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THE NIGHT WAS hot and wet, but Rachel Matre felt oddly distant from it as she stood naked on the edge of Lake Mendota, her bare feet sinking in the warm mud. Her belly fluttered with nervousness, and she wrung her hands unconsciously. But what was normally something she desiredsomething she craved and couldn't live withoutnow felt tentative and uncertain.
I almost failed them; what if they no longer want me?
Rachel was thirty-four but looked younger, with a body kept trim and firm by regular jogging. She had unruly blond hair and full lips, and a haunted look in her eyes that spoke of past traumas hidden deep and well.
She was in tiny Hudson Park, hidden from view by the effigy mound of a water spirit. It had been built by an ancient, now-vanished Native American tribe called the Lo-Stahzi, and the park existed to protect it. The park, and the rest of downtown Madison, Wisconsin, occupied a narrow isthmus between Mendota and its sister lake, Monona. Here was where she met her spectral lovers.
The spirits of the lake, ancient and inexplicable, had saved Rachel from drowning when she was a teen. Ever since, she had returned to their amorous, erotic, and insatiable embrace. She came to them naked, in the middle of the night, and they pulled her beneath the surface and enveloped her in sensual safety. They took her to heights of passion she never dreamed possible, and in return she helped them right wrongs in the surface world. She had no idea who they were or why they were here, only that they loved her and protected her.
Or at least they had once. But did they still want her, after what had happened? Not only had she failed in her task to protect a young woman named Patty Patilia from danger, but her own body was now marked by another man. The outline of a tattoo covered her torso from breasts to below her navel, placed there against her will by the madman Arlin Korbus. As she stepped into the water, she wondered if the spirits would even want her this way. Her body had been used against her will, but she still felt guilty for it. At weak moments she thought that if she'd just allowed him to do the tattoo in the first place, perhaps he wouldn't have gone on the rampage that left one woman dead and four others marked for life. She knew rationally none of it was her fault, that Korbus acted for his own reasons, but that knowledge did little to stem her own sense of responsibility for what happened. She hid her shame at her violated flesh from everyone else, but the spirits would know. They always knew.
She took another step. Soft silt squirted up between her toes. A wave broke against her thigh, splashing across her abdomen and the evidence of her recent ordeal. Korbus had kidnapped her, along with four other girls, and planned to mark their bodies with designs they'd once refused. Rachel had fought back, ultimately killing Korbus with her bare hands. But only Ethan Walker's timely arrival had saved Patty from the effects of a black widow spider bite.
"Please," she whispered. "Please take me. I did the best I could. Please."
She needn't have worried. The first touch came gentlyan unmistakable caress along her calf that raised glorious goose bumps. The fingers trailed up her leg, across her knee, and then along the inside of her thigh. They faded as they neared her most intimate place, and for just a moment she feared it was a farewell, not a welcome.
Then the hands were everywhere, just as they'd always been, and they pulled her beneath the surface. As always, even though she was underwater, their magic allowed her to breathe in safety.
We have missed you, the voices said in her head as watery lips closed over her nipples. We have ached for your body. Hands pushed her thighs apart, exposing her in a way that would be grotesque in any other situation. But here, floating in a world with no up or down, she welcomed it. Already she was wet inside before the slippery, liquid tongue began stroking her, and teeth just firm enough for the purpose nibbled at her clit.
It was all it had ever been, and more. She would've screamed with relief and delight if she'd been above the surface.
Another tongue traced the still-sensitive line of her new tattoo. We will always treasure you. You will never be defiled to us. Bring us your pain, your troubles, and drown them with us.
She felt a rush of emotion too powerful for words.
It was like an amorphous orgy with her at the center. All attention focused on her needs, sensing when things grew too intense and she required a moment to recover. Yet the passion never really abated. She was caressed, kissed, sucked, and penetrated. It went on for so long that she began to wonder if they ever intended to let her go. Could she die this way? she thought, after innumerable orgasms. And would she care?
But the spirits had more than sex on their minds. When they finally released her and she stumbled, exhausted and rubber-legged, to the bank, she collapsed on the grass and realized her skin tingled in a new way. She looked down at her naked body glistening in the pink illumination from nearby streetlights. It took a moment to realize what had changed.
The tattoo was gone.
The outline of Arlin Korbus's insane imagea forest scene with half-naked dancing girls that covered her torsohad vanished. No evidence remained that it had ever been there. Only her original tattooa small, simple outline of the park's effigy mound just below her navelremained.
She went from shock to delight to relief so quickly that she could only express the emotions through tears. She ran her hands over her body again and again, checking for any indication that she'd imagined it. But there was no doubt that the tattoo was gone.
Suddenly she thought, not of herself, but of Patty Patilia. The girl the spirits asked her to protect, the one they called a "treasure." Patty was marked as well, and she faced weeks of painful laser procedures if she wished to remove the visible signs of Korbus's violation. But if the spirits could so easily remove Rachel's tattoo
"Wait!" Rachel cried. Her voice rang through the silent darkness, causing a nearby dog to bark. But by then she'd already dived back into the lake.
She kicked along the bottom, her mind screaming, Please don't go. Not yet! She'd never issued this kind of demand before, and had no idea if the lake spirits would respond.
But with no warning she was enveloped, spun onto her back, and pressed down into the silt. She was penetrated deeply and completely, and brought to orgasm with no time to prepare.
As the waves of feeling faded, she formed the thought that had driven her back into the water. Please help Patty. She's got no one here who can save her the way you saved me! You called her your treasure, remember? She needs you.
Hands caressed her everywhere at once, and a voice whispered, You are kind, and caring, and we love you for it. We will protect our treasure. Her need shall be answered.
Thank you, she thought. Thank you! And then, exhausted, she climbed from the water.
PATTY PATILIA SAT on her bed in her favorite sleep shirt, wide awake. Her skin still crawled from the violating hands in her dream. She could rationalize everything that had happened to her consciouslyespecially the certainty that Arlin Korbus would never harm anyone ever again. She'd seen him die, after all. But that did nothing to stop her subconscious from resurrecting him.
In her dreams she was still bound by duct tape, her screams muffled and her struggles useless. She felt the cold touch of the knife's flat edge sliding against her skin while the sharp side sliced away her clothing. There was no escaping the thoughts of shame, terror, and helplessness; they lived as vividly as if they'd just happened moments before. And when she dreamed of the spider, she always woke up screaming.
The hardwood floor creaked as she walked to the bathroom and drank some water. She had the upstairs studio in an old house that was divided into three apartments, and as she looked around at her meager belongings, she felt a rush of disappointment. I graduated a year ago, she thought, and here I am still living like a student, playing my songs in coffeehouses basically for tips. My CDs sound like crap. Maybe my dad is right. I'm just another whiny bitch with a guitar. Nothing special at all.
She picked up her guitar from its stand by the bed. Music had always been her voice when words failed her. She put the strap over her shoulder and began to pick softly as she paced the room. As she fumed, the gentle strumming changed to a grind of great raw chords that, even with an acoustic instrument, sounded loud and violent. She continued until there was a knock at her apartment door.
She froze, and saw by the clock that it was nearly two in the morning. She pulled on her robe and opened the door as far as the security chain allowed, prepared for the irate neighbor she knew stood outside.
Instead, it was a young man she'd never seen before. A reflexive jolt of fear went through her.
"Hi," he said. "I, uh . . . heard you playing."
She choked down the lump in her throat. Strangers never used to terrify her. "I'm sorry, I know it's late, I just got carried away. It won't happen again."
"No, it didn't bother me at all. In fact, I really liked it." He smiled and ducked his chin demurely, and she felt a totally unexpected tingle that dissipated almost all her fear. "My name's Dewey, by the way. Dewey Raintree."
She giggled. "Really?" Although she could see only half his face through the opening, she was almost instantly infatuated. He was exactly the type of boy she always fell for like a skydiver with a bad parachute: slender, about her height, with disheveled dark hair and round John Lennon glasses. His smile was open, kind, and apparently came easy. The twinkle in his eyes woke the dormant butterflies inside her.
He smiled bashfully. "Yes, really. I know it's a little silly."
"No, I'm sorry, I just . . . It sounds kind of like a character on a TV show. The Adventures of Dewey Raintree."
"Would I travel the country in a van solving mysteries?"
Again she giggled. "With your semiverbal Great Dane?"
"Named Ramlet?" he said in a Scooby-Doo voice.
Now she really laughed, and so did he. When she paused for breath he said, "The reason I knocked on your door was that I thought maybe we could play together." He raised his own guitar case so she could see it. "I'm not very good, though. They say rock and roll is three chords, and the truth? I know two chords and some gossip."
He's a musician, too, she thought, and her knees grew weak. All the emotions and feelings she feared gone forever surged back, apparently determined to make up for lost time.
"I know you don't know me, and I don't expect you to let me in," he said quickly. "I thought maybe we could sit on the porch downstairs. The two guys in that apartment are gone for the summer, so we shouldn't bother anyone if we're quiet."
She hesitated then, the butterflies suddenly replaced with the buzzing, beelike terror. Before Arlin Korbus, this would've been a no-brainer; she had thought the world safe, and that people were basically good.
As if reading her thoughts, Dewey said, "Tell you what. Call or email someone and tell them you'll be with me if you want. Heck, take a picture with your cellphone. I promise, I have no ulterior motives." He grinned shyly. "Okay, that's not entirely true, but I promise to be a gentleman."
Close and lock the door, her fear said.
Bite me, she said to her fear. "Give me two seconds to get dressed and send that email. I'll meet you downstairs."
He actually blushed with delight. "Great. I'll see you there."
RACHEL LAY AWAKE in bed, her hair still damp from her post-swim shower. She was naked, staring up at the ceiling, her nerve ends still janglingly alive. Her hands ran slowly, lightly, over her skin. Her cat Tainter slept on the floor beside the bed, his light feline breathing the only sound.
Mainly she felt relief. The spirits still wanted her, and they loved her enough to use their magic to remove the ghastly marks of her captivity. The medical procedure to do the same thing was long-term, expensive, and painful. And when she'd asked for help with Patty, they'd promised to do so. She wondered how that would manifest.
Then with no warning, her thoughts turned to Ethan Walker and their single night together. Ethan of the strong, supple body and melting blue eyes, who accepted her tale of the lake spirits and responded to the magical call for help sent through them. She'd killed Arlin Korbus on her own, but without Ethan's aid escaping from that basement, Patty Patilia would have died.
The spirits had accepted Ethan; if she brought him to the water and made love to him there, she could be like any woman with her human lover. It was something she'd wanted ever since she understood the nature of the lake spirits' power over her. And what had she said to him? I'm afraid if you stay around right now, every time I see you it'll remind me of what happened. And I don't want that. Not for me, and not for you. That hadn't been the truth, though. The truth was that she wanted him desperately, but she still hesitated and wasn't at all sure why. What was she really afraid of?
Still, her hands changed from reassuring caresses to something more purposeful. She should've been exhausted, all desire burned out by the spirits' ravishing, but at the memory of Ethan's touch it roared back at full intensity. She knew she couldn't achieve orgasm, but neither could she stop, and she squeezed and touched herself urgently, moaning softly so as not to wake the cat. She writhed on the bed, one hand clamped between her thighs, the other cupping a breast, content to be awash in mere desire after the series of shattering climaxes in the water.
AND ACROSS THE isthmus, in bed beside Dewey Raintree, Patty Patilia felt a very similar satisfaction.