The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Four
AT FOUR FORTY-FIVE, FOX WALKED HIS LAST client of the day to the door. Outside, March was kicking thin brown leaves along the sidewalk, and a couple of kids in hoodies walked straight into the whooshing wind. Probably going up to the arcade at the bowling center, he mused. Squeeze in a couple of games before dinner.

There'd been a day he'd have walked through the wind for a couple of games of Galaxia. In fact, he thought, he'd done that last week. If that made him twelve on some level, he could live with it. Some things shouldn't change.

He heard Layla speaking on the phone, telling the caller that Mr. O'Dell was in court tomorrow, but she could make an appointment for later in the week.

When he turned she was keying it into the computer, into the calendar, he supposed, in her efficient way. From his angle he could see her legs in the opening of the desk, the way she tapped a foot as she worked. The silver she wore at her ears glinted as she swiveled to hang up the phone, then her gaze shifted to meet his. And the muscles of his belly quivered.

He definitely wasn't twelve on this particular level. Thank God some things did change.

It must've been the goofy smile on his face that had her cocking her head at him. "What?"

"Nothing. Just a little internal philosophy. Anything important on that call?"

"Not urgent. It was only regarding a partnership agreement-a couple of women writing a series of cook-books they believe are going to be bestsellers. Rachael Ray, step back, I'm told. They want to formalize their collaboration before they hit the big time. You have a busy schedule this week."

"Then I should be able to afford Chinese for dinner, if you're still up for it."

"I just need to shut down for the day."

"Go ahead. I'll do the same. We can go up through the kitchen."

In his office, Fox shut down his computer, shouldered his briefcase, then tried to remember exactly what state his apartment might be in.

Uh-oh. He realized he'd just hit another area at which he remained twelve.

Best not to think about it, he decided, since it was too late to do anything about it. Anyway, how bad could it be?

He walked into the kitchen where Mrs. Hawbaker kept the coffeemaker, the microwave, the dishes she'd deemed appropriate for serving clients. He knew she kept cookies in there, because he raided them routinely. And her vases, boxes of fancy teas.

Who'd stock cookies when Mrs. H deserted him? Wistfully, he turned when Layla came in.

"She buys the supplies with the proceeds from the F-word jar in my office. I tend to keep that pretty well funded. I guess she's told you."

"A dollar for every F-word, honor system. Since I've seen your jar, I'd say you're pretty free with the F-word, and honorable about it." He's so sad, she thought, and it made her want to cuddle him, to stroke the messy, waving hair. "I know you're going to miss her."

"Maybe she'll come back. Either way, life moves." He opened the door to the stairway. "I might as well tell you since Mrs. H doesn't deal with my apartment, and in fact, refuses to go up here since an unfortunate incident involving oversleeping and neglected laundry, it's probably a mess."

"I've seen messes before."

But when she stepped up from the tidy office kitchen into Fox's personal one, Layla understood she'd underestimated the definition of mess.

There were dishes in the sink, on the counter, and on the small table that was also covered with what appeared to be several days of newspapers. A couple boxes of cereal (did grown men actually eat Cocoa Puffs?), bags of chips, a bottle of red wine, some bottles of condiments, and an empty jug of Gatorade fought for position on the short counter beside a refrigerator all but wallpapered with sticky notes and snapshots.

There were three pairs of shoes on the floor, a battered jacket slung over one of the two kitchen chairs, and a stack of magazines towered on the other.

"Maybe you want to go away for an hour, or possibly a week, while I deal with this."

"No. No. Is the rest this bad?"

"I don't remember. I can go check before-"

But she was already stepping over shoes and into the living room.

It wasn't as bad, he thought. Not really. Deciding to be proactive, he moved by her and began to grab up the debris. "I live like a pig, I know, I know. I've heard it all before." He stuffed an armload of discarded clothes into the neglected hall closet.

Sheer bafflement covered her face, coated her voice. "Why don't you hire a housekeeper, someone to come in once a week and deal with this?"

"Because they run away and never come back. Look, we'll go out." It wasn't embarrassment-hey, his place-as much as fear of a lecture that had him snatching up an empty beer bottle and a nearly empty bowl of popcorn from the coffee table. "We'll find a nice, sanitary restaurant."

"I roomed with two girls in college. I had to call in the Hazmat team at the end of the semester." She picked up a pair of socks from a chair before he could get there, then handed them to him. "But if there's a clean glass I could use some of that wine."

"I'll put one in an autoclave."

He grabbed more on his way back to the kitchen. Curious, Layla looked around the room, tried to see beyond the disarray. The walls were actually a very nice sagey shade of green, a warm tone that set off the wide oak trim around the windows. A gorgeous woven rug that might have been vacuumed sometime in the last decade spread across a wide-planked floor of deep, dark wood. The art on the walls was lovely-watercolors, pen-and-ink sketches, photographs. The room might've been dominated by a big, flat-screen TV, and a flurry of components, but there was some beautiful pottery.

His brother's, she imagined, or his mother's. He'd shown her his younger brother's pottery business from the road once. She turned when she sensed Fox come in again.

"I love the art, and the pottery. This piece." She trailed a finger along a long, slender bottle in dreamy shades of blue. "It's so fluid."

"My mother's work. My brother, Ridge, did that bowl on the table under the window."

She walked to it. "It's gorgeous." She traced the gentle curve of its lip. "And the colors, the shapes of them. It's like a forest in a wide cup."

She turned back to take the glass of wine. "How about the art?"

"My mother, my brother, my sister-in-law. The photographs are Sparrow's, my younger sister."

"A lot of talent in one family."

"Then there are the lawyers, my older sister and me."

"Practicing law doesn't take talent?"

"It takes something.":.Your father's a carpenter, isn't he?"

She sipped her wine. "Your father's a carpenter, isn't he?"

"Carpentry, cabinetmaking. He made the table Ridge's bowl's on."

"Made the table." Now she crouched to get a closer look. "Imagine that."

"No nails, no screws. Tongue and groove. He's got magic hands."

She swiped a finger over the surface, through the dust. "The finish is like satin. Beautiful things." Eyebrows lifted, she rubbed her finger clean on the sleeve of Fox's shirt. "I'm forced to say you should take better care of them, and their environment."

"You wouldn't be the first. Why don't I distract you with food?" He held out a paper menu. "Han Lee's China Kitchen."

"It's a little early for dinner."

"I'll call ahead, tell them to deliver at seven. That way we can get some work done."

"Sweet and sour pork," she decided after a glance at the menu.

"That's it?" he asked when she handed it back to him. "Pitiful. Sweet and sour pork. I'll take care of the rest."

He left her again to make the call. A few minutes later she heard the sound of water running, dishes clinking. Rolling her eyes, she walked into the kitchen where he was attacking the dishes.

"Okay." Layla took off her jacket.

"No. Really."

"Yes." Rolled up her sleeves. "Really. One-time deal, since you're buying dinner."

"Should I apologize again?"

"Not this time." Her eyebrows lifted. "No dishwasher?"

"See, that's the problem. I keep thinking I should take out that bottom cabinet there, have one installed, but then I think, hey, it's just me, and I use paper plates a lot."

"Not often enough. Is there a clean dish towel somewhere?"

"Oh. Well." He gave her a befuddled frown. "Be right back."

Shaking her head, Layla stepped up to the sink he'd deserted and took over. She didn't mind. It was a mindless chore, oddly relaxing and satisfying. Plus there was a nice view from the window over the sink, one that stretched out to the mountains where the sunlight sprinkled over the steely peaks.

The wind was still kicking at the trees, and it billowed the white sheets hanging on a line in the yard below. She imagined the sheets would smell like the wind and the mountains when they were tucked onto their bed.

A little boy and a big black dog ran around a fenced yard with such joy and energy in the gallop she could almost feel the wind on her own cheeks, rushing through her hair. When the boy in his bright blue coat leaped up to stand on his swing, his fingers tight on the chains, the thrill of height and speed pitched into Layla's belly.

Is his mother in the kitchen making dinner? she wondered dreamily. Or maybe it's the dad's turn to cook. Better, they're cooking together, stirring, chopping, talking about their day while the little boy lifts his face to the wind and flies.

"Who knew washing dishes could be so sexy?"

She laughed, glanced over her shoulder at Fox. "Don't think that's going to convince me to repeat the favor."

He stood where he was, a badly wrinkled dishcloth in his hand. "What?"

"Washing dishes is only sexy when you're not the one with your hands in the soapy water."

He came forward, put a hand on her arm. His eyes locked on hers. "I didn't say that out loud."

"I heard you."

"Apparently, but I was thinking, not talking. I was distracted," he continued when she took a step away from him, "by the way you looked, the way the light hit your hair, the line of your back, the curve of your arms. I was distracted," he repeated. "And open. What were you, Layla? Don't think, don't analyze. Just tell me what you were feeling when you 'heard' me."

"Relaxed. I was watching the little boy on the swing in the yard. I was relaxed."

"Now you're not." He picked up a plate, began to dry it. "So we'll wait until you are."

"You can do that, with me? Hear what I'm thinking?"

"Emotions come easier than words. But I wouldn't, unless you let me."

"You can do it with anyone."

He looked into her eyes. "But I wouldn't."

"Because you're the kind of man who puts a dollar in a jar, even if no one's around to hear you swear."

"If I give my word, I keep my word."

She washed another dish. The charm of sheets flapping in the wind, of a little boy and his big dog dissolved. "Did you always control it? Resist the temptation?"

"No. I was ten when I started tapping in. During the first Seven, it was scary, and I could barely keep a handle on it. But it helped. When it was over, that first time, I figured it would be gone."

"It wasn't."

"No. It was very cool to be ten and be able to sense what people were thinking, or feeling. It was big, and not just in the wow, I've got a superpower kind of thing. It was big because maybe I wanted to ace a history test, and the smartest kid in history was right there in the next row. Why not reach in, get the answers?"

Since he was drying dishes, he decided to take the extra step and actually put them away. She'd be calmer if they continued with the chore, if all hands were busy. "After a few times, a few aces, I started feeling guilty about it. And weird because I might take a peek into a random teacher's head to see what they were planning to toss at us. And I'd get stuff I shouldn't have known about. Problems at home, that kind of thing. I was raised to respect privacy, and I was invading it right and left. So I stopped." He smiled a little. "Mostly."

"It helps that you're not perfect."

"It took time to figure out how to deal. Sometimes if I wasn't paying enough attention, things would slip through-sometimes if I was paying too much attention, ditto. And sometimes it was deliberate. There were a couple of events with this asshole who liked to razz me. And... when I got a little older, there was the girl thing. Take a quick sweep through and maybe I'd see if I had a shot at getting her shirt off."

"Did it work?"

He only smiled, and slid a plate into its cabinet. "Then a couple weeks before we turned seventeen, things started happening again. I knew-we knew-it wasn't finished after all. It came home to me that what I had wasn't something to play around with. I stopped."

"Mostly?"

"Almost entirely. It's there, Layla, it's part of us. I can't control the fact that I might get a sense from someone. I can control pushing in, pulling out more."

"That's what I have to learn."

"And you may have to learn to push. If it comes down to someone's privacy or their life, or the lives of others, you have to push in."

"But how do you know when-when, if, who?"

"We'll work on it."

"I'm not relaxed around you, most of the time."

"I've noticed. Why is that?"

She turned away to get more dishes, then slid a bowl into the sink. The little boy had gone inside, she noted. In to eat dinner. His dog curled on the porch by the back door and slept off playtime.

"Because I'm aware you can, or could, sense what I think or feel. Or I worry that you can, so it makes me nervous. But you don't, because you hold back, or because I'm nervous enough to stop you. Maybe both. You didn't know what I was thinking, or feeling earlier today when you kissed me."

"My circuits were crossed at the time."

"We're attracted to each other. Would that be an accurate reading?"

"It's dead-on from my end."

"And that makes me nervous. It's also confusing, because I don't know how much we're picking up from each other, how much is just basic chemistry." Layla rinsed the bowl, passed it to Fox. "I don't know if this is something we should be dealing with, with everything else we have to worry about."

"Let's back up, just a little. Are you nervous because I'm attracted to you, or because we're attracted to each other?"

"Door number two, and I don't have to see inside your head when I can see by your face you like that idea."

"Best damn idea I've heard in weeks. Possibly years."

She planted a wet, soapy hand on his shirt as he started to lean in. "I can't relax if I'm thinking about going to bed with you. The idea of sex generally stirs me up."

"We could relax later. In fact, I can guarantee we'll be a lot more relaxed later if we finish the stirring-up part first."

She not only left her hand planted, but nudged him a full step back with it. "No doubt. But I compartmentalize things. It's how I'm built, it's how I work. This, between us, I have to put it in another compartment for a while. I have to think about it, worry about it, wonder about it. If I'm going to learn from you, if I'm going to help end what wants to end us, I need to focus on that."

His expression sober and attentive, he nodded. "I like to juggle."

"I know."

"And I like to negotiate. And." He dried her hand, then brought it to his lips. "I know when to let the opposing party consider all the options. I want you. Naked. In bed, in a room filled with shadows and quiet music. I want to feel your heart pound against my hand while I do things to you. So put that in your compartment, Layla."

He tossed aside his dishcloth as she stared at him. "I'm going to go get your wine. It should help you relax some before we get to work."

She was still staring when he strolled out. She managed to press a hand to her heart, and yes, it was pounding.

Obviously, she had a lot to learn if he'd had that in him and she hadn't sensed it.

It was going to take more than a glass of red wine to help her relax now.

SHE DRANK THE WINE; HE CLEARED OFF THE kitchen table. Then he poured her another glass. She didn't say a word, and he gave her room for silence, room for her thoughts until he sat.

"Okay, do you know how to meditate?"

"I know the concept." There was a thin edge of irritation in her tone. He didn't mind it.

"You ought to sit down so we can get started. The thing about meditating," he began when she joined him, "is most people can't really reach that level where they turn their minds off, where there's not something in there about work or their dentist appointment, the ache in their lower back. Whatever. But we can get close. Yoga breathing, using the breath. Closing your eyes, picturing a blank white wall-"

"And chanting 'ummm.' How is that going to help me tap in to this thing? I can't walk around in a meditative state."

"It's to help clear yourself out after. To help you-I sound like my mother-cleanse your mind, your aura, balance your chi."

"Please."

"It's a process, Layla. So far, you've only skimmed the surface of it, or dipped your toe in. The deeper you go, the more it takes out of you."

"Such as?"

"Too deep for too long? Headaches, nausea, nosebleeds. It can hurt. It can drain you."

She frowned, then ran her finger down the bowl of her glass. "When we were in the attic of the old library, Quinn had a flashback to Ann Hawkins. And she came out of it pretty shaken up. Severe headache, queasy, clammy." Layla puffed out her cheeks. "All right. I'm crappy at meditating. When we end with the corpse position in yoga class, I'm relaxed, but I'm going to be thinking of what I'm doing next, or if I should buy this great leather jacket that came in. I'll practice. I can practice with Cybil."

Because she's safer than I am, Fox thought, and let that go. "All right, let's just skim along the surface for right now. Relax, clear the clutter out of the front of your mind. Like when you were doing the dishes."

"It's harder when it's deliberate. Things want to pop in."

"That's right. So compartmentalize," he suggested with an easy smile. "Put them in their slot. Tuck them away. Look at me." His hand moved to rest on hers. "Just look at me. Focus on me. You know me."

She felt a little strange, as if the wine had gone straight to her head. "I don't understand you."

"That'll come. Look at me. It's like opening a door. Turn the knob, Layla. Put your hand on the knob and turn it, ease the door open, just a couple inches. Look at me. What am I thinking?"

"You hope I don't eat all the pot stickers." She felt his humor, like a warm blue light. "You did that."

"We did that. Stay at the door. Stay focused. Open it just a little wider and tell me what I'm feeling."

"I... calm. You're so calm. I don't know how you manage it. I don't think I'm ever that calm, and now, with what's happened, what's happening, I don't know if I'll ever be really calm again. And... You're a little hungry."

"I pretended to eat most of an eggplant salad at lunch. Which is why I ordered..."

"Kung Pao beef, snow peas, cold noodles, a dozen egg rolls, pot stickers. A dozen egg rolls?"

"If there are any leftovers, they're good for breakfast."

"That's disgusting. And now you're thinking I'd be good for breakfast," she added and drew her hand from under his.

"Sorry, that slipped through. Doing okay?"

"A little light-headed, a lot dazed, but yeah, okay. It's going to be easier with you though, isn't it? Because you know how to work it. Work me."

Picking up his neglected beer, he tipped back in his chair. "A woman comes into the shop you managed in New York. She's just browsing around. How do you know where to direct her, how to work her?"

"Satisfy her," Layla corrected, "not work her. Some of it would be the way she looks-her age, how she's dressed, what kind of bag, what kind of shoes. Those are surface things, and can lead in the wrong direction, but they're a start. And I grew up in the business, so I have a sense of customer types."

"But I'm betting nine times out of ten you knew when to get the flashy leather purse out of the stockroom or steer her toward the conservative black one. If she said she wanted a business suit, but really had a yen for a sexy little dress and fuck-me shoes."

"I had a lot of experience reading... Yes." She let out a hiss of breath, the annoyance self-directed. "I don't know why I keep resisting it. Yes, I'd often tune in. The owner called it my magic touch. I guess she wasn't far off."

"How did you do it?"

"If I'm assisting a customer, I'm, well, I'm focused on them, on what they want, what they like-and yeah, what I can sell them. You have to listen to what they say, and there's body language, and also my own sense of what would look great on them. And sometimes, I always thought it was instinct, I'd get a picture in my head of the dress or the shoes. I'd think it was reading between the lines of what they said when I chatted them up, but I might hear this little voice. Maybe it was their thoughts. I'm not sure."

She was easing into it, he thought, into acceptance of what she held inside her. "You were confident in what you were doing, sure of your ground, which is another kind of relaxation. And you cared. You wanted to get them what they really wanted or would work for them, make them happy. And make a sale. Right?"

"I guess so."

"Same program, different channel." He dug into his pocket, pulled out change. Cupping his palm away from her, he counted it out. "How much am I holding?"

"I-"

"The amount's in my head. Open the door."

"God. Wait." She took another sip of wine first. Too much running through her own head, Layla realized. Put it away. "Don't help me!" she snapped when he reached for her hand. "Just... don't."

Put it away, she repeated to herself. Clean it out. Relax. Focus. Why did he think she could do this? Why was he so sure? Why did so many men have such wonderful eyelashes? Oops. No side trips. She closed her eyes, visualized the door. "A dollar thirty-eight." Her eyes popped open. "Wow."

"Good job."

She jolted at the knock on the door.

"Delivery guy. Do him."

"What?"

"While I'm talking to him, paying him, read him."

"But that's-"

"Rude and intrusive, sure. We're going to sacrifice courtesy in the name of progress. Read him," Fox commanded as he rose and walked to the door. "Hey, Kaz, how's it going?"

The kid was about sixteen, Layla estimated. Jeans, sweatshirt, high-top Nikes that looked fairly new. Shaggy brown hair, small silver hoop in his right ear. His eyes were brown, and passed over her-lingered briefly-as bags and money changed hands.

She took a deep breath, nudged at the door.

Fox heard her make a sound behind him, something between a gasp and a snort. He kept on talking as he added the tip, made a comment about basketball.

After he closed the door, Fox set the bags on the table. "Well?"

"He thinks you're chill."

"I am."

"He thinks I'm hot."

"You are."

"He wondered if you're going to be getting any of that tonight and he wouldn't mind getting some of that himself. He didn't mean the egg rolls."

Fox opened the bags. "Kaz is seventeen. A guy that age is pretty much always thinking about getting some. Any headache?"

"No. He was easy. Easier than you."

He smiled at her. "Guys my age think about getting some, too. But we usually know when it's just going to be egg rolls. Let's eat."

HE DIDN'T TRY TO KISS HER AGAIN, NOT EVEN when he drove her home. Layla couldn't tell if he thought about it, and decided that was for the best. Her own thoughts and feelings were a tangle of frayed knots, which told her she'd need to take Fox's advice and go for the meditation.

She found Cybil on the living room sofa with a book and a cup of tea.

"Hi. How'd it go?"

"It went well." Layla dropped into a chair. "Surprisingly well. I'm feeling a little buzzed, actually. Like I knocked back a couple of scotches."

"Want tea? There's more in the pot."

"Maybe."

"I'll get you a cup," Cybil said when Layla started to rise. "You look beat."

"Thanks." Closing her eyes, Layla tried the yoga breathing, tried to envision relaxing from the toes up. She made it to her ankles when she gave it up. "Fox says I should meditate," she told Cybil when Cybil came back with a fancy cup and saucer. "Meditation bores me."

"Then you're not doing it right. Try the tea first," she said as she poured some out. "And say what's on your mind, it's the best way to get it out of your mind so you can meditate."

"He kissed me."

"I'm shocked and amazed." Cybil handed Layla the cup, returned to the couch to curl her legs up. She gave a careless laugh when Layla frowned at her. "Sweetie, the guy's got those foxy Fox eyes on you all the time. He watches you leave the room, watches you come back in. Boy's got it bad."

"He said- Where's Quinn?"

"With Cal. Maverick found himself a card game, so Cal's house is empty for a change. They're taking advantage."

"Oh. Good for them. They're great together, aren't they? Just click, click."

"He's the one for her, no question. All the others she tried out were like O'Doul's."

"O'Doul's?"

"Near-love. Cal's the real deal. Easier to talk about them than you?"

Layla sighed. "It's confusing to feel this way. To feel him feeling this way, and to try not to feel him feeling it. Because that's only more confusing. Add in we're working together on multiple levels, and that creates a kind of intimacy, and that intimacy has to be respected, even protected because the stakes are so damn high. If you mix it up with the separate physical or emotional intimacy of personal relationship and sex, how do you maintain the basic order needed to do what we're all here to do?"

"Wow." Lips curved, Cybil sipped her tea. "That's a lot of thinking."

"I know."

"Try this. Simple and direct. Are you hot for him?"

"Oh God, yes. But-"

"No, no qualifiers. Don't analyze. Lust is an elemental thing, potent, energizing. Enjoy it. Whether you act on it or not, it gets the blood moving. You'll layer the rest onto it eventually. You'll have to. You're human and you're female. We have to layer on emotions and concerns, consequences. But take the opportunity to appreciate the right now." Cybil's dark eyes sparkled with humor. "Enjoy the lust."

Layla considered as she sampled her tea. "When you put it that way. It feels pretty good."

"When you finish your tea, we'll use your lust as your focus point to move into a meditation exercise." Cybil smiled over the rim of her cup. "I don't think you'll be bored."