by Marianne Stillings
Release date: March 2007
She took his hand and turned it over, settling it gently into her palm. His fingers curled as though he were cupping water. His skin was smooth, cool.
Awareness surged through her like the aftershocks of a deep earth tremor. She struggled to center her emotions, allowing him in on one level, on another, keeping him out.
His brown eyes smiled, suggested, connected.
"Close your eyes, please," she said.
He stared at her for a heartbeat, then his lids drifted down.
"Good. Now take a deep breath. Relax. When you're ready, tell me your dream."
He was a new client, and judging from his hesitation, uneasy about putting words to personal, private, possibly intimate thoughts. She was not only a stranger to him, but a woman. Would he be able to move past his defenses and allow her in? Was he prepared for the consequences of raw honesty?
She tried to get a sense of how important this was to him, how badly he needed to know, but his energy seemed to be turned in another direction, and she came up empty.
His eyes were closed; she studied his face. Strong bones, handsome features. Early thirties. Light brown hair streaked golden by the sun, dark lashes, strong jaw. He wore glasses, and even though his eyes were shut, he'd kept them on.
She let her own lids drift down as he began to speak. His voice was deep, interesting, boyishly sexy. She focused on his words - and the pictures materializing inside her head.
A sense of uneasiness skittered across her skin, prickling the nape of her neck. Where she had felt comfortable a moment ago, now she felt . . . exposed.
His voice changed, deepened, roughened. Impressions formed behind her closed lids, but they were as fragmented as his words, as though he were forcing a puzzle together using the wrong pieces.
She tried to remain calm, to listen, to see, but her nerves were beginning to fray, and when she lost hold of the bizarre images, she felt relief.
She opened her eyes to study him. Blinking in shock, she jerked her hand away, holding it to her as though she'd been burned. His hand remained in the air, frozen, fingers curled grotesquely. He slowly opened his eyes, stared into hers, then let his knuckles hit the table with a dull thud, as though his hand had no life in it at all.
Swallowing, she stared back at him.
Gone were the light hair and glasses, the handsome, youthful features. His hair was dark now. His eyes, black and empty as night, transfixed her. He continued speaking, his thin lips forming words, but what she heard made no sense.
Terrified, she pushed her chair away, but before she could stand and run, he lunged at her, grabbing her throat with one hand, tearing her dress with the other.
She choked and gasped, clawing at his fingers, fighting for breath. He shoved her down to the floor, tightening his grip, his mean eyes telling her what he intended to do to her . . .
Tabitha March struggled with her twisted bed sheet as though it were a pink muslin anaconda eager to squeeze the life out of her. Finally throwing it off, she sat up and gulped for air, raising her hand to neck, making sure the fingers around her throat had dissolved along with the dream.
Her heart pounded in her ears; perspiration beaded her forehead. She reached for the water bottle on the beside table, twisted off the cap, and downed its contents. Wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her coral sleep shirt, she used a wad of bed sheet to dab at her brow and rub the back of her sweaty neck.
Finally, after taking ten or so deep breaths, she felt her shoulders relax, her heartbeat slow to normal. In her head, the terrible images faded.
From the foot of her bed, two pairs of eyes stared warily at her.
Obviously awakened by Tabitha's abrupt movements, Winkin looked at her like he wanted to offer her comfort, while Blinkin just looked peeved. The difference between dogs and cats, she mused.
"The next time I feel the urge to munch on pepperoni pizza before bedtime, stop me, okay?"
She was fairly sure the Jack Russell terrier and the green-eyed Siamese agreed, but it was hard to tell, what with Winks licking his haunches, and Blinks scratching an itch behind her ear.
"You guys are some comfort." Her sarcasm was wasted on the pair.
She looked over at her bedside clock. Seven-fifteen. Scooping up her daytimer, she flipped to Tuesday, April the tenth. Nothing at eight, but . . .
Oh, right, right. She had a new client coming at nine. Nathan Damon. On the phone, he'd sounded a little shy. He said he'd never consulted a psychic dream interpreter before, so that could explain his hesitation.
Tabitha always felt a little apprehensive before seeing someone new, though she had little choice but to take on new clients since her livelihood depended on expanding her client base.
Her part-time legal transcribing service didn't come close to providing the income she needed. The Victorian she'd inherited from her grandmother was so expensive to maintain, the repairs so constant, the taxes so outrageous, it took every penny she made each month just to stay ahead of her creditors.
Most people who sought out her services did so because they understood how psychic dream interpretation worked. But there was the occasional client who reacted badly to her revelations, either because they didn't get what they wanted from a reading, or got too much.
Three weeks ago, Ed Figueroa had been just such a man. After his reading, his round cheeks had become flushed, his bald head damp with perspiration.
“Mr. Figuroa,” she'd said, quickly releasing his hand. “Please understand, everything you say, everything that happens in a session, is held in strictest confidence. If you want an honest interpretation, however, you're going to have to open up and...”
“You're a fake!” he'd snapped, slamming his doubled fist on the table. “And a liar. I've never cheated on my wife!”
“I did not accuse you of infidelity,” she'd replied, in as calm a tone as she could. “In any event, your personal life is no concern of mine. I make no judgments, Mr. Figuroa. I'm simply trying to interpret your dream accurately. That is why you came to me, isn't it?”
He'd rubbed his chin with one pudgy knuckle. Flicking nervous glances at her, he said, “Yeah.”
The odds were that Ed Figueroa really was cheating on his wife, and it had shocked the man that Tabitha had picked that up. And now he was afraid.
She smiled, trying to put him at ease. “What I meant was, your dream indicates to me that you may be experiencing some, um, unresolved issues over something going on in your life right now. And you may possibly be feeling a little, um, guilty. Your subconscious is trying to cope.”
“I never cheated on my wife, and if you tell anyone, I'll sue your ass!” He shoved himself away from the table and stood. “You're a fraud, lady. Taking people's money and telling them lies. Fraud!”
Tabitha rose slowly, clasping her hands in front of her. “I'm sorry we didn't have a more productive session. There will be no charge for today, Mr. Figueroa.”
He gave her a curt nod, called her a shocking name, and mumbled defamatory remarks about her ancestors all the way out the door. She hadn't heard from him since, thank God, and prayed she never would.
But clients such as Mr. Figueroa were rare. Hopefully, Mr. Damon would see reason, understand how the process worked, and they could have a successful session.
Now, as she tossed aside the damp sheet and walked to the door, Winkin and Blinkin leapt off the bed to race each other down the stairs, sounding more like a herd of buffalo than a dog and cat. When the slap-and-bang of the doggy door in the kitchen echoed up the stairs, she knew they'd hit the backyard at a full run.
Meandering over to her west-facing window, she pulled the curtain back and gazed out into the side yard at the eucalyptus tree her grandmother had planted fifty years ago. Its long, scythe-shaped leaves rustled in the morning breeze as though warning of more wind to come.
Of course, San Francisco could be very windy; everybody knew that. The turn your umbrella inside out, blow your hair all over your head, and lift your skirt up to your thighs sort of wind. Men didn't seem to complain about the latter, though. And the rain, when it came, splashed all over everything in big, fat drops that burst like tiny water balloons when they hit your windshield. Water sluiced off canvas awnings to ping pedestrians on the head. The black streets became shiny, their painted lines distorted and hard to see. Driving in San Francisco rain could be a real bitch.
But she loved it. She loved all of it.
She lifted her gaze to the slate colored clouds pressing down on the city. It might rain today. She tried not to view that as an omen.
Suddenly irritated at herself for making an appointment with a new client so early in the morning, she resigned herself to get it in gear, shower, dress, and head downstairs and make coffee. Better have some hot water ready, too, in case Mr. Damon preferred tea.
Twenty minutes later, as she slipped into her denim skirt and lacy white top, the images from the nightmare formed inside her head once more. For a psychic dream interpreter, she was lousy at deciphering her own dreams. In her entire life, she'd never had a prophetic dream, but then, many psychics didn't.
Rising, she walked to the head of her bed and looked up at the dream catcher dangling from the ceiling, high above her pillow. Except for a hole in the very center, the large willow hoop had been filled with a delicately woven spider-like web. From the bottom of the hoop hung three long strings decorated with shiny beads and soft white feathers.According to Lakota legend, the web caught a dreamer's good ideas and omens, while the hole in the center let evil or malevolence pass through and away. She sure hoped it worked, especially after the dream that had awakened her this morning.
The nightmare had carried with it a feeling of importance she had never felt before. It had been frightening, but more than that, it had been solid, real in some way. An indicator dream.
An indication of what, though?
As she slid into her sandals and closed the bedroom door behind her, she couldn't help but feel the dream was a warning that her life was about to change.
Uneasiness settled deep into the pit of her stomach. Lately, one day had been pretty much like the next, but now she felt a tug of expectation. Not the kind of expectation where you buy a lottery ticket and just know you're going to win. More like when you stare at the phone because you know somebody's going to call you – with very bad news.
Inspector Nate Darling of the San Francisco Police Department, stood across the street from the suspect's house, checking out possible points of entry and exit. One door in front, probably one in back, and maybe a side door, as well. Hard to say from this angle.
The somewhat rundown Victorian was of a basic Queen Anne design, and featured a gabled roof and decorative trim. The narrow house rose up three stories, and boasted a turret with arched window frames. While the clapboards were painted a sort of peachy apricotish color, the Palladian windows, balcony rails, and window frames were contrasted in faded blue and green.
Next to the turret, stood an enormous eucalyptus tree, its overgrown branches brushing the side of the house with every gust of wind. He'd be willing to bet that decaying eucalyptus leaves clogged the gutters; they'd be a real pain in the ass to clean.
The house belonged to one Tabitha March, who lived there and rented out rooms to boarders.
She also conducted business from her parlor office on the first floor.
But just what kind of business did Ms. March conduct? That was the question, and the reason for his visit.
The citizen who'd lodged the complaint had been very specific - Tabitha March bilked her clients, took money under false pretenses, tendered bad advice, and offered more "personal" services on the side – for a hefty fee.
Even though there had only been the one complaint, Ed Figueroa was a well respected and prominent San Francisco businessman who had friends in the upper echelons of local law enforcement. As a result, his accusations of fraud and solicitation could not be ignored.
In the time Nate had been standing under the magnolia tree that shaded this brief bit of Larkin Street's sidewalk, nobody had entered or exited the house. He checked his watch. Nearly nine. "Nathan Damon" had an appointment at the top of the hour with Tabitha March, dream interpreter.
Dream interpreter, my ass. He nearly scoffed out loud. Well, there was no law against such a vocation, especially in California. Though he'd been away for nearly twenty years, he'd never forgotten how differently people viewed the world here. They were all so touchy-feely, so open to new things, some of them were borderline nut cases, as far as he was concerned.
Pursing his lips, he wondered how he'd have turned out if he'd stayed in the Bay area instead of moving to Olympia with his dad when his parents had split. A year after his return to San Francisco, Nate still missed the Northwest – and the woman he'd loved there – but when the relationship had ended, he'd decided it was finally time to return home. There were lots of fences to mend here. Almost two decades of neglected, broken fences.
His watch gave a quiet bleep. Nine o'clock. Showtime. He glanced at the car parked down the block and gave a subtle nod to his partner. Inspector Bob Stocker would hear and record every word Nate and Ms. March said.
Adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses, he crossed the street, taking the ten porch steps two at a time. When he pressed the doorbell, a musical trill sounded inside. Nice, like cascading chimes.
A moment later, the door opened, and Nate's heart skidded to a stop. His mouth went dry. His brain shut down, and . . . well, he'd have to have a talk later with his testosterone.
Tabitha March didn't look like a con artist or a hooker. No siree. More like some farmer's fresh and pretty daughter.
Her strawberry blond hair fell to just below her shoulders and had a soft curl to it. Clear skin accentuated the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. Her cheeks were soft and rosy, and just the right amount of freckles dashed across her straight nose. Totally cute.
Those big baby blues widened as she looked him up and down, a little frantically it seemed to him.
"Mr. D-Damon?" she stumbled. Her words were spoken as though she were hoping he was somebody else.
"Yes, Nathan Damon," he said, and smiled. "We have an appointment at nine?"
Why in the hell was she gaping at him like she'd just seen the Grim Reaper? Had she made him as a cop already? If so, this whole deal was a waste of time.
"Are you the one I spoke to on the phone?" he ventured.
Her dark lashes fluttered and her eyes clouded with confusion. Swallowing, she stared at him for a moment.
"Yes," she finally said. "I'm Tabitha March. Sorry. I, uh, you look like somebody I met once. Sort of. Recently."
Stepping back, she swung the door open and gestured for him to enter. "This . . . there . . . office." She stopped speaking and pointed to an open doorway. When he gave her a questioning look, she smiled shyly. "Probably just a coincidence."
Her smile brightened and she shook her head. "Nothing."
She walked past him and he followed her through the oak double doors into her office. Warm sunshine filtered through the curtains, giving the small room a cozy intimacy. Faded floral wallpaper, lace curtains, a tiny fireplace, and an elegant crystal chandelier lent the room an old world charm.
In the far corner, an antique desk held a modern computer and printer, a phone, various ledgers, and stacks of papers.
Shutting the doors behind them, she indicted he should take a seat at a round mahogany table in front of the fireplace.
While he made himself comfortable, she moved around to take the seat opposite him.
"So," she said on a long exhaled breath. Clasping her hands in front of her on the table, she said, "On the phone you mentioned you've never consulted a dream interpreter before."
"That's right." But if I'd known they looked like you, I'd've given it a shot years ago.
She absently curled a lock of her hair behind her ear. The gesture brought his attention to the delicate bones of her face, slightly arched brows, full mouth.
Without thinking, he licked his lips.
If she was soliciting, she must have caught on that men liked to see a woman in scooped-neck tops and little diamond dangle earrings.
Though her clothing wasn't obvious at all, her curves would be very hard to hide, and he wondered how she managed to look both hot and sweet at the same time.
But it was the doe-in-the-headlights look in her eyes that interested him the most. If he didn't know better, he'd swear she was terrified of him.
"How did you hear about my services, Mr. Damon?"
Her services. Yeah. Here we go.
"I have a friend who's a client. You came highly recommended."
"One of my regulars?"
"I believe so."
"Would you be comfortable sharing his name?"
Nate pretended to give it some thought. "I'd like to keep his name out of it, if that's okay."
That seemed to disturb her, but she didn't press the issue.
Fiddling with her hair again, she cleared her throat. "Have you been having difficulty sleeping?"
"You might say that."
She nodded. "Many clients have thanked me for the enormous relief I've given them. They've felt comfortable enough with me, even first-timers, to strip away all their inhibitions and get down to raw honesty. It's very freeing to unburden yourself in this way, get right to the bottom of things."
"Yeah, that's what my friend said." Nate swallowed.
She perked up. "I'm happy to hear your friend was satisfied enough to recommend me to you."
Relaxing into his chair a little, he said, "So, how does this work, exactly?"
Her lashes fluttered and she got that nervous look about her again. "Okay, well, basically, I'm tactile. That is to say, I do my best when I'm in physical contact with a client.
Generally speaking, if we touch during the session, the results are much more satisfying for us both."
No doubt about it, baby.
She smiled sweetly. "Would you have any problem with me touching you, Mr. Damon?"
Hey, it's one of the perks. "No."
"All right then."
She slid one hand onto the table, palm up. With her other hand, she reached for his, turned it over and rested it in her own. His knuckles nestled into her palm, his fingers relaxed into a slight curl as though he were cupping her breast. She stared at their hands for a moment, and seemed to grow more agitated.
"Oh . . . I, uh . . . oh . . ." she mumbled. Flicking a quick look into his eyes, she glanced away again, then inhaled sharply, like somebody had just jabbed her in the ribs.
"Okay, we're c-connected." She ran her tongue over her lips, then swallowed. "Please close your eyes, and tell me your dream. As you speak, I'll be able to see the images. Then we can talk about what your dream means."
Her palm was warm, damp. She was definitely nervous as hell.
So now he was supposed to relate a dream to her? He didn't dream very much, at least, he didn't remember them. Since this whole thing was utter BS anyway, she'd never know the difference if he made something up. Besides, any minute, she was going to stop beating around the bush and offer him sex for money.
And then the game would be over.