She struggled to keep control of her voice. "No."
"Yes," he said. "Are you afraid to? Why?"
She let her hands drop to her lap, straightened, and gave him a resentful glance. But she couldn't hold his gaze, and so looked at the window instead, where the rain blurred the glass to a gray translucence.
"I know you were in the pub last night, alone," he said. "Then The Highwayman came in. You broke your connection, and he logged off immediately after. He never came back."
"How do you know all this?"
"I've learned a few tricks. I can see you from a distance. Where you are and who you're with. But not what you're doing."
"You learned to do that from reading the Archives?"
"You spy on me?"
"I monitor you and Brooke. Every fifteen minutes."
Carrie shrugged and said nothing.
"So what happened with The Highwayman?" he asked again.
"That's my business."
"It's my business, too. There's a girl in a morgue in Illinois. Doesn't that matter?"
Her cheeks went hot and she shot him a glance of rebuke. "Of course, it matters."
"So what about this Highwayman? What in God's name went on between you?"
Oh, hell, she thought wearily. If Hayden wanted the truth so much, she'd give it to him, right between the eyes. She no longer gave a damn about her pride, and it was Hayden who'd led her into this nasty farce.
"He was drunk. He wanted netsex. I said I wouldn't, not with someone who wouldn't tell me his name. So I broke the connection."
"I tried your private line," Hayden said. "It was busy. He phoned you?"
Carrie took a deep breath and told him what Paul Johnson had said. "I believe him. It makes me feel sick. This poor, disabled kid in love with a girl who doesn't exist. I want to hang myself."
Her chin trembled, and she thought, I will not cry again. I will not let him see me cry. No one has seen me cry for ten years.
Hayden's expression grew guarded. He might have been surprised or repelled, but all he said was, "Carrie, Monica Toussant and Gretchen Small believed somebody, too. What if it's not true? It's a damn good story. He loves you and only you can heal him."
Carrie resisted the desire to pick up the coffee mug and fling it at his head. "If he's lying he's contemptible. If he isn't, I'm contemptible. And if he's telling the truth, I couldn't stand it. The very thought makes me feel slimy."
He frowned. "He says his name's Paul Johnson? And he's not a citizen of the U.S.? How many guys do you suppose are named Paul Johnson in North America? He's got your phone number, but do you have his?"
"No," Carrie said. "So what?"
"He's living with a married sister, but you don't know her last name?"
She tilted her chin at a rebellious angle. "No."
"So how do you trace him, Carrie? How do you know he's for real? Do you have his address?"
"No," she said. "Stop trying to change my mind."
"I've got to. What if he's not some poor, disabled kid who thinks he's in love with you? What if he's an excellent liar who's stalking you?"
"What if he's not?" she challenged. "What if he's a twenty-three-year-old man who may never walk again? What then?"
"If we find out that's true, you let him down easy. It's not as if the two of you really know each other."
"He wants to have netsex with me, for God's sake. And I've encouraged him. I've let him hold me in his arms, hug me, kiss me."
He searched her face for a long moment. Her confused emotions grew more tumultuous. Something's going to happen,
she thought. And I haven't got the strength to stop it.
He said, "He's never touched you."
He put his hand to her face, his fingertips grazing first her cheekbone, then her jawline. With thumb and forefinger he lightly cupped her chin. "This is touching."
Her heart thudded crazily. She told herself, Don't let this happen.
"And he hasn't really kissed you," he breathed.
He tipped her face to his and brought his mouth to bear on hers, gently at first, then more hungrily.
Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God, she thought, her heart leaping.He's real. He's real.
Excerpted from Don't Talk to Strangers by Bethany Campbell. Copyright © 1996 by Bethany Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.