisper. ’’I knew you weren't exactly into this, but did you have to break her crystal ball?’’

’’It was an accident!’’ Lauren protested.

It had been an accident-and she hadn't even been the one to break it. But beyond that, she couldn't have seen what she thought she had. She had been tricked. It must have been some kind of a parlor trick, though that seemed impossible now, with all the light and noise around her.

Even now, the details of what she had seen, what she had heard, were slipping from her mind. She tried to hold on, but they were all escaping her. And she was beginning to feel like a fool.

Was she worse off-mentally or emotionally-than she had thought?

No!

Susan was still staring at her. And she didn't seem to be concerned about her crystal ball but about Lauren herself.

’’Where are you girls staying?’’ Susan asked.

’’The Old Cote,’’ Deanna said.

Susan frowned in puzzlement. ’’I don't know it.’’

’’It's a lovely place, made up of several cottages. It was kind of a family compound before the storm, but they've opened it up as an inn now as way to recoup some of their losses. The grandmother-the family matriarch, I guess-is enjoying it, so I guess the place will stay around for a while. I found it on line,’’ Deanna said, her enthusiasm for their little discovery evident.

’’But where is it?’’ Susan asked.

Deanna seemed a little surprised by the fortune teller's persistent tone. ’’Off Conti and a good bit back from Bourbon, luckily. The noise is great when you're part of the party, but when you're trying to sleep, it can be a bit much.’’

’’You have to move. Move into the biggest, most crowded hotel, and room together, stay together, until you can get out of New Orleans,’’ Susan warned.

’’But we're not leaving,’’ Heidi said. ’’Not for several days. This is my bachelorette party.’’

Susan shook her head, a look of dismay on her face. She stared at Lauren, and Lauren knew that her own expression must have shown the woman that she was already feeling silly and skeptical, as if she had been the target of a trick-or a joke.

’’You have to leave.’’

’’Oh, please,’’ Deanna said impatiently.

’’I'll pay you for the damages,’’ Heidi said, starting to sound irritated.

’’You came for readings. You've had them, and now you have to leave,’’ Susan said.

Heidi pulled out her wallet and tried to give Susan money, but the woman only backed away. Heidi set the money on the table, shaking her head. Then she linked arms with Lauren, pulling her away. ’’You do not get to pick the fortune-teller anymore,’’ she said, dragging her along.

As they put some distance between themselves and the Square, Deanna burst into laughter. ’’Didn't you feel as if we had just walked into an old horror flick?’’

’’I'm sure she was going to tell us to beware the bite of a werewolf any second,’’ Heidi agreed, and then she, too, burst into laughter.

’’And you! You fell for all her tricks,’’ Heidi told Lauren.

’’I did not,’’ Lauren protested, but silently she was thinking, Yes, I did. It was creepy as hell in there.

She felt like an idiot now, though, as they passed Royal Street, nearly at Bourbon. Bands were playing loudly from several corners, the sound of jazz mixing with rock.

’’We need a drink,’’ Heidi said. ’’Name your poison.’’

’’Meow,’’ Deanna said.

’’What?’’

’’The Cat's Meow. Karaoke,’’ Deanna said.

’’You must be joking. We suck,’’ Heidi said.

’’And that's why we're perfect for karaoke,’’ Deanna said happily.

’’I need a lot more to drink for this,’’ Lauren said. The two of them had her laughing, buit karaoke was no more her style than mystical readings. ’’Wait!’’ she said, stopping in her tracks and forcing the others to stop, too.

’’What?’’ Deanna asked.

’’I'm only Heidi's slave. Heidi, you don't really want to sing karaoke, do you?’’

’’You bet I do!’’ Heidi said.

Groaning, Lauren found herself dragged into the bar.

It wasn't that bad. The host was a handsome, well-built black man with an exceptional voice. His choice of music was great;the place was hopping. The entire room actually seemed to enjoy the rendition of ’’Summer Nights’’ that Heidi and Deanna laughed their way through.

But when the two of them left the stage, Lauren was glad to see that they were feeling the effects of the noise and the crush of humanity, and were ready to go before she had to make a fool of herself in public. They left the club and headed for a darker place with soft jazz that was just down the street.

’’Order me another one of those fizzy things I was drinking,’’ Lauren said to Deanna when they had found a table. ’’I'm off to find the restroom.’’

She left her friends and made her way through the tables. When she reached the hallway that led to the facilities, she was startled when she ran straight into a man. She hadn't even realized she'd been walking with her head down, deep in thought. Still, she wasn't sure where he'd come from as she plowed straight into him.

Apologizing, looking up at last, she backed away.

He was tall, two or three inches over six feet, and definitely well built-she had almost bounced off the muscles of his chest. His hair was dark, a moderate length, and even in the shadowy hallway, it was apparent that his eyes were a deep and striking blue. She thought he was somewhere around thirty, with ruggedly striking chiseled features: high cheekbones, a long, straight nose, determined jawline and a high forehead. His mouth was generous, the kind that could harden into a thin line or curve into a quick smile.

He wasn't model-pretty. He had the look of a man who lived, and lived by his own rules, heedless of others'opinions.

’’I'm sorry,’’ she said, realizing that she was staring at him.

But then again, he was also staring at her.

’’Kate,’’ he murmured.

’’Pardon?’’

He took a step back, deep eyes almost burning into her. ’’No, I'm sorry,’’ he said. ’’You reminded me of someone. My mistake. Sorry,’’ he said again. But he didn't move, and he was still staring at her.

As if he really did know her.

But he couldn't possibly. She would have remembered if she had ever crossed paths with him before.

’’I...uh, need to get by,’’ she said softly.

’’Of course,’’ he said.

But he was still staring, and she felt a blush rising to her cheeks.

She didn't know him, she was certain.

But she would like to.

She could introduce herself, of course. They were in a bar. People did things like that in bars. Some of them even went to bars specifically for the purpose of meeting people.

Some people did things like that, but she didn't. She hadn't dated in...well, only once since Ken had died. She hadn't been able to work up any interest in the print shop owner Deanna had decided she had to meet. She just hadn't been attracted to him. Maybe her feelings had still been too raw, the sense of loss too new. She had been completely in love with her finance. He had made her smile, made her laugh. And she had been attracted to him from the start. There had been nothing wrong with the print shop owner. He just hadn't been Ken. She just hadn't been attracted to him.

But this stranger staring at her, this man she didn't know from Adam?. She was attracted to him.

She flushed at her own thoughts. Some people picked up strangers in bars. She didn't, not at this stage of her life. She was here for Heidi.

She smiled. ’’Honestly, I didn't mean to ram you. And I do need to get by.’’

’’Right. Sorry’’ He stepped aside.

She walked past him, heading for the door marked ’’Madames.’’ She couldn't help but turn back.

He was still watching her.

Great. She was heading into a ladies room in a dimly lit corridor and a good looking but possibly very weird guy was watching her.

She entered, closed the door and leaned against it. There was no lock on the door, only on the three individual stalls.

I should go back, make Heidi or Deanna come with me, she thought. I'm going to be attacked in a restroom on Bourbon Street.

She was being ridiculous, she told herself. It was just the uneasiness left over from her experience in the fortune teller's tent. The woman was probably still laughing at the three of them. She probably ought to report Susan to the tourist board. Imagine! Trying to scare them, telling them to leave town. That was hardly good for business.

She opened the door a crack and peered out.

The man was gone. She was relieved.

And also disappointed.

She let out a sigh, irritated with herself for still feeling nervous.

She was so nervous, in fact, that she took her time, unwilling to go back out into the club right away. She splashed her face with water after she washed her hands, reminding herself that she was being ridiculous. When she finally left the restroom behind, there was no one in the hallway.

The bar had grown more crowded while she was gone. As she wended her way through the crowd, she could see that Heidi was alone at their table. Frowning, she noticed Deanna was at the bar, chatting with a tall dark man. For a moment her heart thudded. Was it the same man?

No, not unless he had changed his shirt. The man she had met had been wearing a tailored shirt;this man was dressed more casually.

She started toward the bar and her friend. Deanna had definitely imbibed more than she had Tonight, and she wasn't sure she wanted to let her friend get too close to a stranger in that condition.

On the other hand, Deanna wasn't the one getting married. She was free to flirt if she chose.

Apparently she was simply worried in general tonight, Lauren thought. She headed for the bar, but as she did, the man turned and headed out to the street.

’’Hey There,’’ Deanna said as Lauren reached her. ’’Her majesty wanted more cherries for her drink,’’ she said with a grin.

Lauren forced a smile in return. Deanna didn't seem all that drunk, she thought. In fact, she seemed more pleasantly tipsy than anything else. ’’Cool,’’ Lauren responded, then asked, ’’Who was that?’’

’’Who?’’ Deanna frowned and flipped back a length of her long dark hair.

’’The guy who was just there.’’

’’Oh. Just a guy.’’

’’Cute?’’

’’Yeah, kind of.’’

’’And?’’

’’I told him I was with friends tonight,’’ Deanna said. And she laughed. ’’I'm a big girl, so don't worry about me.’’

’’I wasn't worried,’’ Lauren lied.

’’Yes, you were. And you still are. You're still tense.’’ Deanna looked at her and sighed. ’’We shouldn't have made you go to that fortune teller.’’

’’Don't be silly.’’

’’She was weird.’’

’’She was striking, don't you think?’’ Lauren said.

’’A great face to sketch, yes, but weird. Come on. Let's get back to the table. Heidi is going to want her fruit.’’

The band was playing exceptional jazz;it sounded as if they had been together forever. As she sat, Lauren let the music engulf her, and she smiled. She came from this state, after all. She'd been in New Orleans hundreds of times. She knew the city well. Why she was letting the antics of a Jackson Square fortune teller disturb her, she didn't know.

’’So are you ever going to tell us where the honeymoon is going to be?’’ Deanna asked Heidi.

Heidi shrugged. ’’I'll tell you guys, but not Barry's friends. A few of them are crazy enough to show up.’’

’’Okay, where?’’ Lauren asked.

Heidi leaned forward, and her love for her soon-to-be husband was apparent in her gamine smile and powder blue eyes. ’’Fiji,’’ she said.

’’Fiji. Wow,’’ Lauren said.

’’You really think Barry's friends might show up in Fiji?’’ Deanna asked.

’’You never know,’’ Heidi said. ’’I can guarantee you right now that we'll all probably end up in the pool at the reception, and that they'll tie cans to the car and do anything else ridiculous that guys can do. Most of those guys actually graduated from college, and some of them are even lawyers, like Barry, but honestly, they're still like a bunch of kids.’’

’’You're not marrying them, you're marrying Barry,’’ Deanna reminded her.

’’Because he's wonderful,’’ Heidi said, finishing the statement by biting the cherry at the end of her swizzle stick.

’’He is a good guy,’’ Lauren agreed.

’’And he has some very attractive friends-silly, but attractive,’’ Deanna added.

’’I can set you up any time,’’ Heidi promised.

’’I like setting myself up. We'll see what happens at the wedding,’’ Deanna said.

Lauren let out a yawn, then quickly apologized. ’’Sorry.’’

’’It's late, isn't it?’’ Heidi said.

’’Not for New Orleans. And this is your party,’’ Lauren assured her.

’’I know, but I think I'd like to take my party back to our nice cushy cottage,’’ she said.

’’Cool. I'm your slave,’’ Lauren said.

They both looked at Deanna, wondering if she intended to protest.

She laughed. ’’Okay, I admitit. I'm beat, too. But we're pathetic. I guarantee you they'll go all night at Barry's bachelor party.’’

’’Right, but his bachelor party is only one night. We have a whole weekend. We have days left to party,’’ Heidi said. ’’And shop.’’

’’For Fiji,’’ Lauren said.

’’Yep, for Fiji,’’ Heidi agreed. She lifted her glass, and Deanna and Lauren followed suit, clinking their glasses in a toast. ’’Here's to the world's best friends.’’

’’Here's to you, too,’’ Lauren said.

’’Let's not get maudlin,’’ Deanna said.

’’If she wants to be maudlin, we'll be maudlin,’’ Lauren reminded Deanna.

Deanna groaned. ’’Okay, but let's walk in a maudlin manner and get back to the B and B.’’

’’Sounds good,’’ Lauren agreed.

As they headed for their cottage, they talked about the shops Heidi wanted to hit in the morning.

Along Bourbon Street, everything felt fine to Lauren. It was quieter than it had been earlier, but the bars were still open, and people were moving about. Groups still spilled out of the doorways of the clubs. Hawkers were handing out flyers for the strip joints. A group that appeared to be m ade up of retirees was moving along at a good clip. Most of the members seemed to be couples who had spent many years together, and who still enjoyed walking hand in hand. She had to smile. It didn't seem quite the right place, but then again, who was she to say? They were definitely young at heart.

It was when they turned off Bourbon that Lauren first felt the strange stirring of unease.

The street wasn't so well lit anymore.

And it wasn't filled with people.

The sound of Heidi's and Deanna's voices seemed to fade. She wasn't hearing them. Instead, she was watching. Watching the shadows.

They seemed to be moving too much. Houses and buildings, flush against one another, a few feet away, should have been still. Instead, their shadows stretched, became too long, seemed to loom.

Then there was the breeze. She hadn't felt it on Bourbon Street, but it was eerily noticeable now

She quickened her pace.

’’Hey!’’ Heidi's protest broke through her sense of isolation.

’’What?’’ Lauren asked.

’’Do we really have to run back?’’

’’I think we should hurry, yes,’’ Lauren said.

’’You told me this was a safe area,’’ Heidi protested.

’’It is. But...it's late,’’ Lauren said.

’’Look. Up ahead,’’ Deanna said.

’’What?’’ Lauren said, her heart quickening.

’’Mounted police officer,’’ Deanna said dryly.

’’Oh.’’ Lauren slowed her pace a bit, as they passed the officer, who touched his helmet and wished them goodnight, then rode on toward Bourbon Street. As soon as he was gone, she started hurrying again. She couldn't help herself.

’’Lauren, slow down,’’ Deanna begged. ’’My legs aren't working too well.’’

’’That's because they want to be stretched out in bed,’’ Lauren said.

’’You two are tall-I'm not,’’ Heidi reminded her.

Gritting her teeth, Lauren forced herself to slow down. She was frightened, and she didn't know why. And she was angry. She'd never been frightened here before in her life.

It was all because of that damn fortune teller.

She made herself keep to a slower pace, but she couldn't stop herself from watching the shadows. And no matter how hard she tried to tell herself she was being ridiculous, she was certain the shadows were doing things shadows weren't supposed to do. She couldn't help but feel they were watching her.

The bed and breakfast, with its lovely courtyard and cottages, was straight ahead. She had to forcibly stop herself from breaking into a run.

But then they were there and she let out a sigh, praying that it wasn't audible. The cast iron gates, dating back to the eighteen-forties, were opened to the main manor and the old cottages surrounding it.

Theirs was the middle cottage, directly facing the pool. Lauren all but dragged her friends toward it.

’’Honestly, Lauren,’’ Heidi began to protest.

’’See, we're here. Your stubby little legs can get a rest.’’

’’Stubby little legs!’’ Heidi objected. ’’Some slave you are.’’

’’But we're here. Aren't you glad?’’ Lauren demanded.

Deanna yawned, pulling out her key and opening the door. ’’Yeah, yeah, great, we're here.’’ She turned around and said speculatively, ’’Look how good that pool looks.’’

’’You want to go swimming-now?’’ Lauren demanded.

’’Well, I'm sweating-since I ran back,’’ Deanna said.

’’We'd make a racket,’’ Lauren said quickly.

’’No one said that we couldn't swim at night,’’ Heidi said.

’’We've all had a fair bit to drink. No one is going to save us if we begin to drown,’’ Lauren informed them, longing desperately to go inside and lock the door.

’’She's right, you know. We have had too much to drink,’’ Heidi said.

’’Right,’’ Lauren announced. She pushed open the door fully open and turned on the light. They'd left the television on. She was glad. She was even happier to realize that it was showing a 70's sitcom, not some creepy horror show.

’’How are we sleeping?’’ Heidi asked. There were two double beds in the bedroom behind the kitchen/living room area where they were standing. In the outer room, the bed was a pull-out sofa.

’’I'll take the bed out here, and you two can have the real beds,’’ Lauren said. She would have taken a hard wooden floor at that moment, she was so relieved just to be back in their cottage.

’’You sure? You can bunk in with one of us,’’ Deanna offered.

’’You snore when you drink,’’ Lauren said, grinning for real at last. ’’I'll be fine out here.’’

’’I do not snore!’’ Deanna protested.

’’You do,’’ Heidi told her, grinning. ’’But only when you drink,’’ she added quickly.

’’Hmph,’’ Deanna muttered, and started for the bedroom.

’’I guess that means she's taking first dibs on the bathroom,’’ Heidi said, shrugging. ’’I'm getting into pajamas and crashing.’’ She gave Lauren a hug goodnight. ’’Thanks-this is the best trip, ever.’’

’’Absolutely,’’ Lauren agreed, wishing she could believe it was true.

She watched Heidi walk into the bedroom, too, then turned to open the sofa bed. It wasn't so bad. The closet offered plenty of extra bedding and pillows, and she could brush her teeth and wash her face in the half-bath next to the kitchen.

Clad in boxers and a T-shirt, she started to turn off the TV and the lights.

Then she hesitated.

She left the TV on, wanting the sounds of a sitcom to lure her to sleep. She left the bathroom light on, then turned off the others. When she was done, she found herself walking to the window that looked out onto the courtyard and pool.

She had intended to reassure herself. Instead, she felt a jolt of ice rip along her spinal cord.

There was someone out there.

A man.

Watching their cottage.

He was leaning against a utility pole out by the street, but, despite the high fence, she could see him, and she knew he was staring at the cottage.

What was worse was the fact that she knew who he was.

Tall, dark hair, piercing blue eyes.

It was the man she had crashed into at the bar.

A scream froze in her throat. But then, as if he knew he was being watched in return, he stepped away from the pole and walked away. She saw the breadth of his back for a few seconds, and then he was gone.

She realized a few seconds later that she had a death grip on the curtains, and that she was still staring out at the night, which now appeared completely calm and normal.

She bit her lower lip, wondering if she should call the police. And tell them what? That she had no evidence, but she was certain a man she had met in a bar had followed them home and stared at their cottage? Like that would be a pressing concern to men who had to deal with real problems, drugs, thugs and nasty drunks. But no matter what the police would think, she was sure that they had been...

Stalked.

She glanced toward the bedroom. The door was ajar and the room was quiet. Heidi and Deanna were probably sound asleep already.

All right, she would just call the police and ask if an officer could do a few drive-bys during the night.

They would undoubtedly think she was a jumpy freak. But better that than...

Determined, she walked over and closed the door to the bedroom. Then she did call the police, using the non-emergency number. A very polite officer took her information, assured her that she wasn't an idiot and promised that a car would check the property throughout the night.

When she hung up, she felt almost smug. She got a can of Coke from the refrigerator and curled her legs beneath her on the sofa-bed to watch TV.

But as she sat there, the cold from her soda seemed to seep into her bones. She couldn't help but replay the her fading memories of the strange scene in the fortune teller's tent. Now, alone in the dark, the details seemed to be coming back.

She had the strangest feeling that the evil being in the crystal ball had been real.

And that a dozen police officers couldn't stand against the soul-stealing danger that he presented.

She had seen him. Great. Now she would think he was stalking her.

He was still in shock himself. It was impossible for anyone to look so much like Katie, and yet...It was as if his fiancee had been cloned. Even her smile, the way she flushed slightly, the slight hike of her brow...all were simply Katie.

As he walk away from the B and B, he was all too aware the woman in question was probably still watching him from the window.

Then, to his surprise, he noticed that there was a light on over the door to the main house, and several lights still blazing inside.

He made a point of walking away, then doubling back. The curtain at the cottage had dropped. He was free and clear. He walked up the porch steps of the main house and tried the door. It was open.

’’Hello?’’

A long hall led back to a desk. He admired the main house as he walked in;it reminded him of the Cornstalk, another bed and breakfast, and one of the loveliest in New Orleans. A curved stairway led to the upper rooms, while the hall branched off toward several more. He knew that each one would be a little bit different. That was the beauty of such a place: nothing was cookie-cutter;every room would have something all its own.

’’Hello!’’ a cheerful voice called from the end of the hall.

He walked on to the desk. A woman of about sixty, with shimmering silvery white hair, was sitting there. Papers were strewn before her, and a computer was on a table to her left.

’’I saw the lights on,’’ Mark said.

’’I suppose I should lock up and go to bed, but I've discovered that I love being an innkeeper,’’ she said. She had a great smile, dark eyes, and an aura of energy about her, even as she sat still. ’’I'm Lilly Martin. How do you do?’’

’’I'm Mark Davidson, and I'm great, thanks. I think your inn is wonderful. I was hoping you might have a cottage left.’’

She cocked her head slightly. ’’You're looking for a room at three AM?’’

He laughed. ’’I have a room, but I just saw your place, and I think it's enchanting.’’

Lilly Martin flushed with pleasure. ’’Thank you so much. And I do have a cottage vacant. I'm not sure I'd feel right, though. I can't just give you the room for free, but I can't really charge you for a full night, either.’’

’’We could split the difference,’’ he suggested.

’’Lovely. Sold,’’ Lilly said.

She turned toward the computer. ’’Let's see. Mark Davidson. Address and phone, length of stay, and will this be on a credit card?’’

He produced his driver's license and credit card. As she looked at the information, he made a point of looking over her shoulder. The registrations for the night were up on the screen.

He scanned the screen quickly. The girls were obvious. Cottage five.

Lauren Crow, Heidi Weiss, Deanna???.

He leaned back, smiling

As she typed information into the computer, Lilly asked, ’’Just being nosy, Mark, but what do you do for a living?’’

’’I'm a writer.’’

’’Oh! Have I read anything you've written?’’

He hesitated. ’’Probably not. I mostly do sports articles for syndication,’’ he lied.

She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. ’’Hm. And here I thought you might be an underwear model.’’

’’What?’’

She laughed. ’’Sorry. You look like those guys in the ads.’’

’’Uh, thanks. I think.’’

’’Or a ninja,’’ she added.

’’A ninja?’’

She laughed. ’’Silly of me. Okay. Maybe a cop. Or FBI.’’

’’Just a writer,’’ he said. ’’But thanks.’’ Ninja?

Within ten minutes, Lilly had him registered and he had a key to his cottage. He hesitated, though. ’’You really should lock up this late at night,’’ he told her.

’’I know. My kids would be angry.’’

’’As well they should be.’’

’’But I filled another cottage tonight, didn't?’’ she asked cheerfully.

He turned to her, catching her hands. ’’Yes, but it's not safe, Lilly. Please, lock up much, much earlier, okay?’’

She let out a soft sigh. ’’Yes, of course, you're right.’’ She winked. ’’But don't tell on me, okay? Anyway, it's bedtime for both of us now. In the morning, coffee and croissants are served in the dining room, to your left there, or on the patio, by the pool.’’

’’Great. Thanks. I'll go pick up things from my dreaded chain hotel,’’ he told her, grinning. ’’Then I'll be back.’’

After she accompanied him to the main door and watched him go, he heard her slide the bolt, and he was relieved. It worried him a bit to stay here;he hoped he wasn't putting Lilly in danger.

But if he thought that woman looked like Katie, so would Stephan. And he knew that Stephan was here. He had followed the creature's trail from Abruzzi to Cannes to Esse*, then here to New Orleans. Mark was convinced that it was only a matter of time before Stephan saw the woman-if he hadn't seen her already.

Because Stephan was definitely here. He could feel it.

Mark simply hadn't expected that he would come across so many other vampires along the way. Tonight he could have sworn he had found Stephan at last, but he'd been wrong. Was he going to think that every tall, dark man he caught a glimpse of was Stephan?

It had still been a good night's work. He couldn't regret killing the vampire in the cemetery. He'd saved someone's life, at least.

And yet...

The lust for vengeance was like a fire inside him. Complicated now.

Because it was as if Katie had come back to life.

She was sleeping...dreaming, Lauren thought.

She had to be.

She was there, at the bar. And he was there, too.

He said something, teasing her, as if they had been friends forever. No, lovers forever. She could smell something that teased her senses. Something that affected not just her flesh but her mind, awakening her sensuality from within, touching her most erotic zones.

Then he was touching her. Stroking her.

She awoke suddenly, the faint sound of a click in her ears. She realized that the television was still on;now it was an infomercial diet pills.

The dream weighed heavily on her, but she knew that a noise, something that wasn't the TV, had awakened her.

The door. She had heard the door opening.

She leapt up, looking around. The bolt was undone, and she threw the door open, thinking only afterwards that it was a stupid thing to do.

But she was glad she had done it..

Deanna was outside, standing at the end of the pool, talking aloud as if she were carrying on a conversation with someone invisible, or maybe someone who had just left.

Lauren burst out after her friend, calling her name. ’’Deanna!’’

Deanna didn't move.

Lauren raced around in front of her, grabbing her shoulders and staring into her eyes. They were glazed. Deanna didn't even see her.

’’Hey!’’ She gave her friend a shake. Nothing. ’’Deanna!’’ A harder shake.

Deanna started, her eyes widening in alarm. ’’Lauren?’’

’’Hey, you, what are you doing?’’

’’Sleeping,’’ Deanna said, her features twisted into a mask of confusion.

’’Sleep walking,’’ Lauren corrected, confused herself. Deanna had never done this before, at least as far as she knew.

’’Weird,’’ Deanna said. She looked around at the foliage, the shimmering water in the pool, the shadows of the night. ’’I'm lucky I didn't fall in the pool and drown.’’

’’You don't remember coming out here at all? Really?’’

Deanna shook her head and groaned. ’’No more of those drinks with all the shots in them, bachelorette party or not.’’

’’Good thought,’’ Lauren agreed. She felt a chill, remembering how she had seen the man standing by the pole earlier. What if he had still been hanging around? ’’Let's go in.’’

’’I'll put a chair in front of the door,’’ Lauren said as soon as they were inside, the door safely locked behind them.

Deanna gave her a quick hug. ’’Thanks,’’ she said huskily.

Deanna went back into the bedroom, and Lauren lay down again, troubled. She was so tired. Her lids became heavy. She drifted.

And dreamed.

Mark returned to the bed and breakfast with his car and belongings. He glanced at his watch. It was four in the morning.

Once he had parked and grabbed his overnight bag, he stood in the courtyard. Unease trickled through him.

He could smell it. Sense it.

Someone had been here.

He dropped his bag and hurried to the cottage where the girls were staying. He tried the door. Locked. He prayed God it had remained so since he had left.

But he didn't like it. Didn't like it at all.

What if Stephan had discovered the woman, the one who looked like Katie?

He was tempted to pound on the door, to make sure the girls were all right. But all signs were that they were locked in, sound asleep, safe. If they began to think of him as a danger, an insane man, he wouldn't be able to help them.

It occurred to him that he was in a perfect position to use the women in his own quest. He was here;they were here.

The perfect bait.

No, he told himself, gritting his teeth painfully. Never bait. Never.

He stared at the door for a moment longer, then looked around the courtyard. Whoever had been here was gone. Long gone, probably. Regretfully, he walked softly away from the door, seeking his own cottage.

Luckily, it was right next door.

Lauren awoke to a hint of sunlight making its way through the draperies and the sound of chirping birds.

She frowned as she woke, despite the miraculous wonder of daylight. At least she hadn't had any wretched dreams about fortune tellers or scary creatures in crystal balls. She hadn't even dreamed about Deanna walking out into the courtyard, sound asleep. Now that was scary-and real.

Instead she had continued with the dream she had started before going out after Deanna, and that was very scary, as well.

And far too real.

She'd dreamed about him.

She flushed at the thought. It had been so bizarre. She'd been back in the bar, back at the point where she'd crashed into him. And it had been...

Incredibly erotic.

And insanely real. She had seen the walls, with their old posters of jazz greats. She had even smelled the slightly stale scent of alcohol that lingered around any bar, the hint of old smoke. She had seen the shadows and the dim light. And the man. They had looked at one another, and the next thing she had known, she'd been in his arms, no introduction, no small talk. Thankfully she couldn't remember how they had shed their clothing. But she had certainly been naked, just as he had been, in the shadowy hallway, flush against him, feeling his flesh and heat, his very life, as he pressed her against the wall. She could almost remember the feel of his lips against hers, and on her flesh. The hardness of his erection as he made love to her against the wall in a bar.

Even though it had only been a dream, it was humiliating. In a thousand years, she would never do such a thing, especially with a stranger. With a man who might be actively dangerous.

She groaned softly. She really, desperately, needed a life.

She sat up and stretched, straightened and smiled.

Daylight. Once she rose, drank some coffee and showered, surely the reality of the dream would fade. She decided that she couldn't even share it with Heidi or Deanna. It was simply too embarrassing. Too...personal.

She shook her head, rose and headed straight for the coffee machine.

Heidi and Deanna were still completely out-she could see the dark head in one bed and the blond one in the other. She opted for a shower while the other two slept on.

As the water streamed over her, she groaned aloud softly. She wasn't afraid, exactly, but she felt uneasy in her own skin, unable to forget the pure sensuality of the dream. She could imagine his hands, the way they had felt on her bare flesh.

She finished her shower as fast as she could.

She definitely needed a life, she thought again. It was just so difficult. She was past the age of looking for fun and enjoyment while she set her career in motion. She wanted something real, commitment, respect...and, of course, passion. Something like what she'd had with Ken. Deanna was always telling her that she didn't need to make a commitment before the first date, and that she would never know if she really liked a man enough to love him if she didn't take a few chances. But it was hard to go back to dating after she'd been engaged, in love and ready for the future. She loathed the idea of dating again. It was just too...uncomfortable. And potentially painful.

As Lauren poured coffee, Deanna emerged from the bedroom. She looked rumpled and still tired.

’’Bless you, my child,’’ she proclaimed. ’’Coffee.’’

’’And more in the courtyard when we're ready for breakfast,’’ Lauren said. She hesitated, then asked, ’’Are you okay?’’

’’Just tired,’’ Deanna said.

’’Well, you were rather active in the middle of the night,’’ Lauren reminded her.

Deanna took a cup of coffee and sipped it. ’’I have never, ever, done anything like that before in my life.’’

’’Alcohol,’’ Lauren suggested.

’’Sadly, I have been a bit wasted before,’’ Deanna admitted.

’’You don't remember anything at all?’’

Deanna shook her head, but her eyes were lowered. Lauren thought there was more, but she couldn't force Deanna to tell her what it was. She could only hope that Deanna would explain more when she was ready.

Lauren walked to the door and moved the chair she had set against it. ’’Well, let's see what unlight streaming on the pool does for the day, huh?’’ She opened the door.

A newspaper was lying on the mat.

She stooped down to pick it up and couldn't help but read the huge headline immediately.

Headless Female Corpse Found in Mississippi.

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