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DREAM LOVER

Can love transcend time to rewrite the past? The night before their wedding, Nicolo Covelli's fianc disappeared without a trace. He grieved for her until the day he died. 115 years later, Rachel Delacourte is suddenly plagued with nightmares where she's entombed alive. But it's not just the nightmares that make her seek out help from a sleep clinic, it's the errotic dreams that follow and the disturbing feeling that the man in her dreams is real.

Hed never met Rachel but he knew her intimately all the same. His fingers had sifted through her silky dark hair, traced the line of her delicate jaw, caressed her soft skin. Night after night she came to him while he slept and made love to him in his dreams. For a year now she has haunted him, consumed his mind both day and night, and it made Nic wonderwas he the one haunting Rachel Delacourtes dreams as well?

Prologue
August 18, 1896

She was suffocating. Rochelles hand went to her throat then fluttered weakly to her side. Her mouth was so dry she couldnt even produce enough saliva to ease the burning thirst and she would have wept if there had been an ounce of moisture left in her body. Was it night or day? She couldnt tell, not when theyd so carefully applied a thick layer of mortar before fitting each brick snuggly into place. There hadnt been so much as a pin sized hole for light to seep through.

Even knowing no sound could possibly be heard beyond the airtight room theyd entombed her in, Rochelle had screamed until her voice was so hoarse and raw it had come out as nothing more than a rasping whisper by the time shed given up. Theyd finally broken her, but what did it matter? He wasnt coming. She knew that now, just as she knew her last breath was only moments away.

Rochelles heart ached, but not for herself. It ached for the man who would be utterly crushed when he was told shed deserted him. He wouldnt believe their lies at first of course, he was much too certain of her love for that. But as time passed and she didnt return to his waiting arms, would he give credence to their false accusations? She prayed he wouldnt, prayed that he would be as strong in his belief of her devotion to him as she was to his.

Her eyelids closed as her labored breath came less frequently and the weariness of fighting for air took its toll. Rochelle allowed herself to slip sideways along the rough wall until she lay with her cheek pressed against floor, the stone slab only slightly colder than her own

body temperature. The only warmth she felt at all was in her shoulder where the bullet had lodged but even that was beginning to fade.

She would sleep now, Rochelle decided. She would sleep and she would dream of a time when nothing else mattered but the love that shone from his eyes for her, only her. In his arms shed been safe from the world, secure in the knowledge they were destined to be together forever. Even as death slipped its icy fingers around her throat and began to squeeze, she wasnt afraid. Because her love knew no bounds, and because she could already see Nicolos handsome face and the wicked grin he always wore just before he seduced her back into his bed.

One brief kiss from his sensuous lips was all it had ever taken to ignite a fire in her soul. And his handsso strong and yet so incredibly gentle as they stroked her intimately, the warmth of them searing her skin and giving rise to an inner heat that was as volatile as a live volcano. It was always so good with Nicolo, so good.

Rochelle smiled, breeching the gap between life and death as she slipped into his dreams and gave herself to him one last time.

Chapter 1
Present Day

Nic bolted upright, staring into the darkness for several minutes before shoving the blankets back and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Raking his fingers through sweat soaked hair, he tried to shake off the feeling that what hed experienced was real, that she was real. He dreamt of her often, the raven haired beauty with eyes the color of jade and skin that felt like satin beneath his fingertips. She haunted him, and not just at night when he slept.

At work, at home, even when he was on a date with another woman his mind was consumed with thoughts of her; thoughts that made his whole body ache to hold her, touch her, feel her writhing beneath him as she surrendered herself to him. Just as she did in his dreams every night. Nic groaned out loud and pushed himself off the bed, thoroughly disgusted by the physical reaction he was having to a woman who didnt even exist.

He padded to the kitchen and downed a glass of ice water before climbing back into bed only to lay there with his eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. If she was just a woman his subconscious mind had planted in his dreams, why did he still feel her warmth surrounding him? Why did her soft scent linger in the air and on his skin long after hed woken up? And how was it possible he could still taste the sweetness of her lips or that he still tingled where her elegant hands had wandered?

If she wasnt realwhy did he feel this horrible loss deep in his chest as if his heart was being ripped out every time he woke to find she wasnt lying beside him?

Pathetic, truly pathetic, he muttered.

He was a healthy, mentally sound man whod managed to reach the ripe age of thirty-four without once becoming so obsessed with a woman he couldnt drive her out of his head. Except for her. Nic wondered what his colleagues would say if they knew hed been plagued with erotic dreams for almost a year now and that he had genuine feelings for his imaginary lover. What deep seeded childhood issue would they try to drudge up to explain it?

Even as Nic scoffed at the idea, he knew it was the first thing he would have targeted as a possible cause. Recurring nightmares were often a reflection of childhood or even adult trauma, but in those cases there was something tangible to grab onto. He was a realist; he didnt believe dreams were anything more than fantasy or an indicator of a troubled mind and balked at the concept they were visions of the future, or even more ludicrous; memories of a past life.

Nic had devoted his life to sleep study and held fast to the belief it was usually some form of anxiety buried in the subconscious mind that found a way to manifest itself in dreams. Stillhe could almost hear those soft, throaty moans she made when he was kissing her followed by a sharp little gasp as he eased himself into the warmth of her body. His chest tightened as her whispered words of love sent a thrill racing through him.

Good Lord, he needed to find a real woman and fast!

***

Rachel Delacourte scanned the directory listing encased on the wall, a slight scowl marring her delicate features. Lucisano Research owned the entire building, a minor detail her

hair-brained sister had neglected to tell her when shed coaxed Rachel into coming here. She checked her watch, letting out an irritated huff when she realized she was already five minutes late. How long had she been standing here, staring like an idiot as if the answer would miraculously appear to her?

She gnawed at her lip. What difference would it make if she didnt show up for this appointment? It wasnt likely they could help her anyway and at least shed be spared having to recount the nightmares that plagued her to a perfect stranger. But what if they could help her? The chances were remote but even the smallest of odds were worth gambling on at this point. Because the dream scared the holy crap out of her, Rachel admitted to herself, and because it was becoming more and more vivid each time she had it.

She wasnt the only one who noticed the dark circles under her eyes or the gradual withdraw from outings with friends and family functions over the past year. But she just couldnt seem to gather the energy that was necessary to socialize and there was such a heaviness in her heart all the time, as if shed lost something she would never be able to get back. Maybe it was just the sleep deprivation, but Rachel didnt think so. Deep down inside, she could feel something ominous brewing and it was only a matter of time before

Excuse me, Miss, may I help you?

Rachel turned to find a pleasant faced woman with kind eyes and a sympathetic smile standing behind her. A badge that read Bridgette Mason, Lucisano Research Security, was pinned to her jacket though she certainly didnt look like she was concerned about Rachel being a security threat.

I wish you could, Rachel sighed. Unfortunately, my little sister set the appointment but forgot to tell me which suite or even what floor it was on.

Im sure we can figure it out in no time, she assured Rachel. Most people who come here dont realize what a huge corporation Lucisano Research is, so were used to it. Now, if youre here to be part of a group study I just need to know what kind of study it is and

No, its nothing like that. Ive been having trouble sleeping because of a recurring nightmare and just had an appointment for a consultation.

Ah, then you want the Sleep Study labs on the ninth floor. Just take a left when you get off the elevator and the receptionist will direct you to the right office.

Lord, she didnt want to do this. She wanted to do it even less when she stepped out of the elevator on the ninth floor, and by the time Rachel stood in front of the door for Drs. Agostino, Covelli, and Montesanti she was practically cured of her desire to be rid of the nightmare altogether. Maybe it was a sign, or maybe it was just the price for lingering a little too long, but it was at that precise moment the door swung open.

Miss Delacourte? Excellent, the woman said when Rachel nodded mutely. I was afraid youd gotten lost and wound up in one of the other offices.

Rachel was ushered inside and handed a form to fill out, and for the next fifteen minutes she agonized over how much of the nightmare she should reveal. There was the suffocating and dying part which was probably important to notate, but there was also the erotic ending where she and her dark haired lover did things to each other that were way to intimate to convey to a

stranger. Just thinking of it brought a blush to her cheeks and even worse, a longing to slip back into the fantasy so she could relive the passionate kisses and ardent love making once more.

She was losing her mind, there was no other explanation. Why else had she stopped dating in the past year since the nightmare began? It was ludicrous; having such deep feelings for a man who didnt even exist and avoiding relationships with other men because if it. The few times she had gone out on dates were complete and utter failures because, absurd as it seemed, shed actually felt as if she was being unfaithful to her dream lover.

Rachels pen hovered over the form before she jotted down the part about being intimate with a man shed never met, though she was careful not to elaborate. No doubt theyd say it was just her subconscious mind that had created a hero to come and rescue her. Or maybe theyd tell her there was something more symbolic to it. Shed read somewhere that dreams shouldnt be interpreted literally and usually had some deeper meaning. She seemed to recall that dreaming of spiders indicated you were feeling entangled by a clingy relationship or something along that line. Too bad she didnt remember what having hot sex with a tall, dark stranger meant.

Excellent, the woman smiled brightly when Rachel brought the form back to the checkin counter. She gave the form a cursory glance before leading Rachel down a long corridor. You were actually scheduled to see Dr. Covelli but he was here most of the night with one of his patients so youll be seeing Dr. Agostino for the initial consultation.

Rachel groaned inwardly. It was going to be painful enough to discuss the nightmares with a stranger but if she had to repeat everything all over again shed just throw the towel in and learn to live with it. She entered the office of Dr. Luis Agostino feeling a little apprehensive and

seated herself in a chair across from his desk. He looked up briefly when she entered and offered an even briefer smile before taking the form shed filled out from the woman whod accompanied her and began to read. Rachel shifted nervously, gnawing at her bottom lip until he finally finished reading and greeted her with a genuine smile this time.

You say the nightmares started about a year ago. Do you recall anything traumatic occurring around that time which might have triggered these nightmares?

No, I lead a very uneventful life. So uneventful it was a shocker that she hadnt slipped into a coma by now.

No deaths in the family or close friends? No break-ups with boyfriends or loss of a job?

Rachel shook her head, feeling as if she should apologize for the lack of tragedies he could link the nightmares to. He asked her several more questions, probing for the elusive trauma and when he came up empty, Dr. Agostino asked her to tell him about the nightmare.

Its always the same, she told him. Im in the dark, trapped in some kind of enclosure made of brick. There arent any windows and no door and she touched her throat, alarmed to feel it constrict just as it always did in her dream. Could I have a glass of water before I continue?

Of course, he nodded to a cooler in the corner, help yourself, Miss Delacourte, and pleasejust take your time.

Rachel gulped down the contents of the cup before refilling it and settling back into the chair. Theres no air in there and Im slowly suffocating. Its cold too, except for a strange burning sensation in my right shoulder, and II know Im going to die.

Do you know how you came to be in this room?

Nowell, sort of. I dont know who exactlybut it was more than one person because while Im waiting to die I keep thinking that theyve won. And when I finally die

You actually die in the dream?

Yes, isis that bad?

Dreams can be interpreted many ways, Miss Delacourte, but generally speaking dying in your dream symbolizes changes in your life. Its not a physical death, but the ending of a phase in your life and the beginning of something new.

Changes in her life. Ha! The only changes in her life over the past six years had been the gradual climb to the top of her profession. Shed been a wonder to her parents who were just regular upper-middle class people with no special talents to speak of. Her father was a principal at the same local high school where her mother taught history and though Rachel considered them both intelligent people, neither of them could take credit for the prodigy child theyd produced.

Rachel had graduated from high school shortly after her fifteenth birthday and gone straight into college. She could have chosen any career she wanted and excelled at it, and though her college counselor had encouraged her to go into a math or science related field she went with

her heart and earned her Masters degree in Architecture. At age twenty, shed graduate from a prestigious west coast university at the top of her class and was immediately offered a position by several of the most highly respected firms in the country. Shed turned them all down.

Oh, theyd all done their best to coerce her into signing on; promises of ridiculously high salaries, company cars, condos and even a junior partnership were all laid out on the table. But it wasnt what she wanted. Rachel wanted to make a difference and she didnt think she could do that if she hired on at a large corporation where her talents would be confined to designing office buildings and shopping malls. And she didnt want anyone clipping her wings when she allowed her imagination to fly which is why shed declined their generous offers and accepted a position in a fledgling company with a staff that consisted of the owner, one other architect, and an overworked secretary.

Miss Delacourte?

Rachel blinked. Im sorry, my mind tends to wander these days.

Perfectly understandable, Dr. Agostino smiled at her. Your sleep pattern has been disrupted for quite some time and it has slowly worn your body down. I asked if there were any changes in your life around the time the nightmare started, and it doesnt necessarily need to be traumatic. Any kind of changeanything that might be preying on your mind, even on a subconscious level.

She thought about it for a moment before slowly nodding her head. Im sure it has nothing to do with this but it does coincide with when the nightmare began. Im an architect and

Of course, he beamed at her. I thought I recognized the name. So youre R.J. Delacourte. Ive seen some of the houses youve designed. Theyre simply breathtaking, truly magnificent work.

Thank you, Rachel said with pride, I love what I do and its always nice to know someone appreciates my designs.

I most assuredly do, but you were saying?

A year ago I was approached by Antonio Covelli and asked to restructure an old Victorian manson that had been in his family for generations. Its been sorely neglected and I dont think anyone has lived in it for at least fifty years. At any rate, I accepted the job but since Im usually booked a good year in advance, Im not actually scheduled to begin working on it for another month or so.

Are you concerned you wont be successful in restructuring this house?

Not at all, Rachel shrugged. As a matter of fact, Im very anxious to begin working on it. Its a beautiful house, and as Ive mentioned its been horribly neglected so Im dying to get in there and start drawing up the preliminary plans.

Dr. Agostino nodded thoughtfully. Is that why you chose to come here, because of Nic Covellis association with the house?

Her eyes widened in surprise. No, II hadnt made the connection. You see, my sister set up the appointment and I guess I didnt even consider the possibility that Dr. Covelli might be related to Antonio.

Antonio is his grandfather.

Rachel grimaced. I hate to even ask butDr. Covelli wouldnt tell Antonio Im his patient, would he? Assuming I come back, that is.

You have nothing to worry about, Miss Delacourte. I assure you that everyone at Lucisano Research understands the importance of patient confidentiality.

Im glad to hear that. I know Im probably just being overly sensitive but Ive never told anyone about the nightmares or howphysically and mentally draining they are. I wouldnt want Antonio to think Im not capable of maintaining my focus on this job.

Is that why youre here, youve lost your focus?

Not on the job. Rachel gave him a feeble smile as a slow blush worked its way up her neck. Its my personal life thats taken a serious nose dive.

Its not unusual to lose your sex drive when you arent getting the proper sleep your body needs.

Myuhsex drive isnt the problem. Its who Im having sex with thats a bit disturbing.

Oh? Dr. Agostino said, obviously perplexed.

You see, after I die I sort of have a dream within my dream, and thats when I go to him.

Go to him?

My lover, Rachel explained. I go to my dream lover.

***

Nic glanced up from the notes Luis had taken during his consultation with Rachel Delacourte. She actually said this?

Every word.

He eyed Luis suspiciously. Youre sure this isnt another one of Michaels pranks? It sounds like the kind of joke hed play; paying this woman to come here and make up dreams about her erotic sexual encounters.

You think I didnt check it out as soon as she left? I pulled up some information about the Delacourte and Ross Architectural firm and it had both Todd Ross and Rachel Delacourtes pictures posted on the website. Besides, there was something else she told me that confirmed she wasnt sent here by our comical partner.

Whats that?

Your grandfather hired her to restructure the old Covelli mansion.

Now that you mention it, I think he told me about it some time ago but I didnt realize hed gone ahead and hired someone. She doesnt have a problem being my patient because if my connection with Grandfather, does she?

No. The only thing that made her a little uneasy was having to recount her dream all over again to you but I assured her my notes would be sufficient.

You have her set for a dream study?

Tomorrow night. I figured you could use a good nights sleep after pulling a double yesterday.

Nic didnt think he could have stayed awake tonight if his life depended on it. I appreciate that, Luis. I think Ill just finish reading over your notes on Miss Delacourte and call it a day.

After Luis had gone, Nic kicked back with his feet propped up on his desk and scanned the brief answers Rachel Delatorre had written on the form before reading the more in depth notes Luis had taken. He found it interesting that her recurring nightmare had started about the same time his had, and it was even more intriguing that she was experiencing similar sexual interludes every night.

The dream is so vivid I wake up feeling as if I really have spent the night having mind blowing sex.

Nic reread what Rachel had told Luis one more time with an eerie sense of familiarity. Wasnt that exactly what hed been thinking about his own nightly encounters with the greeneyed beauty who invaded his dreams? Rachel even admitted that she could still feel where his hands had touched her and often woke in the middle of an orgasm. Luis noted that she seemed

embarrassed by this and had assured her it was perfectly natural considering the nature of the dream.

Nic had to give the woman kudos for having the courage to tell Luis, especially since hed been somewhat of a coward by keeping his recurring dream to himself so he wouldnt have to confess the very same thing frequently happened to him. He idly wondered what would happen if two people such as Rachel and himself got involved in a relationship with each other. Would the dreams end or would they both wake up with ravenous sexual appetites and go at each other like animals in heat after being primed by their dream lovers? It was an interesting thought, but one hed definitely have to keep to himself.

Nic finished reading the rest of the narrative and jotted down a few questions to ask Rachel when he saw her tomorrow. He was glad she was coming in on a Friday so hed be able to take it easy the next day and catch up on some much needed sleep. It also tended to make his patients a bit more relaxed because they werent worrying about missing work and consequently fell into a deeper sleep. He closed the file and was just about to shut down his computer when curiosity about Rachel Delacourte got the better of him.

Pulling up the internet, he typed in Delacourte and Ross and found their home page right away. Nics heart slammed against ribs when he saw the picture of Rachel smiling back at him. She was much younger than he expected and was also undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women hed ever seen. But that wasnt what made his heart vibrate inside his chest like a jack hammer or why the air had suddenly been sucked out of his lungs. He leaned closer to the screen, studying every familiar feature of her face.

Hed never met Rachel but he knew her intimately all the same. His fingers had sifted through her silky dark hair, traced the line of her delicate jaw, caressed her soft skin. Hed kissed her perfect mouth and gazed into her jade green eyes every night as he sank into the warmth of her body. Hed woken with her scent filling his senses and his mind reeling from the heated passion theyd shared. Rachel wasnt just the type of woman dreams were made of; she was the woman his dreams were made of. Night after night she came to him while he slept and made love to him in his dreams.

For a year now shed haunted him, consumed his mind both day and night, and it made Nic wonderwas he the one haunting Rachel Delacourtes dreams as well?

Chapter 2
Rachel perched on the edge of the chair, her back rigid as a board while her eyes roamed around the office of Nic Covelli. The small delay the nurse informed her about had turned into a thirty minute wait so far which had only added to her anxiety and made her wish shed cancelled altogether. It hadnt occurred to her until after shed checked in that while Dr. Covelli was monitoring her brain waves and analyzing the cause of her nightmares, hed also be observing her while she slept.

It was bad enough that hed witness her thrashing around and calling out for someone to save her but once the dream migrated from the twilight zone to the erogenous zoneRachel shuddered to think what the good doctor would have to say about that. What if the throaty moans and cries of ecstasy she made in her dreams actually erupted from her mouth while she slept? Or worse, what if she simulated the act of making love by gyrating her hips and squirming around like a fish caught on a hook? It was mortifying to say the least.

Shed just have to keep reminding herself why she was here in the first place and that Dr. Covelli was a professional who probably dealt with things like this all the time. Wellmaybe not all the time, Rachel conceded. After all, why would anyone want to put a stop to dreams that made you wake up feeling as if youve just been made love to by the sexiest man God ever created? Just thinking of him made her skin tingle and the muscles in her abdomen clench. It was a shame the dreams of him and the nightmare were connected because she couldnt honestly say she wanted them to end.

She seriously contemplated making up some lame excuse about a family emergency and high tailing it out of there but the thought of having to explain to her sister, Monica, why shed bailed was enough to keep her planted firmly in her seat. Monica was a royal pain in the ass but she was also genuinely concerned about Rachel and she could hardly fault her baby sister for that, even if she did think Monica was overreacting.

What if you stop breathing in your sleep when you die in the dream? Monica had asked, her big blue eyes misting with tears.

Rachel laughed it off. If my dream was going to kill me, dont you think it would have done so by now?

Im worried about you, Rach. You look so tired all the time and if anything happened to you

Nothings going to happen to me, I promise. Now tell me about your new boyfriend. I suppose hes incredibly handsome and obnoxiously rich.

Monica had set her chin in that determined manner that told Rachel she wasnt going to give up. Dont try to change the subject. Something has got to be done about the nightmares, and I know just the thing.

The thing Monica referred to was an appointment at the dream study clinic. So here she was with her overnight bag, feeling a little sick to her stomach at the prospect of being watched while she was dreaming of dying and having hot sex. At least she had the comfort of knowing whatever happened would never go beyond these walls, although she was a little concerned

about running into Dr. Covelli outside the office once she started working on his grandfathers mansion. It wasnt likely hed show up while she was there since the mansion hadnt been lived in for years but it was possible hed be curious enough to come and check it out once the restructuring began. Well, she supposed shed have to deal with it when or if it happened.

***

Nic hovered outside the doorway feeling foolish as hell for being so nervous about meeting Rachel Delacourte. If his dream the night before hadnt been so vivid he might have been able to convince himself it wasnt the same woman and that hed only imagined it was because there were a few similarities between them. But the sex had been soraw, so intensely passionate he hadnt been able to tear his eyes away from her face as shed writhed beneath him, her sexy voice gravelly and breathless when she begged him for more, more, more.

Nic had happily obliged, sending her delectable body into convulsions as she climaxed time after time until hed finally exploded inside of her. How was he supposed to walk in there and act as if theyd never met when an image of the soft smile shed worn after theyd made love was still lingering in his mind? Thank God hed had enough sense to grab his lab coat so hed at least be spared the embarrassment of having her notice the raging hard on he was sporting. Yeah, he was the epitome of professionalism all right.

Drawing in a lung full of air, Nic pushed the door open and strode purposefully into the room to greet his new patient. Pasting a smile on his face as Rachel rose to her feet, he managed to get all the way across the room without making an idiot of himself, though he wasnt quite sure how he did it when his legs felt as if they were made of rubber. He supposed he looked like

a love sick teenager as he took the hand she offered but for the life of him, Nic couldnt help the surge of emotion that swept over him when her soft skin touched his.

An entire gymnastic routine played out in Rachels stomach when Nic Covellis hand enveloped hers. It wasnt just that he was drop dead gorgeous or that he exuded sexuality in spades, it was the way those dark eyes searched hers as if hed find the answer to some puzzling question hidden in their depths. The intensity of his gaze should have made her feel uneasy but it seem to have just the opposite effect because there was only a strange sense of familiarity that theyd met somewhere before.

Rachel tilted her head. Do I know you?

Intimately. How would she respond to that answer, he wondered. No, I dont believe weve ever met but you do remind me of someone Ive just recently become acquainted with. Please forgive me for staring, he smiled down at her. Its just that the resemblance is so amazing it threw me for a moment.

She returned his smile with one that was as teasing as her tone. Then you wont mind giving my hand back now?

Nic glanced down at their joined hands before reluctantly releasing his hold on her. As he offered her a seat and took his place behind his desk, he tried not to think about where those elegant hands had wandered last night in his dreams or the way her slender fingers had curled around the back of his neck and pulled his mouth down onto hers. Blocking out the image of Rachel lying beneath him, her breasts heaving as she gasped for air each time he thrust into her

was not an easy feat. Nor was hiding the disappointment he felt when he found no sign of recognition in her beautiful green eyes.

Nic leaned back in his chair, doing his level best not to look as if he wanted to pounce on her. Ive gone over the notes Dr. Agostino made yesterday and just have a few questions before I explain the process of the dream study. You said the nightmare started about the same time you agreed to take on the Covelli mansion.

Thats right.

Have you noticed the nightmare becoming more vivid the closer it gets to starting the job?

Rachel shifted in her chair. As a matter of fact it has, but I really dont see what one has to do with the other.

Youre not worried about taking on such a high profile project?

High profile? Im afraid I dont understand.

You mean my grandfather didnt tell you anything about the mansions history?

Only that its been in the family for generations and that no one has lived there for close to fifty years.

Well, Nic sighed, there goes one of my theories. I thought I might have been onto something when you said the nightmare was becoming more vivid, but that was because I assumed you knew about the mansion and why it was abandoned by the family.

Rachel was intrigued. Is there some dark secret about the place?

Not exactly. Nic considered whether or not to tell her and decided she was probably right about the two not being related. According to Grandfather, it started around the time his father was in his mid-thirties. Apparently, a young woman who worked there as a maid disappeared one night and was never heard from or seen again. Rumor has it she was murdered somewhere on the grounds and buried there and has been haunting the place ever since.

I see, so you thought Id heard the story and was spooked by it.

Nic grinned. I guess that theory got shot down pretty quickly.

Even if Antonio had told me, it wouldnt have bothered me. Im not saying I dont believe her spirit couldnt be lingering around, especially if the poor girl really was murdered, but it wouldnt be the first time Ive done work on a place that was supposedly haunted.

Im afraid I couldnt tell you one way or the other since Ive only been inside the mansion a couple of times, but Id love the chance to see it again before you start working on it. I could even fill you in on some of its history if youre interested.

Rachels stomach fluttered. That would be nice. Ill let you know when Im ready so you can coordinate it with your work schedule.

Speaking of workmaybe we should get started on curing you of this nightmare.

Dr. Agostino explained a little bit of it to me. He said youd have me hooked up to monitors that will record my brain waves.

We also monitor your eye and muscle movements.

Im sure he mentioned that too, she smiled apologetically, but Im afraid I wasnt giving him my full attention.

Nics eyes were drawn to her mouth for a moment before he gave himself a mental kick. Yes, theuhmonitors will give us some physiological feedback on whats happening as you pass through the four stages of sleep and while this nightmare is taking place.

How do you know when Im having the nightmare?

Thats what the monitors will tell me. Most people think dreaming happens in the fourth stage of sleep which is understandable because it seems reasonable to assume you fall into a deeper sleep as the night progresses. In reality, you move in and out of deep sleep all through the night. The first stage only lasts a few minutes before you move into stage two where youre pulled into a deeper sleep.

Rachel listened intently as he explained the difference between the tests that hed be running while she slept. An EOG would measure her eye movement, which in turn would tell him how deeply she was sleeping since the eye movement becomes more rapid as you get into a deep sleep. The EMG monitored any muscle activity like leg movement or teeth grinding. It was another method of telling how deeply she was sleeping because her muscle movement would gradually decrease. The EKG would record her heart activity and the last monitor was the EEG which tracked her brain waves.

Its during the third and fourth stages that you progress into a deeper sleep, Nic told her.

Im a little confused. At what point do I start to dream?

It takes about ninety minutes for the cycle to run its course and then the stages go in reverse. When it gets back to stage one, thats when Ill see rapid eye movement or REM. You should also have decreased muscle movement unless you talk in your sleep. The only time you experience the vivid dreaming youve been having is in the REM state which usually lasts from five to fifteen minutes on the first cycle and gets longer with each successive cycle, possibly lasting up to an hour.

Thats a lot to digest all at one time.

Not if you think of it in more familiar terms, Nic patiently explained. Its simply a chain of events broken down into four stages that repeats itself over and over and gets longer with each repetition. Thats why the dreams you have close to morning time are more vivid and easily recalled, because they last longer than the ones you had earlier in the night.

Still puzzled, Rachel felt compelled to ask more questions before they began the study. How is monitoring my brain waves and face twitches going to help get rid of the nightmare?

Nic chuckled. Believe it or not those face twitches, or actually the lack of them, will tell me when you move into the REM state. Once I determine when the nightmare is most likely to occur in your regular sleep pattern we can work on getting rid of it.

This time it was Rachels turn to laugh. What are you going to do, wake me up every time I start to dream?

Something like that. Ill attempt to break the cycle of the nightmare by waking you in the middle of it. Sometimes disrupting the pattern is all it takes.

And if that doesnt work?

Then we try a different method called lucid dreaming.

Rachels brows drew together. By lucid you mean that Im aware of the fact that Im dreaming.

Exactly, Nic replied. Basically, you wake up inside the dream and confront your fears.

Confront them, she repeated feebly. You do understand that I die in the nightmare, right? What am I supposed to do, convince myself Im not scared of suffocating to death?

Nic gave her a reassuring smile. No, Miss Delacourte, Im going to teach you how to alter the course of the dream so that you dont die at all.

Her eyes widened. You can do that?

With practice you can develop full control of your dream which means you can do anything you want because youre aware that whatever is going on around you is made up by your own mind.

You mean I could change it so that the room isnt airtight and I dont suffocate?

Nics eyes danced with amusement. You could do thator you could create a door to walk out of or even knock the brick wall down altogether so you can never be trapped in there again.

WowI meanwow.

I take it that means youre open to the idea?

At this point, Dr. Covelli, Id stand on my head and sing The Star Spangled Banner if I thought it would make the nightmare stop.

Nic laughed as he rose to his feet. If the lucid dreaming doesnt work, we just may have to try that.

***

Even with electrodes placed all over her head and face, Rachel Delacourte still had the power to take his breath away. From behind the two way mirror, hed watched her slip past the first four stages of sleep and begin the ascent back to stage one feeling a bit guilty for paying more attention to Rachel than the readouts from the monitors. Not that it deterred him, but at least he could pretend he wasnt a total letch for doing it as long as there was a smidgeon of remorse.

It had taken a good forty-five minutes for her to finally drift off which had given him time to check the monitors to ensure they were working properly. After that, there wasnt much

to it until she actually hit the REM state so hed simply watched her while she slept. He hadnt been lying when he told Rachel he could teach her how to have lucid dreams or how successful hed been with his other patients over the years. What Nic had purposely left out of the conversation was that hed been a miserable failure at having lucid dreams himself.

When hed first started dreaming about her it hadnt really bothered him much, and why would it? Every night he got to have explosive sex with a beautiful woman and he didnt have to concern himself with things like using protection or whether shed demand that he make a commitment. There were no awkward moments the morning after and she was right back in his bed the next night. But as time went on and he actually started to feel something for the woman, Nic thought it was best if he gave up the fantasy and got control of his life again.

Hed tried setting his alarm clock so it would go off every five hours which should have been about the time she slipped into his bed, but it hadnt worked. Hed slept right through the alarm, usually waking to its loud clanging two hours after the time hed set it for. Changing his sleeping routine hadnt worked either, nor had visualizing himself with a different woman before he fell asleep in the hopes of at least altering the dream to break the cycle. As for lucid dreaming, something hed been able to do before Rachel made her first appearance, he no longer seemed to have the capability.

Nics attention was suddenly drawn to the heart monitor when the rhythm began to pick up tempo. Damn, she was waking up which meant it would be another ninety minutes once she fell asleep again before shed hit the REM state. Thats when he noticed the changes in the readings from the other monitors. He checked his watch then glanced at the clock on the wall to confirm the time.

Impossible, he muttered.

Rachel had only been asleep for two hours. At this point she should be in the middle of the second stage and taking the next hour to work her way back down to stage four. Incredibly, she was quickly advancing towards the REM againor maybe she was being sucked down, Nic thought as he studied the readouts. Eye movement was becoming more rapid, muscle movement practically non-existent, and her brain waves had slowed to a crawl. She was definitely dreaming.

In all the years hed been doing this, Nic had never seen anyone go into the REM state so fast but there was only a niggling of concern because he knew it was too early in her sleep cycle to have the nightmare. According to what Rachel told Luis, the nightmare was quite lengthy, her death a long drawn out process that ended when her spirit fled her body and entered her lovers dreams. Based on the amount of time it would take to get through the nightmare and themind blowing sex, as Rachel called it, she wasnt likely to have anything but a few inconsequential dreams until close to dawn.

Having come to that conclusion through logic and experience, Nic was startled when Rachel let out a terrified scream that reverberated off the lab walls and sent an icy chill racing through him.

***

Her throat was so dry it felt as if shed swallowed sawdust and no matter how hard she tried there simply wasnt enough air left her lungs to scream again. She could feel her heart hammering in her chest, the fear so tangible it clung to her like a second skin. So this was how it

was going to end. She was going to die all alone in a cold, dark room and the secret shed carried around inside of her for the past two weeks would die with her.

Theyd broken her, but what did it matter? He wasnt coming. Tears scalded her eyes but she wasnt crying for herself. Yes, theyd left her here to die and theyd taken away the future she and Nicolo had so often dreamed of, but there was something they could never take from her; the knowledge that he loved her. Her tears were for him, because they would rob him of the belief that she loved him in return and because hed never know shed sacrificed her life rather than denounce that love.

She closed her eyes and let herself fall sideways, a little stunned by how cold the stone floor was against her cheek but she was too weak now to do anything but lay there. She thought of Nicolo and the way hed kissed her this morning before climbing out of bed and it warmed her from the inside out. Shed never leave him, never

Nic bolted out of the observation room and all but ran to Rachels bed side where she lay rigid as a stone statue. At first he thought there must have some sort of power surge that made all the equipment malfunction at once. Hed told himself it had to be a problem with the power source because the readings couldnt possibly be right.

Her heart rate had suddenly plunged, her respiration became barely discernable and brain function had nearly ceased, and yet he could hear her murmuring so obviously her brain hadnt shut down as the readings suggested. Hed turned the equipment off and rebooted everything but the results were the same; Rachel Delacourte was slowly dying right before his eyes.

Nic leaned over and placed his fingers on her throat, feeling for a pulse and was relieved to find it was strong and steady. His eyes moved to her chest which rose and fell evenly; further proof that his equipment had merely malfunctioned and that Rachel wasnt in any danger. His attention was drawn to her face when she whispered his name but when he saw that her eyes were still closed, Nic wondered if hed only imagined it.

He took in the perfection of her lips, the high cheek bones, the delicate line of her jaw, her glorious mane of hair, his gaze lingering for several minutes before it slowly dawned on him that something wasnt quite right about the way she looked. A few more minutes ticked by as Nic tried to make sense of it, but there was no logical explanation. He reached down and lightly grazed the flawless skin on her cheek with his fingertips, completely mystified as to how all the electrodes hed so carefully placed on her head and face had been removed.

It couldnt have taken him more than a few seconds to get from the observation room to Rachels bed side and even if shed somehow managed to pull them all out, her skin would have been red and irritated from ripping them off. Is that why the equipment had given false readings? Or had she removed them before he raced out of the observation room and he just hadnt noticed? If she had removed them, she had to have done it in her sleep.

In the dimly lit room it was impossible to tell how deeply she was sleeping, not without getting closer to see how rapidly her eyes were moving beneath her lids. Nic leaned down, his face so close to hers he could feel the warmth of her breath on his lips. It was distracting to say the least, but it didnt take more than a few seconds to determine she wasnt in the REM state.

He didnt want to wake her but without the electrodes attached he couldnt complete the study, and since there was no way to get them all back into place without disturbing her sleep, Nic didnt really have a choice. He touched Rachels shoulder, intending to give it a gentle shake when her eyelids suddenly fluttered open.

Nicolo, she said on a sigh, Where have you been? I was so afraid I wouldnt find you.

Nics reply was lost when Rachel laced her arms around his neck and pulled his mouth down onto hers. Somewhere in the back of his mind the voice of reason told him that what he was doing was wrong, that he was taking advantage of a woman who was groggy with sleep and probably didnt realize who it was that she was kissing. But the hunger inside of him was too great, the urgency of her kisses too demanding to ignore, and even if hed wanted to Nic didnt think he could have given up possession of her lips.

Somewhere between that first passionate kiss and the gentler ones that gradually followed, two disturbing thoughts began to push through his hazy mind. When Rachel asked where hed been and said she was afraid she wouldnt find him...shed spoken in French. That in itself was odd, but the real kicker was that hed understood her, and Nic didnt speak a word of French, not a single word.

Chapter 3
Nic woke with a start, too disoriented at first to realize hed fallen asleep in the observation room. Hunched over the desk with his head on his arms wasnt the most comfortable position, his aching back was proof of that, but it wasnt anything a couple of aspirin wouldnt cure. Letting out a groan, Nic sat up and rubbed the back of his neck to work out the kinks as the fogginess of sleep slowly lifted. Thats when he remembered Rachel and the passionate kiss theyd shared.

Peering through the two way mirror, he was relieved to see she was still sleeping soundly. He should have been just as relieved to see the electrodes were all neatly in place too; instead it made him decidedly uneasy because he had no memory of reattaching them. For all that, he couldnt seem to recall anything that happened after Rachel had drawn his mouth down onto hers. He could only imagine what she was going to say about the appalling way hed behaved and hed be damn lucky if she didnt file a complaint and get his ass fired.

Nic rose wearily to his feet. He might as well get it over with and face the firing squad now rather than later. He supposed he could claim that he was so surprised when Rachel kissed him that hed momentarily taken leave of his senses but theyd know he was lying through his teeth when they got a look at the video. It would be pretty apparent the momentary loss of his mind had lasted a hell of a lot longer than it should have even if she had taken him by surprise. He only hoped he got to take a look at the video first so he could fill in the blank spaces about what happened after theyd kissed.

Rachel was just waking up when he entered the room. She turned her head and watched him as he crossed the room, a sleepy smile on her face. Was it possible she didnt remember kissing him at all or was the smile because she did remember it? Morality wasnt all it was cracked up to be, Nic thought as he wrestled with his conscious, because he knew hed still have to tell her if she didnt remember what happened.

How are you feeling, Miss Delacourte?

Tired, but not nearly as tired as you are Im sure.

Nic started removing the electrodes, stalling for a few minutes before asking Rachel if she remembered anything that happened last night. She recounted the nightmare, which was pretty much the same as what shed told Luis with the exception of a few minor details. By the time she got to the part about dying hed finished removing the last of the electrodes.

Rachel threw back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed before giving him an embarrassed smile. Iuhdreamed about him again too. I guess part of the reason its so unnerving is that it seems so real, as if Ill wake up and find him lying in bed next to me. Only last nightwell, it seemed different somehow.

Nic groaned inwardly. Different in what way?

Im not sure I can explain it. When the dreams first started hewelcomed me, but over the past few months Ive had this feeling that he was a little sad, like he knew our time together was coming to an end. But last night it was almost like the first time, like a beginning instead of an ending.

Miss Delacourte

Pleasecall me Rachel.

Rachel, I was wondering if youd like to have breakfast with me. To talk about what happened here last night, he added hastily.

Rachels heart tripped. Id like that. Just give me a few minutes to dress and run a brush through my hair and we can go.

Nic hesitated for a moment before turning to go. What he really wanted to do was ask if she remembered waking up and kissing him but in truth he couldnt swear that she really had been awake. And if shed been asleepwell, maybe it wouldnt be completely immoral to admit he kissed her but not elaborate on just how long or heated that kiss had been. And if Rachel asked what happened afterwards, what would he say? At least that was a mystery he could solve quickly enough.

If Rachel was like every other woman he knew, running a quick brush through her hair meant thirty minutes of primping before she came back. He wouldnt need more than ten minutes to search the recording, maybe less than that since he knew what time it was when he left the observation room and went to her. Nic made a back up disk as he always did after a session then slipped the original into his computer and advanced it to a few minutes before eleven, which was about the time the equipment had started to malfunction. Nic was still sitting there slowly advancing the recording back and forth when Rachel stepped inside.

Sorry I took so long Rachels smile froze when Nic turned around and stared at her as if hed seen a ghost. Dr. Covelliis something wrong?

Im not sure. Nic glanced back at the screen before pushing himself up off the chair, his legs a little unsteady as he approached Rachel. I need to ask you something, Rachel, and I need you to be completely honest with me.

Of course Ill be honest, why wouldnt I be?

Because what Im going to ask might embarrass you, but its imperative that you tell me the truth. Nic could see he was worrying her and tried to ease her anxiety with a reassuring smile. I promise Im not harboring a tape of you standing on your head and singing the National Anthem.

Good, she smiled back, because I couldnt hold a note if my life depended on it.

Racheldo you remember waking up last night?

Not that I recall, she replied, but even as she said it a vague memory began to stir in the back of her mind.

So you dont remember talking to me?

No, but I suppose I could have been talking in my sleep. Nicolo, where have you been? I was talking to himin my dream, is that what you heard?

In French?

Rachel laughed. Maybe you interpreted my mumbling as a foreign language but I assure you the only words I know in French are what I picked up off the menu at Pierres.

Thats about the extent of my French too, he said with a grin.

Why do I get the feeling theres more to it than that?

Because there is. Im just not sure I know what to make of it.

Youre making this all sound very mysterious, Dr. Covelli.

Ill make a deal with you; call me Nic and Ill tell you all about it over breakfast.

Are you paying?

Ill even pick up the tip.

In that caseNic, Id be honored to join you for breakfast.

***

Nic couldnt take his eyes off of her. He peered over the top of his menu as Rachel tried to decide what she wanted, drinking in her beauty and fighting the urge to reach across the table to take her hand in his. He didnt mind the distraction because it kept him from thinking about the disk and the rather unsettling things hed discovered. Nic had a scientific mind and he liked being able to neatly categorize everything in a tidy fashion, but what happened last night was beyond his realm of orderly thinking and it disturbed him a great deal. Looking at Rachel helped.

I dont normally have an appetite for breakfast, she told him as she set the menu aside, but for some reason Im famished this morning.

Nics own appetite was ravenous but it wasnt food he was craving. He wanted to kiss her again. He wanted to take her straight from the restaurant to his apartment and spend the whole day making love to her and he wanted to spend the night with Rachel tucked safely in his arms. No doubt shed be shocked if he told her what was going through his mind right now. Hell, he was shocking himself with the way he was allowing his physical reaction to her override everything else. Or maybe the real shocker was that it wasnt all physical.

Nicyour order?

What? He gave her a blank stare then laughed when she nodded towards the waitress. Sorry, my mind was elsewhere. He rattled off his order and waited for the waitress to leave before plunging in. Something strange happened last night, Rachel, something I cant explain or even begin to understand.

Mistaking my gibberish for French you mean?

Nowell, that was part of it. Everything seemed pretty normal until around eleven oclock when the equipment malfunctioned, except Im not really sure now weather if it was a malfunction. He told her about the monitors and how the readings indicated her body was shutting down. But when I went into the room to check on you there didnt seem to be anything wrong with you.

Is that when I woke up?

I thought youd woken up, but maybe you were still dreaming. Rachelthe electrodes had been removed.

I must have pulled them off in my sleep

You couldnt have. There wasnt enough time for you to have done it in the few seconds it took me to get to you. But that wasnt the only thing strange that happened. You opened your eyes and asked me where Id been and said you were afraid you wouldnt be able to find me.

Rachel was puzzled. But you said I spoke in French.

You did. The accent was perfect, as if youd spoken it all your life, and the thing isI understood what you were saying.

I must have been talking to him in my dream and you only thought I was awake. I remember I was lying in bed waiting for him to come to me Rachel stopped abruptly, her mind drifting for a moment as she tried to sort out fantasy from reality.

What is it, Rachel?

Thats what was different, she said slowly. I always go to him, but last night I was waiting for him to come to me. I remember she touched her lips, her eyes widening in shock when she realized what shed done. It was you I kissed, wasnt it? I knew I shouldnt have done the sleep study, she groaned. I told Monica I didnt want to do it but she just kept at me until I gave in and now Ive gone made a complete fool of myself and oh God, you must have been mortified when I threw myself at you

Rachel, its all right. Nic reached across the table and covered her hand with his. Believe me, he grinned, mortification is not the word I would use for how I felt. After seeing what was on that disk, spooked would have been a better word but he refrained from saying anything.

Rachels cheeks were burning. She was so embarrassed she could have crawled under the table and might actually have done it if the waitress hadnt shown up with their food. As soon as her plate was placed in front of her, she shoveled in a bit of her omelet to keep herself from running off at the mouth again. Thank God Nic seemed amused by what happened, but then maybe this sort of thing was a common occurrence and he was used to being kissed by his women patients. Rachel frowned. She didnt like the idea of other women kissing him, which was absurd because she certainly had no claim on him. Still, the question was gnawing at her and she couldnt stop herself from asking.

Does that happen often?

Nic nearly choked on the sliver of steak he was chewing. No, I can honestly say youre my first, he replied after washing the steak down with a sip of coffee.

Oh. She played with her food for a few minutes before sneaking a glance at him. Im sorry ifif I embarrassed you.

I think maybe I should be the one to apologize. Obviously its still a little sketchy for you right now otherwise you would have remembered that I kissed you back. I suppose I could try to make up a good excuse as to why I did it but the truth is I wanted to kiss you.

Rachels breath caught in her throat. Really? I mean, youre not just saying that to make me feel better?

I could prove it right now if you want.

The blush on her face deepened. Ill take your word for it, she murmured, taking a sudden interest in her food.

Nic cut into his steak and pretended to be as absorbed in eating as she was. How could a woman as sexually appealing as Rachel was seem so incredibly innocent at the same time? He tried to remind himself that she was his patient and it was wrong to allow himself to feel such a strong attraction to her, but it would have been easier to rope the wind at that moment than to reel in his emotions. There was an undeniable connection between them and he was beginning to think that something far greater than just chance had brought them together. His colleagues would undoubtedly frown on him getting personally involved with Rachel but he wasnt going to let her walk out of his life now no matter what the consequences.

They ate in silence for several minutes before Nic finally got up the nerve to tell her what hed discovered. I viewed part of the video while you were getting dressed.

Rachels head shot up. Youre not going to show that to anyone are you?

It wouldnt matter if I did. Racheltheres nothing to see. At first I thought the disk must have stalled when the equipment malfunctioned but theres a time display that runs for the duration of the video and there wasnt a lapse, not even for a few seconds. When I went in to

check on you it was a little after eleven. I replayed the video from about five minutes to eleven until almost a quarter after and the only thing it recorded was you sleeping.

But that doesnt make any sense. If there was no time lapse then it had to have recorded us kissing.

It didnt. The video doesnt even show me entering the room and since its an internal clock even if it did stop and start up again, it would have automatically reset to the right time. Another thing that has me puzzled is how you removed the electrodes and how they got back into place.

You mean you didnt put them back on me?

Nic shrugged. If I did, I dont remember doing it. As a matter of fact, I dont remember anything after I kissed you. I woke up with my head on my desk and no memory of how Id gotten there.

Is it possible that it didnt happen at all, that we both just had the same dream?

Nic thought about it for a moment. Up until a year ago I would have given you an unequivocal no, but now Im not so sure.

What happened a year ago?

Peering into her luminous green eyes he wondered if maybe she was right and it had just been a dream like the ones hed had of her nearly every night for the past year. But it had been so much more intense than any of his dreams and despite the overwhelming evidence that

substantiated it hadnt been real, Nic refused to believe it. Whatever mysterious forces had been in play last night that caused it to be erased from the disk hadnt been strong enough to erase it from his memory. Hed held her in arms and kissed her and nothing could persuade him otherwise.

Ill tell you everything, he finally replied, but I need to ask you a few things first.

You dont believe we both had the same dream, do you?

No, I dont.

Neither do I, she breathed out. I dont understand whats happening, Nic. Am I losing my mind?

If you are then I must be losing mine too.

A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Well, at least Ill have company when I go stark raving mad.

Well work through this, he promised. It may take a little time to figure out whats going on but I believe theres a logical explanation for everything if you just dig deep enough to find it.

I hope so because this whole thing is really starting to rattle me.

RachelI need to know about the dream.

She took a bite of her omelet, chewing thoughtfully for a moment while she tried to figure out the least embarrassing way to relay what happened every night with her dream lover. It hadnt been as difficult to tell Dr. Agostino as shed thought but maybe that was because she didnt feel this connection as she did with Nic. Just thinking about the kiss theyd shared melted her bones.

Its not like the nightmare, she told him. The nightmare never varies although lately its become more vivid, as if Im more aware of everything even though nothing has changed.

More aware of your surroundings you mean?

Yeslike how cold the floor is and the burning pain in my shoulder. But my dreams of him are different each time. Sometimes its fast and furious, full of passion and desire, and other times its slow and tender, lasting for hours. At least it seems like it lasts that long.

But you never see his face?

No, its always too dark but Ive explored his face with my hands so I know he has a strong jaw line and a mouth thats firm though his lips are soft. Like yours.

Do you ever talk to each other?

Not exactly, Rachel said, feeling the heat of a blush as it crept up her neck. Weuhsay things but its not like we carry on a conversation.

And youre sure youve never met this man before?

A soft smile curved her lips. Hes not the type of man Id forget. He has this aura of power and strength and yet hes so careful not to hurt me. Ive never had a man make me feel so desirable, so feminine. No offense, Nic, but no real man could be that perfect.

Or maybe youve just never been with a man who was capable of making you feel that way.

Thats entirely possible, Rachel laughed. Im afraid my education and career have always taken precedence over my love life. To tell the truth I never really gave it much thought until the dream started. I know this sounds silly but being with him made it impossible for me feel any sort of an attraction for another man.

Does that mean you dont date much?

Oh Ive had a dinner date here and there but I always felt uncomfortable, as if I was betraying him by being with another man. So tell me, Dr. Covelli, do you still think I have all my wits about me or am I completely off my rocker?

Nic chuckled. Im hardly in a position to make that call. Listen, Rachel, I have a few things I need to tell you but Id rather not do it here. If you have the time, theres a nice park just around the corner where we can talk a little more freely.

WellI was planning on cleaning my house today but Im sure the dust will still be there tomorrow.

Nic motioned to the waitress for the bill. Somehow you dont strike me as the kind of woman whod allow dust to collect in her house.

So youve already labeled me as a compulsive neat freak?

I think its in my best interest to refrain from answering that, he said with a grin.

Smart man.

***

They made the short walk to the park in less than ten minutes and found an empty bench beneath the shade of an oak tree. It was too early in the day for there to be many people about and for that Rachel was grateful. It was difficult enough to talk about her erotic dreams with Nic but shed just die if someone else overheard her. A warm summer breeze carried the smell of freshly cut grass mingled with the faint aroma of flowers, and it suddenly occurred to her that it had been ages since shed been to a park or anywhere else that wasnt work related.

It felt good to be outdoors, to feel the wind on her face and to hear the distant laughter of children while they played. She drew in a deep breath and caught the scent of Nics spicy cologne, vaguely wondering where shed smelled it before. As an architect, Rachel worked in a business that was predominantly male so it was a pretty fair guess that at least one of the men she encountered in the course of her day wore the same cologne. Of course it didnt have the same allure on them as it did on Nic because shed certainly never had the impulse to lean closer and fill her lungs with it before. Realizing how dangerously close she was to making a fool of herself, Rachel broke the silence.

Well Doctor, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?

There was no way to sugar coat what he had to say so Nic dove right in. Rachelwhen we were back at the restaurant you said something about the man in your dreams, about how uncomfortable it was to go out on a date because you felt like you were betraying him. I just wanted you to know that I understand how real he must seem to you, and the reason I understand is because theres a woman whos been making nightly visits to my dreams for nearly a year now.

You mean you have a dream lover too?

Yes, and just like you, Ive found it difficult to date other women because I have genuine feelings for her.

You dont know how relieved I am to know someone else is going through the same thing. It does seem a little strange that it started about the same time as mine though.

I was thinking the same thing.

Rachel was thoughtful for a moment. There has to have been something that triggered it for both of us but the only possible connection between us is Antonio and the Covelli mansion.

Its something to consider, Nic agreed, but Im not sure how that could be since wed never met before your visit to my office. Racheltheres something else I need to tell you about the dreams you and I have been having. Theyre almost identical except for one major difference; I know for a fact the woman in my dream is real.

Rachels stomach knotted. It shouldnt bother her in the least that the woman was real but it did. Ifif you know who she is, why havent you pursued a relationship with her?

Because I didnt know she was real until a few days ago. Nics eyes locked with hers. Rachel, the woman in my dreams is you.

Chapter 4
Rachel stared blankly at him for a moment before rising stiffly to her feet. I appreciate a good sense of humor as well as the next person, she said icily, but I hardly find this a joking matter.

I wasnt joking. Nic stood up and lightly gripped her shoulders. I swear on my life its the truth, Rachel. Ive dreamed about you almost every night for the past year. Ive held you in my arms, kissed you, made love to you.

Thats impossible, she said in a strangled whisper.

As impossible as the kiss we shared last night? Theres nothing on the video, yet we both know it happened.

Butweve never met before. Maybe the woman in your dreams just looks like me or maybe you saw me somewhere and just

No, he denied vehemently, its you. Trust me, Rachel, the last thing I want to do is frighten you off but I had to tell you. For reasons I cant even begin to understand, you and I share a connection to someone or something and I honestly believe the nightmares youre having will continue to haunt you until we figure it out.

How can we figure it out when we dont even have a clue where to begin? And since you have no way of proving its me youve been dreaming about, how do I know it has anything at all to do with me and not some other woman who just looks like me?

Nics arms dropped to his sides. Youre right. I cant even prove to myself that its you.

He looked so defeated, Rachel couldnt help wanting to comfort him. You dont have any doubt though, do you?

None at all.

Then I guess the mystery we have to solve is, why me?

We?

I think youre right about there being a connection between us. Too many things have contrived to bring us together for it to be merely coincidence. Unless her brows drew together as an unsettling thought began to form.

Unless what?

Unless its my sister Monica youve been dreaming about. Shes the one who set the appointment with you, and we look a lot alike so its not unreasonable to think

Rachel, he cut her off, its not Monica.

You dont know that, she insisted.

Nic replied by slipping his arms around her waist and pulling her firmly against his body. Her lips parted but she didnt say anything, nor did she offer any protest when he lowered his head and kissed her. A soft electrical current vibrated through his veins, just as it had last

night when hed kissed her, just as it always did when he kissed her in his dreams. Rachels arms curled around his back, the gesture as familiar to him as the taste of her mouth and the feel of her sensuous curves as she pressed herself closer. When he finally drew his head back, she looked up at him with eyes that were as dazed as the expression on her beautiful face.

Now do you believe me or do you need more convincing?

Rachel started to say she believed him, and she might have done it if her eyes hadnt been drawn to his irresistible mouth. I dont think Im entirely convinced yet, she said with a husk in her voice. Maybe if you just

Rachels heart jack hammered in her chest when Nics mouth came down hard and hungry, the scorching heat of it blazing a trail through her body like a wildfire burning out of control. She should have been ashamed of herself, standing in the middle of a public park and kissing a man she barely knew but it felt too good, too right, so she simply gave into it. To his credit, Nic was extremely thorough in his attempt to convince her and if she hadnt believed him before, she certainly would have by the time he gave up possession of her mouth.

Now that we have that settled, Nic brushed one last kiss to her lips, maybe we should gather what little information we have and start piecing this puzzle together.

Butterflies fluttered in her stomach when Nic took her hand as they walked back across the park. Where do we begin?

We could view the video but Im not sure wed find much. I also think it would be a good idea for both of us to write down everything we can remember about our dreams and see if they have anything in common. Other than the obvious, he said with a grin.

As if Id tell you the intimate details anyway, Rachel huffed.

Nics grin broadened. Thats too bad. I was really looking forward to sharing my intimate knowledge of you, Miss Delacourte.

And spoil the surprise of having me find out for myself just how good you are when you take me to bed for real? Rachel laughed when his step faltered. Dont tell me the thought hasnt crossed your mind.

Only a dozen times or so since you walked into my office. I just didnt think I was being so obvious, or that youd call me out for it.

Ah, you think because I was embarrassed to tell you about my dream lover that I was some shy little thing who couldnt speak her mind.

I guess I should have known better, he said, recalling how adventurous she was in his dreams.

Rachel didnt say anything until they got back to his car. NicI think we both know its inevitable that well end up in bed together

But not yet?

Normally I dont mind hoping into bed with a man Ive just met, she said with a perfectly straight face, but for some strange reason I think Id actually like to get to know you first.

Nic laughed as he opened the car door for her. Im truly honored.

As well you should be, Dr. Covelli.

She was certainly something else, Nic thought, and whether he ever got her between the sheets or not, he was going to enjoy getting to know Rachel Delacourte better.

***

Rachel stole a quick glance at Nic, something shed been doing quite a lot of over the past hour. After breakfast theyd gone back to the sleep study lab to retrieve the copy hed made of the disk and brought it back to her apartment. Theyd sat beside each other on the sofa and used her laptop to scroll through the disk but as Nic suspected, there didnt seem to be anything but hours and hours of her sleeping. There wasnt even any indication that she was suffering from a nightmare around the time he said hed gone in to check on her, nor was there any disturbance in her sleep near dawn when Nic said she was most likely to have it.

Ill have to study the monitor readings before Ill be able to tell exactly when you were having the nightmare, he told her.

I know butdont you think its odd that Im not tossing and turning or mumbling in my sleep?

A little maybe, but you have to consider that youre pretty much immobile in your dream and except for screaming at the very beginning of the nightmare, you dont actually talk.

This is really starting to give me the creeps, shed admitted. If you heard me scream, why wasnt that recorded on the video?

I wish I had an answer for you, Rachel.

After determining the video wasnt going to provide them with any useful information, theyd each taken a pad of paper and started writing down as many details about their dreams as they could recall. It hadnt taken her long to jot down everything about the nightmare since it never varied, and details about her dream lover were so vague all she could really do was describe the surroundings and the white satin nightgown she always wore. Looking at the intensity on Nics face now as his pen moved at a furious pace across the page, she wondered if maybe he wasnt reneging on their agreement to leave out anything too intimate.

Are you writing a novel? She finally asked.

Just being thorough.

Now Im getting nervous.

Nic tossed his pen on the coffee table and turned to her with a grin. As well you should be, Miss Delacourte.

Nic, you promised

And I kept itsort of.

Rachel couldnt help laughing. Why do I get the feeling you always play by your own rules.

Its more fun playing by my own rules. Besides, where this little mystery is concerned, Im not sure there are any rules.

How do you want to do this? Do we read the list off to each other or should we just swap notes?

Lets start with a clean sheet of paper to write the similarities on. We can set the papers side by side on the coffee table and categorize them by surroundings, sounds, smells, physical characteristics of our dream lovers, clothingor lack of them.

Ignoring his last remark, Rachel tore off the list shed made and held the notepad on her knees. Fine, Ill write and you read.

Starting with what we already know, the dreams began about the same time, both are erotic in nature, and until recently both were with partners neither of us had met before. Nic studied the notes for a few minutes, pleasantly surprised to find that Rachel had categorized hers in pretty much the same manner he had. How is it that you know what the bed looks like but youve never seen his face?

Its kind of hard to overlook a king sized four poster bed even in the dim light. I always have to use the step to crawl into bed because the mattresses are so high unless

Your lover picks you up and carries you to bed?

Rachel leaned over to peer at her notes. I didnt put that down.

You didnt mention there was sheer netting around the bed either but Im guessing there is.

Her eyes shot over to the notes hed written. It sounds like its the same bed.

Not just the same bed. Even though your descriptions are quite a bit sketchier than mine, theres no doubt in my mind its the same room. The open French doors, the nightstand with a bottle of wine and two glasses, hardwood floors, oil lanterns, theres simply too much in common to believe its not the same room.

Rachel was so engrossed in comparing the lists she forgot all about writing anything down. The nightgownyouve described it perfectly. My God, it really is me thats been haunting your dreams!

Weve already established that. What I want to know is if Im the one haunting yours?

I honestly dont know, Nic. Hes got dark hair; that much I can tell even with so little light in the room and hes built like you too but I couldnt say for sure that its you.

In the lab, you called me by name before you kissed me.

Yes, but I already knew your name so that doesnt prove anything.

Do you remember what you called me?

Nicolothat is your first name isnt it?

Yes it is, but how did you know that? Its an old family name and I was never particularly fond of it but it was my great grandfathers name so I was stuck with it until he died. I had it legally changed to just Nic my first year in college so all the Degrees I earned are under the name Nic Andreas Covelli.

Rachel shivered as an icy chill raced up her spine. This whole thing just gets spookier by the minute. Even if you are the man in my dreams, whats the connection with the nightmare?

Maybe there is none.

There has to be. I never have the dream unless the nightmare comes first.

The problem is theres even less to go on with the nightmare than the dreams.

What if we worked on the lucid dreaming you told me about? If I can get over the fear of dying by being aware that its only a dream, maybe I can get a better understanding of what Im doing there and why someone would wall me up in the first place.

Its worth a try, he agreed, but well have to get a few more nights of monitoring done so I can establish your sleep pattern before we work on lucid dreaming.

What do we do in the meantime?

It was an innocent question, though it was easy enough to construe it as something more suggestive and Nic couldnt help using it to his advantage. Rachel apparently knew shed blundered the moment the question left her mouth but he was already drawing her into his arms

before she had a chance to retract it. He took his time, savoring the honeyed taste of her lips as she opened up to him and surrendered herself just as shed done at the park. Oh yes, the real Rachel was much better than the fantasy one.

Lost as he was in the heat of the moment, there was still enough left of his mind to comprehend what the sharp stiletto tapping advancing down the hallway meant. Someone else had just entered Rachels apartment, and if he was interpreting the clipped sound of high heels against hardwood floors correctly, that someone was undoubtedly female. Disappointment registered on Rachels face when he hastily separated himself from her followed by a guilty-assin expression which the woman entering the room obviously didnt miss.

The young woman arched an amused brow directly at Nic. No need to ask where the canary is since my sister has a few of the feathers sticking out of her mouth. Im Monica, Rachels little sister.

Nic rose to his feet and shook her hand. Nic Covelli.

Covelli? Monica grinned at Rachel and the vivid scarlet staining her cheeks. Guess I dont need to ask how the sleep study went.

Do you always have to be so blunt? Rachel snapped. NicDr. Covelli and I were just going over some notes about the nightmare and trying to make some sense of it.

Ahwell that explains why you two were huddled so close together on the sofa. By the way, Dr. Covelli, you have a little bit of my sisters Pink Ros lipstick on the corner of your mouth.

Nics laughter brought a smile to both womens faces. Weve been caught, Rachel, so I guess theres no use denying anything now. And since Monica is responsible for bringing us together, maybe we should explain how things areprogressing.

I can see how theyre progressing, Monica quipped as her eyes swept over Nic appreciatively.

Now you can see how I was goaded into going to the research center, Rachel said tersely. My sister doesnt believe in holding her tongue or being polite so youll have to accept my apologies because youll never get one from her.

Nic lowered himself back down beside Rachel. Im glad she did goad you into coming, otherwise I might never have found the woman of my dreams.

The woman of your dreams? My, this has progressed nicely hasnt it? Monica glanced from one to the other. I dont suppose any of that progress had to do with the actual reason for going there, did it?

Nic felt Rachel stiffen beside him and jumped in before she could reply. Weve discovered some very strange things about the nightmare and the dream. If Rachel doesnt mind, Id like to run it past you and see what you think.

Rachel didnt mind. In fact she was glad Nic took over because she was too irritated with Monica at the moment to say anything that wouldnt reflect how annoyed she felt. She was used to her sister coming into the apartment unannounced, after all she was the one whod given Monica the key and until now Rachel hadnt been worried about getting caught doing anything

more adventurous than working on her latest design. Shed never even invited a man inside her apartment before but if Nic was going to become a part of her life, it seemed some new ground rules were going to have to be established where Monica was concerned.

As Nic explained what happened the night before and the discovery that their dreams seemed to be taking place in the same bedroom, Monicas attitude quickly changed. She was genuinely interested in the baffling things that had occurred and showed a lot less skepticism about it than Rachel had at the beginning. Of course, Rachel couldnt help noticing the admiring glances and occasional flirtatious remarks Monica tossed Nics way but the warm hand that had reached out to envelope hers was all the reassurance she needed that he wasnt interested in her sister.

Feasting on his handsome face as he explained what lucid dreaming was and how they intended to use it to seek more answers, Rachel couldnt really blame Monica for trying. He was simply breathtaking and even with him sitting here beside her and knowing hed been kissing her senseless just a few minutes ago, it was hard to believe he wanted to pursue a relationship with her. Men had always preferred her vivacious sister who dressed to kill and possessed the ability to have them panting after her in a matter of minutes, so it was surprising that Nic seemed immune to Monica, and even more surprising that her sister backed off instead of considering it a challenge.

Does she always come on to your men like that? Nic asked after Monica had gone.

Rachel thought about the few men shed dated and how Monica acted around them. I suppose she does but its never really bothered me before. Im pretty sure she got the hint though when you told her it might be wise to call ahead the next time she wanted to drop by.

His grin was sheepish, though he was far from contrite. You dont mind do you? I just didnt want her walking in to find her sister in a compromising position.

I dont mind, Rachel said as she curled up next to him on the sofa. Although Im not sure Ive ever been in a compromising position before. Perhaps you could demonstrate exactly what that entails?

Nic scooped her up into his lap. My pleasure, he murmured before claiming her mouth once more.

He lavished attention on her for what seemed like hours though he didnt do anything more than ply her with kisses and gentle caresses. Inevitably, the lack of sleep hed gotten and her own restless night began to take its toll. Rachel drew her head back, and despite the desire she saw in those dark eyes of his, she knew in her heart she could trust him.

She gave him a sleepy smile. A nap sounds heavenly right now, dont you think?

Nic traced her smile with the tip of his finger. Is that an invitation to join you?

At the risk of sounding clingy, I dont want to let you leave just yet but I can barely keep my eyes open.

Ill stay on one condition, he said as he rose to his feet with Rachel in his arms.

What would that be?

If you get the sudden urge to take advantage of me, I want your solemn promise you wont fight it.

What do you think I am, some feeble minded woman who cant control herself around you?

God, I hope so, he said thickly as he carried down the hall to the bedroom.

After ridding themselves of their shoes they crawled on top of the comforter. Nic didnt waste any time drawing her close to his side, and Rachel was quite content to rest her head on his shoulder and let the sound of his strong, steady heartbeat lull her into sleep. She felt safe in his arms and was certain the nightmare would be kept at bay as long he was here. In a way she was right because the nightmare shed become so familiar with never materialized. In its place, a new nightmare emerged

***

Nicolo was late, but she didnt really mind. After tonight theyd have the rest of their lives to be together, after tonight shed be his wife. She wanted to dance and sing, to laugh out loud and shout to the whole world that he loved her, but of course she did no such thing. Only after they were married would she be free to say it out loud. What a delicious joke shed played on poor Nicolos family, and even on Nicolo himself until hed finally proclaimed his undying love for her.

Waiting in the secluded alcove of the gardens where theyd so often met to steal a few passionate kisses, she felt at peace here. This was where their love had first begun to bloom, this was where theyd captured each others hearts and ultimately agreed that a life apart was no life at all. A soft smile curved her lips when she recalled how uproariously Nicolo had laughed when shed sat in this very spot and told him who she really was.

You should be ashamed of yourself, he admonished after his laughter had died, but there had been no anger in his voice or in the languishing kiss that followed.

Her pulse quickened when she heard the soft rustling from behind her because she knew it was Nicolo attempting to frighten her. Shed never had the heart to tell him she always heard him no matter how quiet he tried to be. He loved the startled squeak she made and the way she threw her arms around him and trembled against his powerful body when he emerged from between the bushes. He was her protector, and she let him play the part because afterwards Nicolo always made certain she trembled for an entirely different reason.

She rose from the stone bench and took a few steps towards the opening of the alcove as if she was going in search of him. She could almost imagine the cocky grin hed be sporting as he crept up behind her and it was all she could do to keep from laughing. There was a flurry of movement behind her at which point she whirled around as she was expected to do but the frightened scream that tore from her throat was not part of the act. Even in the dim light of the early evening she could see it was not Nicolo who was advancing on her but one of his lecherous cousins.

Picking up the skirts of her dress, she darted through the opening between the hedges and raced towards the house. She stumbled and nearly fell when another figure suddenly stepped out from the shadows to block the pathway. There was no choice but to plunge headlong and heedless into the woods that bordered the gardens, not when she knew why theyd come for her and that somehow theyd contrived to delay Nicolos arrival.

It was pure insanity to be running from them when she should have faced them and confessed who she really was so theyd stop hunting her like a pack of wolves intent on killing their prey. But instinctively she seemed to know they wouldnt believe her no matter what she said, just as she knew they meant to defile her so she would be ruined in Nicolos eyes. All she had to do was find a small crevice to hide in until Nicolo came in search of her, and when he discovered how his cousins had terrorized her there would be more than hell to pay.

Nicolo would be furious, outraged, and those horrible men would be banished from his house forever. An icy fear threaded its way through her heart as she pushed through the thick foliage because she realized his cousins must surely be aware of the price theyd pay once he discovered what theyd done. Which meant they couldnt take the chance hed ever find out. Thats when she knew they were going to kill her.

She stopped abruptly and turned around, dragging air into her lungs as she fought to gain control of her fear. She had to face them, had to explain that it had all been a joke and she wasnt who they thought she was. They had to listen to her, they simply had too. Shed even swear never to breath a word of what happened to Nicolo if theyd let her go. Clutching her hands together, she waited on trembling legs for them to find her while she tried to work out

what she would say. When they finally arrived she held her head up high, refusing to let them see just how terrified she was.

You have no right

Thats as far as she got before the bullet ripped through her shoulder, the agonizing pain registering only briefly before the world faded to black.

Chapter 5
Mon Dieu, ils me tueront! Oh, Nicolo pourquoi vous n'est pas ici de m'pargner?

Rachels anguished cries woke Nic from the strange dream hed been having. Slowly, his mind wrapped around what she was saying and it sent an icy chill racing up his spine. My God, they are going to kill me. Oh, Nicolo, why arent you here to save me? She was speaking in French again, but even though he understood the words she was saying he couldnt make any sense of it. She was going on about his cousins and how theyd tricked him, her voice quivering as she pressed her left hand to her right shoulder and begged him to make the pain go away.

The scientific part of Nics brain urged him to wait, to study her physical reaction to the nightmare and note what she was saying, but his heart quickly overruled everything else when Rachel let out a pitiful wail that sounded like a wounded animal in the midst of dying. Rising up on one elbow, he tried to wake her with a gentle shake but the nightmare had a death grip on her and it didnt want to let go.

Rachel, wake up, he shook her harder. When that didnt work, Nic sat up and flipped on the light then turned back to Rachel only to find that her eyes were wide open. Rachel? Honey, are you awake?

Tear glistened in her eyes. Vous tes venus pour moi, she said in a hoarse whisper.

Nic leaned over and brushed the damp curls from her forehead. Of course I came for you, sweetheart. Youre safe now. I wont let anything happen to you, I promise.

Her eyes searched his for a moment before she reached up and touched his cheek. Do you have any idea what you do to me? All you have to do is look at me and my heart starts to race. And when you kiss me she slipped her arms around his neck and pulled his mouth down onto hers.

The guilty feeling Nic had for kissing her when he knew full well she was still asleep lasted for all of two seconds. She was soft and warm and the pleasure of her ardent response made him weak in both mind and body. He couldnt think of anything except how much he wanted to strip her naked and bury himself inside of her, and he probably would have done it too if only his damnable conscious hadnt piped up and reminded him what a letch he was being for taking advantage of her.

Nic drew his head back, drinking in her beauty for a few minutes before pressing a soft kiss to her lips. Close your eyes now, sweetheart, Ill wake you in a little while.

Are you sure? Because the way you were kissing me she gave him sexy smile, well, I kind of had the impression that you wanted to get a whole lot more intimate.

Every male hormone in his body groaned. After gently tugging her arms from around his neck he sat up and moved to the side of the bed, separating himself from the temptation she presented. He didnt dare look at her, not while he was torturing himself with images of Rachel writhing beneath him, her flawless skin beaded with moisture as the heat of their passion rose higher and higher. Nic shot up off the bed. He grabbed up his shoes and headed for the door before his desire to make love to her overrode his desire to do what was right.

I think its best if I leave right now. Ill call you later and we can

He stopped in the doorway, laughing at himself. What the hell was he doing? Rachel was asleep for Gods sake. He was wasting his breath telling her hed call because she wasnt going to remember anything he said. When they spoke later hed tell her the reason hed left before she woke was because he had some work to do, that way shed never have to know how close hed come to jumping her while she slept.

Rachel sat up slowly, staring at the empty doorway for several minutes while the sting of Nics rejection worked its way through her body. Good Lord, the way hed bolted out of there youd have thought shed proposed marriage! And just what gave him the right to act as if he was revolted at the thought of making love to her when he was the one whod woke her up with that hot, steamy kiss? Okay, so hed changed his mind, what was the big deal? It wasnt as if theyd been dating for a long time or had any kind of emotional attachment to each other, after all theyd only met a few days ago.

She managed to scrounge up a few more perfectly logical reasons as to why she shouldnt be hurt but it didnt help. No matter what excuse she came up with for Nics abrupt departure, it still felt as if shed been mule kicked in the chest and it was quite some time before the pain subsided enough to crawl out of bed. She hadnt even gotten to tell him about the nightmare and how it had been different this time. After turning down her less than subtle offer to make love, Rachel wasnt even sure she could face him again anyway so maybe the best thing to do was just forget shed ever met Nic Covelli.

As if I could, she mumbled to herself.

Obviously hed been turned off by how forward shed been but she honestly couldnt help herself where Nic was concerned. Well, that was something she was just going to have to master if she decided to continue with the sleep study because hed made it blatantly clear hed changed his mind about getting romantically involved with her. The only thing she could attribute the sudden change of heart to was that she hadnt measured up to his dream version of her. Considering her lack of experience in that department, she could hardly blame him for being disappointed.

Shed planned on taking some time off before starting on the Covelli mansion but now she wondered if staying busy wasnt just what she needed to keep her mind off Nic. Hed probably be glad she wasnt going to stick around to make an uncomfortable situation even more awkward. Yes, Rachel decided, shed call Antonio and arrange to get the keys to the Covelli mansion then spend the next few weeks inspecting the structure and making sketches of the place so she could draw up the new floor plans. Two or three weeks of immersing herself in work instead of fighting the allure of Nics seductive brown eyes and shed be just fine.

***

He should have left a note. Nic cursed his own stupidity for not thinking about it before hed closed Rachels door behind him and locked himself out. Hed shrugged it off at first because hed planned on calling her as soon as hed had time to go home and take a quick shower. It was while he was standing under the water, which hed deliberately kept set on cold, that the enormity of his own ignorance hit him.

When Rachel had first opened her eyes, shed been speaking in French again and hed understood her just as he had back in the lab. But after hed kissed her, shed switched back to English and it hadnt even registered until now that she must have actually woken up at some point during the kiss. Which meant shed been fully cognizant of what she was saying when shed invited more intimacy between them. Nic groaned out loud. Instead of standing here taking a cold shower he could have been snuggled up next to Rachels naked body, still tingling from the afterglow of hot sex.

He groaned again, louder this time because he suddenly realized how calloused it must have seemed when hed all but ran from the room as if her offer was too distasteful to even contemplate. Nic flipped the water off and hopped out of the shower, quickly drying himself off then hurrying into his room to get dressed. Anxious to call Rachel and explain, he was even more annoyed to discover he didnt have the card with her number on it in his wallet.

It was a small delay and as it turned out, by the time he got to his car and found the card in the coin tray where hed left it and called Rachel, she wasnt at home anyway. More than a little apprehensive when she didnt answer her cell phone either, Nic headed over to her apartment. He supposed it was possible shed gone out but highly doubted it considering hed left her place less than two hours ago, which meant shed either gone back to sleep and didnt hear the phone or she was deliberately avoiding his calls.

Great job, Nic, he scoffed at himself. Youve managed to find the woman of your dreams and lose her again all in the span of forty eight hours.

Shed probably laugh when he told her the reason hed skated out of there so fast was because he was trying to be noble, assuming she let him get past the door that is. Hed never met a woman who could tie him in knots the way Rachel did and he didnt think it had anything to do with the dreams. It wouldnt have matter when or where theyd met, Nic would have fallen for her the moment he laid eyes on her.

Rachel was in the middle of tossing her underclothes in the suitcase when the doorbell sounded, startling her out of the worrisome thoughts that had been buzzing around in her head like a swarm of pesky flies ever since Nic left. Assuming Monica must have forgotten her key again when the incessant drone of the doorbell continued to echo down the hallway, Rachel yanked the door open with an impatient sigh.

Nicwhat are you doing here?

Not exactly the greeting Id hoped for, he grinned.

Really? Because I seem to recall you hightailing it out of here not too long along without so much as a see ya, Rachel. Sorry, Nic, Id love to help you analyze which childhood trauma affected your ability to finish what you start in the bedroom but Ive got some packing to do.

Okay, maybe I deserved that butwait, youre packing? Why are you packing?

Not that its any of your business, but Ive decided to get started on the Covelli mansion.

Rachel, listen to me

You dont owe me any explanations, Rachel cut him off. Ive got to go now, so if you dont mind

She started to shut the door but Nic wasnt about to give up that easily. Damn it, I do mind, he growled as he slipped through the doorway.

Nic

Close the door.

Rachel considered ordering him to get out, but one quick glance at the dark scowl on his face made her change her mind. Fine, shed listen if he insisted on trying to justify what hed done so he could ease his conscious and then shed ask him to leave. After informing Nic he could talk to her while she finished packing, she brushed past him and walked stiffly down the hall to her room.

Nic had no choice but to follow her. He stood in the middle of the bedroom watching her jerky movements as she moved from the dresser to the suitcase and crammed her clothes inside. The way he figured it, there were two possible outcomes here; he could try to explain what happened, shed understand and forgive him, then shed probably still take off for the mansion, orhe could take her in his arms, kiss her senseless, and then tumble into bed and spend the rest of the evening making love to her.

He planned it all out in his head while Rachel continued to skirt around him. Tomorrow hed help her finish packing then stop off at his place so he could throw a few things in a suitcase too. He could do with a few weeks off, and Lord knew he had enough vacation time accrued so

there wouldnt be any problem there. The more he thought about it the more he liked the idea of spending time alone with Rachel, even if it was in that rambling old house. Nic waited until shed unloaded an armful of clothes before stepping in front of her.

Rachels brows drew together. He was smiling! The rotten letch actually had the nerve to smile at her when she was so angry right now she could spit nails. Shed expected him to plunge right into a speech about how it was moving too fast or that hed suddenly realized it was unprofessional to date a patient and couldnt they remain friends at least until the sleep study was over. So when hed just stood there not saying a thing, shed gone from hurt to angry because she deserved to have some excuse for making her feel like the most undesirable woman in the world even if it was a bold faced lie.

I thought you were asleep.

Rachel blinked. You thought I was asleep, she repeated. So you charged out of here because you didnt want to wake me? Im sorry, Nic, but I find that very difficult to believe considering youd spent the twenty minutes beforehand with your tongue wrapped around mine.

You were talking in French again so I knew you were still asleep. Admittedly, that didnt stop me from kissing you but thats as big a sin as I was willing to commitat least while you were sleeping. Nic drew her into his arms. It didnt even occur to me until I was already at my place that youd switched back to English after Id kissed you. Rachelwhat Im trying to say is that I would have taken advantage of you in a heartbeat if Id known you were awake.

A brilliant smile lit her face. You really mean that?

Nic lowered his head and gave her a long, lingering kiss. I was hoping youd agree to stall your departure until morning so I couldhow did you put it, finish what I started.

Disappointment rolled over her in waves. I cant, Nic. When I called Antonio to tell him I wanted to start on the mansion he agreed to meet and give me the key. Im supposed to have dinner with him and then afterwards hes catching a flight to the east coast on business for a week.

I imagine my grandfather was beside himself when you told him you wanted to start earlier than expected.

He couldnt thank me enough. He must really be anxious to get it completed so he can move in.

Nic surprised her by laughing. Apparently he didnt tell you his real motivation behind making the mansion inhabitable again. You see, Grandfather signed the deed over me a few years ago and now hes under the illusion that if he restores the mansion to its former grandeur, hell be able to coax me into moving there.

And you dont want to?

Its not that I wouldnt like to live there someday, its just that once Im there my grandfather will start in on me about getting married and filling the place with children. He was disappointed when I didnt go into business with my father and his partner Demetrio Lucisano, but running a huge corporation wasnt something I cared to do for the rest of my life.

Lucisanohe owns the building the research center is in.

Not exactly, Nic admitted. As a concession to Grandfather, I did go into business with Demetrio after my father died but only as a silent partner. We own several businesses together but we agreed that I would run the research center and he runs everything else. Now that Grandfather has insured the family business is going to survive, hell be dead set on making certain the family name is secured too.

I take it youre not too keen on the idea of marriage and children.

Nics eyes locked with hers. Maybe I was just waiting for the right woman. What about you, Rachel? Wouldnt you like to have a home and a family of your own?

Rachel suddenly had a vivid image of holding a dark haired baby in her arms. Someday, she replied wistfully. But right now I need to concern myself with packing and getting on the road.

Not so fast, Nic protested when she tried to extract herself from his arms. Ive decided that since I have a vested interest in the Covelli mansion it might be a good idea if I came with you. After all, if Im going to live there one day I may have a few ideas Id like you to incorporate into the restructuring.

Rachels eyes narrowed. Tell me youre not going to be offering helpful suggestions at every turn.

I wouldnt dream of telling you how to do your job. I was thinking more along the lines of taking a walk through the place so I could let you know what I like and dont like. You know,

just to give you a better idea how my tastes run. You dont have any objections to my tagging along do you?

Depends on how much of a distraction you intend on being, she said with a smile.

During the day, none at all.

Rachels heart fluttered. Does that mean you plan on spending the night with me?

Oh no, Miss Delacourte, I think I can safely say one night with you wouldnt be nearly enough time to do all the things I want to do to you.

II thought you worked nights at the lab, she said in a wobbly voice.

Only on occasion, but as luck would have it Ive decided to take a few weeks of vacation time and spend it with a certain fascinating young woman Ive just met.

Two weeks alone with Nic sounded like heaven though she wondered how he was going to fill his time while she was working. I spend a lot of time just sketching at first, wont you get bored?

Not if you allow me to just sit and watch you work.

Not on your life. I wouldnt be able to draw a straight line if I knew you were watching me, though I wouldnt mind if you talked to me while I worked.

Sounds like a plan, he said, then sealed the agreement with a kiss.

***

Once they were on the road, Rachel told Nic about the nightmare. I hadnt realized what the burning pain in my shoulder was before. Now I know it was from the gunshot, but what I dont understand is why the nightmare has suddenly changed.

Maybe it hasnt changed. Obviously what happened in the nightmare you had today was a prelude to what happens in the original one. Its possible youve actually dreamt of it before and just didnt remember any of it because the last part is so much more traumatic.

I suppose, but I cant help wondering if it had something to do with you being there.

A wide grin spread across Nics face. I guess well know after tonight, wont we?

Youre completely shameless, Nic Covelli, she feigned an indignant huff. Do you suggest sleeping with all your patients to prove or disprove a theory?

Ill have you know Im very particular about which patients I sleep with.

Do tell, she replied dryly.

First and foremost, they have to be female. Im also partial to green eyes and hair the color of a ravens wings. Her lips and skin have to be soft as silk, and of course she has to possess the ability to slip into my dreams every night to make wild, passionate love to me.

Rachel couldnt contain her smile. How fortunate for me then; I just happen to meet your stringent criteria for a prospective lover.

Nic reached across the seat and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. No, honey, Im the fortunate one. Were almost there but weve got a little time to kill before we meet Grandfather for dinner. Would you like to take a quick tour of the town?

Thats a wonderful idea. I cant wait to see the mansion. Antonio showed me pictures of course, but there were only a few of the outside and the ones inside the mansion didnt give me more than a vague idea of what it looked like.

He must have been quite impressed with your work. Its my understanding he didnt even put it out to bid and that you were the only one he offered the job to.

I just hope I live up to his expectations. Im always a little nervous before starting a new job but now that I know its your house, Im even more anxious about getting it perfect.

I have all the confidence in the world that itll be another Delacourte masterpiece.

They spent the next thirty minutes driving around the small town which Rachel found extremely enchanting. The mansion itself was on a hill overlooking the town and was just barely visible from the south end. According to Nic, he not only owned the land it sat on but also all the acreage clear to the bottom of the hill which is why the town hadnt encroached any closer to the mansion in over a hundred years.

The townspeople stay clear of it anyway, he told her as they pulled into the restaurant parking lot. The rumor that it was haunted started even before my great grandfather died but it really picked up after his death.

Maybe Antonio can tell us more about it since he lived there when he was young.

Maybe. I doubt my great grandfather would have had any in depth discussions about it with Grandfather because they werent very close.

What about Antonios mother?

She died giving birth to him. Nic got out of the car and hurried around to help Rachel out. Try not to mention his mother. My father told me it was purely a marriage of convenience and that after she died my great grandfather declared hed done his duty to carry on the Covelli name and would never marry again.

Thats just about the saddest thing Ive ever heard. Why was he so bitter about marriage?

I dont know. My father was reluctant to even tell me that much. He only did it so I wouldnt ask Grandfather any questions that would upset him.

They hadnt taken more than a few steps inside the restaurant when Antonio appeared out of nowhere, greeting Nic with a hardy handshake and warm smile. Nicolo, what are you doing here?

When I heard through the grapevine that youd hired the talented Miss Delacourte to restructure the mansion I couldnt resist tagging along.

Antonios eyes sparkled with amusement as he took Rachels hand in both of his. I am sure Nicolos sudden interest in the mansion has more to do with your beauty than talent but I can hardly blame him.

We were wondering if you could tell us about the woman whos rumored to be haunting the mansion, Nic said after their orders had been taken.

Antonio shot his grandson a disproving frown. I do not think telling Rachel about ghosts is a very good idea. I have a groundskeeper and maid who are there during the day but she will be all alone at night. Not that I give much credence to this haunting, but a woman alone in a strange house

She wont be alone, Grandfather. Ive taken a few weeks off work so I can be on hand in case Rachel needs my assistance.

Rachel grabbed her glass of wine and held it to her lips in a desperate attempt to hide the furious blush that stained her cheeks. Far from being concerned about what Nic had so nonchalantly divulged, Antonio couldnt have seemed more pleased which only served to make Rachels blush deepen. It was apparent to her, and probably to Nic too, that Antonio was hoping their relationship would blossom and eventually result in marriage and a house full of great grandchildren.

It is about time you took a vacation, Nicolo, and one could not ask for a more delightful companion to spend it with.

I assure you Ill give this job my full attention, Rachel said stiffly. Im sure youve guessed theres anattraction between Nic and I but it wont interfere with my work.

Forgive my grandfathers transparent attempts to find out just how serious we are about each other, Rachel. He wasnt inferring you would neglect your job, though Im certain hed be delighted to delay restructuring that monstrosity if it meant planning a wedding instead.

Antonios booming laughter instantly lightened Rachels mood. He is right, bella, nothing would make me happier than to see Nicolo settled down with a woman as refined as you are.

Given that Nic and I barely know each other, you may want to wait before sending out those wedding invitations, she said with a teasing smile. And now perhaps we can get back to the poor woman who haunts the Covelli mansion.

I am afraid there is not much I can tell you, and I must confess that what I have heard may be nothing more than rumors and gossip. My father, for whom Nicolo was named after, was a bitter man who cared for no one, not even himself. He rarely spoke to me and when he did it was usually to berate me for something.

Antonio reached across the table and patted Rachels hand. Do not look so sad, bella, I managed to have a heart in spite of my upbringing. It was not my father who told me what I am about to relay to you, but a conversation I overheard between two of the servants while I was searching for a book in the library one day. It seems there was a bit of scandal involving my father and one of the maids who worked for the family. They had fallen madly in love, but a marriage between a Covelli and the hired help was simply out of the question.

It seems my father had arranged to meet her in the gardens one night so they could elope but she never showed. He accused his family of kidnapping her and sending her away but of

course they denied it. He was heartbroken and though he spent the next few years searching for her, he never found her and eventually gave into pressure from the family and married someone else.

Rachels face had gone deathly pale and when she spoke her voice was strained. The womanthey thought the family had her killed, didnt they?

Yes, they did, Antonio replied solemnly.

An icy chill crept into her bones. Antoniodid these women happen to mention her name?

As a matter of fact they did. I believe they said her name was Rochelle. Rochelle Beaumont.

Rachel let out an audible gasp as a searing pain speared through her shoulder. From somewhere far away she heard Nic call out her name followed by the echo of another mans voice. It was cold with disdain, his cruel laughter drowning out her pleas to have mercy as he viciously tore off her undergarments and forced himself on her.

Chapter 6
Are you sure she does not need to be seen by a doctor, Nicolo?

Im sure. Shell come out of it in a few minutes and be perfectly fine.

Nic was sitting in the back seat of his grandfathers limousine with Rachel cradled in his arms, fervently praying he was right. If he hadnt just witnessed the strange scene inside the restaurant he would have sworn on his life she was wide awake right now, but the jade green eyes that were gazing up at him with such loving tenderness didnt belong to Rachel. Keeping his voice low, Nic explained to his grandfather that she was sleeping and that it was best to let her wake on her own.

When shed clutched at her shoulder as if she was in pain hed known exactly what was happening, though he couldnt even begin to understand how it was possible to slip directly into the nightmare from a completely wakeful state. Hed managed to get her outside before shed started sobbing her heart out and begging him not to hurt her, which earned him a look of utter disgust from his grandfather.

Mio Dio, Antonio had ground out, if you have dared to lay a hand on this girl

I know what it looks like, Nic said as he attempted to subdue Rachel without hurting her, but youll just have to trust me when I say she doesnt know its me that shes trying to fight off.

Thank God his grandfathers driver, Max, was watching for them and pulled up in front of the restaurant before theyd even reached the curb. Rachels struggling had gotten

progressively weaker and by the time Max came around to open the back door shed stopped trying to wrestle free and allowed Nic to get her inside the car with minimal effort. Hed pulled her onto his lap the moment he was settled in his seat and to his immense relief shed stopped crying and let her head drop onto his shoulder.

Nic tore his eyes away from Rachel long enough to give his grandfather a reassuring smile. Shes fine, I promise. Rachel has been suffering from nightmares where shes walled up in a room and left to die. She came to the center to do a sleep study. Thats how we really met.

Antonio sat across from Nic and Rachel, his face etched with concern. How does the poor girl even function with this affliction? If she can be pulled into this nightmare without any warning, she is in grave danger of hurting herself. What if she was driving when this happened? She could get in a wreck and be seriously injured or killed.

Im fairly certain this is the first time its happened. Nic stroked the side of her face with his fingertips, returning the soft smile she gave him. I think it was triggered by what you told us about the woman your father was in love with.

I do not understand, Nicolo. Why should my story about an affair between Father and Rochelle Beaumont trouble Rachel?

Im not sure I understand myself, but I believe theres a connection between Rachels nightmares and what went on at the Covelli mansion the night this Beaumont woman disappeared. I know this sounds crazy, but I cant help feeling that something other than chance brought Rachel and I together. I just wish I knew what the nightmares mean and how she got pulled into it while she was wide awake.

It troubles me too, Nicolo. Maybe she should postpone working on the mansion until you figure this out. I would never forgive myself if she was injured because she felt obligated to start this job.

You dont need to worry about her safety, Nic assured him. Itll probably annoy the hell out of her, but I dont intend to leave Rachels side for a single moment. Besides, I honestly think the key to her nightmare lies in that mansion somewhere and I wont rest until I find out what it is.

Antonio eyed his grandson speculatively. Rachel seems to have succeeded where other women have failed.

Nic didnt even try to deny it. If thats your way of asking whether I want more than a brief affair with her then the answer is yes.

I gather Rachel feels the same way about you?

Its a little early in the relationship for deep conversations on how we feel for each other but I dont think Id be wrong to say she feels the same.

In that case you must find a way to cure Rachel of her nightmares so you can focus on matters of the heart.

I wish it was that simple. Nic glanced down at Rachel who was still looking at him as if he was the last glass of water in a barren desert. Ive only known her for two days and already I cant imagine my life without her. I have a feeling the neat, orderly routine I pride myself on maintaining is going to turn into complete and utter chaos with Rachel around.

Antonio chuckled. Do yourself a favor, Nicolo, do not fight it. In the end you will only discover that you have wasted time trying to avoid something that was inevitable from the beginning.

I admit this is uncharted territory for me but thats because I chose not involve myself in a serious relationship before. He shot his grandfather a helpless grin. In all honesty, I dont think I ever had a choice where Rachel is concerned.

If the way she is looking at you right now is any indication about how Rachel feels for you, I would say she had very little choice in losing her heart to you too.

If only that was true, but Im afraid shes still dreaming, Nic said with a wistful sigh.

He was entranced by the adoration that shone from her eyes but there was a bitterness to his feelings too because he knew it wasnt really him Rachel was seeing. It was another mans arms she felt drawing her closer, another man whose touch made her tremble and her breath quicken. It was foolish to be jealous of her dream lover but Nic couldnt help it. What if she discovered the man she made love to every night was real? It wasnt too much of a stretch to believe it could happen, not when he was holding the proof in his arms.

I think its safe to wake her now, Nic said, secretly finding pleasure in knowing he had the power to steal her back from his invisible rival.

Antonio arched a brow. How will you accomplish that when she is so deep in sleep?

The same way youd wake any sleeping beauty, he grinned before lowering his head and capturing Rachels parted lips.

Heat. That was the first thing Rachel was cognizant of; an incredible heat that pooled in her abdomen and made her ache for something more. The second thing she gradually became aware of was that she was curled up on Nics lap with absolutely no idea how shed wound up there. She remembered sitting across from Antonio in the restaurant and the uneasiness that had begun to worm its way through her when he started speaking about his fathers lover but after that

She drew her head back with a gasp. They killed her! Oh, Nic, its not just a rumor, they really did kill her.

Antonio leaned forward, his expression as strained as his voice. How could you possibly know that?

Rachels heart leapt to her throat. Antonio, I Her eyes darted around in confusion. Is this your car? How did I get here? Oh God, tell me I didnt cause an embarrassing scene in there. I can explain

Sweetheart, calm down, Nic attempted to ease her obvious distress. We got you out of there before anything happened and Ive already explained to Grandfather about the nightmares.

But this wasnt a nightmare, how could it be? Panic stricken, she fought against the bile that rose in her throat. I was wide awake when it happened and even if I did doze off, you told me the dream state doesnt occur right away. Rachel clutched at Nics shirt, her eyes wild with fear. Am I losing my mind? No, dont answer that. Obviously Im losing my grip on

reality, otherwise Id remember how I ended up sitting on your lap inside Antonios car ranting and raving like a lunatic.

Youre not losing your mind, Nic replied, gently prying her hand from his shirt. I cant believe Im actually saying this, but I think Rochelle Beaumont is reaching out to you through your dreams because she wants the truth to be known. Trust me when I say this goes against everything I believe to even suggest something paranormal is going on here but theres no other way to explain how you could be reliving the last few minutes of her life.

Rachel found comfort in his words, especially since he openly admitted he was a skeptic, but assuring her she wasnt going off the deep end didnt make the notion she was being haunted by a murdered woman any more palatable. And even if they discovered what really happened to Rochelle Beaumont, what possible difference could it make to anyone now? The men who were responsible for her death were long gone themselves, as was Antonios father so why would the poor woman wait until now to dredge it all up and why choose someone who had nothing to do with the Covellis?

I cannot in good conscious hold you to the contract now, Antonio told her. If you want out of it, I shall certainly understand why.

Rachel considered it for a moment before turning her eyes to Nic. Im afraid to go there, afraid Ill see her spirit or whatever part of her essence still lingers there, but Im also afraid the nightmare will never end unless I do.

I cant tell you for sure that going to the mansion will make them go away, but its worth a try. And if it makes your decision any easier, I wont leave until we see this through.

Youd really do that?

Of course I would. Besides, he said with a teasing grin, I already have one woman haunting my dreams. Im not sure I could handle one haunting my house as well.

Antonios brows furrowed. The Beaumont woman has been in your dreams as well, Nicolo?

Nic laughed at the look of utter confusion on his grandfathers face. I promise to explain the whole story when you get back from your business trip.

I shall look forward to it. This whole situation is quite intriguing and though I would love to hear more right now, I am already running late in getting to the airport.

Rachel apologized profusely as she scrambled off of Nics lap but Antonio assured her he wasnt in any danger of missing his flight since the private plane he was taking was owned by his company. After extracting a promise from Nic to keep him informed as to what they discovered about the Beaumont woman, Antonio asked his driver to take them to Nics car.

Max maneuvered through the parking lot with great expertise then hastened out of the limousine to open the door for them. Rachel took the hand he offered and let him help her out, more than a little embarrassed to realize Max had to have heard every word theyd spoken. He probably thought she needed to be committed to an asylum, though his staid expression gave away nothing.

Once they were back in Nics car and headed for the mansion, Rachel slumped down her seat wishing there was a nice big hole she could crawl into. Shes hoped to avoid telling Antonio

about the nightmare even after she and Nic had come to the conclusion it had something to do with the mansion, but her little episode inside the restaurant made that impossible. Thank God Nic had been there and realized what was happening to her before shed slithered off her chair and mortified Antonio with a reenactment of the sexual assault sheor rather Rochelle Beaumont had been subjected to.

Nic cast a quick glance at Rachel. Do you want to talk about it now or after weve gotten settled at the mansion?

It was horrible, just horrible, she blurted out. After they chased meI mean Rochelleafter they chased Rochelle into the woods and shot her, they dragged her into the bushes andand

Its okay, sweetheart, just take your time.

Rachel wiped away the tears that were cascading down her cheeks. They wanted to punish her, not because shed dared to think she was good enough to marry a Covelli but because shed never hidden her revulsion for them. They were already jealous of Nicolos power and money and hated it that the lifestyle they believed they were entitled to was dependent on his good grace. Nicolo was untouchable so they had no way to hurt him, no way to bring him to his knees until they found out he was in love with Rochelle.

The muscle in Nics jaw flexed. So they decided to rob him of the woman he loved because they were powerless to harm him any other way.

Yes, but it was worse than that, she said in a wobbly voice. They werent satisfied with just walling her up and allowing her to suffer a horrible death. They wanted to make sure shed been degraded first, that she died in hopeless despair because even if by some miracle Rochelle was rescued shed know Nicolo wouldnt want her back after what theyd done to her.

Something deep inside him twisted into a painful knot. Nic clenched his teeth together, not trusting himself to speak without sounding angry because he was genuinely outraged by what his ancestors had done to that poor woman. But the greater part of his fury was borne out of his concern for Rachel, for the horror shed suffered as a result of what theyd done all those years ago. He understood now why shed been sobbing and begging him not to hurt her as hed hustled her out of the restaurant, and if this nightmare was as vivid as the one where she was walled up then the sexual assault shed endured was just as real.

He pulled up to the mansion and hurried around to Rachels door with the intension of getting her inside as quickly as possible so he could offer the comfort she so obviously needed. But one look at her tear stained face and soulful eyes as she climbed out of the car and stood before him trembling like a leaf was more than Nic could handle. He pulled her into his arms and held her firmly against his body, his heart wrenching when she buried her face in neck and burst into tears.

There was nothing he could say to take away her pain so he simply let her cry it out. When the harsh sobs finally began to subside Nic dug out the key his grandfather had given him from his jeans and ushered Rachel up the stairs and into the mansion. The housekeeper had obviously been told to expect someone to arrive after dark tonight because the foyer light was on

as well as one in the hallway leading off to the left and another that illuminated the grand marble staircase.

Lets find the kitchen, he said, gently propelling her down the lighted hallway.

It had been quite some time since hed been here but had a vague recollection that the kitchen was in the back of the mansion. He was surprised at how well maintained the place was and was duly impressed by his grandfathers effort to keep it from falling into ruins. Hardwood floors gleamed as if theyd just been polished and even a cursory glance around told him the housekeeper took her job seriously because there wasnt a speck of dust on any of the paintings hanging on the walls. Certainly the mansion lacked the warmth of a home but with a wife and few children in residence he imagined the old place would quickly come back to life.

Nic found the kitchen exactly where hed thought it would be and after settling Rachel at the cozy breakfast nook in the corner, he searched out the coffee grounds and two cups then started up the coffee maker. He brought her a glass of ice water while the coffee was brewing, which she gulped down after offering him a grateful smile. Nic waited until she was finished before dropping down onto the bench beside her and pulling her close to his side. He pressed a kiss to her temple and asked if there was anything he could do.

Justhold me for a minute and Ill be fine, Rachel told him.

We dont have to stay here if you dont want to. We could find a hotel for the night and come back tomorrow.

As much as I appreciate the offer, you and I both know it wont make any difference where I spend the night. Maybe it was meeting you that triggered the new nightmares or maybe it was because Id made the decision to start working on the mansion; whatever the catalyst was, it set something in motion that isnt going to stop until the whole story unravels.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with you but that doesnt mean we have to wait it out and just allow these nightmares to terrorize you.

What do you mean?

I mean that if Rochelle Beaumont worked here as a maid then she had to have lived here too. A hundred years ago that town would have been nothing more than small village so it would have been difficult to find work there. Chances are she was French immigrant with no family in the States so she would have needed employment that offered her room and board.

True, but wouldnt the Covellis want to destroy Rochelles things after theyd murdered her?

Not necessarily. If they were smart they would have left everything just as it was so they could claim her disappearance was just as much a mystery to them as it was to everyone else. And if my great grandfather loved her as much as Grandfather believes then maybe he kept some of her things too.

It might help us in learning more about what happened to her when she was alive, but finding old love letters or keepsakes wont tell us where they took her to die.

No, youre right about that. Ultimately I think the secret to where Rochelle is entombed will be reveled in your nightmare. What I had in mind was more like speeding up the process. I have this unsettling feeling that the nightmare will keep going in reverse but in only small segments like the one you had during your nap today.

You mean it will backtrack a little each time I dream then play out the whole gruesome ending over and over until it finally gets to the beginning?

Its just a theory, Rachel. I could be totally off the mark.

Rachel tilted her head back. It makes sensewell, as much as anything about this whole situation could make sense. Besides, I trust you so if you think we should have a look around, then Im in.

You trust me, huh?

Yeah, I do.

Enough to do a little scouting around tonight?

Only if you promise not to let me out of your sight.

I swear I wont even blink the entire time.

I dont think you need to go that far, Rachel laughed. Just blink sparingly, thatll be good enough.

Shall we have that coffee first or jump right into our roles as Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew?

A shot of caffeine sounds good.

Rachels eyes followed him as he crossed the kitchen and poured the coffee, a giddy sense of happiness crowding out the dark shadows that had been hovering over her since they left the restaurant. Her gaze swept over his muscular body with longing, starting at his broad shoulders and moving down to his narrow hips then pausing for a moment to admire his fantastic ass before traveling the length of his impossibly long legs. Rachel was practically drooling when Nic turned to ask if she wanted cream or sugar and caught her in the act.

Nic carried the cups back to the table but didnt dare chancing even a glance at her again until after his shaky hands had safely set the cups down. Jade green eyes peered up him, shamelessly lustful and every bit as beguiling as the wicked grin on Rachels face.

Keep looking at me like that and we wont make it past the first bedroom, he said huskily.

I dont know what you mean, she feigned innocence. I was just thinking about how exciting it was going to be toexplore new places. A thorough hands on examination could be very stimulating, dont you think?

Nics eyes narrowed. Youre pushing your luck, sweetheart.

Rachel smiled at him over the rim of her cup. Oh, I think my luck will hold out for quite some time tonight.

Not if you keep tossing innuendos at me, he warned.

In that case, I promise to be a good girl until after weve had a look around the mansion. So where do you suggest we begin?

Nics eyes migrated to her enticing breasts. HmmmmI think starting at the top and working my way down sounds like a grand idea.

Rachel nearly groaned out loud when the muscles in her abdomen clenched. Okay, okay, I think we need to call a truce before we end up naked on the kitchen floor. And you can wipe that grin right off your face, Nic Covelli, because Im way too old to have sex on cold clay tiles.

Ill have you know that is genuine Italian porcelain stoneware on the floor, he said with an indignant huff.

My humble apologies. I am way too old to have sex on cold Italian porcelain stoneware tiles. And now that we have that settled maybe we can get on the scavenger hunt.

***

Well start in the attic first, Nic said as they headed up the grand staircase.

Any particular reason why?

Back then the hired help was supposed to remain as invisible as possible. Maids, cooks, and other female servants usually had their rooms in the attic. The rooms were really nothing more than a large closet that was big enough for a bed and nightstand and that was about it. The

attic was unbearably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter which made it unsuitable for the owners or their guests.

Rachel slipped her hand into his when they reached the first landing and started down the long hallway. How do you know all that?

The question is, Miss Architect, how come you dont know that?

Ouch. Are you always this brutal or is that just your arrogance talking?

Brutal or arrogant, he grimaced, no matter which one I choose Im definitely not earning any accolades for myself. Nic stopped and opened the last door at the end of the hall. The stairs are narrow so well have to go single file.

Rachel was right on his heels, not at all comfortable with how dimly lit the steep staircase was or how the overhead light fixture started flickering before theyd even gotten halfway up. By the time they reached the top she was feeling a little queasy from being in such a narrow enclosure and was glad to see the attic wasnt as small or cramped as shed expected it to be. One long hallway ran the length of the house with several doorways on either side. Rachel traipsed after Nic as he opened each door and flipped on the light to peer inside but just as hed said, each room was comprised of a bed and a nightstand and little else.

Thats strange, Nic said when they got to the last door. This one is locked.

Are you sure? Maybe its just stuck.

Nic wiggled the door handle. Its definitely locked and I can pretty much guarantee the key is long gone.

I guess well have to call a locksmith tomorrow unless you feel like playing macho man and busting the door down.

Have you lost your mind, woman? This door is made of solid oak and probably held on with rusty hinges. Id dislocate my shoulder making the effort and the thing still wouldnt budge.

I take it that means you cast your vote for a locksmith.

You know what I think? Nic dragged Rachel into his arms. I think its high time I silenced that sassy tongue of yours.

For the next several minutes, Rachel was only too happy to give up the verbal banter and surrender herself to his bone melting kisses. Still feeling a little dazed afterwards, she barely even noticed how narrow the stairway was as they made their decent. And once they were back on the second level she was too busy trying to quell the furious flutter of butterflies in her stomach as Nic whisked her along beside him because she knew the next and last stop for the night would be one of the master bedrooms.

She presumed all the rooms they passed on their way back through the main hallway were guest rooms because he strode past them and crossed in front of the grand staircase to a shorter hallway to their left. There were only two doors, one on each side of the hall and after a moment of hesitation, Nic chose the room on the left. The door had barely closed behind them

before he swept her up in his arms and began ravishing her mouth as he carried her towards the bed.

The room was bathed in soft moonlight that filtered in through a set of French doors, casting a romantic glow on everything it touched. Lost in the mounting heat of Nics kisses, Rachel paid little heed to anything until hed lowered her onto the bed and began undressing her. She shivered in anticipation as the last of her clothing was removed and her fumbling fingers sought to help Nic rid himself of his shirt. It seemed to take forever but it was well worth the wait when she was finally able to run her hands over the corded muscles of his chest as he levered himself over her.

A soft moan vibrated in the back of her throat as Nic eased himself inside of her, his throbbing erection stretching her inner muscles inch by agonizing inch until hed filled her so completely she was practically in tears from the sheer pleasure of it. Rachel had never been so aware of her own body before, of her own sexuality or her ability to give a man the same euphoric rush, but she felt it now with Nic. Every feathery touch of her fingertips made his big body quiver in response, every answering thrust of her hips elicited the most delicious guttural moan as if it was forced from his lips because he simply couldnt contain it.

Their love making was fast and furious, the intense heat of their passion making their bodies slick with moisture which only added to the whole erotic sensation of mating in its most primal form. They devoured each other, giving and taking, demanding more, more, more until they were both teetering on the edge with no way to go but down. Nic drove himself into her, harder and deeper each time, touching Rachel in places she hadnt even known existed before.

The heavy coiling that had been building in her abdomen suddenly snapped like a bowstring that had been drawn too tight sending her entire body into convulsions. She cried out Nics name, clinging to his broad shoulders as he surged into her one last time, his climax so explosive she felt every violent shudder as if it was her own. Nic collapsed over her making Rachels struggle to drag air into her lungs even more difficult but she didnt mind. Shed never experienced anything like this before and she wanted to hold onto the moment as long as she could.

She lay there with her eyes closed, basking in the afterglow and letting her mind drift aimlessly for quite some time before a strange sense of dj vu began to make her skin tingle. The weight of Nics body, his masculine scent, the rapturous sensation of being joined as lovers all converged into a single memory. No, not a real memory Rachel realized, but it was just as tangible to her as if it had been. Slowly, her eyes eked open and took in her surroundings.

Even in the shadowy light she knew where she was. The massive four poster bed was as familiar to her as the bed in her own apartment; the drawn netting, the down filled comforter, the man whose warm breath against her neck sent shivers of delight racing through her. Shed experienced it all before. Rachel said Nics name, her voice little more than a hoarse whisper but he heard her all the same because he lifted his head and peered down into her ashen face.

Rachel? Honey, whats wrong?

Its you, she managed to squeeze out.

Nic gently brushed the damp curls from her forehead, concerned by the tremor in her voice. Did I hurt you? Because you know Id never do anything

No, no its not that. Niclook around, look at where were at.

Nic eased himself out of her and propped himself up on one elbow, his eyes making a quick sweep of the room. It didnt take him two seconds to realize why Rachel sounded so spooked. He felt a little shaken himself as turned his attention back to the woman beside him.

This is it, he said thickly, this is the bedroom where I make love to you in my dreams.

Rachel threaded her fingers through his hair and pulled his mouth down close to hers. Yes, she whispered. Its you, Nic. Its you I come to every night. Youre my dream lover too.

Chapter 7
Are you warm enough?

Rachel snuggled a little closer. Ive got a down comforter over me and a hot Italian next to me; I cant imagine anything more heavenly.

Still feeling a bit lethargic after what could only be described as the most incredible, mind-blowing sex of his life, Nic had to agree that heavenly pretty much summed up how it felt to be lying here with Rachel in his arms. From the moment hed first touched her velvety skin Nic had known that making love to her was going to surpass anything hed experienced in his dreams. He hadnt been disappointed, and judging by the contented smile on Rachels face neither had she.

Nic stared at the ceiling through the sheer netting, idly stroking her back. Does it seem strange being herein this room, this bed?

A little maybe but it also feels right, dont you think?

Everything about you and me and this night feels right.

Do you think the reason it was so good was because our erotic dreams of each other primed us with a year of foreplay first?

Nics body shook with laughter. You have a wonderful way of putting things, Miss Delacourte, and though I have to agree that I wasprimed, he choked out the word, it was because I was aroused by you, the real you.

Thank God, she said on a sigh. I was so afraid I wouldnt live up to the woman in your dreams.

Trust me, sweetheart, you have no worries on that score.

You were pretty spectacular yourself, she purred.

Desire speared through his belly but he tamped it down, albeit with great reluctance. After a year of celibacy his body was more than willing to go another round but theyd already made love twice and it was well after midnight. A good nights sleep was in order for both of them though he doubted theyd make it to morning without being disturbed by Rachels nightmare. She mumbled something unintelligible when he pressed a soft kiss to her forehead and told her good-night, and within minutes she was fast asleep. Nic closed his eyes and quickly followed suit just as a clock somewhere downstairs chimed the hour then went silent again.

***

A delicious warmth ran along the length of her body, a warmth that sank into her skin and made her tingle all over when she opened her eyes to find Nic watching her. There was no need to ask what he was thinking; the answer was evident in the look of raw hunger on his handsome face and the throbbing erection that was pressing into her belly. Rachel curled her arms around his neck and pulled his mouth down onto hers, already so aroused that Nic groaned when his hand slipped between her thighs and discovered she was more than ready for him.

It was different this time, even better than the night before because she could see his face and admire his sleek muscles as he levered himself over her. Shed never made love with her

eyes open before, mostly because her partner either had his eyes glued to her breasts or he was concentrating so hard on getting himself off his face was red and contorted, and it always left her wondering why shed found him attractive to begin with. But it wasnt like that with Nic. His dark eyes locked with hers, drawing her into their depths, making the connection she felt with him was so much more than physical.

Oh, she wasnt foolish enough to think she was in love with him, but she was falling fast and hard and knew it wouldnt take much to push her over the edge. Besides being a phenomenal lover, Nic was thoughtful and kind, and the fact that he seemed so oblivious to his own giving nature only made Rachel adore him even more. While shed been indulging herself by lounging in bed after theyd made love, Nic had dashed downstairs and returned a short time later carrying a breakfast tray.

I hope you like your breakfast a la carte, Nic said as he balanced the tray in one hand and opened the doors to the balcony with the other. Theres a nice cozy table for two out here, he called over his shoulder.

Rachel sat up, tucking the sheet up under her arms as she scanned the room for her clothes. I dont suppose you brought the suitcases up, she asked when he came back in.

Not yet. He leaned down and gave her a kiss. You see, I had this vision of you wearing my t-shirt while we ate out on the balcony and decided Id have a much better chance of convincing you to fulfill my fantasy if your only other choice was the sheet.

I still have the clothes I wore last night, she pointed out.

Nics grin was smug. If you could find them, you mean?

You didnt!

What can I say, he shrugged, Im completely shameless. Nic peeled off his t-shirt and held out to her. Suit yourself, he said when Rachel crossed her arms and refused to take it, but I think I should warn you theres a bit of breeze outside so wearing the sheet could be a little riskyor should I say risqu?

Rachel snatched the shirt from his hand. Dont be surprised if your clothes go missing one of these fine mornings. She purposely let the sheet slip away, brazenly displaying her nudity as she stood up to put his shirt on. Oh, no you dont, she slapped his hand away. Looking is as far as this fantasy goes, Dr. Covelli.

She didnt get two steps away before Nic grabbed her around the waist and pulled her up hard against his chest. Laughing at her feeble attempt to wriggle free, Nic easily subdued her with a long, sensuous kiss that left her as docile as a lamb by the time he let her go. He was feeling quite pleased with himself as they headed towards the balcony but when Rachel flashed him the same smug smile hed given her earlier, he began to suspect shed gotten one over on him. He waited until they were seated and hed poured them both a cup of coffee before leveling accusatory eyes at her.

You werent irritated at all by what Id done, were you?

Rachel grinned. I thought it was a rather clever way of getting what you wanted.

So you baited me by pretending to be annoyed, knowing I wouldnt let you walk way without trying to kiss and make up.

Her smile broadened. If you werent playing fair, why should I?

Looks like we both got what we wanted then.

Not quite. Rachels lusty gaze wandered over his bare chest for a moment before returning to his face.

You are a greedy woman, Nic said then added a mumbled, thank God.

Its your own fault, she replied, spooning fruit onto her plate. Ive never been with a man who was just as concerned about my pleasure as he was his own. It wasnice.

It was nice?

Rachels lip twitched. All right, it was more than nice. The sex was spectacular, explosive, freaking over the moon and back. There. Have I salved your male ego sufficiently?

Not even close, he drawled, but you can make it up to me later.

Her eyes made an encore sweep of his broad chest. Its the least I can do after assaulting your pride.

Nic tore off a piece of the croissant hed been toying with and popped it into his mouth. He liked knowing hed made it as good for her as it was for him, and maybe it was just male ego but he liked knowing shed placed him above the other men shed been with. What he didnt

much care for was the image of Rachel in another mans armsor another mans bed. Had she looked at them the way shed looked at him this morning? Had those green eyes of hers gazed up at other lovers with the same longing, or was it simply arrogance on his part to believe it was for him and him alone?

Youve grown sullen all of a sudden, Rachel said with a timid smile. Its because of me, isnt it?

As a matter of fact it is, but how did you?

I was afraid of that. God, Im sorry Nic. Its just that Ive never felt this way before and I guess Im not very good at hiding it but you dont have to worry that Ill become a clinging vine or expect you to stop dating other women just because weve slept together Rachel shook her head. Okay, scratch that because I really, really dont want you to date other women. Not that Im the jealous type because Im notat least I wasnt before, but Im just crazy about you so I cant promise

Suddenly aware that she was babbling, Rachel clamped her mouth shut and waited for the inevitable. Shed been too obvious about the depth of her feelings for him and was convinced Nic was going to conjure up a forgotten business trip or urgent personal matter that would explain why he had to leave. She gnawed at her bottom lip and stole a quick glance at him before looking away, unable to bear the blank expression on his face. Maybe he was torn as to whether he should stay or not because he felt obligated by his promise to help free her from the nightmare.

The nightmare. Rachels breath caught in her throat when she realized shed slept through the night without dreaming at all. Turning her eyes back to Nic, she seriously considered keeping it from him as a rouse to make him stay but quickly changed her mind. She didnt want him here because shed tricked him or because he felt obligated, and she certainly didnt want to subject herself to the pain of listening to whatever white lie hed come up with about why he had to go. No, if he needed an easy out, shed give it to him.

I guess what Im trying to say is that last night was wonderful but Im not some nave little virgin that thinks having sex means you must have deep feelings for me. Obviously Im attracted to you or I wouldnt have slept with you but Im not going to fall to pieces if youve changed your mind about staying here for the next few weeks. Besides, I imagine one of the biggest reasons you even considered it was because of the dreams that seem to connect us in some way but thats gone now so theres no reason

Gone? You mean you didnt have the dream or the nightmare?

No. As a matter of fact I slept more soundly last night than I have in months. The cycle is broken, so theres no need for you to continue the sleep study on meor to stick around here.

Nics brows drew together. Youre throwing out mixed signals, Rachel. First you say you dont want me seeing other women and now youre making it sound as if you dont want me here at all.

I do want you here, and if Im blowing hot and cold its because I dont want to scare you off by blurting out how I feel just like I did a few minutes ago.

Nics eyes danced with amusement. Let me get this straight. You think telling me youre crazy about me and that you want me all to yourself is going to scare me off?

You dont get it, Nic. That was just the tip of the iceberg. If I hadnt stopped myself from babbling like an idiot and telling you how I really feel, you would have lit out of here like your tail was on fire.

You honestly believe that?

I saw the way you were looking at me, her voice wobbled. It was pretty obvious you were having second thoughts, and I just wanted to make it easier for you. Thats why I said you didnt have to stick around.

You misread me if it was doubt you saw on my face. Nic rose from the table and went to her. Taking Rachels hand, he pulled her to her feet and gathered her in his arms. This is unchartered territory for both of us, and even though my head keeps telling me to slow it down, that I couldnt possibly feel as deeply as I do for youmy heart doesnt seem to be getting the message.

If thats the conclusion you came to, you didnt look too happy about it.

Nic couldnt resist planting a kiss on her pouty lips. Do you want to know what I was really thinking? I was thinking about this morning when wed made love and the way you looked at me as if I was the center of your universe. I was trying to convince myself I was the only man whod ever been on the receiving end of it, so if I seemed a bit sullen it was because I didnt like the idea I might be wrong.

Rachels pulse raced as she slipped her arms around his neck. You werent wrong. I justI dont want to mess it up by telling you things you might not be ready to hear.

Its a self-preservation tool were both guilty of using; being overly cautious because weve found something we want to hang on to. Neither of us wants to risk exposing too much of our emotions too soon or take the chance our hearts will be crushed if we offer it up to the other.

She nodded solemnly. Ive never been so scared in my life, Nic.

Me either, he admitted, but were not really giving this a chance to develop into something more meaningful than mutual attraction and great sex if were afraid to let our guards down and trust one another.

Its just moving so fast I feel like Im strapped to the engine of a runaway train. I have no control and that scares the hell out of me but its exhilarating too because Ive never felt so alive.

Thats a very interesting analogy and one I can relate to, except I have to wonder how much more thrilling the ride would be if we werent keeping our eyes glued to the tracks.

Worrying about each dangerous curve and whether the tracks might come to an end?

Exactly, Nic said with a grin.

It sounds like youre suggesting a commitment. I thought that was something most men avoided like the plague.

True, but Im not like most men which is what makes me such a fine catch.

Rachel laughed. If youre such a fine catch, how do you explain your current status as a bachelor?

Because up until now Ive been very careful to just nibble at the bait so there was never any danger of getting hooked.

In a breathy voice she asked, And now?

Now he drew her closer, the lure is much too tantalizing to resist.

Even knowing you could end up in the frying pan?

Nic chuckled. Ill take my chances.

Youre a very brave man, Dr. Covelli.

Hmmmmthat would infer I have something to be afraid of by venturing into a relationship with you.

Ill never tell, she laughed.

In that case, maybe I should offer to buy sister Monica lunch if shell divulge some of your deep, dark secrets.

Believe me, if Monica ever got you alone the last thing shed do is talk about me.

Rachel silently chastised herself for the twinge of jealousy that speared through her at the thought of her flirtatious sister dazzling Nic with her infectious smile and vivacious personality. Shed always admired Monicas carefree attitude, envied her ability to draw people to her like bees to honey, but shed never been jealous of her before. Besides, if Nic was interested in her sister he wouldnt have taken a two week leave from work to stay with her at the mansion, or made love to her half the nightor looked at her the way he was doing right now.

You look like a hungry wolf thats just spotted a stray lamb. And that was not an invitation, she admonished when Nic leaned in for a kiss. I need to get busy making sketches and you promised to get a locksmith out here, remember?

Its too early to call for a locksmith. Nic teased her with feathery kisses that slowly migrated from her lips to the column of her elegant neck and back up again. Too early for sketching, he murmured before launching into a full scale seduction.

Rachels resistance had the consistency of liquid goo by the time Nic lifted her in his arms and carried her back to bed. Shed attempted a few feeble protests at first but he was extremely adept at making her forget everything except the bone melting sensations his kisses elicited. After a lifetime of being responsible and playing it safe, Rachel should have felt at least a little guilty for letting Nic coax her into another erotic love making session instead of getting right to work but she was shamelessly guilt free the moment he cradled himself between her thighs and sent her soaring into oblivious rapture.

***

Rachel started in the foyer and did a quick assessment of every room downstairs before making preliminary sketches of the foyer, reception hall and grand staircase. She was just starting on the first of two ballrooms when Nic finally returned to let her know the locksmith couldnt make it until the following day. She didnt want to admit she was relieved about putting it off for one more day because shed already deduced the locked attic room could only belong to Rochelle Beaumont and it gave her an eerie feeling she couldnt quite dispel regardless of how silly it seemed.

As she moved onto the ladies parlor, Rachel could almost imagine the women in their formal gowns sitting on the edge of velveteen sofas and ornate chairs, sipping tea and gossiping in hushed tones while their men retired to the gentlemens room for cigars and hard liquor. All the rooms were elegantly furnished with expensive antique pieces that had probably been in the mansion at the time of Rochelles unfortunate tenure. Though it had been abandoned by the Covelli family eons ago, theyd obviously kept caretakers in their employ whod taken their jobs very seriously. But even the most well tended house felt cold and empty without someone there to breathe life into it; a fate the Covelli mansion suffered from because it seemed more like a museum than a home.

If no one wanted to live here, why go to all the expense of keeping full time caretakers instead of just selling it? Rachel asked as they entered the formal dining room.

I can guess why my great grandfather wanted to hang onto it even though he couldnt bear to live here any longer. Apparently he wanted to insure that it always remained in the hands of a Covelli because an enormous fund was set up specifically for maintaining the mansion.

Why didnt Antonio or your father ever live here?

Grandfathers memories of the mansion werent very happy ones, and my father had no desire to live in a place this big which is why I inherited it instead.

Are you really planning on living here someday or are you just going along with the reconstruction to appease Antonio?

I suppose it was just to appease Grandfather at first but now that Ive had a chance to look around I think it would be a great place to raise a family. Im not very fond of a lot the furnishings, and some of the wall paintings dont suit my taste but thats easily remedied.

Well, now would certainly be the best time to start shopping for new furniture and whatever else you want replaced because everything will have to put into storage while the restoration is taking place. You may want to consider having an estate sale or holding an auction for the things you dont want to keep.

Nic glanced around the elegant dining room. To be honest, I dont have experience in restoring a house but it doesnt look to me as if theres much to do.

Thats because youre only focusing on the cosmetics. Its the structure itself that needs work, either by strengthening the current foundations that have suffered over time or by reconstructing some of it altogether to modernize it a bit. Granted, it shouldnt be altered too much but theres a lot of little things you probably havent even noticed. Rachel crossed the room and stood in front of the door leading into the kitchen. Look how narrow this doorway is.

Its also too low, which wouldnt be a problem for someone my size but for a man of your stature it really needs to be raised at least five or six inches.

Now that you mention it, I have found myself gauging the height of a few doorways before passing through.

Look Nic, if youre worried Im going to make unnecessary changes

No! I wasnt inferring that at all. I was just curious because nothing really seems to be in disrepair.

Trust me, if you lived here youd find out soon enough just how poorly the structure has been maintained. Im not surprised considering no ones bothered to do more than dust and polish the place to make it look pretty but if the foundation isnt tended to just as carefully, you may just find one of those fancy chandeliers crashing down on your head.

Nic eyed Rachel with genuine admiration. Youre very passionate about your work, arent you?

The smile she gave him was as suggestive as the sultry look in her eyes. Thats not the only thing Im passionate about.

He nearly groaned out loud from the jolt of desire that shot through him, something that happened quite frequently whenever Rachel was anywhere within eyesight. Nics gaze wandered over her full breasts and couldnt help notice how taut the peaks had grown or the way they strained against the white cotton blouse shed worn, practically begging for his touch.

Rachel shifted her weight, drawing his attention to her small waist and the snug fitting jeans that hugged the gentle flare of her hips and long, shapely legs like a second skin.

I still have a lot of work to do, Rachel said, shocked by the huskiness in her voice. I mean it Nic, she warned as he continued to advance on her.

Bracing his hands against the door on either side of her face, Nic didnt have to do anything but look at her to make Rachels knees go weak. Her heart was pounding so hard she half expected to hear a couple of ribs cracking under the pressure but that quickly became a secondary concern when Nic leaned into her and lightly traced her lips with the tip of his tongue. She couldnt breathe, couldnt think, couldnt do anything but stand there while her mind turned to mush and the rest of her body was consumed by the scorching fire that raging through her.

I want you, Nic whispered. Lets go back upstairs so I can

Rachel stumbled backwards with a startled yelp when the door suddenly gave way, but it was the impact of Nics body crashing down on top of her as they fell to the floor that drove the air from her lungs. She was vaguely aware that hed lifted his weight from her but could only lay there gasping as he fussed over her, repeatedly asking if she was okay. It wasnt until after hed helped her up and shed drawn in a few good gulps of air that she realized they werent alone.

Nic must have seen her eyes widen in surprise when she spotted the woman whod obviously been responsible for opening the door and sending them flying because he stopped in mid sentence. The woman was pressed against the wall, stark fear etched into her face as she

gaped at Rachel. Her hand flew to her chest and clutched the crucifix that hung around her neck, her gaze briefly settling on Nic while she muttered something in Italian before returning warily to Rachel. It came as quite a surprise when Nic responded in Italian, his deep voice as soothing to her as it apparently was to the older woman even though Rachel didnt understand a word he was saying.

Nic leaned down and scooped up the sketch pad and pencil Rachel had dropped and handed them to her. Celia is the full time housekeeper here, he explained. Im afraid shes had quite a scare so I told her to take a few minutes to settle her nerves before joining us out on the terrace.

Rachel glanced back at the badly shaken woman as Nic ushered her out of the room. Judging by the death grip she has on that cross and the strange way she was looking at me, I get the distinct impression Celia thinks Im a vampire or some other hideous creature of the night.

Youre not too far off, he said with a grimace.

She waited until they were outside before asking what he meant. Is that why we came out here, so you could prove to her I wouldnt go up in flames in the direct sunlight?

Nic laughed. Coming outside was my idea, but in a way the concept is the same.

Rachels eyes widened. You mean she really thinks Im a vampire?

No, not a vampire, his expression sobered. She thought you were a ghost; more specifically, the ghost of Rochelle Beaumont.

Chapter 8
For a few moments, Rachel was too stunned by what Nic had told her to even reply. Why would sheI mean, how does Celia know about Rochelle and why on earth would she think I was her ghost?

Nic took the sketch pad and pencil from her hands and tossed them on the table then asked Rachel to sit down. She wasnt making a lot of sense, he said as he took the seat beside her. Ill try to get more information from her when she comes out but from what I could gather Celia has seen Rochelles apparition on many occasions. Normally it doesnt frighten her but shes used to seeing Rochelles sprit roaming the halls upstairs so it caught her by surprise when she saw you in the kitchen.

I think Im missing something here. Did she actually tell you I resemble Rochelle Beaumont?

Except for the clothes youre wearing, Celia claims you look exactly like her. She used the term gemelli, which is Italian for twin.

The color leeched from Rachels face. How can you sit there looking so calm when Im on the verge of a complete melt down?

Nic reached for her hand and was shocked to find it was cold as ice. Im sure theres a logical explanation for all of this, honey. Maybe you and Rochelle are related. Your names are similar, youre both French, and now weve discovered you look alike. It makes sense.

Youre kidding, right? None of this makes sense! How is it possible for us to dream about each other without ever having met? How could I have nightmares about a woman I know nothing about, a woman who died over a hundred years ago? Rachel could hear the rising hysteria in her voice but was helpless to stop herself. Now I find out Im a clone of your great grandfathers lover which is so far out on the unbelievable scale I cant even begin to wrap my mind around it. In case you havent noticed, Nic, Im flipping out here. A ghost I can handle, but a ghost who looks just like me?

Would it make you feel better if we held an impromptu sance and called up the spirit of my great grandfather?

She gaped at him in disbelief. Have you lost your mind?

Just think about it, Rachel. Ive been told Im the spitting image of him. If we could get him to drop in and pay a little visit, then you wouldnt be alone in this ghost look-alike thing. Or better yet, we could hook him up with Rochelle again and they could fly off somewhere to elope just like they planned to.

Rachels eyes narrowed. Oh, he was doing a marvelous job of keeping a straight face but she could see the laughter in his eyes and just the tiniest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. She should have been angry at him for teasing her when she was so distraught but it was impossible to be upset with him when he was so obnoxiously adorable. On the other handshe couldnt just let him off without extracting some sort of retribution, now could she?

You know, that might not be a bad idea, she said thoughtfully. Silently congratulating herself when Nic looked a bit startled, she couldnt help embellishing just to see how far hed let

it go before confessing hed meant it as a joke. I did some work for a woman thats psychic. Shes helped the police on numerous murder investigations so she might even be able to clear up the mystery of Rochelles death.

Rachel

Im not sure if she does sances, but she might know someone who does. We could set up a card table in the attic, light a few candlesor should we do it in the bedroom? Never mind, shell probably want to pick where we set up anyway. Are there any pictures of your great grandfather here or even a portrait?

Theres a portrait in the study but

Good, it will make it easier to make you look just like him if we have an example of how he dressed.

Nic was so preoccupied with trying to figure out a way to tell Rachel hed been joking about the sance that he was only half listening to what she said. He nodded absently and let her continue to ramble until it finally sank it that she was actually suggesting they visit a vintage clothing store and find something similar to what his great grandfather wore. Granted, it was his fault that she was so enthused about having a sance, but he had to draw the line at dressing like Nicolo Covelli so hed have a better chance of luring Rochelles ghost out into the open. Not that he believed in ghosts, Nic assured himself.

Rachel, I have to tell you something, he cut in when she stopped to take a breath.

But I havent even gotten to the best part yet.

Luminous green eyes and pouty lips; thats all it took to make him give up the idea of crushing her plans. Okay, sweetheart, lay it on me. Whats the best part?

Rachel leaned towards him if she was about to divulge a grave secret. If it works and were successful in reuniting them, I think we should offer them the use of our bodies so they can have one last night of steamy sex.

Nics expression went from shock to horror and gradually morphed into a combination of the two. You cant be serious, he managed to choke out.

Come on, dont be such a spoil sport. I think a little foursome will really lighten up the mood around here

Rachel laughed when Nic finally caught on to what she was doing. A low growl vibrated in the back of his throat as he hauled her off the chair and onto his lap and proceeded to punish her with a fierce kiss. She laughed again when he swore to get even with her because it was obvious by the husk in his voice that whatever retaliation he had in mind was going to be done in the bedroom and by no means constituted punishment as far as she was concerned.

Thats hardly an incentive to behave, she said with a mischievous grin, taunting him further by squirming in his lap.

Something wildly primitive stirred deep inside him and if theyd had the place to themselves Nic would have stripped her clothes off and taken her right there. He considered hauling her into one of the cabanas and might have done it too if he hadnt seen Celias tentative approach through the glass doors. Dropping a quick kiss on Rachels enticing lips, he informed

her they werent alone then had to choke back his laughter when she turned a lovely shade of pink and nearly tumbled off his lap in her haste to stand up.

Rachel shouldnt have been surprised that Nic spoke Italian considering how thick Antonios accent was but then it was probably Nics absence of one that threw her. She couldnt understand a word he was saying but it was obvious he was trying to waylay Celias fears. The poor woman kept casting furtive glances at her as if she thought Rachel was going to disappear into a puff of smoke or start levitating and wailing in despair. She tried to remain as still as possible and even put on a reassuring smile because Celia was wringing her hands together as she conversed with Nic and looked as if shed bolt and run if Rachel made any sudden movements.

She guessed Celia to be in her late fifties though her dark hair only had a spattering of silver and there were barely any wrinkles on her face. She was a petite woman, both short in stature and slender in body, so it had to be her eyes that made Rachel think she was much older than she looked. There was a weariness behind those brown eyes, the kind of weariness that comes with experience and age. Rachel suddenly realized the conversation had ground to halt and turned her attention to Nic expectantly.

Celias family has been working for the Covellis even before this place was built, Nic told her. She says she used to play here as a child when her mother was the housekeeper. Apparently, the job has been passed down from generation to generation along with the stories about the love affair between Rochelle and Nicolo.

Dont you think its more likely shes only imagined seeing Rochelles spirit roaming the halls because of the stories she grew up on?

Maybe, but that doesnt explain how she knows you look like Rochelle.

For all we know, I dont look a thing like her. Think about it, Nic. There probably hasnt been another woman in this house other than Celias own family members for God knows how long. Shes Italian and the Covellis are Italian so it only stands to reason that shed imagine a ghost with dark hair.

Celia leaned forward, an indignant scowl on her face. I not crazy!

I didnt mean Rachel started but was cut off by a highly agitated Celia as she fired off something to Nic in Italian.

She says she can prove it, Nic translated.

A shiver raced up Rachels spine. Prove what, that Rochelle is haunting the Covelli mansion?

No, Celia thinks youll see that for yourself soon enough. She said theres a portrait of Rochelle in the attic along with some other personal belongings that have been there since the night Rochelle disappeared.

Rachel arched a cynical brow. In the locked attic room, you mean?

Nic shot her a broad smile. Lucky thing for us Celia knows where the key is. She says its in the wall safe in the study so all I have to do is get hold of my grandfather for the combination and were in.

***

I dont understand why we have to wait. Rachel plopped down on the edge of the bed and watched Nic as he rummaged through his duffle bag.

I told you why. Celia thinks its important to tell me the whole story before we go up there.

While I sit around bored to tears until you come back and tell me what she said.

Nic glanced up and couldnt help laughing at Rachels sulky expression. Im sorry, sweetheart, but you do look a bit like a little girl whose been told she cant go out to play. Im sure it wont take much more than an hour for Celia to tell me what she knows and if you get bored waiting for me, you can always explore the house or do more sketching.

Oh, I know I should do more work, she said with an impatient sigh, but honestly, how can I when all this mystery is just looming over me like a big black cloud?

Nic choked back his laughter and tried to maintain a straight face while he fished out the hand held recorder hed been looking for. Why dont you take a nap? You didnt get much sleep last night

As if I could sleep!

A bath then. You could take a long soak and be nice and relaxed by the time I get back.

Rachel considered that for a moment. I do feel a little tense.

She was wound tighter than a clock spring but Nic wisely refrained from commenting on it. He slipped the recorder into his shirt pocket then went to Rachel and gave her a brief kiss, promising to return as soon as he could. He hurried out of the room on the pretext Celia was waiting for him but the truth was he didnt think he could keep from kissing Rachel if he stayed any longer and once he started kissing herwell, his self control would be pretty much nonexistent.

He made his way downstairs to the informal dining room where Celia had agreed to meet him and found her sitting at the table sipping a cup of hot tea. After pouring him a cup, she waited until he started the recorder then began to weave an incredible tale of intrigue and betrayal, of love and lies and finally the tragedy that befell the Covelli family after Rochelles disappearance. For the most part, Nic let her talk without interruption and when she got to the end of the story almost two hours later, he could only sit there in stunned silence, absorbing what shed told him.

What his family had done to Rochelle Beaumont was an abomination but the shame and guilt of what happened that night didnt fall solely on the Covellis but on Celias family as well. Rochelle had been murdered by Nicolo Covellis greedy cousins and Celias great grandmother had been a witness to it and chosen to remain silent, but the biggest tragedy of all was that it might not have happened if only Rochelle had told the truth about who she really was.

***

The hot water shed initially slipped down into was tepid at best by the time Rachel climbed out of the tub and toweled off. Nic was right, it had been very relaxing; so relaxing in fact that shed nearly nodded off a couple of times. As she stepped back into the bedroom she eyed the thick down comforter on the bed with longing and decided it wouldnt hurt to curl up and take a short nap. It also wouldnt hurt to make Nic pay for leaving her here all alone, which was why she pilfered one of his shirts and selected the skimpiest pair of lace panties she owned to wear to bed.

Rachel crawled on top of the comforter, giggling to herself when she pictured the look on Nics face when he found her sprawled half naked on the bed. Shed allow him to kiss her once or twiceokay, maybe three times, and then shed inform him that was all he got until he told her every single word Celia had said. She could almost see the scowl on his handsome face and giggled again. Rachel turned on her side and closed her eyes, unable to fight the grogginess any longer. Four kisses at the most, she thought as she started to drift off to sleep, five max

***

Rochelle took one last look at herself in the mirror, hoping Nicolo wouldnt notice the unusual pallor of skin. Her eyes lit on the necklace hed given her a week ago to the day, and for a moment she closed her eyes, reliving the joy shed felt when hed pulled it from his pocket and laid it in the palm of her hand.

Nicolo, its beautiful!

Open it, cara mia, then you can show me just how much you love it.

Rochelle pried the gold locket open, her heart fluttering wildly as she gazed at the miniature picture of her and Nicolo. Theyd had it taken a month ago when hed escorted her to a county fair but it was the first time shed seen it and they looked so much in love that she nearly cried. A life time would never be enough with this man. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, exalting in the glorious feel of the strong arms that pulled her closer and the passion he never failed to arouse in her.

Put it on, Nicolo ordered as he pulled the tie on her robe and pushed it off her shoulders.

Rochelle stood before him, as naked as the day she was born. You want me to wear the locket and nothing else?

His eyes swept over her voluptuous form. I want to see it nestled between your perfect breasts when I make love to you.

Is that all you think about? She teased. I swear we cant be in the same room for more than five minutes before you are relieving me of my clothes.

Nicolo grinned. When we are married I will not have to undress you nearly so often.

Rochelle arched one elegant brow. And why is that?

Because, he swept her up into his arms, I intend to keep you in my bed all night and at least half the day.

You will grow tired of making love to me in no time at all if that is the case.

Never, bella. He laid her gently onto the bed, quickly stripping off his own clothes before lowering himself over her. I shall be relentless, he surged into her with a groan. I will not stop making wild, passionate love to you until I am certain you are carrying my child.

Rochelle gasped when he drew his hips back and thrust into her, filling her so completely it was impossible to tell where his heated flesh ended and hers began. It had been like this right from the start; their bodies conforming so perfectly it was like theyd been made solely for each other. Even though Nicolo was the only man shed ever given herself to, Rochelle knew with undying certainty it would never have been like this with anyone else. He was everything to her, the very air she breathed, and nothing made her happier than knowing she would soon be his wife.

Afterwards, as she lay in his arms basking in the afterglow of his ardent love making, she recalled what hed said before shed gotten lost in his kisses, his touch. Nicoloyou said you were going to make passionate love to me until I get pregnant. Does that mean once Im carrying your baby you wont want to have sex anymore?

Nicolo laughed, a deep sexy laugh that assured Rochelle he meant nothing of the sort. I only meant I would have to be gentler with you when that time comes.

Will you still be attracted to me when my stomach is the size of a big, round watermelon?

Cupping her chin, Nicolo tilted her head back and planted a long, lingering kiss on her lips. You could be as big as a barn door and I would still want to pounce on you. I love you, Rochelle. I will always love you.

Tears shimmered in her eyes as her fingers curled around the locket. I love you too, and I love your gift. I was going to wait until after we were married butI have a gift for you too.

By this time next week you will be my wife. Are you sure you want to give it to me now?

Oh, how shed wanted to, but after a few minutes of indecision Rochelle had talked herself out of it. Nicolo was right; theyd be married shortly, and what wedding gift could possibly top the one she was going to give him? But now as she made her way through the hidden passageway and into his bedroom, she didnt think she could hold off for even one more day.

The sexy smile that greeted her was distracting to say the least but when Nicolo took her hand and led Rochelle straight to bed, she forgot about everything but the glorious feeling of having him inside of her. It was quite some time before she was capable of communicating in a manner that consisted of more than just breathy sighs and moans of pleasure.

Nicolo, I have something Rochelle stopped abruptly when there was a sharp rap on the bedroom door.

Do not leave, he whispered as he threw the covers back and reached for his robe. I am coming, he bellowed as another, more impatient rap sounded at his door.

Rochelle burrowed beneath the blankets, mortified by the idea that whoever it was might push their way into the room and find her in Nicolos bed. It was silly of her really. There wasnt a single member of his family who would dare enter his room if he forbid them to do so, but she knew his mother suspected they were lovers and didnt put it past the horrid woman to send one of his burly cousins up to find out for sure. Theyd try to banish her from the mansion and then shed be forced to tell them the secret shed been keeping since shed first come to work at the Covelli mansion and she didnt want to do that.

She lived for the moment when she could stand before Nicolos mother and announce that not only was she married to him, but also that she was not the lowly housemaid they all believed her to be. Adriana Covelli had ice in her veins when it came to Rochelle ever since shed come across her and Nicolo in the gardens one evening. They hadnt been doing anything except admiring the stars at the time, but perhaps it had been the guilty look theyd exchanged that made his mother suspicious there was far more going on than star gazing. In a clipped tone, Adrianna had dismissed Rochelle and the woman had been positively acidic to her since.

Nicolo was muttering oaths under his breath when he returned. That was my cousin, Damian, he explained, his expression dour as he let his robe drop to the floor and started to get dressed. It seems my mother neglected to tell me there was a dinner party this evening.

Disappoint rolled over her in waves. Do you have to go?

I am sorry, mio amore, but the guest of honor is a very important businessman. I have been trying to set up a meeting with him for over a month now and a social setting may be just what I need to get my foot in the door. Nicolo smiled indulgently at the pouting woman in his bed. Do not worry. I will be back in plenty of time to whisk you away and make you my wife just as we planned.

Rochelle watched him dress, wondering how it was possible to feel her heart race and yet feel the heaviness in it too. She climbed out of bed and retrieved her robe but not before she made sure Nicolo got a good view of what he was tossing aside for a boring business colleague. Turning her nose in the air, she tried to skirt around him to make a haughty exit but he was too fast and caught her around the waist, bringing her up hard against his chest.

Tomorrow you will be Mrs. Nicolo Covelli, he said thickly. Do not send me away knowing you are angry at me for leaving you alone right now.

She smiled up at him. Only if you promise to make it up to me later.

You have my word on it. Now go up to your room and take a nice long bath, then meet me in the gardens in three hours.

Three hours seemed like forever but it would give her time to make herself beautiful for Nicolo. She gave him a kiss that was deliberately sensuous and promised to keep him distracted while he dined with his family and their guest. Rochelle was quite pleased with the pained expression on his face when she extracted herself from his arms and waltzed over to the wall where a wood carving of an eagle hung. Casting a backward glance to insure he was still

suffering at having to leave her, she blew him a kiss then reached up and pulled the eagles head towards her.

There was a soft click as the latch on the hidden doorway was sprung and a few seconds later Rochelle was standing on the other side, desperately trying to squelch the ominous feeling of foreboding that seemed to permeate the air as the door closed behind her. She was being ridiculous, Rochelle told herself. It was jittery nerves because she was eloping with Nicolo tonight and nothing more. Still, she couldnt quite dispel the uneasy feeling as she made her way down the narrow passageway and scurried up the stairs to a second hidden doorway leading into her attic bedroom.

When shed first come here in the guise of a maid, shed quickly formed a close friendship with the housekeeper, Estela. After it became obvious that Rochelle had stirred Nicolos interest, shed confided in Estela about who she was and why she was there, which is how she ended up with a room of her own in the attic while the other live-in maids had to share the larger room below hers. Estela had insisted on helping her clean out the attic so she wouldnt have to bunk with all the other young women, which had done nothing to endear her to the any of the maids, but they didnt dare say anything for fear Estela would fire them.

Rochelle had no idea there was a passageway leading to Nicolos bedroom, or that it ran through the entire house and eventually lead to an underground tunnel. It was only after shed become Nicolos lover that he surprised her one night by slipping into her room and showed her how to open the door so she could go to him every night without fear of being caught.

How many other lovers have sneaked through the secret passageway to join you in your bedroom? Shed asked one night, though shed been twisted into knots just imagining Nicolo with another woman.

Nicolo must have sensed she needed a straight answer because he hadnt even attempted to make light of the subject. You and I are the only ones who know about it. And just so you can put your mind at ease, the only woman who has ever shared this bed with me is you.

Shed gazed up at him warily. You expect me to believe your father doesnt know about it when hes the one who had the mansion built? And if youre hedging the truth about that, how can I believe it when you say Im the only woman youve invited into your room for the night?

It is the truth, cara mia. Father purchased the land then flew back to Italy to finish up his business affairs and left me in charge of the construction. I was a young man, barely twentythree at the time, and it had always been impossible to leave the house without one of the servants or security people informing my parents so I had a second set of plans drawn up that included the passageway. You will just have to believe me when I say you are the only womanthe only person at all that I have trusted enough to tell.

Now as Rochelle finished getting dressed and began brushing out her hair, she felt almost sad that she wouldnt be using the passageway to get to Nicolos bedroom anymore. There was something sinfully exciting about stealing through the narrow corridors while the rest of the house slept but it was worth giving up to become his wife. Her stomach gave a nervous flutter and she pressed her hand to her abdomen, a warm smile curving her lips. Maybe it

wasnt such a bad thing Nicolo had been called away before she could give him his gift: the news that he was going to be a father.

***

Rachel sat bolt upright, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She was pregnant! Oh, God, Rochelle Beaumont was pregnant when they did those horrible things to her. Tears streaked down her face as she stumbled out of bed and made a mad dash to the bathroom where she threw up until there was nothing left in her stomach but churning acid. After rinsing off her face and giving her teeth a vigorous brushing, Rachel trudged back to the bedroom feeling like death warmed over.

Why was this happening to her? Why was she reliving the last few hours of that poor womans life? Was it coincidence that the story of Rochelles life had begun to rewind only after shed come to stay at the Covelli mansion or was that the catalyst? And what possible reason was there for it? Did Rochelle simply want the truth known or was her restless spirit hoping that Rachel could somehow undo the atrocities that had been committed?

She glanced at the clock and was a little shocked to see shed only slept for an hour. Where was Nic? What was taking him so long? She wanted to tell him about the dream while it was still fresh in her mind. Thinking it would be a good idea to write down what she remembered so she didnt leave anything out when she recounted the dream to Nic, she started for the desk to search for a notepad to write on. It was then that Rachels eyes lit on the wooden eagle mounted to the wall, the same eagle Rochelle had used to open the hidden doorway.

She stood in front of the carving for several minutes, excited by the prospect her dream might actually have led her to a secret passageway to Rochelles room but a little frightened too. Her hand was shaking as she reached up and curled her fingers around the eagles head and gave it a tug but it didnt budge. Maybe it had been just a dream after all and none of those things had really happened. Rachel shook her head. Celia had already confirmed much of it and getting the door to open would substantiate that what shed just dreamed had actually happened too.

Drawing in a deep breath she gave the eagle head a good, hard pull, the air expelling from her lungs with a whoosh when the latch sprang and the door opened just a crack. She stood there for an eternity, trembling violently as she stared at the sliver of an opening, scared to death that Rochelles ghost was going to come flying out at her. When nothing happened, she berated herself for being such a coward and stretched out one tentative hand to open the door.

Rachel could just make out the staircase leading up at the end of a short corridor and managed to muster enough courage to take a couple of steps inside. There was nothing to be afraid of she told herself as she forced herself to take a few more steps, nothing to fear but fear itself. Shed almost convinced herself she was brave enough to make it all the way up the stairs without falling to pieces when the door suddenly slammed shut, immersing her in total darkness.

Chapter 9
The bottom dropped out of Rachels stomach and it took every ounce of self-control she had to keep from hurtling herself at the door and pummeling it with her fists. As it was, the only reason she wasnt screaming her head off was because her throat was so constricted no sound could have possibly escaped anyway. Stretching her arms out in front of her, Rachel cautiously inched her way back the way shed come until she felt solid wood beneath her fingertips. She flattened her palms against the wall and began a slow sweep but whoever had constructed the hidden doorway had obviously been instructed to make it as undetectable from this side as it was from the other.

Thinking there had to be a latch of some sort, she continued to run her hands over the wall as the mounting panic attack threatened to override any rational thought that still remained. It occurred to her that a person could wander through the narrow corridors for hours and never find a way out without the aid of a light. And if Nicolo had made the walls sound proof too? Rachel shuddered at the thought she could die in here and no one would ever know. Walled up just like Rochelle Beaumont.

Walled up, yes, but not as helpless as Rochelle had been, she told herself. That was her shinning hope and she grabbed onto it with dogged determination. Maybe she couldnt locate the doorway to the room she and Nic had shared but the one to Rochelles room would be at the top of the stairs shed spotted just before the door closed. Making her way in the dark was terrifying enough but the occasional brush of cobwebs against her face rankled nerves that were already so raw Rachel was surprised she could still function.

As if stepping through the doorway without putting something down to keep it from closing hadnt been stupid enough, shed also been incredibly foolish and hadnt put her shoes on first. An oversight that was made painfully obvious when she discovered the stairway leading up by ramming her bare toe into it. The incline was steep but the steps werent nearly as narrow as the ones theyd climbed to get the servants quarters, and the guardrail provided a sense of security that she sorely needed at this point in her little adventure.

Rachel was breathing hard by the time she reached the top, though it had more to do with being scared half out of her mind than the exertion of climbing the stairs. After searching in vain for the outline of the door and then spending even more time trying to locate a latch, she finally realized how futile it was and dropped down onto the floor to have a good cry.

***

Nic rubbed the back of his neck. He was doing his best to stay focused on what Celia was saying but was suddenly so anxious to get back to Rachel it was all he could do to sit still. Something was wrong, he could feel it. He tried to convince himself he was being foolish. After all, what could possibly go wrong when all Rachel was going to do was take a bath and then stay in the room until he returned? Despite his own sound rationale the feeling persisted, and when Celias story finally came to its sad conclusion, Nic gave her a hurried thank you and all but bolted from the room.

He took the stairs two at a time and barreled into the bedroom, frantically moving his head from side to side as he called out her name. The damp towel left hanging over the rack in the bathroom was proof Rachel had taken a bath just as shed said she was going to, but where

was she now? Nic scanned the room, noting the rumbled bedcovers and the pair of shoes shed been wearing this morning that had been casually kicked off beside the bed. His brows furrowed. Surely she hadnt wandered off without putting her shoes on?

Lei mancante?

Nic whirled around to find Celia standing in the open doorway. Yes, shes missing. And you can stop pretending you dont speak English, he said irritably. Grandfather warned me youd revert to Italian until you were comfortable around us but Im far too worried about Rachel right now to concern myself with making you feel at ease.

Celia ventured a little further into the room. Maybe she got scaredshe run off and hide. II help look for her, si?

Shes not hiding, he replied firmly. If Rachel was scared she would have come straight to me.

No scared then. Your Rachel go to kitchen for food?

Your Rachel. Nic like that a lot. You check the kitchen and the rooms downstairs while I search the rooms up here and the servants quarters.

It took him awhile to get through all the rooms, not just because there were so many of them but because he felt compelled to check the closets in case shed somehow gotten locked in. He was just heading up the stairs to the servants quarters when Celia caught up with him and confirmed what he already knew; she hadnt located Rachel either. It didnt take them long to

figure out she wasnt in the servants quarters, though Nic couldnt cast aside the feeling she was near. Was it just his imagination or was that really her soft scent he was breathing in?

I dont understand where she could have gone off to.

A walk maybe? Celia suggested. The gardens very beautiful.

Nic raked his fingers through his hair. No. Her shoes are still in the bedroom. She has to be here somewhere. Are you sure you

He cut himself off, certain hed heard a noise coming from the far end of the room. Celia must have heard it too because she was gazing past him and looked decidedly spooked. Nic crossed the room and pressed his ear to the door leading up to Rochelle Beaumonts bedroom. It was muffled and sounded as if it came from far away but there was no doubt in his mind that what he was hearing was a woman; a very unhappy woman who was sobbing her heart out.

Celia

I go get the key, she said, and was gone before he could ask if she knew the combination to the safe.

Obviously she did, but why hadnt she divulged that little tidbit earlier, and why hadnt his grandfather mentioned anything when Nic had called and asked for it? Celia provided the answer when she returned and produced a skeleton key. It was a duplicate of the one kept in the safe, she explained to him. Apparently it had been handed down through the generations along with the task of maintaining Rochelles room just as shed left it. In some small measure it was her familys way of atoning for having kept silent about who had murdered the poor woman.

The door opened easily but instead of finding a light switch as he expected, Nics fingers curled around a flashlight that had been placed on a hook. Theyd been afraid electricians would disturb Rochelle's things, Celia told as they climbed the stairs, so they hadnt allowed them to update the electrical work in the attic when the rest of the house was modernized. Once they were inside the room, she bustled around lighting oil lamps while Nic tried to figure out where the crying sounds were coming from.

Rachel? He tilted his head and listened, calling out her name again. The crying stopped. Rachelhoney, if you can hear me say something.

Her voice sounded as if it was coming from a million miles away, and even more disconcerting was that it seemed to be coming from behind the wall. Nic took a few tentative steps in the direction he thought hed heard her voice, even more alarmed than before when it became obvious she was crying hysterically and scared to death. How had she gotten inside Rochelles room to begin with, and once she was inside, how had she ended up behind the wall? More importantly, how did he get her out?

Nic panned the flashlight along the wall. There had to be a door here, it was the only possible explanation. Somehow Rachel had figured out how to open it and let it close behind her. He ran his hands over the wood, searching for evidence of a door but there simply wasnt anything to indicate there was one. Hed get an ax and chop right through it if he had to, though he was afraid Rachel would get hurt if she was standing too close to the wall when he did it.

Nic could still hear the gut wrenching sobs and had decided he really had no choice but to try and break through when it suddenly occurred to him that the wooden carving of an eagle was

identical to the one in his great grandfathers room. It couldnt be coincidence. He handed the flashlight to Celia and instructed her to shine it on the carving then reached out and gave one of the wings an experimental tug.

Nothing happened.

He tried the other wing and got the same results but when he pulled on the eagles head, he felt it shift ever so slightly. Encouraged, he gave it another try and was nearly knocked to the floor when Rachel came flying through the door and launched herself at him. Nic caught her up in his arms, showering her tear stained face with kisses.

Ive got you, he soothed. Youre safe now, Ive got you.

Rachel buried her face in his neck, her throat so raw she doubted she could have spoken without sounding like a frog. He carried her to the bed and sat down on the edge, cradling her on his lap while he continued to try and calm her down. Vaguely, it registered that Celia had hurried out of the room but she understood why when she returned a few minutes later with a glass of water. Rachel clutched the glass with shaky hands and gulped it down before handing it back with a grateful smile.

Nic cupped her chin in his hand, gently tilting her head back. Better now?

I think so, she replied, her voice as hoarse as shed feared it would be.

How long were you in there? For that matter, how did you get in here in the first place and how did you figure out the carving opened a hidden door?

IIm not sure how long I was in there. Oh, Nic, it was horrible! I thought Id be locked in there forever and d-die the same way Rochelle did.

Nic wiped away the fresh tears with his thumb. I would have found you long before that happened even if I had to tear the entire house down to do it.

I guess the walls arent sound proof after all, she managed a thin smile.

What made you come up here by yourself?

I didnt. I found the door in Nicolos room and when it closed on its own I took the stairs up to this room hoping Id be able to figure out how to open this door.

A thousand questions swirled around in his mind. How could the door close by itself, and how did you know the stairs led to this room?

I didnt just close, Nic. It was slammed shut, as if someone was on the other side and gave it hard push. As for knowing about the stairsI had a dream about them, and about the eagles head and the secret passageway. A violent shudder shook her body. Do you think she wanted me to get locked behind the wall, to suffer the same death she did?

Nics arms tightened around her. I dont think so. If that was the passageway she used to get back and forth between my great grandfathers room and hers, it must have been as familiar to her as the rest of the house. I doubt she wanted you to die or even to be frightened.

But if she only wanted me to find it and use it to get to her room, why wasnt I shown Rachels voice trailed off as pieces of the dream trickled back to her. She reached

up. I remember now. When Rochelle was standing in front of the doorway, she reached up and pulled on a chord or a rope of some sort. If I hadnt gotten myself so worked up I would have figured it out.

You see? She wasnt trying to cause you any harm, she only wanted you to go to her room.

Rachel glanced around for the first time, curiosity slowly taking the place of fear. Why do you think it was so important that I come here? It couldnt be to find clues about her killers because shes already shown me that through the nightmares.

I wish I had an answer for you, sweetheart. Do you think youre up to having a look around?

Celia spoke up before Rachel had a chance to reply. I think I know what she want you to find. She turned around and walked over to the dresser and opened the drawer, returning with a small jewelry box. Gifts from Nicolo, she held the box out for Rachel.

Rachel gasped when she opened the lid, but it wasnt the sparkling diamond necklaces and bracelets or even the ruby and emerald encrusted broach that caught her eye. She reached inside and pulled out the gold locket, absently handing the box back to Celia. She held it in her hand for a moment, a lump forming in her throat when she recalled how excited Rochelle had been when Nicolo had given it to her.

Theres a picture inside, she said in a subdued tone. Nicolo took her to a fair and they had a picture taken together. He gave it to her the night she was murderedbut how did it end up in her jewelry box?

The chain is broken, Nic observed. It must have been broken in the struggle and someone found it and put it in the box.

Celia solved that part of the mystery. My great grandmother, Estela, she find it and hide it until they no look for Rochelle any more, then she put in box.

Celias great grandmother witnessed the attack and assumed Rochelle died from the gunshot wound, Nic told Rachel. She didnt know theyd entombed Rochelle and left her to die, and she never came forward because she was afraid theyd kill her too.

Rachels heart felt like a lead weight in her chest. If only Estela had given Nicolo the locket he would have torn the place apart looking for her and he might have saved her. She climbed off of Nics lap and went to the portrait of Rochelle that was hanging above a small writing desk. She does look a bit like me but only because of the dark hair and green eyes. No wonder she caught Nicolos attention, she has such an air of refinement I doubt anyone would ever have suspected she was a maid. Although she turned back to Nic and Celia, in the last few dreams Ive had, I got the distinct impression she wasnt really a maid at all.

She wasnt. Nic rose to his feet and studied the portrait. Her real name was Adalina Rochelle DiCarlo and she was of royal descent. Beaumont was her mothers maiden name.

But if she was descended from royalty then Nicolos parents would have considered her an acceptable wife for him. Why pretend she was maid?

According to what Celia told me, Rochelle confided in Estela that Nicolos parents and her parents had been conducting business with each other and had decided amongst themselves that an arranged marriage between Nicolo and Rochelle would eliminate any reservations partners on either side had about the deal. But Rochelle was opposed to the idea of marrying a man shed never met and wanted to find out for herself if he was someone she could love and if he could love her regardless of her social status.

And she proved it, Rachel said, but she didnt tell his parents because she wanted to put Nicolos mother in her place for looking down her nose at Rochelle.

Nic turned his attention back to Rachel. Is that what you dreamed about while I was talking to Celia?

She told him about Nicolo giving Rochelle the locket and how his cousin had come to inform him they had an important dinner guest. She recounted the dream in as much detail as she could, including the fact that Rochelle was pregnant at the time but hadnt gotten the chance to tell Nicolo. A somber hush fell over the room when she finished, the sadness enveloping them all as they absorbed everything theyd learned.

As if theyd spoken aloud and come to an agreement, they blew out the oil lamps then filed out of the room, and while Celia went down to the kitchen to prepare them something to eat, she and Nic returned to the Nicolos bedroom. Rachel was appalled to discover she was covered in dust and cobwebs and that her tears and left her face streaked with trails of dirt. Nic

had teased her and said she looked like a street urchin but she knew he wasnt the least bit put off by it because hed pulled her into his arms and kissed her senseless before allowing her to hop into the shower.

After shed put on a clean pair of jeans and a casual summer top, they traipsed downstairs to the informal dining room where dinner was already waiting. Celia looked a little shocked when Rachel invited her to join them but the softening of her expression when she accepted said she was pleased shed been asked. A few minutes into the meal, Nic filled her in on his earlier conversation with Celia.

Rochelle made a bargain with her parents. If she was going to agree to marry Nicolo and live in America then she wanted to spend the summer touring it first to see if she could tolerate living here. They reluctantly agreed but only on the condition that she be chaperoned at all times by a trusted man servant and his wife who had been employed by the family for years. As the daughter of a French princess and an Italian prince who was a descendent of the House of Bourbon, shed been pampered and sheltered all her life and considered hiring on as a maid at the Covelli mansion a great adventure.

Some adventure, Rachel shook her head ruefully, though I can hardly blame her for wanting to see what Nicolo was really like before she committed to marriage.

The moment they laid eyes on each other they were both hopelessly lost. Nic met Rachels gaze. It happens that way sometimestwo people meet and for reasons they cant explain they know in their hearts they were meant to be together.

Yes, Rachel said with a soft smile, I can see how that could happen.

At first, Rochelle would only sneak out at night to meet him in the gardens or the woods because she was afraid of getting caught and being sent away. She wanted to be sure of his love before she told him who she really was but the need to be with him was too strong and they both became a little reckless. Anytime he could catch her alone hed steal a few kisses or coax her into his room so they could spend a few precious moments together.

Rachel stopped him to ask a few questions that were puzzling her. Where were her chaperones? Surely they didnt condone what she was doing. And what about her parents? Did they know she was living here?

Nic grinned. It seems Rochelle was quite adept at getting what she wanted. She gave her chaperones the slip only one day after arriving on American soil then sent word to them that she was staying with some friends in the country. She promised to keep in constant contact with them so theyd know she was well and in return for their silence they wouldnt have to suffer the shame of telling her parents theyd failed the task theyd been given to watch over her.

She coerced them into taking the tour of America as planned and since she knew the itinerary, Rochelle always had a letter waiting for them when they arrived at each location. She also sent them a letter addressed to her parents so they could post it from wherever they were staying and keep up the rouse that she was with them.

Rachel couldnt help but laugh. She certainly had the art of deception down to a science, didnt she?

Nic sliced off a piece of steak, nodding thoughtfully as he chewed. She must have felt pretty strongly about meeting Nicolo on her own terms if she defied her parents the way she did.

The only person who knew the truth about everything was Estela. She never even told Nicolo about the chaperones who were probably sick with worry until they received a new letter from her each time.

I wonder what happened to them, Rachel mused. They had to have known the first time Rochelle missed sending them a letter that something bad had happened to her. It must have been horrible for them to have to admit everything to her parents, not to mention the guilt they had to live with when it became obvious she was gone for good.

They come here, Celia joined the conversation for the first time. They know her letters come from near here so they come looking for her but Mrs. Covelli tell them Adalina DiCarlo no come here.

No one even suspected she was going by her middle name and using Beaumont as her last name, Nic added. I imagine her chaperones never returned to Italy, not with the hostile reception they were likely to get.

What about Estela? How could she bear to live here knowing what had happened to Rochelle and not being able to tell anyone? She must have been terrified one of Nicolos cousins would find out shed seen everything and kill her too.

It scare her very much, Celia said solemnly, but she feel it is her duty to stay and watch over Rochelles things.

So she passed that duty down to her daughter and then to each successive generation?

Si. Only when Rochelles spirit at rest will my family be free of this.

Rachel grimaced. Does that mean you have a daughter wholl take over when you retire?

My first born, Carmela.

Butwhat if she doesnt want to do it?

She have no choice, Celia said firmly.

Rachel shuffled the food around on her plate. It seems the ripples from that one tragic event just go on and on, affecting the lives of people that never even knew her.

Unfortunate, but true, Nic replied. Everything fell apart after Rochelle disappeared. Nicolo was devastated. His mother tried to convince him Rochelle had stolen some of her jewelry to escape the drudgery of being a maid. Of course, Nicolo knew better. She had no reason to steal his mothers jewelry when her own family was even wealthier than the Covellis but for some reason he chose not to tell anyone. And when his cousins made the mistake of mocking him for having an affair with one of the servants and insisted shed dumped him for someone else, Nicolo cut them out of his life and forbade them to ever set foot in his house again.

Rachel swallowed the lump in her throat, her heart growing heavier by the minute as Nic continued. Nicolo searched for her for months and finally returned home, a broken man. He gave in to his parents demand to find a suitable wife but he never loved her and when she died in childbirth he didnt shed a tear. There was no love in his heart for his son, no love in his heart for anyone, and after awhile it became unbearable to live in the mansion where so many

memories still remained. He bullied his parents into moving out of the mansion then left with his son a short time later, though he did set up the trust fund to keep the place maintained.

Nicolo became an embittered man who passed his inability to show affection on to his son, Antonio. Rachel was surprised to hear Antonio treated Nics father much as Nicolo had treated him but was relieved that the cycle had broken with Nic. She couldnt even imagine him being anything but a loving husband and father, so maybe the ripples had finally begun to settle after all. As for poor Estela, she grieved over Rochelles death until shed taken her own last breath but shed passed a horrible legacy onto her daughter when shed made her swear to take on the task of protecting Rochelles things and keeping the truth of that fateful night a secret.

I know this sounds silly, she told them once Nic had finished the whole story, but I wish there was something I could do.

Nic eyed her warily. It wouldnt do anything but smear my familys name as well as Celias if this story ever got out.

I realize that, and its not what I meant anyway. I justI dont knowwish there was some way to go back in time to warn them, to change something about that night so Rochelle didnt get murdered.

Sorry, sweetheart, but my time machine is in the shop this week so Im afraid I cant be much help to you there.

Rachel shot him a wilting glare. Thank you for that smart ass reply.

Clever, he corrected, it was a clever reply.

Okay clever guy, where do we go from here? There has to be a reason Im having these dreams about Rochelle. I cant help feeling that she wants me to help her but what can I do? Since your time machine is on the blink I cant go back and warn her so unless I can figure out a way to make Rochelle dream of me so I can leave cryptic messages that make her as crazy as shes making me

Maybe you can. Nic leaned back in his chair, an idea beginning to form. Look, this is going to sound like an insane suggestion but remember how we talked about lucid dreaming?

You mean waking up inside my dream so that I realize its a dream?

Exactly! If you can learn how to control your dream, you can change the course of it.

In other words, Rachel said, I could change something that would alter the events of that night like begging Nicolo not to go the dinner party or agreeing to meet him someplace other than the gardens.

You understand it might not make any difference at all.

Rachel drew in a ragged breath. Maybe not, but I have to try. You dont know what she went through in the endgetting shot, the brutal rape, and then being walled up in the dark and left to die. I cant turn my back on her, not if theres any chance at all I can change what happened that night.

All right, then it's settled. Well start practicing tonight.

Chapter 10
Essentially, a lucid dream can begin in three different ways, Nic explained as he and Rachel returned to the bedroom. I wont bother going into details about all of them because youll only be concentrating on the mnemonic-initiated lucid dream.

Rachel kicked off her shoes and sat down on the loveseat. Im not sure how Im supposed to concentrate on doing something I cant even pronounce.

His smile was indulgent as he took the spot beside her. It is quite a mouthful, which is why we usually refer to it as MILD.

So how does it work, Doctor?

Youll spend the rest of the day affirming to yourself that you will become lucid when you dream. Youll also take a good half hour before you go to sleep to do the same. The first few times you attempt this I dont want you to do anything but try to establish just how conscious you are that its only a dream. The most important part is to make sure the logical part of your brain is functioning and that youre cognizant of all your senses.

Like being able to smell or feel the texture of something I touch?

Exactly. You can test yourself by focusing on something that requires you to consciously use your brain, like what day it is or what we had for lunch. Once you have that part of it down Ill want you to start looking around and observing your surroundings; thats when you focus more on sensory perception. Dreams are often hazy, but if youre lucid everything you consciously create will look as sharp and vivid as it does in real life.

How can I be sure that being able to recall what day it is means Im lucid? I mean, if I tell myself its Tuesday in the dream but its really Thursday, I wont know I wasnt having a lucid dream until I wake up.

There are other methods you can use to test yourself. Try reading something or looking at the face of a clock then turn away and see if its still the same text or time. If youre not completely lucid, something strange will usually happen that wouldnt occur in reality. Maybe the book will disappear or become a totally different one, or the time will have gone forward or backward or the face of the clock will have changed.

But you said I could change anything I wanted if I was having a lucid dream, so how can I tell if it was done on a conscious level or not?

Because you wont be surprised when it happens if youre doing it consciously. Youll expect the changes to occur because you told yourself it would happen. Look, honey, I dont want you to worry about doing anything at first except making yourself aware that youre dreaming.

Im not sure this is going to work, Rachel said with a wry smile. Everything thats happening seems like a dream. Its just sounbelievable. Monica would probably have me committed if I told her what Im doingor rather, trying to do for Rochelle.

Nic grimaced. Im afraid my colleagues wouldnt be any more open to the idea than your sister. I have to admit Im struggling with the concept myself. All my life Ive been a realist but lately my beliefs have taken quite a beating, and Im discovering that not everything can be placed in a nice neat box and categorically labeled.

Do you like your life that way; neat and orderly with no surprises?

I thought I did.

And now youre finding that vanilla ice cream tastes a whole lot better with a few sprinkles on top?

Something like that, he grinned. Youve certainly added flavor to my life, Rachel Delacourte. As a matter of fact, he leaned towards her, Im dying to get a little taste of you right now.

Rachel was grateful for the distraction, and Nics lips were most assuredly a monumental distraction. She didnt want to think about what poor Rochelle had gone through or how miserable Nicolos life was after shed disappeared. The only thing she wanted to do was enjoy the pleasure of being in Nics arms and allow the rapturous feeling of being kissed by him to overwhelm her until her mind was blissfully blank. It wasnt hard to do; not when every kiss, every gentle caress sent her heart into a tailspin and evoked emotions that were so intense she could barely breathe let alone form a coherent thought.

I really should get some work done, she said quite some time later.

I havent been much help, have I? I promised not to keep you from doing your job and Ive done nothing but monopolize your time since we got here.

Its not as if Ive been an unwilling participant, but maybe its best if you find something to do while I work on my sketches. I thought I could handle having you around but

its impossible to stay focused when all I want to do is strip your clothes off and have my wicked way with you.

Nics booming laughter filled the room. For Celias sake Ill keep my distance. I think shes been traumatized enough by Rochelles spirit without walking in on the two of us doing the mamba on top of the antique serving table.

The antique serving table? Sounds like youve been giving this some thought.

Just thinking of ways to keep each other entertained on Celias day off.

Rachel was smiling like a Cheshire cat as she made her way downstairs. Nic had refused to elaborate other than to say hed make sure she had a good time. Even after shed stooped to begging hed remain tight lipped, but shed gotten even with him before grabbing up her sketch pad and sauntering out of the room. Maybe Nic wasnt willing to divulge any of his fantasies but Rachel didnt have any reservations about telling him in great detail just what shed like to do once they had the place to themselves. She could still see the tortured look on his face and it almost made her feel sorry for him. Almost.

***

Rachel was in the master study admiring the floor to ceiling bookshelves. They were lined with books dating clear back to the early 1700s, including first edition classics that would have made a collector think theyd died and gone to heaven. It was quite an impressive collection; Dickens, Poe, Shelley, Byron, and even a copy of Bram Stokers Dracula.

She tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a place like this. So much of the mansion was still a reflection of the past with its antique furnishings, crystal chandeliers, and imported tapestries hanging on the walls. It was almost a shame to have modernized the bathrooms and kitchen and to have added a pool but she supposed the changes were inevitable if Nic was going to live here one day. He hardly seemed the type to put up with a cold shower in the morning because of ancient plumbing.

Rachel let out a wistful sigh when she spotted a chaise lounge tucked in one corner of the study. The heavy drapes were drawn, casting shadows over the whole area but it would be sunny and quite cozy if they were opened. She returned to sketching but her eyes kept migrating back to the corner until she finally gave into the temptation to test it out. After pulling the drapes back and selecting a collection of poems by Christina Rossetti, she curled up on the chaise lounge and started to read.

***

Rochelle was having a lovely dream about kissing the divinely handsome Nicolo Covelli when something roused her from her sleep. Her eyelids fluttered open and for a moment she wondered if she was having a dream inside a dream because Nicolo was leaning over her, an amused smile on his face and the devil in his eyes.

My mother would have your hide if she found you napping on the chaise instead of tending to your housework.

Her heart tripped when he straightened up then held out his hand and helped Rochelle to her feet. Youyou wont tell her, will you?

I havent made up my mind yet, he drawled lazily. Barely a week on the job and already slacking in your duties

I was dusting the bookshelves, you seeand I found this book of poems so I sat down to read it. I only meant to read for a minute or two, she rushed to explain, but I must have fallen asleep. Please dont tell Mrs. Covelli. Shell send me away, I know she will.

Nicolos eyes followed the movement of her tongue as it swept nervously over her lips. Do you like it here?

Yes, yes I do.

Why?

Rochelle blinked, not quite sure how to answer. Well, its honest work and Estela is very patient with me.

What elseattracts you to the job, Miss Beaumont?

Color seeped into her cheeks. The h-house is very beautiful.

Indeed it is, but that is not why you like it here. Nicolo leaned towards her. I have seen you watching me, he said with a husk in his voice. Your eyes follow me when I walk into the room and you listen from around the doorway when the family dines.

Her eyes widened. Im not eavesdropping, I swear.

Are you denying that you hover when I am having a conversation at the table?

Her cheeks were burning, a sure sign of guilt that was likely to get her fired on the spot. No, I dont deny it but its not what youre saying that makes me stop to listen, itits the sound of your voice.

The sound of my voice?

His obvious amusement at her discomfort piqued Rochelles temper. Her chin lifted defiantly. Yes. If you must know, I like how deep and masculine it is. Its verypleasant.

His brow arched. Pleasant?

Yes, and I find it pleasing to watch you too so if my behavior offends you

It does not offend me, he cut her short. I enjoy watching you too, Rochelle Beaumont.

The air around her suddenly seemed suffocating as her internal heat spiked dramatically. Nicolo reached out and gently raked his knuckles along her cheek then proceeded to trace her lips with the pad of his thumb. It was the most deeply disturbing feeling to have this man touch her with such familiarity, to feel the fire that was raging inside of her pool in the depths of her abdomen, and to have her heart hammering so hard she was certain it would crack her ribs. And yet she didnt back away or make any sound of protest as his fingers curled around the back of neck or when Nicolo lowered his head until his mouth was mere inches from hers.

I could be persuaded not to tell my motherfor a price.

Rochelle swayed unsteadily. A price, she repeated in a breathless whisper. What sort of price?

A kiss. One kiss from your enticing mouth, and mine shall remain sealed.

Had she answered him? Rochelle wasnt sure whether shed said yes or if shed nodded and unwittingly given her consent. But of course she must have because she was locked in Nicolos strong arms and he was stealing what little breath she had left with a slow, sensuous kiss. He coaxed her mouth open with his tongue, devastated her with the sheer intimacy of it until her knees were so weak she would have slipped to the floor if he hadnt been holding her so tightly.

Meet me in the gardens tonight, Nicolo murmured as he feathered kisses down the side of her neck.

I cant. It wouldnt be proper a soft moan escaped when his mouth closed over hers, but this time his kiss was hard and hungry and she felt herself drowning in it, in him. Yes, she whispered feverishly, yes, Ill be there.

Eleven oclock, after everyone has gone to bed.

The butterflies in her stomach went wild when his lips sought hers once more and for quite some time after hed gone Rochelle remained where she was. If anyone had walked in they would have thought shed lost her mind; standing there in a daze with a soft smile on her lips and her heart in her eyes. Nicolo was everything shed dreamed he would be, everything a woman could possibly want in a man. Eleven oclock couldnt come fast enough.

***

Nic had given Rachel as much time as he could before his impatience got the better of him. He figured shed work for a few hours, maybe three, so he filled the time by exploring the bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor, making mental notes on the changes that would have to be made. He planned on doing the same with all the rooms on the main floor but decided hed have to save it for another day so he wouldnt disturb Rachel while she was working. Thats when he started thinking about the attic and Rochelle Beaumonts room.

He hadnt given it much more than a cursory glance when hed been in there before but since he still had time to kill, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to examine it more closely. After lighting all three of the oil lamps positioned around the room, Nic went through the contents of her jewelry box and was surprised to discover most of the pieces were extremely expensive, even as outdated as they were. His respect for Celia and the other women in her family had been pretty high before, but knowing that each of them in turn had left the jewelry in the box when they could have taken it without anyone being the wiser just reaffirmed how honest and loyal they all were to Rochelles memory.

Ignoring the twinge of guilt at going through her personal things, Nic started pilfering through the dresser drawers though he was careful to put everything back the way hed found it. Rochelle may have played the role of a housemaid around the Covelli family but shed obviously discarded that faade when she sneaked off to meet Nicolo because the drawers were filled with expensive silk and lace undergarments. Having found nothing more than clothes and a few letters from her parents, Nic wandered around the room until he came to her portrait.

He supposed she and Rachel did look alike in the most basic ways; dark hair, green eyes, even the same creamy completion, but Rochelles cheekbones were set a little higher and her nose wasnt nearly as dainty as Rachels. They were subtle differences and at a quick glance it was possible one could have been mistaken for the other, if not for the differences in their mouths. Rachels mouth was smaller, her lips fuller, and even if hed never gotten the chance to find out for himself, Nic would have categorized them as undeniably kissable.

It was the thought of kissing Rachels delectable mouth that suddenly made him feel restless to be with her. Returning to their bedroom and finding it empty was more disappointing than he cared to admit. A small but very selfish part of him had been hoping shed given up trying to concentrate on work because she was just as anxious to be with him as Nic was to be with her. He prowled around the room for awhile, examining the furniture and artwork, but when he came to the wooden carving of the eagle his pulse jumped. What if Rachel had found another hidden doorway and gotten locked inside the walls again?

Okay, so maybe he was using that as an excuse to go look for her because he knew there was no way in hell Rachel was going to take the chance of letting that happen again. At this point hed have made up just about any excuse because it had been well over three hours since hed last seen her and the truth was he really was starting to get concerned. He didnt bother with the rooms he knew shed already sketched and after making the rounds without having located her, Nic was starting to get a little nervous. Making a slower, more thorough sweep proved to be much more fruitful but his relief at finding Rachel in the study was short lived when she turned around and he saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes.

Nic drew her into his arms. What is it, Rachel? Why are you crying?

Its nothing, she sniffed. Im just being overly sensitive thats all.

Overly sensitive about what?

Rochelle and Nicolo. She leaned into him, nestling her cheek against his chest. I sat down on the chaise to take a little break and read a book of poetry Id found and must have fallen asleep. Rachel told him about the dream and how Nicolo had found Rochelle sleeping on the chaise. This is where they first kissed and where she realized she was falling in love with him. Oh, Nic, she wept softly, I could feel how strong her emotions where, how he filled her heart with so much love she could barely stand it. It was just like when you kissed me; it was so powerful, so overwhelming and yet scary at the same time because Id neverI mean she had never felt that way before.

Nic pulled away from her. What are you telling me, Rachel? Is that the way you feel about me or the way Rochelle felt about Nicolo, because it sounds to me like youre confusing the two.

Rachel looked into his dark eyes and knew she couldnt hold her emotions inside any longer, not when he was looking at her as if the hounds of hell were biting at his heels. He didnt have to say he loved her; it was there for her to see, hidden behind the mask of uncertainty that hovered in his eyes and the tightly clenched jaws, but still as blatantly obvious as if hed hung a neon on sign around his neck.

Im not confused, she said softly, twining her arms around his neck and pressing herself into the warmth of his body. Ive fallen madly in love with you, Nic Covelli. I was afraid to say it before because I thought it was too soon and I wasnt sure if you felt the same

way about me. Her lips were trembling when she smiled up at him. You love me too; wildly, passionately, with every breath you take, you love me. Say it, Nic. I need to hear it, I need to

Nic silenced her with a kiss that was so achingly tender it could have left no doubt as to the depth of his emotion. Rachel, Rachel, he murmured her name as he plied her face with soft, feathery kisses. I love you so much. I never knew it could be like this, never even imagined it was possible to love anyone the way I love you.

Its sooverwhelming. She closed her eyes, drowning in the feel of his lips as they trailed down the side of her neck. I cant seem to think of anything but you. Even when I was supposed to be working, my mind kept wandering. I love the way you make me feel and just want it to go on and on forever.

Nic lifted his head and waited for Rachel to open her eyes. Do you think you could love me that longforever?

Oh yes, she replied in a breathless whisper.

It washed over him in waves, the enormity of what was happening between them. Because he knew this was it, that Rachel was the woman he was destined to spend the rest of his life with. He couldnt imagine being without her, not now, not ever. She was a part of him, as essential to living as the air that he breathed, and as soon as the time was right he was going to ask her to marry him.

***

Rachel woke from a dreamless sleep, just as she had for the last three nights in a row. She lay there for a long time, studying Nics handsome face and falling in love with him all over again. His arm was casually thrown over her waist but she knew if she tried to move away, Nics arm would curl around her possessively and pull her closer. It suddenly occurred to her why she hadnt dreamed of Rochelle since the day shed dozed off in the study. Shed been vulnerable to the nightmares because shed felt helpless to do anything to stop them, but as long as she and Nic were sleeping in the same bed she felt safe, protected.

As much as she hated the idea of sleeping alone, she felt certain Rochelles restless spirit would be doomed to roam the halls of the Covelli mansion forever unless her story was allowed to unfold through Rachels dreams. Maybe once they ran their course and ended as they always did with Rochelles death, the dreams would stop for good. Or maybe this time, Rochelle would reveal where shed been entombed so she could be given the proper burial she deserved. The more Rachel thought about it, the more she became convinced it was the reason shed been lured here. Now all she had to do was convince Nic.

Absolutely not, Nic said adamantly.

Shed waited until they were at breakfast to tell him her theory and suggest they try sleeping in separate rooms tonight. But Ive been priming myself to have a lucid dream for three days and its never going to happen if youre there.

You dont know that.

Yes I do, she insisted, and so do you. I cant explain why, but I just feel like time is running out and that Ill lose the chance to help her unless I let her tell me the whole story.

Are you even listening to yourself, Rachel? She cant tell you anything because shes dead.

Rachel flinched at the sharpness of his tone. I know shes dead, and even if by some miracle I do manage to keep her from being murdered, shell still be dead. She let out an unhappy sigh. Dont you think I know how ridiculous I sound? I cringe every time I think about Monica and what shed have to say about the whole thing, but I thought you understood. I thought youdoh, never mind!

Nic kept his lips pressed tightly together when Rachel grabbed up her sketch book from the table and hurried from the room. Sleep without her? No way in hell. Hed lay awake half the night wanting her and the other half worrying about her. She was always so distraught after dreaming about Rochelle and he wanted to be there for her because thats what you do when you care for someone; youre there for them when they need you.

Nic shoved his chair back from the table, swearing under his breath. In a way, wasnt that what Rachel was asking him to do, be there for her? She needed his emotional support right now, which unfortunately precluded his physical presence in bedbut not necessarily in the bedroom.

He found her in the sunroom that overlooked one of the flower gardens on the west side of the mansion. She had her back to him and though the sketch pad was poised for drawing, her hand was motionless, as was the rest of her body. She was angry with him but he could hardly blame her after the way hed cut her off. Nic could have kicked himself in the rear when he went

to her and saw that shed been crying. He took the sketchpad and pen from her hands and laid them aside then gathered her in his arms.

Im sorry, Rachel. It was selfish to say no when it obviously means so much to you. We can try sleeping apart tonight but I still want to be in the room with you. I can bunk down on the arm chair. If I pull the leg rest closer to the chair it should be comfortable enough and at least Ill be near enough to know youre safe.

You think Ive lost my marbles, she said miserably.

Nic wisely suppressed his laughter. No, sweetheart, I dont think that at all. Besides, it was my idea to try the lucid dreaming, remember?

At least I know who to blame when Im declared legally insane and get carted off to the nearest asylum.

If you do get carted off, I promise to visit you at least once a week.

Rachel let out an indignant huff. Youre all heart, Covelli, you know that?

Nic just laughed when she made a feeble attempt to wheedle out of his arms. Pulling her more snugly against his body, he subdued her with a kiss that left them both a little breathless and by the time he left Rachel to her work, there was a contented smile on her lips.

***

Rochelle twirled in front of the full length mirror, quite pleased with the white satin nightgown shed purchased when shed gone into town with Estela that morning. She was glad

shed confided in Estela and even more delighted that her new friend had insisted on cleaning out the attic so she could have a room all to herself. Not that it made sneaking out in the middle of the night any easier, but she could take pleasure in moments like this and fantasize about Nicolo without one of those silly girls asking what she was up to.

During the past two months since she and Nicolo had been having an affair, shed slept the entire night in his arms three times but so far theyd done nothing more than kiss and simply enjoy sleeping in the same bed together. But tonight was going to be different. Tonight Rochelle was going to give herself to him and truly become Nicolos lover. She did another twirl, giggling out loud when she thought of that wretched mother of his and how horrified shed be to discover Nicolo was carrying on with a lowly housemaid.

She was brushing out her hair when she heard the light tap on her door. Rochelle grabbed up the drab robe she always wore when sneaking out to meet Nicolo and quickly pulled it on then extinguished the lamps. It had been Estelas idea to look as unappealing as possible; that way if she got caught roaming the halls no one would ever believe she was on her way to meet Nicolo. She crept down the stairs and eased the door open where Estela greeted her with a silent nod that confirmed all the other young women were sound asleep.

Her heart was pounding as she scurried along the darkened hallway and slipped into Nicolos bedroom. He was sitting in his favorite chair with his long legs stretched out in front of him when she entered the room, a slow smile spreading across his face as she drew nearer. Rochelle knew he liked this part, knew that he was expecting her to come to him so he could remove the robe and see what pretty dress shed chosen to wear just for him. But tonight was

special, tonight she didnt wait for Nicolo to rise to his feet before loosening the tie on her robe and letting it drop to the ground.

A blush of shy pleasure stained her cheeks when his heated gaze raked over her. Nicolo, I want

Her voice hitched when he stood up and closed the distance between them. For one horrible moment she thought he was disappointed that shed worn something so blatantly inviting because she could see the tension in the firm set of his jaw. But when he lifted one hand to her bare shoulder it was as shaky as her own hands were. She shivered beneath the warmth of his touch, her pulse racing out of control when Nicolo leaned down and pressed his lips to the exposed flesh of her cleavage.

A low moan rumbled deep in his chest just before he lifted his eyes to hers. He wanted her. Rochelle could see the stark hunger on his face as the sexual tension between them escalated and it was all she could do to keep from throwing herself in his arms and begging him to take her to bed. She wanted to tell him she loved him, wanted Nicolo to know she was offering herself to him because he was the only man she would ever love. Maybe the reason she remained silent was because he suddenly seemed hesitant to touch her even though it was so obvious he wanted to.

Was he waiting for her to make the next move, to continue the seduction shed started when she took off her robe? If that was the case, she was in serious trouble because her skills as a seductress stopped there. It was Rochelles desire to please him that finally gave her the courage to reach out and splay her fingers over his broad chest. She could feel his heart

hammering beneath her flattened palms and the shuddering breath he took when she fumbled with the buttons on his shirt, but he didnt try to stop her until shed undone the last one and moved lower to unbuckle his belt.

Nicolos hands clamped over her slender wrists. Rochelleno. You are the most breathtakingly beautiful woman Ive ever known and nothing would give me more pleasure than to carry you to my bed and make love to you right now but I cant.

Tears pooled in her eyes. You dont want me?

Nicolo dragged her into his arms, hugging her fiercely as he showered her face with kisses. My God, how could possibly think that I dont want you?

But you said

That I couldnt take you to bed right now. The tender smile he gave her instantly dried Rochelles tears. What Im trying to say is that youre not like the other women Ive been with and to take you to bed before telling you whats in my heart first just wouldnt be right.

Tell me, she whispered. Rochelle looked deep into his eyes and saw her own emotions mirrored there; an eternal love that would burn forever no matter what obstacles threatened to stand in their way. Tell me, Nicolo, before I burst.

You are my heart, my soul, my everything, he replied with reverence. I adore you, my darling, and love you more than any man has a right to love a woman because losing you would mean losing myself. I know we come from different worlds and I know the battle Ill face

with my parents but I dont care. Marry me, Rochelle. Love me forever as I promise to love you.

He kissed her then, kissed her as hed never kissed her before and Rochelle vowed to Nicolo and to herself that nothing, nothing would ever tear them apart.

Chapter 11
Nic had just nodded off when the sound of Rachels soft moans jarred him into a full wakeful state. Shoving the footstool away, he sat up and tossed the blanket aside, fighting the urge to charge across the room and wake Rachel up. How absurd was it to be jealous that she was making love to another man in her dreams? It was even more ludicrous considering it was him she was dreaming aboutsort of.

He knew that it was Rachel hed made love to in his dreams over the past year and hed also concluded that he was the man in hersand yet somehow she was also dreaming of Rochelle and Nicolo. It was almost as if he and Rachel were the actors who were playing out the lives of Rochelle and Nicolo through her dreams. Still, he couldnt help the possessive jealousy that prompted him to get up and move to the side of the bed when another soft moan vibrated in Rachels throat.

It was too much; watching her writhe beneath the sheet, listening to the soft sighs and throaty moans, but when she arched her back as if she was in the middle of a mind blowing orgasm, Nic couldnt take it any longer. Stripping off his boxers, he climbed into bed and was caught off guard when her slender arms snaked around his neck and pulled his mouth down onto hers.

He couldnt deny he was aroused but he wasnt fond of the idea that Rachel didnt exactly know who she was kissing. Nic drew his head back, not quite sure if he should wake her without having a plausible explanation as to why he was naked in bed with her when he was

supposed to be spending the night in the armchair. Telling her the truth was out of the question but he didnt want to lie to her either. As it turned out, Nic didnt have to explain a thing.

I had a feeling that might provoke a reaction, Rachel said with a mischievous giggle.

Provokeyou mean you were awake the entire time?

I just wanted to see how long it took for those possessive male hormones to kick in.

Nic shook his head in disbelief. So you played me hoping Id rush in to claim what was mine?

Rachel sat up and pushed Nic onto his back. You did rush in to claim what was yours, she pointed out. And now she straddled his thighs, Im going to claim whats mine.

Whatever fleeting thoughts hed had about making Rachel pay for the little prank shed pulled dissipated the moment she guided him into the warmth of her feminine core and rode him until every muscle in his body had been reduced to a quivering mass of flesh. Afterwards, Rachel lay on her back staring up at the ceiling and told him about the dream while he idly stroked the soft skin on her belly. When she was done he drew her up close to his side. Maybe tomorrow hed tell her about his dream; the one where she becomes Mrs. Nic Covelli.

***

Over the course of the next several days Rachel thought of nothing else but having a lucid dream. While she worked, she told herself over and over that tonight was the night but was bitterly disappointed when she woke after each dream and had to tell Nic shed failed once

again. Theyd fallen into a routine that was patterned after that first night; theyd start out with her in the bed and Nic in the chair until after shed dreamt and then hed climb into bed and make love to her. Most of the time shed curl up by his side and tell him what shed dreamed but occasionally she was too lethargic after making love and waited to tell him over breakfast.

Theyd learned a lot about Rochelle and Nicolos relationship, as the dreams seemed to be sequential even though there were often gaps in time. One night she dreamt Nicolo was planning on taking Rochelle to a play and the next night, over a week had passed since hed taken her. Rachel also discovered that Nicolos two cousins, the ones who eventually killed Rochelle, often came to stay at the Covelli mansion, usually after theyd squandered away the money Nicolo had given them previously. By nature, he was a giving man but his irritation with the two lazy and irresponsible cousins was mounting, and on several occasions he threatened to cut them off if they didnt try to make something of themselves.

Rochelle didnt like Damian and Renato, mostly because of the way they used Nicolo but also because neither of them made any pretense about their feelings towards her. Theyd figured out pretty quickly that Nicolo had staked his claim on her when shed brought refreshments to the sitting room where all three of them were having a discussion one day. Damians lustful eyes had followed her every move and when shed asked if there was anything else she could do for them, hed made some crude suggestion about visiting his bedroom that night so she could service his needs in private.

Nicolos eyes had gone cold and his tone had turned lethal as he informed both his cousins that Rochelle was off limits. They werent to talk to her unless it was with the utmost respect, and they certainly couldnt touch or look at her in any way that was inappropriate. She

was to be treated like a lady or theyd answer to him for it. Rochelle could feel their seething hatred in spite of the mumbled apologies and contrite expressions. From that point on she avoided them whenever possible and if she did happen to venture into a room where one or both of them were, she made a hasty retreat.

So this is where youve been hiding, Nic teased when he found Rachel curled up on a window seat in the library.

Im not hiding, Im justthinking.

Nic leaned down and dropped a quick kiss on her mouth. Brooding is more like it, and maybe a hint of obsessing.

She turned her head when he tried to kiss her again. Go away if youre just going to be insulting.

Hoping to coerce Rachel out of her somber mood, he sat down beside her and held out his hand. I brought something for you.

A little bewildered as to why he was giving her Rochelles locket, she eyed it for a moment before taking it from him. It meant a lot to her, she said in a subdued tone. She couldnt wear the other jewelry Nicolo had given her but she could wear this as long she kept it hidden under her clothes. She never took it off, not even when they made love.

Thats why I thought the locket would work better than any of the other pieces in her jewelry box.

Work better for what?

Wellits just a theory but if Im right, the locket may be a way for you to get a firm grasp on being lucid in your dreams. I was trying to figure out why youre having such a hard time with it and I think its because theres nothing in your surroundings thats familiar enough for you to grab on to. Or it could be that youre so emotionally involved with both Rochelle and Nicolo that you basically tune out everything else around you.

So you want me to focus on the locket?

Yes, but in more ways than one. Ive sent Celia out to buy a new chain for it so you can start wearing it. I want you to get used to the way it feels around your neck and where the actual locket touches your skin. Pull it out often, look at it, and familiarize yourself with the texture of it. Then when you go to bed tonight I want you to tell yourself that sometime during your dream, youre going to take the locket and do something out of the norm.

Like what, lick it or something?

Nic grinned. Dont tempt me with visuals that involve your tongue. I was thinking more along the lines of taking it off, even if its only for a few minutes, then hold it up to the light or twirl itanything as long as its a conscious decision. Choose what youre going to do before you fall asleep, that way if youre able to perform that particular task in the dream, youll know for sure you were actually lucid.

Its worth a try, she said with sigh. Nothing else seems to be working so I might was well give it a whirl and see what happens.

***

I have a confession to make.

Nicolo brushed the damp curls from her forehead. Have I told you how incredibly beautiful you look after we make love? Your skin is so warm to the touch and your

Did you hear what I said? I have a confession to make.

The only confession I want to hear is that youre madly in love with me and cant wait to be my wife.

In that case, I have two confessions.

You have my full attention for the next five minutes, he said, propping himself up on one elbow. Any longer than that and I cant guarantee Ill have enough will power to keep from kissing you again.

Now that shed made up her mind to tell him the truth there was no going back, but she was worried sick that hed be angry with her. Shed thought it out so carefully, had planned just what shed say, but when she opened her mouth to speak Rochelle couldnt remember one single word of it. If Nicolo hadnt leaned forward as if he was going to kiss her, she might have found a better way to tell him, but with his lips so dangerously close to hers Rochelle knew the conversation would never take place if she didnt say something to keep him from advancing.

I lied to you about who I am, she blurted out, then flinched when Nicolos head snapped back as if shed slapped him. I know it was wrong but I wanted to get to know youthe real you before I told you. My real name is Adalina Rochelle DiCarlo.

His brows drew together. DiCarlo? You are the princess that my parents have been badgering me to marry?

Please dont be angry with me Nicolo. I just couldnt agree to marry you without knowing whether you were capable of loving me or if I could ever love you.

His eyes narrowed. Did your parents put you up to this?

No! They dont even know Im here.

Rochelle proceeded to tell him the whole story and by the time she was finished, Nicolo was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. When he finally regained control of himself, he insisted they tell his parents at once so they could have their blessing to be married.

No, Rochelle was adamant, youre mother and father must learn to accept me as I am. I dont want to tell them until after were married so theyre forced to open their narrow minds and see the only thing that matters is how very much in love we are.

They arent as rigid as you think they are. They want me to be happy and if I tell them Ill be miserable unless I can marry you, Im confident they will welcome you to the family.

Rochelle had her doubts about his parents but she didnt voice them. Throwing back the covers, she climbed out of bed and slipped into the shirt Nicolo had discarded on the floor and

went out onto the balcony. There was a warm breeze but it felt cool against her damp skin, making her shiver. She watched the stars twinkling in the sky for a moment then felt a sudden compulsion to look at the locket that symbolized Nicolos love for her. Rochelle lifted the chain from around her neck and held it up, letting the locket dangle in front of her face so she could admire the way the pale moonlight danced off the gold.

When Nicolo came up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist, she welcomed his warmth. Is this really happening, Nicolo, or am I just dreaming?

Maybe we are sharing the same dream, he said softly. What difference does it make if its a dream or not as long as were together?

Will it always be this way for us? Will we always love each other as much as we do at this moment?

Always, his reply was fierce. No woman will ever possess my heart as you do. There is only you, my love, until the end of time. He took the locket and looped it back around her neck. Keep it close to your heart where it belongs.

Rochelle turned in his arms, despondent at the thought of ever losing his love. Your cousins will be angry when they find out weve eloped.

Theyll learn to live with it.

No, they wont, she disagreed. They know I dont care for them and theyll try to make trouble between us. And theyll resent me even more when I give you children because it will mean less money for them. They frighten me, Nicolo.

He hugged her to him, brushing a soft kiss to her temple. Theyre a little rough around the edges but I promise you theyre harmless.

Rochelle prayed he was right but something deep down inside warned her to stay as far away from Damian and Renato as possible.

***

Well?

Rachel greeted him with a sleepy smile. I did it. At least I think I did.

You took the locket off?

Well, II suppose you could say that.

Nic sat up and switched on the light. I want to hear everything from beginning to end but first I think Ill run downstairs and grab a couple of glasses and a bottle of wine.

Scrounge up some cheese and crackers and youve got yourself a date.

While Nic was gathering the food and wine, Rachel pulled on her robe and strolled out to the balcony. This was where Rochelle and Nicolo had stood over a hundred years ago, vowing to love one another forever, confident that soon theyd be married and no longer have to slink around or seclude themselves in his bedroom for a few stolen hours. If only Nicolo had taken Rochelle more seriously when she confided that his cousins frightened her. There had been so many missed opportunities, so many things either of them could have done or not done that would have changed Rochelles fate.

When Nic returned with a serving tray that included a bowl of fresh strawberries, she came back inside and made herself comfortable on the loveseat while he settled the tray on the coffee table and poured two glasses of wine. Rachel took a few sips before popping a ripe berry in her mouth, her mood growing even more sullen when the thought rolled through her head that Rochelle and Nicolo had probably done something very similar to this. They would have been blissfully happy, so completely absorbed in each other it wouldnt even have occurred to them their time together was limited.

Nic leaned back with his glass in one hand and a cracker in the other. Tell me about the locket first then you can go back and fill me in on the rest of the dream.

It wasnt like I thought it would be. Its kind of hard to explain butits not me in the dream, its Rochelle. But its not like those dreams where you feel youre on the outside looking in either because I feel her emotions and know what shes thinking.

Are you aware that youre not Rochelle?

Not really. You know that little voice in your head that tells you not to take a second helping of dessert and then scolds you later because you did it anyway? Thats kind of what its like. Im there, but she doesnt really listen to me.

You had to have gotten through to her somehow if she took the locket off.

I suppose so, Rachel said as she laid a sliver of cheese on a cracker. It wasnt the way you described it though so Im not sure if you could call it a lucid dream. I didnt actually make

her take the locket off; it was more like I planted the idea in her mind and she did it because she wanted to, not because Id told her.

Nic could hear the defeat in her voice but he was far from discouraged that she hadnt been completely successful in having a lucid dream. True, she hadnt been in control of the dream but shed still made contact even if it was on a subconscious level so she was definitely making progress. Even if Rachel didnt master the art of having a lucid dream, there was still the chance she could persuade Rochelle to change something about that night and possibly alter the chain of events that followed.

I cant believe Im going to suggest this, he shook his head. I think you should practice nagging.

Rachel choked on the cracker shed been chewing and had to take a big gulp of wine to wash it down. Nagging, she eyed him skeptically. Why on earth would I want to do that, and even more disturbing is why youd want me to.

You said you were able to get through to Rochelle because you were like her subconscious, a voice in her head. I dont know about you, but when that little voice starts talking to me its usually nagging me about something I should or shouldnt do. You were successful in getting her to take off the locket so theres no reason to believe you couldnt plant other ideas in her head.

Keep on her about how dangerous the cousins are, you mean?

Among other things. If you could persuade her something horrible is going to happen if Nicolo goes to that dinner party or if they stick to their plan to meet in the gardens, she might be worried enough to coax him into staying with her.

Rachel considered that for a moment. With Monica as a sister Ive always been on the receiving end of the pestering but if nothing else I can imitate her techniques.

Just as long as you contain sister Monicas techniques to your dreams and refrain from using them on me.

Agreed...and as long as you give me what I want there wont be any need to, she quipped.

Is that so?

Yes, she set her wine glass down, and what I want right now is to be kissed senseless.

Nic placed his wine glass next to hers. Im not sure giving in to you is such a good idea. It would only encourage you to be even more demanding and who knows where it would end? He leaned over, teasing her with a kiss that was so brief it could barely be called a kiss at all.

Rachel reached out and ran her hand over his chest in a slow, seductive sweep. Stop torturing me and give me a proper kiss.

You see what I mean? Its starting already. I wouldnt be surprised if you insisted that I carry you back to bed and make mad, passionate love to you.

Nobeing so assertive isnt really my style. As a matter of fact her hand glided over his flat belly and slipped beneath the band of his boxers, Ill bet I can persuade you to carry me to bed and make love to me without saying another word.

Nic drew in a ragged breath when Rachels slender fingers curled around his growing erection. He was a pillar of strength for all of three minutes before the immense pleasure she was giving him became so volatile his entire body trembled from the strain of holding back. It was too much, and it was not enough; he needed to be inside of her, needed to sheath himself in her incredible warmth and feel her satiny muscles tighten around him. With an animalistic growl, he gripped her wrist and pulled her hand away, putting an end to the delicious torture. Nic shot to his feet, scooped Rachel off the sofa, and made it to the bed in two seconds flat.

He made love to her for hours; loved her until they were both well past the point of physical exhaustion and even then he couldnt seem to stop kissing her. She fell asleep cradled in his arms, and as he lay there breathing in her soft scent and wishing she was still awake so he could steal one more kiss, Nic finally understood why his great grandfather had never recovered after losing Rochelle. How do you pick up the pieces when the woman who has become your whole world just disappears without a trace?

He couldnt imagine being without Rachel for even one day, but to go the rest of his life without being able to love her as hed done tonight? It would break him, just as Nicolo had been broken when he realized Rochelle was never coming back.

***

I cant explain it. Rochelle stopped her restless pacing and dropped down into the chair, watching Estela expertly knead the bread dough for a moment before continuing. It started a few weeks ago as justan unsettling feeling that something was wrong. Ive tried to ignore it and tell myself that Im just being silly but its grown stronger and stronger every day. Its like Im racing towards the edge of a cliff. I sense the danger but because I cant see what lies beyond the edge I just keeping running and cant seem to stop myself.

You are afraid Nicolo will change his mind about marrying you?

Her stomach fluttered as she recalled how thoroughly hed kissed her good-bye that morning. No, Im as sure of his love for me as I am of my love for him. It has something to do with those horrible cousins of his, though I have nothing solid to base my feelings on. Since that time Nicolo warned them to leave me alone they havent come near me but I still dont trust them andwell, the truth is they terrify me.

Then you should tell Nicolo, Estela said firmly.

How can I do that? He doesnt see them for what they really are and I dont want to make him angry at me by talking badly about them.

Do you think they know you are planning to elope tonight?

I dont see how they could, but they must suspect it because theyve been hanging around the mansion more than usual, and once Nicolo caught Damian creeping down the hallway just outside his bedroom when he had no business being in that wing. Im sure Damian

thought hed catch me sneaking out of Nicolos room but Id already taken the hidden passageway to my own room.

Estela placed the dough in a bread pan and looked at Rochelle with genuine concern. If you believe you are in danger of being harmed, you should tell them who you are. They would not dare touch you then.

Not until after were married, she said with a stubborn tilt of her chin. They wont be able to contain themselves and after theyve done their ranting about what a fool he is to have married me when he could have married a princess, Nicolo will see their true colors.

Nicolo does not want to see the bad in people, especially in members of his own family. If you wont tell him for your own sake at least consider the welfare of your child.

Rochelles hand went to her flat belly. I hope its a boy, she said with a soft smile. Nicolo would be deliriously happy if I gave him a son.

He would be deliriously happy with a girl too but he would be extremely unhappy if he found out you were worried about those cousins of his and didnt tell him.

Maybe youre right, Rochelle sighed. Ill tell him tonight after we leave.

***

Nic had watched Rachel picking at her food for the past twenty minutes and was worried that the whole situation with the dreams was just too much of a strain on her. The rationalaka sane part of his brain told him that what she was attempting to do was simply ludicrous, and yet

he couldnt dismiss the idea altogether. Initially, Rachel had been excited when he woke her up last night because shed managed to get Rochelle to confess her fears to Estela.

Shed been confident the same thing would happen tonight when Rochelle met with Nicolo before the unexpected dinner party, though she was a little anxious Nicolo would dismiss Rochelles concerns. But as the day wore on, Rachel seemed to retreat further and further into a world of her own which left Nic feeling alienated and little hollow inside. It was obvious by the furtive glances Celia kept casting at Rachel that she sensed it too and after a few futile attempts to draw Rachel into a conversation, Celia gave up and finished her meal in silence.

Take a walk with me, he said when Rachel pushed her plate away, insisting she was full.

Rachel hesitated for a moment before deciding what she had to say might be easier if they didnt go back to the bedroom. It would be too tempting to shove aside the anxiety that had been gnawing at her all day and lose herself in the passion of Nics kisses. Slipping her hand into his, she let him lead her out to the gardens just as the last of the days sun began to fade. It wasnt until Nic stopped and gathered her in his arms that she realized how much she needed the comfort of being held in his warm embrace.

Im here for you, Rachel, he said softly.

I know. Im sorry for shutting you out, its just she shook her head, attempting to swallow the enormous boulder that had lodged itself in her throat.

Talk to me, honey. I promise that whatever it is, we can work it out together.

Thats the problem, Nic. Im not sure we can work it out at all.

His stomach knotted when she tilted her head back, tears shimmering in her eyes. Rachel, what is it?

IIve been thinking about tonight and will happen if I can get through to Rochelle and change what happened to her. Over the past few weeks its gotten easier to guide her into doing things like telling Estela she was afraid, but now Im not sure I can go through with this and I hate myself for even considering backing off and justletting her die.

I dont understand. I thought this was what you wanted.

It wasisexcept now its tearing me upside because I dont think I could live with the guilt if I didnt try to save her but Im not sure I can live with the consequences if it works either. Rachels lips quivered. Dont you see? If Rochelle lives then Nicolo will marry her instead of your great grandmother and if that happens, Antonio wont be born.

The color leeched from his face. Which means my father wont be born and neither will I.

How can I do that? How can I justify saving her when I know it means killing you?

You wouldnt be killing me because I would never have been conceived, Nic said in an effort to comfort her, though he was struggling to keep his own emotions in check.

Rachel hugged herself to him, tears streaming down her face. But Id be killing us, Nic. Well never meet, never fall in love, and the worst part is that I wont even know what Ive lost. How can I sacrifice you and what we have together for the sake of a woman I dont even know?

Nics expression was grim. Youre right, you didnt know her and neither did I. But we know Rochelle was pregnant when she was shot and raped. She had to watch while they sealed her inside that room one brick at a time, knowing she was going to die and that her baby would die with her. I cant even imagine the despair she must have felt at the end, lying there helpless and alone, praying that Nicolo would find her even though she had to have known hed never come for her.

Nic, please she sobbed.

No, you have to hear this. Maybe the blessing is that you and I will never know any of this happened. There wont be any guilt or remorse if we make it right, but well have a lifetime of it if we dont even try.

Rachel choked back her tears. I know youre right but I cant do it, Nic, I just cant.

He leaned down and kissed her trembling lips. You can and you will, because in your heart you know you have to. I love you, Rachel. No matter what happens my love will always be with you.

The pain was unbearable but somehow she managed a weak smile. I love you too, Dr. Covelli.

Does that mean youll do it?

Yesyes, Ill do it but I want you to do something for me first. Stay with me tonight.

Rachel, you know if I do that you wont dream.

I dont want to dream. I just want one more night with you, one more chance to make love to you, to feel your arms around me when I fall asleep. Please, Nic, I need you to love me one more time.

He wiped the tears from her cheeks then cupped her beautiful face in hands and lowered his mouth to hers. It was both the sweetest and most heartbreaking kiss hed ever known.

Chapter 12
Physically, Nic was exhausted but his mind was racing a thousand miles a minute with no sign of tiring. Hed lost track of the number of times hed made love to Rachel but was certain hed be paying for it tomorrow. Not that morning was too far off, he thought after glancing at the clock. He was glad Rachel had asked for one more night together, though he fervently prayed it wasnt their last, because theyd shared something that went beyond the intimacy of sex. And though hed reconciled himself to the fact he had to risk giving up his own life, it hurt like hell to think of losing Rachel.

With a heavy sigh, Nic eased his arm from beneath her head and slipped out of bed. He supposed he should have tried to get at least a little sleep but he was too wound up and thought a brisk walk in the cool early morning air would help calm his nerves. Moving around the room as quietly as he could so as not to wake Rachel, he pulled on a pair of jeans and t-shirt then grabbed his shoes and crept out of the room. He made his way downstairs and out into the gardens, absently following the path he and Rachel had taken the evening before.

Youre the most noble, compassionate man Ive ever known, shed told him last night. Thats why I love you so much.

But he didnt feel noble, not when everything inside him wanted to wrap Rachel in his arms and never let her go regardless of the consequences for Rochelle and Nicolo or the other members of his family whod suffered from the ripple effects of that fateful night so long ago. He wondered if he would have given it any consideration at all if Rochelle Beaumont hadnt looked so much like Rachel. It was the image of a dark haired, green-eyed beauty being brutally

attacked and the agonizing slow death afterwards that haunted him and left no choice but to go through with it.

One day, thats all he had left. One day to spend with the woman whod become everything to him, one day to show her a lifetime of love. The only hope keeping Nic going now was that his spirit would live on as Rochelles had and that somehow hed find his way back to Rachel.

***

The absence of Nics warmth drew Rachel out of a sound sleep just as he was slipping out the door. She wondered if hed slept at all or if hed lain awake trying to figure out if there was any way this whole insane situation could possibly have a happy ending for everyone. Hed told her it was a blessing that they wouldnt have any memory of what happened between them, but she wasnt as confident as he was that it would work out that way. What if she did remember? How could she face each day knowing it was because of her that Nic would never exist? It was too cruel to even contemplate.

No matter what she did, someone was going to suffer for it. If she managed to save Rochelle, shed destroy any chance Nic had of being born, and if she didnt try to save Rochelle there was a very good chance shed kill her relationship with Nic anyway. What choice did she really have? All she could now was hope that her heart would remember the love hed given her even if she didnt remember Nic.

Rachel squeezed her eyes shut, desperately trying to block out the pain. What little time she had left with Nic would only be spent grieving for what they were giving up and prolong the

agony for both of them. There would be tears and heartache and unbearable sorrow, and that was not how she wanted this to end. Right now Nic was probably down in the kitchen throwing something together for breakfast. Hed be tired from having so little sleep but hed be thinking about last night and the love theyd shared instead of the morose thoughts she was having.

Hed remember all the other mornings that had started this way, mornings that began with him serving her breakfast in bed and ended with passionate kisses and a burning need for each other that inevitably led to making love again. Afterwards theyd shower together then get dressed and go downstairs where Celia would greet them with a knowing smile. Thats how she wanted it to be, how it should be on their last morning together but she couldnt see that happening with the dark depression that was already beginning to close in on her.

Rachel turned onto her side, an empty ache stabbing at her heart. She had the power to save Nic from feeling this God awful pain if she could only summon up the fortitude to be as noble and selfless as he was. Inching her way onto his side of the bed, she buried her face in his pillow, breathing in his masculine scent and letting the memory of last night fill her heart with his love.

She knew what she had to do then. Sparing Nic from having to say good-bye was the greatest sacrifice she could make and it was the last gift she would ever be able to give him. Rachel closed her eyes, allowing the weariness in her mind and body to lure her back to sleep.

***

Rochelle slipped into Nicolos bedroom, her pulse racing when he greeted her with a sexy smile then took her hand and led her to the bed. He loosened the tie on her robe, quickly

relieving her of both the robe and her nightgown before divesting himself of his own robe and easing her back onto the mattress. He entered her slowly, stretching her inner muscles and filling her so completely she could feel every throbbing inch of him.

It occurred to her that this was the last time shed come to Nicolo as his mistress. Tomorrow they would be married and her new life as Mrs. Nicolo Covelli would begin. She didnt think anything could dampen her happiness at that moment, not when he was making love to her with such great tenderness she wanted to cry from the sheer ecstasy of it. She was hovering on the edge of a climax that had been building from the moment hed first kissed her when Rochelles mind was suddenly flooded with images that were so disturbing it sent a shiver up her spine.

Mistaking the trembling of her body as the beginning of an orgasm, Nicolo drove himself into her, each thrust of his hips harder and faster than the one before. Rochelle responded to the sudden change in the urgency of his love making with a wild guttural moan. The uninvited thoughts were buried beneath an avalanche of physical pleasure as the tension coiling inside of her finally snapped, sending her body into a series of violent convulsions that seemed to go on forever.

It had never been like this beforeso frantic, so desperate, as if they needed to make the memory last. Panicked by the idea someone or something would contrive to separate them when those horrible images began to infiltrate her mind once more, Rochelle clung to his broad shoulders, the salty sting of tears pooling in her eyes.

Dont leave me, she choked out.

Puzzled by her sudden outburst, Nicolo braced himself on one elbow and attempted to wipe away her tears. You will flood the bed, he tried to lighten her mood, but his teasing smile faded when she only cried harder. Bella, I am not going to leave you. What has gotten into that pretty head of yours to make you think I could ever do that?

II dont know, she sobbed. I just k-keep seeing these horrible, horrible things happening in my mind.

You are letting your imagination run away with you because you are anxious about eloping, thats all.

I am anxious, Rochelle sniffed, but Im not letting my imagination run wild. Ive been trying to block it out but I cant. If you leave me alone tonight something terrible is going happen, I just know it.

His smile was indulgent. You are upsetting yourself for no reason. I have no intention of leaving you alone, so you see

But you will, she persisted. Damian is going to come to your door and say there is a guest for dinner and youll go because the guest is an important businessman. Your cousins have it all planned out. They want to keep you occupied so they can

Rochelle stopped abruptly when there was a sharp rap on the door. Her eyes were wild with fear when Nicolo started to pull away from her. Dont answer it. Please, Nicolo, Im begging you

Do not leave, he whispered as he threw the covers back and reached for his robe. Im coming, he bellowed as another, more impatient rap sounded at his door.

Rochelle burrowed beneath the blankets, mortified by the sound of Damians lazy drawl because it proved that the ominous visions shed been having were some sort of premonition of the future. Shed been afraid to tell Nicolo about the voice in her head, especially since shed been doing everything she could to ignore it herself, but it kept warning her to stop Nicolo from leaving or the visions would become reality.

Maybe she was losing her mind. Maybe she really was just overwrought because they were eloping tonight and she was scared to death that something would go wrong and he wouldnt marry her. She shook her head as if she could somehow dislodge that nagging voice and make it go away but it only seemed to get louder and more insistent. By the time Nicolo closed the door and returned to the bedside, the overwhelming sense of pain and loss and sorrow was so strong, Rochelle was nearly in tears.

That was Damian, he said slowly, looking at Rochelle as if shed sprouted an extra head. It seems my mother neglected to tell me there was a dinner party this evening with a man that I have been trying to set his voice trailed off when he saw how pale Rochelles face had grown. Nicolo dropped down on the edge of the bed. How could you have known Damian would come to the door and tell me about the dinner? Did you overhear my mother talking about it?

NoI saw itin my mind. Still clutching the blanket around her as if it could protect her somehow, Rachelle sat up and tried to explain. It was like a dream, except I was awake.

Damian and Renato set it up so you wouldnt be around to keep them fromfrom her throat constricted as the revolting image of Damian sexually violating her revived itself.

Keep them from what? Nicolos expression was unreadable but the lethal tone of his voice told Rochelle he suspected what she was about to say.

From hurting me.

Is that what you sawin this vision or whatever it was? Nicolos jaw flexed when she nodded. Tell me everything.

You believe me?

He reached out and cupped her chin. Youre trembling like a leaf. Its obvious youre terrified of my cousins and I mean to find out if you have reason to be or not. Now tell me the rest.

Rochelle told him about Damian and Renato finding her alone in the gardens. One of them has a gun and shoots me right here, she touched her shoulder. They take me deeper into the woods and thats where Damianattacks me.

Attacks you how?

She turned her head away, too ashamed to look at him. He tears my clothes and then herapes me.

And Renato?

Rochelle choked back a sob. I think he does too. It gets so hazy after that, as if Im fading in and out of consciousness.

Is that where it ends?

No. Im not sure where they take me; a cellar maybe because I can feel the cold stone against my cheek. Its dark she shivered, dark and so cold. I can hear them stacking the bricks one by one, and they knowthey know Im still alive but they dont care.

Nicolo gripped her arms and forced her to look at him. Are you telling me they bury you alive?

She shook her head, tears streaming down her face. Not in the ground. They wall me up in a small room. Oh, Nicolo, she cried as he gathered her in his arms, they murder me! I pray for a miracle, pray that somehow youll find me but you dont and I d-die in the horrible place.

Shhh, youll make yourself sick if you keep crying like this. He held her close, stroking her hair until she finally calmed down. I know it must seem real to you, but it was probably nothing more than a nightmare.

I wasnt asleep, I know I wasnt. She drew away from him, even more frightened than before. You dont believe me! You think I was dreaming or hallucinating, or maybe you think I just made the whole thing up because I dont like your greedy cousins. Rochelle could hear the hysteria in her voice but was too upset to care if she sounded like shed lost her mind. Go on,

she shoved at his chest. Go to your stupid dinner while I pretty myself up for your cousins. Just dont shed any tears for me when you realize everything Ive said is true.

Nicolo grabbed her wrist as she made for the far edge of the bed and dragged her back. Rochelle tried to wrench it free but he managed to capture her other wrist then pushed her back against the mattress. For a few, brief minutes she struggled to free herself but Nicolo subdued her with ridiculous ease, pinning her to the bed with the weight of his body. She was breathing hard, her chest heaving against his and causing a physical reaction despite her effort to ignore the heat pooling in her abdomen.

A low grow rumbled deep in his throat as he lowered his head and kissed her. Rochelle tried to resist but even through the anger and pain of betrayal she couldnt keep her heart from surging with love. Gradually, she began to respond as his hands moved over her body, strong and possessive and so incredibly warm it made her blood boil. Maybe her imagination had been playing tricks on her. After all, Nicolo hadnt left her to go to the dinner party as hed done in the vision so maybe

I have to go, Nicolo murmured, trailing kisses down the side of her neck. Do not worry. I will be back in plenty of time to whisk you away and make you my wife just as we planned.

It was like getting blasted by an arctic wind. Youre leaving me? Her voice sounded hollow, and Nicolo picked up on it immediately.

I will never leave you, he said fiercely. I dont know why youre seeing these things, but I do know that I wont risk losing you even if it means I make a fool of myself by confronting Damian and Renato.

You cant do that! I meanwhat if Im wrong? What if

What if youre right? Im not taking any chances. Now listen carefully and do exactly what I tell you to.

***

Rochelle pressed her hand to her stomach but it did little to alleviate the knots that were twisting and turning and making it difficult for her to breath. Shed gone back to her room just as Nicolo had instructed her and taken a nice, long bath then put on her favorite dress and brushed her hair until it shined. The three hour wait had been agonizing but not nearly as brutal as the walk down to the gardens.

And now that she was in the spot where hed told her to meet him, Rochelle was terrified something would happen to delay him. Her heart leapt when she heard the soft rustling from behind her, and it took every ounce of courage she possessed to rise from the stone bench and take those few steps towards the opening of the alcove.

It happened just as shed seen it in her vision; the flurry of movement behind her and the fear that clawed at her chest as Damian emerged from between the hedges. But Rochelle didnt run, and she didnt need to peer down the pathway to know that Renato was making his way

towards them. She stood her ground until Damian was towering over her, a lecherous grin spreading across his face when she looked up at him with wide, frightened eyes.

Expecting your lover, Miss Beaumont?

My fianc, she corrected him. Nicolo and I are going to be married tomorrow.

Theres been a change of plans, Renato said as he stepped into the alcove. Im afraid there wont be a wedding.

Rochelle arched a brow, proud of herself for affecting such a brave front even though her insides were churning. And how do you intend to stop it?

Damian grabbed her around the waist and pulled her hard up against his body. For starters, we intend desecrate cousin Nicolos hallowed ground. By the time were finished with you, youll be of no use to any man, especially not someone as possessive of his woman as Nicolo is.

Maybe he wont want me anymore but do you honestly believe hell let either of you live when he finds out what youve done?

Ah, but he wont find out, Damian smirked. Weve laid the groundwork so perfectly that poor Nicolo wont find a single trace of you. Well convince him youve run off with another man, someone wealthier; that ought to bruise his pride enough to get him marry a more suitable woman.

Youyou mean youre planning to kill me?

Renato cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. Enough talk. Lets just get it done so we can get out of here and establish our alibis.

Rochelle struggled in earnest when Damian effortlessly picked her up and strode past his brother. Put me down! If you dont let me go Ill scream so loud everyone in the house will come running.

Damian only laughed. You can scream until youre hoarse and no one will hear you. Lord knows Ive heard Nicolo brag often enough about how well built the Covelli mansion is, so by all means, scream to your hearts content.

Despite Nicolos assurances he would keep her safe, Rochelles heart was pounding in her chest as Damian carried her deeper and deeper into the woods. She pummeled him with her fists and even tried to scratch his face, but he simply tossed her up over his shoulder and continued on until he came to a small clearing. Rochelle was crying in earnest when he set her on her feet. She stumbled backwards, her eyes frantically searching the woods for Nicolo. Where was he? Why hadnt he come to rescue her as hed promised?

Damians dark laughter made her cringe and she shrank away from him when he reached out to touch her, certain that this was end. Even knowing what was going to happen ahead of time hadnt done anything but delay the inevitable and now she would have to endure being assaulted by these two disgusting excuses for men before they walled her up in that tomb and allowed her to die. But just as Damians fingers brushed against her arm, the woods seem to come alive as several dark figures emerged from around the trees and surrounded them.

Get away from her before I kill you with my bare hands, Nicolo growled.

Nicolo, its not what you think. Damians eyes darted nervously from one man to the next as their rifles were raised in unison at both him and Renato. She lured us out here, I swear. That kind of woman cant help but flirt and entice a man

Nicolo skewered him with an icy glare. Is that what Rochelle was doing when she was hitting and kicking you? Was she trying to entice you by demanding you let her go?

Renato let out a snort of disgust. For Gods sake, Nicolo, we know youre infatuated with her but shes just a damn housemaid. Damian and I are family. All we were trying to do was get her out of the picture so you could think a little straighter and see its beneath you to marry a woman like that.

Tell me cousin, Nicolos voice was venomous, exactly what kind of woman is she?

An uneducated housemaid who has used her beauty to worm her way into your bed and will most likely rob you blind once youre married then leave you for someone with even more money.

Nicolo nodded to Rochelle. Come here, bella. Once he had her tucked up close by his side, he eyed his cousins with cold disdain. Maybe its time I introduced my fianc properly. Her name is Adalina Rochelle DiCarlo, and I assure you if anyone is marrying below their station its Rochelle.

DiCarlo? Damian shifted uncomfortably. You mean shes

A princess, Nicolo interjected. He looked down at a Rochelle with a soft smile. Youve always been my princess, even before you came clean and told me who you really were.

The enormous love she felt for him shone through her eyes. I know. Thats why I told you.

Renato cleared his throat, looking every bit as uncomfortable as Damian. Well, thatuhmakes a huge difference. Clearly, we were mistaken about RochelleMiss DiCarlo and Im sure Damian agrees that we owe you both an apology.

An apology, Nicolo repeated angrily. That doesnt even come close to what you owe. I know what you were planning to do. After taking turns assaulting her you were going to murder her.

Damian bristled. Thats ridiculous! We only wanted to scare her off.

Dont waste your breathe lying, Nicolo ground out. I saw the pile of bricks youd hauled down to the wine cellar and I know exactly what you intended to do. He turned to one of the men whod emerged from the woods with him. Get them out of here. It makes me sick just to look at them.

After Damian and Renato had stomped off with no less than six rifles trained on them, Rochelle and Nicolo headed back towards the mansion. With his arm firmly around her waist, she felt safe and protected and had finally stopped trembling. Neither of them spoke until they were back in his room, although it was preceded by a very long and in depth kiss.

What will happen to them, Nicolo? Will they go to jail?

It would be a waste of time and energy to try to prosecute them without any proof they intended to murder you. No, what I have in mind for them is much worse than jail. Ive made arrangements to have them escorted to Italy where my grandfather is waiting to deal with them. Family means everything to him and hes extremely unhappy at how close those two came to bringing shame down on the Covelli name.

Theythey wont try to come back, will they?

Nicolo reached out and tucked a stray curl behind her ear. Grandfather will make sure they understand the consequences if they even attempt it. Trust me, they will never set foot outside Italy again.

Did you really find bricks in the cellar?

Nicolos jaw flexed. Id already searched the sheds and even the ice house and was still hoping you were wrong when I remembered you'd mentioned a cellar. When I saw the bricks piled beside a small room near the back he stopped abruptly and crushed Rochelle in a fierce embrace. When I realized how close Id come to losing you, I wanted to kill them both. It was my mother who made me see reason and suggested shipping them off to Italy.

Rochelle drew her head back. Your mother?

When I told my parents that I suspected Damian and Renato were planning to murder you and showed them what Id discovered in the cellar, they were mortified. I know you probably wont believe this but Mother actually cried and begged me to forgive her for the way

shed behaved. She said if marrying you would make me happy then she would give us her blessing.

Of course shed say that, Rochelle replied bitterly. As soon as she found out I wasnt a housemaid then our marriage was suddenly socially acceptable.

Nicolos eyes danced with amusement. I think youve both misjudged each other. Its true she wasnt happy that Id set my sights on you but it wasnt because you were a housemaid. Shed heard such glowing stories about you from your parents that she set her heart on making the perfect little princess my wife. RochelleI didnt tell them who are.

You mean she really does accept me just as I am?

As God as my witness. Not only that, he said as he started unbuttoning her dress, she insisted that we get married right away so we can give her a grandchild.

Rochelle took his hand and moved it to her abdomen. I think getting married soon is a very good idea.

Nicolos eyes met hers. Are you saying what I think youre saying?

Her smile was radiant as she wound her arms around his neck. Yes, my darling, were going to have a baby.

Whenever Rochelle looked back on this night, it wasnt the terrifying ordeal with Damian and Renato she remembered. It was the joy on Nicolos face when she told him about the baby she was carrying and the glimmer of tears in his eyes when he grabbed her up in his arms and

gave her a kiss that was so tender she felt it clear down to her toes. But the most poignant memory of all was when Nicolo surprised her by leading her downstairs where the minister was waiting to marry them.

You are my heart, my soul, my everything, he said as he slipped the glittering diamond ring on her finger and made her his wife.

Her dream had finally come true.

Chapter 13
Let me get this straight, Monica said in a tone that left no doubt she thought Rachel had taken a swan dive off the deep end. The dreams started about the same time you agreed to work on the Covelli mansion, and the woman in the dream is reaching out to you from beyond the grave to tell the story of how she was murdered.

Thats right, Rachel affirmed.

But youre also having dreams about your own lover who you meet later because I set up an appointment for you to have a dream study done. Then, she started ticking off the points on her fingers, you two have an instant attraction to each other, he goes to the mansion with you where he teaches you how to manipulate your dreams, and through your dreams you go back in time and save this other woman which in turn changes that familys history so that your loverNic, was it?is never born. And now, Monica stared at her incredulously, youre convinced that what happened between you and Nic was real and youve lost the love of your life because you saved his great grandmother from being murdered.

Rachel poured herself another glass of wine and settled back against the sofa. She didnt care if Monica believed her or not. She didnt care if anyone ever believed her. Nic was real, shed loved him with all her heart, and now that he was gone she couldnt feel anything but this constant hollow ache and it was slowly killing her. Two months ago shed fallen asleep in Nics bedroom at the Covelli mansion and woke up alone in her own bed. At first Rachel tried to convince herself it was simply a dream within a dream but had gradually come to the conclusion

it really happened. If it hadnt been real, how could she still felt so desperately in love with Nic it was all she could do to keep from bursting into tears every time she thought about him?

I know it sounds crazy, Monica, but in my heart I know it happened. Maybe in time Ill be able to function again but right now Im stillgrieving.

Grieving for a man who never existed?

He did exist, Rachel snapped. Look, I dont mean to take out my frustration on you. I just thought she shrugged and gulped down the rest of her wine.

And thats another thing, Monica snatched the bottle off the coffee table just as Rachel was reaching for it. Since when do you drink in the middle of the day? Im worried about you, Rach. This isnt like you at all. She set the bottle on the fireplace mantle before returning to the sofa and plopping down beside her sister. I know what you thought, she said more gently. You thought Id concoct some fantastic scheme to prove that it was real so you could at least come to terms with it and move on.

Tears pooled in Rachels eyes. Im not sure anything will help me get over him.

Oh boy, Monica sighed. The first time my sister falls in love and it has to be with a man who only exists in her dreams. Okay, let me think for a minute. She gnawed at her lip as she went over the story Rachel had told her until an idea finally started to form. You said you have a meeting with Antonio Covelli tomorrow, right?

Yes, hes bringing me the floor plans along with a list of changes hed like to have made.

I think you should call him and ask if you can meet at the mansion instead. Once youre there youll have a chance to look around and see if its the same place youve been dreaming about. You could even check out that secret passageway to see if its real. That alone would tell you it wasnt just something your subconscious mind dreamed up. And maybe Antonio can tell you if there really was a plot to kill this Beaumont woman.

I dont know if that would make it better or worse, Rachel said miserably.

Listen, Rach. Even if it did happen, whos to say Nic wasnt born anyway? I mean, hed have a different great grandmother but if Antonio exists then maybe he does too.

Rachel shook her head. I saw a picture of Antonio in a business magazine. There are a lot of similarities but hes not the same man I met. I even went down to the Lucisano Research building and theres no Nic Covelli listed on the directory. She offered her sister a tremulous smile. But youre right, seeing the mansion again and finding that hidden passageway would prove one way or another if he ever really existed.

***

Rachel checked her hair one last time in the visor mirror, grimacing at how tired and drawn she looked. Shed lost weight over the past few months which made her cheekbones even more prominent and gave depth to the dark circles under her eyes. At least her skin hadnt suffered; it was still smooth and soft although shed lost the rosy glow that had been there when she was with Nic. Her chest tightened. How was she going to get through the endless hours and days and years without him?

Blinking back the tears that always seemed to be hovering near the surface, Rachel put the visor back in place and climbed out of her car. It took several minutes before she was able to compose herself enough to take those first few steps up the walkway to the mansion and even then she hesitated to ring the doorbell. If shed been thinking straight she would have realized a man with Antonios wealth wouldnt be answering the door himself, but her mind was in such a state of turmoil it didnt even occur to her that his housekeeper would be the one to open it.

Celia! Its so good to see you. Rachels smile faded. It was obvious by her blank expression that Celia didnt recognize her. IIm Rachel Delacourte. Antonio is expecting me.

Come in, Miss Delacourte. Mr. Covelli asked that I take you to him the moment you arrived.

Rachel followed Celia down the hall towards the main parlor, her spirits plummeting further and further with each step she took. Structurally, the mansion was the same but there was nothing familiar about the furniture or the artwork hanging on the walls. But it wasnt the changes in the furnishings that stripped away the last remaining hope shed ever see Nic again, it was when Antonio greeted her with a warm smile then introduced her to his grandson, Natanael.

Call me Nate, he said as held out his hand.

The hand shake was brief but thats all it took for Rachel to know this was not the man shed fallen in love with despite the fact he could easily have been mistaken for Nic. He had the same dark hair and eyes, the same rugged good looks and muscular physique, but that instant attraction shed felt for Nic when theyd first met was missing. Even if shed been able to

overlook the lack of sexual awareness shed always experienced with Nic, there was no way to overlook the petite blond that rose from the sofa and slipped her hand into his.

This is my wife, Kate. Weve heard so much about you, we couldnt resist sticking around long enough to meet you. I wish we could stay but my mother is watching the kids and we need to pick them up before the babys bedtime.

The plastic smile shed managed to muster froze on her face when Nate mentioned they had a baby. It should have been her and Nic building a life together and raising a family in this house. She should have been the one standing there giving her husband adoring glances and stealing a kiss even before theyd left the room. It wasnt fair. She and Nic had sacrificed their own happiness for the sake of Rochelle and Nicolo and all the generations that followed and by the looks of it theyd succeeded admirably, but the cost was far greater, far more painful than she ever could have imagined.

Miss Delacourte? Are you ready to take a tour of the house?

Rachel mentally shook herself and tried to stay focused on the job shed signed up for. Of course, and please call me Rachel. You have a beautiful home, she said as Antonio escorted her from the room.

Oh, its not my home, though I did grow up here. It belongs to my grandson now and hes determined to de-modernize the place.

De-modernize?

Yes, hes suddenly taken a liking to antiques and wants to move out all the more modern furniture. Hes already remodeled his own bedroom and the formal dining room, Antonio nodded to the massive table and crystal chandelier that hung above it. As you can see, hes taking this very seriously and has been obsessed with restoring all the old furniture thats been kept in storage for years.

Rachels eyes misted with tears as she ran her hand lovingly over the table top she remembered so well. I think youll be pleased when hes done, she told him wistfully. Theres a lot of history in here and Im glad hehe and his wife recognize that.

His wife? Oh, you mean Kate. Shes not

Do you think hed mind if I had a look at his bedroom? To get a better idea of the atmosphere hes trying to create, she quickly explained.

Certainly, its this way. You know, you remind me of my mother in many ways. She was a beautiful woman with the same dark hair and green eyes you have, though you seem to be a bit more serious minded than she was.

Rachel started up the grand staircase behind Antonio. Did shehave a long lifea happy one, I mean?

Oh, yes. My mother always had a smile on her face, and her laughter could light up a room like nothing else. She was madly in love with my father, but the same could be said of him. He couldnt bear to let her out of his sight even after being married for over half a century. I imagine the thought of living without her was what killed him.

Rachel stopped just outside Nicolos bedroom. So your mother died first?

No, they died together. Antonio opened the door and allowed her to go first. He switched on the light and crossed the room to the bed she and Nic had shared. My mother contracted pneumonia and was recovering quite well from it but it had weakened her heart so we knew she didnt have long to live. We found them here, in this bed, the morning after their fiftysix anniversary. Sometime in the night theyd died in their sleep with their arms wrapped around each other, and they lookedat peace.

Antonio cleared his throat. We were all devastated by their deaths but the truth is Im glad they went together. I inherited the mansion but there wasnt any animosity among my brothers and sisters because they understood that Covelli tradition dictated it be passed on to the eldest son.

I thought you were an only child, Rachel said without thinking.

Heavens, no, he laughed. I have four brothers and two sisters.

Her pulse leapt and for a moment she just stood there and stared at him before she finally managed to speak. What about you? Did you have more than one child?

Not as many as my parents had, thank God, but I loved growing up in a large family. I suppose I would have had more but my wife, Lenora, refused to have more than four. You should see this place during the holidays; its filled to the rafters with generations of Covellis.

Andgrandchildren, she said faintly, how many do you have?

I think I lost count when it hit double digits, Antonio chuckled as he led her out of the room. Im afraid I have a few urgent business calls that need to be made so you can either finish exploring the house on your own or you can wait for me to finish. It shouldnt take more than twenty minutes. If you like, you could even take a stroll through the flower gardens. My mother was so passionate about keeping the gardens beautiful, the family considers it symbolic of our love for her to maintain it just as she used to.

Rachel considered staying behind but there really wasnt any reason to. Shed noticed there was a picture hanging on the bedroom wall where the wood carving used to be so there was no way to prove there was door there. If it had ever existed at all. Shed been so sure in her mind and her heart that shed find at least some shred of evidence Nic had really existed but her confidence was taking a serious beating and she was beginning to question her ability to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality.

Id love to see the gardens, she told him, and was surprised to discover it was true.

Antonio showed her the way though it wasnt necessary, and that in itself bolstered her spirits. How could she know the way if shed never been inside the mansion before? How could she know what Nicolos bedroom looked like or that the kitchen lay to the left of the grand staircase while the study and recreation room lay to the right? And as she made her way down the familiar pathway in the garden to the alcove where Nic had held her in his arms and kissed her, Rachel felt a lightness of heart that she hadnt experienced in weeks.

The stone bench was just where she knew it would be, surrounded by a colorful array of wildflowers. No wonder this had been Rochelle and Nicolos favorite spot; it was beautiful and

serene, a place where lovers could meet and plan their future together. Except Rachel had no future, not without Nic, and there was no use trying to delude herself any longer.

The happiness shed felt only moments ago fled as quickly as it had come. She sat down on the bench and buried her face in her hands, despair washing over her in waves. A harsh sob tore from her throat, and when the flood of tears followed, she didnt even try to stop herself from crying. When the torrential downpour finally subsided, Rachel stood up and made a half hearted attempt to regain her composure.

Clearly, working on the mansion would be too much of an emotional drain which meant shed have to go back inside and inform Antonio she couldnt take the job. Hed have every right to sue her for breach of contract, especially after waiting nearly a year before she was available to start, but she hoped hed agree to allow one of her colleagues to take over. Rachel took one last look around then closed her eyes and breathed in the sweet scent of flowers.

Ill never forget you, she whispered.

Her mind drifted for a moment, the memory of Nic so vivid she could almost feel his warmth surrounding her. She missed him so much her whole body ached but at least she was able to find a small measure of comfort in the knowledge Rochelle and Nicolo had lived a long and happy life. Antonio had been raised in a loving environment and had passed that legacy onto his own children so the sacrifices she and Nic made hadnt been in vain. These were the things she needed to remind herself of when the pain of losing Nic became too much.

Feeling a little more prepared to face Antonio, she headed out of the alcove and down the main pathway but hadnt taken more than a few steps when she saw Nate coming towards her.

His long stride was purposeful and for a few breathless seconds she let herself believe it was Nic. She stopped and waited for him to reach her, certain that her legs wouldnt carry her any further, because the closer he got the harder Rachels heart pounded and it was starting to make her dizzy. She managed to paste a thin smile on her face and hoped he wouldnt notice what an emotional train wreck she was.

Grandfather told me Id find you out here He reached out and gently wiped away a stray tear. Youve been crying.

Im sorry. II think Ive been working too hard and just need a little time away from it all. I was going to tell Antonio I cant take the job and offer the services of one of my colleagues butmaybe you could tell him?

Why?

Rachel blinked. Why? Because he needs to know and II just cant stay here any longer.

He stepped a little closer, studying her face for a moment before asking in a voice that wasnt quite steady. No, I mean why cant you take the job? Why do you feel you have to leave?

Her eyes lifted to his and what she saw in their depths caused something inside her to shift. I cant explain. I wish I could but you wouldnt she swayed unsteadily when the spicy scent of his aftershave brought back memories of the passionate nights shed spent with Nic.

I wouldnt what, Rachel? Wouldnt understand? He took her hands, a maelstrom of emotions playing across his handsome face. I wasnt sure it was real either until I saw you.

Rachels breath caught in her throat. Youyou arent Nate.

His mouth quirked. Nate is my little brother. Have I really changed so much that you dont recognize me?

He was a little taller and maybe a bit broader in the shoulders, and she thought his jaw line was stronger, more defined. But his eyes were the same and his mouthoh God, how she wanted to kiss him once more and feel the heat rising inside of her as he made love to her. She was still staring at his mouth, watching the slow smile spread across his face when he repeated the question.

Well, have I changed?

Somea littleoh, Nic, is it really you?

I sure felt like me when I got up this morning, he teased.

Rachel started to cry again; big, wet, happy tears. I was wrong, she laughed, you havent changed a bit.

Nic tugged on her hands and when she fell into him, he caught her around the waist and pulled her snugly against his body. Ive dreamed of this moment, he said with a husk in his voice. Ive dreamed of holding you, kissing you, making love to you until neither of us has the energy to move.

Im afraid to believe this is really happening. What if this is just a dream? I dont think I could take it if I woke up and found myself alone in bed.

Trust me, sweetheart, were both wide awake right now. And just to prove it he dipped his head and kissed her, softly at first and then with a deeper sense of urgency.

It had only vaguely registered they werent alone anymore when she heard Antonio clear his throat. Iuhsee that you two have met.

Nic drew his head back but he didnt take his eyes off Rachel. With a devilish grin he replied, I must commend you, Grandfather. You said Miss Delacourte was very talented at what she does, and after checking out herportfolio, I have to admit you were right.

***

Rachel woke in the middle of the night and reached for the glass of water on her night stand. It was tepid but her throat was so dry she drank it down anyway then climbed out of bed and slipped her robe on. The heat had been unbearable that day but had cooled down considerably by the time shed gone to bed so shed slept with the balcony doors open.

Feeling a little restless, she wandered outside and tipped her back to admire the star filled sky. Shed been dreaming of Nic again, something that happened quite frequently, but she didnt mind because they inevitably ended with him making love to her. She was just about to go back inside when Nic came up behind her and curled his arms around waist.

Im sorry, did I wake you?

He pressed a kiss to her temple. A dream woke me.

Rachel shivered when he nuzzled her neck, his warm lips dancing over her sensitive skin. I had a dream too, would you like to hear about it?

Does it have anything to do murder plots or being chased through the woods?

No, sleeping with you has cured me from having nightmares. This one started out you and me kissing in the gardens. I dreamed we got married then spent two wonderful weeks on a tropical island where we made love all night and half the day. Then we came back to the mansion and start refurbishing it with antiques pieces that have been in the Covelli for generations.

I like this dream, Nic said. Is that where it ended or is there more?

Theres a little more. Rachel turned in his arms, a soft smile curving her lips. Were blissfully happy and over the course of the year I continue to work on the mansion while you form a partnership and move your sleep study clinic to the Lucisano Research Building. Then one night as were standing out on the balcony, I look into your eyes and say

Nic arched a brow. Dont tell me thats when you woke up!

NoIm in your arms just like I am now and I say, I love you Nic Covelli. I didnt think anything could make me happier than being your wife but even that cant top having your baby.

Nics heart slammed against his chest. Everything shed told him up until that point had already happened; their wedding and the honeymoon, refurbishing the house and moving his

clinic to the Lucisano building. And if all of that was truethen Rachel really was pregnant with his baby. He was too emotional to say anything but he was grinning from ear to ear as he scooped her up in his arms and carried her back to bed. It was nearly dawn before he rolled away from Rachel, exhausted from the hours of love making but still unable to keep his hands off of her. Turning onto his side, Nic splayed his fingers across her flat belly, his heart surging with love for his unborn child.

Rachel smiled in the darkness, happier than shed ever been in her life. For quite some time after she and Nic found each other again shed been obsessed with proving that what theyd experienced had been real. Had they both merely shared the same dream about Rochelle and Nicolo just as they had shared the erotic nights as dream lovers? Monica swore shed never heard of Nic or the sleep study clinic before, and since he hadnt moved to the research center until after theyd gotten married it seemed more plausible that it had all been a dream. Except for one small thing; Rochelles locket.

She could buy into the reasoning that she and Nic had formed some sort of mental link when they dreamed because it explained how she knew what the mansion looked like. If their minds were joined, shed see the mansion and the gardens and even Celia in the same familiar way he did. But how could they explain the locket? How could either of them of have dreamed about it if theyd never even known of its existence? In the end, she gave up trying to figure it out because it didnt seem to make any difference anymore. Nic was alive, he was real, and thats all that mattered.

Rachel inched over and tucked herself in the curve of his arm. You never told me about your dream. Was it a good one?

Oh yeah, it was a good one, he said softly. It was about you.

She closed her eyes and tried to stifle a sleepy yawn. Was it really about me? Because Im not above being jealous over some slinky, blonde dream lover.

Nic chuckled. All of my dreams are about you, Rachel, even the ones that happen when Im awake.

He pulled her closer in a possessive embrace and held her that way long after shed drifted off to sleep. If someone had asked him a year ago what a dream was, Nic would have launched into a speech about it being nothing more than a succession of images conjured up by the subconscious mind. And if hed been asked if dreams can come true, his answer would have been an unequivocal no. But he knew better now; the proof was in the woman who lay nestled in his arms and the child she carried in her womb.

The love they shared was magical, beyond anything his mind could ever have imagined, and every minute he spent with Rachel was a dream come true.