Without warning, he burst into her senses.
One moment Sarah Miles was driving down a busy street with the top down. The next…a stranger with black hair, dressed in clothes from a bygone era, materialized in front of her car, his outline shimmery and insubstantial.
“Oh, my God!” Sarah screamed as fear coursed down her spine. She stomped on the brakes. The tires squealed as steel-belted radials bit into asphalt. Her cat, Monet, riding in the passenger seat, skidded across the seat and onto the floor. The tall, sleek stranger stretched his arms toward her.
Saura. The word whispered through her mind, a bastardized version of her name.
I can read his thoughts! Her hands gripped the steering wheel and her body went rigid. She tensed for the impact…that never came.
She felt a mild jolt of electricity as her car passed through him. She closed her eyes then opened them as the car screeched to a stop, throwing her forward. The seat belt bit into her shoulder as it jerked her back from the dash and flung her against the seat.
The driver behind her laid on his horn then swerved his black SUV across the yellow line, barely getting back in his own lane before an oncoming car whizzed by.
She pulled over to the side of the road. Her dark hair fell forward as she leaned her head against the steering wheel, trembling, hoping the afternoon sun beating down would warm her chilled body.
“Miss, are you alright?”
Dazed and disoriented, she raised her head. A short balding man hurried toward her.
He stopped beside the car. “I was just going to the mailbox when I saw you slam on the brakes. Are you okay?” His chest heaved from his race across the lawn.
Sarah didn’t answer. Her hands tightened on the steering wheel until they were bloodless and white. She twisted in her seat, looking for the stranger who had stood in the middle of the road. But the only visible sign of her encounter were the black skid marks lacerating the pavement.
“Miss, are you alright?” The little man leaned against the side of the car, peering at her. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. A gray tee shirt strained across his middle.
She turned toward him. “A man…” her voice trailed off. What if I hallucinated? She shook her head to clear it.
He leaned toward her, straining to hear. “What, miss? What did you say?”
She cleared her throat. “Did you see anyone step in front of my car?”
He shook his head. “There was no one in front of you. Not so much as a dog crossed your path. I would have seen if there had been. I had my eye on your car.” He eyed her battered old MG lovingly. “Drove one of these in college.”
His voice sounded as if it came from a tunnel. Her mind spun. She could smell fresh cut grass and hear the whine of a lawn mower, but everything seemed unreal. Trembling, she ran a hand across her clammy forehead.
She forced out a laugh, a strained, high-pitched sound. “Must have been the sun in my eyes. I was up all night working.” It took an effort, but she managed a dismissive shrug of her shoulders.
He cocked his head, his brow knit like corrugated cardboard as he studied her. “Do we know each other? You look familiar.” His gaze traveled to the back of the car. Stuck behind the front seat was a hodgepodge of paints, brushes and canvases.
“Say, you’re that artist.” He snapped his fingers, making a sharp sound. “Sarah. Sarah Miles.”
She jumped at the sound. Steady, Sarah. Sarah made herself relax as she sank into the car seat, letting the man distract her. Her work had just begun to catch on and it felt good to be recognized.
“We got one of your paintings. Cost me a small fortune, but the wife loves it. She swears when she looks at it she can almost feel the rain on her face and hear the rumble of thunder.” He shook his head, smiling.
“Mrrow.” Monet hopped back on the seat from the floor of the car where he’d been thrown, the seat and floor liberally sprinkled with white cat hair.
The man pointed at Monet. “And that’s your cat. He’s almost more famous than you are,” he teased, peering into the car for a better look.
Sarah got a whiff of spicy cologne as he craned his head toward Monet. She pushed deeper into the seat so as not to block his view. The old, cracked leather creaked as she settled in to it.
She unclenched her taut jaw and nodded as she gazed at Monet. The gentleman was right. Her cat had played no small role in her success.
She painted gardens, gardens that reflected the richness and beauty of nature. One painting might depict scarlet and copper chrysanthemums wearing a crystalline coating of frost. Another might show purple and yellow crocuses peaking through a glistening bank of snow. And somewhere in each painting was a white cat.
That cat had become her signature. Sometimes it figured prominently in the painting, sometimes it was hidden. The cat might be found in a tree or crouched behind a rock, but if the observer looked long enough, he or she would find Monet. Her gallery paintings were all listed as, ‘A Garden as Seen Through the Eyes of a Cat.’
Like Rodrigue’s blue dog, there was Sarah’s Monet. The difference being Monet was alive and well, while Rodrigue’s dog had passed on to a better life, if one believed in that sort of thing.
The thought brought Sarah up short. Did she believe in that sort of thing? An hour ago she would have said no. Hell, five minutes ago she would have said no, but now…
Monet, who had not taken kindly to being thrown to the floor, decided it was the stranger’s fault and hissed.
The man straightened and took a step back from the car. He turned his attention to Sarah. “Would you care to come in for a moment? My wife would love to meet you.”
She smiled, but shook her head. “Perhaps another time, I’m late for an engagement.”
The man took another step back as she threw the car in gear, revving the motor. She took a quick look into the street and pulled out. Glancing in her rearview mirror, she saw the little man still standing beside the street watching her.
She waved back.
Saura. The voice echoed in her head once again, more sigh than whisper.
She felt the blood drain from her skin. The rearview mirror threw back her reflection, her green eyes huge, her face dead white. She jerked the wheel and the car swerved across the line.
The driver of an approaching red SUV laid on his horn.
Jerking the wheel, she veered back into her own lane. “Who’s there?” Her sharp-toned voice coated the hysteria that lay beneath it.
Saura, where are you? It was the saddest sound she’d ever heard.
Her eyes filled with tears. Barely aware of what she did, Sarah whispered, “Here, darling, here.” She gripped the wheel so hard her knuckles whitened.
And then there was nothing. The voice, the presence…gone.
Slowing, she stared out the window. Stately old homes lined the street and daffodils waved in the breeze. But whatever she’d heard, seen, was no longer present.
Heart pounding, Sarah downshifted as she approached a red light. She leaned her head back against the headrest and took a deep breath. God, what’s going on?
With one hand resting on the wheel, she reached over to pet Monet, blindly seeking comfort.
He began to purr.
The breeze blew a strand of long black hair enticingly near Monet. The cat swiped at it.
“Hey, Lady, you going to sit there all day?” an irate teenager yelled from the car behind her. The light had turned green.
She popped the clutch. With a robotic movement of her head, she looked into her rearview mirror; all she saw was the impatient young driver behind her.
Her heart pounding, she pulled forward, afraid the voice would start again. But the only sound she heard was the crystal clear notes of a female vocalist singing about foolish games on the radio.