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Storm Warning

Nora Roberts

  For Mom,

  who wouldn’t let my brothers clobber me—

  even when I deserved it.

  Chapter 1

  The Pine View Inn was nestled comfortably in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After leaving the main road, the meandering driveway crossed a narrow ford just wide enough for one car. The inn was situated a short distance beyond the ford.

  It was a lovely place, full of character, the lines so clean they disguised the building’s rambling structure. It was three stories high, built of brick that had been weathered to a soft rose, the facade interspersed with narrow, white-shuttered windows. The hipped roof had faded long ago to a quiet green, and three straight chimneys rose from it. A wide wooden porch made a white skirt around the entire house and doors opened out to it from all four sides.

  The surrounding lawn was smooth and well tended. There was less than an acre, house included, before the trees and outcroppings of rock staked their claim on the land. It was as if nature had decided that the house could have this much and no more. The effect was magnificent. The house and mountains stood in peaceful coexistence, neither detracting from the other’s beauty.

  As she pulled her car to the informal parking area at the side of the house, Autumn counted five cars, including her aunt’s vintage Chevy. Though the season was still weeks off, it appeared that the inn already had several guests.

  There was a light April chill in the air. The daffodils had yet to open, and the crocuses were just beginning to fade. A few azalea buds showed a trace of color. The day was poised and waiting for spring. The higher, surrounding mountains clung to their winter brown, but touches of green were creeping up them. It wouldn’t be gloomy brown and gray for long.

  Autumn swung her camera case over one shoulder and her purse over the other—the purse was of secondary importance. Two large suitcases also had to be dragged from the trunk. After a moment’s struggle, she managed to arrange everything so that she could take it all in one load, then mounted the steps. The door, as always, was unlocked.

  There was no one about. The sprawling living room which served as a lounge was empty, though a fire crackled in the grate. Setting down her cases, Autumn entered the room. Nothing had changed.

  Rag rugs dotted the floor; hand-crocheted afghans were draped on the two patchworked sofas. At the windows were chintz priscillas and the Hummel collection was still on the mantel. Characteristically, the room was neat, but far from orderly. There were magazines here and there, an overflowing sewing basket, a group of pillows piled for comfort rather than style on the windowseat. The ambience was friendly with a faintly distracted charm. Autumn thought with a smile that the room suited her aunt perfectly.

  She felt an odd pleasure. It was always reassuring to find that something loved hasn’t changed. Taking a last quick glance around the room, she ran a hand through her hair. It hung past her waist and was tousled from the long drive with open windows. She gave idle consideration to digging out a brush, but promptly forgot when she heard footsteps down the hall.

  “Oh, Autumn, there you are.” Typically, her aunt greeted her as though Autumn had just spent an hour at the local supermarket rather than a year in New York. “I’m glad you got in before dinner. We’re having pot roast, your favorite.”

  Not having the heart to remind her aunt that pot roast was her brother Paul’s favorite, Autumn smiled. “Aunt Tabby, it’s so good to see you!” Quickly she walked over and kissed her aunt’s cheek. The familiar scent of lavender surrounded her.

  Aunt Tabby in no way resembled the cat her name brought to mind. Cats are prone to snobbishness, disdainfully tolerating the rest of the world. They are known for speed, agility and cunning. Aunt Tabby was known for her vague meanderings, disjointed conversations and confused thinking. She had no guile. Autumn adored her.

  Drawing her aunt away, Autumn studied her closely. “You look wonderful.” It was invariably true. Aunt Tabby’s hair was the same deep chestnut as her niece’s, but it was liberally dashed with gray. It suited her. She wore it short, curling haphazardly around her small round face. Her features were all small-scaled—mouth, nose, ears, even her hands and feet. Her eyes were a mistily faded blue. Though she was halfway through her fifties, her skin refused to wrinkle; it was smooth as a girl’s. She stood a half-foot shorter than Autumn and was pleasantly round and soft. Beside her, Autumn felt like a gangly toothpick. Autumn hugged her again, then kissed her other cheek. “Absolutely wonderful.”

  Aunt Tabby smiled up at her. “What a pretty girl you are. I always knew you would be. But so awfully thin.” She patted Autumn’s cheek and wondered how many calories were in pot roast.

  With a shrug, Autumn thought of the ten pounds she had gained when she’d stopped smoking. She had lost them again almost as quickly.

  “Nelson always was thin,” Aunt Tabby added, thinking of her brother, Autumn’s father.

  “Still is,” Autumn told her. She set her camera case on a table and grinned at her aunt. “Mom’s always threatening to sue for divorce.”

  “Oh well.” Aunt Tabby clucked her tongue and looked thoughtful. “I don’t think that’s wise after all the years they’ve been married.” Knowing the jest had been lost, Autumn merely nodded in agreement. “I gave you the room you always liked, dear. You can still see the lake from the window. The leaves will be full soon though, but . . . Remember when you fell in when you were a little girl? Nelson had to fish you out.”

  “That was Will,” Autumn reminded her, thinking back on the day her younger brother had toppled into the lake.

  “Oh?” Aunt Tabby looked faintly confused a moment, then smiled disarmingly. “He learned to swim quite well, didn’t he? Such an enormous young man now. It always surprised me. There aren’t any children with us at the moment,” she added, flowing from sentence to sentence with her own brand of logic.

  “I saw several cars. Are there many people here?” Autumn stretched her cramped muscles as she wandered the room. It smelled of sandalwood and lemon oil.

  “One double and five singles,” she told her. “One of the singles is French and quite fond of my apple pie. I must go check on my blueberry cobbler,” she announced suddenly. “Nancy is a marvel with a pot roast, but helpless with baking. George is down with a virus.”

  She was already making for the door as Autumn tried to puzzle out the last snatch of information.

  “I’m sorry to hear that,” she replied with what she hoped was appropriate sympathy.

  “I’m a bit shorthanded at the moment, dear, so perhaps you can manage your suitcases yourself. Or you can wait for one of the gentlemen to come in.”

  George, Autumn remembered. Gardener, bellboy and bartender.

  “Don’t worry, Aunt Tabby. I can manage.”

  “Oh, by the way, Autumn.” She turned back, but Autumn knew her aunt’s thoughts were centered on the fate of her cobbler. “I have a little surprise for you—oh, I see Miss Bond is coming in.” Typically, she interrupted herself, then smiled. “She’ll keep you company. Dinner’s at the usual time. Don’t be late.”

  Obviously relieved that both her cobbler and her niece were about to be taken care of, she bustled off, her heels tapping cheerfully on the hardwood floor.

  Autumn turned to watch her designated companion enter through the side door. She found herself gaping.

  Julia Bond. Of course, Autumn recognized her instantly. There could be no other woman who possessed such shimmering, golden beauty. How many times had she sat in a crowded theater and watched Julia’s charm and talent transcend the movie screen? In person, in the flesh, her beauty didn’t diminish. It sparkled, all the more alive in three dimensions.

  Small, with exquisite curves just bordering on lush, Julia Bond was a magnificent example of womanhood at
its best. Her cream-colored linen slacks and vivid blue cashmere sweater set off her coloring to perfection. Pale golden hair framed her face like sunlight. Her eyes were a deep summer blue. The full, shapely mouth lifted into a smile even as the famous brows arched. For a moment, Julia stood, fingering her silk scarf. Then she spoke, her voice smoky, exactly as Autumn had known it would be. “What fabulous hair.”

  It took Autumn a moment to register the comment. Her mind was blank at seeing Julia Bond step into her aunt’s lounge as casually as she would have strolled into the New York Hilton. The smile, however, was full of charm and so completely unaffected that Autumn was able to form one in return.

  “Thank you. I’m sure you’re used to being stared at, Miss Bond, but I apologize anyway.”

  Julia sat, with a grace that was at once insolent and admirable, in a wingback chair. Drawing out a long, thin cigarette, she gave Autumn a full-power smile. “Actors adore being stared at. Sit down.” She gestured. “I have a feeling I’ve at last found someone to talk to in this place.”

  Autumn’s obedience was automatic, a tribute to the actress’s charm.

  “Of course,” Julia continued, still studying Autumn’s face, “you’re entirely too young and too attractive.” Settling back, she crossed her legs. Somehow, she managed to transform the wingback chair, with the small darning marks in the left arm, into a throne. “Then your coloring and mine offset each other nicely. How old are you, darling?”

  “Twenty-five.” Captivated, Autumn answered without thinking.

  Julia laughed, a low bubbling sound that flowed and ebbed like a wave. “Oh, so am I. Perennially.” She tossed her head in amusement, then left it cocked to the side. Autumn’s fingers itched for her camera. “What’s your name, darling, and what brings you to solitude and pine trees?”

  “Autumn,” she responded as she pushed her hair off her shoulders. “Autumn Gallegher. My aunt owns the inn.”

  “Your aunt?” Julia’s face registered surprise and more amusement. “That dear fuzzy little lady is your aunt?”

  “Yes.” A grin escaped at the accuracy of the description. “My father’s sister.” Relaxed, Autumn leaned back. She was doing her own studying, thinking in angles and shadings.

  “Incredible,” Julia decided with a shake of her head. “You don’t look like her. Oh, the hair,” she corrected with an envious glance. “I imagine hers was once your color. Magnificent. I know women who would kill for that shade, and you seem to have about three feet of it.” With a sigh, she drew delicately on her cigarette. “So, you’ve come to pay your aunt a visit.”

  There was nothing condescending in her attitude. Her eyes were interested and Autumn began to find her not only charming but likable. “For a few weeks. I haven’t seen her in nearly a year. She wrote and asked me to come down, so I’m taking my vacation all at one time.”

  “What do you do?” Julia pursed her lips. “Model?”

  “No.” Autumn’s laughter came quickly at the thought of it. “I’m a photographer.”

  “Photographer!” Julia exclaimed. She glowed with pleasure. “I’m very fond of photographers. Vanity, I suppose.”

  “I imagine photographers are fond of you for the same reason.”

  “Oh, my dear.” When Julia smiled, Autumn recognized both pleasure and amusement. “How sweet.”

  “Are you alone, Miss Bond?” Her sense of curiosity was ingrained. Autumn had already forgotten to be overwhelmed.

  “Julia, please, or you’ll remind me of the half-decade that separates our ages. The color of that sweater suits you,” she commented, eyeing Autumn’s crewneck. “I never could wear gray. Sorry, darling,” she apologized with a lightning-quick smile. “Clothes are a weakness of mine. Am I alone?” The smile deepened. “Actually, this little hiatus is a mixture of business and pleasure. I’m in between husbands at the moment—a glorious interlude.” Julia tossed her head. “Men are delightful, but husbands can be dreadfully inhibiting. Have you ever had one?”

  “No.” The grin was irrepressible. From the tone, Julia might have asked if Autumn had ever owned a cocker spaniel.

  “I’ve had three.” Julia’s eyes grew wicked and delighted. “In this case, the third was not the charm. Six months with an English baron was quite enough.”

  Autumn remembered the photos she had seen of Julia with a tall, aristocratic Englishman. She had worn tweed brilliantly.

  “I’ve taken a vow of abstinence,” Julia continued. “Not against men—against marriage.”

  “Until the next time?” Autumn ventured.

  “Until the next time,” Julia agreed with a laugh. “At the moment, I’m here for platonic purposes with Jacques LeFarre.”

  “The producer?”

  “Of course.” Again, Autumn felt the close scrutiny. “He’ll take one look at you and decide he has a new star on the horizon. Still, that might be an interesting diversion.” She frowned a moment, then shrugged it away. “The other residents of your aunt’s cozy inn have offered little in the way of diversions thus far.”

  “Oh?” Automatically, Autumn shook her head as Julia offered her a cigarette.

  “We have Dr. and Mrs. Spicer,” Julia began. One perfectly shaped nail tapped against the arm of her chair. There was something different in her attitude now. Autumn was sensitive to moods, but this was too subtle a change for her to identify. “The doctor himself might be interesting,” Julia continued. “He’s very tall and nicely built, smoothly handsome with just the right amount of gray at the temples.”

  She smiled. Just then Autumn thought Julia resembled a very pretty, well-fed cat.

  “The wife is short and unfortunately rather dumpy. She spoils whatever attractiveness she might have with a continually morose expression.” Julia demonstrated it with terrifying skill. Autumn’s laughter burst out before she could stop it.

  “How unkind,” Autumn chided, smiling still.

  “Oh, I know.” A graceful hand waved in dismissal. “I have no patience for women who let themselves go, then look daggers at those who don’t. He’s fond of fresh air and walking in the woods, and she grumbles and mopes along after him.” Julia paused, giving Autumn a wary glance. “How do you feel about walking?”

  “I like it.” Hearing the apology in her voice, Autumn grinned.

  “Oh well!” Julia shrugged at eccentricities. “It takes all kinds. Next, we have Helen Easterman.” The oval, tinted nails began to tap again. Her eyes drifted from Autumn’s to the view out the window. Somehow, Autumn didn’t think she was seeing mountains and pine trees. “She says she’s an art teacher, taking time off to sketch nature. She’s rather attractive, though a bit overripe, with sharp little eyes and an unpleasant smile. Then, there’s Steve Anderson.” Julia gave her slow, cat smile again. Describing men, Autumn mused, was more to her taste. “He’s rather delicious. Wide shoulders, California blond hair. Nice blue eyes. And he’s embarrassingly rich. His father owns, ah . . .”

  “Anderson Manufacturing?” Autumn prompted and was rewarded with a beam of approval.

  “How clever of you.”

  “I heard something about Steve Anderson aiming for a political career.”

  “Mmm, yes. It would suit him.” Julia nodded. “He’s very well-mannered and has a disarmingly boyish smile—that’s always a political asset.”

  “It’s a sobering thought that government officials are elected on their smiles.”

  “Oh, politics.” Julia wrinkled her nose and shrugged away the entire profession. “I had an affair with a senator once. Nasty business, politics.” She laughed at some private joke.

  Not certain whether her comment had been a romantic observation or a general one, Autumn didn’t pursue it. “So far,” Autumn said, “it seems an unlikely menagerie for Julia Bond and Jacques LeFarre to join.”

  “Show business.” With a smile, she lit another cigarette, then waved it at Autumn. “Stick with photography, Autumn, no matter what promises Jacques makes you. We’re here due to a whim of t
he last and most interesting character in our little play. He’s a genius of a writer. I did one of his screenplays a few years back. Jacques wants to produce another, and he wants me for the lead.” She dragged deep on the cigarette. “I’m willing—really good scripts aren’t that easy to come by—but our writer is in the middle of a novel. Jacques thinks the novel could be turned into a screenplay, but our genius resists. He told Jacques he was coming here to write in peace for a few weeks, and that he’d think it over. The charming LeFarre talked him into allowing us to join him for a few days.”

  Autumn was both fascinated and confused. Her question was characteristically blunt. “Do you usually chase writers around this way? I’d think it would be more the other way around.”

  “And you’d be right,” Julia said flatly. With only the movement of her eyebrows, her expression turned haughty. “But Jacques is dead set on producing this man’s work, and he caught me at a weak moment. I had just finished reading one of the most appalling scripts. Actually,” she amended with a grimace, “three of the most appalling scripts. My work feeds me, but I won’t do trash. So . . .” Julia smiled and moved her hands. “Here I am.”

  “Chasing a reluctant writer.”

  “It has its compensations.”

  I’d like to shoot her with the sun at her back. Low sun, just going down. The contrasts would be perfect. Autumn pulled herself back from her thoughts and caught up with Julia’s conversation. “Compensations?” she repeated.