Being Madame Ariadne, Psychic Dream Consultant, wasn’t Prudence Ryland’s ideal gig, but it paid well which was reason enough to do the work—until she realizes that her latest client intends to kill her. But Prudence, a master at reinvention, finds a new job and home as far away as possible and is finally able to relax—which turns out to be a big mistake. Letting her guard down means being kidnapped and drugged and waking up in a bloodstained wedding dress in the honeymoon suite next to a dead man. With the press outside the hotel, waiting with their cameras and police sirens in the distance, it’s obvious she’s being framed for the man’s murder. Prudence knows who is responsible, but will anyone believe her?
It doesn’t seem likely that rumored crime boss Luther Pell or his associate, Jack Wingate, believe her seemingly outrageous claims of being a target of a ruthless vendetta. In fact, Prudence is convinced that the mysterious Mr. Wingate believes her to be a fraud at best, and at worst: a murderer. And Jack Wingate does seem to be someone intimately familiar with violence, if going by his scarred face and grim expression. So no one is more shocked than Prudence when Jack says he’ll help her. Of course, his ideas for helping her involve using her as the bait for a killer, but Prudence feels oddly safe with Jack protecting her. But who will protect Prudence from her growing fascination with this enigma of a man?
|Penguin Publishing Group
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The moment she removed one long black glove and touched the rim of the crystal bowl, Madame Ariadne knew the client on the other side of the table intended to murder her.
Damn. As if she didn't have enough problems at the moment. She'd had it with the profession. If she survived the night, Madame Ariadne, Psychic Dream Consultant, was going to disappear forever.
Her real name was Prudence Ryland, but those who paid to have her interpret their dreams knew her only as Madame Ariadne. She had never really felt that the dream reading business was her true calling. Yes, there was very good money in it, and yes, she had a talent for it, but she had never liked the work. Tonight it might get her killed.
"This is the first time I have consulted a psychic about the meaning of my dreams," Thomas Tapson said. In the shadows of the darkened room, his eyes glinted with the reflected light of the old-fashioned lamp in the center of the round table. "I look forward to the experience."
He had walked into the reading room with an air of amused curiosity. He had stopped in the center of the shadowed, heavily draped surroundings and removed his expensive fedora with a gracious gesture. The perfect gentleman. His hand-tailored suit, elegantly knotted tie, and gold signet ring were the hallmarks of wealth and high social status.
On the surface, his voice carried the unmistakable accent of an upper-class boarding school education. It was the voice of a man who had been raised in the rarefied world of San Francisco society. But if you knew how to listen, you could detect the sick lust he was working hard to conceal.
She knew how to listen-it was a requisite skill in the psychic trade. The question was whether or not she knew how to survive the night.
"I will certainly do my best to interpret your dreams, Mr. Tapson," she said, managing to keep her own voice cool and professional with just the right touch of mystery and drama.
The ability to put on a good performance was another skill essential to success in her profession. She had been raised in the dream reading business. She was an accomplished actress.
"I apologize again for my late arrival this evening," Tapson continued. "I was unavoidably detained at a meeting with some business associates."
"I understand," she said.
Tapson had been her last appointment of the day. When he had failed to arrive on time, she had assumed he was a no-show. She had been about to put the Closed sign in the window when he had appeared out of the foggy twilight of the damp San Francisco night.
Obviously it had been a mistake to open the door to him, but when she tried to tell him he would have to book another appointment, he immediately offered to double her already sky-high fees-if she would agree to consult for him tonight.
She had allowed herself to be persuaded because she could not resist the prospect of the extra cash. She intended to close down the business soon, and her future looked uncertain. She needed a comfortable financial cushion to see her through until she could reestablish herself in a new career in Southern California.
This was what came of allowing oneself to be tempted by money, she thought. One accidentally opened the door to a murderer. Lesson learned, but perhaps too late.
"If you would please place your fingertips on the rim of the crystal bowl," she continued, "I will begin the reading."
She thought she had braced herself for the nerve-jarring jolt she knew was coming-even the most fleeting contact with the stuff of another person's dreams was deeply disturbing-but there was no way she could have protected herself from the horror of Thomas Tapson's dream storm. She knew then that she would not be his first kill. The euphoric thrills he had derived from the terror and pain of his previous victims were infused into the hellish energy that slammed through the crystal. Her chest tightened. She suddenly could not breathe.
"I hope you can help me," Tapson said. "I've had a very strange recurring nightmare for some time now. At first I tried to forget it, but now I'm starting to wonder if it might have some significance."
She studied him from behind the veil of her wide-brimmed black felt hat. Unlike many in the psychic profession who conducted readings and séances swathed in exotic robes and colorful turbans, she preferred modern, fashionable attire, and she stuck with one color-black. She thought it reinforced an aura of serious professionalism. She was not a fraud. There was no need to dress like Hollywood's version of one.
Marketing required some drama. She had an intuitive talent for reading dreams, but she had learned the business side of things from her grandmother, who had always impressed upon her the importance of establishing a style that set one apart from the crowd. Selling psychic dream readings was no different from selling perfume or jewelry. Packaging was everything.
In addition to the veiled hat, she wore a sharply tailored black jacket, a slim black skirt, and black gloves. Her jewelry was limited to a small colorless crystal pendant, a family heirloom that had been given to her by her grandmother.
She had capitalized on the glamorous fashion for veiled hats because she thought the delicate netting covering her face added just the right touch of mystique and mystery without conjuring images of carnival fortune tellers.
"Our intuition often speaks to us in our dreams, Mr. Tapson," she said. "It is always a wise idea to pay attention."
"I don't mind telling you I've developed insomnia because of this particular dream," Tapson said. "It has become quite annoying."
She forced herself to breathe with control while she fought to overcome her instinct to shield herself from the nerve-shattering intimacy of Tapson's dreams. Using the crystal made it much easier to focus, but it also intensified her vulnerability to the psychic lightning that flashed in the heart of his dream storm. The only other means of achieving such clarity was with physical contact, but the thought of actually touching the monster on the other side of the table was more than enough to ignite an anxiety attack.
Tapson watched her across the rim of the crystal bowl with the glittering eyes of a large insect about to leap upon its prey. He tightened his grip on the rim of the bowl, his fingers like claws. The lamplight sparked on his signet ring, inexplicably drawing her attention. She glanced at it and saw that the front was engraved with a key.
"How does this work?" Tapson asked.
"Crystal is an excellent conductor for psychic energy," she explained. In spite of her incipient panic, she managed to slip effortlessly into the glib explanation. Clients always wanted to know the secrets of a reading. She told them the truth because there was no reason not to. It wasn't as if they could do what she did, not without her kind of talent. "I cannot visualize your dreams, of course, but when you describe them, the crystal will transmit impressions of what your intuition is trying to tell you. My task is to interpret those impressions for you."
"That sounds very scientific," Tapson said. He smiled, displaying teeth yellowed by cigarette smoke. Here and there gold fillings gleamed in his mouth. "I was expecting a Ouija board."
"That is a very old-fashioned technique."
She met his eyes and held them while she painstakingly began to thread her way into the hurricane of his dream energy. Her goal was the center of the storm, the dark pit where his primal impulses and desires seethed. The process took time. She needed to buy some of that precious commodity.
"I take it you are not a believer in the paranormal," she said, anxious to keep the conversation going.
"Let's just say I have my doubts, like a lot of other people. I am, however, desperate to discover the meaning of this particular dream. I didn't know where else to turn."
"Who referred you to me?" she asked.
She was closer now, slipping through the roiling waves of dark energy.
"An acquaintance." Tapson frowned, impatient. "I'm paying a great deal to hear your interpretation of my dream, Madame Ariadne. Get on with it."
"Of course. Very well, I am ready to conduct the reading, Mr. Tapson."
It was all she could do to maintain her grip on the crystal bowl. With most clients, she cheated, not quite touching her fingertips to the rim. After all, in the majority of cases there was no need to make contact and subject herself to the nightmarish energy of another person's dreams because, in general, the stories told in dreams were not that hard to analyze. They tended to fall neatly into one of several broad categories. She usually got all the information she needed during the conversation that took place before the actual reading. It was just a matter of paying attention.
She had memorized a list of useful interpretations designed to satisfy most clients.
Your dreamscape indicates that you are under a great deal of stress. I recommend that you drink a cup of chamomile tea before bedtime to calm your nerves.
It is obvious that you are facing a difficult decision. You should take a step back emotionally, drink a cup of chamomile tea, and then make a list of reasons for and against this project.
She also had a couple of specialty interpretations on hand for specific categories of clients. Your intuition is telling you that the nice gentleman you are expecting for tea this afternoon is not your new best friend. Whatever you do, don't take his investment advice and do not entrust him with your money was reserved for lonely, wealthy widows and single women who had come into an inheritance.
She kept You say you wake up in a nightmare that involves being buried alive under a mountain of white satin? These dreams strike every night on the days that you go for a fitting for your wedding gown? The meaning is obvious. You should call off the wedding. You are marrying the wrong man. Trust me on this available for women on the brink of marriage who were clearly having doubts.
She knew that when it came to wedding nightmares, most clients would not take her advice because it was not what they wanted to hear. She could not blame them. How many times had she awakened with similar nightmares before her own disastrous marriage? And yet she had gone through with the runaway wedding in Reno.
Her intuition had been warning her for months that it was time to get out of the dream reading business. But here she was, sitting across the table from a maniac who planned to kill her-all because she had ignored what her psychic senses had been trying to tell her. She had decided to keep the doors open just a little while longer. A fresh start in Southern California was going to be a risky venture. She had wanted to put more money aside.
She tightened her fingers on the rim of the crystal bowl and succeeded in slipping through the last of the storm that swirled around the dark pit of energy that fueled Tapson's dreams.
It was all she could do not to scream. She had known that getting so close to the well of primal energy and raw emotions at the center of the hurricane was going to be an appalling, terrifyingly intimate experience that would no doubt give her nightmares far into the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, she was unprepared for the sheer horror that awaited her in the darkness.
Her grandmother had explained to her that her version of the family talent was unusual. She did not merely catch fleeting sensations generated by a client's dreamscape, as most dream readers did. She could ride the currents of that energy to the source. She had been told time and again that there was considerable risk involved. Invading another person's dreams and attempting to manipulate them could destroy a reader. There was always the possibility, Grandma had said, that the client would prove to be more powerful than the reader.
It was not as if she had ever wanted to do what she was going to attempt tonight, she thought. She hated the sensations she was experiencing. She was literally in a waking nightmare-someone else's nightmare, which made it so much more awful. When she got out of this-if she got out alive and with her sanity-she would probably have panic attacks for the rest of her life. But she dared not retreat. Not yet.
"Tell me your dream, Mr. Tapson," she said.
"It always begins the same way," he said, his voice deepening into a husky whisper. "I see a pure, virginal bride draped in white satin and lace. She waits for me near the bridal bed. She pretends to be perfect. Innocent. Flawless. But I know the truth. She is a succubus. She seduces men in their sleep, draining their life energy. The only way to control her is to kill her before she can destroy another man. When I am finished with her tonight, her wedding gown and the bed will be drenched in her blood."
No doubt about it, Prudence thought. It was past time to find a new career.
On the other side of the table, Tapson watched her with eyes hot with a ghastly desire. The currents of dream energy pulsing through the crystal confirmed that she was looking at a man in the grip of a bloodlust. Her jangled nerves shrieked at her to run but her common sense warned her that would not solve the problem. She could not outrun Tapson. Even if she managed to escape him tonight, he would follow her. She knew obsession when she saw it.
"Well?" he prompted, his voice thickening with anticipation. "What is my dream trying to tell me, Madame Ariadne?"
"Your dream script indicates that you are under a great deal of stress, Mr. Tapson," she said, striving to maintain her professional aplomb. "I suggest you get more exercise and drink a cup of chamomile tea before bedtime."
Tapson's eyes glittered. "There are other activities I prefer to engage in at bedtime."
"Yes, I know," she said. Her fury surfaced, temporarily overcoming her fear. "You like to murder innocent women, don't you? How many have you killed? I'm sure I'm not meant to be your first."
Shock and confusion flashed in Tapson's eyes. Whatever he had been expecting, an outright accusation wasn't it. But in the next instant, a demonic rage flared in the atmosphere around him.
"Do you claim to be innocent, Madame Ariadne?"