With her heart pounding in her chest, she stared at the long-haired stranger in disbelief; with her heart racing, she felt herself flush scarlet as she noted how hot he looked.
Feigning anger, she drew herself up to her full height of five foot three and demanded, “What in the hell are you doing in my garden?”
“Enjoying the view,” he replied casually, noting her petite figure and the curve of her breasts. “And waiting for you.”
“Technically, you are correct,” he agreed without showing any signs of moving from his reclined position on the bench. “Stunning view by the way, Anna.”
“How do you know my name?” she asked sharply, instantly feeling stupid. Of course, he knew her name! He had read into her soul back at the coffee shop. This stranger knew more about her than she was comfortable with.
He raised one dark eyebrow at her and smiled. Despite herself, she felt her heart skip a beat.
“You really need to learn to shield those thoughts, Miss Maitland,” he chastised warmly.
Staring awkwardly down at her feet, Anna confessed, “I don’t know how to.”
Getting gracefully to his feet, her uninvited guest said, “I can teach you. It’s easy once you know how. Now, you inadvertently mentioned a chicken casserole. It would be a shame for the wine to go to waste.”
“I don’t see any wine,” countered Anna, looking round for signs of a bottle.
Suddenly, she picked up on a thought from her guest and her eyes flew towards the beach. Sure enough, nestled between two small rocks, just covered by water, lay two bottles of wine.
“Two bottles? Are you trying to get me drunk?” she asked, the icy edge to her tone melting somewhat.
“Not at all. They were on offer. I can’t resist a good deal,” he said as he took a step towards her. “I’m Jarrod, by the way. Jarrod De La Cruz to be exact.”
“Spanish ancestry,” he explained with another heart melting smile. “Now, can we talk over dinner?”
Silently, Anna surveyed him, sub-consciously probing his mind in an effort to determine if she was in danger.
“I won’t harm you,” promised Jarrod. “On my grandmother’s life, I won’t touch you.”
“Fine,” she relented, as her heart sang with joy. “Fetch the wine and come in.”
The kitchen of the small cottage was surprisingly spacious. It was one of Anna’s favourite rooms in the house, largely because of its picture window views over the beach towards the river beyond. A tantalising aroma of chicken casserole filled the air, adding to the warm homely feel to the room. While she waited on Jarrod bringing the wine up from the beach, Anna fetched two wine glasses from the glass fronted cabinet then turned to put two plates in the oven to warm. She had just set two places at the large pine table when Jarrod walked into the room.
“Sorry. I had to make a quick phone call,” he apologised. “Had to let the others know where I was.”
“Others? Those hairy guys from the coffee shop?”
“The very ones,” he said with a smile. “I told them I’d catch up with them tomorrow in Glasgow.”
Before she could reply, Jarrod added, “No, they’re not lying in wait to turn up here to rape and pillage you. Relax, Anna. They’re in an Indian restaurant in Paisley. And as for me, I’ve no intention of touching you.”
Her sixth sense caught the hint of the lie in that last sentence.
“So, what are your intentions, Mr De La Cruz?”
“Patience, Miss Maitland,” said Jarrod, opening the first bottle of wine and pouring two half glasses. “You might want to put the other bottle in your fridge or do I need to go back and put it in the river to chill some more?”
Obediently, Anna stowed the unopened bottle in her bare refrigerator then busied herself serving their meal.
“Delicious,” complimented Jarrod after the first few mouthfuls. “Now, how long have you searched souls untamed?”
“Your mind was wide open back there in the coffee shop. Shows lack of training. Who taught you how to read minds and search souls, Anna?”
There was a serious note to his voice that caught her by surprise.
“No one,” she answered honestly. “I’ve always been able to do it. When I was little, I thought everyone could do it.”
“You were born able to do it?” exclaimed Jarrod unable to mask his astonishment. “I thought there was something different to you. Tell me about it.”
It wasn’t so much a suggestion as a command and before she realised what she was doing, Anna had told her uninvited guest about the challenges of growing up, the torture of travelling to college on public transport as she was haunted by a cacophony of conversations, the mental cruelty of lectures where her mind followed every day dream of every inattentive student while she consciously tried to focus on the lecturer. She explained the immense relief and inner peace she had found when she bought the cottage and secured a job that she could do from the solitude of her own home. Understanding entirely, Jarrod nodded periodically as Anna told her tale.
“I feel your pain,” he sympathised warmly. “First lesson. How to shut out the noise.”
Anna stared at him open mouthed, “How?”
“It’s easy,” promised Jarrod. “Do you always wear that turquoise ring?”
“Focus on it. Focus on everything about it. The texture. The shape. The colour. The silver band. The silver setting around the stone,” instructed Jarrod. “Now, keep that focus but try to pick up my thoughts.”
For a few seconds Anna enjoyed blissful silence as she focussed on her mother’s turquoise ring. After about thirty seconds, she allowed her concentration to lift a little. Immediately, she could hear Jarrod musing about the colour of her underwear. Before she could shut him out again, he began to laugh.
“White lace works for me, Miss Maitland,” he teased as she flushed scarlet in front of him.
“That was cruel!” she protested with a smile. “Is it really that simple to shut the voices out though?”
“Yes,” assured Jarrod. “It takes practice to hold that degree of focus but you’ll soon get the hang of it.”
“Lesson two is just as important,” began Jarrod as he refilled their glasses. “You must learn to shield your own thoughts. Learn to preserve your soul from prying eyes.”
“I never suspected anyone was looking before today,” revealed Anna softly. “I didn’t know there were other people like me.”
“You’ve had a long, lonely journey, haven’t you?”
Anna nodded slowly.
“OK. Lesson two,” he stated. “You kind of need to cloak your mind. It’s another visualisation technique. This is harder. Takes more practice. There are a few ways to do it too so you need to experiment a bit.”
He paused to sip his wine.
“Imagine a thick, dense, fog then bring it down around you. Disappear into it. Lose yourself in it. Trust that nothing can penetrate it. Nothing can see you. Focus on it. Believe in it.”
Tentatively, Anna tried to imagine a foggy cloud around her. Her first few attempts were patchy and Jarrod easily managed to find a way into her mind.
Before she became too frustrated, he suggested an alternative, “Try visualising a mirror instead. The mirror side is pointing away from you. The mirror is reflecting everything away from you.”
Again, Anna experimented with the technique described only this time with greater success. It took Jarrod over five minutes to find a chink in her protection.
“Well done,” he praised as she finally let her shield shatter around her. “For a first attempt that was none too shabby. It’ll get easier with practice. Promise.”
“Thank you. I’ll work on it,” vowed Anna as she took a sip of her wine. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, but I reserve the right not to answer.”
“What brought you here?”
“There’s an obvious answer in there, Miss Maitland, and its parked outside,” he teased, playing with her a bit. “Business and pleasure though is a more accurate answer.”
“And the business bit?” quizzed Anna, trying to learn more about her guest.
“Well, I can’t say too much. I’m looking for something.”
“And the pleasure?”
“Apart from having dinner with you?” he teased with a smile. “The pleasure’s getting to ride with the guys I was with earlier. We’re touring around but I need to leave them in a couple of days.”
Jarrod paused for a moment then decided to take a risk, “You could help me out here if I find what I’m looking for.”
“Look after it for a short while.”
Alarm bells rang in her overly cautious mind. What if this charismatic stranger was a drug dealer? What if this parcel she was being asked to look after was illegal?
“Calm down,” he said quietly. “And did you listen to anything I taught you earlier?”
“Sorry,” apologised Anna. “But, can you blame me, Jarrod? This has not been the most conventional meeting or evening.”
“I guess not,” he said with a sigh. “I’m working under cover. Hanging with the boys is my cover. They genuinely are my friends, before you ask. My investigations and probing around have been quite fruitful today. I’m pretty sure what I’m looking for will be on the last ferry tonight. I plan on being at the ferry terminal to collect it. However, I need somewhere to keep it safe for a couple of days.”
“Under cover for who?” quizzed Anna, sensing he was being honest with her.
“I can’t say,” apologised Jarrod. “It’s confidential. I need to be in Glasgow tomorrow to catch up with the boys. We’re heading to pick up the owner of the package. If you could guard it for two or three days till I get back it would save me a lot of trouble.”
“Is it too big to take on the bike with you?”
“Not exactly. More like too fragile.”
“And I definitely won’t get into trouble with the police? No thugs are going to turn up here trying to steal it?”
“I promise you it’s safe. No police. No thugs. No one.”
Against her better judgement, Anna felt herself nod.
“Miss Maitland, I think I love you!” declared Jarrod smiling at her.
At the sight of his smile and those dark brown eyes, the last of her reservations melted. Something, fate perhaps, had brought Jarrod into her life and Anna felt compelled to go along with his plans. Swiftly, he explained that he’d leave around eleven, meet the boat and be back by eleven thirty.
“Where will you stay tonight?” asked Anna, realising that locally his options at that time of night would be limited.
“I’ve a tent in my rucksack. I’ll camp outside, if that’s ok?”
“Nonsense,” she heard herself saying. “I’ve a comfortable couch. You are more than welcome to sleep on there.”
“Only if you’re sure.”
Shortly before eleven, Jarrod rose to leave for the ferry terminal. While they had waited for the clock to tick round, he’d coached her on a few more basic ways to both use and shield their shared talent. When she had quizzed him on how he had developed the skill, Jarrod had explained that he’d developed the talent after a car crash when he was a teenager. The crash had killed his parents and left him in a coma for a week. When he’d come round, he discovered he could hear what everyone was thinking. With a catch in his voice, he’d confessed that’s how he had learned of his parents’ death. He’d read the mind of one of the nurses.
While he was gone, Anna cleared away the glasses and dinner dishes then ran upstairs to fetch a quilt and pillows from the airing cupboard. She left them neatly folded on the floor beside the couch, hoping that her guest would be warm enough overnight.
A short while later, Anna heard the distinctive roar of Jarrod’s motorbike, listened as it stopped outside then heard his footsteps on the path. He knocked at the back door before stepping into the warm welcoming kitchen.
In his arms, he was carrying a sleeping child.