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* * *

The odor of singed herbs filled the stone stairway, and Carey smiled to himself. He knew that once again Arlen had immersed himself so deeply in his studies that he eluded the outside world. He reached the wizard's chamber and hooked his hand on the heavy door frame to swing casually into the well-lit room.

Arlen did not notice. His writing table was cleared down to seldom seen wood, and he sat before it, staring intently at the one object gracing its surface. His hair, still full and shaggy despite some grey, fell forward to hide his features: dark, kind eyes and a long nose over a mustache which almost hid his slight overbite.

Carey tapped the thick metal of his courier ring against the stone of the wall, introducing sound into the quiet room. Arlen's head jerked up, then around; when he discovered Carey, his one cocked eyebrow formed an unspoken question.

"You called, remember?" Carey tapped the ring again, which still tingled in summons. With easy familiarity, he moved into the room and pulled up the stool that sat empty before Arlen's spell table. "You've been up here too long. I'll bet you haven't been out since you first sent me out to Sherra's." He reached for the sputtering simmering pot and removed the burning herbs from the frame that held it over its low mage-flame. "Losing track of your fragrance herbs . . . not a good sign, Arlen."

Arlen leaned back in his chair and raised an offended eyebrow. "I called, all right, but it wasn't to subject myself to a lecture."

"You need one," Carey replied, unperturbed. "If you hadn't kept me so busy running between wizards lately, I'd have made sure you remembered to take care of yourself."

"That's the problem exactly," Arlen said. "That's why I called. I've got another run for you—but this time we need to talk."

Carey abandoned the stool and wandered to one of the four unshuttered windows of the hold's uppermost room. Built along a hillside, the dwelling abandoned any pretense at symmetrical architecture and instead insinuated itself into the nooks and crannies of the steep rocky ground. The result was this five-walled room, of which no wall equalled the length of another. A good place for the creative pursuits of a wizard, Carey had decided long ago. He hung over the windowsill to get an unfettered look at the hilly fields and pastures of the area, while the brisk spring air made a pleasant counterpoint to the sunshine on his face. "So talk."

"Carey," Arlen said firmly, "I recognize the habits of your profession don't encourage inactivity. But do you think you could be still for just a few moments, and apply your entire concentration to what I have to say?"

Surprised but unstung by the wizard's admonition, Carey returned to the stool and shook his hair—dark blond instead of grey, but just as shaggy as Arlen's—out of his eyes. "All right," he said. "I'm listening." And then, seeing the smudges of fatigue around Arlen's eyes, and fully recognizing their somber expression, he was indeed truly alert to what his friend and employer had to say.

"I've found something new, Carey, something none of us have suspected even existed."

None of us—wizards, he meant. Carey nodded. "That explains why you've been sending everything through me instead of popping it around." Magical missives could be intercepted, but a lone rider was most difficult to detect—except through the mundane means of trackers and guesswork. "How dangerous is it?"

Arlen nodded, absently smoothing a frayed spot on his shirt. "Dangerous all the way around—but wondrous, as well. There are other worlds, Carey. Other dimensions. Other peoples . . . people who, I might add, don't seem to have any notion we exist."

"Then what's the danger?" Carey frowned.

"At this point, the danger is to them."

Carey shook his head once to show he wasn't following, and Arlen's expression grew intense.

"You know we wizards have checkspells in place, to prevent the unauthorized use of dangerous magics. What you may not realize is the time it takes to create one of those spells—the most inherently dangerous moment in the life of any hazardous new spell is the time between which it is discovered and the time the checkspell is in place. There's more than one person in this land who would use this particular knowledge for their own gain—and those other worlds can't know how to deal with a magic they may not possess."

Carey gave a skeptical snort. "I doubt they're as helpless as all that. Besides, what's to gain?"

"Entire worlds," Arlen said with certainty. "As far as I've been able to determine, once a traveler is spelled to one of these worlds, there remains only the thread of a connection between the two places. That gives the person in question all the magic they care to draw on—even in the worlds without magic—with none of the inconveniences of the Council's restraint." Arlen leaned forward, his dark eyes sparking with intensity. "Think past the everyday magics of night glows and cleansing spells, Carey. Think about those things that are used only when one of us without scruples manages to circumvent a checkspell, and how quickly they gain power. The bloody times in Camolen's history."

The skepticism faded; Carey stared at the wizard with widened eyes. "Damn."

Arlen leaned back, taking a deep breath that he released slowly through his long, straight nose. "There's more. These others have developed devices that accomplish some of the same things we can do with magic, including weapons that will work as well in our world as theirs. We've got to get this under control before one of the less conscientious among us figures out what we've got and how to use it. I hope your horses are well rested, Carey, because you're going to be busy."

Carey shrugged sturdy shoulders set atop a wiry frame. "That's what I'm here for."

"True enough." Arlen reached behind to scoop the lone object from the top of his writing desk, and held it out to Carey, who rose only long enough to take it. He settled back on the stool and studied the small blue crystal for a moment before glancing back up at Arlen.

"It's protection," Arlen said.

"Spellstone?" Carey asked. "Protection from what?" He reached into the neck of his tunic and brought out a heavy silver chain, upon which hung several colorful spellstones, and compared the new one to its fellows.

"We've been careful, but—" Arlen shook his head, his lips thinning in annoyance. "Word is out, I'm afraid. At the very least, Calandre knows of the new spell—Calandre, and whoever else she's told. She's been too good for too long. You're bound to be a target, Carey."

Carey set the small crystal carefully on the table, thinking about Arlen's former student. A woman his own age, Calandre had arrived with an enormous amount of talent and not a whit of patience. Her barely scrupulous magical shortcuts had kept her off the Wizard's Council year after year, and as her frustration grew, so did her rationalized, barely sanctioned methods. For several years she had been in her own hold—obtained from an aging wizard under questionable circumstances—and had not bothered to interact with the Council, save for response to the occasional summons. To all appearances, she was operating within the Council guidelines, but . . . "What about the shieldstone?" he asked.

"Still holds," Arlen assured him. "As long as you wear the stone, the only magic that affects you will be the spells you release yourself. But you know as well as I that there are other ways."

Unclasping the silver chain, Carey strung the new spellstone and replaced the collection around his neck. "No one's going to outrun me," he said confidently.

"Let's pretend that they do," Arlen said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. "That's what this crystal is for. I'm not sure just what effect it'll have—"

Carey looked at him in surprise. "You want me to fool around with an untested spell? I'll rely on my horses, I think."

"Did you hear nothing of what I have said?" Arlen said, anger flashing just bright enough to remind Carey who and what his employer was. "You'll be carrying information too crucial to lose! Everything I know of this new spell is in my head, Carey—except for the manuscript you'll be taking to Sherra. In that is everything I know about the new dimensions, and all my explorations into a checkspell. If anyone—and I mean anyone, from the lowest road pirate to the Precinct Guard—tries to take it from you, you invoke that crystal. It will take you to the only place you can't be reached."

Years of working with the wizard as friend and courier alerted Carey to the words that were not said. "Where?" he asked warily, then didn't give Arlen a chance to answer. "To one of those other worlds. You're sending me to a place that might not even know magic—how the hell am I supposed to get back?"

"It's a twofold spell," Arlen said steadily. "It's tied to this world; it'll bring you back when you invoke it again, and reverse any of the results."

"What about the recall? Why don't I just use that in the first place?"

"No! If you're too close to them, and you're running from someone with magic, they'll tap in and follow you right back here." Arlen sighed at Carey's frustration. "Normally that's not a problem—not with the shielded receiving room in the stable. But we can't take a chance. There we'd be—the manuscript and me, in the same hold with whoever's threatening us both. They'd get it all, and that would leave Sherra with no chance of formulating a checkspell in time to stop the trouble that would inevitably follow."

Carey frowned as the importance of this run—and its dangers—sank in past his protests. "All right, Arlen," he said slowly. "I understand." In the silence that followed, he put a hand to his chest, and felt the small lump of crystals. The run to Sherra's was long, a twisting route through thick woods and a deep river gully. Plenty of places for an ambush.

"I see that you do," Arlen said in relief. "I'm sorry, Carey. I wouldn't choose to put you in this danger, but I need someone I can trust absolutely."

Carey raised his head, a sharp motion that was the preamble of defense for his couriers.

Arlen forestalled him with a raised hand. "You're the only one I know who will invoke that new crystal," he specified. Even though it may take you into even worse danger, unspoken words they both knew.

"I'll take Lady," Carey said, a non sequitur that spoke of his capitulation, and a claim to Arlen's trust.

"Not the Dun?" Arlen, too, retreated to unspoken words.

Carey shook his head. "The Dun's fast—but her daughter can pivot so quick it's a wonder she doesn't turn us both inside out."

"Get her ready, then," Arlen said. "I'll be down to see you off."

* * *

Lady dropped her weight to her haunches, sliding in the loose dirt of the steep slope where her Carey had guided her. Friction skinned the hide off her hocks as Carey leaned back in the saddle, his hands a lifeline to her mouth in a balance of freedom and support—all the encouragement he could give her. But Lady needed no more encouragement, for Carey was scared. She felt it in the tension of his legs, heard it in his voice. She knew it from the desperate ploy that had sent them down the dangerous slope in the first place.

To her left flashed a sudden falling tangle of arms and legs, hooves and soft yielding flesh, driving her a step closer to equine panic; she lurched right to escape from the new threat.

"Easy, Lady," Carey panted as his legs closed against her sides, giving her reassurance and guidance. She took heart and as they gained the bottom of the steep hill she gathered herself and bounded over the intermingled bodies of man and horse. She landed hard, felt Carey take up the reins and lean forward in the saddle. "Go, Lady," he whispered, and her ears flicked back to scoop up his words.

She forgot about the tree-dodging chase in the forest, where they'd lost one pursuer to a thick trunk. She forgot about the mad scramble through the knee-high creek; even the dangerous slope disappeared from memory in the depth of her concentration. It was only the here and now, the run, the grunt of exhalation forced from her lungs at every stride she took. Foam dripped from the sides of her mouth and the reins lathered against her dun neck and still Carey whispered in her ear, guiding her as though he knew she lived only in her inner world of effort, with no care for what her eyes might see. Then the ground under her hooves turned hard and pebbly, and when Carey asked her for a hard left, she suddenly knew where they were, and what he would ask of her next. With rock to her left and only a narrow rim of a path beneath her, she listened to the caress of his legs, the shift of his weight, and pivoted in a rollback that sent her chest and head over empty air, high above the dry riverbed they'd paralleled.

"Good job, braveheart," Carey wooed her, his voice harsh in a dry throat. In seconds they met one of their pursuers, and Lady, following the pattern of endless drills, put her nose to the inside of the path and shouldered aside the other horse. Then another—bay flesh that dropped aside with an equine scream of fear—and the path was clear, clear until the narrow foothold widened, to where another man stood his ground on a flaming chestnut horse. He dropped his reins, one arm cocked behind, the other clutching a straining curved stick.

There was a sudden odd thump just behind her ears and Carey's body shifted wildly, sliding from the saddle, skewing Lady's balance. Her head yanked far to her left with a brutal jerk on the rein, and her body followed. Fear drove her flailing legs but there was no longer any ground beneath them, and they hurtled toward the death waiting in the hard rocky riverbed.

The world stopped around them. Arrested in midair, they were snatched by another force altogether, one that held Lady in a smothering grip and would not yield to her mental thrashing. She no longer felt Carey's failing grip on her black mane, nor his legs slipping off her sweat-darkened sides. Instead, her mind was twisted; her body knotted up, disappeared, reformed, and at last abandoned her, along with Carey and her senses.

* * *

Early spring in the park, and not warm enough by Dayna's standards. She forged ahead of Eric, who'd been distracted by a small, busy flock of kinglets in the underbrush. When he showed no sign of losing interest, she stopped, put her hands on narrow hips, and called back to him, "Coming? I thought you wanted to get those bluebird boxes checked out."

He uncoiled his lanky body from his crouch, looking at her with the perpetually bemused look he wore. "They'll still be there in another fifteen minutes," he said mildly, pulling at the yellow armband that labeled him a park volunteer.

Dayna merely ran a hand through her short, wedged sandy hair and waited for him.

"You didn't have to come," he said when he caught up. "If you had other things to do today, you should have done them. You know you don't enjoy this stuff if you have something else on your mind. I do."

"Have something else on your mind?" she responded, distraction so she wouldn't have to admit he was right.

Eric didn't miss a beat. "Know that you don't enjoy. Anyway, you're here now. You might as well appreciate it."

She looked up the significant distance between their heights and made a distinct effort to forget about the laundry piled on her bed, the bills waiting on her desk, the—no, forget it. "Okay," she said.

"Saw a weasel here last month," he commented. "You should have heard the chipmunks cursing him out!"

"Give me an example of a chipmunk curse," she challenged him.

"Greedy cheeks!"

"Nut waster!" Dayna said. "Fox bait!"

"Good one," Eric applauded. The bright, sharp chirp of the creature in question greeted them from the trees bordering the meadow they approached; a jay echoed with its own harsh warning, and the woods rustled with the movement of small creatures.

"Oops," Dayna said. "I guess we got a little loud."

Eric shook his head, curiosity lighting his features. "Nope. They're leaving the meadow, not running from us." He lengthened his steps and Dayna was forced to jog to keep up. They reached the edge of the meadow together and stopped, listening, watching. The meadow was still in the calm of spring, with short green spikes of grass just reaching through the dead thatch of winter. Three pole-mounted bluebird houses dotted the expanse, which remained as still as the slight breeze allowed. Dayna caught Eric's eye and shrugged.

He lifted one shoulder in reply and left the path to walk the perimeter of the clearing. Dayna fell in behind with a sigh, but he didn't go far before stopping short. "Holy shit," he breathed, and stared into the woods.

"What, what?" Dayna asked impatiently, and bumped him with her hip to move him over so she could see through the small gap in the brush. Her jaw literally dropped at the sight of dusky limbs and a tangle of leather equipment. After a moment the details sorted themselves out in her mind and she was able to discern that the limbs belonged to a young woman and the leather was a saddle and its accoutrements. Although her mind raced, it could provide no plausible reason a young woman would be lying in the woods clothed only in a saddle. "Yeah," she said finally. "Holy shit."

At the words, the young woman stirred. With a groan she shook her face free of the odd colored, ragged hair that had covered it; she opened her eyes and reacted with a strange, frightened huff that came from deep within her chest. She pulled herself awkwardly forward, out from beneath the saddle and the lather encrusted blanket, and Eric moved forward to help her.

She saw them for the first time. Her dark eyes widened with fright and her nostrils flared; she lurched to her feet and tried to run, but only got a few steps before she tripped, falling with a grunt.

Eric froze, dismayed, and Dayna tugged his arm. "Let me," she whispered. "There's no telling what she's been through."

Wordlessly, he moved back and crouched down, halving his height. Dayna took a step and said, "It's all right. We'll help you."

The young woman scrabbled backwards, paying more attention to her own clumsiness than to either Dayna or Eric. She looked down at herself and whimpered, and her eyes were huge and terrified. She thrashed to her feet again, just long enough to run headlong into a tree, after which she fell in a tangle of long limbs and curled around herself, trembling too hard to try again.

Dayna exchanged a dismayed glance with Eric; he shook his head. "Maybe she's on something," he said. "I'll go get help."

"No!" Dayna said emphatically. "I'm afraid she might hurt herself, and I can't handle her alone. Wait until we get her calmed down a little, okay?"

He looked at the still quivering huddle of woman and nodded reluctantly. Then he slipped off his loose lightweight jacket and said, "See if you can't get her covered up. She must be cold."

Dayna took the jacket and pushed her way through the twiggy brush between the meadow and the woods. The woman didn't react to her, and Dayna glanced back uncertainly; Eric nodded encouragement.

Another step, no reaction. Dayna quietly made her way to within a few feet of the woman, then went down on her knees and spoke quietly. "I want to help you," she said, but although she could see the dark eyes were open, they didn't seem to see her. Hesitantly, Dayna stretched out her hand.

"Be careful," Eric whispered.

Dayna nodded without taking her eyes from the withdrawn creature before her. Her unsteady hand brushed the naked shoulder without reaction. "I want to help you," she repeated softly. Her fingers stroked the coarsely textured hair, smoothed it in a cautious petting motion. "See, it's all right now." Was it her imagination, or had the trembling abated almost imperceptibly? "Take it easy now."

The woman stiffened, and Dayna froze, no less flighty than she. "Easy," Dayna repeated experimentally. "Take it easy." To her astonishment, the woman, still huddled in on herself, shifted her weight to lean against Dayna, pressing close.

"Oh, good, Dayna!" Eric encouraged, rustling in the brush behind her.

"Stay where you are," Dayna warned, her inflection still patterned to soothe. She smoothed back the odd hair and petted and consoled the woman, using the magic word easy liberally while she tried to take stock of what she and Eric had found. Long limbed and muscled like an athlete, the woman was bruised and scratched, both Achilles' tendons scraped raw and bloody. Her body bore no signs of abuse, but she was clammy with dried sweat and exuded an odd musky odor of effort.

Eric rustled behind them again, and Dayna bit her tongue on admonition when the woman didn't react—and when Eric seemed content, from the noises of it, to examine the saddle. "I don't get this," he said, a frown in his voice. "This blanket's soaking wet—smells like horse. Weird. I don't see any hoofprints . . . . Maybe there's something in the saddlebags . . . ."

Dayna didn't answer. She kept up her soothing patter of reassuring nonsense and thought, perhaps, that the woman who leaned against her no longer quivered quite as much, was possibly even beginning to relax.

After an excessively long pause, Eric reported, "Not much in here. A hammer, couple of nails, a horseshoe . . . it doesn't . . ." he trailed off into pensive silence, then picked up his thought. "These things don't look right. Like if I went into a store after them, they wouldn't look like this."

Dayna smiled tightly. "That's useful," she said, keeping her voice low. Her charge was definitely relaxing, unbothered by her conversation. "Isn't there anything that might tell us who she is?"

"Well, there's a packet of papers, but it's sealed."

"Open it," Dayna suggested.

Eric hesitated, then said, "I don't think I can do it without tearing them up. Besides, it looks pretty official, and it's got someone's name on it."

"What's the name?" Dayna said, rolling her eyes. She had no patience for dragging answers out of Eric, a process imposed on her any time he was in deep thought.

After another hesitation, he said, "I don't know. It's in a strange script. I suppose it might not be a name at all." After more rustling during which she supposed he was replacing the packet, he sighed heavily and said, "This just doesn't make any sense. How is she?"

"Better, I think. Maybe good enough so you can leave us, go get some help."

"I've been thinking about that," he told her.

Uh-oh. "Eric, this isn't one of your orphaned bunnies to take home and raise," she said, almost sharply. "Something's happened to this woman, and it ought to be reported."

He crawled up beside her and looked into the woman's face. The large dark eyes were only half open, and they noted him without alarm or any apparent care for her nudity in his presence. He took his jacket from where it lay next to Dayna and carefully offered it to her.

Her eyes did open all the way, then, and she drew back from Dayna, only enough to support herself independently. She cocked her head and leaned forward and sniffed the jacket.

Another incredulous glance flashed between Dayna and Eric. "Weird," he whispered, as she drew back again, cocked her head the other way, and brought the other side of her face up to the material. Apparently satisfied, she gave a small huff and sat awkwardly back on her haunches. She took no notice of her completely exposed breasts, but Eric couldn't be so blasé. Pinking slightly on his high, tightly drawn cheekbones, he slowly settled the jacket over her shoulders. She made no move to thread her arms into the sleeves and, after a moment, Dayna took her unresisting hand and guided it into the garment. Eric, on her other side, did the same, then fastened the zipper for her. It was an exercise in slow motion that seemed to bother the woman less than it bothered the two of them. She ducked her head down to rub her nose on the inside of her wrist and regarded them patiently, waiting for whatever they might choose to do next.

"Dayna . . . if we call the police, what's going to happen to her?"

"She'll get help," Dayna answered promptly.

"What, they'll put her in some state hospital? Lose her in the system?"

"And what do you propose to do, take care of her for the rest of her life? She obviously can't take care of herself."

"You don't know that. I think she deserves a chance to get over whatever shock she's had. Putting her into an impersonal system won't give her that chance," Eric said, a familiar stubborn note creeping into his voice.

"So you just want to walk her out of here, stuff her into your car, and take her home for a few days," Dayna said with sarcasm, hoping it would ram the absurdity through his stubbornness.

He was taken aback only for a moment. "I want to help her, Dayna. Don't you?"

Dayna gave an exasperated sigh. "And what if we take her home and three days later we discover the police have been looking for her, and that her family's frantic, and that we've done more harm than good?"

Eric rubbed his nose and said frankly, "I know there's a good chance this isn't the right thing to do. But I think it's about even with the chance that taking her to some authority is exactly the wrong thing to do."

Dayna said nothing, lost in the surprise that he was anywhere near being practical.

"How about this," Eric suggested. "Twenty-four hours of TLC. If she doesn't straighten out by then, well," he shrugged, "I guess we can call the police."

"Right," Dayna grumbled. "And explain to them why we didn't call earlier."


"All right," she interrupted him, looking at the trusting woman before her. There was something about the quality of that trust, especially in contrast with her earlier extreme fear, that made her feel just as Eric did—made her want to take the poor creature home and give her tea and a soft blanket to curl up with. Her mind replaced the tea and blanket with harsh sterile sheets and hospital food, and she knew she'd lost completely. "We'll take her to my place, not yours."

* * *

Lady was reluctant to move again. That her fall had ended in a gentle thump on fairly soft ground was not so hard to accept; it was almost insignificant beside the other things that flooded her senses. Merely opening her eyes had invited an assault of things outside her experience: colors that hadn't existed, a field of view that was all wrong, and an ability to focus without moving her head to sight in on an object.

Then she'd tried to move. Nothing worked right, her balance was gone, her sense of self was skewed. The sight of the two strangers had driven away the last remnants of sanity, merely because they, too, were unknowns. She was sinking deep into shock when a quiet voice had used one of her Words. One of Carey's Words. Easy, the voice had said, and then gentle hands had petted her, had let her lean and seek the safety of touch. Once she'd trusted the strangers, had believed the Word that meant they would take care of things for her, the unusual blanket was almost of no consequence. She was used to people who handled her hooves and body, and she was used to complying with their wishes.

But she didn't want to move again. Her body wasn't right yet. She listened to the man and woman quietly argue and became aware it wasn't only her body that was different. Words, words that she'd heard over and over but never assigned any significance to, suddenly fell into patterns. They still had no meaning for her, but she was suddenly aware that they could. She flared her nostrils in irritation and tried to understand what had changed, and what had been different before. She became suddenly confused about what she had—or hadn't—been able to comprehend before, and she whimpered, a noise that startled her just as much as her strange new vision.

"Easy," the woman said, and even that was enough to make her wonder how she could still discern this person as a woman, when her sense of smell had diminished so. But the deeply ingrained habit of response to her Words was so strong that, even so, she felt herself relax. Relax, and go along with it, and these people would make everything right again.

"Come with us," the man suggested, and almost against her will, she moved forward, for come triggered another response. She moved awkwardly, not sure what to do about the extra length in her hind legs until the man suddenly took her by the front legs and pulled her up to a rear.

Rearing was forbidden. But . . .

It felt completely natural. They encouraged her, they told her it was good. Haltingly, she walked the few steps to the meadow, then the yards to the hard dirt path. The man walked behind them, the saddle braced against his hip, Carey's saddlebags slung over the worn leather seat. The woman had the blanket, and before they'd gone far, she gingerly shook it out and offered to drape the cleanest side around Lady's shoulders. The man's strange blanket came only just below her hips, and Lady was glad to have something else against the chill. Almost by accident, she discovered she could hold the blanket in place with what should have been her front hooves.

Getting into the small metal stall proved to be a little awkward, and when it began to move she froze with fear. But by now the woman was more assured in handling her, and quickly soothed her, even as Lady herself realized she wasn't being hurt and perhaps there was nothing to fear after all.

Once she reached that point, she was able to recognize that the man was controlling the movements of the stall, and that there were many more similar stalls moving all around them. She heaved a big sigh for the perplexity of it all and retreated to her inner world, leaving large unblinking eyes behind. From there she listened to the conversation between the man and woman and let her body sway with the movement of their travel.

When they stopped, she focused her eyes and found them sitting before a barn, one of many in a long line of barns. A barn meant food and rest and she willingly followed them into it. Inside, it looked like no barn she'd ever been in, and she spent a long time checking it, approaching its clutter carefully and sniffing with a nose that no longer provided her the information that she needed. She let the blanket drop and discovered that her odd new hooves were sensitive to texture and shape—almost as sensitive as her muzzle should have been. With a variety of snorts and investigative huffing, Lady satisfied her natural curiosity.

After offering her a soft baggy covering for her lower half, the man and woman followed her at a distance, and let her explore. When her curiosity was slaked, the man flopped down on a soft low structure and heaved a big sigh of fatigue. That was a language she could understand and sympathize with. "Dayna," he said, and added something she couldn't understand.

Dayna. That had to be the woman's name; she certainly responded to it. And the man, she was almost sure, was called Eric. Knowing their names, she felt safer, but the knowledge wasn't enough to make her feel as secure as Carey could. She wanted Carey here, wanted him badly, and her throat began an unaccustomed ache.

Dayna said the only thing that could have distracted her. "Are you hungry?"

Lady's whole body straightened in attention. She knew all the variations of words that had to do with food, and she went right up to Dayna and watched her with expectant eyes.

Both Dayna and Eric laughed, and then, when they were seated around a round platform and Lady tried to suck up the liquid offered her in a stupidly long cylinder and it went up her nose, they laughed again; after clearing her nose, she felt a strange bubbling in her chest and it turned irrepressible and came out in a funny little laugh of her own.

And then she stopped short, and dropped the liquid, and froze in fear, hardly noticing as the drink dribbled over the edge of the platform and onto the soft material that now covered her strong dusky legs. It was that laugh, coming from her own changed body, that suddenly allowed her to understand.

She had turned into one of Carey's kind. With trembling fingers, she felt for her long, refined muzzle and discovered only a flat face with a ridiculously small nose. There were none of the sensitive whiskers she relied on so much. Unable to believe or accept, she reached for Dayna, but the smaller woman stiffened, for the first time showing signs of her own fear.

Eric's gentle word relaxed her and Dayna allowed Lady to touch her face, while one hand almost frantically compared the feel of her own. And then the ache came back to her throat, and she whimpered and, suddenly, she was crying, not knowing what it was, but only that she couldn't help herself.

* * *

When Lady woke, it was dark and she was on a soft bed, and even as she realized it, she knew the ability to recognize this structure as a bed, as much a bed as her own straw-strewn stall, was not a concept her equine self could have handled. But she was through crying for now, and her current concentration was on something much more urgent, for her bladder was as full as it ever got. She stood and moved quietly out of the room.

In the midst of her tears of the evening before, they had tried to lure her up the stepped hill to further depths of the barn, but she'd have none of it. As far as she knew, they were up there now, asleep. She walked through the food area to the back door, which posed no problems to a clever horse who'd been able to outwit many a latch with only her lips, and who now had hands, even if she didn't know that's what they were called. Following the instinct to avoid soiling her own space, she went outside and fumbled with the soft material around her lean hips, heaving a sigh of relief when she could finally crouch and relieve herself. Then she crept back to the warmth inside, suddenly aware of the soreness from the efforts of her run, and crawled back into the bed.

After that she slept lightly, in the manner of her kind. Her mind raced with unaccustomed notions, and the throat ache crept up on her almost unawares. This time her response to it was anger, an emotion she was well acquainted with. She was angry to be here, and angry at whatever had caused it to happen. She wanted to find Carey and go home. By morning she knew she must learn to communicate with Dayna and Eric; she'd even practiced quiet words with her newly flexible mouth and lips. For a horse that was a large chunk of thinking and when Dayna ventured down from the upper level, Lady was as tired as she'd been the day before.

She got out of her bed with an involuntary groan, finding that the last quiet hours of the night had tied her abused muscles into knots. The scrapes on her lower legs were stuck to the soft material and every motion tugged at them. Reacting to the prickle as to fly bites, she stomped one leg several quick times, then repeated it with the other, freeing the scabs. Dayna frowned at her but Lady was through, having accomplished her goal. Soon, she was sure, Dayna or Eric would treat the wounds, as Carey would have in their place.

She followed Dayna into the food area, attuned to her growling stomach. As puny as it was, her nose picked up the scent of apple, and she found a bowl of fruit she hadn't noticed the evening before. As Dayna went about the arcane business of preparing food Lady didn't recognize, she helped herself to an apple and, mindful of her changed chewing apparatus, carefully nibbled at it.

Yesterday Dayna had seldom spoken directly to her, other than her efforts to comfort. Now she kept up a running patter, and often looked at Lady, looking for a response. Lady gave her the only one she had. "Dayna," she said proudly, if awkwardly.

Dayna dropped the implement she was using to mix eggs and looked at her with widened eyes. "Dayna?"

Lady thought it had been quite clear, so she repeated herself with some impatience. "Dayna."

Eric chose that moment to wander in and, unlike Dayna, he was clearly slow to wake up. While Dayna was in a new blanket, a fuzzy shapeless thing with a girth, Eric still wore what he had had on the day before. His hair was a mess and even as he wandered to the big box with the cold air, he gave a huge yawn. Dayna tugged at his arm and spoke quickly, almost sharply; Eric turned to give Lady an interested appraisal.

She could tell he wanted to hear her new word as well. With some dignity she said, "Dayna. Eric."

His eyebrows rose into the unkempt mess of his bangs. "Dayna," he said, touching Dayna. "Eric," he added, touching his own chest. And then he put his hand on her own arm.

Her own name was one she'd known all along. Delighted, she said carefully, "Dun Lady's Jess."

* * *

"Dun Lady's Jess?" Dayna repeated in perplexion, once again second-guessing her decision to bring the woman home. "That's not a name."

"She seems to think it is," Eric said, grinning at the pride in their new friend's face. "She seems to think it's quite a good one, in fact."

Dayna regarded the woman thoughtfully. "I wonder what language she speaks. She's certainly got a terrible accent—although it does explain why she hasn't said anything until now."

"She sounds more like someone who's never spoken at all, not someone who speaks French or German or something," Eric said almost absently, taking the spatula from Dayna's unresisting hand to give the eggs a stir. "These are almost done. Is she having any?"

"Who knows?" Dayna shrugged, irritated by Eric's characteristic refusal to deal with the important aspects of an issue. She left the egg serving to him and touched the table, naming it for . . . Dun Lady's Jess.

"Table," the woman obediently repeated. Still nibbling the apple, she followed Dayna around the room with her eyes, repeating the items Dayna named. Her voice was low and throaty, and the words came out thickly, somewhat slurred. Until Dayna pulled at her robe.

"Blanket," the woman said with assurance before Dayna had a chance to give it her own name.

Eric set three plates on the table and said, "You'd think she'd tell us what some of these things are in her own language, if she had one."

"Blanket?" Dayna repeated, sitting and taking a forkful of egg without ever taking her eyes from their guest. She plucked at Eric's shirt as he sat, and waited for a response.

"Blanket," the woman said, nodding. She sniffed carefully at the steam rising from the scrambled eggs and gave them a skeptical look, checking to see that both Dayna and Eric had eaten of theirs. Ignoring the fork, she took a tentative sample with her fingers. She didn't quite spit it out, but Dayna had the impression it had been a close thing.

"Maybe she'd prefer cereal," Eric suggested mildly. "Or cantaloupe, if you've got some."

Without answering, Dayna retrieved the plastic container of sliced melon and cantaloupe mixed with grapes and strawberries, and offered it in place of the eggs. The woman's eyes widened in unmistakable delight and she helped herself, chewing each morsel thoroughly before taking another.

"I don't think we're going to get much out of her before this evening, unless we can teach her English in one day," Dayna said skeptically, returning to her eggs.

Eric was watching Dun Lady's Jess, unaffected by the comment. "Jess?" he asked.

The woman was slow to respond, but when she realized she was being addressed, she carefully swallowed and said, "Lady."

"That's not much of a name, not here," Eric said thoughtfully. "Maybe we'll just call you Jess. You learn enough English, you can set us straight." He scraped the last of the egg from his plate with a piece of toast and sat back in his chair. "How about I leave you two alone long enough to go home and take a shower, change my clothes. Seems to me she could use some cleaning up, too."

"You got that right," Dayna agreed. "Just keep in mind that I'm working the hotel's evening shift tonight. We need to come to some kind of decision about her."

Eric mumbled assent, said, "Bye, Jess. See you later," and dumped his plate in the sink on the way out.

Dayna looked across the table at Jess and heaved a sigh. "C'mon, Jess. Let's head for the shower."

She had planned to get things done while Jess cleaned herself up—dishes, stripping the sheets of the guest bed, maybe even get the laundry sorted and ready to go. She hadn't counted on a Jess who still eyed the stairs warily, who acted like she'd never seen the inside of a shower before. Who ran into the door frame in her haste to escape a flushed toilet. Dayna caught up with her at the head of the stairs and calmed her, then carefully explained the fixtures of the bathroom. As with everything, once Jess got the hang of it, she proceeded with confidence, but a stumble into the unknown would stop her short. When Dayna finally left her, splashing happily in the tub in lieu of the obviously scary shower, she plumped down on her bed and put her head in her hands. Good Lord, never mind Eric's half-assed comment about English being her first language—I'd swear this is her first house.

Still numbly shaking her head, Dayna went to gather her laundry, including the stretched old sweats that had served Jess; they were all Dayna had that might fit the significantly taller, rangy woman, and she'd hardly want to put them back on after she was clean. She stared at the pants for a moment, trying to figure out what she and Eric had stumbled into. For once, it wasn't a matter of convincing her lanky friend that he had—again—left reality behind. This time, she wasn't sure what reality was. She thumped down both sets of stairs to the basement and dumped the laundry in the machine, setting the controls with unaccustomed vigor, frustrated by her quandary.

With the laundry churning away, she ducked into the downstairs shower stall for her own cleanup. When she came out, still toweling her hair dry, Jess was waiting for her, sporting Dayna's own robe. On Dayna it swirled comfortably around her ankles; it now fell just below Jess' knees. For the first time Dayna realized the extent of the scrapes adorning those legs, and she could have kicked herself for forgetting about them.

Jess didn't bat an eye at the ensuing first aid products. She sat patiently and, it seemed, handed herself unequivocally into Dayna's care. Dayna thought of her cautious reaction to just about everything else she'd seen and added another senseless puzzle piece to her quickly growing collection.

* * *

Jess—for Lady reluctantly conceded her name to them—spent the day following Dayna around the house, watching the woman at her chores, listening to her identify the objects around her. Words swirled around in her head, mixing with the countless conversations she'd heard in her uncomprehending equine form. After lunch she retreated to her bed—the sofa, it was called—for a short nap, unable to process any more. When she woke, the patterns of the words, past and present, had begun to grow clearer in her mind. Isolated words in smatterings of conversation combined to make sense, in a way that seemed not at all strange to her; she had no similar learning processes to compare it with.

At any rate, she woke with the determination to communicate her wants to Dayna. And what she wanted was Carey.

While she slept, the barn seemed to have undergone some kind of transformation. The random piles of clutter and papers were gone, formerly dusty surfaces shone, and there was a neat collection of blankets in a basket by the stairs. Jess took a careful look around to make sure there were no other, less innocuous changes, then followed the sound of voices to the food room. There she found Dayna amidst an accumulation of neatly sorted papers, waving a small stick at Eric to emphasize her words.

In front of Eric lay Carey's saddlebags. On the floor beside his chair was Jess' saddle and bridle, the crupper and breast band, and the freshly cleaned blanket. Eric tipped his cap back to look up at her and said cheerily, "Hi, Jess. Sit, have something to eat."

Dayna took one look at her and sprang from her chair, interposing herself between Jess and Eric to grab the open edges of Jess' borrowed blanket and overlap them, snugging them securely with the girth.

Eric shook his head in quiet amusement. "She's safe from me, Dayna."

"Fine. But she's got to learn."

"Why wouldn't she know already?" he asked thoughtfully.

Jess only followed the merest outline of the conversation and didn't have the slightest idea what they were talking about learning. At the moment, she didn't care. "Dayna," she pointed. "Eric . . ." and herself, "Lady." Then she touched the saddlebags, a caress that expressed all her devotion to the man who owned them. "Carey."

"Saddlebags, Jess," Eric said.

"She does that sometimes," Dayna interposed, licking a small square and pressing it onto one of the rectangular papers. "Just like all our clothes are blankets and that—" she pointed to the robe belt, "—is a girth. She might not know English, but she's got a few words she won't budge on."

Jess' phantom tail switched in annoyance. She went through the naming routine again and then tugged at the robe on her arm. "Dayna," she named it.

Dayna gave her a puzzled look. "You know that's not me. That's a robe—or a blanket, if you have to have it your way."

Impatient, Jess snatched the cap from Eric's head. "Eric." The small stick from Dayna's grasp. "Dayna." The saddle and bridle. "Jess." The saddlebags. "Carey."

"What—?" Dayna exploded.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Eric said, tumbling over his words so Jess understood none of them. "I think I get it. The robe belongs to you, Dayna, and so does the pen. The cap is mine—and the saddlebags belong to someone named Carey?"

He directed the last at Jess, who let out a sigh of relief and finally sat. She looked him right in the eye and pointed at herself. "Carey."

"What!" Dayna repeated. Her voice had risen considerably.

"Easy, kiddo, now is not the time to push feminist power lingo on her. I think she's really trying to tell us something."

"What, that she belongs to someone named Carey? Slavery's out, in case you hadn't heard," Dayna said acerbically.

"Dayna, relax, okay?" He held her gaze until she looked away and nodded, a silent language at which Jess was much more adept. Then he gave Jess his attention. "Jess . . . you understand us, don't you? A little?"

Jess tried her first nod, a gesture she'd seen many times and finally now understood.

"The saddle and bridle are yours," Eric said slowly, pointing at her.

Another nod.

"The saddlebags belong to your friend Carey."

She thought about that a moment. She wasn't sure about friend, but . . . "Carey," she affirmed, drawing the saddlebags closer to herself. Then she reached for the bridle. The metal pieces made the comfortable homey clatter she was used to, and she folded her hand around the double-jointed snaffle to enclose the copper roller that had often entertained her tongue. She looked deliberately at Eric and touched her chest, where the old robe was once again beginning to gap between her breasts. "Carey."

Eric retrieved his cap and thoughtfully jammed it on his head, while Dayna looked first at him, and then at Jess, before finally exploding out of the chair. "I'm not going to encourage this. The sweats should be dry by now—I'm going to get them, and get her dressed."

Jess had snorted and shied at Dayna's sudden movement, but settled quickly. Eric was still listening to her, and she dismissed Dayna to give him all her attention. She studied him across the table, her thick hair unheeded where it had settled in her eyes. He was a tall man, rangy but without her own athletic build. His face was a little too spare, but she liked his eyes. They were dark, slightly uptilted, and nothing but mild. In them were none of the rules that flickered in Dayna's eyes. Jess had been ridden by men whose eyes reflected such self-imposed rules—but not for long. They invariably started a battle for possession of the reins and Carey never let these unyielding riders continue. Jess thought of Carey's hands: give and take, request and thanks. She stared helplessly at Eric, knowing she just didn't have the words to explain.

"Jess," Eric said, nothing more, just the name he'd given her. He'd seen the frustration and loss in her face, and that one word held his own helplessness: the inability to fix things for her. He touched the saddlebags, a curious touch nothing like her own. "If these are Carey's, why is the bridle yours? And the saddle?"

She stared another moment and dredged up what words she could. "Carey . . . feeds me."

"She takes care of you?" Eric said, seizing gratefully on her effort.

"Yes." Then she frowned and said, tentatively, "He."

"Is he your husband? Uh, brother? Father?" Eric tried, sinking back into their failure of communication when Jess responded to each with a slight shake of her head.

"Were you together in the woods?"

"Running. Yes." She thought of that chase and scowled.

"Where did the saddle come from?"


"I know it's yours. But surely you weren't running with that thing."

Jess seemed to grow a little taller where she sat, hearing his apparent understanding. "Yes!"

Baffled, Eric said, "Running with a saddle. With Carey. We found you and the saddle—" he said, looking bemused over the whole image, "—but where's Carey?"

Jess lost her grasp on words, leaning forward with a tremble of intensity.

In a flash of insight, Eric said, "You don't know!"

"Yes!" Please, please, help me find him.

The unspoken plea was not lost on Eric. "But you want to know, don't you," he asked softly. "Of course you do. What's his last name? We can call a few places, see if he's there."

Jess sat back, defeated. She shook her head and looked down at the bridle in her hands.

Eric put his chin on the heel of his hand and sighed. "No last name. That's going to make it a lot harder. What were you running from?"

Jess heard Dayna come up behind her and stop. She lifted her head, listening for further movement, and returned her attention to Eric when Dayna seemed content where she was. "Men," she explained, and pantomimed the notch and release of the arrow that had hit Carey. "Jess—I—run for Carey. Until—" and she repeated the pantomime.

"You ran for him," Eric repeated without comprehension. "You mean you ran with him?"

"No," Jess said confidently. "For him." She flung her head up, and her clean, strong features held her pride. "Fast. Strong. I," and she touched her chest again, "run for Carey."

Eric shook his head again. "Sorry, Jess, I just don't understand."

Jess picked up the bridle, splaying the fingers of one hand to spread the crown piece and the other to hold the bit out in front of her. "Horse," she said, clearly, watching his face for comprehension. "Dun Lady's Jess."

Eric stared, first in the bafflement of noncomprehension, then the shock of understanding. "Jess—" he protested, as Dayna cut in from behind.

"That's just great. I don't think there's anything we can do for her, Eric."

Her voice held the finality of judgement, the finality of her rules. Jess' pride drained away, and fear took its place, for in that finality was rejection, and the loss of this safe place.

* * *

Dayna couldn't believe she'd let Eric talk her into this pointless little trip. Jess was probably on the loose from some institution, and the only thing to do was see to her return—and to the return of the saddle, bridle, and saddlebags, which were no doubt stolen.

It could do no harm, he'd argued. She was less sure of that, but somehow, here they stood, in the aisle of The Dancing Equine Dressage Center, waiting for Jaime Cabot to finish cooling out her horse so Jess could have a better look around.

"I don't know what good you think this is gonna do," she muttered, once again, to Eric, while Jess waited between them and stood very tall, drinking in the scents and sounds of the stable.

Eric, once again, shrugged. "She says she's a horse. This'll give her a chance to see, well, that she can't possibly be."

"If it was that easy, someone would have straightened her out long ago."

Another shrug. "Maybe Jaime can talk some sense into her. Anyway, she knows a lot more about horses than we do."

That was true enough. Jaime competed in the upper echelons of dressage and could swap horse jargon with the best of them. "It's pointless," Dayna intoned, crossing her arms. She leaned against the plank wood wall and stared sourly at Jess' tall straight back. Her choppy hair was more evident from this vantage; although the front strands fell just short of her shoulders, there were also coarse lengths that fell unevenly to the middle of her back. And though Dayna had classified the odd color as similar to dark wet sand, there seemed to be some kind of darkened stripe running through the middle of the unparted mess.

Jaime, a short woman who was dwarfed by a tall young Hanoverian, led the animal to its stall at the far end of the aisle and hauled the heavy stall door closed behind it. She twitched the end of her long dark braid behind her shoulder and came to meet them, looping the lead rope around her hand. "Hey, guys, what's up?" she asked cheerfully.

"We found a friend who's . . . interested in horses," Eric said, casting Dayna a glance as he spoke up before she had the chance. "Jaime, this is Jess. Think she could look around?"

"Sure," Jaime said. "Just let me turn Silhouette into the ring first." A few minutes was all it took to turn the stalled mare loose in the indoor arena at the end of the aisle. Dayna glanced at her watch, a distinct message to Eric that she was not about to show up late for work because of this futile venture.

Jaime took them on a stall-to-stall tour, telling Jess a little about each of the horses—boarders, competition horses, retirees. Jess was a bundle of curiosity and intensity and movement, greeting each animal with an exchange of puffing breaths—and, for two of the horses, squeals of annoyance. Jaime's expression changed from curious to poker-faced; when they reached the end of the aisle they left Jess leaning on the arena gate, watching Silhouette play, while Jaime led Eric and Dayna to the opposite end of the stable.

"Who the hell is this woman?" Jaime asked bluntly. "She's damn odd, I can see that much for myself."

"Dun Lady's Jess," Eric said, and offered a smile.

Jaime's hazel eyes narrowed. "That's a horse name, not a woman's."

"Exactly," Dayna said, staring hard at Eric. "That's the problem."

"Come on, you two. I don't know what you're up to, but as long as you brought it here, you might as well let me in on it."

"Both barrels," Dayna warned her. "We found her at Highbanks yesterday. She was naked and scared to death; she had a saddle and bridle with her. She doesn't know much English, or much of anything else for that matter, but she did manage to tell us that she's a horse."

Jaime gave a snort of laughter, but her amusement died away when they didn't laugh along with her. She looked at Eric for confirmation and he gave an apologetic shrug. "Well," Jaime said, her voice too level, "she does have the coloring of a dun."

Dayna was momentarily speechless, until Jaime smirked; she smacked the equestrian on the arm. "Not funny."

Jaime's smile faded only slowly. "What else do you want me to say?"

"We were sort of hoping that just being here would knock some sense back into her," Eric said, looking over both women's heads to the ring, where Jess now frolicked along with the frisky mare. As if inexorably drawn to the sight, the three silently moved down the aisle.

Unaware of or unconcerned about their presence, Jess played chase with the leggy bay mare, a romp punctuated by abrupt pivots and change of course. Agile and quick, Jess matched the mare move for move, bluffing out her charges and squealing in mock anger when they closed on one another. Dayna's too-small sweats and Eric's too-big shirt did nothing to hide the fluid movement of the body beneath.

"She's an odd one," Jaime murmured. "As close to a horse as anyone I've seen."

"You're not serious," Dayna said in horror.

"Just thinking," Jaime affirmed. "Look at her. The color and texture of her hair . . . she's a dun all right, Dun Lady's Jess. Did you see the way she greeted the other horses?"

"Great. She's been studying up," Dayna said flatly. She squared off to face Eric. "Look. I want to help her as much as you do, but I don't think there's anything we can do. She belongs somewhere where she can be taken care of. If you don't call the police, I will. I've got to go to work and I can't fool around with this any longer."

Jaime winced. "Ouch. I can see you've been in complete agreement on this one."

"But Dayna, she's learning all the time! If we just give her a little longer, she'll be able to tell us just what's happened, and who she is."

"Eric, we should have called the police in the first place. They'll probably know who she is—maybe who Carey is, if he even exists. I know you want to help her," Dayna shook her head, her voice softening for the first time. "So do I. But—" she broke off as Eric's uptilted eyes widened, and turned around to find that Jess had abandoned her play, and was standing well within earshot. Her eyes were wild and alarmed, and as Dayna took a step forward, hand outstretched in a gesture of reassurance, Jess whirled and sprinted away.

In an instant, Jaime had nimbly hopped the gate to follow her, shouting behind her, "She's not going to stop!" a warning Dayna understood only when she saw Jess crash into the gate at the opposite side of the ring. By the time she'd followed Jaime and Eric over the first gate, Jess was through, the second gate swinging in her wake.

"Damn," Dayna panted under her breath, losing ground at every step. She made it to the other gate in time to see Jess confront the five foot paddock fence; she gave an enormous leap and dove over it, then seemed stunned when her arms gave way on landing. She managed to untangle herself and was on the run again, with nothing between her path and fields of waist-high corn, when Jaime shouted the word that changed everything.

"Whoa!" Her voice was full of authority and Jess stumbled, her trained reflexes betraying her. No more than a moment's hesitation, it was enough to allow Jaime to close on her, to stand at the paddock fence and speak softly, reassuring her with words Dayna couldn't hear. Eventually Jess climbed back through the fence, and Jaime took her hand and held it as they walked together, through the paddock and past Dayna and Eric, and into the ring, where Silhouette waited, exhilarated and pleased by the excitement. Bemused, Dayna followed, and Eric closed the gate behind them.

Jaime led them into the stable office and seated herself on the short couch, pulling Jess down beside her. Eric perched on the edge of the desk and left the desk chair to Dayna.

"I don't know just what's going on here," Jaime said firmly, "but I do know you haven't dealt fairly with Jess."

Dayna felt a scowl form on her face, until she looked at Jess and recognized, with a stab of shame, the betrayal brimming in those dark eyes.

Jaime nodded at her reaction. "If you're going to make decisions about Jess, I think she needs to be in on the conversation, don't you?"

"But she doesn't really understand," Dayna protested feebly.

"No?" Jaime arched an eloquently skeptical eyebrow. "She understood well enough to know you'd washed your hands of her."

"You're right," Eric said suddenly. "Jess, I'm sorry."

She regarded him silently, neither forgiveness or judgement on her face, only doubt.

"Jess," Jaime said matter-of-factly, "Dayna and Eric are concerned about you. They don't understand what's happened to you, or why you behave differently than we do, and they're trying to decide how to best help you."

Jess held her breath for a moment and let it out in a deep sigh. "Good girl," Jaime said, and squeezed her hand.

"Did you understand that?" Dayna asked Jess in surprise. At Jess' nod, she added, "You didn't understand us when we found you though, right?"

"No," Jess said, then hesitated, glancing at Jaime, who nodded encouragement. But instead Jess shook her head and brought her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them to look at no one, obviously not trusting them enough to try to convey her thoughts.

Eric said softly, "You thought we would help you and we were talking about sending you away. We might be strange to you, but everything else is twice as strange, isn't it?"

Jess nodded mutely.

"All right," Dayna said, finally catching the mood of this forthright conversation. "There are some things we need to know. Have you been sick lately? Been in any kind of a hospital?" Jess shook her head, and her hands crept down to the bony knobs of her ankles to feel the dressings that covered her scrapes. "Have you done something wrong, or against the law?"

A decided shake of her head.

"Where do you come from then?" Dayna asked in frustration. "Why is everything so strange to you?"

Jess shook her head helplessly. "Send me away . . . ?"

"I don't know," Eric's quiet voice took the sting out of the words. "We don't know how else we can help you."

"Carey," Jess said, a heartbreaking plea.

"I know," Eric said.

* * *

Late afternoon. With Dayna on her way to work, the others retired briefly to Jaime's house to call around in search of Carey.

"We're calling the places where Carey might be if he was hurt, or if he went for help," Eric explained absently, dialing the first of the emergency numbers listed on the telephone book's inside cover. He perched atop a stool, balancing the white pages on his knee, the phone crammed between his neck and shoulder. Jess sat quietly at the kitchen half-bar while Jaime poked around in the refrigerator, eventually pulling out a plastic soda bottle. Ice, then glasses . . . she felt Jess' gaze on her as she poured the drinks and pushed them across the bar.

Jaime might have guessed that Jess' eyes would widen at the carbonation, though perhaps the sudden giggle was less predictable. Jess checked to see that Eric's drink was behaving in the same bubbly way and tried a sip, then a swallow. She looked absolutely astonished at the belch that followed; in the background, Eric smirked, but Jaime tried to keep a straight face. "That happens," she said. "But when it does, it's polite to say 'excuse me.' " In the back of her mind, she was trying not to ascribe any significance to the fact that horses were incapable of belching, that Jess was certainly paying attention to the details if she knew her surprise was appropriate.

"Excuse me," Jess tried dutifully.

Eric hung up the phone with a clunk and reached for his drink. "No one named Carey in any of the hospitals," he said. "At least, none of 'em within 60 miles. I figure that's far enough, if he was on foot like Jess. Was he naked, too, Jess?" he asked straightforwardly.

Jess had one finger held above the surface of the soda, where the carbonation fizz bounced off of it. She put the finger in her mouth and said, "Naked?"

"Like you were when we found you. No clothes." At her continued lack of response he rolled his eyes and said, "No blankets, Jess."

"Blankets, yes," she answered.

"Blankets?" Jaime inquired, and heard the story of the few objects Jess identified on her own. She absorbed it with a thoughtful finger against her lips, then shook her head. "This is . . . pretty strange." The words she finally settled on were woefully inadequate, but she knew she would find none better. "But as long as we're talking about clothes, my brother's got some things he never wears, and she looks about his size. Let me see if I can't find something better than what she's got on."

But Jess had been distracted, lured to the doorway between kitchen and family room, where the low murmur of a television had caught her sensitive ears. It took Jaime a moment to realize what had attracted her; her ears had sorted out and chosen to ignore the faint babble when she entered the house. To her it meant her younger brother Mark had left the TV on when he'd left the house, sometime during her morning training sessions. To Jess, apparently, it was a wonder.

A Roy Rogers western blazed black-and-white action on the screen, mixing running horses with hopelessly hokey but pleasantly sentimental songs. The hero's horse was faster than anybody else's and Jess watched those chase scenes with complete and rapt attention, on her knees, her weight resting on splayed ankles.

"It's only a story," Eric tried to explain more than once, causing Jaime to wonder how on earth there had remained this soul uncorrupted by even the very thought that somewhere, there existed this world of television and its play-acted images. She and Eric sat on the short couch behind Jess and the afternoon drifted away as the short movie ended and another began; Eric got caught up in the movies and Jaime found herself watching Jess more than the television. It was she who called an end to it, after a chase scene in which a stand-in horse was wire-tripped at the edge of a high cliff to plunge into the river below. She muted the sound with the TV remote and nudged Eric's attention to Jess, who sat pale and shivering.

Eric blinked at the sight. "Jess, it's only a story, remember? People make up a story and film it so we can sit here and watch and pretend it's real. But the good part is that we know the guy on that horse didn't really get hurt."

"Horse?" Jess asked unhappily, brows wrinkled in concern.

"The horse?" Eric fumbled, and, when understanding hit, hastily added, "The horse was all right, too. It's just pretend."

Jaime gave him a sharp look, knowing that the movie had been filmed in an era during which the horse's condition would not have been of much concern. But a second look at Jess' distress made her agree with Eric's unqualified reassurance. Jess' dark eyes remained touchingly eloquent, as open and candid as a child's—or certain types of honest horses.

Jaime closed her eyes and shook the ridiculous notion out of her thoughts, actually shook her head in emphasis. Then it was Eric's turn to nudge her; he took the remote away and turned the sound back on.

Jaime opened her eyes to a news break featuring a John Doe story. The man had been found wandering Route 23 just north of Columbus; naked, incoherent and violent, he'd been apprehended and sedated, and the search for his identity was on. The newsreel footage showed a middle-aged man with flaming chestnut hair, interspersed with the grainy on-scene video of police officers rounding the man up—with conveniently blurred spots hiding the man's genitals. The officers had had their work cut out for them, for the fellow was agile and fast, long-legged and apparently tireless—according to the report, it had taken an hour and a half to corner him in a drainage ditch.

Jaime found her eyes unaccountably straying from the television to Jess, who was completely lost in the story. In her mind's eye she saw Jess and Silhouette, wheeling, romping, reveling in their exertions.

"Is that Carey?" Eric asked abruptly. A glance at his expression showed that he, too, had made some sort of connection between Jess and John Doe.

But Jess appeared startled at the thought. "No," she said, and pointed to the screen. "Chestnut."

Jaime gave a short laugh. "She's right about that, although most people would consider that guy's hair to be an unusual shade of red. What color is Carey's hair, Jess?"

After a thoughtful moment, Jess shrugged. "Dayna," she offered.

"Sandy blond, like Dayna's," Eric decided.

Jaime shook her head. "I'm not sure I need this, Eric. I wish Dayna could have dealt with it a little better."

"You know Dayna," Eric said. "I know you're busy, Jaime, but this is really the perfect place for Jess to take a few days and sort herself out. Besides, I'm sure she'll be a lot of help around the stable. Unless you have some doubts that she can handle the horses."

Jaime snorted. "Oh, she knows horses all right." She watched Jess in silence for a moment; released from the conversation, Jess was leaning forward, her finger touching the freeze-frame picture of John Doe. Her ill-fitting sweats tugged against her hips and revealed a generous area of lower back. Very lower back. Jaime stood up. "Once upon a time, I was hunting up some clothes for her." Back into efficiency mode, she turned off the television and motioned for Jess to follow her upstairs.

A change of clothing meant, of course, that Jess had to face zippers, but the sweatshirt pullover was easy enough. The old denims were a little loose but stayed up without a belt. By then Eric had gone back to the telephone to finish his search for Carey—or Carey's body—and could do no more without actually involving Jess with the police. And that, he told Jaime, he was still reluctant to do, not because they wouldn't honestly try to help her, but because they were bureaucracy, and Jess' claims would set them into helping from a different direction—fixing Jess rather than finding Carey.

Jaime felt she had little choice—not to mention plenty of room in the rambling old farmhouse that had housed two generations of the Cabot family and now stood too quiet with only herself and her brother in occupancy. Jess, she said, could stay. She was short of stable help right now, anyway, and if there was only one thing she knew about Jess, it was that the woman understood horses. She was even resigned to paying for a pair of shoes for the footloose Jess, not to mention some underwear—but that was before Eric hauled the saddle and saddlebags out of his car, and showed her the pouch of gold.

* * *

"I knew if I told Dayna about it, she'd insist on calling the police," Eric said, tilting his hand to shift the pile of small square gold pieces. They were crudely stamped in runes that matched the lettering addressing the sealed document, and there were eleven of them.

Jaime teased a coin off of his hand to fall into her own, and held it to reflect the light from the window. "No doubt about that. But just because Carey had this gold, doesn't mean he did anything wrong to get it."

"He had it and he was running," Eric corrected. "Jess, you know anything about this stuff?"

She hadn't been paying much attention to them—she'd found her abandoned soda and seemed disappointed that she couldn't coax bubbles out of it. Now she let it be and took the coin Jaime held out. She considered it a moment, and looked at the pouch that lay on the bar. "Carey," she announced.

"You mean it belongs to Carey," Eric clarified.

Jess nodded.

Jaime looked at the sealed document in Eric's hands. "And that doesn't even give you a clue?"

"Even if I could get it open, I think it's written in some bizarre esoteric language."

"If you could get it open?"

He shrugged, sheepishness coming over his tightly drawn features. "This seal . . . I don't know what it's made of. I can't break it. I tried just prying it off, but the paper—or whatever this stuff is—started to tear. I think if we force it, we're going to destroy it. Maybe it needs some kind of solvent."

"How about, 'open, sesame'?" Jaime asked wryly. "I do agree with you, though. There's no point in tearing the thing up if it's not likely to tell us anything. I've got to go into Columbus early next week—I'll take a copy of the words on the front to the OSU language department. If there's someone there who can translate, maybe then we'll try a little harder to open it." She looked at Jess. "It would be so much easier if she could just tell us the whole story." Abruptly, she held out the pouch, and Eric spilled the gold into it. She cinched the pouch closed with a gesture of finality, and took the remaining piece from Jess, holding it up between them. "I'll wait a few more days, keep an eye on the papers. If nothing shows up, I'll see about selling this. After all, she's got to have clothes, and some personal stuff."

"Selling it?" Eric repeated doubtfully. "Can you do that? Won't they want to know what it is, and where it came from?"

Jaime dismissed his concern. "Gold's going for about five-fifty an ounce—that's all a gold trader cares about. If you're really worried, five minutes and a propane torch would probably get rid of these weird letters. Of course, I don't know how this Carey guy is going to feel about us spending his money."

"He shouldn't have left Jess alone," Eric said defensively. "Sell the thing. Get her something really nice."

* * *

Jaime spent most of her days in the barn, where Jess was happy enough to clean stalls, feed, and lead the horses to turnout. She found Jess ever reluctant to speak, although she often caught the woman responding to one of the horses with some throaty nonverbal comment. Caught up in her own busy schedule, Jaime seldom had time to devote to socializing with the reclusive newcomer, although she was careful to check the newspapers for any mention of a missing woman. She didn't spend any significant time with Jess until nearly a week had passed.

One of Jaime's best lesson horses was scheduled for minor surgery in Columbus, an hour's drive from The Dancing. She wanted a companion for the drive; Jess needed clothes. They dropped the horse off at the university clinic and Jaime made a quick stop at a gold dealer, then dragged Jess into a mall—almost literally—and outfitted her with practical jeans and a variety of men's pullover shirts, which turned out to be much easier to fit to her sturdy shoulders than the flimsier women's versions. It was nothing but utilitarian, and nothing more than what she needed. Choosing footwear turned out to be more of a problem when Jess revealed herself to be quite fussy about having her feet either handled or confined. Jaime finally convinced her to accept a pair of sneakers, although Jess scorned them once they left the mall. Jaime took a closer look at her tough soles and let her go barefoot as she pleased.

They returned to the university an hour and a half before the surgical procedure was slated to finish, and Jaime knew from experience that there was no point in returning to the clinic with some faint hope of news. She dropped the hand-copied characters from the sealed papers off at the language department, and then they walked the central oval of the vast campus, sightseeing amongst the stately older buildings. Or, rather, Jaime looked at the buildings and Jess reveled in the flat grassy area, jigging ahead, stopping now and then to watch the occasional bandanna-adorned, frisbee-chasing dog.

Then classes ended and the floodgates opened. Students rushed madly from here to there, intent on covering long distances in as little time as possible. Jess had lagged behind to stare at the massive statue of President William Oxley Thompson in front of the library; now she caught up to Jaime with such haste that she bumped into her.

Startled, Jaime reached out to steady her, and discovered that Jess was wide-eyed, her head thrown back to regard the flow of students around them. She continued to walk almost on Jaime's heels, and finally Jaime stopped, and took Jess' shoulders in her hands. "It's all right, Jess," she said firmly. "In a few minutes they'll be gone. They're just students trying to get from one of these buildings to another. Do you understand?"

"No," Jess said in a small voice. Someone jostled her from behind and she flinched, one leg lifting sharply and then settling in some aborted movement.

"They'll be gone in a minute," Jaime repeated. "See? Watch them. They came out of these buildings—and even now you can see that they're all going back inside. Look at them."

Obediently, Jess looked around the oval. The mass of moving bodies hadn't yet decreased, but it was evident that there were more of them entering buildings than were coming out.

"Have you ever been to school, Jess?"

A quick, short nod stirred thick shaggy hair, but there was hesitation there as well. "Not like this," Jess said, eventually putting her thought into words.

Jaime nodded. "This is one of the largest schools in the country," she said. "There are quite a few satellite campuses, too." Then she looked from the finally thinning crowd to Jess' blank expression and laughed out loud. "That didn't mean a thing to you, did it?"

A small shy grin. "No."

The students continued to part around them like water around a rock in the middle of a stream, but Jess had relaxed; her gaze was back on the statue.

"It wasn't the crowd, was it?" Jaime asked in sudden insight. "It was the not understanding."

Jess' eyes traveled back to hers, her expression a visual question mark.

"Never mind," Jaime said, certain enough that she'd been correct. "C'mon. Mirror Lake is just down this hill—if you can call anything this gentle a hill—and there's usually someone nearby selling hot dogs." She glanced at her watch to see that they'd have enough time to eat without doing it on the run, and set off for the lake.

It was a pond, really, so shallow you could see the bottom, and man-made at that. But in the center rose a pleasant, simple fountain, and the trees and shrubs that circled the area separated it from the activity of the rest of the campus, making it an oasis of peace.

And just over the slight rise on the other side of the pond, Jaime could see the canopy of the hot dog vendor's cart. "Good," she said with satisfaction. She pointed out one of the benches by the edge of the pond, and said, "Wait here. I'm going to get something for us to eat."

A nod confirmed agreement and Jaime left her, satisfied that Jess' already apparent fascination with the fountain would keep her occupied.

She bought two hot dogs, and an extra bun so they could feed the few mallards that hung around the pond. But when she turned back, she almost dropped it all, for Jess was in the middle of the shallow water, stepping carefully, reaching out to touch the cascading water of the fountain. Standing at the edge of the pond was a visibly irate member of campus security; Jaime could hear his loud commands, but Jess was lost in the noise of the water. A particularly angry expression crossed the man's face and he, too, stepped into the water.

"No, wait!" Jaime yelled, juggling hot dogs as she ran back to the pond. If the man heard her, he was too intent on Jess to pay any attention. He strode up to Jess from behind and firmly took both her arms; Jaime abandoned the hot dogs and sprinted as Jess flew into motion, slamming her foot backwards into the man's shin with amazing force; she twisted and flung herself around with struggles that only increased when they met failure. She fell into the rising spray of the fountain and dragged the man with her, and they ended up tussling in the water.

Jaime hit the cold pond without slowing down, pushing through two gawking students on her way. Awkward in the water, she barely stopped in time to keep from piling on top of the wrestling figures. "Jess!" she yelled above the noise of the struggle and the splash of the fountain. "No, Jess—whoa!"

It didn't have the magic of the last time she'd used it; it was the man who realized she was there and trying to help.

"Calm her down before I hurt her!" he bellowed, right before Jess' heel connected with the side of his face. She slithered out of his momentarily weakened grasp and floundered through the water.

Jaime knew that look: Jess was on the run again. She lunged directly into Jess' path and flung her arms out wide, not grabbing for her, but making herself large and imposing.

Jess stopped short; she snorted water out of her nose and tossed back the sodden mass of her hair.

"Be easy, Jess," Jaime murmured, not possibly loud enough to be heard over the fountain and the water running off the rising security man, but Jess seemed to respond to it anyway, despite her heaving breath and flared nostrils. She took another step, more deliberate, and put Jaime in between herself and the man, who glared at them both.

"What the hell's she on?" he demanded.

"She's not," Jaime said, forcing calm. "She's just frightened. She didn't know you were there before you touched her."

"She deaf?" he asked gruffly, tempering his anger enough to let Jaime know he considered this a possibility.

"No," Jaime answered slowly, "but she's new to a lot of things." She reached out a careful arm to guide Jess toward the imitation shoreline, and the man took the opportunity to scowl away the spectators, most of whom were satisfied to wander off now that the action was over. When all three of them were out, dripping on the asphalt path that circled the pond, Jaime faced the man squarely and took a deep breath.

"Jess is new to this country," she said, deciding it to be the simplest explanation, as well as her best guess at the truth. "A lot of things are strange to her. She didn't know she was breaking any rules, and she only reacted out of fear when you grabbed her."

"She had plenty of warning," the man growled. "I'm afraid you'll have to come with me."

"She didn't hear you," Jaime said desperately. That much was true, she was sure. When Jess was intent on something new, her whole world seemed to focus down on that object, and she'd more than once failed to respond to Jaime's question or call. "You scared her. Of course she resisted—she thought she was being attacked."

Unmoved, the man said, "She shouldn't have been in the water."

"She didn't know," Jaime repeated. The determined glint remained in his eye, and she knew Jess was moments away from being saddled with some serious charges. Abruptly she turned to Jess, moved back a step so the young woman was not so much behind her as beside her. "Jess, why did you fight?"

She raised her head, and a stubborn look appeared in her dark eyes. Her reply was slow, hindered by her search for words. "There is no trust for those who grab with no asking." Her precise meaning was unclear but the gist of the words was clear enough.

"You didn't hear him call you to come out of the fountain?"

Jess gave an amused snort. "I am not his. He has no Words for me."

"You see?" Jaime appealed, trying not to shiver. "She just didn't know you were an authority. She wasn't paying any attention to you—so she didn't know you were coming. Wouldn't you act to protect yourself if you were grabbed from behind?"

The man rubbed a beefy hand across the back of his neck, his expression reluctant. The side of his face was red where Jess' foot had made contact. "Everybody knows this kind of uniform means police authority," he maintained. "I'm not trying to make trouble for you two, but—"

"Look," Jaime said, swiping at the drop of water that trembled on the end of her nose, "the intent wasn't there. Sure, you can pursue this thing, but what you really want is to prevent it from happening again, right? And you can do that by letting me explain things to her. Or by doing that yourself, if you want—right here."

He looked down at himself, at the runnels of water that collected at his feet to form a puddle. Then he looked at Jess, who still regarded him with her set-jaw stubbornness. He rested his hands on his bulky equipment belt, his mouth quirked in skeptical indecision. Jaime fervently, silently, hoped that he would back down, for she too had seen the look on Jess' face, and she easily read it for what it was: bullheaded challenge. She would go nowhere with this man, not without a fight.

When the man spoke again, his voice was more composed. "I'm not one of those guys who'll toss his weight around just because he's got it," he conceded. "Although I'm too damned wet to be letting you off easy. What about it, Jess? You understand to stay out of that fountain? You understand that you've got to pay attention to what security police tell you to do?"

"No kicking," Jess said reluctantly. "I broke the rule."

Jaime let out her breath. Somehow, she wasn't quite sure that Jess was agreeing with the man's exact meaning, but it seemed to be the capitulation he was looking for, and she wasn't going to clue him in if he didn't see it for himself. Defiance, that's what lingered in Jess' gaze. Whoever Carey was, he was the only one with unequivocal Words for Jess.

* * *

Checking on the groggy lesson horse was anticlimactic compared to the adventure at Mirror Lake. Jaime left her trailer there, made arrangements to pick the horse up in a few days, and drove Jess back to The Dancing.

The afternoon had opened her eyes to just how unusual her new barn hand was. She was far from amused when she realized that something in her subconscious mind had seen subtleties of equine behavior in Jess' actions for, in the unthinking moments during that debacle with campus security, she'd reacted as if Jess was indeed a horse.

But there were no conclusions to be drawn, for nothing in this situation remotely resembled the realities in Jaime's life. It was just . . . wait and see. Wait and watch. And while she was willing to give Jess a little more time to find herself and possibly to explain herself, it would be best if she didn't attract undue attention before then.

There was little Jaime could do about Jess' exotic appearance. A pair of scissors and five minutes trimmed most of the ragged edges from her wild hair, but couldn't hide the naturally dark streak that ran from forehead to nape—though it led to the discovery that there was nothing Jess liked more than a good grooming—or, rather, that she would sit still forever as long as Jaime was brushing her hair. She also discovered that she could hand Jess a set of brushes, point her at a horse, and count on her to groom until the object of her attentions virtually glowed—unless it was one of the two older mares, neither of whom Jess would deal with in any manner.

Her younger brother, Mark, accepted Jess with the patience of a young man who had already dealt with every manner of horse-crazy girl to grace Jaime's doorstep, and Jess was delighted if he had the time to join her in the spacious backyard for a little one-on-one soccer, which she invariably won by virtue of her speed and agility. It was Mark who kept score; Jess, Jaime noticed, played for the sheer pleasure of the effort. It was Mark, too, who took the woman on careful forays away from the farm—mostly to the busy Dairy Queen that graced the edge of the nearby one-street minitown, and to the quiet bar that boasted of near-infamous hot bologna sandwiches.

Jess never seemed to fully trust Dayna, and after each of Dayna's visits, with or without Eric, she would follow Jaime around and solicit reassurance. She was standing at Jaime's elbow in the middle of a lesson when it suddenly hit Jaime what the problem was.

"You still think Dayna might send you away, don't you? Think about those corners, Sandy," she reminded the woman under instruction. "He's falling out behind. Outside leg. Start a serpentine at A—let's see if we can't get him bending a little better."

The non sequitur didn't seem to bother Jess, whose understanding increased in leaps and bounds. "Yes," she answered. She waved an arm to indicate the world beyond the farm. "All strange. No Carey—no Jaime. Dayna—" and, when words failed her, she stood very straight, scrunched her shoulders slightly, and arranged her features into a hard, implacable expression that immediately drew to Jaime's mind one of Dayna's inflexible moments. She couldn't help but laugh, though she sobered quickly.

"Dayna's a good person, Jess. It's just sometimes . . . well, how does the thought of facing that strange world out there," she waved her arm in an imitation of Jess' gesture, "make you feel?"

"Afraid," Jess said without hesitation.

"Right. Anticipate the change of rein at the center line, Sandy—prepare him! Well, Dayna's had some hard times. When she runs up against something that's really unfamiliar—really strange—it frightens her. And she protects herself. Sometimes that makes it seem like she's uncaring, but deep down she cares very much. And you know—sometimes even caring can be frightening." She let Jess think about it while she watched the team in the ring, frowning over the gelding's unusually crooked position and his refusal to bend around his rider's inside leg. "What's going on with you two? This isn't like you at all."

"I don't know," Sandy said in frustration as she brought her horse down to a walk. The horse, too, wore an expression of frustration and irritation.

Without a word, Jess walked into the ring, across the thick footing of well-mixed dirt and sand, and up to the horse, whom Sandy had halted. Jess took the time to greet the horse, gave it a pat, and then carefully but firmly took Sandy's whip out of her hand. "Ride now," she instructed.

Jaime saw an immediate difference in the animal's attitude. It chewed the bit a few times and gave a thoughtful sigh, by which time its entire body relaxed. She looked at Jess standing with whip in hand and frowned. The gelding had never shown any concern over the whip. Nine times out of ten, the lesson went by without a single flick of the thing. But this time . . .

"Sandy, is that a new whip?" she asked abruptly, as Sandy started another serpentine with her newly willing horse.

"The other one was too short," Sandy replied distantly, concentrating on her ride. "You know how I sometimes bumped him in the mouth when I used it."

Jess was back; she stood next to Jaime and tickled her arm with the small fuzzy tassel at the end of the whip, removed it, and tickled again, just barely touching her skin.

In a flash Jaime understood. It hadn't been visible to her, this whisper of tassel against horseflesh. "How did you know?" she asked Jess in astonishment.

Jess seemed equally amazed that Jaime should have to ask. "He shouted it."

He had, too, Jaime mused, taking the whip from Jess and contemplating the offending tassel. In every way but words, the horse had communicated his dilemma, and Jess had been the only one able to clearly read him, despite Jaime's vast experience. She looked up at Jess who, oblivious, was watching the much happier pair in the ring. It was just another clue to who and what Jess was, and Jaime was beginning to wonder where those clues would lead her.

* * *

For a while, they led her no further. In addition, there was no mention of Carey, Jess, or gold from any news source, and Jaime became relaxed in the belief that she and Eric had made the right decision in keeping the gold hidden from Dayna, and in keeping Jess out of a system that might have done her more harm than good. Busy with training and instructing, not to mention the business of preparing her two competition horses for the approaching season, Jaime only wondered about Jess and her mysteries in the odd moment.

It was on the tail end of a busy day, two weeks into Jess' stay, that Jaime was forced to realize those mysteries could not be so easily ignored. She'd gotten used to the fact that Jess rarely said more than yes or no, that she was easily startled but that when she chose to trust, she gave her complete and utter confidence. It was only when she found Jess asleep in the hay storage, her head pillowed on Carey's saddlebags and dirty tear-smears dried on her face, that Jaime faced truths she'd still been trying to avoid. Jess didn't belong here. Someone out there was missing her as much as she missed him.

Jaime worried at those truths as she cut the twine on a fresh bale of hay and counted out the flakes for afternoon snack time. The horses, alerted by the rustling, immediately set up a clamor, each demanding to be fed first. Jess lifted her head and blinked sleepily.

"I'll get them," Jaime said, trying to erase the confused and uncertain look on Jess' face. "Give yourself a few minutes, and then check the water buckets, okay?" Jess blinked again and looked at her hands, opening and closing them like she'd never seen them before. Then, as Jaime stacked the flakes of hay into a wheelbarrow and looked back at her, Jess nodded. She traced a wistful finger along the top flap of a saddlebag and followed Jaime out of the airy shed behind the barn and through the big double doors at the end of the barn aisle.

As Jaime stopped to parcel out hay, Jess passed her, then halted, her head raised in what Jaime had come to recognize as the reaction to an out-of-place noise. Without thinking, Jaime stopped what she was doing to listen as well, only belatedly realizing how she had come to trust Jess' reactions. As usual, the trust was well placed, for it was only the space of a breath before a man's voice called out from the entrance of the tack room.

"Anyone here?"

"Come on in," Jaime answered, her reply barely audible above the indignant protests of the horses, who'd suddenly realized the wheelbarrow was no longer progressing down the aisle. "One flake each, remember?" Jaime said, which was all the prompting Jess needed to pick up the job. Jaime brushed ineffectively at the persistent bits of hay clinging to her breeches and met the man in the doorway between the tack room and the aisle.

"Can I help you?" she asked, even as she noticed this wasn't a typical visitor—not a mother with a horse-crazy daughter in tow, or a young professional who had the money but not quite the time to spend on his or her horse. This man was full of visual conflicts, with spiffy new jeans that were topped by what looked very much like a handwoven shirt, well-worn, and not very clean. The man's dark hair was carefully cut but not much cleaner than the shirt, and his teeth, when he smiled meaninglessly at her, were barely in better shape than the aged farm dog's. She kept a polite distance between them, having no desire to see if his breath was on par with the dog's as well.

"I'm looking for a horse," he said, eyeing the aisle and the few curious horses that bothered to peer at him in between snatches of hay.

"We have several for sale right now," she said. "What kind of horse were you looking for?"

He shook his head. "Not to buy. I lost one a couple weeks back. Looking for her and her gear."

"You lost her tacked up?" Jaime said curiously, wondering about the man's unplaceable accent. "Take a fall?"

"Someone did," he said shortly. "I wondered if I could take a look around."

She had a sudden urge to show him the door, but squelched it, trying to imagine herself in his shoes. "I'd be glad to show you around, but we haven't taken in any strays. There're several private barns in the area, though—have you checked with them?"

"Not yet," he grunted, bringing his attention back inside the tack room, eyeing the gear draped over saddle racks and festooned from wall hooks.

Inexplicably, Jaime felt her own eye drawn to the rack which held the wool coolers, checking to see if any of Jess' saddle was visible from beneath. "I wish I could help you," she said politely, glancing down the aisle to see that Jess had finished distributing the snack, that she was coming back with the empty wheelbarrow. Three stalls away, Jess looked up, got her first good look at the visitor, and froze. She stood very tall, the wheelbarrow forgotten, one leg trembling with the indecision of run or stay.

The clatter of metal drew Jaime's attention, and she found that the man had invited himself to paw through the tack room; he let her show bridle fall back to the wall with a thunk of the double bit and reached to lift a boarder's saddle off of the older saddle that sat beneath.

"Excuse me," she said loudly, striding in to push the saddle back where it belonged. "Your gear isn't here. I'd like you to leave now."

He stood back from her, obviously reluctant, a stubborn look on his face; for a moment she thought he might push the issue, and rebuked herself for not teaching Jess about the 911 emergency number. Reluctantly, she said, "Tell me what the horse looks like and let me know where to get in touch with you, and I'll let you know if I hear anything."

The offer seemed to be enough. "Ask for Derrick at the LK Hotel," he said. "The gear is a little unusual, looks like a cross between one of your saddles and a western saddle. The horse is a six-year-old dun mare, dark points all around."

Jaime pointedly opened the door for him. "I'll let you know if I hear anything," she said, and ushered him out, leaning on the door after she'd closed it. Dun mare.

Jess peeked hesitantly around the edge of the doorway, her expression scared but determined.

She's been out there since I saw her. She was going to fight for me, Jaime thought in astonishment. And the sudden realization: She's seen him before.

The sound of a car engine and the crunch of tires on gravel told of Derrick's passage as he pulled out of the U-shaped driveway. Jess relaxed a little and came into the room, looking questioningly at Jaime, giving her head an odd little toss. Dun mare. Her dark sand hair fell back around her face, and the blended black swath of her bangs had never seemed so obvious as it fell over her forehead. Black points.

* * *

Adding up coincidences, Dayna decided, could drive you mad. It was enough to make you realize that the course of your life was as strange and random as any Ripley's Believe It Or Not. There was Eric, whom she'd met through his position as Highbanks Park Volunteer. Though they'd become good friends, they'd certainly never spent this much time together before. And then there was Jaime, whom she'd met through Mark, whom she'd met at work. And of course, Jess—whom she'd met at the park because of Eric, and who was living here with Jaime because she'd met Mark—she finally stopped herself. The point was, they were all sitting here eating a cookout dinner. It didn't matter how it'd all come about.

Dayna poured herself another tumbler of iced tea and offered the pitcher to Eric, who shook his head. He, like Jaime, was watching Jess, who was in turn watching a boarder's gelding graze. Mark seemed oblivious to them all as he ate neat soldierly rows of butter-dripping corn. Dayna contemplated taking the last foil-wrapped cob off the grill but then considered the fat in the butter. Maybe not. Besides, she didn't want to be distracted from Jaime who, although she obviously had some purpose behind this impromptu little dinner, had so far confined herself to inane remarks about the food preparation and the weather.

She sighed and looked back to Mark. Like his older sister, he was an attractive person, with hair and eyes both a lighter shade of brown than hers. Where she was solid, he was angular, almost too thin. But when he smiled his whole face got in on the act, and Dayna gave one more sigh in a long line of regrets that he couldn't act the age that went along with his birthdate. At thirty he was two years older than she, but despite his appealing presence, she was no more than occasionally tempted to introduce the idea of a more serious relationship.

As if to put the seal of approval on her ruminations, Mark dropped the denuded cob on his paper plate and held his hands out for the old border collie to lick clean. What remained of the butter after that, he left smudged on the seat of his shorts as he got up and headed for Jess.

"He'd better not go for soccer after all he just ate," Dayna warned to his oblivious back.

"He's a big boy," Jaime said absently, reaching for the iced tea and pouring herself a refill while only barely glancing down at her task. Jess was completely absorbed in her own thoughts and showed no sign of noticing Mark's barefoot approach. As the fact became apparent to Mark, he made his advance even cattier, snuck up behind her and tweaked her ribs with a "Gotcha!"

Jess' reaction, immediate and intense, was to lash out with a mulish kick that caught Mark squarely in the shin and knocked his leg out from under him. Eric laughed out loud at the astonished look on Mark's face, but Jaime, Dayna noticed, only became more thoughtful.

"That's the kind of thing that makes me wonder," Jaime said.

"No wondering about it," Dayna responded, "he's never going to grow up."

Jaime gave her a startled look, glanced at Mark, and then dismissed him. "That's not what I meant. I was talking about Jess."

Dayna said flatly, "Horses have four legs and weigh about a thousand pounds more than Jess."

This time it was Jaime who shook her head, while Eric realized what they were talking about and tuned in to their conversation, bending his long frame around in the lawn chair he was draped over. "Dayna, just pretend, just for a moment, that it might be possible to change animals to people."

"There's no point," Dayna said flatly.

"Sure there is," Eric said. "It'll amuse me." Dayna rolled her eyes at him and Jaime took it as permission to continue.

"I've been watching Jess for two weeks now. I'm certain she understands almost everything we say, although she's still not talking much."

Fifty yards in front of them, the object of the conversation was standing before Mark in obvious consternation, her eyes wide in anticipation of retribution for her reflexive kick. Jaime nodded at her. "Look at her now. A well-trained horse will, if badly startled, kick out like that. And afterward they know they've done wrong, and they have the same expression she does."

"Horses don't have expressions," Dayna said out of pure contrariness.

Impatience flashed across Jaime's face. "Body language, Dayna. You know what I mean. I see dozens of things that just keep adding up—the way she stands when she's alarmed, the way she pays as much attention to what she hears as most people do to what they see, the way she interacts with my horses . . . do you know she won't handle JayDee or Leta?"

She stated the question in a way that left no doubt as to its significance in her mind, but when Dayna exchanged a glance with Eric she saw he didn't get it, either.

Jaime leaned forward over her elbows, skewing the plastic gingham cover of the picnic table. "Those mares are in their teens. If you were to equate Jess' age into 'horse years,' she'd probably be four or five. And that puts her way down on the pecking order, as far as she or the horses are concerned. It's a rare filly that'll challenge an older mare."

"And you think Jess is the filly," Dayna said in dry amusement.

"A couple days ago, Sandy was working her horse," Jaime said instead of answering. "He was going crooked, evading her outside leg no matter which direction she took, and they were both getting pretty mad at each other. Then Jess walked right out into the ring, took Sandy's whip, and showed her where the end tassel was tickling the horse. Every time Sandy changed directions, she'd move the whip to her inside hand, and he'd go crooked that way to avoid the tickle."

"So you think Jess can read horses' minds."

"Dayna," Eric said, "you're being an ass. She means that Jess has an extraordinary understanding of horse body language."

In the short silence that followed, they watched Mark get to his feet and reassure Jess. In a moment, she nodded happily and ran for the yard's small outbuilding—no doubt after the soccer ball.

"Okay, so I was being an ass," Dayna said. "What I should have said is, what's the point? You're not really trying to convince us she used to be a horse, are you? Or do you think she was raised by them in the wild?"

Jaime gnawed briefly on a cuticle, ignoring the last facetious question. "I don't know," she said. "Except that it all seems pretty odd to me. Jess is so simple—yet so complex. If she's feeling sad, or angry, or happy, she lets you know about it right then—she's amazingly straightforward. At the same time, sometimes I feel like I haven't the slightest idea what's going on in her head."

"I know what you mean," Eric said. "I'd give anything to know who Carey is, and how they got separated."

"That reminds me," Jaime said, sitting up straight. "Today a man came looking for a mare he'd lost—a mare and her tack. He was pretty pushy—I thought for a minute I was going to have trouble with him. And he was looking for a dun."

Dayna scowled even as Eric said, "Dun Lady's Jess!"

"He's staying at the LK," Jaime said, looking directly at that scowl. "It'd be interesting to see what else we could find out about him."

"If you think I'm going to use my passkey, think again," Dayna said. "I like my job. I don't want to lose it."

Jaime held her tongue while Mark trotted back and retrieved his sneakers from beside the table. Then she said, "I haven't told Mark yet."

"Meaning . . . ?" Dayna asked suspiciously.

"He has a passkey, too. Who would you rather have poking around, him or you?"

Startled, Dayna had immediate images of Mark in the man's room, carelessly looking through drawers, leaving a dozen and one signs of his presence. When she looked at Jaime, it was with anger and a little bit of respect. "Don't tell him," she said. "I'll do it."

* * *

Jess offered the old border collie another scrap of hoof just to see his reaction again. Keg gingerly accepted the treat, looked swiftly around to see if anyone was poised to intercept him, and slunk furtively toward the big double sliding doors. As he looked out his head snapped to the side and he quickened his step, so Jess wasn't surprised when Eric showed up in the doorway. She swept the last of the hoof parings and sharp, used horseshoe nails into the dustpan and dumped it into the garbage while he greeted her. She thought he had an unusual glint in his uptilted eyes. He was up to something.

"Computers?" she asked, with no notion of what a computer really was—aside from the fact that one sat in Jaime's office, looking sort of like a television—except that Eric usually spent the day dealing with them.

"Took off work today," he said. "And I just talked to Jaime—she had the whole day scheduled for the farrier, so she—and you—have the afternoon free. She muttered something about catching up on her record keeping, but you—well, you can come with me, if you want."

Her curiosity was immediately piqued; her scalp shifted in the slight way that would have swiveled her ears forward, had they still been proper ears. "Where?"

His face registered satisfaction. "Shopping. For books. I think, and Jaime agrees, that it's important that you learn to read. I'll be the first to admit I don't really understand what's happened to you, or how it'll turn out in the long run, but as long as you're here, you'll be better off if you can read."

"Read?" Jess' memory supplied her, unbidden, an image of Jaime staring at the morning sheaf of paper-that-smudged. And then, of Carey, looking at one of the black-scribbled things that always came with them on a run. Was that "read?" What did it do?

"Read," Eric repeated, looking off to the side for an instant of thought. That meant an explanation, for Eric often looked at nothing right before he made something clear to her. Of course, just as often, he looked at nothing for no apparent reason at all. If Dayna caught him at it, she called it "daydreaming."

"Reading," Eric said, "is a way of listening to someone talk with your eyes."

"Ears," Jess scoffed.

"No. Look." Eric drew her over to the board over the grain bin, the green slatelike rectangle that Jess had gotten quite used to without understanding its purpose. He took one of the white sticks that always sat in the tray at the bottom of the board, and brandished it with a flourish. He drew angular lines on the board and said, "That means Eric." More lines. "And that means Jess. J-E-S-S. Your mouth makes different sounds when you talk, and these symbols represent those sounds. So if I stopped by to see you, and you weren't here, I could write—that's what it's called, writing—a message to you on this board. And you could come along hours later, and read it. Like, 'Sorry I missed you. I'll call you tonight.' So you would wait for my call."

"Those symbols talk to you?" Jess said, thinking she understood but so amazed by the concept she couldn't be sure. To talk to someone who wasn't even close! "What do those—" she leaned over the grain bin to sweep her long-fingered hand just above the white marks that had already been there, "—say?"

Without hesitation, Eric said, "JayDee, one scoop. Windy, one and a half scoops. Silhouette, one scoop."

"Their feed!" Jess pounced on the realization with delight. She'd had to memorize the feeding directions, and with a barnful of horses, never mind the general newness of her life here, the task hadn't come easily. "It tells me how to feed the horses!"

"Right," Eric nodded. "You'll find lots of books that tell you how to do different things. And if someone tells you something and you aren't sure if it's true, sometimes you can find something to read that lets you know for sure."

"I want to read," Jess said with conviction. "Show me, Eric."

He looked at her, brow lifted in a mixture of surprise and approval. "I don't think I've ever heard you sound so assertive. I didn't know that was hiding inside you, you sly thing."

He was back to words she didn't entirely understand, but she knew well enough how she felt. When she didn't feel strongly about a thing, she was readily willing to acquiesce to someone else's wishes. But when she wasn't concerned for her safety or confused, when she wanted—well, she went after it. It wasn't for nothing that the other horses in her pasture conceded to her the best shade tree. She looked at Eric with a confident smile. "I want to buy books," she said.

He laughed, and nodded, moving to wipe away the words he'd written.

"No," she said quickly, a hand on his arm. She took the chalk from his unresisting fingers and laboriously copied the as-of-yet meaningless symbols below his examples. "Jess," she announced.

"Look out, world," Eric said, and laughed again.

* * *

The book buying turned out to be an adventure. Jess could hardly believe it when they went into a store with volume after volume lining the walls, crammed into the aisles—even filling a table just outside the store's entrance. She was wildly curious—what could so many people find to write about? Maybe this world was as confusing for others as it was for her, and everybody needed directions. The explanation that most of the books were stories, just like the television, didn't particularly convince her that her theory was wrong.

"These people know everything in the books already?" she asked Eric of the sales staff. Then she decided her own answer. "Yes. Or they wouldn't be in charge."

Eric shook his head, unable to hide his amusement—both at Jess' notion and the reaction of the cashier. "We're looking for a good first reader," he told the woman.

"I'm going to learn to read," Jess announced.

"Good for you," the woman responded, regaining her composure. "Let me show you some of the books our other adult learners seem to enjoy."

Within a very short time, Eric's arms were full. He had an adult text called Reading for Tomorrow, and a variety of young adult books. Jess particularly liked the looks of several books about an orphan named Anne, whom she fancied might have felt the same as she, arriving at Green Gables unexpected and not particularly wanted. Then she wandered into one of the aisles and found an entire row of books about horses.

"Oh, no. Uh-uh," Eric said, shaking his head before she even looked at him to ask. He shifted his load of books to the crook of one overworked arm and took her hand. "You get through these, and I'll take you in to get a library card. You don't have to pay for those books!" He glanced at his watch, bringing her hand up within his as he twisted his wrist. "Besides, we're out of time. We've got another stop to make."

She sensed he would say no more, and didn't ask. She was content enough to trail along, thinking about how she would be able to get books about horses, and see just how close they were to the way she knew it really was.

Eric dumped the bag of books into the cargo area of his hatchback and drove further into the small town of Marion, where the roads narrowed and offered a confusing array of one-way streets. Jess clung to her well-developed sense of direction, comforted by the fact that she could always find her way back to Jaime's if she had to, even if it was cross-country. Eric parked in a graveled town lot and led her down the street to a building he called the courthouse. Jess knew it was an important place just by the look of it—steepled, ornate, and based on big slabs of cut white rock.

"What?" she asked Eric, after they'd stood there a moment.

Eric glanced at his watch. "Just about the right time. Jess, do you remember that man we saw on television the first day you were at Jaime's?"

"Roy Rogers," Jess supplied, although she had a flashing memory of a chestnut-headed man eluding those who chased him—the cousins of the uniformed officer in the fountain.

"Well, yes, but I mean the other man. The one who reminded me of you."

"The chestnut," Jess allowed reluctantly. Something about that scene had been hard to face.

"Right. Today, he has to be at this building for an important meeting. I can't help but think you two are connected somehow—you both show up in almost the same spot, almost the same time, and you had a lot in common."

She wanted to deny this, as it made no sense to her—why should she be connected to a man she'd never seen, in this place she didn't belong? But she, too, had seen familiarity in his athletic movement, in the very wildness of his demeanor. She thought again of the chestnut horse that had carried Derrick.

Eric looked down at her, the only one of her friends who was tall enough to do so. "I didn't bring you here to upset you, Jess. Do you want to leave?"

"He will be here?"

"Any minute. It was on the back page of the paper this morning, so I thought, why not? He has to go to the courthouse. They're having a hearing to decide whether he can take care of himself, or if the state needs to be his conservator."

Jess made a rude noise at that last gobbledygook, and Eric looked abashed.

"Sorry about that," he said. "When someone can't look after himself, the court asks the state to take care of him."

"Then he has to do what . . . the state . . . says," Jess surmised. After all, Carey took care of her, and she followed his rules, listened to his Words.

"Right. They'll give him a place to live, food to eat, that sort of thing."


Eric grinned wryly. "Plenty of 'em."

Jess just looked at him, thinking of all the rules she'd encountered here. How to behave—no playing in delightful fountains. How to dress—the shirt part must always be closed, the feet isolated from the messages of the ground. She had the feeling the rules of the state would be stricter, so tight it was impossible not to fight them. At least Carey, with all his Words, sometimes let her choose the path they took; his hands were careful and light on the reins. With the Words at his disposal, he nevertheless asked her, gave her decisions and freedom.

Didn't he?

Suddenly she couldn't remember all that clearly. At the time what had seemed like requests came through in her new human thoughts as orders, pure and simple. She had seen Jaime ride, day after day. She isn't allowed to have opinions, Jaime would say, when Silhouette wasn't pleased to channel her energy into a collected, balanced frame instead of rushing unchecked around the arena.

It was with utter relief that she saw the chestnut. "There," Jess said, pointing at the trio of people approaching from the sidewalk. One was a middle-aged woman, striding briskly, confident. The second was a police officer, and he loosely held the arm of the third, the reason Jess was there. The man was cleaner, dressed in clothes that didn't quite fit him, and clearly uneasy. Jess read it immediately in his widened eyes, the tilt of his head and the flare of his nostrils. His steps were light on the ground, his body poised to move in any direction.

Incredibly, his companions seemed not to notice his unease—or surely they would have made those that followed them, those with the black chunky objects held before their eyes, move back. In sympathy, Jess took a step forward. She wanted to be able to tell this man that it was all right, that even though this place was strange and hard, the people were trying to take care of him. She didn't feel Eric's hand on her arm as she lifted her head and stood tall, a call of reassurance hesitating in her throat.

He saw her, saw in her the same familiarity she'd seen in him. He called to her, an odd throaty cry strangled by his human throat.

"Here, now," the officer said, not unkindly, as his formerly loose grip clamped tightly down.

Some horses will obligingly accept a lead rope tossed over a fence, while a securely tied knot sends them into a rage. With lightning speed and amazing ease, the man jerked his arm free, his leg flashing out in a kick that took the officer in the side of the knee; the man's cry of agony didn't quite cover the sound of popping ligament and cartilage.

"No!" Jess cried in fear, knowing there was no turning back from that transgression. She ran a few hesitant steps forward, her gaze never losing the man's even when Eric's ready arms closed about her like a cage, gentle but unyielding. The man gave a snort in sudden decision—she was one of them—and bolted away from the downed officer and the lady who no longer seemed quite so brisk or confident.

He ran directly into the street, in front of drivers who had no warning and no chance to react, where he hit the grill and then the hood of a diminutive foreign pickup truck. The thud of impact was inordinantly loud in Jess' ears, blocking out all other sounds—including her own screams. The chestnut rolled to a stop against the curb and lay limply, without any sign of the vitality that had pervaded and created his every action.

And Jess screamed again and again, until Eric turned her around and his restraining arms became comfort, pulling her into his chest where she hid her face as he walked them back to the car.

* * *

"What on earth were you thinking?" Jaime's voice, strident and demanding, easily made it past the door of Jess' room to her sensitive ears. Eric's reply was lower, but still audible.

"Jaime, we know so little about her, I didn't think we could afford to pass up the chance at any answers. Tell me you didn't see a similarity between those two."

"Oh, it was there all right. Was," she repeated. "I understand your motives, Eric. But such an uncontrolled situation!"

It was easy for Jess to visualize her friend shaking her head in dismay. Jaime was a strong woman, with strong opinions.

But Eric, for all his mild and amiable moments, had strength of his own, a quiet strength. It came through in his answer, the voice of a man unshaken by another's doubts. "We wouldn't have gotten in to see him without answering a lot of questions. And then maybe it would have been Jess on her way into that courtroom, facing conservatorship."

Jess let her attention wander away from the eavesdropping, which had been more of an attempt to keep away unwelcome images than a desire to listen in. Though she'd calmed a little by the time Eric pulled into The Dancing, she was shaken and shaking, and Jaime had listened to only a few words before guiding Jess into the den. There, sitting together on the couch, she held Jess until the shaking stopped. Afterward she offered her cinnamon apple tea and the comfort of her favorite barn kitten. Only later did it occur to Jess that the strict no-cats-in-the-house rule had been deliberately broken.

Now the tea was gone, and the kitten, although still purring, was all but asleep on Jess' bed. Jess, still victim of a fat, unexpected tear now and then, stared at the head of her bed. Snugged between the mattress and headboard were Carey's saddlebags. At night she could smell the weathered, well-cared-for leather; she could touch them and feel the security of the days under his care. She was very well aware that, bereft of Carey and thrown into this new existence, she could very well have ended up just like the chestnut.

She pulled the saddlebags out and ran a hand over the spare, tooled design, pausing over the scratches acquired on some of their unusually rough rides through brush. Several of the marks were still lighter than the surrounding area, testimony to their newness. Emblematic of the last moments of Jess' old life.

Somehow, no matter how long she stared, she couldn't recall the innocence and security of Dun Lady's Jess. Another tear rolled down her cheek as she considered that maybe she never would—that even finding Carey would be insufficient to render her back into that bold and carefree individual.

Then, with abrupt resolve, she knew she couldn't afford the doubts, not if she was going to function here. Not if she was to have any chance of finding—and helping—Carey. She took a deep breath, returned the saddlebags to their space and went out past Jaime and Eric to attend to the evening stall clean-out.

* * *

The thing was, Dayna told herself several days later, waiting for Derrick to walk by the office unit, that she had already noticed his oddness, the dichotomies in his appearance and manners. Jaime's request poked at the place in herself that was already curious, and gave her an excuse to do something she otherwise never would have allowed herself.

Unfortunately, the LK was a small hotel, and its twenty-four units each opened to the outdoors. Waiting for Derrick—for that was the only name he'd given, and as he'd paid each of three weeks in advance, the manager was inclined to leave it at that—wasn't as easy as watching for him to come through a lobby. For all she knew he'd left hours ago, while she was sitting on the washing machine to keep it from lurching across the floor during the spin cycle, or when she was behind the ice maker, tightening a loose flange fitting so the casualty zone caused by its small leak would dry.

It was noon before she finally corralled Cindy, the housekeeper, to ask if the room was vacant.

"That Derrick guy's not there, if that's what you mean," Cindy told her. "But I've been meaning to talk to one of you office folks about him. He never wants me to clean his room—always has the DND sign out. He's let me in a couple of times to do a good thorough cleaning, but I don't like letting the room go. Besides, I know he's registered as a single, but it sure looks to me like both beds're being used."

"That doesn't go over too well with me, either," Dayna frowned, then realized this was the ideal excuse for her excursion. Perfectly legitimate for a concerned employee to inspect the room. And the room was empty.

Dayna thanked the woman, took a deep breath, and snagged her work keys from the hook behind the counter. Then she was out the door and down the walk, her back prickling with the surety that Derrick would come up behind her, somehow knowing her intent. She looked straight ahead, not allowing herself the furtiveness of checking for him—until she came to his unit, No. 26, nonsmoking, right at the end. Then she couldn't help herself, and she quickly glanced around. Not only was there no sign of Derrick on this still, bright day, but very little else was stirring. The heat of the spring noon had become something to be reckoned with, and Dayna slipped out of it into the dark coolness of Derrick's room.

Ugh. She wrinkled her nose as the full force of the room's odor hit her; the air conditioning unit was set and running—she herself had explained the controls to Derrick upon his arrival—but she took a moment to flick the air supply from "recirculate" to "outside."

As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she realized the odor itself was nothing malignant—merely the smell of an unwashed man, well steeped. Or, she saw with a sudden sharp intake of breath, the odor of two men. And one of them was here. Sleeping.

She stood frozen until her aching lungs made her realize she hadn't even been breathing. Okay, Dayna. He slept through your arrival. Just take it easy—no reason to think he'd be roused by a quick strategic retreat. She squeezed back between the AC unit and the cheap laminated table that graced every room. In this case the table was piled high with gear, much of which looked similar to the stuff they'd found by Jess, except for a small pile of syringes, used and new, and a half empty drug vial. You're leaving, she reminded herself as her hand reached out, seemingly by its own volition, and touched the leather of saddlebags, and the quiver beneath. Quiver? Yes, there was the bow, unstrung, leaning into the corner.

The figure in the bed had not stirred and, in fact, seemed unnaturally still. Come to think of it, he—though she became aware that the gender was an assumption on her part—was stretched in an awkward-looking position. Biting her lower lip, Dayna took a step toward the far bed, cast an anxious glance at the door, and studied the bed from this closer vantage. Maybe because of the low light, or maybe because she simply wasn't expecting to see such a thing, it took her several long moments to visually decipher the ropes that stretched from one exposed wrist to the headboard.

Without thinking, she moved the rest of the way to the bed and its captive, rounding to the side opposite the door, where the covers fell back and clearly showed her who was in the bed.

He wasn't a big man—although that still put him a foot or so taller than herself—and he was wiry, muscled but still lean. Long stubble, darker than the unkempt, oily mass of his blond hair, covered the long, clean angles of his face. A crusty mess of a bandage wrapped the bicep of the free arm, and it was tied with a tight sling that rendered it as useless as the other. His lips were dry, his eyes mattery, and he definitely smelled.

Then the eyes were open, and looking directly at her, the light brows crinkled in disorientation. "Who—" he started, and it came out as more of a croak than a question.

"I work here," she said quietly, as if Derrick could hear her no matter where he was. "Would you like some water?"

He closed his eyes and nodded, and she quickly filled one of the cheap plastic cups provided by the hotel. "Here," she whispered to the eyelids. They flickered open long enough to locate the cup, as he tried to raise his head enough to meet its rim. With only the smallest of inward grimaces, she supported the back of that filthy head, until he turned away from the water to indicate he'd had enough. She was unprepared for the sudden pity she felt for this poor creature, and had the impulse to untie his bonds, to ferret him away from this room.

But no. The real Dayna took over, insisting on explanations and complete understanding. "What's going on here?" she asked, her voice still low.

He swallowed, licked the dry lips. Didn't bother to open his eyes again. "Help me," he said. "He's given me something . . . I can't think—" his brows lowered, his eyelids spasmed, in the painful frustration of the moment. "If he finds Lady . . . he can't. Can't let him get the spells—" he opened his eyes and stared directly at her, focused for one moment of intense effort. "Help me."

She stared back, impotent. Help him? How? Call the police? He was probably on the wrong side of the law to begin with. Untie him and muscle him out of here? Sure, when she was reincarnated as Arnold Schwartzenegger. Then his words tickled at her awareness. "Lady?"

"Lady," he repeated wearily, his head falling back, his eyes closed again. "Sweet Lady. Ran her heart out for me . . ."

Oh, God, she couldn't believe it. Didn't believe it. But the coincidence was too much to resist. "Jess?" she whispered.

"Lady," he murmured, drifting away from her.

All right. So she didn't know what she'd do with him. Whatever was happening here, it wasn't right. She had to start somewhere. She plucked at the tightly tied ropes with nerveless, fumbling fingers, breaking first one, then another of her nails, without ever getting a good hold of the cotton fibers. Another grimace, and she bent over the rope, applying her teeth, getting the first sign of compliance, a spark of hope—

A key fumbled in the dead bolt. With a small squeak, Dayna started upright, staring at the door in panic. Then she dove to the floor and scurried under the empty bed, oh-so-thankful for her diminutive stature and her size 2 frame.

A brief burst of light sliced across her limited field of view; two worn boots passed by and the door closed with a negligent click.

"Stir your bones, Carey," Derrick said, his voice discordantly loud after the hushed tones of Dayna's recent conversation. "If you want something to eat you'll show a little life. You might even get a chance to take a piss."

Carey! The name barely registered against Dayna's fear, but some small part of her did hear it. Heard Carey's mumbling response as well, hoped he had enough wits about him to keep from giving her away. Clenching and unclenching her fists in an attempt to distract herself from almost unbearable terror, Dayna was otherwise as still as she could be. She listened while Derrick dealt with the bindings that had stymied her, heard the snake of rope against rope and the moan as he hauled Carey upright. It was easy to follow their clumsy progress to the bathroom, not so easy to force her petrified muscles to respond. But she managed to scrabble to the door; trembling so hard she could barely get the doorknob turned, Dayna literally crawled from the room.

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