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Heather Warren stopped her car at the entrance to Ozark Mountain College. Tears filled her eyes when she gazed at the sun-washed emerald valley below.
"It's been eight long years, Omsee."
She looked at the tree shaded granite school buildings and dormitories of brick and native stone nestled like mammoth eggs in the nest of green surrounding sparkling Lake Honor. She'd always considered the small, but eclectic, campus an intellectual shell collection of sorts.
Her voice wavered when she repeated the school's nickname. The pastoral scene unexpectedly made her senses reel with conflicting emotions. In some unknown way, though she was delighted to be here, she sensed this visit would change her life. Forever.
Feeling uneasy, she looked over her shoulder. It was because of him, she decided. If she allowed herself to be spooked like this, then outwitting him to slip away undetected would be for naught. Heather inhaled deeply. Nothing was going to disturb her joyous mood, she vowed. She was too glad to be back.
She eased her foot off the brake and drove down the hill to the Administration building. After she parked and got out, she patted her pre-owned automobile on its pale blue roof.
"Thanks, Baby," she said. "You made the drive from St. Louis to Point Lookout in record time."
Heat radiated from the asphalt road through the soles of Heather's deck shoes until she hurried to the manicured lawn by the tulip tree grove. A few yards away, Lake Honor beckoned. Sighing, she leaned against one gray trunked giant to watch the central fountain bubble in a synchronized dance. Heather wished she could stay herefor a month, rather than only a weekend. Rest was what she needed, and a change of scenery.
She was tired of running interference for Kitty, her foolish and fearless kid sister. Last Saturday when Baxter Stockton, Kitty's insanely jealous husband, accused her of having an affair, she told him she'd had enough and was leaving him. Their fight raged on, but Heather could take no more and had gone home. Later that night, Kitty ran away.
Baxter refused to believe Heather didn't know where Kitty had run. He called day and night. She doubted the man ever slept. When he wasn't calling, he followed her, everywhere. Last night, when he confronted Heather as she walked to her apartment, he'd actually threatened to kill her.
"And you won't know when I'll strike," he'd added with a wild-eyed stare. "So you better tell me where my wife is."
Heather again declared she knew nothing. Then, for several moments, she'd watched with masochistic fascination as his large hairy hands repeatedly clenched and opened until he regained control of his violent temper.
Afterward, when she was safely locked inside her apartment, she'd tried to convince herself that Baxter had just tried to shake her up; that he wouldn't really harm her. But his bizarre behavior had frightened her. Was it any wonder she'd left town? She'd had to escape, at least for a few days. And, as if that weren't enough, the nightmares had started again.
She'd thought she'd finally banished her reoccurring dream. The terrorizing apparition--always the same--had begun shortly after her parents' passing. But she hadn't experienced the dream for a long time. That is, not until her brother-in-law had begun terrorizing her in her waking hours as well.
Heather shuddered and then forced herself to relax and forget about Baxter and her bad dreams. This was supposed to be a weekend respite from her harried life, she reminded her skeptical mind. It was then that she looked across the water and saw the five swans. She wondered if they could possibly be the same birds who'd "owned" the lake when she lived on campus.
She stared, then smiled triumphantly when she identified her favorite--the different one--the lone black swan. It was obvious he'd retained leadership, she decided, as she watched him glide regally along the far shore. His white cohorts, two pens and two cobs, followed in close formation. Fascinated by her discovery, Heather wrapped her skirt around her legs and sat on the cool stone ledge at the water's edge.
"I wonder if he'd remember?" she mused.
She cupped her hands around her pursed lips and whistled. Instantly the bird jerked his charcoal head in Heather's direction. She repeated the secret signal she'd used daily, until that fateful morning eight years ago. The swan, alert and galvanized for action, flapped his great wings and pointed his beak toward the cloudless sky. Then he trumpeted his raucous response to her call--once, twice--before he raced toward the spot where Heather waited.
"Oh, Ebon, you do remember." She stroked his satiny crown. "After all these years."
Ebon's lustrous button eyes shone like polished obsidian as he arched his neck and nudged against her caressing hand. "I wish I had some bread for you, baby," she said, "but I don't. I'm sorry, Ebon."
"Give him what I've brought."
Instantly Heather spun around to stare at the bearded man behind her. Her wide sapphire eyes collided with his sooty velvet gaze. "You startled me," she said as she gasped and tried to catch her breath.
Her momentary alarm faded when the man smiled. Then, feeling suddenly shy, she glanced back at Ebon who gabbled impatiently, waiting for his handout. "I was just greeting an old friend."
"So I gathered." The man's dark eyes--robust and rich and warm as espresso coffee--sparkled devilishly. "Here," he said, holding out a sack of bread. "You'd better feed that old reprobate before he starts nibbling on you.
The man's humorless chuckle revealed to Heather that he, too, was a pushover for the different swan. She smiled her thanks, then concentrated on the bird's feeding. After all the crusts were consumed, Ebon swam back to his flock.
"Thanks for letting me feed him."
"It's been a long time since I've had the chance." She watched Ebon glide behind the dancing fountain, and wondered if birds ever felt lonely, too. "He's just as independent as I remember him to be," she said. "But I'd hoped, by this time, he might have found another mate."
"And I'd hoped, by this time, to stop feeling guilty about his loss." The man sighed, then sank to the grass near her feet. "You see," he added softly, "it was my dog who killed her."
Heather turned so she could really look at the man for the first time. He was tall and powerfully built. His shoulders strained against the blue knit fabric of his shirt. Thigh muscles rippled inside his snug jeans when he relaxed against a tree trunk and crossed his bare ankles. She glanced at the man's handmade moccasins and saw that he had a "good understanding," as her father used to say.
Heather's gaze returned to his bearded face. There was a distinguished air about him, she decided. Though his cap of shiny black curls was unruly, a bit of silver frosted the strands at his temples. His wide set dark eyes, which seemed vaguely familiar, were framed by winged brows and high cheekbones.
She was also conscious of an undeniable sensuality in his penetrating gaze. That natural sexy look, together with his handsome features and rugged frame, probably created the potent magnetic field of a male Lodestone when he desired companionship in his domain, she guessed. Women probably lined up, just like molecules, all in a row.
Her suspicions were confirmed when he surprised her with a naturally sexy smile. Her feminine resistance evaporated and an unauthorized attraction positively tugged at her nether regions. Yes, she decided, he certainly was one magnetic fellow. But, above everything else in his appearance, she noted an aura of serene power emanating from his quiet form. Something told her he would allow nothing to disturb his way of life.
Insistently an old memory tape played and replayed in the back of her mind as if begging to be recalled. Finally she listened, then listened again. Was he who she thought he was? Absolute recognition caused her to inhale sharply.
Seeing her reaction, the man's smile disappeared and he muttered under his breath, something about his barbaric stupidity concerning a lady's delicate sensibilities. Then, he frowned, troubled by his assumption that Heather was revolted by his explanation concerning the death of the black swan's mate.
But, for Heather, his serious expression reconfirmed her first tentative identification. She knew this man. He was Professor Nicholas McCord, one of her former teachers at Omsee. And also, her favorite! Why hadn't she recognized him immediately? she wondered.
The answer seemed obvious now. At first, she'd been alarmed, thinking he was her brother-in-law. She'd momentarily believed Baxter had followed her, after all. And, to be fair to herself, Professor McCord did look different. He'd grown a beard, and he appeared to have become a serious devotee of bodybuilding.
It was difficult for Heather to comprehend that his physical build today could be that far superior to the body he'd had eight years ago. Back then, every coed almost wept for joy, just to see him stroll across campus! But he really did look wonderful today, she thought with an approving glance. So, it seemed Nicholas McCord looked different today because he'd pumped iron for years and he'd grown a neat beard. She peered at his luxuriant whiskers and her fingers tingled.
"I understand how you feel about the special black swan...Professor McCord." Heather gave him a shy smile. "You shared your pain with me not long after the accident."
Nicholas cocked his head and stared at her. "I've never told that sad tale to another soul."
His words rang with authority. Good Lord! he silently exclaimed, when he heard his authoritative tone. He was beginning to talk like his alter ego, Peter Roan, who wrote murder mysteries. Tough, assured, no room for argument.
"I apologize, Miss." But his modulated tone was no less confused. "Do I know you?"
"You used to." Heather's gaze wandered over his rugged features again, and she smiled. It was so good to see him. When she studied his neatly trimmed beard a second time, she guessed he was still trying to look older.
Silently Nicholas examined the young woman's delicate features. Who the dickens was she? he asked himself. She had to be one of his former students. Because the college's enrollment was so small, he could probably name every person he'd taught, he decided. If he were given sufficient time.
His off-the-wall sense of humor unexpectedly surfaced, and he wondered if he'd cast her as the heroine or the villainess in one of his Peter Roan novels? The solution was elementary, he decided. He'd conduct a thorough investigation. After examining the clues, he'd sift the evidence and, cleverly, deduce the answer. All in 182 pages!
Nicholas suppressed a sigh of frustration. Identifying this woman would certainly be less demanding than solving the other mystery in his life, he thought. That one was driving him nuts. He needed to discover the identity of a very sick person who kept sending him threatening letters.
Of course, he'd informed his fishing buddies, Ted Hastings, Branson's Postmaster, and Gary Eagle, the sheriff of Taney County. Both men took the threats seriously. And, if the party responsible for sending those letters was serious, as well, Nicholas knew he could be in real danger.
He pushed the disturbing thought from his mind as he gazed into the soulful eyes of the woman beside him. She presented no threat to him, he decided. His fine tuned sense of survival instantly cautioned him to think again. So, look for evidence, he ordered.
Number One Clue: She's attractive.
Yes, he confirmed, he liked looking at her. But, he knew that already. He watched a gentle breeze toy with her long chestnut hair. Slender manicured fingers hugged slim legs outlined beneath her skirt. Her face was heart-shaped, accentuated by a widow's peak.