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by Jeanine Berry
Description: When love goes astray, it can use a little supernatural help, but is a ghost with a blighted romantic past of her own the best matchmaker? Megan Clarke only wants to sell her late uncle's haunted house. Jake Pendleton wants to stop his mother, Liz, from buying it. He doesn't believe in ghosts and he doesn't trust Megan, not since their breakup ten years ago when they were high school sweethearts. Caroline Hartford, the ghost of Hartford house, has her work cut out for her if she going to bring these two mismatched soul mates together and lift the curse that keeps her bound to the earthly plane.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2006 2006
eBookwise Release Date: August 2006
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [275 KB]
Reading time: 188-263 min.
"If it's a haunted house, where's the ghost?" Seven-year-old Andrea Buberry wore a nasty look on her precious, precocious face.
Megan Crain resisted the urge to grab the child by the collar of her designer leather jacket and hoist her out the door. Maybe she should have gone through a real estate agent after all to sell the house. So far prospective buyers had been both scarce and obnoxious.
'Hush, baby." Melody Buberry, Andrea's mother, turned from her inspection of the dining room's built-in buffet. She was a slim woman in her thirtiess and her jacket matched her daughter's. "There is no such thing as a ghost." She rolled her eyes at Megan. "Tell me, dear, do these draperies come with the house?"
"Yes, they do." Megan watched in dismay as Andrea spat out her chewing gum and slapped it on the underside of Uncle Sebastian's antique Louis XV dining room set. The awful child tugged on her mother's skirt. "If there isn't any ghost, I want to go home. Survivor Tibet is starting tonight."
Mrs. Buberry frowned. "There's no TV until you clean your room, young lady."
"Then let's get going!" Andrea's voice rose to a yell.
For the first time, Megan regretted that there wasn't a ghost in Hartford House. She wished Caroline Hartford really did haunt the place--so she could appear and scare the bejesus out of this spoiled brat.
Mrs. Buberry turned to Megan. "I'm afraid we do have to leave. The house is lovely but far too big for the three of us."
Megan sighed as she showed them out the door. She'd had the open house sign out in the yard since ten that morning. It was almost five, and so far Mrs. Buberry and her horrid offspring were two of only a handful of prospective buyers who had shown up.
Strange. The good citizens of St. George should have come trooping through the door, glad for the chance to see the haunted house at last, now that her reclusive Uncle Sebastian was dead and the residence was for sale. True, St. George was a conservative suburb. People moved to St. George to get away from the hectic life of Chicago and disliked anything that threatened to disrupt their quiet lifestyle. Still, you'd think they'd be curious.
Megan wandered back into the dining room and got a knife from the buffet, then pried the gum off the underside of the table. After dropping the disgusting wad in the garbage can in the kitchen, she made her way to the living room. Maybe she'd set the price too high. David had said so. But there were all those debts she felt honor bound to pay.
The slam of a car door interrupted her despondent thoughts. Megan pushed aside the heavy velvet curtain at the living room window and spotted a man and a woman getting out of the car in the front drive. Her eyes narrowed. The man stood with his back to her, but he looked familiar.
As she watched, he stepped around the car with lithe grace and joined the woman. Megan admired his long-legged stride. The wind ruffled his dark hair and billowed out the sides of his jacket, which hung open, defying the nip in the air on this damp October day.
Meagan blinked, not believing her eyes. It was Jake! Jake Pendleton. He was older, certainly, and tanned almost a nut brown, but it was him.
She grabbed the curtain with one hand and twisted the cloth. She'd never wanted to see him again. Never.
And now she recognized the woman, too. His mother, Elizabeth. Mrs. Pendleton had to be in her late fifties by now. She looked elegant in a long leather coat and fancy heels. Diamond rings flashed on her hands. Megan remembered reading that Jake's mother had made a fortune as a best-selling romance author.
Her heart started to pound as Jake and his mother began walking toward the door. She'd know him anywhere by his walk alone, a proud saunter that belied his casual attire. He'd always moved through the corridors of their high school like he owned them.
But what had happened to the casual elegance he'd once preferred? He wore scuffed work boots that matched faded jeans, with a torn back pocket. As he got closer, she saw that the dirt-streaked t-shirt stretched across his broad chest.
She straightened the cuffs of her jacket, and tried to get a grip on her emotions. It was ridiculous to let the sight of Jake upset her. True, she'd gone off to college in another state and then moved to different suburb after graduation, all the while glad these changes in her life kept her from running into him on a regular basis. But that had been ten years ago. Their breakup was ancient history. She had David in her life, dear sweet David who would never doubt her as Jake had.
Taking a calming breath, she rubbed her hands over her skirt and resolved to treat Jake politely, which was more than he deserved after the way he'd treated her. She'd be civil and that would be that.
Her mind made up, Megan watched as Jake paused to stare at the Open House sign on the front lawn, his lips twisted with scorn. She sniffed with distaste. He looked as cynical as ever. She remembered how her friends had once told her their breakup would work out for the best. They'd been right. She was far better off with David.
But why were Jake and his mother here? Jake was a coldhearted realist, not the kind of man who'd want to live in Hartford House. Mrs. Pendleton, on the other hand, was gazing up at the pillared entrance with rapture on her face. She looked ready to make the purchase.
Megan let the curtain drop and stepped back from the window, fighting to control the unanticipated turmoil of old emotions. Talk about ghosts. Jake was a ghost from her past. So far this house had brought her nothing but trouble, but the money from its sale would pay off the debts from her mother's final illness.
Maybe then she could get on with life. David wanted to marry her. He wanted to bring some light and laughter into her life after the tragic year she'd just endured. It was time.
She could hear voices on the porch. His voice, familiar still. Unexpectedly, her hand shook as she lifted it to pat her hair, making sure the fine, silky strands hadn't fallen out of the upswept style she'd chosen to give her a more mature look. Normally, she let her hair hang in loose, auburn curls around her shoulders. She wiped her sweaty palms against the soft folds of her navy blue skirt, straightened the matching jacket with its red piping, and took a deep breath.
Crossing her fingers, she whispered a brief prayer that Mrs. Pendleton would want to buy the house despite its reputation. Maybe she wouldn't even know its reputation.
The melodious chimes of the doorbell interrupted her inner pep talk. Swallowing hard, she walked from the living room to the foyer and pulled open the heavy oak door that guarded the front entrance.
"Good afternoon!" Mrs. Pendleton stood on the doorstep, a bright smile on her face. She didn't look a day older than Megan remembered her. She was petite and slender, with sky-blue eyes and soft dark hair, cut in a short, smooth style. Behind her, Jake avoided Megan's eyes. Instead, he scowled at the roof that covered the front porch, as if expecting to find a leak.
"Good afternoon." Megan looked from one to the other, determined to stay calm and in control. "Mrs. Pendleton, Jake. What a surprise. Have you come to see the house?" Stupid question. She tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear, embarrassed.
Jake finally glanced at her. His eyes looked cold, as if he too thought it was a stupid question. Wine-colored eyes, she'd always called them, deep and dark with a hint of brownish red. She used to drown in those eyes.
She gave herself a mental shake, meeting his stare. She'd done nothing wrong ten years ago, despite what he might think, and she wasn't going to act as if she had. In fact, better to act as if she barely remembered him. That would put him in his place.
As she met his gaze, she couldn't help but notice deep lines around his eyes. Laugh lines? Impossible. He towered over his mother, and his face and hands looked tanned even though November was only a few weeks away. Maybe he worked outdoors and the lines came from squinting into the sun. That would explain the dirt streaks on his shirt. But that was silly. Jake had always planned to be a high falutin corporate lawyer.
"Megan!" Elizabeth Pendleton broke into her thoughts with a radiant smile. "How lovely to see you again, although I regret the sad circumstances. I hope we're not too late for the open house."
"You're not. And it's lovely to see you again, too." She gave the slightest emphasis to the word you and was pleased to see a flicker of discomfort in Jake's eyes. Her old flame must still feel something about their relationship, too. "I guess you've heard I inherited the house last month following the death of my uncle."
"Yes. I was sorry to hear of your double loss. Your uncle's passing so soon after your mother's death must have been especially difficult."
With a start, Megan realized they were still standing at the front door and the cold October air was spilling into the house. She stepped back and gestured them into the warmth inside. "Please come in and look around."
"How lovely!" Mrs. Pendleton exclaimed as she stepped into the foyer.
Megan flushed with gratification. The visitor's delighted cry was a reward for all the hard work she'd put into the house the past three weeks. She'd cleaned and polished until her back ached, but she managed to make the old house shine once more. Poor Uncle Sebastian had been so sick he'd neglected the upkeep of his beloved home in his last few months. Not that she blamed him. The terrible cancer had sapped all his strength and defeated him in the end, just as it had killed her mother.
The memories brought tears to her eyes but she blinked them away and lifted her chin. Sell the house and move on to the future. That was her mantra these days.
Both visitors stood in the center of the foyer, and stared up at the sweeping staircase with its intricately carved banister. Above them, a domed ceiling with a cut-crystal chandelier completed the stunning entranceway.
Megan squared her shoulders as she watched Jake survey the staircase. He was taller than she remembered and his wind-tangled chestnut hair, streaked with amber strands, curled ever so slightly where it touched the collar of his shirt. She had a sudden memory of making out in his car and running her hands through that thick hair.
He half-turned and his wine-dark eyes locked with hers, sending a jolt of electricity down her spine. So far he hadn't spoken, but she dreaded what he might say. Without thinking, she launched into her rehearsed speech. "The house is six thousand, two hundred square feet. It has three floors, four bedrooms, five bathrooms and four fireplaces. The living room is to the right and the dining room is to the left."
Jake stepped in front of her and peered into the cavernous living room. She caught a whiff of his aftershave, a crisp, woodsy scent.
"Do you think this will be big enough for you, Mother?" His voice was a deep masculine rumble, but sarcasm dripped from every word.
Megan ignored him and smiled at his mother. "Will you be living here alone, Mrs. Pendleton?"
"Call me Liz. We're all adults now. And I will be living here by myself." Liz shot her son a sharp glance. "I understand the previous owner lived alone, too."
"Uncle Sebastian? Yes, he never married."
"And the house wasn't too big for him?"
"Gosh, he would have bought this house no matter how big it--" Megan stopped in mid-sentence. If they didn't know why Uncle Sebastian had bought the Hartford House, she wasn't going to be the one to tell them. The big, white elephant with its acres of grounds was going to be hard enough to sell as it was.
"He loved this house," she finished. Smiling to cover her awkward pause, she touched Liz's arm and guided her into the living room where a bright fire blazed its welcome. "Look at that fireplace. It's Italian marble. Isn't it a marvelous focal point?"
"What's the average heating bill in the winter?" Jake took up a position in front of the couch, folded his arms across his chest, and planted his feet in a wide stance. His suspicious gaze settled on the bookshelves that lined one wall. A frown marred his forehead.
Was the man still angry with her after all these years? Did he still blame her? As if she would have ever hurt him like that. How could he have believed it, even for a moment? She'd loved him--then.
Megan sucked in a breath, amazed at how all the emotions, all the thoughts of that terrible breakup had come rushing back. Yet, he seemed unmoved. He hadn't said a word to acknowledge they'd once known each other. He was being downright rude. What had she ever seen in him? Thank God, she had David.
"Look, built-in bookshelves!" Liz exclaimed in delight. "I have a huge collection of books."
Megan forced a smile and ignored Jake's question. His defiant posture suggested he wanted to start an argument about the heating bills, but she had no intention of obliging him. She'd pretend she barely remembered him. Served him right.
"Uncle Sebastian loved to read," she told Liz. "You must, too."
Liz laughed. "I'm a writer, my dear. I can't live if I'm not surrounded by books."
"A writer who bought an expensive and lovely condominium in the Lake Towers in Chicago just two years ago." Jake tightened his lips. "Why you've suddenly gotten this harebrained idea to move back out to the suburbs is beyond me."
As he spoke, he slid a glance Megan's way. Again she saw a momentary flicker in his eyes. Something was bothering Jake, but what?
Stop it. Ten years later, and she was still more worried about Jake's feelings than her own.
Liz made a face at her son. "Maybe I want to be closer to you."
"Do you live in St. George, Jake?" Megan kept her tone cool and polite. It was obvious his mother loved the house. Why couldn't he have stayed home?
"I have a landscaping business in Parksburg."
"You do?" She blinked in surprise. So he only lived two suburbs away from her. What had happened to the law career? But it did explain the dirty shirt and scuffed boots. It also explained those brawny shoulders. Megan's gaze wandered from his broad shoulders down to his muscular legs. She swallowed and forced her mind back to her most urgent task: selling Hartford House. "If you're a landscaper, you'll be interested in the grounds. The house has extensive gardens."
"I know. Far too much for a single woman to take care of."
"Then you'll have something to do on weekends," Liz snapped. "Especially since you're not seeing anyone."
And no wonder, Megan thought, watching him scowl at his mother. What had happened to the Jake she'd once loved, the young man with the infectious smile? Maybe their breakup, on top of the other tragedies he'd suffered, had turned him bitter. Thank goodness, his mother was the exact opposite. Mrs. Pendleton had always treated her well while she'd dated her son.
"Let's go on to the dining room," she suggested. She led them back across the foyer, thankful she'd lit the fire in the second room as well. "As you can see, this room also has a fireplace, perfect for warm, cozy entertaining. The wainscoting is genuine oak."
"What a lovely dining room set." Liz dropped one manicured hand on the curved, high back of a chair. "Does the house come furnished?"
Megan smiled. Her mind jumped into high gear, trying to calculate the value of Uncle Sebastian's possessions. "I hadn't really thought about that. I'd planned to sell this stuff to a secondhand store."
Liz laughed and winked at her. "Well, as my son just pointed out, I only have a small condo at present, and I would need lots of furniture to fill this big house. Maybe we can work something out."
"Mother!" Jake looked startled. "You aren't serious about buying this place, are you? I thought you only wanted to see it because of the rumors--"
Megan blinked. So they did know. Her heart sank for a moment, then she decided that maybe it was best if they did know the truth. She'd have nothing to hide. And Liz appeared to be falling in love with the house. Straightening her shoulders, she reminded herself that selling a house was business. She needed to keep her emotions out of it. She tried for her most professional tone. "From the dining room, we can go through the butler's pantry and into the kitchen."
Jake stood in the doorway from the dining room to the pantry, his arms once again folded across his chest. With his height and broad shoulders, he made an imposing barrier. His eyes turned a shade darker. "Mother, I think we've taken enough of Megan's time."
Angered by his presumption, Megan strode up to him. He refused to back down, and she stopped, the toes of her navy pumps almost touching the tips of his well-worn boots. Her narrowed eyes stared at his once-white shirt. She could see the firm outline of muscle underneath the thin cotton. Lifting her chin, she braced herself for his glare. He looked down at her. To her surprise, his lips twitched with amusement. For a brief instant, two dimples appeared on his cheeks. She gasped, remembering how those dimples had always charmed her. She could see memories in his eyes too. Good memories. He'd always teased her about the habit she had of lifting her chin when challenged.
Then his frown returned.
Megan curled both hands into fists and planted them on her hips. "If your mother wants to see the house, I am more than happy to show it to her."
His voice took on a formal tone. "I appreciate your zeal to sell this house, Miss Crain. It is Miss Crain, isn't it?" He glanced at her left hand, which was bare of rings. Megan hiked her chin another notch. She should have accepted David's last proposal so she'd have a big diamond to flash at this opinionated hunk.
Hunk! Startled by the thought, she dropped her glance to the polished wood floor. Where had that idea come from? Jake was a relic from the past ... and so unlike David, who always considered her opinions and catered to her whims.
She looked up in time to catch Jake's satisfied smirk. Lifting one eyebrow, he turned and peered into the butler's pantry. "This pantry's practically as big as your whole condo," he called back to his mother as he went on into the kitchen.
Without warning, cold air brushed against Megan's cheek. She shivered. She glanced at the fire blazing in the fireplace, puzzled by the chill. In fact, she could see her breath billowing out in front of her. Outside, the October skies had darkened. Inside, shadows hovered in the air.
Her scalp tingled, then crawled. She blinked hard as the shadows thickened. Her head started to ache, a sharp pain centered above her eyes. She lifted a hand to rub her forehead, and the shadows moved.
Megan stepped back. A surge of fear raced up her spine. It wasn't possible. She'd never for a moment believed--
"Oh, my god!" The cry came from Liz.
Megan whirled around. The older woman backed up against the china cabinet and stared wide-eyed at the space between them.
A gray mist hovered in the air. Moment by moment it thickened and formed itself into a shape.
As Megan watched with stunned, unbelieving eyes, the mist grew arms and legs, and the slender body of a beautiful young woman appeared between her and Liz. The apparition's long, black hair curled down to slim shoulders. Smoky gray eyes stared out at Megan through the silvery light. Pale white lips parted as if about to speak.
The phantom image vanished an instant before Jake burst out of the pantry.
"It--it was her!" Liz pointed toward Megan.
"What did you do?" Jake rounded on Megan, his words a lash. His big hand gripped her shoulder with bone-crushing strength.
"Nothing!" Megan struggled to regain her composure. Her legs were trembling, and she wasn't sure she could remain standing. Despite all of Uncle Sebastian's stories, she'd never believed in the ghost of Hartford House--until this moment.
Jerking free of Jake's grip, she stumbled to the table, pulled out a chair and collapsed. Her hands shook and a cold sweat broke out on her forehead.
Liz stood her ground, blinking in surprise at her son. "We saw the ghost! It appeared here, almost where you're standing."
Jake's gaze searched the room. Megan looked, too, afraid of what she might see. But everything was back to normal. It was only a dining room on a gray fall day, with a crackling fire at one end and a big bay window at the other.
Doubt showed in Jake's narrowed eyes. "I don't see a thing."
"I saw her, a beautiful young girl with tragic eyes. Caroline Hartford! It's true. This house is haunted."
"Please." Megan drew some badly needed air into her lungs and struggled to her feet. Her heart hammered against her ribs, but she had to regain her composure and take control of this situation--fast! The last thing she needed was a fresh new rumor about Caroline's ghost setting tongues abuzz. St. George was a small town. One word to anyone and the ghost would be the main topic of conversation in every household by nightfall.
"More likely it's a trick, a way to gain some free publicity." Jake glared at Megan. "You've sunk to a new low. Now you're going around scaring old ladies."
"I beg your pardon!" Liz walked over to her son and jabbed an elbow in his side. "Watch who you are calling an old lady, young man. I'm still young enough to handle my own affairs. And I know what I saw."
"I-I saw it, too," Megan admitted.
"I know you did, dear. Anyone can see you've had a fright. You're white as a sheet. Why don't you make yourself useful, Jake, and go see if you can find a glass and some water in that kitchen?"
Jake snorted but disappeared into the kitchen nevertheless. Liz took one of Megan's ice-cold hands in her own warm grasp. "Take a few deep breaths and you'll get some color back into those pretty cheeks of yours. You're awfully young to be trying to sell a house on your own, dear. What are you anyway, twenty-four?"
"Twenty-six," Megan said, drawing herself up straighter. "And I can't afford the real estate agent's commission."
"On a house this size?"
"It's complicated." Megan pulled her hand away, not wanting to explain the family tragedy in front of Jake. Her mother's brain tumor and the surgeries and therapies that had followed--all in vain--had taken every last penny her mother possessed. She'd been a widow without health insurance, living on a small pension. Since her death, Megan felt responsible for those debts. Sure, David and her friends told her she wasn't legally responsible, but that wasn't the point. She'd promised her mother she'd take care of them. She had to make enough from the sale of Uncle Sebastian's house to pay them off. Then she could put this horrible year behind her.
"Well, you're doing a fine job, ghost or no ghost."
Megan managed a weak smile. The older woman's concern was touching.
"There, the roses are coming back to those cheeks. I thought for a moment you were going to faint."
"No, I'm fine." With an effort, she widened her smile. If only she could stop thinking about that ghostly face. Caroline Hartford was dead, had been dead before any of them standing in this room were born.
"You've got the sparkle back in your eyes anyway. I do love green eyes."
"They're hazel, actually. They only look green in certain lighting."
"Hazel, green, gold-flecked." Suddenly, Jake stood in front of her reciting a catalogue of her eye colors as he handed her a glass of water.
The heat rising in her cheeks told her she was blushing. Once, he'd adored her eyes.
"Goes well with the genuine oak wainscoting," he added.
She sputtered and almost choked on a swallow of water. How could one man find so many ways to be obnoxious?
"Listen, about this ghost," he continued in a no-nonsense voice. "It's a silly trick to play on visitors. Likely to scare away more people than it attracts."
She squared her shoulders and shot a drop-dead look his way. "I agree. That's why I would never consider doing such a thing. I don't believe in ghosts any more than you do. Uncle Sebastian belonged to what my mother and I fondly call the kooky side of the family."
"I would stop your tricks, if I were you." He ignored her protest. "Mother and I will keep quiet about it."
"Please do!" At least they agreed on that. The last thing she wanted was another rumor about the ghost.
"The ghost doesn't worry me. On the contrary, a house with a ghost is absolutely perfect for me," Liz told her. "I write Gothic romances with a touch of the paranormal. Caroline is a harmless ghost, isn't she?"
"As far as I know," Megan said, but she felt a knife-edge of fear even as she spoke. Uncle Sebastian had lived here for years without any problems, but then Uncle Sebastian had believed in Caroline Hartford's ghost and longed to see it.
Megan, on the other hand, had no desire at all to repeat the terrifying experience. She didn't believe in ghosts in the first place, not at all. And it was ridiculous to think that the ghost had spent years avoiding Uncle Sebastian only to appear in front of two strangers today.
"She's haunted the house for a good many years, or so I understand." Liz eyed the ceiling as if hoping for another appearance.
"You seem to know a great deal about Hartford House already."
"I've been thinking of moving to St. George for some time, and when this estate became available, I was thrilled. I love the thought of living in a haunted house exactly like the ones I write about."
Megan shuddered. "You'll want to see the rest of it, then."
"Must we?" Jake set his jaw in a stubborn line.
Megan wanted to be angry with him for interfering again, but she was ready to call it quits herself. Autumn days were short, and the thought of staying in the house as the gloomy gray skies grew darker made goose bumps stand up on her arms.
"We must." Ignoring them both, Liz set off toward the kitchen.
Choking back a sigh, Megan followed and showed her through the kitchen and then the family room, the library and the two bathrooms that made up the downstairs. Leading them up the wide, sweeping staircase, she took them first to the imposing master suite with its own sitting room, fireplace, and a bathroom the size of Megan's apartment, and then on to the other bedrooms. Liz greeted each room with cries of pleasure. She was soon chattering away about her plans for the house.
"There's enough room here for ten people," Jake said. "You can invite your writer's group over to spend the winter. Most of them will fit in this closet." His voice grew muffled as he strode into the huge walk-in closet at the end of the upstairs hall.
"Maybe I will." Liz's amused tone told Megan that she was used to dealing with her son. The older woman took a last peek into the hall bathroom and started for the head of the stairs. As she did, a rumble of thunder sounded outside.
"Oh, dear! Rain." Megan bit her lip. No one else was likely to show up today if it started to rain. And she couldn't afford to leave the house on the market forever. The taxes alone...
A gust of cold wind swirled through the stairwell and ruffled her hair. It took her a minute to realize there shouldn't be a wind--not with the front door closed.
A soft, feminine laugh sounded in her ear; a cool breeze plucked at her hair with invisible fingers. Shrieking, she jumped back.
The light seemed to fade as a silver mist materialized near the top of the stairs in front of Liz, who was about to descend. The older woman cried out and staggered to one side. The mist bellowed in the breeze as if about to take shape.
Liz stumbled, and half fell against the stair rail, grabbing hold to keep her balance.
"Are you all right?" Her fear for the older woman propelled Megan to Liz's side. The small hairs on her arms stood on end, and she shook with fear as she drew close to the silver mist. But as she approached and grabbed Liz's arm to help her back to her feet, the mist dissolved once more.
"Now what?" Jake emerged from the closet as Liz straightened. He stared from one woman to the other and lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "Don't tell me. The ghost again?"
"Yes!" Megan stared at Liz, while a new fear replaced the ancient terror the ghost had brought. If the banister hadn't been within reach, Liz might have fallen down the stairs.
The awareness of the near miss caused her heart to skip a beat. Her mind flashed to an image of her mother, confined to her wheelchair by the brain tumor. Fate could strike you down at any moment, and change your life forever. No sale of a house--however much she might need the money--was worth risking someone else's life.
She reached a decision. "I must ask you to leave the house. It's too dangerous to stay here."