Night Words

Night Words

by Justine Wittich

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Nevada Shay has done her best to distance herself from the theater, but now she has an actor/dancer living one floor up. And Mackenzie Reid insists on discovering her secrets--such as the reason she avoids the theater, her all-night talk radio show, "Night Words," and the fact that a stalker wants to destroy her. Contemporary Romantic Suspense by Justine Wittich;


Nevada Shay has done her best to distance herself from the theater, but now she has an actor/dancer living one floor up. And Mackenzie Reid insists on discovering her secrets--such as the reason she avoids the theater, her all-night talk radio show, "Night Words," and the fact that a stalker wants to destroy her. Contemporary Romantic Suspense by Justine Wittich; originally published by Thomas Bouregy & Co.

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Belgrave House
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The eyes were out there, watching. As she moved to center stage, Nevada could feel them, but she couldn't see them. With a burst of bravado she broke into the last chorus of "Tomorrow."

As she held the last note, Nevada looked across the footlights at the sea of nameless faces, seeking desperately to identify "them," the nameless ghouls who threatened her. Moonlight blanched the scene, smudging the faces in the audience into a flat, anonymous mass.

Rain landed on her cheeks. Nevada couldn't understand why the audience remained, unaffected by the shower, while she was bombarded by water.

Lukewarm drops splashed on her forehead and rolled down her nose. Dampness gathered around her knees. Nevada opened her eyes, only to see tiny streams of water flowing from the lead points of the antique Tiffany chandelier over her bed. The soggy comforter clung to her legs. She rolled to the side of the bed and lay there, panting.

She hadn't had the nightmare for years. Now the threatening letters had brought it back. She willed the horror to disappear. Her technique for burying fear, perfected over the years, was only partially successful, but at last now she was fully awake. Why on earth was water falling into her bedroom? A glance out the French doors across the room assured her that the snow which had begun on her way home from work was still falling.

She stared up at the light fixture, concentrating on the problem. The solution was simple. Her illustrious upstairs neighbor was a type Nevada Shay knew firsthand. Closing her eyes resignedly, she murmured, "Theater people. He's left the bathtub faucets running. Probably picked up a mirror to admire himself and forgot theworld existed." She shivered.

The immediate need to go upstairs and inform the newest resident of the converted mansion that he had initiated a flood in her apartment relegated the dream to the farthest corner of her mind.

Rivulets of water had run off the chintz comforter and soaked the hooked rug beside her bed. As Nevada's feet hit the soggy surface, she shuddered. Locating her slippers, she slid her feet into them, pushed the bed to one side, and searched for a bucket to put under the chandelier.

Minutes later, she trudged up the broad, curving staircase to the second floor, mentally rehearsing tactful approaches that would bring the great Mackenzie Reid back to earth.

* * * *

Mac Reid wasn't expecting anyone and wasn't in a particularly welcoming mood. He preferred to deal with one crisis at a time, and his bedroom was a mess. The sight which greeted him when he opened his apartment door reminded him that groupies existed all over the world. Why should a small university campus in Ohio be exempt?

"Fans are what keep a star a star," his agent had reminded him not long ago. Unfortunately, they were usually women, and the apparition on his doorstep wasn't a particularly appealing specimen. Wildly curling red hair created a living halo around a white face notable only for round blue eyes which reminded him of an urchin supplied by central casting.

Mac lowered his questioning gaze to the Spider-Man likeness splashed across the front of the sweatshirt which covered her to mid-thigh. Lower still, his eyes encountered the waving ears of the most realistic rabbit slippers he'd ever seen.

Looking directly into her eyes, he blurted, "Where's Sandy?"

Without missing a beat, she answered, "Tied to the fire hydrant out front. Mr. Reid, would you be so kind as to turn off your bathtub faucets?"

Pleased by the way she caught his reference to the comic strip, he was caught off guard. "My what?"

"Your bathtub's overflowing. The water's coming out the light fixture in my bedroom."

Her articulation was flawless; the low, smoky voice had a haunting timbre. Mac felt an instinctive visceral response which added to his confusion. "It's not my tub, Miss ah..."

"Shay, Mr. Reid. Nevada Shay. You'd better check, because Until five minutes ago, I was asleep under a waterfall."

* * * *

Nevada hadn't made allowance for the magnetic energy that emanated from his spare, broad-shouldered frame at close range. Charisma reached out and tugged at her senses. She steeled herself against it while inspecting him closely--in hopes of finding something negative.

Rumpled brown hair fell over his forehead, nearly covering dark, arched brows. His face was bony and lean, with very human-looking laughter lines creasing his forehead and fanning from the corners of his mouth. She'd have recognized those famous eyes if he'd turned green and grown a third arm. They were deep set, heavily lashed, dark gray, and so alive she felt as if she were being drawn into them.

Nevada reminded herself that physical magnetism was his stock in trade. Besides, he wasn't even looking at her. He had turned, calling to someone in the room behind him.

"Rug rat! Front and center." His gaze swung back to her as he apologized, "It's not my bathtub. It's my waterbed." He narrowed his eyes and asked, "What have you done recently?"

The question wasn't what she expected. Nevada's attention had been focused on the room behind him. No one sat on either of the black leather couches, and the circle of light from the ornate lamp residing on the polished surface of an antique secretary was unbroken.

Her response to the show business vernacular was automatic, but she retained enough native caution to evade the question. "Nothing."

A thin, tow-headed youngster came to stand beside Mac Reid. He extended one long hand, wrapping it affectionately around the child's slender neck. "This is my nephew, Rob. He's visiting this weekend, and I made the mistake of telling him I'd give him fencing lessons. He was trying out my antique saber and cut a slice through the bed ... just as he jumped on it."

The actor's affectionate smile was transforming. Nevada wondered if she'd imagined the exhaustion on his features seconds before. How could a simple thing like the contraction of muscles produce such a startling effect? She felt an irrational twinge of disappointment that the lavish charm was directed at the boy by his side.

The ex-school teacher in her surfaced. "You left a dangerous weapon like that in the hands of a ten-year old?"

"Excellent guess, Ms. Shay. But a thirty-five-year-old in disguise. This is his dragon slayer phase, and he was practicing." In spite of the deprecating words, his flexible actor's voice held deep affection.

The boy pushed black-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his skinny nose and hunched his shoulders self-consciously. "I didn't mean to do it, ma'am. I was pretending to chop the head off the dragon, and I sort of lost my balance."

Mac gave the boy a gentle push forward. "Go down and help Ms. Shay mop up the mess in her bedroom." He swung his attention to Nevada. "I'll call an electrician to check that light fixture."

"I can't spend all day waiting for him. I have to get back to sleep," Nevada protested.

* * * *

The texture of her voice tugged at his memory, and Mac took a more comprehensive look at Nevada Shay. Although she still could pass as a groupie out of his worst nightmares, he decided her legs weren't at all skinny--in fact he considered them well above average. Realizing his thoughts had digressed, Mac looked at his watch. "It's well after noon, Ms. Shay. Late night?"

"I work nights on the weekends."

Mac was amused by her uncommunicative answer. His curiosity aroused, he sympathized, "Anything to get through school. I worked in a diner. I still can't eat hash browns."

"Anything for a buck. All Rob can do is help me carry out a rug. If I don't get back to sleep, I'll catch a catnap before I go in this evening. It's been nice to meet you, Mr. Reid." She beckoned to the boy and headed for the stairwell.

Mac watched his nephew talking animatedly with the red-haired Ms. Shay as they descended the stairs. Was she the slightest bit stingy with personal information? Most students would have launched into a description of their night job, or at least grabbed the opportunity to establish some sort of rapport with him. It didn't matter; he probably wouldn't see that much of her anyway.

As Mac turned he inhaled deeply. The scent of a Givenchy fragrance tantalized his nostrils. Since when did ragamuffins wear Givenchy?

He returned to the disaster in his bedroom, conjuring his last view of his neighbor, intrigued in spite of himself.

* * * *

The damage in Nevada's room was less than her sleep-clogged eyes had estimated. Only an intermittent drip fell into the strategically placed bucket. "Help me with that comforter first, Rob. I'll put it in the dryer. Then we can spread the rug over some chairs in the laundry room to dry." When the boy didn't respond immediately, she repeated her request.

"I like the way you have your bed in the middle of the room. You must feel awfully free, sleeping this way."

Definitely a thirty-five-year-old in disguise. "You're the first person who's figured that out, Rob." Not that anyone ever saw her bedroom. She wondered if she were transparent to his steady, dark gray gaze. A change of subject was in order. As she tugged on the comforter, she asked, "How long are you going to be visiting your uncle?"

"Just till tomorrow night. My mom's in Pittsburgh visiting her boyfriend. That's really why Mac took the job at the college here ... so he could keep an eye on me. He doesn't know I figured that out, though."

Nevada resisted the urge to hug Rob's narrow shoulders. He would probably be embarrassed. "Great, then you'll be here often." She heaved the comforter over her shoulder. "I'll can get this. While I'm gone, get the mop. It's in the closet in the kitchen. Thank heaven the rug absorbed most of the water. If too much had landed on that parquet floor, we'd be in trouble with the landlord."

During her trip to the basement of the old mansion and back, Rob's words ran through her head. What kind of a mother did he have? Many of the students she had taught in California came from unsettled backgrounds, but she realized the separation disease existed everywhere. What a ghastly living situation for a bright, sensitive child! Nevada wondered if having this particular uncle on the scene would offer much more in the way of stability. Where was the child's father?

Mac Reid. When she had first heard he was to live above her, she had given little thought to the possible impact of his presence. Surely, at thirty, she was beyond fluttering over a celebrity. Besides, she'd known performers at all levels of success all her life.

Rob met her at the apartment door, struggling manfully with the soggy hooked rug. The two carried it downstairs and draped the sagging folds over several old chairs which had been relegated to the basement. "I don't know what I'd have done without you, partner. That wet rug is heavy."

Eying her speculatively, Rob said, "You could have handled it. You're a lot stronger than you look ... and older. At first I thought you were just a regular student, but you're not, are you?"

"Rob, you're going to have me looking over my shoulder. Come on up and have some chocolate chip cookies. I just made them yesterday. If you tell me you don't want any, I'll know for sure you're a forty-year-old clairvoyant who's been through a shrink machine." She consciously avoided confirming his guess.

"Chocolate chip is my favorite."

"Mine too. You and I'll get along fine."

As they re-entered her apartment, she watched his furtive inspection of the big living room. If he criticized her decor, Nevada planned to ban him from the premises for life. "Make yourself at home while I get the cookies. Milk or soda?"

He made no answer; her guest had already fallen under the spell of the poster-laden walls and the extensive computer setup. Nevada left him to his explorations. If she was any judge of ten-year-olds, soda was the drink of choice for proper decadence.

She returned to find him flipping excitedly through a box of computer disks. "What do you think of those?"

"Wow! You've got all kinds of neat stuff in here. Even a lot I've never heard of! Can I boot up and play some games?"

"Another time. Let me know when you'll be visiting your uncle, so I can make sure to be here. Eat your cookies. You've still got a mess upstairs, remember?"

The postponement didn't seem to distress him unduly. Nevada wondered if he were accustomed to being put off. As he joined her, she reinforced her offer. "I really mean it, Rob. If I know when you'll be here on a weekend, I'll shift my sleep schedule. Those games are experimental. You'd be doing me a real favor if you try them out and give me a critique."

"Awesome. Like you designed them yourself? I thought your setup was too sophisticated for an amateur." Two cookies disappeared down his throat, inhaled rather than chewed.

"Like I did them myself. I have all kinds, but most are for average kids. There are three or four where I really let myself go. You might like those."

His glass held to his lips, Rob surveyed the walls again. He swallowed, then asked, "Why is everything all mixed up? You've got Luxembourg, The Who, New York City Ballet, that guy from the late movies, Johnny Cash and all that stuff sort of 'together,' you know what I mean?"

"I probably mix them up for the same reason I put my bed in the middle of the room." Why did she feel defensive answering a kid?

"I like it. I've just never seen anybody's living room decorated with nothing but posters." His attention focused on the corner. "That's Hobbes over there."

Nevada's eyes surveyed the four foot tall stuffed tiger with affection. "I'm his Calvin. We talk."

"I'd better get back upstairs. Can I have your telephone number?" Two more cookies disappeared.

"Sure. There's paper on that desk over there. Write on the back of anything you find. I'll put some cookies in a bag for you." Nevada called the numbers over her shoulder as she went to the kitchen. Just as she finished reciting the digits, there was a knock at the door.

"The electrician will be here any time. I told him you had an important appointment, so don't make a liar out of me," Mac announced when she answered the summons.

"I'll perjure myself." Nevada swung the door wider in invitation. "Anything to get some sleep."

He made no move to enter, but his eyes locked on the life-size poster of Clark Gable, complete with cutaway and striped pants, which graced the far wall. Not many of today's college girls were discerning enough to recognize the "king's" distinctive charm; Mac's curiosity about his unorthodox neighbor accelerated a notch.

The trustee who had hired him as Artist in Residence had graciously offered him an apartment in one of her properties near the campus, assuring him the other three residents in the old mansion were older. Nevada was a puzzle. She'd picked up quickly enough on his question about her performance past, but her response had been a flat negative.

Her voice haunted him. He'd heard it somewhere before. Those smoky overtones were insidious, contradicting the offbeat sleepwear and the rioting red curls. Vital, natural, open--the words to describe her came to mind automatically, but the voice was a different matter, hinting at layers beneath the camouflage. He shelved his questions for another time; the answers would come.

"I'm sorry you've been inconvenienced, Ms. Shay. I'd hoped to get off to a good start with the other tenants." She didn't seem at all impressed by his presence. Mac's ego had never been a problem, but he found it daunting to be virtually ignored by a woman--even one who dressed from garage sales.

Nevada answered his grin, her round blue eyes crinkled with amusement, as if she knew her lack of awe rankled. "There wasn't any permanent damage, other than to my nervous system."

Enjoyment of his discomfiture shaded her voice as she continued, "Rob said he's going to be a regular visitor. I told him he's welcome to visit me any time he wants, but he'll have to call first. He has my telephone number. It's not in the book."

Mac realized she enjoyed keeping him off-base. "That's very kind of you, but I don't want him to be a bother. You have classes, your job..."

"No problem. I have a weakness for ten-year-old boys. I taught them for seven years."

"Why did you quit?" Mac revised his first impression. He reclassified her from a girl-child who'd discovered the hippie movement a generation too late to ... to what?

"I was becoming too conventional. When I was a kid, my family lived like gypsies. We never knew where we'd be going to school, and my parents' friends drifted in and out all the time. I used to watch those Leave It to Beaver reruns and dream about living like that. Then I tried it."

The throaty chuckle that followed her admission tore through Mac's defenses like a missile. The sound came from deep inside her and set up an answering vibration within his chest.

"I wish I lived like that." Rob said wistfully.

Nevada hugged him and released him as quickly. "Didn't you hear me say how awful it was? Sometimes we don't recognize the good times while we have them."

The bell at the foyer door rang loudly.

"That must be the electrician," Mac said. Grateful for the interruption, he answered the summons.

The door banged as the electrician pushed his way through. "You the one with the wet chandelier, Nevada? I should have known."

The electrician trudged into Nevada's apartment. Bidding her goodbye, Mac turned away.

* * * *

Nevada watched them climb the stairs, noting the resemblance between nephew and uncle. Her eyes wasted little time on Rob, however. Mac was still garbed in the faded black sweat suit he'd been wearing earlier; he appeared to flow up the stairs. A beatific smile crossed her face. "I do so love dancers. I've missed them," she announced to no one in particular.

Her thoughts were jumbled as she closed the door behind her. Face to face, Mac Reid didn't look the same as he did on stage, or even in movies. Films don't do him justice, she decided. When she'd last seen him on stage, she'd sat far back in the theater, then gone home to dream impossible dreams which lingered for days. Now that she had a front row seat, his impact was more than she'd anticipated. Dreaming about him could be dangerous, she warned herself, but then what could be worse than the dreams she'd been having?

* * * *

"Gosh, Mac, what a neat place! Nevada's got all kinds of computer games she designed herself ... and she wants me to try them out. Did you see all the posters?"

The boy's enthusiasm caught at Mac's heart. Part of him questioned why he was burying himself in the middle of nowhere, away from the life he knew, away from his own kind ... away from performing. The other part argued that if he didn't watch over Rob, his sister-in-law's lifestyle could destroy the child. His brother Dan couldn't have known he was going to die young. And Annette hadn't been like this when he'd married her.

Rob was the only living relative he had left. This sabbatical in Ohio wouldn't kill him. And at the end of it ... "I only saw Clark Gable, Rob. But he's always impressive."

"That's who that was. I couldn't think of his name. I didn't ask Nevada. She'd think I was stupid. She's got the biggest Hobbes I ever saw." Rob's fingers twisted the paper he'd taken from Nevada's apartment.

The boy's valiant attempt to maintain his self-esteem rang a chord in Mac's memory. He remembered living through the same agonies at that age. He'd searched for something all his own, something which gave him a feeling of self worth, and then he'd discovered dancing. "She wouldn't have invited you back if she didn't think you were worth knowing, rug rat."

"She even has a poster of you."

Mac turned abruptly, the door half open. "Of me?"

"Yeah, an old one ... mended with tape. It was from some musical, and you'd autographed it. You looked great, like you were suspended in mid-air." He edged around his uncle, who stood frozen in the doorway.

"Kiss Me Kate." Mac murmured as he closed the door behind them. "That revival was fifteen years ago." He'd played Bill, the irresponsible second lead.

"I thought it was old." Rob opened the plastic bag and dug out several cookies. "You want some of these? They're great!"

Absently accepting the offering, Mac wondered how Nevada Shay had come to possess that poster. The only autographed copies had gone to cast members. Another puzzle. He had yet to figure out why her voice tugged at his memory.

"You better slow down on those cookies. That is, if you still want to go out for pizza."

"I always want to go out for pizza."

In the end, pizza took a back seat to the arrival of the waterbed serviceman, who declared the bed a total loss. "I never seen a slice like that."

Dancing had been good to Mac Reid, but the years of pulled muscles, strains and performing in cold theaters had taken their toll. He needed that waterbed. "How late is your store open?"

"Nine," the man replied.

* * * *

Mac's watch read eleven o'clock when he parked his leased Tempo in the carriage house behind the old mansion. Several other vehicles occupied spaces on either side of him. Instinct told him the restored white Karman Ghia convertible belonged to Nevada. He could picture her at the wheel.

The sound of the back door of the house closing rang through the crisp night air. The crunch of footsteps in the snow followed.

"It's Nevada," Rob shouted. He pelted toward her.

Suddenly the headlights of an incoming car illuminated the scene. In the glow of the garishly lit "TAXI" sign on the car's roof, the back door swung open, and a passenger stepped out. Moonlight made a nimbus of the flyaway white hair crowning the newcomer.

Nevada's voice pierced the night. "Dr. Gianetti!"

The spare little man looked around in confusion, while the exhaust from the departing taxi surrounded him with vapor.

Mac watched as Nevada paused to greet Rob. She drew him with her as she hurried toward the new arrival, a dark enveloping cloak swirling around her ankles.

"Why didn't you tell me you were coming back tonight?" she demanded.

"Tonight's the full moon. I just had to be back for it." The old gentleman focused in her direction and smiled gently.

Mac approached the small group with some caution. Following the man's words, Mac's first reflex had been to look at the sky. When he had first seen the house, he had been forcibly reminded of his favorite Charles Addams cartoons. With the advent of an elderly man talking of full moons, he felt sure he'd stepped into one of the drawings. A sylph-like figure beckoning to him from an open door would have been no surprise. What he saw instead was Nevada, a 1940s felt fedora pulled down over her forehead, with one arm around Dr. Gianetti's shoulders and the other pointing toward the inky sky.

"There it is, I see it. You mean you came back from your daughter's three days early just so you could show it to me?"

"I promised you. How could I let you down? Besides, I was ready to come home. My son-in-law's aura was getting worse."

Nevada smothered a giggle. "Dr. Gianetti, I want you to meet our new neighbor, Mackenzie Reid, and his nephew Rob." She gently turned the elderly man toward them.

Mac extended his hand, while Rob watched the newcomer with open fascination.

"You have a nice aura, Mr. Reid. I see more red in yours than in Nevada's." Gianetti's voice was thin and reedy, like an old pump organ.

Mac glanced at Nevada, who was smiling affectionately at the little man. "Ah ... happy to meet you, Dr. Gianetti." The man was mad as a hatter.

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