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A freak April thunderstorm surprised the Vermont weather forecasters that afternoon. Dense, ash-gray clouds boiled up in the west, and the sky turned an ominous green tinged with flame-colored edges. It was a natural phenomenon Kate Fenwick had seen only in National Geographic photos of tornado-ravaged skies in the Great Plains.
Minutes later, a torrent of rain unleashed itself on the little town of Chester, accompanied by dramatic bursts of jagged lightning that sliced into the break of silver birch and sugar maples lining the creek behind the two-hundred-year-old farmhouse. She could hear the bolts crackling through the ancient trunks and smell the charred wood. Cringing at each strike, she scurried into the kitchen to brew herself a cup of herbal tea and soothe her nerves.
Storms didn't usually bother her. In fact, she often stood on her back porch, enjoying nature's show. This storm seemed different. Violent winds and stinging hailstones raged and tore at the tiny farming community that was nestled protectively in the lush Green Mountains. The temperature plummeted twenty degrees in less than fifteen minutes. Shivering, Kate clutched the back of a kitchen chair and stood sipping scalding tea, waiting it out, counting the beats between each lightning flash and the following boom.
Eventually, she was making it up to three, then six, then ten. Kate felt the muscles in her limbs unknot. The lightning receded into the clouds, but the rain didn't stop. Setting down her empty cup, she looked at the clock.
"Thank God," she said with a sigh, "they didn't have to come out in that."
Quickly she gathered up plastic ponchos, an umbrella and pulled on her own London Fog raincoat. She ran down the long drive to the main road and met the school bus as it was squealing to a stop. Jesse and Anna stepped off, and she popped a poncho over each giggling head before rushing her children into the house.
Hours after the rain had stopped, as evening settled in, Kate still felt chilled, but she couldn't explain why, because the old oil furnace had cranked out billows of toasty heat all winter long. She lit a roaring blaze in the living room fireplace, then sat in front of it with two baskets full of clean laundry she intended to sort and fold.
Still, she felt deathly cold.
"Jesse," she asked her son, "did you open a window somewhere in the house?"
He looked up at her from the floor, where he'd sprawled on his stomach to work on his homework. His seven-year-old eyes mirrored the disdain of a retiree interrupted during his ritual game of chess, and she hid a smile behind her hand.
"It's cold out, Mom. Why would I open a window?"
With precise movements, he completed a row of cursive Ts on a sheet of yellow, wide-lined paper.
"Of course," she said. "Sorry to interrupt you." She turned to Anna, who was playing with her two favorite Barbie dolls.
"I can't open windows, Mom," her daughter groaned before Kate had a chance to ask the question. "They're too heavy, 'member?"
It was true. The old wooden frames swelled during moist spring days. Through March and April they yielded only to a bash from a hammer followed by a good hundred pounds of upward thrust. Max had been the only one strong enough to budge them.
Last week, Kate had forced two windows on opposite sides of the house on the first and second floors, with the help of a crowbar.
The few inches of space allowed a feather of cross ventilation on milder days. Anna, still Kate's baby although she'd started kindergarten that year, hadn't a hope of opening one even a crack. Second-grader Jesse might try, but if he'd succeeded, he would have admitted it. He shared his father's innate sense of honesty.
Yet the sensation of a cooler band of air, whispering through the rooms, raised goose bumps on Kate's arms as she folded underclothes and warm turtleneck jerseys. She couldn't relax, knowing she'd never be able to make herself settle down for the evening until she located the draft's source.
"I'll be right back," she murmured and left Jesse to his homework and Anna to her dolls.
One by one, she eliminated each door and every window in the massive old house. She checked to be sure the opening to the storm cellar was secured, held her hand in front of electrical outlets.
"I give up," Kate muttered when, at last, every possible opening had been eliminated. She nudged the thermostat up a notch, put on a sweater and decided to make herself another cup of tea. Thankfully, the children didn't seem to be bothered by the chilly currents of air.
As Kate again passed through the downstairs foyer and into her kitchen, she glanced at the antique banjo clock on the wall. Almost time to put the kids to bed, she thought automatically. They'd already had their baths and changed into pajamas. The clock ticked softly, and she stood staring at its open, round face. It always reminded her of Max—sturdy, easy to read, dependable. The timepiece, like the house itself, had been in her husband's family for three generations.
They'd been married for five years before the symptoms became evident to him, and another two before he'd let on to her that he was in pain. The following months had been horrible for both of them, but they'd tried to be sensible about his chances of surviving the cancer. They'd lived each day as best they could. They'd made plans.
Max arranged to sell what remained of his family's poultry farm—with its scattering of outbuildings and two fields—to a woman who bred champion quarter horses. She owned a farm down the road and wanted additional stables to board her pregnant mares until they foaled. The farmhouse, detached garage and a surrounding half acre of land would remain for Kate and the children, paid for, the taxes covered by an insurance policy. All very sensible.
By the time Max died, Kate had started working part-time as a teller at Vermont First National. The transition from married mother of two children to single parent had been as smooth as they'd hoped.
What Kate hadn't expected was the gut-kicking jolt of loneliness Max's absence left behind. Simple, reassuring habits were suddenly no longer there. The comfortable, solid sound of a man's footsteps coming in the rear door from the barn, climbing the back stairs from the mudroom to the second-floor bathroom to wash up before dinner. The way Max whistled off-key as he showered, songs she could never quite figure out. The warmth of his body next to hers in their bed…
A year ago, regardless of all their well-thought-out plans, her world had changed. She was alone now, alone with two children to raise. And although Kate knew she could do a good job of bringing up Jesse and Anna on her own, that didn't help the loneliness.
Standing over the stove, cradling a steaming porcelain mug between her palms, Kate shivered once more.
That draft. There it was again. It breezed across her skin…no, through her skin, as if reaching into her soul.
For an instant, she thought she caught a whiff of a uniquely masculine blend of scents—musk, sweat, cigar smoke and a pungent hair-tonicky aroma that reminded her of the way her grandfather used to smell when she sat on his lap. Bay rum. Wasn't that what he'd called it?
A second later, the smells that had settled around her heart like a warm, comforting blanket were gone. Sadly, she supposed that they, like the draft, must have been creations of her imagination. She obviously was far more tired than she realized.
"Mom! Mom, are you coming back or what?" Jesse called from the living room.
"Or what!" she shouted.
She could hear him giggling, then Anna joining in, parroting her brother although she probably had no idea why they were laughing. Laughter for the sake of its own pure joy is good, Kate reminded herself. She'd never been one to mope around feeling sorry for herself. She wasn't about to start now.
Straightening her shoulders, she dribbled a golden stream of honey into her tea. Besides, who could be truly lonely with two great kids like Jesse and Anna?
She peeked around the corner into the living room. Her children were tumbling on the floor like a pair of puppies, pretending to fight over Barbie's pink plastic convertible.
"Why don't you two head upstairs now. I'll be right up for your story," she said. "Pick out a book. It's Jesse's turn." One squabble averted, she thought smugly to herself. As long as the ground rules were laid out in advance, the two children got along remarkably well.
A few minutes later all three were snuggled up on Jesse's bed under a fluffy comforter. The chooser always got to play host to that night's reading. Kate repeated the familiar words of Bunni-cula, the charmingly humorous tale of a vampire bunny rabbit. Jesse never tired of the tale, and was capable of reading most of it to himself, filling in the gaps from memory when word recognition failed him.
Anna preferred Dr. Seuss's nonsense rhymes. She'd memorized her favorite parts of the Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. When she was overtired, she'd soothe herself to sleep by repeating the lines, word for word, until her eyes drifted closed.
Kate rested against the stack of bed pillows with Jesse and Anna tucked beneath her wings, and read in a soft, hypnotic voice. When she reached the end of the story, the room was blissfully quiet. Only the rain, kissing the windowpanes in a light patter, created a gentle lullaby.
Kate started to wriggle out from between her children.
Jesse stirred, opening one eye. "She's asleep," he whispered.
Kate smiled down at him and ruffled his short blond hair, the identical color of his sister's. "She always is by the time we finish, right?"
"Yeah." He grinned at her drowsily. "One more story?"
"Not tonight. School tomorrow."
He nodded, too tired to protest further. "Want help putting Anna to bed?" he asked, covering a yawn with his hand.
"I'll carry her. You can open doors."
Kate lifted her daughter and pressed the little girl's warm body to her chest as Jesse shuffled ahead barefoot, wearing a self-important grin. He swung open Anna's bedroom door. The little girl's head lolled against Kate's breast, and a sudden wave of tenderness engulfed her.
What right did she have to want more than this wonderful relationship with her children?
Even as the thought crossed her mind, another slipped in. But wouldn't it be wonderful to love a man so fiercely, with such excitement that passion extended beyond a comfortable, caring friendship? That was one type of relationship she'd never experienced. Maybe it was one she'd never know. Such things only happened in books and movies, she told herself, dismissing the idea.
She tucked Anna into bed, then returned with Jesse to his room and smoothed the sheets and quilted comforter under his chin after he'd climbed in. "Sleep tight, little man," she whispered into his ear as she kissed his butter-soft cheek.
"Night, Mom," he murmured, then closed his eyes.
She stood over him for a while. His breathing deepened and slowed, sought an unconscious plateau of tranquillity only children found in slumber. Soon he was fast asleep.
Touching her fingertips to his temple one last time, Kate turned and walked from the room. She left the door open a crack as she had Anna's, in case either of them called to her during the night.
Slowly Kate walked down the hall, the wooden floor creaking musically beneath her feet. She was still wearing the jeans, sweatshirt and tennis shoes she'd changed into when she came home from the bank at 3:00 p.m. that day. The bulky wool cardigan had been added to chase off that strange, still unexplained chill.
She sighed, telling herself she was tired, much too tired to do anything but go to bed herself. But it was only 9:00 p.m.
Maybe if she read for a while…
Taking her lukewarm tea with her, Kate walked toward the end of the hall and her own room, intending to search for a novel to suit her melancholy mood, from among those she'd carted home from the library the previous Saturday. She was midway down the hallway when a sudden, bone-gnawing chill coursed through her.
Kate stopped and stared at the attic door on her left. Behind it was a flight of rough wooden steps leading into a huge, open attic, the width and breadth of the entire farmhouse.
"So that's where you're coming from," she breathed, feeling, at last, a little clever for having discovered the solution to her mystery.
Somehow, the storm-cooled air must have found an opening— through a vent, a broken window, or—God forbid!—a hole in the roof. Kate rarely ventured into the attic. There had been few reasons to go up there after she'd packed away Max's personal effects. But now she remembered how her husband had repeatedly fretted over the storage area's contents.
"There's all kinds of junk up there, stuff from my grandparents' time. Probably things they inherited from the previous owners, along with the house," Max had stated.
"We should check it out," she'd said. "There might be something valuable."
"I doubt it. Last time I was up there, all I saw were old trunks full of rotting clothes, stacks of newspapers and old magazines, and lots of cleaning rags." Max shook his head. "Someone stored a can of kerosene up there, too. That's dangerous…the summer heat and all." He'd taken the kerosene down right away, but hadn't the time then for a thorough cleaning.
Kate had offered to do the job, but Max was insistent that it was his family's mess and dirty work. He'd do it.
The cancer had hit him hard right after that. There'd been no time. No time for anything but helping Max die at home, with his family and his cool, logical New England dignity intact. She was glad she'd been able to give him that much.
Now Kate pulled in a deep breath, continuing to stare at the attic door. The image of greasy rags and dangerously flammable chemicals poked doubts in her mind. If she went to bed now, the whole house might burn down around her and the kids while they slept.
It's silly, she argued with herself, to obsess about a cluttered attic after all this time. But she couldn't ignore the impulse to throw open that door, march up those steps and at least satisfy herself that all perilous items were immediately removed. It was as if something beyond reason, beyond her normal need for order, was calling to her, beckoning her up those stairs.
Chugging down the rest of her tea, Kate set her mug on the pedestal table that supported a huge Boston fern. She yanked open the linen closet door and removed a few supplies.
As Kate marched back toward the attic door, she caught another trace of male scent in the air. It stopped her cold. After a moment, she swallowed and gripped the doorknob but couldn't make herself turn it. Her insides felt suddenly watery.
What if the damaged window or roof hadn't been a result of the storm? What if someone had broken into her attic?
Kate closed her eyes and shivered at the thought. Glancing over her shoulder toward her room, she considered the telephone on the bedside table. Maybe she should call the sheriff's office, let one of his men check out the attic for her.
But wouldn't they laugh if she'd spooked herself and there was no one there!
Gritting her teeth, Kate slowly turned the knob.
He had been calling to her all evening.
Every step Kate Fenwick took through the floors below—as she'd herded her two children inside from the rain, prepared their supper, then cleaned up and supervised their baths and read to them—he'd heard. He'd barely dared breathe for fear of breaking the fragile emotional connection he'd worked so hard to establish between them.
It seemed to him that he'd studied her for a very long while now, but he admitted his sense of time might be somewhat distorted. Time, here and now, held little importance to him. He might have been ensconced in the attic of the Vermont farmhouse for hours, days or years. That didn't matter. What counted was that other time and place, the only one that felt real to him.
He sank down in the cracked-leather armchair he'd loved so well when Kathleen had lived here. They'd sat together in her parlor—he in this very same chair, she perched delicately on the wide, rolled arm, leaning against his shoulder, the scent of lilies in her hair.
In the first days following his return from the war, they'd rejoiced in their reunion and picked up where they'd left off, planning their marriage. But his soul hadn't been able to rest, and horrible memories of the carnage of battle drove a wedge into his serenity. He knew he couldn't stay in Chester and live the pastoral life, not until he'd made peace with himself.
Even now his throat tightened and eyes burned at the image of Kathleen begging him not to go. He'd asked her to leave with him. She'd tearfully refused. One warm night in June they'd parted, and he'd never seen her again.
"Oh, Kathleen," he murmured, choking on her name.
Sorrow flowed like molten lava through him, searing all it touched, and he dropped his face into his hands but he couldn't weep. It would be like mourning for himself, and it was she he should feel badly for, he told himself. He'd wronged Kathleen terribly, robbed both of them of their futures.
Slowly the sound of footsteps in the hallway directly below reminded him of his newfound hope. For a long time he'd feared there was no way to regain what he'd so recklessly lost. Then he'd found Kate Fenwick.
He concentrated even harder, willing the woman downstairs to come to him.
After a while, his ears prickled at the sound of door hinges creaking. His breath catching in his throat, he pushed up out of the chair and stepped back into the shadows. He wasn't sure she'd be able to see him even if she lit a lamp, but in case she was able, he didn't want to startle her.
As she climbed the stairs slowly, peering into the dark, he observed her from his hiding place, intrigued, for this was only the second or third time he'd seen her up close, really close. Most of the time he watched her from the one of the attic windows as she entered or left the house. She wasn't nearly as plain as he'd at first thought.
In fact, he thought, whimsically, if she wore a dainty lace collar and a more fashionable hair arrangement, Kate Fenwick might be quite lovely.
Kate took each step up the narrow wooden staircase as if she were walking on ice. Before she placed her foot, she listened, felt the rough plank under the sole of her athletic shoe and tentatively shifted her weight onto it, her balance equally divided between a forward and a backward movement.
Should she actually encounter anyone up here, she'd decided, she would throw herself down the stairs, slam the door behind her and ram home the heavy-duty bolt Max had installed during his security-conscious days.
The rest Kate had rehearsed in her mind countless times, part of her emergency-response plan. She'd grab the cordless phone from her own bedroom, scoop Anna from her bed and barricade herself and Anna with Jesse and, from his room, call the sheriff.
That seemed perfectly manageable in the planning stages, before she'd reached the top of the attic steps with her cleaning equipment. But now she wondered. Once she stepped away from the top of the stairs, she would be at a distinct disadvantage. All an intruder would have to do was cut her off from her only exit, and then…
And then what?
She reached up with a trembling hand and tugged on the string dangling in front of her face. The single light bulb overhead flashed on.
And then what? her mind insisted upon repeating. Would he attack and rob her? Terrorize her children?
Feeling for the previous stair tread with the toe of her shoe, she stepped shakily back and down. But before Kate could retreat farther, they came at her again—that breath of cool air, whisking sensually past her cheek, and an accompanying musky scent.
"Is someone here?" she asked.
There was no answer. In the light of the sixty-watt Sylvania she could see quite clearly the area immediately around her. But whatever the presence had been, it wasn't showing itself. She felt another subtle sensation, as if something had passed close by her, so close it might have brushed up against her arm, although it hadn't actually made contact with her skin.
"I've already called the police," she lied, willing her voice not to crack. "They're on their way now, so you'd better leave. The door is open. No one will stop you." She held her breath and stepped away from the head of the stairs, indicating a safe passage.