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"I wish I was going to dream about the man I was going to marry," Cassie said and grinned. "I know how excited you are about it."
Chloe Bradley Wright looked at her sister. "Oh, yeah. Too excited for words." She fingered the soft lace of the nightgown she held. "Do I have to do this?"
"You don't have to do anything."
If only that were true, Chloe thought with regret. But she did have to wear the stupid nightgown. It was her twenty-fifth birthday and time for her to participate in the family legend. Not that she believed in magic or happily-ever-after. As far as she was concerned, falling in love or caring about someone was a one-way ticket to heartache.
She opened her mouth to express her opinion, then pressed her lips tightly together. She might not be a believer, but her sister, Cassie, had more than enough faith for the both of them.
Chloe stared into the face that was nearly as familiar as her own. Cassie was adopted, but younger by only six months. The two girls had been together since Cassie was four weeks old and they were best friends. Chloe had shared her admittedly cynical opinion on more than one occasion, but Cassie's belief in the legend had never wavered. Who was she to try and change her sister's mind now? It was just for one night. What could it hurt?
"I'll wear it," she said, trying to sound gracious.
Cassie leaned forward and hugged her. "I knew you would," she said and bounced off the bed. Her short, thick brown hair swung around her face. "I'll go tell Aunt Charity. Won't she be surprised?"
"Probably not," Chloe muttered when she was alone. Aunt Charity had a sixth sense about these things. No doubt the older woman figured she already knew whom Chloe was going to dream about.
"I'm not going to dream about anyone," she said aloud as she pulled her T-shirt over her head, then slipped out of her jeans. "It's just a nightgown. It has no mystic powers. It's now the twenty-first century, for heaven's sake! No one believes that kind of thing."
She unfastened her bra and tossed the garment onto the floor, then picked up the nightgown. The cotton was cool to her touch and she shivered involuntarily.
"It's nothing," she insisted. But she hesitated before pulling the soft fabric over her head. What if the legend was true? What if she was really going to dream about the man she was destined to love? What if"What if people have been abducted by aliens lurking in cornfields?" she asked aloud.
"Oh, I don't think those stories are true," her aunt said as she entered the bedroom. Charity raised dark eyebrows. "So how much did Cassie have to twist your arm to get you to wear it tonight?"
Chloe shrugged as she smoothed the nightgown in place. "Not too much. I figure it's an inevitable rite of passage for Bradley women, as inescapable as birthdays and taxes. I'm just sorry she's going to be disappointed in the morning."
"Yes," Charity said as she moved to the bed and pulled back the covers. "It will be sad. Cassie is one of those rare types who is a true believer. There aren't many left."
Chloe had turned twenty-five that very day, but suddenly she felt like a ten-year-old with a favorite relative staring at a less than perfect report card, all the while telling her the low grades were fine, as long as she'd tried her best.
"You can't tell me you believe in the legend," Chloe said as she plopped down on the edge of her bed.
Charity settled next to her. The older woman was of average height with the Wright family's dark eyes and hair. She had to be in her mid-fifties, but she could have easily passed for someone a dozen years younger.
"I've traveled all around the world," Charity reminded her. "I've seen many amazing things. As for magic and legends?" She shrugged. "Who's to say what's real and what isn't?"
Chloe snorted indelicately. "Give me a break. So you're saying that this nightgown is several hundred years old and is magical?"
"You never know."
Chloe fingered the soft cotton. "It's in pretty good shape for an antique."
"So am I, dear." Charity patted her hand.
"You're hardly an antique." She drew in a deep breath. "It would be nice if it were all true, but I just can't take that step of faith."
"That's the reporter in you."
"Agreed. But someone in this family has to be practical. Between you and Cassie, you've always got your heads in the clouds."
"I'm back," Cassie announced as she bounded back in the room. She held something in her hand and before Chloe could figure out what it was, she tossed it in the air. Dozens of red, pink and cream rose petals drifted over Chloe, Aunt Charity and the bed.
"My contribution," her sister said with a smile as she settled in the small wingback chair by the closet door.
Chloe pulled rose petals from her hair. Her irritation faded in the presence of such loving support. Who was she to fight against tradition?
"You win," she said as she stood up.
Charity rose as well. "It's best, dear. You'll see." She waited until Chloe climbed into bed, then tucked in the covers. "Sleep well."
When she'd left, Cassie moved close and crouched down. "Dream of someone wonderful," she instructed. "Rich and handsome and very loving." Her wide dark eyes softened at the thought. "Someone who will want to be with you forever."
"What a romantic," Chloe teased. "I'll do my best."
Cassie straightened. "In the morning, I want details. Lots of them."
"I promise. Oh, and thanks for the party. It was great."
Her sister smiled. "My pleasure." She walked out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Chloe leaned up on one elbow and clicked off the lamp, then settled onto the bed that had been hers since she'd turned thirteen. The room had been decorated several times, but except for three years in high school, she'd slept here her whole life. Everything about the room, the house and even the town was familiar to her. Yet tonight, it all felt different.
"Atmosphere," she told herself softly. It was all the talk of magic and legends. Even a confirmed cynic like her was bound to be affected.
She pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. Memories from her twenty-fifth-birthday party drifted through her mind and made her smile. She'd wanted something small, friends and family only. Cassie and Aunt Charity had prepared dinner. The presents had been mostly gag gifts, which she preferred. Nothing sentimental for her.
She had a busy week planned at the magazine. She mentally listed all she had to do in the next few days.
As her mind relaxed and she started to get sleepy, thoughts of the legend intruded. According to family lore, several centuries ago a young woman had saved an old gypsy from certain death. In return the gypsy had given her a magic nightgown. If the women in her familythe Bradley familywore this nightgown the night of their twenty-fifth birthday, they would dream of the man they were destined to marry. The union would be long and happy.
"Yeah, right," Chloe muttered as she turned on her side. "He'll probably come riding up on a white horse and sweep me away."
She knew exactly what she was going to dream aboutwhat she always dreamed about. Nothing. Her nights were as quiet and uneventful as an empty drawer and that was just how she liked them. The nightgown wasn't magic. The legend wasn't real. And she was suddenly very, very sleepy.
He appeared out of the darkness, not on a white horse, but in a Jeep that roared up the side of the mountain.
"This isn't happening," Chloe told herself even as anticipation filled her. She clung to the side of the rocks as the wind whipped at her hair and made the hem of her nightgown snap like a sail.
"Nightgown?" She stared down at herself. Dear Lord, she was naked except for a thin layer of lacy cotton. What on earth?
"You're dreaming," she told herself. "That's all. Just dreaming. Go with it and you'll be fine."
But the reassurance didn't keep her heart from pounding as the Jeep drew closer. The man inside stopped it a scant two feet from her, then climbed out.
He was tallsubstantially taller than her five feet nine inchesand lean. "At least he's really good-looking," Chloe said to herself. "I mean if I have to dream about some strange guy, I don't want him to look like the king of the nerds or something."
The man didn't speak. Instead he walked over to her, ripped off his shirt, then pulled her hard against his gleaming chest.
"I like this," she said, feeling the masculine length of his body pressing into hers.
"Hush, love. I am your destiny."
"Uh-huh. And I'm a direct descendant of Queen Victoria."
She stared into the greenest eyes she'd ever seen. The dream was amazingly real. She could feel the wind, the heat of the man's body, his breath on her cheek. She swallowed. She even felt him pressing up against her. Wow! She had to get out more. Her subconscious was obviously way too bored with her life.
"I want you," the man said.
"Then take me, big boy. I'm yours."
He kissed her. Chloe stifled a shriek of both shock and pleasure. Talk about going for it. His mouth claimed hers in the most perfect, masterful way. She felt small and delicate and incredibly free. This was a dream, after all. She could say or do anything she wanted and no one would ever have to know.
She clutched his face and pulled back. "I have one request," she said.
"Make it. I'll do anything for you."
"Great. Just don't disappear on me until we're finished, okay? I hate those sex dreams where I wake up about thirty seconds from the good part. It does not make for a restful night."
Instead of answering, he swept her up in his arms and carried her into the cave. There a fire burned low. Their bed was soft, fresh, sweet-smelling straw. How nice of her brain to supply the details.
The stranger made love to her with a tender thoroughness that left her breathless and trembling. He touched and kissed every part of her. Much to her relief, she didn't wake up before the good part. In fact the good part happened at least twice. He even made her scream once and she'd never been a screamer.
"Who are you?" she asked when they at last stretched out together. They were both slick with sweat and breathing hard. She traced his perfect body, her fingers lingering on a scar on his left forearm.
"So you said, but do you actually have a name, or should I just call you Mr. D.?"
He raised his head and stared at her. His gaze was so intense, she felt as if she could see down to the bottom of his soul. Whatever lurked there called to her. She wanted to respond, but didn't know how. This was still a dream, right? It wasn't real. But for that second, she desperately wanted it to be.
"You'll know me," he told her as the world around them faded to black.
She tried to grab on to him, but his hand slipped through hers. Before she could even cry out, he was gone and she was alone.
"How was it? Start at the beginning and talk very slowly." Chloe blinked at the bright light and realized it was morning. She glanced around in confusion, then saw she was back in her own room, in her familiar bed. Cassie bounced on the mattress next to her and grinned. "So, who is he? Who did you dream about?"
Chloe sat up slowly. Her head was spinning and she couldn't quite wake up. Maybe because she didn't feel rested. It was almost as if she'd spent the night running around. Or making love with a handsome, mysterious stranger.
She pushed the last thought away. Nothing had happened. She'd had a couple of weird dreams. They were probably the result of too much chocolate cake and ice cream. They didn't mean anything.
Cassie was still in the oversized T-shirt she regularly wore to bed. Her thick hair was mussed, her face flushed from sleep. "Do you mean to tell me you didn't dream about anyone? Not even one guy?"
Chloe sat up and hugged her arms to her chest. Her body ached pleasantly and there was a definite dampness between her legs. Too weird, she told herself silently. But she did not believe in family legends. The dream had been a fluke, not a prophecy. She wasn't going to encourage Cassie's flights of fancy.
"I didn't dream of anyone," she said slowly, instantly picturing the handsome man who had swept her into that cave. It was all too embarrassing. What was she supposed to say? That the sex had been great, thank you very much? She couldn't admit anything to anyone.
Cassie's smile faded. "But I thought it was real." She sounded as if someone had stolen her last hope.
Chloe grimaced. She had done exactly that. But she couldn't tell the truth. She just couldn't!
"I'm sorry," she said and touched her sister's arm. "It's just a nightgown, kid. Like any other."
"Okay. Aunt Charity warned me the legend might just be a story, but I didn't want to believe her. I guess I'm going to have to." Cassie looked as if she was going to say more, then untangled herself from the covers and stood up. "I'll go start the coffee."
When Chloe was alone, she collapsed back on the pillow. She felt strange inside. Off center somehow. Was it the dream?
"There is no legend," she said aloud. "The dream was just my subconscious's way of telling me it's time to start dating. I'll take the hint. Today in the office, I'll look around for a likely candidate."
But as she walked to the bathroom, instead of trying to figure out which eligible men would interest her, she found herself picturing him. She shivered
not in fear or irritation, but at the memory of what his touch had done to her.
A hot shower went a long way to restoring her spirits. As she toweled off, she checked her arms and the tops of her breasts. Nothing. Just her regular skin. She'd half expected to see the lingering marks from his lovemaking.
"I must remember to ask Aunt Charity if insanity runs in the family," she said as she chose her clothes for the day.
Fifteen minutes later, her hair was dry and she was dressed. She headed for the kitchen and that healing first cup of coffee. As she reached for the coffeepot, Cassie flipped on the small television. They usually watched one of the morning shows while they ate breakfast.
Chloe had the pot in one hand and a mug in the other. Then a familiar voice filled the room and she froze.
"The gem exhibit is an exciting find," he said. "But I can't take full credit for bringing it to the university. It takes a very large committee to pull this kind of thing together."
Goose bumps puckered up and down her arms. She set the coffeepot back on its burner so she wouldn't drop it, and put the mug on the counter. Then, very slowly, she turned to face the television.
The camera focused on the perky hostess of the local morning show. Then the picture on the screen panned right. A man came into view. A handsome man. A man who, until sometime last night, she'd never seen before. But she knew him. She knew every inch of his body. She'd touched and tasted him, she knew his scent so well, she could have found him in the dark.
"Why do you think you're always the one to make the great discoveries?" the woman asked.
The man smiled. Chloe felt her heart shudder in her chest, and she began to tingle all over. She might not want to remember, but her body wouldn't let her forget.
The man smiled. "Just lucky, I guess."
The hostess practically sighed. "Unfortunately we're out of time. Just to remind our viewers, Arizona Smith will be lecturing at the university on his fabulous gem find. There are still tickets available, but they're going fast. The gems themselves will be on display throughout the month. Mr. Smith, it's been my pleasure having you here this morning."
Chloe's mouth twisted. The woman was practically cooing. So much for professionalism, she thought, refusing to acknowledge the white heat inside of her that some might call jealousy.
So her mystery man had a name. Arizona Smith. Which meant he was real. She thought about the nightgown, the Bradley family legend, the dream. Oh, Lord, it couldn't be true. He was not her destiny. He couldn't be. She didn't want a destiny like that. She avoided relationships.
It doesn't matter, she told herself fiercely. The man is in town for maybe a week. It's not as if I'll ever run into him.
"I've got to get to work early," she told Cassie.
"Don't you want your coffee?"
Chloe was already heading out the door. "I'll grab some on the way," she called over her shoulder, and made her escape to freedom.