The hand around my ankle tugged me downward, into the murky depths of the lake. My lungs were close to bursting and my eyes strained in the black water as I struggled to see the shimmering light of day above. If only I could somehow break free. But the grip was fierce, and no matter how hard I kicked against the evil thing, it held tight. My ears had started to ring and I felt myself losing consciousness.
“Cass, it’s for you. Come on, wake up, Cass. You’re having another dream.”
Maggie’s voice drifted toward me like a thread of hope and I found myself gulping for air as I blinked awake. I looked at her blankly.
“Same dream?” she asked. I nodded, shaking off the dread that had threatened to engulf me. This made the third time in a week that I’d dreamed of something dark and evil pulling me down, holding me under. Worst of all, it felt like a premonition. Maggie was holding the phone in one hand, rubbing my shoulder with the other. “You want me to tell them to call back?” She was propped up on one elbow, leaning over me, her breasts partially exposed above the sheet.
“Whoizzit?” I managed. My heart still pounded erratically from the dream and my mouth wasn’t working.
“Didn’t say. Sounds worried.” Maggie’s voice had a sexy morning quality to it—husky and deep. She held the receiver above my head, smiling seductively. “Yes or no?”
She knew I hated being awakened from dreams, especially by the phone. While I debated, she pulled the sheet up across her breasts, leaving just the tip of one nipple exposed. I moaned and sat up to take the receiver.
“This is Allison Crane. I wonder if I might come out there right away. I’ve rented a boat. I just need directions.”
“Right now?” I glanced at the clock. It was not quite eight. On Sunday morning.
“If it’s too early, I can wait. The thing is, time is somewhat of the essence.”
“And this is regarding?” I let it hang.
“I’m in need of your professional services. Martha Harper gave me your name. She says you’re good. And honest. And discreet. That’s what I need.”
Martha Harper was my best friend and not entirely objective.
I said, “Well, since you’re already here, I suppose we could at least talk.” I gave her directions and handed the phone back to Maggie who was nuzzling my ear. “Another of Martha’s referrals,” I sank back into the pillow. “She’s on her way.”
“I need to get going anyhow,” Maggie said, pulling away.
“You don’t need to leave,” I argued. “Stay. I’ll make you Belgian waffles.”
“Cass, if I continue to let you cook for me, I’m going to have to buy an entire new wardrobe. Besides, I have more to do today than I can handle. Really.”
Reluctantly, I agreed. I watched as she slipped into form-fitting slacks and a silky, button-down blouse. I marveled at the way my heart still skipped when I looked at her. With black curly hair, olive skin and sea-green eyes, she was muscular but full of curves.
“I don’t suppose I could just meet with her in here,” I said, stretching out across the bed.
“Over my dead body.” She tossed me my shirt and headed for the bathroom. With a sigh, I forced myself out of bed and got dressed.
When I walked Maggie down to the dock, the August sky was speckled with white puffy clouds, but it looked like the recent rain was over. The water was glassy with hardly a ripple along the surface.
“Do you have a client today?” Maggie was a therapist, and I knew she sometimes met with her clients on Sundays, but only if they were really desperate. Otherwise, their bruised and battered psyches would have to wait until Monday. Usually, she kept her weekends free for us.
“No client. I have some errands to run, and I want to work in the garden. Plus I’m making something special.”
I looked at her quizzically, holding the bowline while she climbed into the little dinghy. She smiled mysteriously.
“For next Sunday,” she said. She yanked the pull-rope fiercely and the outboard coughed to life. Smiling, I watched her ease away from the dock. I’d been wondering if she’d remember. Next Sunday was our one-year anniversary.
Of course, the year hadn’t exactly been what one would call smooth sailing. No sooner had I met Maggie than my previous lover, Erica Trinidad, waltzed back into my life. No matter how much I tried to convince her that I was no longer interested in Erica, Maggie suspected otherwise. And then like a jerk, I actually admitted that I did in fact still have feelings for Erica. I not only admitted it, I acted on them. Jerk didn’t begin to describe it. Luckily, all that was behind us.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Maggie and I had begun to develop a deeply satisfying relationship. It wasn’t just the mutual attraction; we really liked each other. We connected on an emotional level and also shared a somewhat perverse sense of humor. Most of all, we had fun. And she kept me on my toes. If there was one drawback, it was that Maggie tended to be jealous. But then, considering my behavior with Erica, who could blame her?
I’d been racking my brains for weeks, trying to think of the perfect anniversary gift, but still hadn’t been able to decide. Now, I had less than a week to figure it out.
Panic and Gammon joined me on the dock and were busy sniffing the various hoof and paw prints in the mud along the bank. It looked like our most recent visitors had included a doe and its fawn, along with a large raccoon. The cats themselves looked like wild animals. Part Bengal, part Egyptian Mau, they were spotted instead of striped, with large pointed ears and gooseberry eyes. Gammon was on the portly side, while Panic was as lithe as a ferret. When an outboard rounded the island across from us, Panic bounded up the bank toward safety. Gammon just crouched down on the dock, tail twitching, watching me expectantly.
“It’s just a client,” I told her. “Nothing to get excited about.”
But as the little rental boat scooted across the water toward my dock, I was feeling a little on-edge myself. Probably just that damned dream I kept having, I thought, watching the boat approach. She was coming in straight enough, but a bit too fast for a novice. I waved, letting her know she had the right dock and she waved back. Maybe she knows her way around boats, I thought. Nearing the dock, she suddenly turned the handle the wrong way and goosed the motor. The nose of the aluminum boat rammed the dock and she flew forward, landing in the middle of the boat on all fours. I leaped in, cut the motor and grabbed onto the side of the dock to steady us. Slowly, she got up, her face crimson.
“You okay?” I asked.
She nodded, looking mortified. “Sorry. I’ve never actually driven one of these before. I can handle a sailboat. I thought this would be easy. I hope I didn’t damage your dock.”
“No problem.” I hopped out and secured the boat to a metal cleat. Somewhat awkwardly, she scrambled out behind me.
“Allison Crane,” she said, extending a pale, lightly freckled hand.
I was surprised at the strength of her grip, given her delicate features and I studied her more closely. Her short hair was a blend of red and gold, tossed in careless waves around her face. Her eyes were almost turquoise, the color of the Caribbean. Her skin was milky and smooth, with a splash of freckles across her nose that made her seem vulnerable. When she smiled, two tiny dimples appeared on her cheeks. Allison Crane, I decided, was an attractive woman.
“Come on up. I’ll put on some coffee.” I led her up the walkway to my house, wishing I had taken the time to make myself more presentable. I was wearing jeans and an old sweatshirt, and though I’d run a comb through my short blond hair and brushed my teeth, I wasn’t exactly dressed for company. But then, she hadn’t given me a lot of warning. Even so, I found myself checking my reflection in the entryway, self-consciously smoothing my hair.
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