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From some distant corner of the very dark room a tiny, gentle voice reproved him. "It's just Bennet. Most Americans don't use hyphenated names."
A bit rattled for several reasons, he stepped inside the loft and half-closed the door behind him. It was so dark that he had the eerie feeling of having been swallowed up by something huge and dimly threatening. It didn't help that rain lashed the high windows or that thunder rumbled distantly.
"Sorry. Uh—I got a message about a problem."
There was a long silence broken only by a muffled crash as he took an unwary step forward, tripped over something unyielding, and found himself sprawled across what seemed to be a large box. The tiny voice reached him through his muttered curses.
"A slight problem. You may have noticed that it's dark."
"The whole building's dark," he retorted, peeling himself off the box.
"Well, you own the building. Can't you do something about it?" Suspicion abruptly entered the ridiculously small voice. "You do own the building, don't you?"
"Not at all," he responded politely, barking his shin on what felt like a boulder. "I just stopped by to rape and pillage."
"Perfect weather for it," she murmured.
"Look, where are you?" he demanded, trying to home in on that small voice.
"I'm not sure. I was in the shower when the lights went out, and I haven't been able to find my flashlight. I just barely found the phone."
Before he could stop himself, he asked, "Did you find any clothes?"
"I found a robe." Her voice turned reflective. "Or maybe it's just the towel Caliban chewed a couple of holes in. It feels like a robe, though."
Fascinated, he took a step toward her voice, tripped again, and found himself hugging something tall, unyielding, and furry. Recoiling violently, he tripped going backward and sat down hard on yet another box.
"What the hell?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I just ran into something with fur," he managed to say.
"Is it alive?"
"I sincerely hope not!"
"Oh, well, that was Fluffy. He's a bear. A stuffed bear," she added rather hastily.
He took a deep breath. "Oh."
"Yes. Don't you have a flashlight?"
He decided to remain where he was on the box because there was something definitely unnerving in encountering a bear—be it ever so stuffed—in total darkness. "I couldn't find my flashlight," he explained, adding, "I just moved in yesterday myself."
"You're a lot of help," she told him severely. "What is your name, anyway? I've forgotten."
"Noah Thorne. And you're Stephanie Alexandra Cortney Bennet," he said, remembering not to hyphenate the surnames. "It stuck in my mind."
"Impressive, isn't it?" she agreed cheerfully. "I was born with it, but use it only professionally. To my friends, I'm just Alex Bennet."
For some time Noah had been conscious of a wry feeling about his mental image of the lady with the impressive name. Now he was certain that image was slightly off. They had never met face to face, or even talked on the phone; he had seen some of her interior decorating and had hired her through correspondence to handle the decorating of his building.
And Alex Bennet, upon learning all the details of the conversion, had instantly requested a loft for herself. She had decided to relocate to San Francisco from the East, and both the job and the loft had sounded perfect to her. But he had been gone all day while she moved in, and they still hadn't met.
Neither of them knew the building at all well—she because it was her first day here, and Noah
because he'd been out of town working on a commission while the conversion took place.
It was an old building, a warehouse recently and very roughly converted to lofts. There would be five lofts eventually, although only two were presently habitable: the one he had moved into on the top floor yesterday, and the one Alex Bennet had taken on the first floor today. Neither loft was much more than bare floors and brick walls at this point.
Noah had tired of his apartment in a vast complex downtown, and had instantly decided to move here when the warehouse-conversion idea became feasible. He planned to manage the building himself, taking the top floor as both living and work areas. It would allow him plenty of space and time for his photographic work, he'd decided.
He wondered now if he was being optimistic about having plenty of time. Everything that could go wrong had already, and he'd been here only since yesterday. He'd had the plumber out only hours after moving in to fix various clogged drains, requested the building contractor to return in order to close up a doorway somebody had officiously added to the plans, and now it most certainly looked as though the electrician would have to be called.
He sat on a box in a very dark room, wary of moving because of a stuffed bear, and growing more and more curious about his decorator/tenant. He had checked his answering service after leaving his studio late in the afternoon, stopping by a phone booth because his home phone hadn't been connected yet, and his studio phone had just been disconnected since it was his last day in the place.
There was little he could do about the situation, but when his service reported a problem with his tenant, he'd felt honor-bound at least to find out what the problem was. Encountering darkness upon entering the building, he'd felt his way cautiously up the three flights of stairs to his own loft, searched fruitlessly for a flashlight, then felt his way back down the stairs to Alex's loft.
For all the good it had done either of them.
Suddenly aware of the silence, he suggested, "Matches? Candles?"
"Are you kidding? I couldn't even find my clothes."
Noah calculated the position of the bear, carefully got off his box-chair, and made another attempt to work his way toward her voice. When his outstretched fingers encountered fur, he jerked his hand back, silently damned his sense of direction, made a ten-degree correction, and went on.
The next few minutes were strange, to say the least. Locating a wall by nearly running headlong into it, he felt along it until he found a door. Opening the door was an instinctive reaction—and so was hastily shutting it when a deep and eerily menacing growl issued from within.
"What in heaven's name—?"
"That's just Caliban. You said I could have a pet," she reminded him anxiously. "He's very well-trained."
Noah decided not to ask exactly what kind of pet Caliban was; judging by the sound of his growl, he was a big one. Making another guess as to the location of his tenant, he turned and tentatively started back across the room. "It would be much simpler," he said, "if we just went out and got flashlights and oil lamps."
"Well, I hate to be a bother," she told him, "but you'll have to do that. I'm not dressed to go anywhere. At least I don't think I am. Won't the power come back on?"
"If lightning hit a transformer or something," he replied, "and work crews are out. But if it's just this building, who knows when we'll have power?"
"I called the power company; they said it was the storm."
"Did they estimate when service might be restored?"
"Apparently they didn't dare. I called your service again to let you know what they said, but you'd already checked in for the last time. I really didn't think there was anything you could do, but . . ." Her voice trailed off for a moment, then resumed rather stolidly. "But I've never been totally alone in a strange city before—with no lights—and I got a little nervous."
Instantly he said, "I don't blame you. A strange apartment is bad enough, but in the dark? My heart's still pounding from running into your bear."
She giggled, and since the voice sounded very near, Noah reached out an experimental hand. "Is that—"
"Yes, that's me," she said, startled and slightly breathless.
He swiftly drew back his hand. "Um . . . sorry." She had a little-girl voice, he reflected, but there was nothing childish about what his hand had encountered.
Alex cleared her throat. "Blind man's buff has its pitfalls. Look, I'm near the couch. I'll back up and move sideways, and if you take a step forward, I think we can both sit down."
Gingerly they managed the feat.
"I really should go out and find some kind of light," he said, "but, quite frankly, I'm not looking forward to making my way back to the door."
"That's why I stayed in one place," she confided. "Since the loft is basically one huge room, with only a bedroom and bath separate from it, the movers pretty much just dumped everything and left. I think Caliban was making them nervous."
Something about that name bothered Noah, but he couldn't pin it down; he only knew that every mention of the name twanged a chord of uneasy memory. "He isn't vicious, is he?"
"Oh, no. He's just big. And he looks a bit . . . um . . . unusual." Before Noah could comment, she was going on cheerfully, "I must say, I've never before met a client under circumstances like these. Or a landlord, for that matter. Are you going to be a good landlord?"
Both taken aback and amused by the question, he answered gravely. "I certainly hope so. But I'm new at it, so you'll have to bear with me—no pun intended."
She giggled, a curiously enchanting, gleeful sound, and Noah felt his interest in her growing. She couldn't be as young as she sounded, although if his encounter with womanly curves was anything to go by, she was certainly much shorter than the average woman. He decided that there was something vastly intriguing about this meeting. It was, he knew, because of the total darkness; with sight no help to him, he found himself using other senses more intensely than he could ever remember doing before.
His ears found the sound of her voice pleasant and musical, the very small and low-pitched timbre of it oddly fascinating. She smelled of herbal soap, reminding him of a dark-green forest after a spring shower. And though they were not touching, he could feel the warmth of her beside him on the couch. Questions filled his mind, and in the enigmatic darkness those questions were a tantalizing mystery.
Upon hearing the name Stephanie Alexandra Cortney Bennet, Noah had fleetingly visualized a tall and queenly woman, chic, sophisticated, and with a strong sense of style. Alex was a freelance decorator, which meant either that she was very successful, hadn't been at it very long, or else was taking a tremendous gamble on her own abilities. He knew of two apartment buildings she'd done in the East—the work he'd seen and been impressed by—and both clients had spoken well of her.
Now that he thought about it, both those clients had also seemed a bit bemused, and the remarks, identical from both men, now rose in his memory. "She's a very good decorator." Not an unexpected remark from a satisfied customer, to be sure, Noah thought. But . . . somehow peculiar.
Unconsciously he began listening even more intently with every sense, both curiosity and a plea-surable feeling of mystery prodding him. And something else, some odd, compelling sense of . . . certainty? "Did you just get into town today?" he asked, wanting to hear more of her oddly fascinating little voice.
"Yes, this morning. It was a long drive."
"You drove?" he exclaimed. "Across the country?"
"The pioneers blazed a trail," she reminded him, amused. "I just followed it."
"But you didn't drive alone?"
"Except for Caliban. It was fun, really. I got to see a lot of the country, and whenever I needed to rest, I just pulled over somewhere and slept in the van."
In spite of darkness, reality was taking an even sharper turn away from his imaginings: She was obviously not the chic first-class traveler he'd expected.
"So you just literally pulled up roots and came out here? What about your family?"
"Don't have one. My parents were killed when I was six, and there weren't any close relatives. I was raised in an orphanage."
"That's tough," he said, his ready sympathy stirred.
"Oh, no, not at all." Alex was cheerful. "It was a nice place operated by good people. I left about ten years ago, just after I turned sixteen. I didn't run away from there as much as I ran to something else."
"What did you run to?" he asked, curious.
She chuckled. "The orphanage took us to see the circus about a year before I left, and it kind of, well, obsessed me. So I decided to run away and join the circus."
"And that's what you did?"
"Certainly. It was a plan."
"I like to plan things. So I waited until another circus passed through town, and when they left, I left with them."
"No one tried to send you back?"
"I lied about my age. Besides, I was good with animals and they needed a trainer. It wasn't a very big circus," she added ruefully.
"So you became their animal trainer."
"That's right. I trained whatever they asked me to train. Primates, elephants, dogs, horses, cats."
"The big cats."
"Don't tell me you put your head in a lion's mouth?"
"You'd be surprised," she murmured.
Noah was more than a little incredulous. "How on earth did an animal trainer wind up being an interior decorator?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Growth. I believe that people have to change constantly in order to grow as human beings. I left the circus after about four years because it was time for me to change, to do something else."
"And what did you do?" he asked, fascinated.
"Well, several things. I left the circus in Richmond and ran into an old friend from the orphanage; she had a business and asked me to join her, so I did. I got my high school diploma and took some college courses while I was there. When she decided to move her business—it was an arts and crafts place—I just stayed on in Richmond. After that I did different things. I worked in a bank, and a realty company, and a museum. Then I took courses in decorating, and decided to try that for a while."
The thumbnail sketch told him more, probably, than she'd intended. It told him she was versatile, strong-minded, and very self-reliant. She had spent ten years settled in an orphanage, then four years traveling the Gypsy circuit of circus performers before settling again in the East.
Though he couldn't help but believe that her life in the orphanage had been a bland one, she had more than made up for that during the past few years. And he had an odd but strong feeling that if she had gone into detail, he would have found even more fascinating enigmas.