All's fair in love and war, specially where the incorrigible Zach Franco is concerned, but as the fight over the Rosemoor heats up, Patricia fears that she may be winning the battle, but losing her chance at love.
Warning: This book contains a sexy, unreformed bad boy, an uptight baker ready to let loose, and a bunch of troublesome ghosts. Things get steamy really quick so watch out!
Patricia O’Dare paused in front of the building, shivering in her down coat, and listened. The morning was unusually chilly -- it was February and the town was suffering a vicious cold snap -- and Main Street was quiet. Well, quiet except for this one eerie sound.
Yep, definitely moaning. But it was coming from the building next door, a Second Empire house with purple shingles and neon-green trim. She walked toward the building's front porch, following the sound.
The mansard-roofed structure looked like a classic haunted house, which was why the guys from Paranormal Research of Virginia Enterprises -- PRoVE, for short -- chose it for their headquarters. The paranormies, as the town called them, gutted the house and updated it, turning it into a comfortable, if slightly creepy, workplace. But to PRoVE's disappointment the house turned out not to be haunted, not even a little bit. Oh, the boys claimed that the house had all sorts of supernatural protections and whatnot, but that was it.
Their little town of Banshee Creek was known as The Most Haunted Town in the U.S.A., and pretty much every single building, outhouse or shack had a weird tale or a paranormal critter associated with it.
But not this one.
Not that Patricia believed any of the stories. She was a level-headed person, a practical small-business owner. The kind of girl who wore sensible rubber boots and functional winter hats. She knew the spooky tales were pure hogwash. Sure, strange things happened in their town, but…
Another moan oozed out of the house.
She frowned. That did not sound creepy at all. It sounded like someone, a real flesh and blood person, who was hurt. Oh, for Pete's sake, what did the paranormies do this time? She took her phone out of her handbag and dialed.
Strange things happened in Banshee Creek, and when they did you reached for the phone.
"Fire & Rescue hotline, what's your emergency?" the honeyed Southern voice answered after one ring.
"Hi, it's Patricia from the bakery. I'm standing in front of 66 Main Street, it sounds like someone is hurt inside."
The statement was greeted with...silence. A very particular kind of silence, one with a sharp edge of annoyance.
"Not this again," the operator sighed. "Are you inside the house?"
"No, I'm on the sidewalk, standing right in front of it."
"Then how do you know someone is hurt?" The operator's voice fairly dripped with disbelief.
"I can hear the moaning," Patricia explained, trying to curb her impatience. What was going on? Fire & Rescue was usually very good about responding to emergency calls. The day her oven exploded, they'd shown up in a couple of minutes. The night her cat got stuck in the neighbor's gutter, they brought a truck and a ladder and rescued her without a peep. Why were they being so hesitant now?
"The alarm has not been triggered," the operator noted. "So doesn't look like a break-in. Are you sure it's not a recording?"
"A recording," the operator repeated in a tone that spoke of long, unrelieved suffering. "Those videos of theirs can sound really creepy and they play them over and over for editing. They like to get the sounds just right."
"I take it you've been called about this before?"
"If I had a nickel..." the operator's voice trailed off. "Oh well, I guess we'd better check it out. I just hope it's not another Hammer Film reenactment. The corn syrup sticks to canvas like you wouldn't believe. Thanks a lot, we'll be in touch if we need more information."
The operator hung up. Fire & Rescue, Patricia guessed, would take its own sweet time answering this call. She could understand why. The paranormies did a lot of strange stuff and the local fire brigade was usually stuck cleaning up most of it. She could understand their reluctance.
But this was different. That moan didn't sound recorded, and there were no other sounds coming out of the house. This wasn't a bunch of PRoVE staffers trying out their werewolf howls.
Someone was in trouble.
She stared at the now-silent house then glanced down at the manila envelope in her hands. She didn't have time to investigate the sound, she told herself. She had to meet her deadline.
Another soft moan, this time louder, came out of the house. The sound made shivers run down her spine.
Nope, that was definitely not a recording. She put her phone back in her handbag and marched quickly up the porch steps. The PRoVE headquarters had a first-responder's kit and she had an up-to-date CPR certification. If someone was hurt in there she'd be able to help.
And if it was a recording, she'd call Fire & Rescue and tell them that it was a false alarm.
She grabbed the metal handle and pushed the heavy wooden door. It opened smoothly, there were no creaking doors in PRoVE's high-tech abode, which was suspicious in and of itself. Why was the door open? Had someone broken in?
She examined the lock. It was a complicated technical contraption with a keypad and sensors. The screen glowed with a steady green light and she couldn't see any scratches or dents. No one had tampered with this lock.
She peered cautiously into the dark foyer. "Hello?" she shouted. "Anybody here?"
Her question echoed in the empty room, followed by an ominous silence. She stepped into the foyer and looked around. The place seemed empty.
"Caine?" she called out. "Cassie? Anyone?"
No answer. The house was dark and quiet, seemingly empty.
She found a light switch and flipped it. Light flooded the room, revealing dark wood paneling, lavender-colored walls, and colorful floor tiles. The tiles looked original to the house -- no self-respecting decorator would pick purple and green tendrils as a design motif -- and they looked appropriately eccentric. A Latin phrase was stenciled on the purple walls -- Latet Enim Veritas. Patricia had no idea what that meant, but it looked impressive.
But the Latin script was the only noteworthy item in the house. As far as she could tell, it was an empty husk.
She was about to turn around and leave when she heard a muffled sound, almost a whimper. The pitiful moan stopped her in her tracks.
She walked on, trying to find the source of the moaning. The PRoVE headquarters was surprisingly organized and professional. The organization had kept the house's original moldings and floors, but the walls were covered with whiteboards and screens and the furniture, mostly conference tables and chairs with the occasional couch thrown in, was modern and functional. The first floor rooms were filled with computers and audiovisual equipment, with a couple of signs warning "Look With Your Eyes, Not With Your Hand, Unless You're An Old One" and "You Break It, You Buy It...With Your Soul."
They were completely devoid of life. There was no one here. Not even the interns who she knew were often stuck well into the night doing video editing. They usually showed up at the bakery at the crack of dawn, eager for coffee and sugary pastries. This morning, however, they were nowhere to be seen.
She walked back to the foyer, feeling foolish. It must have been a recording, some equipment that was left turned on. She was going to have to call the Fire & Rescue operator and apologize.
The thumping sounds began when she reached the foyer. She paused and looked up. The moaning started again. Where the noises coming from upstairs?
She considered the situation. The door was unlocked and there was no sign of forced entry. The alarm had not been triggered. The house was neat and organized and the group's expensive equipment was untouched.
Odds of a break-in: Nil.
Odds that this was a paranormie prank gone wrong: Quite Good.
Still, it didn't hurt to be prepared for the worst. She went back to the main room and checked the supply cabinets. She found cameras, lanterns, boxes full of fancy granola bars...and bingo. She grabbed a large industrial strength flashlight. The thing weighed a ton and could easily double as a club. It would do nicely.
She walked up to the carved wooden staircase. A large stained-glass window shed multicolored sunbeams onto the landing, giving the house an eerie air. The low moaning continued, growing more urgent.
She climbed up the steps, reaching the second floor landing. More wood paneling, more purple wallpaper. The doors to the rooms were closed and they had small signs providing guests with important information such as "Audio Room," "Video Room," "Specimen Room -- keep out, yes this means you." She paused to listen. The sounds came from the specimen room.
She stared at the door. What were the paranormies keeping in there? It could be anything. Last spring they'd captured a chupacabra specimen that had, after a sulfur bath and copious amounts of gourmet dog food, turned out to be a mangy spitz dog. The dog, nicknamed Chupi, now served as PRoVE's semi-official mascot and Patricia made him special liver biscuits every week. Chupi, however, wasn't in town. He was with one of the PRoVE crew filming somewhere in Eastern Europe. Hungary? Transylvania?
A loud crash made her jump. It was followed by more frustrated moaning.
She held on to the flashlight, knuckles white, and stepped forward. She turned the engraved metal handle and pushed. The door opened smoothly, with no creaks.
The room was shadowed, with only the slightest glimmer of light coming from a small window. She sniffed the air, detecting a spicy, heavy smell. Ugh. She turned on the flashlight and swept it around the room. The industrial metal shelves held stainless steel boxes and metal crates full of jars and a bunch of framed insect specimens hung on the walls. A large cage sat on the floor, its side dented.
She stared at the metal contraption, alarmed. Who knew what the paranormies stashed in there? Another mangy dog? A raptor bird? Rats? It could be anything at all.
She inched forward, flashlight raised. A dull, metallic sound came from an empty corner. It sounded like a chain of some kind, which was reassuring. The...thing could, apparently, be contained. She kept the empty cage between her and the source of the sound. It would provide some cover in case the creature attacked her.
She gasped with surprise as the glow of the flashlight fell on a prone figure on the floor. A human figure. A, thankfully, live human figure.
And one she recognized instantly.
He was tall and muscled and very naked. Mystical symbols, drawn in garish purple paint, covered his skin and spent candles surrounded his very naked body. His very muscular naked body.
She felt herself blush. Whatever she'd expected it wasn't this.
Not that she hadn't seen naked men before. She'd plenty. Well, a few, enough not to dissolve in front of an attractive male body no matter how toned and tight and...big it might be.
There was just something about this particular man. She tried to breathe...and found she couldn't. Her throat was tight and her heart was pounding so hard it felt as if it were about to burst out of her chest.
Why did it have to be this man?
He'd bent his leg to give himself a small measure of privacy and the pose gave a clear view of the long scar on his thigh. A second scar, somewhat smaller, marred his right arm. He was awake and his eyes flashed angrily. But he didn't say anything. He couldn't because a large piece of metallic duct tape covered his mouth.
It was Zach Franco.
And the town's bad boy was not in a good mood.
Shock and nerves got the best of her and she did the same thing she did whenever she was scared or nervous.