Standing in the downpour that had inundated the coast for the past three days, Dorothea Jai-Li Franklin watched another piece of her garden crash into the Pacific. From this distance, she couldn’t hear the splash, just the pounding of the waves against the rocks below. A yew swayed at an angle over the cliff before it, too, gracefully descended in a mudslide to the roaring surf.
She could almost hear her mother crowing from the heavens over the correctness of her prediction about the house’s horrendously bad feng shui.
Her father would still have insisted that the property was a real estate bonanza.
Dorrie simply grieved. Once the house followed the yard, all trace of her mother would be gone. Until his helicopter disappeared, she’d had her brother to remind her of their heritage, but now Bo, too was lost to her. She wiped her tears with her sleeve and bit back a sob before carrying the last of her mother’s prized porcelains to the car.
Her father would undoubtedly disagree with her choice of rescued treasures, but he was in a pricey residence designed for the disabled these days, just regaining his speech, if not his ability to walk. Since coming to live with him at the age of twelve, she’d learned to walk a narrow path between her mother’s teachings and Ryan Franklin’s denials of her weird abilities.
For years, she’d feared her father would divorce her as he had her mother if she revealed any of her woo-woo tendencies. Now that he was in poor health and she had the responsibility of running his foundation, she had to be more cautious than ever.
She tucked the vases in with a few books, her laptop, and Toto, her aging cairn terrier, all she’d been able to rescue before the yard had begun crumbling. With every trace of her mother gone, she would be entirely her father’s daughter. Perhaps the Universe was speaking to her. Perhaps it was time to submerge the dangerous gift she’d inherited from her mother and pretend she was the rational, businesslike daughter her father wanted.
Except years of living with her father’s criticism had sucked away her confidence. And her one moment of courage had left her in a state of fear for years.
Pulling the hood of her billowing rain cape over her rapidly kinking hair, she let the wind and rain gust around her. This was southern California, after all. It wasn’t cold while the sky and earth wreaked their vengeance. Somewhere out there behind those roiling clouds, it was still daylight.
A raindrop slid down her nose, and she wiped it while watching the crumbling cliff. Tilting and swaying, the pepper tree looked to be the next victim of the mudslide. She shuddered as the source of her fear was about to be revealed. Thank goodness there was no one else to see it. Perhaps, if she got rid of the evidence at last…
Holding her temples, concentrating, she located the earth’s energy and shoved at the weakening tree roots with her mind.
Before she could completely grasp the tree’s chi, an irritatingly self-confident voice crawled up her spine, breaking her concentration.
“Shouldn’t you be retreating to safer grounds?”
Dorrie scrambled to hold the tree with her mind before it revealed its roots. But it was tilted at an angle she couldn’t correct.
Cursing to herself, she didn’t turn around until she could analyze the intruder’s vibrations and knew whether to welcome him or be wary.
She shivered at the visceral effect of a man she couldn’t see.
Sexy was her first response to his energy. But that could just be her hormones appreciating the resonance of his voice. His overconfidence could be a hazard, and his lack of sensitivity had destroyed her concentration. She was prepared to be irritated.
Mostly, she was terrified of what he would see as the rain ravaged her garden. She probably ought to start backing away before the pepper tree fell.
Instead, she studied the stranger’s energy with morbid fascination. She seldom had the opportunity to analyze chi without other people about, and his was particularly strong. And wild.
As he approached, she sensed the earth force shifting from left to right. Most people produced straightforward energy. Was he pacing back and forth?
The stranger’s chi possessed a creative, intriguing layer of energy unlike Bo’s underlying warmth, but like her brother, this man exhibited no-nonsense technical vibrations.
She detected nothing overtly dangerous, however. Powerful, yes, extremely so. But curiosity seemed to be his driving force. Who the hell was he? She dismissed his question, preferring to give him the silent treatment until he stated his business.
“There goes ten thousand in dirt,” the newcomer commented, apparently determined to be tactless. He stood beside her and watched a clump of sod slide away.
“We told my father this would happen, but he wouldn’t believe us,” Dorrie said. “We’re safe for now.” Fatalistically, she watched as the pepper tree tilted and prepared to slip after the sod, taking with it all evidence of her guilt.
“You knew this was a fault zone and you still lived here?” he asked.
Definitely curiosity there—stronger than his need for self-defense. A man like that would ask questions first and act later—intriguing but hazardous to her health. Did she sense an underlying grief, or did that just reflect her own?
Dorrie turned to observe the intruder, half expecting to see a policeman condemning the property and ordering her to leave.
Instead, she met the dark gaze of a sun-bronzed surfer. She barely reached his shoulder, but she was wearing flat garden clogs in the muddy mess that had become her father’s yard. With heels, she might look him in the…nose.
Quite a formidable nose, she observed, fighting a twitch of her lips. The bent hawk beak and his noncommittal expression prevented classical good looks, but his square cheekbones and jaw had character.
“My father believed the geologists who told him the cliff was safe.” With her ability to sense the earth’s energy, maybe she should have been a geologist, but science and math bored her. “And you are?”
Instead of answering, he was looking over her shoulder. “Is that a skull?”
Succumbing to fatalism, Dorrie watched the pepper tree give up its fight and tumble into the ocean. In a single fading ray of sunlight, glimpses of filthy white could be seen mixed with the roots. He must have amazingly good eyesight.
“You want to go out there and find out?” she asked defiantly.
“You’re not curious?” he asked.
“Not curious enough to send a policeman out on that crumbling cliff to look for old graveyards. Be my guest if you want to call the cops, but I’ll not be responsible if anything happens to one.” She could feel the earth moving as she spoke. She knew it would collapse sooner or later. The lovely tiled water fountain would go with it. If her father had only listened… But Ryan Franklin didn’t believe in woo-woo.
She didn’t know where she would go, but she couldn’t stay here any longer. Now that the tree was gone, she turned back to her car and her dog. Toto was old and slept a lot, but she didn’t like leaving him too long.
The stranger didn’t move. She donned her officious business face and glared up at him. “Did you want something?”
“Conan Oswin, of Oz Technology,” he said, not precisely answering her question.
“Oz, as in Wizard of?” The automatic quip showed how tired she was. She knew who he was. Her father had bragged about the brilliant computer genius security honcho he’d hired to protect the Foundation’s operating systems.
“Oz as in Oswin,” he said without smiling. “We installed your company’s computer security.”
Her father’s company. Hers, now, she supposed, with Bo gone. The horror threatened to overwhelm her. “Dorothea Franklin, but I prefer to be called Dorrie.”
“How did you know the house wasn’t safe if geologists didn’t?” he asked implacably, returning to their original conversation.
Curiosity could be a definite disadvantage, but deflecting the truth had become second nature. Dorrie avoided answering, even if she was unable to ignore the waves of testosterone pouring off him. “My father bought this property almost twenty years ago, presented it to my mother as an anniversary gift. She took one look at it, said she wasn’t building a home destined for disaster, and refused to set foot out of the car.”
His expressive eyebrows skimmed upward in surprise. “Bet your father was bummed. That’s one seriously expensive anniversary gift.” He didn’t bother pulling up his hood against the rain as he watched the rock escarpment in the neighbor’s yard inexorably slide downward. The wind lifted his thick, overlong sun-bleached locks. “How did you end up with the bad gift?”
She heard the amusement behind his gravity. There was that zigzag energy again. Despite his unsmiling expression, he was teasing her, which stirred her own long-denied hormones. This man had the solid muscle and stance of a lanky athlete, not the physique of a computer nerd.
“My father kept the house and custody of my older brother,” she told him, rather than ask if the firewalls in the Office From Hell required her attention and if that was why he was here. “My mother kept me and filed for divorce. My mother was high maintenance with a tendency toward drama, but that was partially in self-defense. If you’ve worked with him, you know my father is a bull-headed SOB. But after she was murdered, I ended up with him anyway.”
The earth groaned and shuddered, and Oswin caught her elbow, tugging her from the front walk of her crumbling home, back toward the road. Dorrie followed reluctantly. Her deteriorating real estate wasn’t the reason he was here, she was sure.
“So you get your sense of drama from your mother?” he asked with a hint of irony. “Wouldn’t it be preferable to have conversations about murder in a less spectacular place than one uprooting bones?”
He was patronizing her. She’d zap him, but she could see his point. She must look like a drowned rat too stupid to come out of the rain, but he’d probably never watched his life wash away in a sea of mud.
“I didn’t ask you out here.” Although, she had been on the verge of calling the company he represented to uncover the problem at the office. “I don’t even know that you are who you say you are. You could be a thief waiting to steal from empty houses for all I know.”
She knew from his chi that he wasn’t lying and that he was someone far more powerful than a thief, but a normal person would be suspicious. She was used to pretending to be normal. She shoved thick hanks of wind-blown curls out of her face.
He flipped open an expensively thin leather folder and produced his ID. On his government security photo, he looked like a nerd with dark-framed glasses and a serious expression. The sexiness was all in her reaction to his chi apparently.
“I’m here because I believe we have something in common. Your brother crashed on the same mission that took out mine.”
“Bo?” Damn. She gazed at him with wariness and a slightly faster pulse. Could he suspect what she knew about Bo’s energy? Could she trust him?
Oswin’s expression revealed nothing, but his restless energy said her response was important. Now she was suspicious for real. “You’re wondering why they never found their bodies, too?” she demanded.
“I have reason to question the incident,” he admitted.