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Second Nature

Nora Roberts

  Second Nature

  Nora Roberts

  For Celebrity magazine reporter Lee Radcliffe, tracking down the world-famous, notoriously private, horror-story writer Hunter Brown had become a personal quest.

  Her carefully planned ambush finally paid off at a small writer’s conference in Flagstaff. Arizona. But when the master of the supernatural turned out to be a dark-eyed master of seduction. Lee knew that it would take more than just good interviewing skills to bet her an exclusive. Digging into private lives was her business, but now Hunter Brown had turned the tables. With one smoldering kiss he had exacted his price.

  To Deb Horm, for the mutual memories.



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve


  …with the moon full and white and cold. He saw the shadows shift and shiver like living things over the ice-crusted snow. Black on white. Black sky, white moon, black shadows, white snow. As far as he could see there was nothing else. There was such emptiness, an absence of color, the only sound the whistling moan of wind through naked trees. But he knew he wasn’t alone, that there was no safety in the black or the white. Through his frozen heart moved a trickle of hot fear. His breath, labored, almost spent, puffed out in small white clouds. Over the frosted ground fell a black shadow. There was no place left to run.

  Hunter drew on his cigarette, then stared at the words on the terminal through a haze of smoke. Michael Trent was dead. Hunter had created him, molded him exclusively for that cold, pitiful death under a full moon. He felt a sense of accomplishment rather than remorse for destroying the man he knew more intimately than he knew himself.

  He’d end the chapter there, however, leaving the details of Michael’s murder to the readers’ imagination. The mood was set, secrets hinted at, doom tangible but unexplained. He knew his habit of doing just that both frustrated and fascinated his following. Since that was precisely his purpose, he was pleased. He often wasn’t.

  He created the terrifying, the breathtaking, the unspeakable. Hunter explored the darkest nightmares of the human mind and, with cool precision, made them tangible. He made the impossible plausible and the uncanny commonplace. The commonplace he would often turn into something chilling. He used words the way an artist used a palette and he fabricated stories of such color and simplicity a reader was drawn in from the first page.

  His business was horror, and he was phenomenally successful.

  For five years he’d been considered the master of his particular game. He’d had six runaway bestsellers, four of which he’d transposed into screenplays for feature films. The critics raved, sales soared, letters poured in from fans all over the world. Hunter couldn’t have cared less. He wrote for himself first, because the telling of a story was what he did best. If he entertained with his writing, he was satisfied. But whatever reaction the critics and the readers had, he’d still have written. He had his work; he had his privacy. These were the two vital things in his life.

  He didn’t consider himself a recluse; he didn’t consider himself unsociable. He simply lived his life exactly as he chose. He’d done the same thing six years before…before the fame, success and large advances.

  If someone had asked him if having a string of bestsellers had changed his life, he’d have answered, why should it? He’d been a writer before The Devil’s Due had shot to number one on the New York Times list. He was a writer now. If he’d wanted his life to change, he’d have become a plumber.

  Some said his life-style was calculated—that he created the image of an eccentric for effect. Good promotion. Some said he raised wolves. Some said he didn’t exist at all but was a clever product of a publisher’s imagination. But Hunter Brown had a fine disregard for what anyone said. Invariably, he listened only to what he wanted to hear, saw only what he chose to see and remembered everything.

  After pressing a series of buttons on his word processor, he set up for the next chapter. The next chapter, the next word, the next book, was of much more importance to him than any speculative article he might read.

  He’d worked for six hours that day, and he thought he was good for at least two more. The story was flowing out of him like ice water: cold and clear.

  The hands that played the keys of the machine were beautiful—tanned, lean, long-fingered and wide-palmed. One might have looked at them and thought they would compose concertos or epic poems. What they composed were dark dreams and monsters—not the dripping-fanged, scaly-skinned variety, but monsters real enough to make the flesh crawl. He always included enough realism, enough of the everyday, in his stories to make the horror commonplace and all too plausible. There was a creature lurking in the dark closet of his work, and that creature was the private fear of every man. He found it, always. Then, inch by inch, he opened the closet door.

  Half forgotten, the cigarette smoldered in the overflowing ashtray at his elbow. He smoked too much. It was perhaps the only outward sign of the pressure he put on himself, a pressure he’d have tolerated from no one else. He wanted this book finished by the end of the month, his self-imposed deadline. In one of his rare impulses, he’d agreed to speak at a writers’ conference in Flagstaff the first week of June.

  It wasn’t often he agreed to public appearances, and when he did it was never at a large, publicized event. This particular conference would boast no more than two hundred published and aspiring writers. He’d give his workshop, answer questions, then go home. There would be no speaker’s fee.

  That year alone, Hunter had summarily turned down offers from some of the most prestigious organizations in the publishing business. Prestige didn’t interest him, but he considered, in his odd way, the contribution to the Central Arizona Writers’ Guild a matter of paying his dues. Hunter had always understood that nothing was free.

  It was late afternoon when the dog lying at his feet lifted his head. The dog was lean, with a shining gray coat and the narrow, intelligent look of a wolf.

  “Is it time, Santanas?” With a gentleness the hand appeared made for, Hunter reached down to stroke the dog’s head. Satisfied, but already deciding that he’d work late that evening, he turned off his word processor.

  Hunter stepped out of the chaos of his office into the tidy living room with its tall, many-paned windows and lofted ceiling. It smelled of vanilla and daisies. Large and sleek, the dog padded alongside him.

  After pushing open the doors that led to a terra-cotta patio, he looked into the thick surrounding woods. They shut him in, shut others out. Hunter had never considered which, only knew that he needed them. He needed the peace, the mystery and the beauty, just as he needed the rich red walls of the canyon that rose up around him. Through the quiet he could hear the trickle of water from the creek and smell the heady freshness of the air. These he never took for granted; he hadn’t had them forever.

  Then he saw her, walking leisurely down the winding path toward the house. The dog’s tail began to swish back and forth.

  Sometimes, when he watched her like this, Hunter would think it impossible that anything so lovely belonged to him. She was dark and delicately formed, moving with a careless confidence that made him grin even as it made him ache. She was Sarah. His work and his privacy were the two vital things in his life. Sarah was his life. She’d been worth the struggles, the frustration, the fears and the pain. She was worth everything.

  Looking over, she broke into a smile that flashed with braces. �
��Hi, Dad!”

  Chapter One

  The week a magazine like Celebrity went to bed was utter chaos. Every department head was in a frenzy. Desks were littered, phones were tied up and lunches were skipped. The air was tinged with a sense of panic that built with every hour. Tempers grew short, demands outrageous. In most offices the lights burned late into the night. The rich scent of coffee and the sting of tobacco smoke were never absent. Rolls of antacids were consumed and bottles of eye drops constantly changed hands. After five years on staff, Lee took the monthly panic as a matter of course.

  Celebrity was a slick, respected publication whose sales generated millions of dollars a year. In addition to stories on the rich and famous, it ran articles by eminent psychologists and journalists, interviews with both statesmen and rock stars. Its photography was first-class, just as its text was thoroughly researched and concisely written. Some of its detractors might have termed it quality gossip, but the word quality wasn’t forgotten.

  An ad in Celebrity was a sure bet for generating sales and interest and was priced accordingly. Celebrity was, in a tough competitive business, one of the leading monthly publications in the country. Lee Radcliffe wouldn’t have settled for less.

  “How’d the piece on the sculptures turn out?”

  Lee glanced up at Bryan Mitchell, one of the top photographers on the West Coast. Grateful, she accepted the cup of coffee Bryan passed her. In the past four days, she’d had a total of twenty hours sleep. “Good,” she said simply.

  “I’ve seen better art scrawled in alleys.”

  Though she privately agreed, Lee only shrugged. “Some people like the clunky and obscure.”

  With a laugh, Bryan shook her head. “When they told me to photograph that red and black tangle of wire to its best advantage, I nearly asked them to shut off the lights.”

  “You made it look almost mystical.”

  “I can make a junkyard look mystical with the right lighting.” She shot Lee a grin. “The same way you can make it sound fascinating.”

  A smile touched Lee’s mouth but her mind was veering off in a dozen other directions. “All in a day’s work, right?”

  “Speaking of which—” Bryan rested one slim jean-clad hip on Lee’s organized desk, drinking her own coffee black. “Still trying to dig something up on Hunter Brown?”

  A frown drew Lee’s elegant brows together. Hunter Brown was becoming her personal quest and almost an obsession. Perhaps because he was so completely inaccessible, she’d become determined to be the first to break through the cloud of mystery. It had taken her nearly five years to earn her title as staff reporter, and she had a reputation for being tenacious, thorough and cool. Lee knew she’d earned those adjectives. Three months of hitting blank walls in researching Hunter Brown didn’t deter her. One way or the other, she was going to get the story.

  “So far I haven’t gotten beyond his agent’s name and his editor’s phone number.” There might’ve been a hint of frustration in her tone, but her expression was determined. “I’ve never known people so closemouthed.”

  “His latest book hit the stands last week.” Absently, Bryan picked up the top sheet from one of the tidy piles of papers Lee was systematically dealing with. “Have you read it?”

  “I picked it up, but I haven’t had a chance to start it yet.”

  Bryan tossed back the long honey-colored braid that fell over her shoulder. “Don’t start it on a dark night.” She sipped at her coffee, then gave a laugh. “God, I ended up sleeping with every light in the apartment burning. I don’t know how he does it.”

  Lee glanced up again, her eyes calm and confident. “That’s one of the things I’m going to find out.”

  Bryan nodded. She’d known Lee for three years, and she didn’t doubt Lee would. “Why?” Her frank, almond-shaped eyes rested on Lee’s.

  “Because—” Lee finished off her coffee and tossed the empty cup into her overflowing wastebasket “—no one else has.”

  “The Mount Everest syndrome,” Bryan commented, and earned a rare, spontaneous grin.

  A quick glance would have shown two attractive women in casual conversation in a modern, attractively decorated office. A closer look would have uncovered the contrasts. Bryan, in jeans and a snug T-shirt, was completely relaxed. Everything about her was casual and not quite tidy, from her smudged sneakers to the loose braid. Her sharp-featured, arresting face was touched only with a hasty dab of mascara. She’d probably meant to add lipstick or blusher and then forgotten.

  Lee, on the other hand, wore a very elegant ice-blue suit, and the nerves that gave her her drive were evident in the hands that were never quite still. Her hair was expertly cut in a short swinging style that took very little care—which was every bit as important to her as having it look good. Its shade fell somewhere between copper and gold. Her skin was the delicate, milky white some redheads bless and others curse. Her makeup had been meticulously applied that morning, down to the dusky blue shadow that matched her eyes. She had delicate, elegant features offset by a full and obviously stubborn mouth.

  The two women had entirely different styles and entirely different tastes but oddly enough, their friendship had begun the moment they’d met. Though Bryan didn’t always like Lee’s aggressive tactics and Lee didn’t always approve of Bryan’s laid-back approach, their closeness hadn’t wavered in three years.

  “So.” Bryan found the candy bar she’d stuck in her jeans pocket and proceeded to unwrap it. “What’s your master plan?”

  “To keep digging,” Lee returned almost grimly. “I do have a couple of connections at Horizon, his publishing house. Maybe one of them’ll come through with something.” Without being fully aware of it, she drummed her fingers on the desk. “Damn it, Bryan, he’s like the man who wasn’t there. I can’t even find out what state he lives in.”

  “I’m half inclined to believe some of the rumors,” Bryan said thoughtfully. Outside Lee’s office someone was having hysterics over the final editing of an article. “I’d say the guy lives in a cave somewhere, full of bats with a couple of stray wolves thrown in. He probably writes the original manuscript in sheep’s blood.”

  “And sacrifices virgins every new moon.”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised.” Bryan swung her feet lazily while she munched on her chocolate bar. “I tell you the man’s weird.”

  “Silent Scream’s already on the bestseller list.”

  “I didn’t say he wasn’t brilliant,” Bryan countered, “I said he was weird. What kind of a mind does he have?” She shook her head with a half-sheepish smile. “I can tell you I wished I’d never heard of Hunter Brown last night while I was trying to sleep with my eyes open.”

  “That’s just it.” Impatient, Lee rose and paced to the tiny window on the east wall. She wasn’t looking out; the view of Los Angeles didn’t interest her. She just had to move around. “What kind of mind does he have? What kind of life does he live? Is he married? Is he sixty-five or twenty-five? Why does he write novels about the supernatural?” She turned, her impatience and her annoyance showing beneath the surface of the sophisticated grooming. “Why did you read his book?”

  “Because it was fascinating,” Bryan answered immediately. “Because by the time I was on page 3, I was so into it you couldn’t have gotten the book away from me with a crowbar.”

  “And you’re an intelligent woman.”

  “Damn right,” Bryan agreed and grinned. “So?”

  “Why do intelligent people buy and read something that’s going to terrify them?” Lee demanded. “When you pick up a Hunter Brown, you know what it’s going to do to you, yet his books consistently spring to the top of the bestseller list and stay there. Why does an obviously intelligent man write books like that?” She began, in a habit Bryan recognized, to fiddle with whatever was at hand—the leaves of a philodendron, the stub of a pencil, the left earring she’d removed during a phone conversation.

  “Do I hear a hint of disapproval?”
r />   “Yeah, maybe.” Frowning, Lee looked up again. “The man is probably the best colorist in the country. If he’s describing a room in an old house, you can smell the dust. His characterizations are so real you’d swear you’d met the people in his books. And he uses that talent to write about things that go bump in the night. I want to find out why.”

  Bryan crumpled her candy wrapper into a ball. “I know a woman who has one of the sharpest, most analytical minds I’ve ever come across. She has a talent for digging up obscure facts, some of them impossibly dry, and turning them into intriguing stories. She’s ambitious, has a remarkable talent for words, but works on a magazine and lets a half-finished novel sit abandoned in a drawer. She’s lovely, but she rarely dates for any purpose other than business. And she has a habit of twisting paper clips into ungodly shapes while she’s talking.”

  Lee glanced down at the small mangled piece of metal in her hands, then met Bryan’s eyes coolly. “Do you know why?”

  There was a hint of humor in Bryan’s eyes, but her tone was serious enough. “I’ve tried to figure it out for three years, but I can’t precisely put my finger on it.”

  With a smile, Lee tossed the bent paper clip into the trash. “But then, you’re not a reporter.”

  Because she wasn’t very good at taking advice, Lee switched on her bedside lamp, stretched out and opened Hunter Brown’s latest novel. She would read a chapter or two, she decided, then make it an early night. An early night was an almost sinful luxury after the week she’d put in at Celebrity.

  Her bedroom was done in creamy ivories and shades of blue from the palest aqua to indigo. She’d indulged herself here, with dozens of plump throw pillows, a huge Turkish rug and a Queen Anne stand that held an urn filled with peacock feathers and eucalyptus. Her latest acquisition, a large ficus tree, sat by the window and thrived.