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The Collector

Nora Roberts


  She thought they’d never leave. Clients, especially new ones, tended to fuss and delay, revolving on the same loop of instructions, contacts, comments before finally heading out the door. She sympathized because when they walked out the door they left their home, their belongings, and in this case their cat, in someone else’s hands.

  As their house-sitter, Lila Emerson did everything she could to send them off relaxed, and confident those hands were competent ones.

  For the next three weeks, while Jason and Macey Kilderbrand enjoyed the south of France with friends and family, Lila would live in their most excellent apartment in Chelsea, water their plants, feed, water and play with their cat, collect their mail—and forward anything of import.

  She’d tend Macey’s pretty terrace garden, pamper the cat, take messages and act as a burglary deterrent simply by her presence.

  While she did, she’d enjoy living in New York’s tony London Terrace just as she’d enjoyed living in the charming flat in Rome—where for an additional fee she’d painted the kitchen—and the sprawling house in Brooklyn—with its frisky golden retriever, sweet and aging Boston terrier and aquarium of colorful tropical fish.

  She’d seen a lot of New York in her six years as a professional house-sitter, and in the last four had expanded to see quite a bit of the world as well.

  Nice work if you can get it, she thought—and she could get it.

  “Come on, Thomas.” She gave the cat’s long, sleek body one head-to-tail stroke. “Let’s go unpack.”

  She liked the settling in and, since the spacious apartment boasted a second bedroom, unpacked the first of her two suitcases, tucking her clothes in the mirrored bureau or hanging them in the tidy walk-in closet. She’d been warned Thomas would likely insist on sharing the bed with her, and she’d deal with that. And she appreciated that the clients—likely Macey—had arranged a pretty bouquet of freesia on the nightstand.

  Lila was big on little personal touches, the giving and the getting.

  She’d already decided to make use of the master bath with its roomy steam shower and deep jet tub.

  “Never waste or abuse the amenities,” she told Thomas as she put her toiletries away.

  As the two suitcases held nearly everything she owned, she took some care in distributing them where it suited her best.

  After some consideration she set up her office in the dining area, arranging her laptop so she could look up and out at the view of New York. In a smaller space she’d have happily worked where she slept, but since she had room, she’d make use of it.

  She’d been given instructions on all the kitchen appliances, the remotes, the security system—the place boasted an array of gadgets that appealed to her nerdy soul.

  In the kitchen she found a bottle of wine, a pretty bowl of fresh fruit, an array of fancy cheeses with a note handwritten on Macey’s monogrammed stationery.

  Enjoy our home!

  Jason, Macey and Thomas

  Sweet, Lila thought, and she absolutely would enjoy it.

  She opened the wine, poured a glass, sipped and approved. Grabbing her binoculars, she carried the glass out on the terrace to admire the view.

  The clients made good use of the space, she thought, with a couple of cushy chairs, a rough stone bench, a glass table—and the pots of thriving flowers, the pretty drops of cherry tomatoes, the fragrant herbs, all of which she’d been encouraged to harvest and use.

  She sat, with Thomas in her lap, sipping wine, stroking his silky fur.

  “I bet they sit out here a lot, having a drink, or coffee. They look happy together. And their place has a good feel to it. You can tell.” She tickled Thomas under the chin and had his bright green eyes going dreamy. “She’s going to call and e-mail a lot in the first couple days, so we’re going to take some pictures of you, baby, and send them to her so she can see you’re just fine.”

  Setting the wine aside, she lifted the binoculars, scanned the buildings. The apartment complex hugged an entire city block, and that offered little glimpses into other lives.

  Other lives just fascinated her.

  A woman about her age wore a little black dress that fit her tall, model-thin body like a second skin. She paced as she talked on her cell phone. She didn’t look happy, Lila thought. Broken date. He has to work late—he says, Lila added, winding the plot in her head. She’s fed up with that.

  A couple floors above, two couples sat in a living room—art-covered walls, sleek, contemporary furnishings—and laughed over what looked like martinis.

  Obviously they didn’t like the summer heat as much as she and Thomas or they’d have sat outside on their little terrace.

  Old friends, she decided, who get together often, sometimes take vacations together.

  Another window opened the world to a little boy rolling around on the floor with a white puppy. The absolute joy of both zinged right through the air and had Lila laughing.

  “He’s wanted a puppy forever—forever being probably a few months at that age—and today his parents surprised him. He’ll remember today his whole life, and one day he’ll surprise his little boy or girl the same way.”

  Pleased to end on that note, Lila lowered the glasses. “Okay, Thomas, we’re going to get a couple hours of work in. I know, I know,” she continued, setting him down, picking up the half glass of wine. “Most people are done with work for the day. They’re going out to dinner, meeting friends—or in the case of the killer blonde in the black dress, bitching about not going out. But the thing is . . .” She waited until he strolled into the apartment ahead of her. “I set my own hours. It’s one of the perks.”

  She chose a ball—motion-activated—from the basket of cat toys in the kitchen closet, gave it a roll across the floor.

  Thomas immediately pounced, wrestled, batted, chased.

  “If I were a cat,” she speculated, “I’d go crazy for that, too.”

  With Thomas happily occupied, she picked up the remote, ordered music. She made a note of which station played so she could be sure she returned it to their house music before the Kilderbrands came home. She moved away from the jazz to contemporary pop.

  House-sitting provided lodging, interest, even adventure. But writing paid the freight. Freelance writing—and waiting tables—had kept her head just above water her first two years in New York. After she’d fallen into house-sitting, initially doing favors for friends, and friends of friends, she’d had the real time and opportunity to work on her novel.

  Then the luck or serendipity of house-sitting for an editor who’d taken an interest. Her first, Moon Rise, had sold decently. No bust-out best seller, but steady, and with a nice little following in the fourteen-to-eighteen set she’d aimed for. The second would hit the stores in October, so her fingers were crossed.

  But more to the moment, she needed to focus on book three of the series.

  She bundled up her long brown hair with a quick twist, scoop and the clamp of a chunky tortoiseshell hinge clip. While Thomas gleefully chased the ball, she settled in with her half glass of wine, a tall glass of iced water and the music she imagined her central character, Kaylee, listened to.

  As a junior in high school, Kaylee dealt with all the ups and downs—the romance, the homework, the mean girls, the bullies, the politics, the heartbreaks and triumphs that crowded into the short, intense high school years.

  A sticky road, especially for the new girl—as she’d been in the first book. And more, of course, as Kaylee’s family were lycans.

  It wasn’t easy to finish a school assignment or go to the prom with a full moon rising when a girl was a werewolf.

  Now, in book three, Kaylee and her family were at war with a rival pack, a pack who preyed on humans. Maybe a little blo
odthirsty for some of the younger readers, she thought, but this was where the path of the story led. Where it had to go.

  She picked it up where Kaylee dealt with the betrayal of the boy she thought she loved, an overdue assignment on the Napoleonic Wars and the fact that her blond, beautiful nemesis had locked her in the science lab.

  The moon would rise in twenty minutes—just about the same time the Science Club would arrive for their meeting.

  She had to find a way out before the change.

  Lila dived in, happily sliding into Kaylee, into the fear of exposure, the pain of a broken heart, the fury with the cheerleading, homecoming queening, man-eating (literally) Sasha.

  By the time she’d gotten Kaylee out, and in the nick, courtesy of a smoke bomb that brought the vice principal, another thorn in Kaylee’s side, dealt with the lecture, the detention, the streaking home as the change came on her heroine, Lila had put in three solid hours.

  Pleased with herself, she surfaced from the story, glanced around.

  Thomas, exhausted from play, lay curled on the chair beside her, and the lights of the city glittered and gleamed out the window.

  She fixed Thomas’s dinner precisely as instructed. While he ate she got her Leatherman, used the screwdriver of the multi-tool to tighten some screws in the pantry.

  Loose screws, to her thinking, were a gateway to disaster. In people and in things.

  She noticed a couple of wire baskets on runners, still in their boxes. Probably for potatoes or onions. Crouching, she read the description, the assurance of easy install. She made a mental note to e-mail Macey, ask if she wanted them put in.

  It would be a quick, satisfying little project.

  She poured a second glass of wine and made a late dinner out of the fruit, cheese and crackers. Sitting cross-legged in the dining room, Thomas in her lap, she ate while she checked e-mail, sent e-mail, scanned her blog—made a note for a new entry.

  “Getting on to bedtime, Thomas.”

  He just yawned when she picked up the remote to shut off the music, then lifted him up and away so she could deal with her dishes and bask in the quiet of her first night in a new space.

  After changing into cotton pants and a tank, she checked the security, then revisited her neighbors through the binoculars.

  It looked like Blondie had gone out after all, leaving the living room light on low. The pair of couples had gone out as well. Maybe to dinner, or a show, Lila thought.

  The little boy would be fast asleep, hopefully with the puppy curled up with him. She could see the shimmer of a television, imagined Mom and Dad relaxing together.

  Another window showed a party going on. A crowd of people—well-dressed, cocktail attire—mixed and mingled, drinks or small plates in hand.

  She watched for a while, imagined conversations, including a whispered one between the brunette in the short red dress and the bronzed god in the pearl gray suit who, in Lila’s imagination, were having a hot affair under the noses of his long-suffering wife and her clueless husband.

  She scanned over, stopped, lowered the glasses a moment, then looked again.

  No, the really built guy on the . . . twelfth floor wasn’t completely naked. He wore a thong as he did an impressive bump and grind, a spin, drop.

  He was working up a nice sweat, she noted, as he repeated moves or added to them.

  Obviously an actor/dancer moonlighting as a stripper until he caught his big Broadway break.

  She enjoyed him. A lot.

  The window show kept her entertained for a half hour before she made herself a nest in the bed—and was indeed joined by Thomas. She switched on the TV for company, settled on an NCIS rerun where she could literally recite the dialogue before the characters. Comforted by that, she picked up her iPad, found the thriller she’d started on the plane from Rome, and snuggled in.

  Over the next week, she developed a routine. Thomas would wake her more accurately than any alarm clock at seven precisely, when he begged, vocally, for his breakfast.

  She’d feed the cat, make coffee, water the plants indoors and out, have a little breakfast while she visited the neighbors.

  Blondie and her live-in lover—they didn’t have the married vibe—argued a lot. Blondie tended to throw breakables. Mr. Slick, and he was great to look at, had good reflexes, and a whole basket of charm. Fights, pretty much daily, ended in seduction or wild bursts of passion.

  They suited each other, in her estimation. For the moment. Neither of them struck Lila as long-haul people with her throwing dishes or articles of clothing, him ducking, smiling and seducing.

  Game players, she thought. Hot, sexy game players, and if he didn’t have something going on, on the side, she’d be very surprised.

  The little boy and the puppy continued their love affair, with Mom, Dad or nanny patiently cleaning up little accidents. Mom and Dad left together most mornings garbed in a way that said high-powered careers to Lila.

  The Martinis, as she thought of them, rarely used their little terrace. She was definitely one of the ladies-who-lunch, leaving the apartment every day, late morning, returning late afternoon usually with a shopping bag.

  The Partiers rarely spent an evening at home, seemed to revel in a frantic sort of lifestyle.

  And the Body practiced his bump and grind regularly—to her unabashed pleasure.

  She treated herself to the show, and the stories she created every morning. She’d work into the afternoon, break to amuse the cat before she dressed and went out to buy what she thought she might like for dinner, to see the neighborhood.

  She sent pictures of a happy Thomas to her clients, picked tomatoes, sorted mail, composed a vicious lycan battle, updated her blog. And installed the two baskets in the pantry.

  On the first day of week two, she bought a good bottle of Barolo, filled in the fancy cheese selections, added some mini cupcakes from an amazing neighborhood bakery.

  Just after seven in the evening, she opened the door to the party pack that was her closest friend.

  “There you are.” Julie, wine bottle in one hand, a fragrant bouquet of star lilies in the other, still managed to enfold her.

  Six feet of curves and tumbled red hair, Julie Bryant struck the opposite end of Lila’s average height, slim build, straight brown hair.

  “You brought a tan back from Rome. God, I’d be wearing 500 SPF and still end up going lobster in the Italian sun. You look just great.”

  “Who wouldn’t after two weeks in Rome? The pasta alone. I told you I’d get the wine,” Lila added when Julie shoved the bottle into her hand.

  “Now we have two. And welcome home.”

  “Thanks.” Lila took the flowers.

  “Wow, some place. It’s huge, and the view’s a killer. What do these people do?”

  “Start with family money.”

  “Oh, don’t I wish I had.”

  “Let’s detour to the kitchen so I can fix the flowers, then I’ll give you a tour. He works in finance, and I don’t understand any of it. He loves his work and prefers tennis to golf. She does some interior design, and you can see she’s good at it from the way the apartment looks. She’s thinking about going pro, but they’re talking about starting a family, so she’s not sure it’s the right time to start her own business.”

  “They’re new clients, right? And they still tell you that kind of personal detail?”

  “What can I say? I have a face that says tell me all about it. Say hello to Thomas.”

  Julie crouched to greet the cat. “What a handsome face he has.”

  “He’s a sweetheart.” Lila’s deep brown eyes went soft as Julie and Thomas made friends. “Pets aren’t always a plus on the job, but Thomas is.”

  She selected a motorized mouse out of Thomas’s toy basket, enjoyed Julie’s easy laugh as the cat pounced.

  “Oh, he’s a killer.” Straightening, Julie leaned back on the stone-gray counter while Lila fussed the lilies into a clear glass vase.

  “Rome wa
s fabulous?”

  “It really was.”

  “And did you find a gorgeous Italian to have mad sex with?”

  “Sadly no, but I think the proprietor of the local market fell for me. He was about eighty, give or take. He called me una bella donna and gave me the most beautiful peaches.”

  “Not as good as sex, but something. I can’t believe I missed you when you got back.”

  “I appreciate the overnight at your place between jobs.”