Haunt Me ONLY
by Heather Long
Recently divorced author MacKenzie Dillon has lost her writing mojo. When she inherits her great aunt’s haunted house in Virginia, she is determined to make a new start. The creepy old house provides inspiration but at what cost?
Successful architect and paranormal skeptic Justin Kent returns to Penny Hollow to fulfill his father’s dying wish of revitalizing their small town. To do that, he needs the allegedly haunted estate at Summerfield. Mac, the new owner, may be gorgeous and spunky, but she refuses to sell.
These two have a dangerous history that spans the ages, but will they discover the truth in time to save their lives?
Title: Haunt Me
Author: Heather Long
Length: 200 pages
Release Date: January 2014
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An Excerpt from:
by Heather Long
Copyright © 2014 by Heather Long. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Justin Kent’s tombstone would read Dead from Terminal Boredom if the meeting of Penny Hollow’s first families didn’t wrap up soon. The Founder’s Council meetings used to be once per quarter and involved a lot of gin—both the drink and the card game—but not anymore. For the last year, ever since the death of Justin’s father had forced him back to town, the council had met over a dozen times, and always to cover the same ground.
How to save Penny Hollow.
No one wanted to just let the sleepy little Virginia town die. During the last year, the entire council had devised their cockamamie scheme to become known as the most haunted town in Virginia. And the council had determined that the Summerfield estate would be the capstone, which was the focus of their current discussion.
Old Katherine Summerfield’s place harkened back to shadowy, dark era of Penny Hollow’s past. It was perfect—from the facade to the columned porch to the elegance of the imposing wall and wrought iron gates. After Justin had moved in next door to Katherine a year ago, he’d cultivated a friendship with the elderly woman, the town fixture with a spine of steel. He’d check on her after every bad weather event, or if he hadn’t spotted the local senior van picking her up for a doctor’s appointment in a while. It was Katherine who’d promised to leave instructions for the deed to be sold to Justin upon her passing.
His request to buy the property had been due to his father’s will, which stipulated the Kent children reinvigorate the dying town or forfeit their inheritance to the town entirely. Not only would Summerfield satisfy the need for a house with a spooky history to cap off Penny Hollow’s “haunted” tour, it would also conclude the last of the requirements he needed in order to fulfill to honor his father’s willed requests. He’d get to fix up Summerfield, the town would have their pet project on the fast track, his siblings would get their inheritance, and he’d be on his way back to a life outside his small hometown.
Win-win, all the way around.
Although truthfully, his interest in the historic place went a lot deeper. He’d liked the house—lusted for it, really—for most of his life. The shivery sensation he’d experienced the first time he passed through the gates couldn’t be explained.
Next to him, his friend and lawyer—and member of the council—Clinton Pope held up his phone, interrupting the meeting. “Bad news, folks,” he announced to the group. “I just got a text. Katherine Summerfield passed away a couple of hours ago.”
Dammit. Justin swore internally and fought to keep his struggle off his face. He’d liked the grumpy old lady—her spunk, her fire, her odd sense of humor. And he’d liked what her property meant for his father’s plan.
Gasps and murmurs of sorrow burst around the room, and the brief lull of shock quickly gave way to demands as the town families argued over what to do next. He overheard an argument breaking out in the corner between two of Penny Hollow’s founding families descendants. The words “duke,” “burial,” and the “lost bride,” were thrown out like exploding grenades. He hated that story—a bunch of pseudo-tragic romantic myths cobbled together about a stolen bride and her true love. True love didn’t exist, and it certainly didn’t in a story where the couple were torn apart.
Clint lightly punched his shoulder. “Look at it this way; if we get Summerfield and you rehab it, you’re done and out of here, just the way you want.”
“When,” Justin said. “When we get Summerfield.” He couldn’t allow it to be an if. Guilt shafted through him. He shouldn’t feel grateful that old lady Summerfield had passed on, even if it meant he got what he wanted.
Although, he realized, he had no guarantee Katherine had actually left him the estate. All the town’s plans could blow up in their faces if he didn’t get the deed.
Two days later, Justin’s anger solved his guilt problem. He’d had to read the e-mail three times before picking up his cell and calling Clint. “Who the hell is MacKenzie Dillon?”
“As far as I can tell, she’s Katherine Summerfield’s great-niece.” Clint went straight to the facts. “She wasn’t born in Penny Hollow, and I’m not entirely certain she’s ever stepped foot in the town.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Justin stared across the room. He’d drawn up designs over the weekend based on historical records and styles, and the blueprints and designs now decorated the board on the far wall of his office. He’d been sketching an idea for a gazebo for Summerfield—an image that kept recurring in his mind. Could there have once been such a structure on the property? If Clint couldn’t figure out who held the deed, he may never know.
“Maybe she won’t be interested in our little town…”
“That’s possible. Google says she’s an author,” Clint continued. “Appears she wrote a lot of chick books. And according to her fan page, she just came off an ugly divorce.”
The last thing they needed was a stranger holding the deed to the “key” of the town’s plans. The council would go ballistic if they couldn’t secure the historic property. Justin glanced back down at the sketching. Crumpling the paper into a tight ball, he sighed.
“Justin?” Clint’s raised voice jerked him out of his thoughts. “What do you want me to do?”
“Okay, but that means jail time and I think my sister would be a little put out if I missed her wedding. What else do you want me to do?”
A laugh burst from him, then he considered the question. “Make a preemptive offer. If she turns down the first one, double it.”
“Are you insane?”
“Quite possibly. I mean, what’s the worst thing that can happen?” Katherine Summerfield’s niece had to say yes. He was too close to getting his life back. He shot the crumpled sketching of the gazebo at trashcan, but could only stare as it bounced off the rim.
Apparently, this wasn’t his lucky day.
In the kitchen of her great-aunt’s home she’d inherited a week before, MacKenzie Dillon leaned against the counter and stared at a chocolate bar. She knew she’d left it on the counter by the door. But now it sat next to the sink. Nudging it back to where it belonged, she blinked hard as it began the slow slide back. Either the house was tilted or her grandmother’s ghost stories were more real than she remembered. Either way, she wanted that darned chocolate to stop playing games with her.
She grabbed the bar, unwrapped it, then broke off two full rectangles, popped them in her mouth, and sighed as the chocolate melted on her tongue. Heaven, after living on a diet of freeze-dried noodles and tap water for weeks, courtesy of her ex-douche. Although if I had actually paid attention to the finances instead of trusting him, I would’ve known what he was up to.
Closing her eyes, she did a mental count to ten, twice. Just thinking about her ex caused her an instant headache, but her life would be okay. After dealing with a silent muse for months, she’d been overwhelmed with the desire to start writing the minute she’d stepped foot on Summerfield. She could do this—write a great book and kick-start the next chapter of her own life.
Getting a divorce? Four thousand dollars. Moving to Virginia? A couple hundred dollars. Hiding away in a haunted house and finishing a book? Priceless.
Her cell phone rang in her back pocket. She pulled it out, only to glare at Kevin’s number and face that appeared on the caller ID, then declined the call from her ex-husband. Her life now was all about the future. Bigger and better things.
And right now, the only obstacle to getting her better and brighter future was unpacking the U-Haul.
Ready to get back to work, she headed out the open door. In the U-Haul, she grabbed a box, only to have the lid pop open. She stared at the number of unfamiliar books inside. They were old, some plain and well-worn. She flipped open the top book and read the first page. A diary?
Now she remembered. She’d received the box along with the notice from an attorney that she’d inherited Summerfield. As tempting as it was to start reading the books now, she made herself put the diary back and closed the lid. She could read them later, she promised herself. After she’d unpacked, settled in, and started in on her new book.
“It’s all going to work out,” she told the box as she folded the lid shut. “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Does it?” A purely masculine voice echoed behind her.
MacKenzie screamed and jumped. The box fell, hitting her foot, and she had to steady herself with a hand on the wall of the trailer. She stared at the blond Adonis blocking her exit. Six feet of pure, masculine sex appeal stood before her, wearing well-worn jeans and a plaid button-down and attractive enough to eat. Broad-shouldered and thick-chested, this was a man who worked hard rather than worked out.
He grimaced and held up both hands. “Sorry. I thought you heard me pull up.”
“Clearly not.” No way she would have missed him if she had. “May I help you?”
“Justin Kent.” He took a step forward and picked up the box. “Your neighbor.”
She knew that name. Had heard from his lawyer several times since she’d inherited Summerfield. So this is the guy who wants to buy my house… He wasn’t exactly a welcome sight. She reached out and took custody of her box. “MacKenzie Dillon. Not selling.”
At first she didn’t think he would let it go, but then he relented and turned sideways to let her exit the U-Haul. She made it two steps when she realized he’d grabbed another box and was following her.
“Seriously, Mr. Kent. Not interested in your offer. Told your attorney three times, in fact. I think I was pretty clear.” Although, two people could definitely off-load the truck faster—and he was so not hard on the eyes. But she didn’t want to accept help from someone who wanted something from her. She’d had enough of that.
She took a closer look. He’d seemed so solid, dwarfing the interior of the little trailer, but outside of it? Tanned skin crowned by wheat-blond hair and those blue, blue eyes were the icing on top of a very attractive beefcake package. Not interested, she reminded herself. Moving to Summerfield was supposed to be a new beginning for her. Lusting after her neighbor—who, in turn, was lusting after her property—was the last thing she needed. Hell, she hadn’t even fully moved in and already a ghost was making its presence known.
Haunted house for the win.
“Helping you unload is about being neighborly,” he said. “I don’t mind, especially since it seems like you’re on your own. Besides, it’s a guy thing.”
“Alone doesn’t mean helpless.” Defensiveness edged her tone, but she didn’t care. Sure, it would be nice to have help, but she couldn’t afford any more bites taken out of her pride. “I’m fine. As you can see, I’m almost done.”
“Uh-huh. Well, just point me where you want this to go and I’ll help you finish.”
“Nothing personal, but I just met you, and I would really rather you didn’t come in my house.” She slid the box she carried onto the counter and turned to catch the one he had, effectively blocking him from entering at the same time. The shirt did little to hide the flex of his muscles and she tried to ignore the flutter in her stomach.
Surprise filtered through his expression, and his mouth tightened. “My apologies, Ms. Dillon. I was just trying to be neighborly.”
“Really? Were you just being neighborly when you doubled your offer to buy my house? Or was it more neighborly to let me know about all your plans and how I was getting in the way of what my great-aunt really wanted for the town?” Guilt stabbed her at the less than hospitable reaction, but dammit, she held her ground.
“All right, then.”
The nonanswer didn’t do much for her, but the corners of his eyes crinkled. Her heart did a little back flip at his easy smile, but she reminded herself no one looked that good and turned out to be. Her ex had been a damned attractive man, too.
Once burned, lesson learned.
But he didn’t leave. He pivoted and walked back into the trailer, retrieved another box, and returned to the door before she could slam it shut. He held the box out, being obvious about not crossing over the threshold. The corners of his mouth curved upward when she grabbed it from him. Then he turned and left her to gape at him as he strode back to the trailer. His jeans stretched taut over his rear, and she snapped her mouth shut before she started drooling.
She gave up. He could help if he wanted to.
Twenty more minutes later, between them they’d off-loaded all but the furniture. A fort of cardboard, stacked two-deep in front of the kitchen cupboards, surrounded the two of them. Sweat soaked her shirt and her throat had gone dry. She grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge—one for her and one for her irritating yet hunky neighbor.
“Water?” She held out her peace offering.
Justin accepted it with a smile. “Thank you.” He twisted the cap off and took a long drink. Sweat darkened his gray T-shirt, which clung to the damp skin beneath. “That bed frame in the U-Haul is pretty heavy.” He cast a sidelong glance at her.
“I’m a lot stronger than I look. I can handle it.”
“Or I could help you.” He pointed out the obvious, all reasonable-like.
Amusement bubbled up, surprising her, and she wrinkled her nose. She shouldn’t laugh, because it might encourage him to stay. “You don’t seem to take no for an answer.”
“I didn’t step a foot inside your house, per your request.” He gestured at her with the water bottle. “But it’s hot out here. And you’re on your own…”
Again, he sounded perfectly reasonable, but that didn’t change the fact she didn’t know him, and if she were honest with herself, she didn’t want to know him. This move was about finding who she was without a man in her life, without all the shadows, doubts, and insecurities that came from her past. Thank God for Aunt Katherine and the out-of-nowhere inheritance.
“I’m sorry. You’re trying to be nice…”
“But?” He raised his eyebrows, not bothering to disguise his amusement at her predicament.
“But I’m not comfortable asking anyone for help—especially the person who wanted to buy my house.”
Instead of answering, he tipped the bottle of water up and drained it. After recapping it, he handed her the bottle. Then he stripped off his shirt.
All the moisture fled her mouth at the ripple of muscle. He tossed his shirt on the counter, headed back to the U-Haul, where he lifted the heavy footboard with a flex of those same muscles.
“You…” she sputtered.
“No worries.” He exhaled the words on a hard breath. “You didn’t ask for help.” He carried it right on inside, leaving her no choice but to follow.
It took Justin less than ten minutes to unload what few pieces of furniture she’d brought with her. When the U-Haul was completely empty, he dusted his hands on his jeans and strode outside. On the porch, he paused and turned back to face her. “By the way, welcome to Penny Hollow,” he said. “And I’m right across the street if you need anything.”
Right across the street must mean the positively gorgeous Southern plantation house up the half-mile-long gravel driveway, across the two-lane road, and down a bit. If that was his house, he hadn’t been exaggerating about being her neighbor.
Puffing a loose strand of hair away from her damp forehead on an exhale, she nodded to him. “Thank you for your help.” When he grinned slowly, her stomach did a little flip.
“You’re welcome. Not that you asked for any help.” With a wink, he was off. Electricity sizzled over her. Damn if he doesn’t look as good walking away as he did arriving.
A few hours later, after returning the U-Haul and splurging on fast food for dinner, Mac headed home, pushing thoughts of her sexy new neighbor out of her mind. After parking her ten-year-old Ford Explorer under the carport, she glanced around the little plot of land.
Sitting squarely atop a hill in the middle of twenty acres, behind a stone wall and overgrown hedges, was the single-story saltbox house with an added-on wraparound porch and a swing. Mac swung her gaze around the property, taking in the overgrown vegetation. She’d have to either grow some muscles and learn how to landscape or write another bestseller and hire someone.
The stagnant heat of the day had given way to a cooler evening. The buzz of cicadas filled the air, punctured by the occasional hooting of an owl. Save for the lone light over her carport, the house sat in a pocket of darkness. The infused peace and quiet soothed her raw nerves. She’d done it. She survived the worst year of her life with her sanity intact and a few dollars still in the bank. “Thank you, Aunt Katherine,” she whispered, closing her eyes.
A bang—like a door slamming—rent the silence. She jerked her eyes open. The cicadas went silent. The back of her neck itched, and she couldn’t shake the sensation of someone watching her. She searched the darkness, but detected no movement. Maybe the sound had come from Justin’s house—sounds carried in the country, or so she’d been told.
She headed inside, slamming the door shut behind her, and the air conditioner came on with anotherbang, startling her. The cool air blowing out of the vent brushed her face like an exhale of laughter. Goose bumps appeared on her arms. Houses had personalities and made noise—lots of it. Still, she knew Summerfield had something no other house did.
Its own ghost.
She smiled. Hopefully, it didn’t mind a new roommate. Her mother had told her stories about the ghost time and time again. How Katherine had been haunted all her life. How strange sounds and eerie wisps of fog would drift over the property. Or how things would move, as if on their own.
Like the bar of chocolate.
Mac recalled the intense pressure to start writing again. Maybe the ghost inspired my muse.
Shaking her head, she double-checked the dead bolt, then headed to the bedrooms, glancing at her watch. It was getting late—the rest of her unpacking could wait. She wanted a good night’s sleep and to rise before the sun and dive headfirst into her book.
Stopping at her future bedroom, she paused to shut off the light, then wondered why it had been turned on. Maybe Justin had done so when he’d carried the bed frame into the room. She cast a quick glance around the room. The headboard, footboard, and mattress leaned on the wall where Justin had parked them. The rails for the bottom of the bed and the boards for the box spring lay in a neat stack a few feet away.
Her life was a lot like that bed—in pieces. But that was okay, too. Putting her life back together was a challenge she relished. Just me, my haunted house, and a brand-new start… The perfect place to relaunch her career.
A delicious sense of anticipation curled inside of her. “Get some sleep,” she told herself. “Deadlines wait for no one.”
A week later, a frustrated Justin sat in his office, staring at paperwork. “I can still make the revitalization plan for Penny Hollow work,” he muttered. He simply needed to find a way. And needed to stop being distracted in order to think. Since he’d helped Mac move in, she’d been all he could think about. It didn’t matter how attractive or feisty MacKenzie Dillon was or how much he liked her. She was a rock in the road, an obstacle to be removed or overcome.
The door to his office burst open. A whirling dervish of nineteen-year-old energy blew into the room, blond hair flying.
“Justin, I know exactly what we have to do about Summerfield!” His sister’s blue eyes practically snapped as she bounced over to him.
God, she made him tired just to watch. She was also supposed to be several hundred miles away, moving into her dorm room. But no, she was here, in Penny Hollow, driving him crazy.
“I thought you were heading back to school.” He grinned, accepting her fierce hug—delivered with the same verve as she did everything else. “Nathaniel was supposed to be driving you.”
“Nathaniel was,” came the droll reply from his brother, who leaned against the doorjamb. “But Hurricane Jock insisted we had to turn around an hour from her school and get back here.”
“Pfft, we can go later—this is important.” Jocelyn—known to the entire town as simply Jock—practically vibrated with excitement as she clamped her hand on Justin’s forearm.
Nathaniel rolled his eyes. Only eighteen months younger than Justin, Nathaniel couldn’t be less like him. Justin started a business and ran it with intensity; his brother wanted to get his inheritance and hang out behind his bar, serving up drinks without any desire to be anywhere at any time. On the matter of their sister, however, Nathaniel, Justin, and their brother Elijah were in complete agreement—she needed to be out of Penny Hollow and back at school.
“So…the way I see it, MacKenzie Dillon has no idea what she’s dealing with at Summerfield.”
“Get to the point, Jock.” He sat on the corner of his desk, a headache pounding behind his eye.
“The Summerfield Curse.”
“Oh, for the love of God, drive her to school.” The last thing he needed was to hear the tired, old tale of Summerfield.
“Justin, that MacKenzie woman is an outsider, so she can’t know about the curse—finding out will drive her out faster than anything.”
“There is no curse, Jock. It’s an old town legend told to scare bad children.” It was the same type of nonsense that led to the town drive to attain the moniker of “Most Haunted in Virginia.”
“Fine, you don’t have to believe me. But that place is haunted.”
He turned to face Jock. “Classes start Monday and you need to get settled in your dorm.”
“Who cares about school? If we don’t find a way to get this whole project back on track soon, we can kiss our inheritance good-bye.”
His chest tightened. Jock never complained about money. But he didn’t want to scare Mac. All he’d wanted to do was open Summerfield to the tours and let visitors draw their own conclusions from the tales like the damn curse.
He’d swung by a couple of times in the past week, hoping he might catch a glimpse of her. Maybe he could strike up a conversation, ease her transition into the town—be friends. Maybe if he involved her in the town’s dilemma…
Huh. Maybe that was the key. If he got to know her, got her involved in the town and the revitalization project, maybe she’d volunteer the house for tours in the weekend. That’s all the council needed it for, really. And to convince her, it wouldn’t kill him to spend some time with her.
A slow heat spread to his midsection. Damn it, this had nothing to do with MacKenzie’s long legs or her sexy, biting humor.
“I’m trying to help,” Jock said, then sighed. “I’m psychic, you know. I see a connection between the Curse and MacKenzie Dillon.” Underneath the annoying baby-sister voice was a plaintive note of genuine worry.
Justin walked over and gave her a hug. “Jock, no matter what happens, I have your back. You will finish your degree in—hydroponics or hydroplaning—whatever it is you’ve decided to study this week.”
Her stiff frame relaxed a little and she sighed. “It’s hydrology, jerk. But why don’t we plant the seeds about the ghost? You know, help her imagination along…”
“No. Ghosts aren’t real. The curse isn’t real. It’s all a bunch of folk tales and campfire stories. We’re already contributing to the madness enough with the ‘haunted’ town idea.”
With a flounce, Jock threw her arms up. “We have to do something. And I’m not going to just sit around.” She blew out of the room with the same force she’d entered it.
Justin and his brother stared after her, but Nathaniel was the first to speak. “Five bucks says she’s going to go rope the rest of the town into her scheme.”
“Crap.” After grabbing his keys, Justin headed out the door. He needed a plan—a real one. A plan that didn’t have anything to do with ghosts. The neighborly thing to do would include checking on MacKenzie Dillon, right?
Ten minutes after ordering his sister back to college, Justin followed the winding driveway to Mac’s house and spotted her SUV parked in the carport.
So, she’s home.
The wrought iron gates stood wide, perpetually open, with ivy entwined through the bars and broken hinges. Weathered pathway stones peeked out from the too-tall grass—although one stuck up jaggedly, half-sunk into the earth and cracked right through the middle. Vegetation obscured the center of the yard—he could identify wisteria, honeysuckle, trumpets, hydrangea, and Dutchman’s-pipe. If he were a gambling man, he would lay even odds a structure could hide in the center of all that growth. Maybe even the outdoor gazebo that haunted his thoughts.
“Can I help you?” MacKenzie Dillon’s voice jerked him out of planning mode, and he turned to find the woman on the porch. Sweat gleamed on her arms and dampened the thin, cotton tank top hugging her slender curves. Just like the first time he met her, she wore a pair of hip-hugging denim shorts that emphasized her long, golden legs.
“I wanted to stop by and see how you were getting along.”
Doubt gleamed in those hazel eyes, hardening them into chipped marble, and her luscious, pink lips compressed into a thin line. “Hmm.”
“You have a real issue with trusting people, don’t you?” He grinned at her.
“I’m sorry, was I being rude to the man who dropped in uninvited for the second time in a week?” She folded her arms. “Or maybe I’m just understandably cautious about strangers who send their attorneys with ridiculously high offers to buy my home and then show up after I’ve turned down not one, not two—butthree such attempts?”
“Yes, guilty. I asked my attorney to make you an offer, but right now I really am only trying to be neighborly.” Maybe a hat-in-hand mea culpa would soften her frosty exterior. “I had the pleasure of meeting your aunt and she was interested in selling to me, but it was never the right time. And I should have told you the last time I was here that I was sorry to hear she passed away.”
The hard line between her eyebrows relaxed fractionally. “Thank you. But I don’t want to sell, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop offering.”
Disappointment fisted in his chest, but he wasn’t giving up. “Okay. Would you do me one favor, though?”
“It depends on the favor.”
Damn, she’s tough. He grinned. He liked tough. “If you change your mind, for any reason, call Clinton Pope first—he’s my attorney. We’ll say it’s an open-ended offer.”
Easing off the pressure wasn’t a solution, but it could buy him some time. Time to get to know her, to convince her to participate—make her a partner. She was too wary of his motives as a stranger, but if he cultivated her trust, then maybe they could help each other. It wasn’t the most well-thought-out plan, but he was flying by the seat of his pants, and he wasn’t Jock, coming up with some harebrained scheme.
“You seem like a nice guy, but I’m really busy with a deadline. Besides, I don’t want to sell. I like the place. I even kind of like the ghost.”
Was she trying to be funny?
“The Summerfield Haunting,” she explained. “Or Curse, or something. It’s a family legend.”
Huh. So much for her not knowing about the family history. Jock would be disappointed.
A loud clang and slam cracked the humid silence. “What the hell was that?” Justin strode forward two steps. He studied the area, then the house.
Mac’s lips twitched. “Maybe it’s my ghost,” she said, sounding awfully chipper about the idea and more than a little proprietary.
“You probably have an animal in the attic. Want me to check it out? We’ve had issues with raccoons periodically. They could be nasty buggers and can do a hell of a lot of damage.”
Her face crinkled, and amusement warred with hesitation in her eyes.
“If it’s a wild animal, you don’t want it up there.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Unlike their first meeting, he had business cards on him. He offered one to her. “See, Kent Restoration. That’s me. I work on houses like yours for a living.”
She studied the card, sucking at her bottom lip, indecision weighing in her expression.
“I’d like to help,” he continued. “That said, if I go up in your attic and get attacked by a wild animal, you won’t have to feel that bad about it.”
“And if it’s a ghost?”
“Which it isn’t, but if it is, I promise to scream like a little girl and you can make fun of me for the rest of my life.” He was pretty safe on that account. Local legend and lore aside, there was no such things as ghosts.
Her icy reserve cracked and the corners of her mouth twitched upward. “I don’t think I’d go that far,” she said. “I certainly don’t want you hurt. If you think it’s dangerous, maybe we should call animal control.”
“And give up this opportunity to score some brownie points? Not a chance in hell.” He winked and motioned to the porch.
She sighed as if exasperated with him but then smiled and shook her head, acquiescing. “You’re incorrigible, but thank you.” She led the way and Justin followed hot on her heels.
He had no idea why she thought him incorrigible, but as long as she let him help and smiled like that, he could live with it.
Inside, most of the boxes in the kitchen were gone and the wallpaper had been scraped away from one section. He tried not to stare at the glue-encrusted wall, because the half-finished, half-assed job ignited the need to complete the task. Instead, he followed MacKenzie until paused in the central hallway and pointed up to a drop-ladder string. Justin pulled it, and as the ladder unfurled, hot air puffed down, along with dust and a distinctly musty odor.
Grimacing, he pulled a pen flashlight from his belt, then climbed high enough to see inside. Illuminating the corners of the slanted attic, he noted the space took up the full length and breadth of the single-story house. Huh. Considering the house’s history, he’d always expected it to be so much larger. Hell, his house was linked to the history of this place and was even called the Caretaker’s Cottage, supposedly having been the subsidiary house to the main house—Summerfield—so why was his place so much bigger than hers? So many half-truths and misrepresentations populated local legends; the discrepancies in the house sizes added another puzzle piece to the mystery of the “real story.”
He climbed the rest of the way up and began a circuitous check of the various corners. A few minutes later, he climbed down to join MacKenzie in the kitchen. “Nothing.” He shook his head and felt like he should apologize. “It’s actually in pretty good shape up there.”
“Huh.” Her fleeting smile turned wry. “Maybe it is my ghost.”
Not likely, but he bit back the caustic response. He wanted to make friends with her. “Sometimes critters got in the walls. Do you have a basement?”
“Yeah. It’s over there on the other side of the kitchen.” Her cell phone rang, but when she looked at it she went a little white, then turned it off rather than answer it.
“How often do you hear the noise?” he asked, following her as she walked to a closet door tucked next to the pantry.
“It happens randomly. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night.” She gave a little shudder. “Not fond of the nighttime noises.”
The door stood open, showing a set of rickety wooden steps. Frowning, he asked, “Have you been down here?”
“Not yet. I need to go through all the items Aunt Katherine left in here, first. The woman was a pack rat. Of course, I’m on a deadline, so I’ve been a little focused on that.”
He grinned. It wasn’t the first time she’d brought up her deadline. Hint received, and ignored. He scanned the walls for a light switch, but the only one he found didn’t turn anything on. “Lightbulb might be out. Stay up here.”
He tested the steps one at a time before putting his full weight on them. Inside the basement, a thick layer of grime seemed to have caked all surfaces. The air smelled stale, but felt cooler than the attic. Discarded and broken furniture was stacked in the space beneath the rickety stairs, and a collection of various parts, including a scrub board, a splintered barrel, and wooden bucket that seemed suspiciously like an old water pail right down to the attached frayed rope littered the floor like an obstacle course. Aged storage bins, probably once used for food, sat side by side with an old wring washer and dirty jars littered a shelf with other canning supplies.
He hunted for several minutes but nothing came scurrying out, although he did find a chewed electrical wire, a broken window, and crabgrass and tangled vines stretching inside. He emerged from the basement to find MacKenzie in the kitchen, sitting at the table, drumming her fingers against the wood.
“I have good news and bad,” he said.
“Just tell me how much it’s going to cost.”
“Repairs won’t cost you anything. I’ve got some glass for the broken window, and I can replace the wiring and clean up the water damage.” He liked the excuse to see her again. He pointed to the yard. “But we’re going to have to clear some of the ground cover that’s grown right up on the house. It’s starting to spread in through the broken window and it will bring in all kinds of bugs and rodents.” Real problems, not mythical phantoms.
“Bugs?” She shuddered. “Ugh. I’ll get it taken care of—I can call someone.”
“Who? Ghostbusters? Last I checked, that was a movie.” Thankfully, she grinned at his lame attempt at a joke. “You don’t have to call anyone. What’s a favor between friends?”
“We’re not friends.”
Prickly had never attracted him before, but he liked it in Mac. “Not yet, no. But you need help and I can offer it. Now, I’m going to take a quick look at the vegetation out there and see how much needs to be cut back.” Whether MacKenzie realized it or not, she projected in over her head at high volume.
He read the objection on her face before she opened her mouth. “No, I get it. You don’t want to ask for help. But you’re not asking—I’m offering. And if you have any other ‘minor’ problems with the place, let me know. You’re Katherine Summerfield’s niece, and you should feel like a part of the community. I liked your aunt. I helped her when she needed it, and it wouldn’t feel right not helping you.” Every word had been dipped in truth.
He headed for the door. She trailed behind him, letting the screen door slam behind her when they exited the house.
“Oh and, word to the wise?” He divided his attention between navigating the weeds and glancing back at her as he moved along the side of the house. “Don’t stay holed up here too long or folks will find excuses to come visit—and bring food. Quilts. Jam.”
“You sound like it’s happened to you.”
Way too often, and the fact that he was a Kent made his community’s attention on him that much worse. Founding families were obligated to be involved. Period. End of story. “You have no idea. Did you know that it’s impossible to tell an eighty-year-old woman you aren’t interested in any of her granddaughters, no matter how cute they are?”
She laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that problem.”
“For you I’m sure they’ll trot out their grandsons and nephews and other bachelor types.” And he didn’t like the idea at all. Damn. He shouldn’t want to want her—the last thing he needed was to mix business with pleasure. He squatted and began pulling out the kudzu and crabgrass. Mac’s shadow fell over him and he glanced up at her. From this angle, he could see the faded line around her ring finger. A curious thrill went through him at its absence. Business, he reminded himself. He rose, awareness of her washing over him.
“That seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to for someone you barely know, especially since I’ve been so rude,” she said.
It wasn’t quite an apology, but he decided to accept it anyway. “I like to fix things, and I’m really fond of the house. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon, around five.” He made for his truck before she could change her mind. Glancing back, he found Mac watching him.
And then, for the barest moment, he saw two of her.
Apprehension slithered up his spine, then he grimaced. It was just the sun hitting the glass. Shaking his reaction to the weird vision off, he turned the vehicle onto the drive and headed away. It had been a worthwhile visit. Mac seemed cut from the same tough cloth as her aunt, but he had a feeling she’d be worth the work.
Although now he had to ask himself…was he really after the house, or the woman?