The Collector

By: Nora Roberts

One




She thought they’d never leave. Clients, especially new ones, tended to fuss and delay, revolving on the same loop of instructions, contacts, comments before finally heading out the door. She sympathized because when they walked out the door they left their home, their belongings, and in this case their cat, in someone else’s hands.

As their house-sitter, Lila Emerson did everything she could to send them off relaxed, and confident those hands were competent ones.

For the next three weeks, while Jason and Macey Kilderbrand enjoyed the south of France with friends and family, Lila would live in their most excellent apartment in Chelsea, water their plants, feed, water and play with their cat, collect their mail—and forward anything of import.

She’d tend Macey’s pretty terrace garden, pamper the cat, take messages and act as a burglary deterrent simply by her presence.

While she did, she’d enjoy living in New York’s tony London Terrace just as she’d enjoyed living in the charming flat in Rome—where for an additional fee she’d painted the kitchen—and the sprawling house in Brooklyn—with its frisky golden retriever, sweet and aging Boston terrier and aquarium of colorful tropical fish.

She’d seen a lot of New York in her six years as a professional house-sitter, and in the last four had expanded to see quite a bit of the world as well.

Nice work if you can get it, she thought—and she could get it.

“Come on, Thomas.” She gave the cat’s long, sleek body one head-to-tail stroke. “Let’s go unpack.”

She liked the settling in and, since the spacious apartment boasted a second bedroom, unpacked the first of her two suitcases, tucking her clothes in the mirrored bureau or hanging them in the tidy walk-in closet. She’d been warned Thomas would likely insist on sharing the bed with her, and she’d deal with that. And she appreciated that the clients—likely Macey—had arranged a pretty bouquet of freesia on the nightstand.

Lila was big on little personal touches, the giving and the getting.

She’d already decided to make use of the master bath with its roomy steam shower and deep jet tub.

“Never waste or abuse the amenities,” she told Thomas as she put her toiletries away.

As the two suitcases held nearly everything she owned, she took some care in distributing them where it suited her best.

After some consideration she set up her office in the dining area, arranging her laptop so she could look up and out at the view of New York. In a smaller space she’d have happily worked where she slept, but since she had room, she’d make use of it.

She’d been given instructions on all the kitchen appliances, the remotes, the security system—the place boasted an array of gadgets that appealed to her nerdy soul.

In the kitchen she found a bottle of wine, a pretty bowl of fresh fruit, an array of fancy cheeses with a note handwritten on Macey’s monogrammed stationery.

Enjoy our home!



Jason, Macey and Thomas



Sweet, Lila thought, and she absolutely would enjoy it.

She opened the wine, poured a glass, sipped and approved. Grabbing her binoculars, she carried the glass out on the terrace to admire the view.

The clients made good use of the space, she thought, with a couple of cushy chairs, a rough stone bench, a glass table—and the pots of thriving flowers, the pretty drops of cherry tomatoes, the fragrant herbs, all of which she’d been encouraged to harvest and use.

She sat, with Thomas in her lap, sipping wine, stroking his silky fur.

“I bet they sit out here a lot, having a drink, or coffee. They look happy together. And their place has a good feel to it. You can tell.” She tickled Thomas under the chin and had his bright green eyes going dreamy. “She’s going to call and e-mail a lot in the first couple days, so we’re going to take some pictures of you, baby, and send them to her so she can see you’re just fine.”

Setting the wine aside, she lifted the binoculars, scanned the buildings. The apartment complex hugged an entire city block, and that offered little glimpses into other lives.

Other lives just fascinated her.

A woman about her age wore a little black dress that fit her tall, model-thin body like a second skin. She paced as she talked on her cell phone. She didn’t look happy, Lila thought. Broken date. He has to work late—he says, Lila added, winding the plot in her head. She’s fed up with that.

A couple floors above, two couples sat in a living room—art-covered walls, sleek, contemporary furnishings—and laughed over what looked like martinis.

Obviously they didn’t like the summer heat as much as she and Thomas or they’d have sat outside on their little terrace.

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